Bishop Stillington: A key role or a bit player?

Robert Stillington was Dean of St. Martin le Grande (a church where he later sought sanctuary) and became, briefly, under Henry VI, Keeper of the Privy Seal, a role he continued in under Edward IV.  In 1466, he was consecrated as Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the following year he was promoted to Lord Chancellor, a post he held (with a short break) until his resignation in 1473.  In ’75 he accompanied the king on his expedition to France and that same year was summoned to Rome to answer charges, the nature of which I’ve been unable to discover.  Possibly he had been neglecting his pastoral duties in favor of his secular ones.

In 1478 he was sent to the Tower of London.  Some have speculated that whilst there he mumbled a certain secret to the Duke of Clarence, and that was the real reason Clarence was put to death – and nothing whatever to do with the multiplicity of treason charges against him.   Oh, right, and after killing his brother, Edward let the bishop go to spread such potentially dynasty-destroying information far and wide!

A less popular theory is that Clarence whispered the secret to Stillington.  Neither one can possibly have happened because Stillington didn’t arrive at the Tower until a few days after Clarence had been carried out on his bier.  (Stonor letters II-42) Well then, perhaps the secret was passed between them before either one saw the inside of the Tower as a prisoner.  This is even more unlikely.  If Clarence had been in possession of such information he would have used it to defame and damage his brother or I do not know my Clarence.

Why was Stillington imprisoned?  According to his pardon he was accused of violating his oath of fidelity by speaking out against the king, but upon being examined before Edward and certain lords ecclesiastical and temporal he was able to prove his innocence and released after a few weeks.  Gairdner (Richard III 90) would have us believe that he had offended the king by trying to persuade him to make amends to Lady Eleanor Talbot/Butler, to whom the king had once proposed marriage in Stillington’s presence.  Consider that Edward had been married for fully fourteen years and Lady Eleanor in her grave for fully ten years, so no amount of amends was going to do her any good, and you can’t help wondering why the good bishop waited to long to raise the issue.

However, no one is terribly interested in the bishop’s early years.  It is only in 1483 that he becomes of real interest, because then, so we are told ad nauseum, he placed evidence before Richard of Gloucester that proved King Edward – then recently deceased and unable to defend himself – had been precontracted to the aforementioned Lady Eleanor, a daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury; therefore it followed that King Edward and Queen Elizabeth lived together ‘sinfully and damnably’ and the issue were bastards and could not inherit the throne.  Evidence!  I hear/read the word all over and yet when I ask simple questions like: What did the evidence consist of? When and where and to whom was it given? I am deafened by silence.

According to Alison Weir, the first account we have concerning Bishop Stillington and the precontract comes from Philippe de Commines, a French chronicler, who did not begin writing his memoirs until 10 years after the relevant events.  Amazing!  Ten years of silence from the English chroniclers, letter writers, official records etc!  Commines writes that on June 8th Stillington appeared before the council and revealed that King Edward had promised marriage to Lady Eleanor on condition that he might lie with her.  The lady had assented and the bishop performed the ceremony with only himself and the two principals present.  Commines also states that the bishop produced written evidence and witness depositions to prove his contention.

Nothing is documented to show Stillington appeared before the council on this day.  If he had, and revealed such shocking news, wouldn’t it have leaked?  Wouldn’t London have been agog?  Wouldn’t someone have mentioned it in a letter or a chronicle?

On June 22nd, at the public pulpit outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dr. Ralph Shaa, along with other preachers in diverse places, revealed the sordid sexual manipulations of Richard of Gloucester’s brother and called for the disinheriting of his children.  Leaving no stone unturned, they also repeated the old story about Edward himself being a bastard, which wasn’t a very nice thing to say about the Duchess of York who was still alive.  Nothing was said on this occasion about Lady Eleanor or Stillington.

On June 24th the claim was repeated before the mayor and aldermen and the following day to an assembly of lords and clerics. (Parliament had been summoned for June 26th but then had been cancelled by writ.  Some of the members had already arrived in London and some were on their way and decided to continue and stay on.  Some had arrived for the coronation.   This random group in no way constituted a parliament).  On these occasions the scurrilous accusations about the Duchess of York had been dropped, never to be revived.  Neither Eleanor Talbot nor Bishop Stillington were mentioned.

Nevertheless, it was this body of men that declared Edward V deposed and Richard of Gloucester the true claimant.  Many of them accompanied Buckingham to Baynard’s Castle, along with the mayor and aldermen and some of the chief citizens, all eager to curry favor with the one in power and anxious to avoid the fate that had befallen Lord Hastings only twelve days earlier.  Richard, offered the crown, modestly declined the honor, and only accepted when Buckingham declared if he refused they would have to seek their king elsewhere.  Richard was crowned on July 6th.

In January of 1484, when the young sons of Edward IV had not been seen for several months, the first and only parliament of Richard III’s reign was held.  A petition was presented called Titulus Regius, in which the king laid out his justification for the seizure of his nephew’s throne – fully six months after the coronation, during which time he and his advisers had had ample opportunity to do a thorough investigation and prepare their evidence.  They had come up with five specious reasons, the precontract being the last.  On this occasion a name was given to the poor lady Edward IV had allegedly deceived and debauched: Lady Eleanor Talbot.  But no mention was made of Bishop Stillington; no evidence was presented.   How distinctly odd!

My conclusion is that Stillington was a bit player, on the sidelines until he stepped forth in parliament and presented the petition, Titulus Regius.  Yes, that much he did.  And perhaps that’s why Philippe de Commines associated him with the precontract.  Perhaps Titulus Regius is the written document to which Commines refers.

So, when next you read that Stillington’s evidence did not survive, I ask you to remember this: there never was any!

Other sources:

Dominic Mancini

The Croyland Chronicle

Charles Ross: Richard III

Wikipedia

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13 thoughts on “Bishop Stillington: A key role or a bit player?

  1. Is it only Mancini who reports that Shaa made reference to the supposed illegitimacy of Edward IV? It is my understanding that Mancini was the only contemporary source to do so, and that this may have been his or his informant’s misunderstanding of the ‘…bastard slips may not take root…’ element which only referred to the children of Edward IV.

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    • Thank you for your question, Jasmine. I believe you are correct, that Mancini was the only one to mention Edward’s possible illegitimacy. It is certainly a possibility that he was misinformed or misunderstood the words. It is equally possible that he reported accurately. We will interpret according to our lights.

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  2. It would be rather curious for Richard, living at the time with his mother in her castle, to cast doubt on her honour by having a public statement made that his brother was illegitimate. It seems more logical to consider that the words may have been misinterpreted as applying to Edward when they actually referred to his children.

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  3. Hi Susan,

    I disagree about Stillington’s part in affairs both before 1483 and during that spring and early summer. Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464 and it was in the following year that Stillington became a bishop and two years after that that he became Lord Chancellor. The timing of the rapid career progression of a man in his mid-forties is at least suggestive.

    After Stillington lost his post as Lord Chancellor in 1473 he fell into the Duke of Clarence’s circle. It is possible that the secrets he knew about Edward’s past and his marriage secured him George’s ear, or caused Clarence to seek him out. Part of the reason that you berate the pre-contract idea as it relates to Stillington and Clarence is because, had Clarence known of the pre-contract, he would surely have used it to defame his brother, but that is precisely why he was imprisoned in the Tower in 1478. It is deeply unlikely (and not a story I hear at all, never mind frequently) that Stillington told Clarence of the pre-contract story in the Tower, or vice-versa, but that the pre-contract story was the precise reason both Clarence and Stillington were both imprisoned then.

    The Parliament Rolls of 1478 record that Clarence was condemned for ‘a conspiracy against him [Edward IV], the queen, their son and heir and a great part of the nobility of the land’. Threatening to expose a pre-contract story, with evidence, certainly fits this charge, doesn’t it? It would also explain the vague nature of the charge, strikingly non-specific for a parliamentary charge of treason against the king’s brother. Stillington was almost certainly implicated in the same plot judging by the timing of his arrest. As for Edward releasing Stillington, trying a bishop was not within his jurisdiction so he had no real choice.

    I would also disagree that no-one is interested in Stillington’s early years – it is these years that provide a background to 1483. It is undeniable that we are lacking in surviving evidence for events of that spring, so we must resort to inference. There are stories of Richard circulating evidence of a Woodville plot, a plot by Hastings and of the pre-contract story. I am aware that using the known destruction of one piece of this evidence – Titulus Regius – to suggest that the remainder was also systematically destroyed is sneered upon in some quarters, but that fact of a sneer does not negate the validity of a theory. If there was talk of this evidence, where did it go if it was not wilfully destroyed?

    I also don’t buy the notion that London and those gathered there in preparation for the coronation of Edward V could be quite so easily intimidated and steamrollered into asking Richard to take the throne. At the time, Richard had no armed force in London and was dangerously detached from his power base, yet they all acquiesced and attended his coronation on 6th July. Why would they so willingly abandon Edward IV and Edward V if they had no evidence of an irregularity? Military might was not on Richard’s side, so that cannot be an explanation.

    I would suggest that Stillington’s part in events is more substantial than the accepted wisdom allows, and that the events of 1483 should not be so confidently dismissed as Richard’s strong arm scheming for the crown. There is enough evidence to at least suggest more was going into than one man’s evil plotting.

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  4. Hello again, Jasmine, You’re right, it would be strange. All I can add to what I wrote before is that somewhere I read the Duchess of York complained in later years about the “great injury” Richard had done her. I just can’t remember where I read it.

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    • I have never come across the complaint you mentioned, Susan. If you could remember where you read it, I would be very grateful. There is no evidence that I have read which suggests that Cecily was anything other than a loyal supporter of her son, unless you are suggesting that Richard forced his mother to remain silent on the issue.

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      • Jasmine, Mancini wrote: ‘Edward, said they, was conceived in adultery and in every way was unlike the late Duke of York, whose son he was falsely said to be, but Richard Duke of Gloucester, who altogether resembled his father, was to come to the throne as his legitimate successor.’ Mancini was the closest we have to a contemporary witness to these events.
        The Duchess of York did not attend Richard’s coronation.

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  5. Hello, Matt. I don’t know why you would write that the timing of the rapid career progression of a man in his mid-forties is at least suggestive. What is it suggestive of? Are you suggesting that Stillington’s rapid rise was in some way a reward for keeping his mouth shut about Eleanor? If so I beg to differ for 2 reasons. 1) becoming bishop had nothing to do with the king but was a church matter. 2) How rapid a rise could it have been when he was a member of Henry VI’s council, then Edward IV’s council and wasn’t made chancellor until 1467.
    Your paragraph about the relationship between Stillington and Clarence would be a lot more compelling if you could offer some evidence, cite some source, that leads you to the conclusion that there was any relationship. All you say is ‘it is possible’ and then go on to state that the precontract is precisely why Stillington and Clarence were imprisoned, as if that is a fact. You ignore Clarence’s trial and the many treasons he had committed against his brother. (There is nothing non-specific about the charges against him. There was a long list of them.} And why, I wonder, was Clarence arrested in June and Stillington not until after his execution the following February? Why did one man warrant death and the other a few weeks in prison for the same offence. Edward IV was capable of doing whatever he had to do to secure his throne and his son’s future. He killed the former king and gave at least tacit consent to his brother’s death. I doubt he would have stayed his hand from a bishop. Possibilities do not make facts.
    Was there talk of evidence? Back then in Spring/Summer of 1483? I have yet to read of any. I keep asking where it is. There is a great whopping presumption that there must have been some evidence, but that’s all it is – presumption! Presumption that the Woodvilles were plotting against Richard (I will actually agree with that to a certain point). Presumption that Hastings was plotting. (Yes, to put Edward V on the throne.) Presumption that there was a precontract. Show me the evidence. Any evidence.
    Of course military might was on Richard’s side. He had his own men and Buckingham’s men and more men on the way from York. Admittedly 600 men isn’t an army but who was there to stand against him? Hastings was dead, the Woodvilles neutralized. But Richard didn’t need an army – he had terror on his side. Hastings, the close friend of Edward IV, had been hurried off to the block – without trial – in the city in which he was popular. Who would want to be the first to stand up for Edward V.
    Your last sentence seems to sum up the attitude of many defenders of Richard: ‘There is enough evidence to at least suggest more was going into than one man’s evil plotting.’ I will ask again: What evidence? You have provided none.

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  6. Hi Susan,

    I think I was open that we are talking in a virtual vacuum of real evidence in either direction. That said, More (who I am not keen to use as evidence) reports the arrival of a wagon of weapons and armour Richard claimed was confiscated from the Woodvilles, who were planning to seize control of London. The Marquis of Dorset was reportedly claiming that the Woodville faction was so powerful they would rule without Gloucester. I concede that some will say that the wagon was faked, but nevertheless it is the evidence that you requested of a potential Woodville plot.

    Virgil reports that Hastings called a meeting at St Paul’s to discuss what might be done against Gloucester after he took possession of Edward V but before his arrival in London. If news of this reached Richard later, More suggests that it was via William Catesby, then is it reasonable that he would suspect Hastings of plotting against him before he even arrived in London? Maybe, maybe not, but it is evidence that something was going on in a tense atmosphere. Mancini reports that after Hastings’ execution a herald was sent to explain to the citizens what had happened. That some evidence was provided at that point is borne out by the fact that not a single person reacted to the execution of a massively popular figure.

    As for the pre-contract, Mancini recorded that Shaa ‘argued that it would be unjust to crown this boy, who was illegitimate, because his father King Edward [IV] on marrying Elizabeth was legally contracted to another wife to whom the [earl] of Warwick had joined him’. Crowland wrote that ‘It was set forth, by way of prayer, in an address in a certain roll of parchment, that the sons of king Edward were bastards, on the ground that he had contracted a marriage with one lady Eleanor Boteler, before his marriage to queen Elizabeth’. It would be hard to countenance that these charges were made, fully accepted, a king disinherited and another asked to take the throne without a single scrap of evidence, and not one person protesting against it, not one arrest or chronicle account of outrage amongst the nobility, who all attended Richard’s coronation. This is surely evidence that the pre-contract story was in circulation and not opposed. There may be no evidence that it was true, but there is none that it was a lie.

    The ten years of silence from English chroniclers is explained by the swift loss of Richard’s throne. Henry VII made it a taboo subject. To suggest anything about his queen’s legitimacy would have been suicide. He ensured that Titulus Regius was destroyed without passing through the usual Parliamentary procedures, so why not the evidence that is always missing? I will say again, though, that this has to be conjecture.

    There may be no surviving evidence of a pre-contract with Eleanor Butler, but there is similarly no evidence of the wedding to Elizabeth Woodville. We are told that, months later, Edward decided to announce it in Council, probably to irritate Warwick more than anything else. If he hadn’t announced it, how would we know of it? There were no banns read, no public church service, no written record – we don’t even know the date of the ‘wedding’. There was a priest and two witnesses, yet no-one disputes the validity of this marriage simply because Edward belatedly acknowledged it. What if it was one in a long line? There’s no evidence it was, but no evidence that it was a one off; indeed, no evidence it even happened with Elizabeth Woodville, unless you are able to offer some. Edward said he married her. Richard said Edward married Eleanor Butler. Why should one be believed unquestioningly and one laughed at?

    You mention the mayor, aldermen and chief citizens of London accompanying Buckingham to Baynrds ‘all eager to curry favour with the one in power and anxious to avoid the fate that had befallen Lord Hastings’, but where is the evidence that this was the mood amongst those men?

    The fact remains that Commynes specifically documents Stillington and the presentation of evidence. Although writing on the continent, Commynes knew Edward IV and many others personally from the times Yorkists and Lancastrians spent in exile in Burgundy and France. He was an undeniably well-informed writer. Those who do not believe in the pre-contract constantly cry, as you have, for evidence. When it is presented from the pen of a man politically active and well connected during the events, it is instantly dismissed as the wrong kind of evidence.

    Matt

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  7. Hello Susan
    You are correct in saying that Mancini is the closest to a contemporary source we have for this period. However, we have to remember that he was a foreigner who was in England for a relatively short time and that he wrote up his account some time later, after he returned home. He was also reliant on gossip and information provided by others. There is also a question over whether or not he spoke English or relied on the medium of a foreign language such as Latin for his communication. We, of course, are reliant on Armstrong’s translation of his manuscript. So there are quite a few possibilities of misinterpretation associated with his work.

    The fact that Mancini picked up some gossip about the alleged parentage of Edward IV does not mean that Richard himself ordered or arranged for his mother to be accused of adultery – after all the rumour was first used by Warwick in his rebellion some years earlier, so it was hardly a new piece of disinformation.

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  8. Hello Jasmine I concede that Mancini may have got it wrong. I will even concede that all chroniclers and writers of the period may have made mistakes. The best that we can do is put what was written into the context of what was done. There is no question that Richard maligned his brother, declaring him to be a conscienceless adulterer and bigamist, and traduced Edward’s reign in Titulus Regius. I think we can agree that he loved his brother and served him faithfully until Edward was no longer around. So, yes, I think he was capable of maligning his mother, who was really no threat to him.
    If what Mancini heard was correct and Edward’s alleged bastardy was shouted from the pulpit that day, I don’t think there can be any doubt that it was done with Richard’s blessing.

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  9. Hi Matt. My, you have been doing your homework.
    Are you aware that you wrote about the wagon of arms ‘Richard claimed…’ And then go on to call it evidence of a Woodville plot. What Richard claimed can only be described as self-interested and therefore suspect. I am perfectly well aware that the Woodvilles wanted to rule through the young king, and that the Marquis of Dorset got too big for his boots, but of a plot to assassinate Richard on the road I am highly skeptical. If there was such a plot Earl Rivers was a fool to keep Richard apprised of his movements. His strategy should have been to get young Edward to London and crowned as soon as possible, not wait until they had celebrated St. George’s Day at Ludlow and then agree to meet Richard on the road.

    I am amused that you quote More and then Virgil, when most who defend Richard lump them into the category of Tudor propaganda and not to be believed. I agree with that, actually, so I don’t give them much credit for truth. Do you? Or only when it suits your argument?

    I will keep the rest as brief as possible as I see no point in going over old ground. If you read anything but Ricardian propaganda – and there is plenty of that around – you would realize that there was plenty of outrage at Richard’s blatant usurpation and subsequent murder of his nephews. What do you think the rebellion was about that same year?

    The ten years of silence is not explained by ‘the swift loss of Richard’s throne’. Two years elapsed between crowning and death, plenty of time for any number of people to put pen to paper.

    I don’t want to by rude, but I have to say your reasoning that there is no evidence for the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth is as specious as ever I have heard! By the same argument, how do we know Richard and Anne were married? How do we know she wasn’t the last of a long line of wives? Come on! Don’t go off into the absurd.

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    • Hi Susan,

      I am well aware that I wrote of the carts as evidence. That is what they were. I think you are missing the distinction between evidence and proof. The carts are evidence of a plot without being proof.

      I don’t hold much store by More and Virgil as sources, but they can be considered, especially when they offer positive evidence about a man they openly seek to condemn.

      In keeping your response brief, you have neglected to offer any evidence of ‘plenty of outrage’. The entire nobility of England attended his coronation. Where was the outrage there? Richard did not usurp the throne in the legal sense of the term and I would love to hear your proof of his subsequent murder of his nephews. I am amazed that you write an article berating those who offer opinion without evidence and so boldly state that Richard murdered his nephews, which can be no more than your opinion unsubstantiated by any proof. What was the rebellion about? Buckingham’s desire for the throne? Tudor’s desire for the throne? Dissatisfaction with Richard that had nothing to do with murder? There is as much evidence for these causes as the murder of the princes.

      How do we know Edward and Elizabeth married? How do we know Richard and Anne married? How do we know so much of what we accept? There is more evidence of the pre-contract than of a wedding ceremony between Edward and Elizabeth in May 1464. However specious or absurd you consider that to be, it is a fact.

      Clearly we are destined to disagree, though.

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