Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, RIP

On May 4th I attended and read my parts in one of the quarterly Shakespeare meetings I asked to join a year ago. We read Shakespeare's History/Tragedy, Richard III. Today, the 25th of June is the anniversary of the execution in 1483 of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, on the orders of Richard, Duke of Gloucester at Pontefract or Pomfret, as it's named in Act III, Scene 3. Richard is arranging everything from murders to kidnappings to marriages so that he may take the throne after Edward IV has died, and he has to get rid of Queen Elizabeth's family, including her brother Lord Rivers, and her son, Sir Richard Grey, and another close associate of the Queen and her son Edward V, Sir Thomas Vaughan--and of course her sons, the Princes in the Tower.

Rivers recalls that Richard II was murdered at Pontefract/Pomfret:

O Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison,
Fatal and ominous to noble peers!
Within the guilty closure of thy walls,
Richard the Second here was hacked to death,
And, for more slander to thy dismal seat,
We give to thee our guiltless blood to drink.

Rivers and Grey look back on the curses of Queen Margaret, King Henry VI's widow in Act I, Scene 3 and realize they are being fulfilled:

Now Margaret’s curse is fall’n upon our heads,
When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I,
For standing by when Richard stabbed her son.

Then cursed she Richard. Then cursed she
Then cursed she Hastings. O, remember, God,
To hear her prayer for them as now for us!
And for my sister and her princely sons,
Be satisfied, dear God, with our true blood,
Which, as thou know’st, unjustly must be spilt.

Make haste. The hour of death is expiate.

Come, Grey. Come, Vaughan. Let us here embrace.
Farewell until we meet again in heaven.

They exit to their beheadings . . . offstage.

But when you read his biography in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica you realize he was much more than the Queen's brother, her son's guardian, and Gloucester's enemy, for he was a:

statesman and patron of literature, and author of the first book printed on English soil, was born probably in 1442. He was the son of Richard de Wydeville and his wife, Jacquetta de Luxemburg, duchess of Bedford. His father was raised to the peerage in his son's infancy, and was made earl of Rivers in 1466. Anthony, who was knighted before he became of age, and fought at Towton in 1461, married the daughter of Lord Scales, and became a peer jure uxoris in 1462, two years after the death of that nobleman. . . . His father and brother were beheaded after the battle of Edgecot, and he succeeded in August of that year to the earldom. He accompanied Edward in his temporary flight to the Continent, and on his return to England had a share in the victory of Barnet and Tewkesbury and defended London from the Lancastrians. In 1473 he became guardian and governor to the young prince of Wales, and for the next few years there was no man in England of greater responsibility or enjoying more considerable honours in the royal service.

Then the biography turns to his literary pursuits, followed by a poignant line:

His mother, the duchess, died in 1472, and his first wife in 1473; in 1475 and the following year he went on pilgrimage to the holy places of Italy; from this time forth there was a strong tincture of serious reflection thrown over his character; he was now, as we learn from Caxton, nominated “Defender and Director of the Siege Apostolic for the Pope in England.” Caxton had in 1476 rented a shop in the Sanctuary at Westminster, and here had set up a printing-press. The first MS. which he undertook in London was one sent to him by “the noble and puissant lord, Lord Antone, Erle of Ryvyers,” consisting of a translation “into right good and fayr Englyssh” of Jean de Teonville's French version of a Latin work, “a glorious fair mirror to all good Christian people.” In 1477 Caxton brought out this book, as Dictes and Sayengis of the Philosophers, and it is illustrious as the first production of an English printing-press. To this succeeded the Moral Proverbs of Christine de Pisan, in verse, in 1478, and a Cordial, in prose, in 1479. The original productions of Lord Rivers, and, in particular, his Balades against the Seven Deadly Sins, are lost. . . .

The poignant line: 

Rivers began to perceive that it was possible to rise too high for the safety of a subject, and he is now described to us as one who “conceiveth well the mutability and the unstableness of this life.” After the death of Edward IV., he became the object of Richard III.'s peculiar enmity, and was beheaded by his orders at Pontefract on the 25th of June 1483.

Edmund William Gosse concludes:

Lord Rivers is spoken of by Commines as “un très-gentil chevalier,” and by Sir Thomas More as “a right honourable man, as valiant of hand as politic in counsel.” [In More's English version of The History of King Richard III]. His protection and encouragement of Caxton were of inestimable value to English literature, and in the preface to the Dictes the printer gives an account of his own relations with the statesman which illustrates the dignity and modesty of Lord Rivers in a very agreeable way. Rivers was one of the purest writers of English prose of his time.
“Memoirs of Anthony, Earl Rivers” are comprised in the Historical Illustrations of the Reign of Edward the Fourth (ed. W. H. B[lack]). (E.G.)

Another biography of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers by Alexander Chalmers may be found here.

At the beginning of August, we'll read the last of Shakespeare's English History plays, The Life Of Henry VIII (which isn't). I don't think I can convince the hosts to accept Sir Thomas More as a Shakespeare History play, even though three pages of the single manuscript are accepted as being in Shakespeare's hand by the British Library!

Illustration credit (Public Domain): Presentation miniature from Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the first printed book in the English language, translated by en:Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, younger brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and printed by William Caxton. The miniature shows Rivers presenting the book to his brother-in-law King Edward IV, accompanied by his consort Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her son Edward, Prince of Wales. Lambeth Palace Library, MS 265. Rivers displays on his tabard arms quarterly of 6: 1: Argent, a fess and a canton conjoined gules (Woodville) 2: Gules, a lion/griffin rampant or 3: Barry of ten argent and azure, a lion rampant gules armed langued and crowned or (Grand Dukes of Luxemburg) 4: Gules, a star of sixteen points argent (Baux) 5: Gules, an eagle ? displayed or 6: Vair (Beauchamp of Hatch, Somerset)

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