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An Epitaph for Richard, Duke of York by Richard Firth Green
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An Epitaph for Richard, Duke of York
Richard Firth Green

On December 30, 1460, Richard, duke of York, together with his second son, Edmund, earl of Rutland, was killed fighting against the supporters of Queen Margaret of Anjou at the battle of Wakefield. In cruel mockery of the duke's regal aspirations the victors displayed his head, wearing a paper crown, over the main gate of the city of York; his body (along with Rutland's) was buried at Pontefract. An epitaph for Duke Richard, written in French apparently by a contemporary, was printed by Thomas Wright from a single


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manuscript copy (B.L., MS. Harley 48, fol. 81v) in 1861.[1] Wright's remains the only edition of this poem, despite the fact that at least two other manuscripts—College of Arms, MS. M3, fol. iv (known as "Ballard's Book"), and B.L., MS. Stowe 1047, fol. 217r (the historical collections of Francis Thynne) —contain copies of it. These two manuscripts, in fact, not only provide important information about the text of the poem itself, but also raise some interesting textual and bibliographical questions about it.

The epitaph in question refers to York's son Edward as the current ruler (line 21) so it can hardly have been written at the time of the duke's actual death (Edward IV was not crowned until March, 1461), but the Harley version gives no other indication of its date, and those historians who have noticed it at all seem reasonably enough to have assumed that it belongs early in the new decade.[2] A reference to Edward's "beaulx enfans" (line 24) in Thynne's version, however, makes it clear that the epitaph cannot have been written earlier than 1467 (when his second child was born), and, in fact, four lines which are omitted by Harley, but which both the other manuscripts preserve (lines 25-28), make it possible to date the poem with even greater precision. These lines allude to Edward's pious respect for his father's wish to be buried at Fotheringhay, and there can be little doubt that the epitaph was written at the time of the removal of the duke's bones from Pontefract and his reinterment, together with the body of the earl of Rutland, in the family vault at Fotheringhay College, an event which took place at the end of July, 1476.[3]

Simple piety was by no means Edward's only motive in reinterring the bodies of his father and brother. The king was well aware that such a public display of filial duty could not but strengthen his own claims to the throne in the eyes of the people, and accordingly he spared no expense to produce a dazzling display of dynastic propaganda.[4] A splendid procession, led by Richard duke of Gloucester and including four bishops and two abbots, took eight days to convey the bodies from Pontefract to Fotheringhay. On the hearse lay an effigy of the duke of York "with an angill stondyng in whitt holdyng a crowne ouer his hede In tokyn that he was kyng of right," above which hung a twelve-foot high cloth "with an Image of oure lord sittyng on a Raynbowe betyn in gold hauyng on euery cornar a scochyn of his armes of ffraunce & englond quarterly."[5] Some idea of the scale of the proceedings is given by the fact that the reinterment was followed by a feast for perhaps as many as twenty thousand guests, with alms distributed to five thousand poor.[6]

The epitaph for the duke of York is linked to this ceremony not merely by its mention of Fotheringhay and by its emphasis on the legitimate claims of York's descendants, but also by the strong indication in its second line ("ycy gist la fleur de gentilesse") that it was written to be displayed over the tomb itself. Familiar from Claudio's epitaph to Hero—"Hang thou there upon the tomb, | Praising her when I am dumb" (Ado. V. iii. 9-10)—the fashion for displaying such funerary verses can be traced well back into the fifteenth century. An epitaph in English for Humphrey, duke of Gloucester


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(d. 1447), appears to have been designed for just such a purpose;[7] toward the end of the century Caxton reports that beside Chaucer's tomb was to be found "wreton on a table honging on a pylere his Epitaphye maad by a poete laureat"—a monument Caxton himself had apparently had set up;[8] over a hundred years after Henry VII's death (in 1509) his tomb, according to John Weever, was still "compassed about with verses, penned by that Poet Laureat (as he stiles himselfe) and Kings Orator, Iohn Skelton."[9] Unfortunately, none of the accounts of the duke of York's reinterment mention such funerary verses, nor are they included in a surviving English inventory of the trappings of the hearse—presumably because they would have had little material value.[10]

Scofield has identified the author of the epitaph for the duke of York—clearly a much less skilled poet than John Skelton—with Chester Herald (I: 123), but though the author may well have been one of Edward's officers of arms, there are reasons for questioning this particular ascription. B.L., MS. Harley 48, written in a late fifteenth-century hand, was certainly copied by a Chester Herald (very probably Thomas Whiting, who held that office from c.1473-c.1495, and who was actually present at the duke of York's reinterment),[11] since "Chestre le herault" is written on the inside of the original vellum wrapper, and this signature appears after three of the items in the manuscript: an account of a tournament fought by Philip de Lalaing in 1462 (fols. 53v-77v), the description of the reinterment of Richard of York (fols. 78r-81r), and the epitaph (fol. 81v). The first of these, however, was evidently copied, not composed, by Whiting (though it is just possible that its author was his predecessor as Chester, John Water),[12] and errors and omissions in the other two make it very unlikely that either is an autograph.[13] Neither line 22 nor 24 of the Duke of Yorks epitaph in Harley looks authentic; the second, in particular, appears to be a scribal attempt to make sense of a semilegible exemplar.

If the Harley version of the epitaph may well have been copied by an eyewitness to the ceremony, the same might equally be claimed for the College of Arms copy. An inscription on fol. ir of College of Arms, MS. M. 3. reads "This boke was bought of the wydow of Marche king of armes by gartier Roy darmes des anglois Ao VIto Regis Henrici septimi" (i.e. 1490/1). The March King of Arms referred to here was William Ballard, who seems to have copied much of the volume (including the York epitaph) in his own hand.[14] Unfortunately, the date at which Ballard assumed the office is uncertain, but if it was, as Wagner claims, c. 1475, he would have been the March King of Arms mentioned in both French accounts as present at the Fotheringhay reinterment.[15] However, he is as just as unlikely as Chester to have composed the epitaph himself; the blunder "ffornie ai" for "Fodringey" (line 27) would hardly appear in an autograph, even if we allow that the omission of line 29 is a possible slip for an author copying his own work.

The final copy of the York epitaph was made over a hundred years after the reinterment. Francis Thynne compiled his volume of historical notes


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(B.L., MS. Stowe 1047) between 1562 and 1602, and his habit of periodically recording the date on which he made an entry allows us to show that he copied the duke of York's epitaph (fol. 217r) between 1587 and 1589.[16] Thynne's copy, which gives the only complete version of the poem and provides by far the most reliable text, is an excellent illustration of the principle of recentiores, non deteriores; by the same token, it invites us to try to explain the superiority of so late a copy over those made by two of the author's contemporaries (possibly even his colleagues).

None of the three witnesses to the text of the duke of York's epitaph is descended from either of the others. Obviously neither the Harley (H) nor the College of Arms version (A) can have been copied from Stowe (S), since they predate it; equally, A and S are independent of H (which lacks lines 25-28), and H and S are independent of A (which lacks line 29). The fact that A and S agree against H at lines 30 and 33 (whereas H and S never agree against A, except in insignificant details) might be held to suggest that these two are descended from a lost intermediary, but the existence of three readings (lines 1, 22, and 24) in which none of the witnesses agree (even though in the last two A and S are closer to each other than to H) seems to imply that all three are descended from a single archetype.[17] Is it too farfetched to imagine that this archetype was the copy hanging over York's tomb, and that A and H at least were copied from it at, perhaps, no more than one remove? Such a hypothesis might help to explain the large number of errors in these two copies, since conditions would have been far from ideal at the time their exemplars (presumably the field notes of an officer of arms) were made.

S, however, could hardly have been taken down directly from the original copy where it hung over the tomb, for by Thynne's time that part of the church had fallen into decay. William Camden, whose Britannia first appeared in 1586, writes of Fotheringhay, "Ricardus Dux Eboracensis eius [Edward, duke of York's] e fratre nepos qui apud Wakefeld occubuit, eiusque vxor Cecelia Neuill magnifica sepulchra habuerant, quae simul cum superiori parte ecclesiae fuere subuersa" [Edward's fraternal nephew, Richard, duke of York, who fell at Wakefield, and his wife Cecily Neville had had magnificent tombs which have been destroyed together with the upper part of the church].[18] This destruction was a consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries (Fotheringhay being a collegiate church), and an inventory made by the king's commissioners at that time proves the tomb and its trappings were then still intact: "Item a old penon of changeable sylke with the Armes off ye Duke of Yorke. Item a fair herse cloth of blak tyssew & blak velvet. . . . / Item a pece of blak buckram with a painted fygure of god sytting on ye raynbow. . . . / Item a faire heroldes cote of gold of tharmes of Ingland the ground velvet."[19]

The possible routes by which an accurate copy of the duke of York's epitaph might have come into Thynne's hands are many. He might, for instance, have found it in a herald's commonplace book or even visitation (though his own formal association with the College of Arms did not begin until 1602,


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when he was created Lancaster Herald); more probably, he could have stumbled on a copy made by someone of antiquarian sympathies at the time of the dissolution, or even on the original itself, somehow preserved from destruction. In this regard, there is the intriguing possibility that his own father William Thynne, controller of Henry VIII's household, might have come across it in the course of his search for Chaucer manuscripts: "[he] had comissione to serche all the liberaries of Englande for Chaucers works, so that oute of all the Abbies of this Realme (whiche reserved anye monumentes thereof) he was fully furnished with multitude of Bookes."[20]

The duke of York's epitaph, now that we can be sure of its date and the circumstances under which it was written, is not without historical interest. To give only one example: its enthusiastic account of the duke's French campaigns, particularly his operations around Pontoise (lines 11-14),[21] becomes more significant when read in the light of his son's continental expedition and the peace, regarded by many as an ignominious one, made by him at Picquigny (1475). A new edition of the poem, supplying the gaps in Wright's text and correcting its errors, seems therefore worth including here. Since Thynne's copy, however he came by it, is by far the best, I have based my text on the Stowe manuscript (S); departures from it are given in square brackets, and all significant variants in the Harley (H) and College of Arms (A) manuscripts are recorded below. Expanded abbreviations have been italicized; punctuation and capitalization are editorial.

Epitaphium Ricardi ducis Eboracensis, alias patris Edwardi 4

En memoyre soit a tous cuers de noblesse
Que ycy gist l[a] fleur de gentilesse,
Le puissant duc d'York, Richart ot nom,
Prince royall, prudomme de renoun,
Sage, vaillant, vertueux en sa vie,
Qui bien ama loyaulte sans enuye.
Droit heriter prouue en mainte terre
Des corunnes de France et d[']Angliterre;
Ou parliament tenu a Westmaestre
Bien fut cogneu et troue vray hoir estre.
Sy fut regent et gouuerneur de France,
Normandye il garda d'ancombrance;
Sur Pontoise la riuiere passa;
Le roy francois et son daulphin chassa.
En Ireland mist tel gouerment
Que le pais rigla paisiblement.
D'Angliterre fut longe temps protecteur;
Le peuple ama et fut leur defendeur.
Noble lyne ot d'enfans que Dieu gard,
Dont l'aisne filz e[s]t nomme Edouarde,
Qu[i] est vraye roye, et son droit conquesta;
Par grant trauaile et daunger l'aqu[e]sta.
Il est regnant solitaire ou iour d'uy;
Beaulx enfans a—Dieu les gard[e] d'ennuy!
Et ce bon roy pour monstrer sa vertue,
Saichant que son pere estoit conclu


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Qu[']a Fodringey son corps doit reposer,
Moult noblement si le fit enterer.
[C]e noble duc a Wakefeld moruste;
Soubz paix traictant, maleur sur luy courut,
L'an lx, le xxx[e] de Decembre;
Cinquante ans [o]t d'aage, come on remembre.
En priant Dieu et sa tresdoulce Dame
Qu'en Paradis puyst reposer son ame.

[Translation: Be it remembered by all noble hearts that here lies the flower of courtesy, the great duke of York, Richard by name, royal prince, famous warrior, wise, brave, of virtuous life, who truly loved loyalty without malice. In many lands he was proved lawful descendant of the crowns of England and France; in parliament held at Westminster he was properly acknowledged and found to be the true heir. And as regent and governor of France, he kept Normandy free from trouble; he crossed the river at Pontoise; he drove off the French king and his dauphin. He established such government in Ireland that he ruled the country peacefully. For a long time he was protector of England; he loved the people and was their defender. He had a noble line of children (whom God save) of whom the eldest is called Edward, who is the true king and conquered his birthright; he acquired it through great effort and danger. He is sole ruler to this day. He has fine children—God keep them from harm! And this king as a sign of his goodness, knowing his father had resolved that his body should rest at Fotheringhay, had him most nobly buried thus. This noble duke died at Wakefield; under flag of truce, evil rushed upon him, in the year [14]60, the 30th of December; he was fifty years old, as is recalled. Praying God and his most sweet Lady that his soul may rest in paradise. Amen.]

Variants: Title] om. AH. 1 En memoyre soit] om. A; A remembrance H. a] de written above a H. 2 la] AH; le S. 3 d'] de A. 4 prudent cancelled after royall S. 8 d'] AH; de S. 9 Westmaestre] Vestmestre H. 10 hoir] heir A. 14 francois] de France A. 20 est] AH; et S. 21 Qui] AH; que S. 22 trauaile et daunger] trauaile et above the line S; et expunged daunger et traveil A; labeur quil en prinst H. aquesta] aquista S. aqueta H. 24 Beaulx enfans a Dieu] Beaus entans et dieu A; Dieu & ses sainz sy H. les] le H. gard] gardʒ S; gardent AH. 25-28 om. H. 26 pere] pier A. 27 Qu'a] A; que a S. Fodringey] ffornie ai A. doit] del A. 28 si] fise (fit inserted after le) A. 29 om. A. Ce] H; Se S. Wakefeld moruste] Wacquefyld mourutes H. 30 maleur] force H. 31 xxxe] AH; xxx S. 32 ot] AH; et S. on] hom A. 33 sa] la AH. tresdoulce] tresbelle H. 35 Amen] AH; om. S.



Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History, ed. Thomas Wright, 2 vols. (1859-61), II: 256-57.


E.g. M.H. Keen, England in the Later Middle Ages: a Political History (1973), p. 456; and T.B. Pugh, "Richard Plantagenet (1411-60), Duke of York, as the King's Lieutenant in France and Ireland," Aspects of Late Medieval Government and Society: Essays Presented to J.R. Lander, ed. J.G. Rowe (1986), p. 109.


The possibility that lines 25-28 in the other two manuscripts might represent a later insertion seems to be ruled out by the fact that the Harley 48 copy of the epitaph is itself immediately preceded by an account of the Fotheringhay reinterment—virtually conclusive evidence that this ceremony was the original occasion of the poem's composition.


There are three separate accounts of this ceremony, two in French (B.L., MSS. Harley 48, fols. 78r-81r, and Harley 4632, fols. 123r-125r) and one in English (B.L., MS. Addit. 45131, fols. 23v-24r); none has been printed in full. A detailed summary of the first is, however, to be found in Cora L. Scofield, The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth, 2


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vols. (1923), II: 167-168, while a less satisfactory paraphrase of the other two is in Francis Sandford, A Genealogical History of the Kings of England (1677), pp. 373-374.


B.L., MS. Addit. 45131, fol. 24r. An inventory of the trappings of the hearse (College of Arms, MS. I. 11, fol. 188v) describes the image on the cloth as "our lord sytting on the dome"; cf. the Last Judgment painted by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1443-46) in the Hôtel-Dieu at Beaune, which shows Christ seated on a rainbow.


B.L., MS. Harley 48, fol. 81r. Harley 4632 estimates "bien de quinze a seze [m] per-sonnes Repues aux despens du Roy et y eust quarante pipes de vin [i.e. over five thousand gallons] partans du scellier du Roy celle Iournee" (fol. 125r).


R.H. Robbins, "An Epitaph for Duke Humphrey," NM, 56 (1955): 248.


Eleanor P. Hammond, Chaucer: a Bibliographical Manual (1908), p. 44.


The Poetical Works of John Skelton, ed. Alexander Dyce, 2 vols. (1843), II: 214.


College of Arms, MS. I. 11, fol. 188v (although "viij banners beten with golde of decentes" do appear). Another copy of this inventory is in B.L., MS. Addit. 46354, fol. 62r.


See C.E. Wright, Fontes Harleiani (1972), p. 353. For Whiting's career, see H. Stanford London, "A Complete List of the Officers of Arms," in Walter H. Godfrey, The College of Arms (1963), pp. 121-122; both French accounts agree that Chester Herald was one of the officers of arms attending the ceremony (B.L., MS. Harley 48, fol. 78r and Harley 4632, fol. 125r). Anthony R. Wagner's suggestion (Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. [1956], p. 108, fn. 2) that the copyist of MS. Harley 48 was Richard Chester is unconvincing.


G.A. Lester, Sir John Paston's 'Grete Boke': A Descriptive Catalogue (1984), p. 158.


In the description of York's reinterment blanks have been left for the names of the English noblemen who presented the duke's achievements (fol. 80v). An experienced officer of arms like Whiting, an eyewitness to the ceremony, would surely have been able to provide these names; on the other hand, if he were copying someone else's account after a lengthy interval, his memory might well have failed to supply them.


Anthony R. Wagner, A Catalogue of English Mediaeval Rolls of Arms, Harleian Society's Publications, 100 (1950), pp. 111-116.


Anthony R. Wagner, Heralds of England (1967), p. 129; H. Stanford London, however, suggests "soon after 1480" for the date of Ballard's creation as March, College of Arms, p. 278.


Fol. 194r is dated February 25, 1587 and fol. 233r, May 3, 1589.


Though the readings in S are superior in every case, Thynne appears to have trouble with his exemplar at both line 22, where trauaile et is a later insertion before daunger, and line 24, where a curious pen stroke after gard seems to indicate indecision about the correct ending (both A and H read gardent, with signs of scribal interference in the first half of the line, apparently designed to provide this verb with a plural subject). One might also note that S and A differ at line 28 (where Harley has a lacuna).


William Camden, Britannia (1607; rpt. 1970), p. 378.


P.R.O., MS. E.315/145, fols. 101r-102r.


Francis Thynne, Animaduersions uppon the Annotacions and corrections of some imperfections and impressiones of Chaucer's workes, ed. F.J. Furnivall, EETS OS, 9 (1876), p. 5.


In actuality, York seems to have been a far less effective commander than Talbot in this campaign; see Pugh, "Richard Plantagenet," 117-118.