John Rous ‘drawne by himselfe’. From the Latin ‘Lancastrian’ version of the rolls. College of Arms.
John Rous or Rows as he called himself (b.c1420 d. 14 January 1492) was the son of Geoffrey Rous of Warwick, who was a younger son of Thomas Rous of Brinklow, and Margaret, the daughter of Richard Fyncham. An interesting man, although not without flaws, and who left us a wealth of information regarding the Earls of Warwick and their families as well as his version of events regarding the reign and fall of Richard III. He was chaplain of the Chantry Chapel at Guy’s Cliff and resided there for the most part of his adult life in the house that was provided nearby for the priests of that chapel. The chapel was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and had been founded in 1423 by Richard Beauchamp earl of Warwick (b.1382 d.1439).
Chantry Chapel at Guy’s Cliff. Early 19th century engraving. Artist unknown.
He was the creator of the Rous Roll, an illustrated chronicle on rolls of vellum detailing the history of the Earls of Warwick of which he made two versions – one in English known as the Yorkist Roll, the other in Latin known as the Lancastrian Roll both of which were accompanied by beautiful line drawings in pen and wash. This work was produced between 1477 and 1485 and thus ended with the death of Richard III at Bosworth in August 1485 and Henry Tudor taking the throne. This would prove to be a bit tricky for Rous who had written in positive and gushing manner about the dead Richard. What to do? Doubtlessly after causing him a few sleepless nights he managed to doctor the Latin roll but was unable to get hold of the English version. Yikes!
Richard as portrayed in the English version of Rous Roll. The king holds a sword in one hand and Warwick Castle in the other. This version of the roll is now held in the British Library.
‘Rex Richardus tercius – born in the Castel of Foderiyngay a myghti prince in his dayes special gode lord to the town & lordship of Warrewyk wher yn the castel he did gret cost off byldyng In the which his most noble lady & wyf was born and at gret instance of her he of his bounteous grace with owt fee or fyn graunt to the seyd borowh frely by charter as kyng William Conquerour his noble progenitor a fore tym gret previlagis’.
Second depiction of Richard III in the English version. Crowned, holding a sword in his right hand and an orb in his left hand. His cognizance, the white boar at his feet. English version of the Rous Roll. British Library.
The moost mighty prynce Rychard by the grace of god kynge of ynglond and of fraunce and lord of Irelond by verrey matrimony with owt dyscontynewans or any defylynge yn the lawe by eyre male lineally dyscendyng from kynge harre the second all avarice set a syde Rewled hys subjettys In hys Realme ful commendabylly poneschynge offenders of hys laws specyally Extorcioners and oppressors of hys comyns and chereschynge tho that were vertues by the whyche dyscrete guydynfe he gat gret thank of god and love of all hys subjettys Ryche and pore and gret lavd of the people of all othyr landys a bowt hym
However he seemed to have got away with it and with his head still intact was able to dedicate his other famous work, Historia regum Anglie/ Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae, which he completed in 1487, to the new king Henry VII, who according to Rous had ‘been sent by God’ (1). Moreover Historia would go on to savagely blacken Richard III’s name. It is this quite extraordinary, and to be honest, rather craven, volte-face on his original rapturous descriptions of Richard contained in the rolls, which have led to some, well many actually, viewing him as nothing more than a dastardly turncoat. Other than to blatantly curry favour with the new king is there anything that could perhaps excuse this strange and discombobulated turnaround? It has been suggested by some historians, including Dr Alison Hanham, that he may have actually believed the scurrilous and damaging rumours that Richard had poisoned his Queen, Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, and Anne Beauchamp who was herself a daughter to the earlier Earl of Warwick, Richard Beauchamp who had founded the chapel at Guy’s Cliff and this could explain the viciousness of his attack on the late king (2).
Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Founder of the chapel at Guy’s Cliff which may be the smaller building depicted. Carries the infant Henry VI – who is shown crowned and sceptered – upon his left arm and a mace for that monarch’s defence. At his feet a muzzled bear. English version of Rous Roll. British Library.
According to our Rous, Richard, prior to murdering his wife, had also kept her mother, the widowed countess, a prisoner after ‘she had fled to him as her chief refuge and he locked her up for the duration of his life’. What his wife had to say about the cruel incarceration of her mother is lost to us in the mist of time – quelle surprise. The accusations fall so fast and furious including the horrid murder of his nephews, Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, although he doesn’t know the manner of their deaths – no-one does – only that they have been heinously ‘slaughtered’ and Richard has taken the young murdered king’s throne. Rous’ Richard clearly took regicide in his stride because when he was the 17 year old Duke of Gloucester he had also ‘caused others‘ to murder another king – the ‘holy man‘ King Henry VI – and furthermore it was ‘thought by many’ that he had done this with his very own hand – obvs. With Richard in full tonto mode its almost a relief when Rous reaches the part where Richard is entering ‘the evening of his life’. But it’s not quite over yet – Richard, who was ‘excessively cruel in his days‘ – is compared to the Antichrist and ‘like Antichrist to come, he was confounded at his moment of greatest pride‘, as you are, following which he was ‘unexpectedly destroyed in the midst of his army by an invading army small by comparison but furious in impetus, like a wretched creature‘. Blimey! And it’s here at this very point, having made verbal mincemeat of the now dead king, that bizarrely Rous does yet another quite bewildering about-face : ‘For all that, let me say the truth to his credit’.. ! We will return to this important point below where it is discussed in the excerpt from David Johnson’s article John Rous: The man who said too much.*
If Rous had heard, and swallowed, the rather unsavoury propaganda regarding the murder of his wife and imprisonment of his mother-in-law, it may well have led to him, an avid admirer of both Anne and her mother, being a very angry and bitter man. However if we accept that he – being ensconced mostly at Guy’s Cliff and Warwick – he did of course sometimes travel further afield including London, later recalling ‘In the days of this king (Edward IV) an elephant was brought to England, which I saw at London, but it soon declined’ – and being rather out of the loop, swallowed this nonsense it’s rather pushing the bounds of belief that he had also heard and also believed an even further nonsensical rumour that Richard had been ‘retained within his mother’s womb for two years and emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders. … At his nativity Scorpio was in the ascendant, which is the sign of the house of Mars. And like a scorpion he combined a smooth front with a stinging tail’. However Rous had got the date of Richard’s birthday muddled – rather than being born on the 21 October and under Scorpio he had in actual fact been born on the 2 October thus under Libra. Nevertheless Rous apparently was not one to let fact stand in the way of a good and rather lurid story. No! I fear our Rous was the instigator of at least some of this nonsense and he may have been merely nothing more than a basic out and out turncoat intent on worming his way into the good books of the new Tudor king. Oh dear..I am trying hard to find some redeemable qualities here…
Pressing on – Dr Hanham in her excellent book Richard III and his early historians 1483-1535 has helpfully added a modern translation of Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae which has been most helpful to me in writing this post. Unfortunately there is little in Dr Hanham’s comments about Rous to redeem his rather moth-eaten reputation:
‘His tales of Richards monstrous birth and deformity deter a later time from taking him seriously and his extremely jumbled account of events makes it seem more likely that he concocted his history from other sources than that it is in any sense an eyewitnesses‘ testimony’. He is described as an ‘old-fashioned antiquarian rather than a historian and busy minded man who loved gossip’ and his narrative of Richard’s reign ‘is a rag bag of gleanings’. However to be fair, as Dr Hanham also points out, Rous was not the instigator of the odious and ‘unprovable’ rumour that Richard had his Queen poisoned and ‘His animus against Richard may therefore derive in part from the belief that Richard had murdered his wife..’ which is something to give thanks for… I suppose.
But is it all as it seems? And has history’s judgement of Rous been too harsh? He himself would say, rather mysteriously, that he had been ‘unjustly vexed with many tribulations’ (3). An article in the Richard III Society Bulletin John Rous – The man who said too much by David Johnson has taken a somewhat softer stance and does indeed make some interesting points. For example after Henry taking the throne he took the astonishingly draconian step of predating his reign to the day before the battle of Bosworth which had taken place on the 22 August 1485 (4).This was such an unfair, atrocious act that even the Croyland Chronicler, who was not a fan of Richard III, denounced it and recording that because of it Henry’s parliament was on the receiving end of ‘much argument, or to be, more truthful, rebuke’ (5). The act would leave those men who had fought for their rightful king in the unenviable position of being traitors with all the calamities this could bring upon both them and their families. This combined with the belief that it was dangerous to be in possession of the repealed Titulus Regius as well as a new ruling after the rebellion of 1486 that would deny sanctuary to anyone deemed guilty of treason – ‘Henceforth sanctuary was not pleadable in treason‘ – may have made even the stoutest of hearts quake a little (6). .
Henry VII. Oil on panel 1505. Unknown Netherlandish artist. NPG.
Clearly it was not prudent to be identified as an admirer of the late king. In his thought provoking article David Johnson suggests that ‘anyone like Rous who had enthusiastically supported Richard III would have felt threatened by such repressive measures’. However ‘.. it also seems that the ferocity of Rous’ volte-face may have pricked his conscience. If we examine the Historia carefully we can see him wrestling rather uncomfortably with his drastically revised opinion of Richard. Following the tirade of abuse outlined at the beginning of this paper, the Historia revealingly changed tack and introduced a description of Richard’s bravery at Bosworth with the plea: ‘For all that, let me say the truth to his credit.’ *This is a remarkable statement to make in the circumstances, seeming to imply that what Rous had written in proceeding passages of the Historia was not altogether correct, and that he was now begging permission to tell the truth. Here we see the inner turmoil of a man driven to falsehood by fear and apprehension. Rous, it appears, acted to save himself in the frighteningly unpredictable world of the first Tudor king. He seems to have been convinced that his previously expressed admiration for Richard placed him in peril, and he did all in his power to replace it with the ‘ardour of love’ for Henry and as much revulsion for Richard as he could bear…’ (7).
Is this, sadly, how it went….?
Anne Beauchamp and her husband, Richard Neville, ‘The Kingmaker,’ Earl of Warwick. From the Latin version of the Rous Roll. Donated to the College of Arms by Melvyn Jeremiah.
So having said all the above how should we view the bulk of his history of the Earls of Warwick as well as his others writings? With caution definitely. Charles Ross opines that Rous sufferered from ‘a narrowness of view. Rous saw the mediaeval earls of Warwick through blinkers. The left eye was that of the local historian, for whom events concerning Warwick were the centre of attention, the right eye was anxious to please the lords of Warwick of his own day’. Clearly for Rous ‘there was was no such thing as a bad Earl of Warwick’ (8).
However all is not lost and historian Nicholas Orme opines although he was often inaccurate about details and dates, mingling history with myth, nevertheless ‘he used a wide range of writers, often referred to his sources and compared the population figures given in the hundred rolls of 1279 with those of places in his own day… He recognised the historical value of paintings and monuments, and though he did not altogether master the history of costume, he had an understanding of the evolution of body armour. His lists of university halls and deserted villages show an eye for institutions disregarded in his own day. With his contemporary and fellow Oxonian, William Worcester, he is deservedly recognised as one of the earliest major English antiquaries’ (9).
Personally I like him best for his outspoken views on the Enclosure Movement which saw thousands of hapless people turfed out of their villages and homes, their livelihoods lost to them, by the unabated greed of their landlords. He felt ‘stirred to rise against the devastation and destruction of villages by mouth and pen following the clamor and murmurings of the populace’.
The cruel injustice of the Enclosures was something that Rous felt deeply and passionately about and he devoted three passages to it in Historia as well as ‘listing the seventy-eight (deserted villages) that were all within his home county of Warwickshire’ castigating the enclosing landlords as “murderers of the impoverished,” “destroyers of humanity,” and “venomous snakes.” They had shown no mercy to “the children, tenants, and others whom they have forced from their homes by theft,” and so could expect “judgment without mercy” in the afterlife; certainly he would not be singing any masses for the souls of these “destroyers of towns’ (10). And I hope heartily that if any of these landlords chanced upon Rous’ opinions of them they had the grace to blush.
So have we and history judged Rous too harshly? Charles Ross has likened him to the character of the Vicar of Bray whose career may be niftily summed up in the chorus of a recently written folk song about him:
‘And this be law, that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign, still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir’.
However Ross slightly softens his stance when he recalls the beautiful tributes made by Rous to both Queen Anne Neville and her mother, Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick. Of Queen Anne Neville he wrote ‘In person she was seemly, amiable and beauteous and according to the interpretation of her name Anne full gracious’.
Queen Anne Neville. English version of the Rous Roll. The queen, in royal robes, holding the sceptre and orb. Hands appearing from clouds on either side of her offer her the crowns of Lancaster and York alluding to her two marriages. At her feet the muzzled bear of Warwick.
And for Anne Beauchamp, whom he would have known personally, he wrote ‘Dam Anne Beauchamp a noble lady of the blode royal dowhter to Eorl Rychard and hole sustre and eyr to fir herre Beauchamp duke of Warrwik and aftre the deffese of his only begoten dowhtre Lady An. by trew enheritans countas of Warrewick which goode lady had in her dayes grete tribulacon for her lordis fake Syre Rychard Neeuel fon and Eyre to fir Rychard Eorl of Salifbury and by her tityll Eorl of Warrwik a famus knyghe and excellent gretly fpoke of thorow thr mofte part of all chrifendam. This gode lady was born in the manor of Cawerfham by redyng in the counte of oxenforde and was euer a full deuout lady in Goddis feruys fre of her fpeche to euery perfon familier accordyng to her and thore degre. Glad to be at and with women that traueld of chyld. full comfortable and plenteus then of all thyng that shuld be helpyng to hem. and in hyr tribulacons fhe was euer to the gret pleafure of God full pacient. to the grete meryte of her own fowl and enfample of all odre that were vexid with eny aduerfyte. Sho was alfo gladly euer companable and liberal and in her own perfone femly and bewteus and to all that drew to her ladifhup as the dede fhewid ful gode and gracious. her refon was and euer fhall.
Charles Ross’ closing comment in his Historical Introduction to The Rous Roll reads ‘For this generous tribute to an eclipsed Countess perhaps Rous should be forgiven a great deal’…. (11).
So, sticking my head above the parapet here, was Rous just a frightened elderly man, nervous about his future as one of those who had once waxed lyrical about the defeated King Richard III? It’s said that history will judge men and so it does but has it got it wrong in its appraisal of Rous? I’ll leave you dear reader to make your own mind up about that one…
John Rous died on the 14th of January 1492 and was buried in the nave of the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary, Warwick. Leyland who saw the tomb 50 years later recorded what seems to have been its Latin inscription commemorating ‘John Rous chaplain of the Chantry of Gibclif who constructed the library above the south porch of this church and equipped it with books’. However both his library and tomb were destroyed in the great fire that devastated Warwick and parts of the church on the 5 September 1694.
1. Richard III and his earlier historians 1483-1535. Excursis. John Rous’ account of the reign of Richard III. p.p.118.124. Alison Hanham.
3. Historia regum Anglie/ Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae
4. Chrimes, Henry VII, pp 50. 63.
5. N Pronay & J Cox The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486, London 1986, p 195
6. Chrimes, Henry VII, p 71 7 n 4.
7. JOHN ROUS THE MAN WHO SAID TOO MUCH. David Johnson. Ricardian Bulletin article December 2013.
8. The Rous Roll p.xii. Introduction. Charles Ross. 1980.
9. Rous, John (c.1420-1492). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. September 2004. Nicholas Orme.
10. These Destroyers of Towns. Matthew Green. Online article https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/these-destroyers-towns.
11. The Rous Roll p.xviii Introduction. Charles Ross. 1980.
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