WILLIAM CATESBY, GOOD GUY, BAD GUY, TRAITOR? CLUES IN HIS WILL…

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Brass of William Catesby,  Ashby St Ledgers Church.   Commissioned by William’s son in 1507.  Date of death 20th August is incorrect, predating Bosworth,  perhaps in an attempt to cover up his inglorious end.  Note the damage across the neck.  Photo Aidan McRae Thomas Flkir

As no doubt can be seen from the title of this post I have really not made my mind up about Catesby and the true essence of the man he was.  The best and fullest account of his life is that written by Professor J A Roskell –  William Catesby, Councillor to Richard III.

Mostly remembered for getting a mention in the infamous and nasty  little ditty –

‘The catt, the Ratt and Lovell owyn dogge, Rulyn  all England undyr an hogge’ 

which was found fastened to the door of St Paul’s 14th July 1484 (1).  It might be assumed from this that Catesby, along with Ratcliffe and Lovell had an enormous amount of input into how things were being run during Richard’s reign – but is this true or was it just the spiteful pen of a man who had recently been dismissed from his job to be replaced by  Lovell?  The rebellious William Collingbourne, author of the verse,  was later to be hung, drawn and quartered for treason.  He is said to have uttered, just as his entrails were being removed from his body ‘Oh lord yet more trouble’.    I seriously doubt someone who had been choked to within an inch of their life and in the course of being disembowelled would be able to say something quite so lucid and it just goes to show how you have to be very cautious with some of these quotes.  Perhaps it was meant as a 15th century joke? But  I digress, again, and back to our man Catesby.   Certainly it would seem that Catesby was indeed an influential member of Richard III’s Council for the Croyland Chronicler mentioned that he and Ratcliffe’s opinions were those that  the king hardly ever did offer any opposition to.  However it should be borne in mind that whoever the Chronicler was at the time, he tended to take a dim view of Richard, can always be expected to take a negative view of proceedings and was wont  to over egging the pudding.  

Catesby was born c.1446 and died 25 August 1485.  He was the son of Sir William Catesby Snr d.1478,  a man with strong Lancastrian leanings and Philippa Bishopston d.1476.   Sir William has been described as  a former retainer in the Household of Henry VI whose real sympathies had remained Lancastrian (2).  Catesby Snr became a trusted retainer of  William Lord Hastings , close friend to Edward IV,   who would  later become a powerful patron to Catesby Jnr who had entered the legal profession.    Sir William led an interesting life in his own right which is covered elsewhere.   In 147I our Catesby Jnr married Margaret Zouche,  daughter of William Lord Zouche of Harringworth –  an excellent match for him.  When his mother in law, Elizabeth St John,  was widowed she married John Lord Scrope of Bolton.  Through his natural aptitude and  these  ‘ties of kinship,  the very bedrock of 15th century society,  Catesby acquired numerous offices, stewardships and estates, to support his rising quasi-aristocratic status. He also began to acquire land and property through his own astute legal transactions (3). However I have to beg to differ here as it’s clear  not all his transactions were legal, because in his will made immediately prior to his execution his conscience pricked him and he requested that his wife ‘restore all londes that I have wrongfully purchasid’.  I will return to this later.

However Catesby,  during his golden years, as well as having Hastings as a patron, became ever successful, attracting the right sort of clients such as  Elizabeth,  Lady Latimer daughter and co-heir of Richard Beauchamp,  Earl  of Warwick and  the Duke of Buckingham as well as acting as a legal advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Catesby was clearly on a roll as they say.

When Edward IV died somewhat prematurely in 1483 a deadly struggle ensued between the Wydevilles and Richard, Duke of Gloucester as to who should have control of the heir to the throne, the 13 year old Edward V.   Catesby’s reputation had come to the attention of Gloucester,  who in May 1483 appointed him Chancellor of the Earldom of March and Justice of the Peace for Northamptonshire.   Catesby had now absolutely arrived!  Ever ambitious Catesby saw even more opportunities of advancement and wealth if he threw in his lot with Gloucester  entirely.  His old allegiance with Lord Hastings was cast aside when it is said,  he was asked to sound Hastings out regarding his feelings on Gloucester taking the throne in place of the young Edward V.  Now whilst  Hastings had no misgivings on removing the Wydeville family from power, he could not overcome his old loyalty to his friend, the deceased Edward IV.  For him this was a step too far and one he was not prepared to take it would seem.    Catesby reported this back.  Daniel Williams who seems a little hostile to the Duke of Gloucester, wrote in his article  The Hastily Drawn Up Will of William Catesby, Esquire,  25th August 1485 :  ‘What actually happened will always remain conjecture but according to More  who appears to be relying upon first-hand information,  Catesby sees the opportunity of betraying his master and indeed other members of the young king’s council to the Protector and his faction. The devious complexity of what Catesby reported or did not report, made him a conscious catalyst in the subsequent course leading to the summary execution of Lord Hastings.

Thomas More, definitely anti the Duke of Gloucester,  wrote,  ‘ It was the dissimulation of this one man that stirred up that whole plague of evils which followed. If Hastings had not trusted him so completely then Stanley and other nobles of their faction would have withdrawn at the first suspicion of deceit and with their departure they would have overthrown the secret and wicked plans of the Protector. But Hastings put too much trust in Catesby’s fidelity.

I will be returning to More’s witterings later…

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  The White Tower, Tower of London.  It was here in the Council Chamber on the upper floor of the White Tower that the meeting of the Council took place on Friday 13th June 1483 where Hastings was accused of treason, arrested and promptly beheaded.

Whether More’s perception of the situation is correct or not,  it certainly transpired that Catesby would be very richly rewarded after his former patron’s death.  Posts that had once been Hastings now went to Catesby including Chamberlain of the Exchequer, Steward of the holdings of the Duchy of Lancaster in Northamptonshire, Chamberlain of Receipts,  Constable of Rockingham Castle and Master Forester of the Forest of Rockingham,  Steward of the Manors of Rockingham, Brigstock and Cliffe,   Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as a member of the Royal Council.   This is by no means an exhaustive list all of the posts and lands that were bestowed upon Catesby.  Peter A Hancock has devoted an appendix in his book Richard and the Murder in the Tower on this subject should anyone wish to delve more deeper.     Catesby continued his inexorable rise, rise and more rise.  Gathering up more estates, lands, manors, lordships in his wake, covering Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and Warwickshire some  estates falling into his hands through dodgy conveyancing as well as the exertion of strong coercive pressure (4).

All was going according to plan when even more rewards would fall into his hands with the doomed Duke of Buckingham revolt, during which Catesby, not surprisingly remained loyal to the former Duke of Gloucester,  now Richard III.  Was it during this time he perhaps incurred the displeasure or resentment of the Stanleys?  For on the 17th December 1483 we have Lord Stanley, ‘who by good luck rather than good management had survived the crisis of the summer’,  paying a lifetime annuity of five marks to Catesby  ‘for his goodwill and council past and to come’ (5).   Did Stanley perhaps object to being beholden to Catesby?  Or did Catesby,  erroneously as it turned out, think that he had forged some sort of allegiance between himself and Lord Stanley for was not Stanley uncle by marriage to Catesby’s wife,  her mother Elizabeth St John, having shared the same mother, Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso,  with Margaret Beaufort.     These not insignificant familial links meant that Henry Tudor, who was of course Stanley’s step-son, was alslo cousin to Catesby’s wife – please keep up at the back dear reader.    It’s also interesting that Catesby’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth St John,  Lady Scrope,  was a friend to none other than Elizabeth Wydeville and had been with the queen during her stay in sanctuary at Westminster in 1470 when the young Edward V was born, standing godmother to the child at his christening (6).  Roskell points out  this tangled web of family ties could have proved providential to Catesby once Tudor took the throne if he had not been such a strong supporter of Richard III (7). 

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Margaret Beaufort – Catesby’s aunt by marriage.   Catesby’s wife’s mother, Elizabeth St John  and Margaret Beaufort shared the same mother,  Margaret Beaufort of Bletso.   These familial links failed to save Catesby at the end of the day.  St John’s College University of Cambridge.

THE LINK TO ELEANOR TALBOT

There is also a further intriguing familial link – that to no other than Eleanor Butler, née Talbot.  As we know Eleanor was the catalyst for the demise of the Plantagenets for Edward IV  had married her in a secret ceremony thus invalidating his later marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville and bastardising their children.  Eleanor’s father, the famed John Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury,  had a younger sister, Alice.  Alice married Sir Thomas Barre of Burford. They had a daughter Joan/Jane who married Sir Kynard de la Bere.  After she was widowed,  Joan would marry the widowed Sir William Catesby Snr, thus becoming our Catesby’s stepmother.  How much interaction Joan had with her younger cousin, Eleanor, we will never know, although their homes were but a short distance from each other.  We do know that Joan’s husband, Sir William Catesby Snr,  had  certainly acted for Eleanor in a legal capacity having served as a witness to several documents pertaining to Eleanor including deeds of gift and had previously acted extensively on behalf of John Talbot  who was of course Eleanor’s father and Joan’s uncle (8).  This begs the question did Eleanor or other members of the Talbot family turn to one or both of the Catesbys for advice on her legal position regarding the pre contract of marriage?  With hindsight it’s clear that Eleanor, for reasons lost to us now, wished and agreed that her marriage to Edward continued to be kept,  as it was already, secret.    Did Catesby, ever the obedient lawyer, keep this secret including documentation, before revealing it to Richard in the aftermath of Edward’s death?  Might he also have made Richard aware of the fact that Hastings, Edward’s boon companion, had also been a party to this secret.  In doing so did he cover his own back but stab Hastings in his?

THOMAS MORE ON CATESBY

We do know that while much of More’s The History of Richard III is absurd,  fed to him by his patron John Morton,  Roskill believes some of it relating to minor characters and not Richard could perhaps be closer to reality.  So what does More have to say about Catesby in connection to the downfall and  death of Hastings  –

‘And of truth,  The Protector and the Duke of Buckingham made very good semblance unto the Lord Hastings and kept him much in company.  And undoubtedly the Protector  loved him well and loath was to have lost him,  saving for fear lest his  life should have quelled their purpose. For which cause he moved Catesby to test,  with some words cast out afar off,  whether he could think it possible to win the Lord Hastings  unto their party. But Catesby whether he essayed (assayed) him or essayed  him not,  reported unto them that he found him so steadfast and heard him speak so terrible words that he durst no further proceed. And of truth,  the Lord Chamberlain of very trust showed unto Catesby the mistrust  that others began to have in the matter.  And therefore Catesby,  fearing lest their warnings might with the Lord Hastings diminish his credit  – where unto only all the matter leaned –  procured the Protector hastily to be rid of him. And much the rather,  for that he trusted by his death to obtain much of the rule that the Lord Hastings bore in his country,  the only desire whereof was the enticement that induced him to be partner and one special contriver of all this horrible treason’

We have already touched upon the extent of gains made by Catesby on the death of his patron so that part of More’s tale can be vouched for as accurate.

CATESBY’S WILL

We are lucky that Catesby’s will is extant and it tells us much.  Made on the 25th August 1485, with execution imminent, it had dawned on him that Stanley and his son Lord Strange, were not going to use their influence to get him a pardon.  The precise reasons why Catesby had been hoping for this are now lost to us.  Let’s look at what he said in the will:

‘My lordis Stanley, Strange, and all that blod, help and pray for my soule for ye have not for my body as I trusted in you…’

And there we have it ...as I trusted in you.  It is these words that begs the question why or what had been said for Catesby to have placed his trust in the Stanleys?  What had Catesby actually done, if anything,  that led him to believe that the Stanleys would save him?  Further to this why would he have mentioned Lord Strange who was held prisoner prior to the commencement of the battle of Bosworth in an attempt to bring his father to heel and to bring his forces in to fight for the king?   Richard had left instructions Strange was to be executed if Stanley betrayed him, which he did, and yet Strange was very much alive and well after the battle despite his father’s treachery.     Did Catesby actually fight at Bosworth or was he left behind in the camp to perhaps oversee the execution of Strange?  Did he in fact save Strange and hope that this, along with familial ties,  would save him in turn?  Had he even been in contact with the Stanleys prior to Bosworth in an attempt to cover his back should the battle not go Richard’s way?  In the end ultimately, of course,  it was to no avail and he was executed for treason, made possible by Tudor predating his reign from the day before Bosworth.   I’ve often wondered if Henry Tudor, who was a canny man, baulked at putting any faith in a man who was so capable of turning his coat so readily.     Had he indeed been privy to the secret pre contract of marriage made between Eleanor and Edward IV which would have made Tudor’s future wife, Elizabeth of York illegitimate?  Dangerous knowledge indeed.   And how could Tudor have been sure that Catesby would not turn yet again in the future and reveal the secret to Yorkists who still might rally  and attempt to boot him off his newly gained throne?   Did Tudor take the view that once a man had turned his coat he could do so again.  Therefore Catesby had to go. 

Certainly his will leaves signs that he was a loving husband addressing Margaret as my dere and welbelovid wiff to whom I have ever be trewe of my body, putting my sole trust in heir… although the added and I hertly cry you mercy if I have delid uncurtesly with you ..  sounds a bit ominous.    He went on to ask her not to remarry and ever pray you to leve sole and all the dayes of your liff to do for my soule.  This the loyal Margaret did.  

The requests that :  Item that my lady of Bukingham have C li to help heir children and that she will se my lordes dettes paid and his will executed … sounds prima facie generous.  However here he was simply carrying out the instructions given to him by Richard III after Buckingham’s execution.   Richard Aware of the hardships of innocent creditors of the Duke of Buckingham had commissioned Sir William Husee, William Catesby and a few others to administer certain of the duke’s forfeited lands in order to pay his debts’ ( 9).    Am I being cynical here but I do wonder if my lady of Bukingham would have ever received the monies that were due to her had Catesby not been facing both imminent death and his Maker.  However, as mentioned above, he left specific instructions for land  to be restored that he had wrongfully purchased and money still owed for land he had purchased legally to be paid up as well as his sadeler Hartlyngton  to be paid so he couldn’t have been all bad.   But peruse any set of 15th century wills such as the Logge Register and it becomes apparent that all 15th century folk were at great pains to ensure that their debts would be paid on their deaths for the well bearing of their soul.  However the number of people mentioned in Catesby’s will that had their lands taken from them in unscrupulous deals, even in a time known for its avarice is quite extraordinary.  I wonder if Margaret was unaware of husband’s dishonesty?  Newly widowed she certainly would have had her work cut out to rectify these wrongs and return the lands and must have been overwhelmed by the task left to her by her husband although help from the Bishops of Worcester, Winchester and London was requested.    How Catesby must have fretted in those last few hours.   

His concern for his wife and children comes to the fore:  I doute not the King wilbe good and gracious Lord to them for he is callid a full gracious prince and I never offende hyme by my good and free will, for God I take to my juge I have ever lovid hym.

Lastly a few more words for Margaret : And I pray you in every place se clerenese in my soule and pray fast and I shall for you and Jhesu have mercy upon my soule Amen.

Here is the will in full:

Thys ys the Wille of William Catesby esquyer made the XXV day of August the first yere of King Henry the VIIth tobo executed by my dere and Welbelovid wiff to whom I have ever be trewe of my body putting my sole trust in herr for the executione thereof for the welthe of my soule the which I am undowted she will execute: as for my body, whan she may, [it is] tobe buried in the churche of Saynt legger in Aisby [Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire] and to do suche memorialles for me as I have appoynted by for. And to restore all londes that I have wrongfully purchasid and to pay the residue of suche lond as I have boughte truly and to deviene yt among herr childrene and myne as she thinkithe good after herr discrecione. I doute not the King wilbe good and gracious Lord to them, for he is callid a full gracious prince. And I never offended hym by my good and Free Will; for god I take to my juge I have ever lovid hym.  Item: that the executours of Nicholas Cowley have the lond agayn in Evertoft withoute they have their C.li.  Item: in like wise Revell his lond in Bukby. Item: in like wise that the coopartioners have their part in Rodynhalle in Suff. [sic] if we have right thereto or els tobe restored to them that had yt befor.  Item: in like wise the londes in Brownstone if the parte have right that hadd yt befor. And the londes besides Kembaltone bye disposid for my soule and Evertons and so of all other londes that the parte hathe right Iue.  Item: that all my Fader dettes and bequestes be executed and paid as to the hous of Catesby and other.  Item: that my lady of Bukingham have C.li. to help herr children and that she will se my lordes dettes paid and his will executed. And In especialle in suche lond as shold be amortesid to the hous of Plasshe. Item: my Lady of Shaftisbury XL marke.  Item: that John Spenser have his LX li withe the olde money that I owe. Item: that Thomas Andrews have his XX Li.  And that all other bequestes in my other will be executed as my especialle trust is in you masteres Magarete And I hertly cry you mercy if I have delid uncurtesly withe you. And ever prey you leve sole and all the dayes of your liff to do for my soule.  And ther as I have, be executour I besech you se the Willes executed. And pray lorde bishop Wynchester,  my lord bishop of Worcetour,  my lord bishop of London to help you to execute this my will and they will do sume what for me. And that Richard Frebody may have his XX li. agayne and Badby X li. or the londes at Evertons and ye the X li. And I pray you in every place se cleiernese in my soule and pray fast and I shall for you and Jhesue have mercy uponne my soule Amen.

My lordis Stanley, Strange and all that blod help and pray for my soule for ye have not for my body as I trusted in you. And if my issue reioyce (sic) my londes I pray you lete maister Johnne Elton have the best benefice. And my lord lovell come to grace than that ye shew to hym that he pray for me. And uncle Johanne remembrer my soule as ye have done my body; and better. And I pray you se the Sadeler Hartlyngtone be paid in all other places.

Catesby’s  will can be found in full in  several books including The Logge Register of PCC Wills 1479 to 1486  and Excerpta Historica: Or,  Illustrations  of English History; Ed Samuel Bentley.

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Brass rubbing of the Catesby monument.  Ashby St Ledger Church.  

Why did Catesby have to die and so swiftly?  Men of higher rank than him who had been immensely loyal to the House of York were either pardoned or in the case of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk’s son,  Thomas Earl of Surrey,  were imprisoned for a while, released  and would go on to serve the Tudors.  No doubt Catesby would have done the same given the opportunity.  However he had to die and I believe he had to die because he simply knew too much.

Later Catesby’s body would be returned to his faithful Margaret and family.  To this day they lie together, with other family members  in Ashby St Ledgers Church. 

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Ashby St Ledgers Church, Northamptonshire.  

  1. The Great Chronicle of London p.236.  Ed A H Thomas and I D Thornley (1938).
  2. The Hastily Drawn up  Will of William Catesby Esquire 1485 By Daniel Williams
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. William Catesby, Councillor to Richard III  J S  Roskell Professor of Medieval History Nottingham.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Richard III and the Murder in the Tower p.39. Peter A Hancock.   See also Eleanor the Secret Queen p.140 John Ashdown-Hill.
  9.  Richard III p.310. Paul Murrey Kendall.  See also British Library Harleian manuscript 433, Vol.1.

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JUST WHY DID BUCKINGHAM THINK HE COULD CROSS THE FLOODED SEVERN?

SIR WILLIAM STANLEY – TURNCOAT OR LOYALIST?

THE RISE AND FALL OF WILLIAM LORD HASTINGS AND HIS CASTLE OF KIRBY MUXLOE

Ralph Boteler, Lord Sudeley, father-in-law to Lady Eleanor Talbot.

THE CARMELITE FRIARY OF NORWICH KNOWN AS WHITEFRIARS – BURIAL PLACE OF ELEANOR TALBOT

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