Wednesday, 25 April 2012

I have been writing some 'armchair historian' articles based around events in the fifteenth century, mostly to do with the Princes in the Tower. This, the first article, is about Richard, Duke of York, the younger prince.

The sons of Edward IV had brief lives, or so we suppose. Commonly known as the Princes in the Tower, it is their lives that haunt me as much as their deaths. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there must be more to a man’s life than the manner of his leaving it. On a cold, foggy autumn day I set off on a quest.

 It was the younger boy that was hooking me. The older prince, Edward, spent most of his childhood at Ludlow Castle, cared for by a doting retinue, until enticed out by those that would kill him. At least he was safe for a while.

His brother was Richard, Duke of York. Not much is known about him except that he was ‘nimble and merry’ and always ready to play or dance. Also that he was his mother’s pride and joy and she kept him with her, constantly, right up until the terrible day when he was taken away from her into the Tower and the mists of time. It has been suggested by historians that, by her motherly over-protection, Elizabeth denied her younger son the chance of learning the skills of hunting, fighting and masculine conversation and that, had he lived, he would have grown up soft and weak. A medieval wimp. Who knows? He comes down the years as a delightful child and that is all we have to go on.

 His birthplace seemed a good place to begin. Books on the subject were hazy on details but I managed to piece together the information that he was born in Shrewsbury on August 17th 1473 in the royal quarters of the infirmary attached to the Abbey, at the bottom of Water Lane on the River Severn.

 Trying to instil into my companion a desire to see a place that might no longer exist, we set off early. As it turned out, we had forgotten about motorways, road works, cones and delays. Edward IV and his retinue would probably have made the journey quicker on horseback than we did by car. We arrived in Shrewsbury at five o’ clock in the afternoon as it was getting dark. The streets were choked with cars and ferocious yellow lines. Not too historical.

 I ran into the Tourist Office. Then began the nightmare. I had not realised that a fictitious character lived in Shrewsbury – an imaginary monk called Cadfael who flitted through the pages of medieval whodunits growing herbs. The Tourist Office was full of souvenirs – Cadfael mugs, Cadfael calendars, Cadfael pot porri, notebooks, pencils, videos, rubbers ... no mention of Richard, Duke of York, who was born there, who once was living flesh and blood.

 I returned to the car. My companion was asleep. I studied a guide book. There was an Abbey  – but it was Cadfael’s Abbey, of course. The library – that would have the answers.

 The library was shut. ‘We’re not going to find it,’ I said despondently.

 Oh don’t give up,’ said my friend, refreshed from his sleep. ‘We’ll find it. What have we got?’

 ‘Well, it was at the bottom of Water Lane overlooking the river.’

 ‘That’s easy then. We need a street map.’

 The street map was no problem. However, no Water Lane. There was a Water Street. We headed for that.

 Round by the station is not the most salubrious part of Shrewsbury. Cold and draughty with alleyways and dark tunnels it has scraps of paper blowing about like lost souls. Raven Meadows sounded old and picturesque but turned out to be a warren of traffic lights and un-crossable roads. We couldn’t find Water Street. Shrewsbury seemed to be built on lots of levels. We kept going up steps and down alleys and up slopes and down steps, all the time losing sight of the river. I had this nagging fear that Water Lane had faded with the Middle Ages.

 I became aware that I was on my own. No sign of my companion. Down by the side of a church I found him, smug look on his face, gazing meaningfully at an old street name. I couldn’t believe it. Not just Water Street. Water Lane! He had stumbled across Water Lane.

So there it was, this dark, narrow path, going down and down with red brick walls on either side with traces of arches and bricked up windows and so overgrown above our heads there was hardly any light – but there, through the darkness, so close I could bend down and touch it, was the river, completely deserted, timeless, far from anywhere with the moon shining above it – a tiny pocket of history and I had found it. Near this small stretch of river Elizabeth Woodville’s second son was born.

 There can have been no hint of tragedies to come.




  1. I love your tenacity and well done in finding Water Lane.... do you have any photos? I am very sad that the medieval world has all but gone and quite angry at the wanton destruction since then. I know things can't stand still, but it seems most buildings were destroyed for no good reason. I am increasingly feeling as if I don't belong in this modern world and long to 'go home' again to the fifteenth century. I love Richard lll and was shocked to read about Tickenhill.. I live about 20 miles away and had never heard of it!

  2. Many thanks for commenting. The fifteenth century is probably my favourite as well. I've written quite a lot about Richard III. At one time I belonged to the Ricardian Societry and was able to borrow copies of original documents and other books on the subject from theirlibrary, by post.