Richard of Conisbrough seems to have been a very controversial figure throughout his life, from questions of his paternity, through his secret marriage, to his untimely death for his involvement in a particularly ill-thought-out plot.
He and I were born within 3 miles (and, of course, 6 centuries) of each other. As a student, I even gave guided tours at the Castle in which he was born. And the man is a completely fascinating, and yet such a shadowy, figure. The grandfather of both Edward IV and Richard III, he seems to have been a mediocre diplomat and soldier, and his eventual treason barely registers in the history books.
Richard’s birth is obscured by time. Although sources seem undecided, the most likely date of his birth appears to be 1386 (although some place it as early as 1375). He was a grandson of Edward III through his father, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York; and his mother, Isabel of Castile (sister of John of Gaunt’s wife, Constance), was described by chronicler Thomas of Walsingham as having ‘loose morals’. She and Edmund appear to have been an ill-matched pair from the beginning.
Married in 1372, two children soon followed; Edward of Langley in c.1373 and Constance in c.1374. It seems the couple’s relationship cooled soon after, as no other children were forthcoming for over 10 years. As a result, the arrival of Richard of Conisbrough in 1386 appears to have raised some eyebrows and most people – even of the time – suspected that he was the son of Isabel’s lover, rather than the Duke of York.
Isabel’s relationship with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and half-brother of the king, Richard II, was probably an open secret. The fact that his father and brother, both, left him out of their wills has fuelled this theory. However, leaving a son out of your will was not entirely unusual – Edmund of Langley was, in fact, left out of his own father’s will (that of Edward III) – and, my research suggests that Richard of Conisbrough was already dead by the time his brother, Edward, made his will.
Isabel died on 23rd December 1392. Her will made Richard II her heir, but specifically asked him to provide an annual pension of 500 marks for her youngest son. Richard’s allowance was paid regularly until 1399, but following the deposition of Richard II and accession of Henry IV, payments were made only sporadically and Richard of Conisbrough became the Royal Family’s ‘poor relation’.
Richard of Conisbrough’s father, Edmund of Langley, died in 1402 and the dukedom of York passed to Richard’s older brother, Edward.
Although his regular pension petered out under Henry IV, Richard’s career was largely unremarkable. In 1403/4 he was given command of a small force to defend Herefordshire against the last native prince of Wales, Owain Glyndwr. Richard was able to make several connections in the area; most notably with the Mortimer family. The Mortimers were cousins of Richard’s through the marriage of Lionel, Duke of Clarence’s daughter Philippa (Edward III’s granddaughter) to Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March.
Richard of Conisbrough secretly married Anne Mortimer (Philippa’s granddaughter) sometime in 1406. The couple had married without parental consent, or the papal dispensation required due to their being 2nd and 4th cousins. The dispensation was finally obtained in 1408.
Probably a love-match – Anne seems to have been as destitute as her husband. Born in December 1390 Anne’s family were close to Richard II; her father, Roger Mortimer, being seen as his possible heir until his death in 1398. Seen as rivals claimants by the new King, Henry IV, Anne’s fortunes changed in 1399 and she was described as ‘destitute’ after her mother’s death in 1405.
The marriage of Anne and Richard produced 2 children; Isabella was born in 1409 and Richard, later Duke of York, was born in 1411. Not yet 21 years old, Anne herself died in September 1411, probably due to complications following the birth of her son. She was buried at Kings Langley, alongside Edmund of Langley and Isabel of Castile.
Richard would marry as his 2nd wife, sometime between 1411 and 1415, Maud daughter of Thomas, 6th Baron Clifford and divorced wife of John Neville, 6th Baron Latimer. Following his death, Maud continued to live at Richard’s birthplace of Conisbrough Castle, dying there in 1446.
Richard was knighted by Henry IV in 1406, probably with a view to his escorting Henry’s daughter, Philippa, to Denmark, for her marriage to King Erik. Richard’s stay in Denmark was short and unremarkable; he was back in England 2 months after witnessing the wedding.
Little more is heard of Richard until he was created Earl of Cambridge in the reign of Henry V, in 1414. The earldom did not improve his prospects, as it came without the usual grants of land or revenue to support the title; Richard was thought the poorest of England’s Earls.
Fuelled by resentment Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, began plotting with Sir Thomas Grey and Henry 3rd Baron Scrope. Their scheme was to murder Henry V and his 3 brothers at Southampton, before their embarkation for the invasion of France, and replace him with Richard’s brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March.
However, it seems unclear whether March himself was in on the plot as it was the Earl who revealed it to the king on the 31st July 1415.
Cambridge and his co-conspirators were quickly rounded up. Arrested as the ringleader and at just 30 years old, Cambridge’s honours and estates were declared forfeit. Despite pleas for mercy he was beheaded for treason at Southampton Green on 5th August 1415. He was buried in the Chapel of God’s House, Southampton.
Although his honours were forfeit, Richard of Conisbrough was not attainted and his son remained his heir and was therefore able to inherit the dukedom of York, from his uncle Edward, following his death at Agincourt just 2 months later, in October 1415.
The 4-year-old Richard, Duke of York, was made a royal ward. He was raised by the Nevilles, a powerful northern family, and would marry Cecily Neville, daughter of Ralph, 1st Earl of Westmorland. The combination of his York and Mortimer inheritances not only made the Duke of York the wealthiest of English landowners, but also gave him a strong claim to the English throne. As a result, during the ineffectual reign of his cousin, Henry VI, Richard of York made a play for the crown.
His defeat and death at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460 meant he never became king, but his eldest son Edward took up the mantle and was proclaimed king on 11 April 1461, following his overwhelming victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton on 29th March 1461.
With just a short interlude of 6 months in 1470/71, the Readeption of Henry VI, the Yorkist dynasty would rule for the next 24 years.
Photos: taken from Wikipedia, except that of the tomb of Edmund of Langley which is taken from findagrave.com
Sources: The History Today Companion to British History, edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by J.P. Kenyon; The Oxford Companion to British History, edited by John Cannon; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Wars of the Roses by Martin J Dougherty; englishmonarchs.co.uk; womenshistory.about.com; findagrave.com; conisbroughcastle.org.uk; hrionline.ac.uk.