On 25 August 1485 William Catesby, Speaker of the House of Commons, was executed. But what brought about the downfall of this once influential Member of Parliament? Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project explores…
In his account of the accession of Richard III, written in the 1510s, Sir Thomas More assigned a pivotal role to an unlikely candidate, William Catesby, a lawyer educated at Inner Temple. Although Catesby, for one of gentry rank, was wealthy and well-connected, he was hardly the sort of man who might have been expected to take a central part in great events. None the less, More seems sure of his ground.
He sets the scene by describing his subject’s personal attributes, drawing on the testimony of men who had known him: ‘besides his excellent knowledge of British law, he was a man of dignified bearing, handsomely featured, and of excellent appearance, not only suitable for carrying out assignments but capable also of handling matters of grave consequence’. These qualities were, however, balanced by a fatal flaw. The description ends with a telling phrase: ‘Indeed you would not wish that a man of so much wit should be of so little faith’.
More goes on to illustrate this lack of faith by giving a damning account of Catesby’s part in the events that led to Edward V’s deposition. The future Richard III, he tells us, entrusted Catesby with the task of persuading William, Lord Hastings, a central figure in the Yorkist regime, to support the setting aside of the young King. Richard did so advisedly, for Hastings numbered Catesby among his ‘nere secret counsail’ and ‘in his most weighty matters put no man in so special trust’. This sets the scene for the climax of the story, namely Catesby’s wicked betrayal of his master.
More leaves open the matter of whether Catesby actually broached the question of deposition with his old lord; yet he is certain of the answer he gave to his new one. Catesby reported back to Richard that he found Hastings so opposed to any thought of deposing the young King that he dared not press the matter. He advised Richard that, if he would make himself King, he must dispose of the powerful Hastings. Richard followed his advice, having Hastings executed without trial on 13 June 1483. More ends by assigning to the faithless Catesby a central role in the crisis of 1483: ‘it was the dissimulation of this one man that stirred up that whole plague of evils which followed’.
How much credence can be placed on this vivid account? Given how close More’s sources were to the events described, it demands a certain degree of belief. Parts of the story, or at least of the background to it, find support in the contemporary record: Catesby’s closeness to Hastings tallies with what is known from other sources, and the analysis of Catesby’s character, both in its positive and negative aspects, is consistent with what else is known of his career.
On the other hand, Dominic Mancini, a chronicler more contemporary than More to the events of 1483, makes Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, not Catesby, responsible for inquiring into Hastings’s attitude to the proposed deposition. This suggests a different gloss on More’s story. Catesby’s connexions with the duke were as close as those with Hastings, and, if one accepts the general outline of More’s account, Catesby’s conduct represented not simply the betrayal of an old master, but the choice of one master over another. He followed Buckingham into support for the deposition rather than the other into opposition. This does not render his conduct any more morally acceptable, but, if he is seen as acting as Buckingham’s servant, it makes he himself less central to events than More would have us believe.
None the less, although we may doubt whether Catesby played the central role in the events of 1483 assigned to him by More, he benefited materially, in terms of both land and office, from Richard III’s accession to a degree broadly consistent with him having done so. His closeness to the new King found further expression on 26 January 1484 when the Commons presented him as their Speaker in what was to prove Richard III’s only Parliament. In a short session of barely four weeks he served the King well, seeing through bills confirming Richard’s title to the Crown, attainting those who had risen against him and granting him customs for life.
This prosperity was, however, soon brought to an abrupt end. When Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven on 7 Aug. 1485, Catesby could have had few thoughts of standing aside from the campaign to come. For one thing he was too wholly committed to the Ricardian regime, on the continuance of which depended his part in national politics. For another, he had every reason to hope and expect that the invading army would be repulsed. But this was not to be.
The battle of Bosworth on 22 August was a close run thing, but victory was Henry’s. Many of the leading Ricardians fell with their master on the field. Unfortunately for Catesby he was not one of them. He was captured and had the agony of waiting three days in the knowledge that only the most unlikely eventuality would save him from execution. The terms of his will, made just before his death, imply that he had invested some hope in this unlikely reprieve. One of its concluding passages is the following: ‘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’. The implication is clear. He and his father before him had been on close terms with Thomas, Lord Stanley, the husband of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and, as he awaited execution, he thus had grounds to hope that Stanley, who had decisively abandoned Richard III at Bosworth, and Stanley’s son (by an earlier wife), George, Lord Strange, might intervene to help him. Their apparent failure to do so, in Catesby’s mind at least, sealed his fate.
When he wrote his will he could only trust that his now-inevitable fate would not damage his children: to this end he included a rather curious line, ‘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’. Taking up arms at Bosworth was a strange manifestation of this love, and the implication that he did so unwillingly – not of his ‘good and Free will’ – is scarcely credible.
He was duly executed on 25 August. The Croyland chronicler sardonically remarked that he, pre-eminent among the counsellors of the dead King, ‘as a final reward for excellent service’ had his head cut off at Leicester. The fact that he was the only man of importance to suffer death among those captured at Bosworth might imply a contemporary perception that he had played a particularly dishonourable part in Richard’s accession.
Catesby’s body was brought back to the church of Ashby St. Ledgers for burial, but the making of a suitable memorial had to wait for more than 20 years. In 1505 his son, George, provided him with a fine brass, one of the most elaborate of the early 16th century.
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The Catesby Family and Their Brasses at Ashby St. Ledgers, ed. J. Bertram (2006)
The biography of Catesby, and many others, will feature in our Commons 1461-1504 project, currently being researched. Follow the work of our medieval section via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses blog page.