Edward of Middleham is most famous for having died young. Like his cousins, the Princes in the Tower, he was one of those many individuals who were briefly in line to the throne but never made it; one of history’s tantalising “what-ifs.” Another lost opportunity; the favourite food of historical fiction. Yet, certain clues suggest he might actually have made a good king.
Edward's parents, Richard and Anne
Edward was the only legitimate child of Richard and Anne, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. His loss had significance far beyond the intense personal grief of his parents, who had by that time become king and queen. He appears to have often suffered from ill-health, forcing him to miss their coronation in 1483 and meaning he had to be carried on a litter to his investiture as Prince of Wales. Yet his father’s succession had come as a surprise to all. The boy’s namesake, the twelve-year-old Edward V, waiting in the Tower, had been anticipating his coronation that summer but had never made it into the Abbey. What a greater revelation was it then, to Richard’s son, who then learned he may one day become king ? Much of his life had been spent in his sick room: could he really rule England? It is impossible now to recapture anything about Edward’s character but one connection I explored whilst researching my biography of his mother, Anne Neville, shows us what would have been on the syllabus in the Middleham schoolroom.
Had young Edward lived to take the advice of his teachers, he could have proved a formidable opponent to Henry VII and a diplomatic ruler. Of course, the facts are the facts. After all, Richard was defeated on the battlefield at Bosworth and Edward of Middleham did die young. Hindsight tells us he would never sit on the throne of England. His suitability to rule is one of those “what-ifs” of historical speculation that allow us to glimpse tantalising alternatives. However, between June 1483 and April 1484, Edward’s future kingship was a very real possibility in which he and his parents could believe. The woman who presided over his nursery was well placed to prepare him for such a dazzling future.The cenotaph in Sheriff Hutton Church that is reputed to commemorate Edward
Edward died on April 9 1484, aged somewhere between seven and ten. Little is known about his short life; even his birthdate is disputed, occurring somewhere between his parents’ marriage in 1472 and his inclusion in prayers offered for Richard and Anne, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester in the spring of 1477. He was born at Middleham Castle, where local tradition names one of the towers after him. The court rolls list an Isabel Burgh as his wet-nurse and the “mistress of the nursery” was Anne Idley, née Creting, from Oxfordshire. Anne had been widowed around the time of Edward’s birth and left her home at Market Drayton, to enter the Middleham household. Her husband had been Peter Idley, author of a book of manners, or education, for the rearing of boys, called Instructions to his Son.
Idley was contributing to an established tradition. The late fifteenth century saw a glut of instruction books, aimed at improving the manners of the aspirational middle classes in every respect, from dining etiquette, to appearance and protocol. The “Boke of Nurture,” the “Babees Book,” the “Young Children’s Book” and the “Book of Courtesy” were among many advising medieval “wannabes” to wash their hands and face, tell the truth and “let no foul filth” appear on their clothing. Idley’s Instructions were composed in the late 1440s, following his first marriage and the birth of his son John. Three decades later his widow, Anne, was the guardian of his book and his legacy. After she arrived at Middleham, John refused to pay her the annuity they had agreed, leading Richard to intervene to ensure the debt was settled. His father’s advice apparently had little impact on John but the future King’s son would have benefited from it instead.
As “lady governess” of Edward’s nursery, Peter’s widow would have overseen the arrangements for his education. It is not impossible that she taught him directly from the book herself. When she was employed by the Gloucesters, Edward never expected to be anything other than the nephew of the King, although it was crucial that he received a suitable training for this prestigious role. Idley’s advice is in two volumes, the first dealing with the theme of “wise business” and fickleness of fortune, while the second includes religious teachings and the handling of sin. Family connections and loyalty were important. A young man should leave idleness until his old age and “set his mind” to business, for the advancement of his friends and relatives. He should also honour his parents and see their blessing as a reward. His father’s advancing age should serve as a reminder to a “negligent” child that “after warme youth coometh age coolde.” In all dealings, he should be lowly and honest to rich and poor, in both word and deed, and respectful of his masters and superiors. It is no coincidence that the maxim “manners maketh man” dates from this period.
Discretion was considered important too. Idley advised keeping “within thi breste that may be stille” and not letting the tongue “clakke as a mille.” The avoidance of unnecessary conflict and the giving of offence are considered essential to personal control, as the “tonge” could give “moche pain” and “a grete worde may cause affray.” In fact, caution was a constant theme in the book. A boy should keep his ideas close “as thombe in fiste” and not be too keen to express an opinion, as it may lose him friends. He should aim for “meekness” as many had been “cast adoun” for their “grete pride.” Loyalty should be tempered by wisdom when it came to personal feelings.
Even as a child, boys like Edward were advised to exercise self-control. Not for him were the games, japes and “evil company” that could lead him into mischief, even if he had had the opportunity or the good health to enjoy them. However, friendship was the greatest treasure the author could recommend, as being more precious than silver or gold. According to Idley, a man without friends was a man without a soul. Nor should a boy be too hasty in making promises to friends or foe, or too quick to take vengeance. Equally, he should not ask for advice when he was angry as “it is harde than the trouthe to feele” nor accept it from those who were “greene” or inexperienced. He should beware of greedy or “covetous” men who could show “two faces in one hood.” Interestingly, as Edward’s father would find, Idley warns “a man may somtyme wade so depe, it passeth his power to turn ageyn.”Middleham Castle, Wensleydale, where Edward was born, lived and died
Although many similar manuals existed, Edward’s access to this text encourages speculation as to the lessons he was taught and, by projection, the man and King he might have become. Idley advocated loyalty, hard work, caution and discretion, characteristics that Richard himself had amply displayed as Duke of Gloucester. This raises the question of how Anne came to work at Middleham. Having spent her married life in Oxfordshire, there is little to otherwise connect her with the Yorkists. Peter acted as the Comptroller of the King’s household from 1456 to 1461, under the Lancastrian Henry VI, leaving the position on the succession of Richard’s brother Edward IV. He many also have been the Peter Idley who was listed in the court of common pleas as having been in debt to a London tailor in 1466. Did he fall on hard times after losing his job at court? Given how closely the advice in the Instructions tallies with Richard’s character, it is not implausible that Gloucester had read Idley’s work. Then, on hearing of Idley’s death, Anne was employed at his instigation.
Richard and Anne were heartbroken at the death of Edward. They received the terrible news whilst at Nottingham Castle and hurried home at once. The contemporary Croyland chronicle stated that many saw their loss as divine judgement for Richard’s supposed murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. An alabaster tomb in the church at Sheriff Hutton is supposedly that of Edward but examinations have proved it to be empty and the whereabouts of his bones is currently unknown. Under the tutelage of Peter Idley’s widow, the young boy at Middleham may have made a wise and cautious monarch, had he only lived long enough to put his advice into practice. The following spring, his mother would die, amid rumours of divorce and poison and his father’s defeat at the battle of Bosworth would change the course of British History.