James Lloyd tells the curious story of Richard of Eastwell, a lowly manual labourer from Ashford who might have become King of England.
“I thought Antwerp was supposed to be nice,” the schoolboy complained, “but it’s like Ashford!”
Poor Ashford. This harsh comparison was made by one of the author’s contemporaries on a school trip to Belgium and exemplifies the attitude that most Men of Kent have towards this mid-county town, usually experienced only when one is abandoned there for half-an-hour by Southeastern, while they try to find a missing train or wait for a member of the crew to finish his crisps. Things were not always so. There was a time, a very long while ago, when Ashford was a picturesque and respectable village, where important men were not ashamed to make their home.
One such was Sir Thomas Moyle, M.P. for Rochester and Speaker of the House of Commons, who lived at Eastwell Park, three miles north of Ashford. In 1540, he decided to re-build his manor house. While observing the builders at work, Sir Thomas noticed the chief bricklayer, an old man with long white hair. Whenever work was suspended to allow the men to take their break, the bricklayer, rather than accompanying his men to the pub, would seat himself upon a stone in the grounds of the park and read a book. That he was literate roused Sir Thomas’s curiosity and he decided to investigate but, whenever he (or anyone else) went near the bricklayer, the man would clap his book shut, secrete it about his person and resume his work, forcing Sir Thomas to a different strategy. One afternoon, with the workmen down the pub and the bricklayer sitting on his stone, Sir Thomas crept up behind him and pounced. Before the bricklayer could stop him, Sir Thomas had seized the book and was astonished to see that it was in Latin. He demanded to know how this mere bricklayer had come to possess both a tome of the Classics and the wit to understand it.
After a long pause, the old man replied “As ye have been a good master to me, Sir Thomas, I will venture to trust you with a secret that I have never before revealed to anyone.”
His name was Richard. He was raised by a Latin schoolmaster who assured him that he was not his father. The schoolmaster educated him and gave him access to his library. Four times each year, the house was visited by a richly-dressed gentleman, who gave the teacher money for the boy’s upkeep and tuition but the gentleman also insisted that he was not Richard’s father. Curiously, both men addressed Richard not as “Thou” but as “Ye”, an affectation usually extended only to social superiors.
When the boy was around fifteen years old, the gentleman made his usual visit and told him that he was to accompany him on a journey. Dressed in unaccustomed finery and given a sturdy horse to ride, Richard followed his enigmatic benefactor through Kent and into London. Richard had never visited the city before so did not know the name of the house to which he was escorted but he knew that it must be the home of someone very important. He was taken through one chamber after another, each lavishly decorated, until finally he came to a small, private room. His benefactor warned him to kneel when he entered and did not accompany him. Richard did as he was instructed, keeping his eyes on the floor.
“Look up, Richard.”
The sibilant voice spoke with a warmth to which the boy sensed it was not accustomed. He looked up.
Before him stood a tall but misshapen man. He had thick dark brown hair around his shoulders and rings on his twisted fingers. His back too was arched, though clad in velvet and on his breast was a jewel that, despite his inexperience of the world, the boy recognized as the Star of the Garter.
The man did not give his name or explain why Richard had been brought before him but he did ask him many questions, about the progress of his lessons but also more personal ones, about his friends and what he did with his time. Eventually, the strange man summoned Richard’s gentleman guardian, who bowed as he entered the room.
“God be with you, Richard,” the man whispered and he laid his withered hand momentarily on the boy’s head and then slipped a purse of gold into his pocket. Then, he dismissed them both. Richard noticed that his benefactor walked backwards out of the room.
Some time passed and the boy, once more in his modest house in Kent, tried to concentrate on his lessons and forget his mysterious adventure in the palace but then his benefactor arrived again, out of his accustomed time and told Richard that they had to go on a long journey. At first, he thought that they were going to visit the palace again but they kept on travelling far north of the Thames, riding into Leicestershire and to the town of Market Bosworth. There Richard saw armies encamped, colonies of tents and pennons, filled with the sound of the neighing of horses and the sharpening of swords. The two dismounted and Richard was led to a scarlet tent, above which flew the banner of the three lions and the fleurs-de-lis. Within, this time dressed in a suit of armour, was the man from the palace, who embraced the boy and finally told him those words that he had longed to hear.
“Richard, I am thy father.”
He was also the King of England, whose throne was threatened by an upstart Welshman and his horde of Breton mercenaries. He advised his son to watch the battle from a safe distance. If he won, then Richard was to come back to him and he would acknowledge him as his son and heir. If he lost (which would mean his death), then Richard must never reveal his true identity to anyone, lest his own life were endangered.
Sitting afar atop his horse, with his gentleman benefactor at his side, Richard watched the Battle of Bosworth and saw his father’s death. While Lord Stanley hunted for the crown among the thorns, Richard kicked his horse and rode back to Kent, knowing that, if he was to live, he had to disappear. With tears in his eyes, he discharged the schoolmaster and the gentleman, who had looked after him for his short life and, with only a purse of his father’s gold and a few of his favourite books, he set himself to learn a demeaning, manual trade, to live among commoners and to keep the secret of his blood and name.
With his tale told, the bastard prince’s astonished master asked him how he could bear to live a peasant’s life, when he might have worn the crown.
“The crown killeth those who wear it,” Richard told him. “England was wracked by wars as my father’s family fought for the crown. My father slew his own nephews for the crown and himself died fighting to keep it. Perkin Warbeck died in his attempt on the crown and the present king divorced his wife and sundered England from Rome all to secure a son to wear his crown. I have my trade,” he said, looking at his worn hands, “and my books. They are all the kingdom I desire. Now, Sir Thomas,” he asked, “wilt thou, a loyal servant of the Tudor name, deliver me, King Richard’s heir, to the Tower and to the block?”
The Speaker did not consider it for a moment. He saw that Richard was a harmless old man, who recoiled from his royal blood and the fate of those who wore the crown. He could not, however, ignore the bricklayer’s royal status. He offered him the position of steward of the kitchen (not a lowly office, since it conferred responsibility for the master’s sustenance and entertainment and was often given to the younger sons of gentlemen). Richard declined the offer but, after some haggling, he agreed that Sir Thomas would built a cottage for him on the estate, where, released from his duties as chief bricklayer, he would live out the rest of his days with his library and with his memories of happier days. He would die there, of natural causes, in 1550.
It is a strange story and almost certainly untrue. It is first reported in 1720, when Sir Heneage Finch, fifth Earl of Winchelsea and a descendent of Sir Thomas, reported it to a friend as a story that had been passed down through his family. He cited in evidence a reference in the burial register for 1550: “Rychard Plantagenet was buryed the 22. daye of December.” Though this was a transcript, written in 1598, of the original register, the script is accurate for the period and is not considered a forgery. The entry even bears an asterisk, prefixed only to burials of important personages.
To back the story up, Lord Winchelsea could point out Plantagenet House on the Eastwell estate, Plantagenet Well and a grave in Saint Mary’s churchyard, reputed to be that of King Richard’s son but none of these is admissible as proof (there is no shortage of places associated with King Arthur or Robin Hood). The narrative even contains an anachronism: The Garter Star that Richard III wore when his son was introduced to him at the palace was invented by Charles I.
The real explanation for the story is probably to be found in Lord Winchelsea’s more recent family history. The Finches were loyal servants of the House of Stuart. His father greeted Charles II at his landing in Kent in 1660 and held several appointments under him, while the fifth Earl refused to acknowledge the deposition of James II, thus disqualifying himself from attending Parliament. Perhaps it is no surprise that a family who could not accept the Parliamentary appointment of William and Mary had similar difficulty with Henry VII, who also owed his throne to the Great Council of the Realm. The fantasy of Richard Plantagenet was their way of chuckling at him, from a safe temporal distance.
The manor of Eastwell has been re-built again since then, as has Plantagenet House and Saint Mary’s Church is a ruin. Richard Plantagenet’s real ancestry and the reason for his, admittedly unusual, surname are a mystery now, their truth known only unto God.