14 January, 2012

William Melton's Letter

14 January marks the anniversary of an extremely important letter written by William Melton, archbishop of York, almost certainly in 1330 (though 1329 is also possible).  Addressing his kinsman Simon Swanland, a draper and then mayor of London, he emphasises the need for secrecy before informing Swanland that he has "certain news of our liege lord Edward of Caernarfon, that he is alive and in good health of body in a safe place, by his own wish" (in the French original, nous avoms certeins noueles de nostre seignur lige Edward de Karnarvan qil est en vie et en bone sancte de corps en enseur leu a sa volonte demeign).  Melton goes on to ask Swanland to purchase some items for Edward, mostly clothing, boots and cushions, and asks the mayor how he can procure "a great sum of money for the said lord" (grant somme dargent pur le dir seignur) because he wishes to help him.  This is hardly a surprise; William Melton had long been a friend and supporter of Edward II, whose household he had joined in or before 1297 when the future king was thirteen.  Melton bravely spoke out against Edward's deposition in the parliament of January 1327 - the bishop of Rochester, who joined him, was beaten up for doing so - and refused to attend Edward III's coronation shortly afterwards.  He was far more, however, than a mere royal sycophant, and was known in his lifetime as a pious yet very able man of integrity and compassion.  The Lanercost chronicler says "although he was one of the king’s courtiers, he led a religious and honourable life," and the Vita Edwardi Secundi says he was "a courtier faithful in everything committed to him" who remained honourable despite the venality of the royal court where he lived so long.  [1]  Edward III restored Melton to his position as treasurer of England within days of Roger Mortimer's execution on 29 November 1330; the young king recognised his worth and appreciated his abilities.

This extremely important statement that Edward II was in fact still alive more than two years after his funeral in Gloucester has not received the attention and serious scholarly analysis it deserves, except in Ian Mortimer's Medieval Intrigue, where it is cited in full (in English), properly analysed in the context of other events of 1330 (the earl of Kent's plot to free Edward II from Corfe Castle), and given due weight as a significant historical document.  Seymour Phillips' otherwise superb 2010 biography of Edward II doesn't even mention it, and Roy Martin Haines' 2009 article about the letter in the English Historical Review [2] states with certainty that Melton was "misled" and "easily convinced, or should one say deceived?" into believing that Edward II was alive and fails even to consider the possibility that Melton's statement was true.  Frankly, I find this bizarre.  As Ian Mortimer points out, if a man of Melton's calibre believed that Edward II was still alive in 1330, and went as far as buying clothes and other items for him, and was willing to commit all this to writing despite the enormous risks, it is entirely plausible that Edward II was still alive.  As I say in my article on the earl of Kent's adherents, numerous other men appear to have also believed that Edward was alive in 1330.  One of them was the earl of Mar, who told Melton that he would bring an army of 40,000 men to England when instructed by the archbishop in order to aid Edward II's release [3] - a lot of soldiers to free a dead man, one might think.

Rather than just blithely assuming that Melton must have been wrong or ignoring his letter altogether, it would be great if historians of the era actually engaged with it and presented proper arguments against it.  We have a clear statement, by a man who knew Edward II, Queen Isabella, Roger Mortimer and the earl of Kent well and who cannot lightly be dismissed as a gullible fool in the way that Kent so often unfairly has been, that Edward II was still alive after his funeral.  Let's at least debate the possibility that he was correct.  In the meantime, I'm going to raise a glass to William Melton today, to a brave and loyal man doing everything he could to help a friend.


1) ; H. Maxwell. ed., The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346 (1913), p. 217; N. Denholm-Young, ed., Vita Edwardi Secundi Monachi Cuiusdam Malmesberiensis, (1957), p. 139.
2) R.M. Haines, ‘Sumptuous Apparel for a Royal Prisoner: Archbishop Melton’s Letter, 14 January 1330’, English Historical Review, cxxiv (2009), pp. 885-894.
3) Phillips, Edward II, p. 567; Mortimer, Medieval Intrigue, p. 161.


Anerje said...

It does seem incredible that this letter has been ignored. I mean, why doesn't the likes of Haines acknowledge it and try to understand the reasoning behind it? It's a very intriguing letter and deserves examining.

Kathryn Warner said...

Some writers are so set in their ways, Anerje, and won't analyse the letter properly. It's a real shame. :-(

Carla said...

Since the letter is part of the body of evidence, it would seem only fair to the reader that it should be included. A historian can always conclude that it should be discounted for Reason X, or that in their view the contradictory evidence is stronger.

Kathryn Warner said...

Totally agree, Carla. I wouldn't mind at all if historians chose to discount the letter for whatever reason, if at least they debated and analysed it properly instead of ignoring or dismissing it.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Just a thought: how many letters such as this one HAVE been cited as a proof on something else? There are many many cases where historians quote such letters as water tight proof on something, but for some reason in this context this letter is not a valid proof?? Makes one wonder what is going on.

Kathryn Warner said...

I find it bizarre, Sami, that when Roy Martin Haines did an article on this letter for the English Historical Review, he didn't even consider the possibility that Melton was correct - just assumed that he was 'misled' or 'deceived' into thinking Edward was alive in 1330. When a letter states perfectly clearly that 'Edward of Caernarfon is alive and in good health of body', and an article about it doesn't even mention the possibility that Edward was indeed alive but continues to assume that he wasn't, you know you're dealing with some firmly closed minds.

Sonetka said...

Curiouser and curiouser ... that's incredibly interesting. Knowing nothing about this period, I have to ask, though -- what's the provenance of the letter? Is there a possibility that it was forged, possibly as a lure? Melton sounds like an impressive man, but even the very intelligent can be fooled, particularly if they would really like something to be true.

I wish the follow-up letters were still out there! I'd also love to know whether the draper ever followed through on the delivery.

Kathryn said...

Hi Sonetka! I personally doubt the letter was a forgery intended to lure people into treason, as the recipient Simon Swanland - mayor of London as well as a draper - was never accused of involvement in Kent and Melton's plot or apparently even suspected, and neither was anyone else on the basis of the letter, so as a lure it was entirely unsuccessful. Melton, it seems to me, deliberately kept the letter vague on details of where Edward was being kept and on who else might be implicated. If it was a forgery intended to lure others into joining, I'd expect more information, more details that would make a recipient want to join the plot. As it is, the letter only mentions William Cliff, who carried the letter to Swanland and presumably told him more orally.

The letter isn't in itself proof that Edward really was alive, but it is evidence, of course, that Melton believed he was. Roy Martin Haines when he published the letter in the English Historical Review in 2009 assumed that Melton was 'deceived' into believing Edward was alive when he wasn't, without ever discussing how such an astute man might have been fooled, or why. At least Haines discussed the letter. though. Pretty well all other modern writers ignore it entirely as they find it hard to fit into their certainty that Edward was dead. Melton knew Isabella and Roger Mortimer well, and presumably he had, or thought he had, good reason to believe that they hadn't had Edward killed after all. That point alone is worth discussing, in my opinion.