Undead kings and treasonous conspiracies

In 1399, Henry of Derby overthrew his cousin, King Richard II, to seize the English throne, having himself crowned as Henry IV. Though Richard was probably murdered soon after the coup at the orders of his cousin, his death was concealed and rumours circulated through Henry IV’s reign (1399-1413) and into that of his son, Henry V, that Richard was still alive. One of these seditious whispers had a sanctuary connection. In 1413, John Whitelock, who had been a groom and yeoman in service to Richard II, was accused at King’s Bench of conspiring against both Henry IV and the newly crowned Henry V, using the security of the sanctuary space to protect himself. He alleged that the old king was still alive, spreading stories that Richard was working with the king of Scotland and the duke of Albany to unseat the usurping Lancastrians.

The coronation of Henry IV and the murder of Richard II at Pontefract castle, from Anciennes chroniques d’Angleterre , Jean de Wavrin, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Français 81

The King’s Bench indictment said that Whitelock and unnamed accomplices had gone into Westminster sanctuary on 14 March 1413 and stayed there until 7 June, using the safety of the sanctuary to proclaim openly their treason, even nailing a document containing their treasonous ideas to the doors of Westminster Abbey and elsewhere in London and Bermondsey.

By June, Whitelock was in custody in the Tower, so he may have been forcibly extracted from Westminster, although that’s not explicit in the record. He escaped from the Tower with the help of his jailers and continued to plot against Henry V, but he wasn’t caught again. Paul Strohm (Empty Throne 114-15) connects Whitelock’s tales of the undead Richard II to Henry V’s move soon after to dig up Richard II’s body, process it through the kingdom (“see, he’s dead!” – top image), and rebury it.

Margaret Aston and Charles Kightly have argued that Whitelock may have had some connection to the Lollard-connected sedition of this decade. Amanda McVitty discusses the interesting gendered and linguistic aspects of Whitelock’s alleged treasonous words as recorded in the King’s Bench records.

Sayles, Select Cases in KB, vol. 7, SS 88, 212-15; Aston, “Lollardy and Sedition,” P&P 17 (1960): 22; Kightly, “Early Lollards,” 466-67; E. Amanda McVitty, “‘My Name of a Trewe Man’: Gender, Vernacularity, and Treasonous Speech in Late Medieval England,” Parergon 33, no. 1 (2016): 108–11. Thanks to Graham Dawson for alerting me to this case.

Top image: BL, Harley 4380  f. 197v

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