Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, gained enemies just as quickly as he gained power. Within a few years after his sister became the unlikely queen of England, he acquired powerful positions at court and led important military expeditions abroad. But the old guard of the English nobility resented his rise, and in 1469, the two most powerful nobles in England—Warwick and Clarendon—sent their men to sack Middleton Towers, the center of Rivers’ estates as part of a broader challenge to Edward IV’s rule. Yet the very next year, Rivers regained the upper hand when he pushed Warwick’s forces out of Southhampton and retook control of the English Channel for Edward IV.
At the height of his power, Rivers chose to step aside. In 1469, he had accompanied the king on a pilgrimage to the Benedictine abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, and believed that he had God to thank for his military triumphs. Rivers abandoned England to fight the Saracens in Portugal even though Edward IV needed a trusted advisor and skilled soldier like him. After the crusade, he made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and then to Rome. Rivers was a scholar and took the opportunity of traveling to meet and learn from leading Renaissance humanists in continental Europe. In Bruges, he met William Caxton, the first British man to master the printing press. Once they both returned to their home country, Caxton printed what was likely the first book printed in England: Rivers’ translation from the French of Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. Meanwhile, Gloucester, the king’s brother, absorbed the power Rivers left behind.
Woodville wrote that his vicissitudes urged him to dedicate his life to God. While his contemporaries lauded him as an upstanding man of the utmost virtue, his personal papers reveal that his sins were more than mere hallucinations of an over-active conscience. He blackmailed a woman out of her property in return for granting her husband immunity for supporting the king’s rival; he skillfully rearranged his wife’s estate to disinherit her blood relatives; and his religious ostentations did not keep him from his mistress. Yet, his willingness to sacrifice political power and its incumbent wealth for crusades and pilgrimages reveal that his faith was more than just for show.
At home again in England, Rivers positioned himself as the most trusted advisor of Edward, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. As the boy’s blood relative and a scholar, he was a logical choice of tutor. But his role extended far beyond educating the young Edward. He could wield the Prince of Wales’ army, manage his finances, and control critical seats in Parliament. He turned Wales into a power base as he positioned himself to be the guiding force once the boy prince took the throne.
Sure enough, when Edward IV in April 1483, Rivers was poised to be the power behind his nephew, who at just twelve years old was too young to rule. When the news of Edward IV’s death reached Wales, Rivers prepared the prince and his court to leave for London and prepare for the boy king to ascend the throne formally. Gloucester, the dead king’s brother, sent exact instructions on how to reach London safely. Rivers followed his advice only for Gloucester and his men to intercept the unsuspecting party and arrest Rivers. Gloucester took the new king, now Edward V, and his younger brother, and sequestered them in the Tower of London far from any Woodville influence.
Gloucester stopped at nothing to dislodge any Woodville grip on the crown. First, he asked the Royal Council to authorize Rivers’ execution for intending violence against him. The Council refused. So Gloucester arranged a show trial presided over by his political ally to apply a veneer of legality over his execution of Rivers in June 1483. Although Rivers was by all accounts a skilled writer, his only surviving lines are poems on the fickleness of fortune written during his last days. But another great poet’s lines memorialize Rivers to this day. Shakespeare, in his historical play Richard II, depicts Rivers as a righteous ghost hounding the guilty Gloucester, saying: “Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow.”
Gloucester did not spare his own nephews in his pursuit of power. He gathered an assembly of lords to declare Edward IV’s marriage to their mother invalid and his nephews illegitimate. The two princes disappeared into the Tower of London, perhaps murdered by Richard’s men or by any one of the lords whose political plots left no room for them to live.