The discovery of King Richard III’s remains in a Leicester car-park has had many repercussions. Most recently, DNA tests have revealed ‘false paternity’ on Richard’s male side. This is explained by an act of infidelity by one of Richard’s ancestors. However, the question of paternity also raises questions with regard to Richard’s own children. One of the most intriguing of these relates to Richard Plantagenet – also known as Richard of Eastwell – the man reputed to be the king’s illegitimate son.
While the parish records of Eastwell in Kent note that Richard Plantagenet was buried on 22nd December in 1550, the first written account of Richard’s story surfaced nearly two hundred years later. This fascinating narrative appears in a letter written by a local clergyman, Dr Thomas Brett, in 1733.
Dr Brett recalls a visit to Eastwell House in 1720. He found the owner, the earl of Winchelsea, ‘sitting with the register book of the parish of Eastwell lying before him.’ Apparently, the earl had been examining the book for information relating to his own family and had discovered ‘a curiosity’: the entry relating to Richard Plantagenet’s burial.
Excited by this discovery, Dr Brett noted the exact words in his almanac. But even better was to come. The earl recounted a story that had been passed down in his family.
When the great manor of Eastwell Place was being constructed in the 16th century, its owner Sir Thomas Moyle visited the site to check on the building’s progress. His curiosity was aroused by the chief bricklayer who, whenever he took a break, would leave the other men and a find a quiet spot where he settled down to read. (Highly unusual behaviour for any manual labourer in this period.)
Creeping up behind the bricklayer, Sir Thomas snatched the book from his hand and examined it. The book was in Latin. An even greater surprise! Sir Thomas questioned the man, asking where he had acquired his learning.
The man said that, as Sir Thomas had been a good master to him, he would entrust him with a secret that he had not disclosed to anyone before.
As a boy, the bricklayer had not known his parents but been raised by a Latin schoolmaster. However, a gentleman – who made it clear that he was not a relation – visited the boy every quarter to pay for his schooling and check on his welfare.
When the boy was about 15, the man took him to a ‘fine, great house’ where he was introduced to a man wearing a star and garter. The man spoke to him kindly and gave him some money before the ‘gentleman’ escorted him back to school.
At a later date, the gentleman returned with ‘a horse and proper accoutrements’ and took the boy to Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. There, in a tent, he met King Richard III who told the boy that he was his son.
“Tomorrow, I must fight for my crown,” said the King. “If I lose that, I will lose my life too.”
The King told the boy to watch the battle from a safe place and, if he won, King Richard would acknowledge the boy as his son. However, if he lost, he warned the boy “to take care to let nobody know that I am your father; for no mercy will be shewed to anyone so related to me.”
King Richard was killed the next day and his naked body, slung over a horse, was paraded through Leicester.
His son fled to London where he sold his horse and fine clothes and apprenticed himself to a bricklayer ‘the better to conceal himself from all suspicion of being son to the king.”
However, he never lost his love of reading and having ‘no delight in the conversation of those he was obliged to work with’, he spent his spare time ‘in reading by himself’.
Deeply moved by this account, Sir Thomas Moyle offered to give the old man ‘the running of my kitchen as long as you shall live.” However, this did not appeal to the solitary Richard who requested permission to build himself a one-room house in a field. Sir Thomas agreed and Richard Plantagenet lived there quietly until he died.
The parish of Eastwell is located a few miles north-east of Ashford. Now the site of a 4-star hotel, the manor has a long tradition of aristocratic connections. It was originally owned by Earl Godwin who fell with King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William the Conqueror then gave the property to his supporter, the Norman baron Eustace of Boulogne. In more recent times, Eastwell Park was the home of Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Edinburgh. His daughter, Princess Marie, who later became Queen of Romania was born there in 1875. She wrote of “beautiful Eastwell with its great gray house, its magnificent park, with its herds of deer and picturesque Highland cattle, its lake, its woods, its garden with the old cedar tree which was our fairy mansion.”
The house was demolished in 1926 and subsequently re-built in a Tudor style.
SatNav co-ordinates for St Mary’s Church, Eastwell: Latitude/Longitude: 51.1900, 0.8745
‘Looking for Richard’ was the title of a 1996 film directed by Al Pacino which considered Shakespeare’s relevance to the modern world with reference to his play Richard III.
BBC news item re Richard’s DNA and ‘false paternity’
N.B. An extended version of this article first appeared in Kent Life magazine. It has been reproduced with kind permission of the editor Sarah Sturt.