Anthony Woodville

Literary patron gets the chop

ANTHONY WOODVILLE, the 2nd Earl Rivers, was statesman and patron of literature, and author of the first book printed on English soil. He was born about 1442. He was the son of Richard Woodville and his wife, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford. His father was raised to the peerage in his son’s infancy. Anthony, who was knighted before he became of age, and fought at Towton in 1461, married the daughter of Lord Scales, and became a peer jure uxoris in 1462, two years after the death of that nobleman.  Of course, having a sister who was Queen of England did not harm his opportunities. Being Lord of the Isle of Wight at the time, he was in 1467 appointed one of the ambassadors to treat with the Duke of Burgundy, and he exalted his office by challenging Anthony, Comte de la Roche, the bastard of Burgundy, to single fight in what was one of the most famous tournaments of the age (see the elaborate narrative in Bentley’s Excerpta Historica, 1761). 

In 1469 Anthony was promoted to be Lieutenant of Calais and Captain of the King’s Armada, while holding other honorary posts. His father and brother were beheaded after the battle of Edgecot, and he succeeded in August of that year to the earldom. He accompanied Edward IV in his temporary flight to the Continent, and on his return to England had a share in the victory of Barnet and Tewkesbury and defended London from the Lancastrians.

In 1473 he became guardian and governor to his nephew the young prince of Wales Edward V, and for the next few years there was no man in England of greater responsibility or enjoying more considerable honors in the royal service.  His mother, the duchess, died in 1472, and his first wife in 1473; in 1475 and the following year he went on pilgrimage to the holy places of Italy; from this time forth there was a strong tincture of serious reflection thrown over his character; he was now, as we learn from William Caxton, nominated “Defender and Director of the Siege Apostolic for the Pope in England.” Caxton had in 1476 rented a shop in Westminster, and here had set up a printing-press.

The first manuscript which he undertook in London was one sent to him by “the noble and puissant lord, Lord Antone, Erle of Ryvyers,” consisting of a translation “into right good and fayr Englyssh” of Jean de Teonville’s French version of a Latin work, “a glorious fair mirror to all good Christian people.” In 1477 Caxton brought out this book, as Dictes and Sayengis of the Philosophers, and it is illustrious as the first production on an English printing-press. 

In 1478 a marriage was arranged between Anthony and Margaret, sister of King James III of Scotland, but it was mysteriously broken off. Rivers began to perceive that it was possible to rise too high for the safety of a subject, and he is now described to us as one who “conceiveth well the mutability and the unstableness of this life.” After the death of Edward IV, he became the object of Richard III’s peculiar enmity, and was beheaded by his orders at Pontefract on the June 25, 1483. He was succeeded by his brother Richard, the 3rd and last Earl of the Woodville family, who died in 1491.

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