Row, row, row your boat…

rowing-boat-in-mudPhotograph from Lead Adventure Forum

It is October 1483. Imagine the western bank of the flooding Severn, endless rain, relentless gale, pitiless river, one hapless army of Welshmen under the Stafford knot, one faithless bishop . . . and one hopeless, helpless, feckless, speechless Harry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, cousin of the new Yorkist king, Richard III. 

The furious duke found his tongue at last. “You moron, Morton, you promised me a fleet of barges! What the feck’s the matter with you? Can’t you get anything right?”

“Well, Your Grace, I—”

“Where are all the barges, mm?” Then the twenty-eight-year-old royal duke mimicked the elderly Bishop of Ely’s smooth, always reasonable tone. ‘Oh, we can’t use a bridge, Your Grace, it’s too hazardous. Richard’s men are everywhere. We’ll cross secretly, using barges.’

“Yes, but—”

“And that is the best you can do?” A quivering ducal finger indicated a battered, seaweed-strewn rowing boat that had drifted downstream on the flood and was caught up in the young willows fringing the tidal river. No longer a fringe, they were at present under water.

Buckingham was livid. “For Pete’s sake, Morton, I’ve decided not to rebel, but to rally to my cousin the king after all! So I need to be over ­there, not stuck here like three left legs on a donkey!” The beringed digit now jabbed eastward towards the far bank, where there was an inn—the Happy Boatman—with a number of Severn trows tugging at their moorings outside. Trows were splendid vessels, developed solely for this dangerous waterway, but they were of no use to him while they remained over there!

John Morton, who resembled a desiccated old fox, saw him move even closer to the water’s edge. It was tempting to let him tumble in, but perhaps it wouldn’t be wise in full view of the fellow’s army. “Take care, Your Grace!”

Buckingham stepped hastily away, but his spur caught on the snake of slimy rope that should have been stretched right across to the far bank for the raft ferry—long since swept away. He staggered backward, and winded himself against the trunk of a gnarled old cider apple tree, which he struck with such force that a shower of maggoty fruit splattered down into the soggy Severn clay. He also jarred his back on the numerous pointed folly bells adorning his large leather shoulder purse.

“Plague take it all!” he screeched, jumping up and down in a fury. He started to snatch off the purse, meaning to toss it aside in a right royal show of pettishness. Then he thought better of it, and to Morton’s horror, grabbed his purse instead. But true aim was never one of Buckingham’s strong points, and instead of flinging the bishop’s purse inland, he somehow managed to hurl it into the river instead.

Thunderstruck, the Lancastrian bishop stared as his precious purse swirled and bobbed away downstream on the fleet, muddy water.

Buckingham was shocked too. “Oh. I say, Morters, bad luck. I didn’t mean it, honest. So sorry. Was there anything important in it?”

The confounded bishop could only stand there. The purse contained the letter he had spent so long composing and then tricking this idiot into signing! Words failed him. It was bad enough being in Buckingham’s custody, without having to endure his brainlessness as well. And to think, the fellow had actually believed for a while that he was destined to take the throne from his cousin Richard III! Sweet God above, Richard could run rings around him without even getting out of bed.

“Oh, lordy, Morters, that’s the letter gone west, eh?”

“Another can be written, Your Grace.” But behind a hastily donned mask of blandness, the plot-riddled bishop was all but spitting feathers.

“Indeed, indeed. I must be sure that Richard knows I’ve seen the error of my ways.” Buckingham began to feel a little better about everything. He should never have taken such silly umbrage towards Richard, and for no good reason really. Now Richard thought he was in rebellion, when it was not so. Well, not any more.

True, a teensy but temporary thought of it had entered the proceedings, but it was over now, and the army of Welshmen gathered under the Stafford knot was going to rally to the king’s standards against the expected invasion by the Lancastrian upstart, Henry Tudor. As soon as Richard knew this, Buckingham was confident he’d hear his dear cousin out and forgive him. They’d soon be chums again.

As for Tudor, he was nothing without the support of the Stafford knot. His mongrel claim to the throne was iffy to say the least, and he had b-gg-r all chance of defeating Richard on his own. He had never amounted to anything but a useful addition to the Buckingham ranks. That was Harry Stafford’s honest opinion. Anyway, it was over with, and all that mattered now was resuming his cosiness with Richard.

Morton’s vulpine face remained a picture of mixed emotions. If Buckingham believed an offer of reconciliation was contained in the letter, yet again he proved himself to be eleven eggs short of a dozen. What the letter actually contained, and what this knot-brained Stafford had signed his name to, was a vow of servitude to Henry Tudor, whom Morton had decided to put in Richard’s place.

On falling out with the king, Buckingham had first said he wanted the throne for himself, then he said he would help put Henry on it instead, but now he was intent upon crawling back to his royal cousin again. Well, enough was enough. Henry Tudor had never intended to back Harry Stafford in anything. Use his support, yes, but support him? No!

Buckingham was to be isolated, with no chance at all of slipping back into Richard’s good books. Hence the letter, which would have found its way conveniently into royal hands. Now a second such missive had to be penned, damn it, and Buckingham tricked into signing it all over again. Oh, this was tedious! And time was short. Richard III was not a man to hang around, hands in pockets, whistling the latest hymn, but would be on the move right now. And when he moved, he moved!

Morton managed to respond at last. “Earthly things are of no consequence, Your Grace. The letter can be replaced. It is only to the joys of the Kingdom of Heaven that we must look.”

“That’s good of you, Morters. I really should learn to curb my temper. My confessor is giving me management lessons, so when I go back to court, I’ll be a good boy at all times. I like it at Richard’s court. He has such style. Good singing voice too, although one has to ply him with wine first. Not easy when he hardly drinks at all. They have some damnably good bawdy songs up in Yorkshire, you know. You wouldn’t think he had it in him. Oh, I hate being in the wilds of Brecknock.”

“Indeed.” Having been imprisoned by this lout at Brecknock, Morton couldn’t help but agree. As to Richard III’s style, John Morton would as soon strangle the usurping fellow. Well, that was not strictly fair, because Richard hadn’t usurped anything—Henry Tudor would be doing that. Richard had been invited to take the throne because the hitherto candidate was discovered to be illegitimate, as were all Richard’s elder brother’s children. Edward IV had been a bigamist. Hanky-Panky was his middle name. But that wasn’t the point, because the present situation, with the Yorkist Duke of Gloucester wearing the crown, was not to be suffered by Lancastrians worth their salt. Oh, indeed not.

The problem was that Richard was not a man to be manipulated, which meant no juicy plums for the undeserving. Of whom there were many, Morton’s good self included. So, it was time for the House of Lancaster to be top dog again, and that meant Henry Tudor. The fellow was no oil painting, nor was he the warmest of souls, whereas Richard—plague take him—was a handsome chap and very engaging.

But with Tudor actually crowned, who was going to look at his face? No one, Morton prayed, because that face was awful. A good deal of spin was going to be necessary to promote him as the new hope of England. Especially as he was Welsh anyway. Still, it had to be done. Besides, he, Morton, had been promised the Archbishopric of Canterbury. For that particular plum, he’d plot to put a French ferret on the throne.

Buckingham took a deep breath and ventured to the edge of the riverbank again to look at the rowing boat. “I suppose I can send two captains across to the inn.”

“I . . . um . . .

“If you’ve a suggestion, out with it, Morters.”

Morton didn’t want anyone on the other side of the river now, he needed to get back to that inn they’d passed on this side, to get His Grace the Buffoon of Buckingham sozzled enough to sign another letter without reading it properly. The bishop cleared his throat. “I, er . . . Well, perhaps the weather is too bad after all. Attempting to cross will be very hazardous indeed. There’s a fine inn back a mile or so behind us, the Olde Welsh Weasyl, maybe we should go back there, sit by the fire, have a good meal of fried seaweed and then rest?”

Buckingham shook his head. “No, no, I want to get my lads over the river. Two captains will . . . No, on the other hand, perhaps I should go across. The sight of me, in my highborn splendour, will surely galvanise them all into action. They’ll be over here in a trice, and my stout fellows will soon be over there.”

Morton clutched at straws. “But, Your Grace, the bore may come at any moment.”

“Boar? Richard?”

“The tidal bore, the great wave that sweeps upriver twice in twenty-four hours.”

“More water? Oh, dear God above. Well, I’ll be off over there right now. You can come too.”

“Me? Oh, but—”

” A duke and a bishop, we’ll soon have the prawns eating out of our hands.”


“Mm? That’s what I said. Prawns.”

Morton gave up, but when he looked at the racing river, and the October murk that was beginning to close in over Gloucestershire, he didn’t fancy entrusting his hide to a small rowing boat that didn’t look fit for a pond, let alone the Severn in flood. As if to illustrate the lunacy of Buckingham’s plan, the tempest blustered even more spitefully, flapping the two men’s cloaks around like wild things.

(To anyone local, that sudden increase of the wind would have been a warning of the bore’s imminence, but our ‘heroes’ did not know this.)

Buckingham’s bone-headed mind was made up—for the time being at least—and he squelched back to his army to tell his commanders what he meant to do.

His assembled force of bedraggled Welshmen was fed up to the back teeth with the great Harry Stafford and his dodgy plots, counter-plots and counter-counter-plots. They didn’t like Morton either. In fact, they despised both men, and would far rather be at home. Oh, yes, it was that bad in Buckingham’s ranks. There had already been desertions. If he thought they intended to cross this demon of a river, he was very much mistaken. As soon as his back was turned, they’d be off on their toes for Wales, with suitably insulting farewell gestures and a harmonised anthem of “Sucks to you, Boyo!”

And so Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and John Morton, Bishop of Ely, embarked in the wobbling rowing boat, manned the oars, and began to row with all their might. They were immediately washed downstream, of course, because the current was so strong. But then the heralded bore swept inland as well, and they were driven upstream again, gliding helplessly past the echoingly empty spot where the army had been.

Buckingham was past caring. “Row, man, row!” he cried desperately, as the bishop caught another crab.

“I am rowing!”

“You need rhythm. See? Row – row – row . . .”

But Morton gave up, shipped his oars and huddled in his sodden robes. The thought of jumping into the water and swimming for it was almost too much to resist. Unfortunately, he couldn’t swim. If it was the last thing he did, he’d be avenged on Richard for saddling him with this weak-chinned, feck-witted liability.

Buckingham continued to row manfully, but to no avail. They were going to be swept inland all the way to Tewkesbury. Maybe further. Oh, to hell with it. If he managed to get out of this demi-bucket on to dry land again, he’d stick to his original plan and rebel against Richard. Yes, that was it. “Morton, when we get to an inn, remind me I need to write another letter.”

“Letter, Your Grace?” Morton was filled with trepidation. “To whom?”

“Tudor. To tell him he’ll have to rally to my standards after all. I’m going to rid England of Cousin Richard.”

At that point the bishop finally lost it. With a choked sob, he leapt to his feet, almost capsizing the boat, and brandished his fist to the northeast, in which direction he believed Richard to be. Then he howled a vile malediction skyward to his Maker, and leapt into the welcoming arms of the river. He disappeared beneath the surface, leaving only a thread of bubbles.

Buckingham sat there, gobsmacked. “I say, Morters, was it something I said?”

Unfortunately for Richard and for English history, John Morton somehow made it ashore and lived to scheme another day. Such a shame, because the thought of him floating out to sea to provide a meal for a mean-minded shoal of Severn hake produces a warm glow of satisfaction.

Harry Stafford ended up in Cousin Richard’s unforgiving hands, and paid the ultimate price in Salisbury a month later. He was still changing his mind to the very end. Mid-sentence, even.

The rowing boat, you ask? Well, I believe it’s still seen, drifting up and down the Severn with the October tides, looming out of the mist and slipping away again into the gloom. Some insist it’s only the seagulls from the estuary, but others hear a lonely voice calling out in puzzlement. “Morters? Morters? Was it something I said?”

2 thoughts on “Row, row, row your boat…

  1. Pingback: Just WHY did Buckingham think he could cross the flooded Severn….? | murreyandblue


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