Sunday, June 14, 2009

Question from Michelle - Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick

I have been looking for more information on the 17th Earl of Warwick, Edward Plantagenet, and have not been able to find anything. Specifically, I am looking to learn more about his stay in the tower as a child, and what evidence there is to indicate that he may have been mentally retarded.

I have asked this question on another forum, and the general consensus was that he was not actually mentally disabled, but intentionally kept ignorant so that he would not take advantage of his claim to the throne. I am curious as to which scenario experts believe is more probable. I can't imagine that if he were, in fact, mentally retarded that he would pose much of a threat to the throne. It was also my understanding that someone who was mentally ill/ disabled would not be executed as it was against the law. However, I do realize that Henry VII was pretty ruthless, and I don't belive that this would have been much of an obstacle.

Any information or source recommendations would be greatly appreciated.


PhD Historian said...

Mental illness and mental disability are culturally relative. That is, whether or not someone is mentally "not normal" is based on the standards of the culture in which they live. Tudor-era culture did not recognize "mental disability" in the sense that we do today. Instead, the issue was much more black and white: one was either a mental "idiot," or one was not. Shades of gray were less often recognized than they are today.

And much of what is considered "mental illness" today was not recognized as such in the pre-modern period. Today's agoraphobic was yesterday's anchorite; today's hallucinating schizophrenic was yesterday's religious visionary; today's anorexic was yesterday's devout ascetic.

There was no mental status testing prior to sentencing someone to execution for a capital crime. Only in the most extreme and obvious cases ("raving lunatics," to use the contemporary terminology) were the "mentally ill" sometimes spared execution for crimes. But even raving lunatics were sometimes executed, especially if demonic possession was thought to be the cause of their lunacy.

Edward, called Plantagenet, was the son of George, Duke of Clarence and therefore a nephew of King Edward IV. When George was attainted for treason in 1478, 3-year-old Edward lost his inheritance, but I do not find any reference to the infant Edward being placed in the Tower for any significant length of time. In fact, he became the ward of the Marquess of Dorset in 1481, suggesting he had his freedom.

Edward was later held in custody by Richard III during his short reign, but not in the Tower. Instead, Edward was held at Sheriff Hutton in the north (Yorkshire) ... and only between September 1483 and 1485.

After Henry VII became king in 1485, ten-year-old Edward was moved to the Tower because of his status as a potential Yorkist rival to the new Tudor dynasty. Edward became involved with Perkin Warbeck after the latter was imprisoned in 1498 and was therefore executed in 1499as a threat to the Tudors.

I do not find any credible suggestion that Edward was metally abnormal, though he was perhaps poorly educated.

Michelle said...

Great answer. Thank you.

Foose said...

I did find that Holinshed, the chronicler, described Warwick as a "very innocent" and the word "innocent" could possibly mean what we would call congenitally mentally retarded.

Hall, another contemporary chronicler, was a bit more blunt: "Being kept in the Tower from his tender age, that is to say from his first year of the kyng to this xv. year, out of all company of men & sight of beasts, in so much that [Warwick] could not discern a Goose from a Capon." [Some historians says there is a version that says "Chicken from a Capon" (a capon being a castrated male chicken), suggesting a possible sexual angle to this, but I'm not really sure.]

Hazel Pierce, the biographer of the Countess of Salisbury (Warwick's sister), takes the view that Hall's statement does not necessarily mean Warwick was retarded, but as Ph.D. Historian suggests, might have been intellectually limited by a lack of education and deprivation of company and freedom over the years. It looks like he was only in the Tower for four years ["his first year of the kyng" suggest Henry VII, but maybe Hall meant another king], but maybe he had been neglected to some extent after his father's attainder.