Lewis of Caerleon

I think we all know the old saw about how for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost. Well, it became a proverb because it is true. It is the little things on which history often pivots.

Lewis of Caerleon is one of those small things on which the arc of history depended.

traditional medieval astrologer

Lewis was a highly educated Welshman, obviously born in Caerleon, who taught mathematics, medicine, and astronomy/astrology (those disciplines were all considered deeply entwined with one another at the time) at Oxford in the last decades of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century. He was one of the most famous scholars in his day, and he wrote at least six books, including Super Magistrum Sententiarum , De Eclipsi Solis et Lunae , Tabulae Eclipsium Richardi Wallingfordi , Canones Eclipsium , Tabulae Umbrarum , and Fragmenta Astronomica. His accurately predicted the solar eclipses seen in England on 7 April and 3 September 1483.

He would have, as a renown astrologer and physician, have probably warned the royal family things were about to get really weird in 1483, considering the solar eclipses that were coming. 

ancient-astronomy-solar-eclipse 1430

Eclipses were thought to portend great change within the next solar year, especially the death of a king and ascendance of a new one. Weather this change would be good or ill, or bad and then lead to better things, or effect a ruler, all depended on when the eclipse happened, and therefore what zodiac sign it was in, the strength of the king and HIS personal horoscope, and the depth of the eclipse. The eclipse on 7 April 1483 was a partial eclipse, but it was a very ‘deep’ one, with an eclipse magnitude of 0.7118 and a Gamma value of -1.1536. Worse, it would be followed two weeks later by a total lunar eclipse on 22 April 1483.

So many eclipses all taking place during a single eclipse season, with the solar eclipse in Aries (a sign of a bold king) and the luner eclipse in Taurus, King Edward IV’s natal sun sign, would have been seen as a foretelling of doom for the king. Sure enough, around Easter (30 March 1483) the king went fishing on the Thames and caught a cold, which quickly spiraled into a lethal illness. Edward had been in robust health prior to that, and planning a military campaign in France. On the day of the partial eclipse, believing his death to be imminent, Edward “summoned Queen Elizabeth Woodville, his [nearby] children, and his magnates to his bedside. He urged the Queen, her oldest son [Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset], and his best friend William Hastings [who was the Lord Chamberlain] to make peace with one another, a request with which they tearfully complied.”

king on his deathbed

The king died two days later, and his eldest son was proclaimed King Edward V. A coronation date for was set for the 4th May and a 2,000 man-escort was sent to fetch the boy-king Ludlow. Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl of Rivers, had patents “appointing him as Governor of the Prince, which meant that he could move him at will,” so it made sense for Rivers to go get his nephew.  Rivers took Sir Richard Grey, one of the young king’s older half-brothers, along with him.

Fearing that the Woodvilles would use the new king to further enrich the Woodvilles, William Hastings sent a letter to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who he trusted implicitly:

“to tell him of his brother’s death and to suggest that he come to the capitol with a large force and intercept the young King … Richard received Hastings’ letter at his home in Middleham Castle. He then wrote a series of letters: To Anthony Woodville, the Earl Rivers, expressing an interest to meet up with the King and enter London with him; to Hastings, Buckingham, and others warning them of dire consequences if the Woodvilles remained in possession of the King and his government; and, lastly, to the Queen, in which he promised to “come and offer submission, fealty, and all that was due from him to his lord and King, Edward V.”

On 30 April, Rivers met Richard and one of Richard’s closest companions, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, at Northampton. They shared a convivial meal, and the Richard and Buckingham arrested the unsuspecting Rivers and Richard Grey. Richard then sent a missive to Hasting and the rest of the Council to explain why he had arrested Rivers and Grey.

When she heard of what happened, Queen Elizabeth Woodville took her nine-year-old son, Richard of Shrewsbury, her five daughters, her brother Lionel, and her adult son Tomas Grey and made haste to the sanctuary of Westminster. There, Thomas Rotherham, the Archbishop of York and Edward IV’s Lord Chancellor, gave the queen the Great Seal of England for safekeeping and as a sign he trusted the Woodvilles to look after the new king. Meanwhile, back in London, Hastings read Richard’s letter to the Council and they agreed that Richard was only being prudent regarding the greedy Woodville family. They were all “sure that Richard would treat his prisoners to impartial justice when he arrived in London. Hastings’ words soothed the fears of the Londoners and discredited the Woodvilles.”

With things in such disarray, the coronation of Edward V was postponed. The Council met again on 10 May with Richard in attendance. Richard had shown no signs of being anything but as loyal to Edward V as he had been to Edward IV, and the Council happily declared him Protector (and de facto Regent) of young King Edward V, along with “the tutelage and oversight of the King’s most royal person.” They all agreed thatJohn Russell should be the new Lord Chancellor, but the Council bucked Richard when he wanted to declare Rivers and Grey traitors.

By the end of May, the Council was starting to have some doubts about Richard, in part because Richard’s friends Buckingham and Sir John Howard were being given powers formerly reserved for the Council and in part because of Richard’s unduely harsh treatment of the Woodvilles.  The Croyland Chronicler records that,” in spite of Richard’s public gestures of loyalty and the setting of a date for the coronation, there were those who wondered why the King’s relatives and servants were still being held in prison. Among the supporters of Edward V, a feeling of uncertainty grew.” The queen and the king’s siblings was still hiding in sanctuary, clearly afraid of Richard. What was going on?

On 10 June Richard sent a letter to his allies and adherents in the Civic Council of York, asking them to send as many men as they could “to aid and assist us against the Queen, her blood adherents and affinity,” because the queen and her faction were determined to crush the  “old royal blood of this realm.” The next day Richard also sent letters with warrants for the executions of Rivers and Richard Grey, in pure defiance of the Council’s decisions. Richard summoned Lord Hastings to a council meeting on the 13th as well, and soon after Hastings arrived at the Tower, Richard had him arrested and without even the pretense of a trial, dragged the Lord Chamberlain out into the yard and had him beheaded. The person in charge of Hastings murder appears to have been Thomas Howard, Sir John Howard’s son and the grand-uncle of future queens Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard.


Richard then sent heralds out into the city to explain that he had been given no choice; Hastings had been plotting against King Edward V. Many people weren’t buying that load of crap. They knew Hastings was too loyal. They assumed Richard was out to make himself the only one in power while the king was underage. The idea that Richard might kill the king and take the throne still seemed a little far-fetched, but people were beginning to suspect it. Thomas Grey had the good sense to take Hasting’s death as a sign to flee Westminster and take refuge in France.

A few days later, Richard’s troops, including John Howard and his son Thomas with hired eight boats full of soldiers surrounded Westminster Abbey, where Richard of Shrewsbury remained with his mother. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bourchier, entered Westminster and assured the queen that Richard of Shrewsbury was just wanted so he could join Edward V at his coronation. He promised the widowed queen that her son would be safe, and pointed out that resistance would prompt the Duke of Gloucester to take the boy by force. Dominic Mancini, a visiting Italian who was a first hand witness to the rise of Richard III that year, wrote that, “When the Queen saw herself besieged and preparation for violence, she surrendered her son, trusting in the word of the Archbishop of Canterbury that the boy should be restored after the coronation.” 

Elizabeth Woodville surrendering richard of shrewsbury

However, plans for Edward V’s coronation abruptly ceased, and his attendants were dismissed by the time 22 June came around. Instead of a coronation, Dr. Ralph Shaa, brother of the Mayor of London, and other preachers gave sermons explaining that Edward IV’s sons were bastards, and Edward IV was probably never the rightful king, being possibly illegitimate himself. According to the soon-to-be Richard III, his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was never a real marriage since 1) she tricked him with witchcraft she had learned from her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and 2) no banns had been called before the wedding and 3) the king had married without consent of his nobles and finally, 4) Edward had been precontracted to Lady Eleanor Talbot.

On 25 June, a large number of lords and prominent commoners  were summoned to Westminster to hear what they thought would be the reason why the coronation was ‘postponed’. Instead, Buckingham addressed them on why Richard was the ‘rightful’ king of England, and the assembly then endorsed the claims. The following day, Richard III began his reign, and started rewarding the lords who had aided him. Buckingham replaced the murdered Hastings as Great Chamberlain of England. John Howard jumped from a knight to the Duke of Norfolk and his son Thomas was made Earl of Surrey. (Thomas Howard would become the 2nd Duke of Norfolk and was the grandfather of both queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and the great grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I.) The newly made 1st duke was also given the hereditary position of Earl Marshall of England and half of the Mowbray estates, which legally still belonged to Richard of Shrewsbury.  


Richard III was crowned on 6 July 1483, along with his beloved wife, Anne Neville. His mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, did not attend his coronation  — perhaps because she was miffed he had implied his older brother was not the Duke of York’s son, or peeved that her grandson was bastardized? Understandably, Buckingham’s wife, Catherine Woodville, sister to the dowager queen, did not attend either. Ironically, Anne Neville’s train was carried by Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, wife of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby and mother of the future King Henry VII.

King_Richard_III_and_Queen_Anne stain glass Cardiff castle

This is when Lewis of Caerleon becomes so significant to history, as well as astronomy and mathematics. Lewis was the personal physician of Margared Beaufort, and on her recommendation, began attending Elizabeth Woodville, as well. As their personal physician he – loyal to his home country of Wales and to his patroness Margaret Beaufort — was able to pass letters between the two women, helping them plot with the various groups hoping to restore Edward V to stage a rescue attempt for the Princes in the Tower

Lewis would have almost certainly been nervous about the eclipse coming on 3rd September. I think, considering what the astrology of the time would have indicated, that Lewis would have advised Margaret and Elizabeth to get the real king and his brother to safety before then if at all possible. It may have also been a source of comfort. Coming as it did during Richard’s illicit rule, It could have been seen as an indicator that Richard’s reign would be a short one due to Richard’s early death.

Sometime after that eclipse, the supporters of Edward V, including Elizabeth Woodville, appear to be convinced that Richard III had successfully arranged the murder of the king and Richard of Shrewsbury.

death of princes in the tower

Most significantly, the Duke of Buckingham turned on Richard and joined the planned insurrection. Did Buckingham have inside information that the boys were dead? And why didn’t Buckingham, who arguably had a better claim to the throne than Henry Tudor, insist HIS crowning be the object of a rebellion? Was it guilt over his part in putting Richard on the throne? Had he believed in Richard right up to the point Richard killed his own nephews?

Some historians and history buffs suggest reports of the death of princes was all an elaborate ruse, carried out (unwittingly or not) by Lewis of Caerleon, when he passed along the tragic news given to him by Margaret Beaufort. That way Margaret could secure Elizabeth’s aid for her own son, and then she and Henry could kill the boys later.

Regardless of the reasons why Buckingham joined a rebellion in aid of Henry Tudor, the duke wrote the exiled Welshman in late September to arrange that Henry invade England and meet the supporters Buckingham would rally on 18th October. Lewis of Careleon, meanwhile, was instrumental in passing the letters between the women agreeing that Henry Tudor would wed Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of the deceased King Edward VI. As a physician, he was beyond suspicion or reproach, and women always had the excuse of ‘lady troubles’ to explain his frequent visits.

medieval doctor

Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III failed, due to an over-eager uprising in Kent and the weather. The revolt in Kent on 10 October alerted Richard III that Buckingham had switched sides, and then storms prevented Henry Tudor’s troops from landing as expected. The same inclement weather also worked against Buckingham’s forces, and the duke was betrayed by one of his men, Ralph Banastre, who turned him over to the Sheriff of Shropshire, John Mitton, for the reward money. Buckingham was imprisoned in Shrewsbury until he was escorted under gard to Salibury, where Richard III awaited him. He arrived in Salisbury on 1 November, and was convicted of treason the next day. He was beheaded in the Marketplace, near the Bull’s Head Inn, without any ceremony. Why wasn’t he marched to London and a spectacle made of his death? Perhaps Richard didn’t want Buckingham blabbing as to WHY he had turned against the man who had always rewarded him well?

2nd duke buckingham execution

Several men and nobles were also executed for their part in the rebellion, Margaret Beaufort was confined to her husband’s estates, and Elizabeth Woodville had her lands confiscated. Lewis of Caerleon had his goods and property confiscated and was thrown into the Tower for his part of the rebellion. In his notes on the eclipse of 16 March 1485, Lewis would write that “after the composition of these tables, which I had lost through the plundering of King Richard … being imprisoned in the tower of London, composed other tables of eclipses” (Pearl Kibre in the journal Isis Vol. 43, No. 2:100-108).

The eclipse of 16 March 1485 was another significant one, vis-à-vis astrological predictions. On that day Queen Anne Neville died at Westminster, which seemed to be an ominous omen for the grief-stricken king. Their son, Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales, had already died in April 1384, to the indescribably sorrow of his loving parents. Richard’s easy defeat of the rebellion in 1483 had been portrayed as a sign of God’s favor, since it was assumed the Almighty had sent the storms that delayed Henry Tudor from reaching Buckingham in time. Now, all the auguries appeared to indicate that heavenly blessings were being withheld from the king.


In the end, it was not God but Richard’s own men who turned against him on Bosworth Field, and set Henry Tudor on the throne of England.


Legend has it that Lewis of Caerleon was the astrologer who cast the horoscope of Rhys ap Thomas, the Welshman believed to have killed Richard III at Bosworth. The infant Rhys’s horoscope was so apparently so impressive that his parents decided to set the baby on the path of becoming a knight, in spite of the fact he was the youngest son. Thus, Lewis of Careleon would have already set Richard III’s doom in motion.

One of the earliest things that Henry VII did was to free Lewis of Caerleon from imprisonment and reward him. The Calendar of Patent Rolls records that on 24 Feburary 1486 the king provided “a grant for life to Lewis Carelion, doctor in medicine, of 40 marks a year” to be taken from the revenues of Wiltshire. Lewis was also acting as the royal physician for the king and Queen Elizabeth of York as well. On 27 November 1486 , Lewis was rewarded again, as the receipt of the Exchequer reads that, “the king’s servant , Lewis Caerlion , doctor of medicine,” be given an additional 20 marks a year for life. Furthermore, on 3 August 1488 Lewis received a grant for life “to be one of the knights of the king’s alms in the free chapel or church of the college of Saint Mary the Virgin, SS George the Martyr and Edward the Confessor in Windsor castle.” This grant which was repeated in the same terms on 14 September 1491, “in the place of William Stockton, deceased.” 

Lewis, although fiscally secure with no need to teach, continued to be involved in academia. He provided the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge with copies of his eclipse tables, and in October of 1490 he gave Merton College, Oxford additional astronomical tables he had calculated for the use of the students. These works would be cited by leading mathematicians and astronomers for hundreds of years.

Lewis of Caerleon remained on the rolls until what was probably the year of his death, 1494. Regrettably, he left no known children as heirs. Even more regrettably, he didn’t leave a secret diary somewhere recording all his hard work on behalf of Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville.

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