A Lost Prince, A Devon Church, and The Da Vinci Code

Phew! It’s been a while since I wrote a post here. Covid has mostly prevented me hunting bench ends for the last two years, plus I’m fundamentally idle. In the last couple of days, however, articles in the newspapers and on social media have jump-started me into action. This post isn’t specifically about bench ends, though they feature briefly, but it is about a church in Devon, so I hope you’ll forgive me, dear reader.

A team of researchers going by the name of The Missing Princes Project and led by Phillipa Langley, the lady who led the successful search for the grave of Richard III, have recently announced their new discovery that Edward V, the older of the princes in the Tower, was allowed to leave the Tower and live incognito in Coldridge, Devon, under the false name John Evans. Various articles have appeared in national and local newspapers, such as The Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, the Crediton Courier, and in THIS BLOG written a couple of months ago by the team’s ‘lead researcher,’ John Dike.

John Dike describes the discovery as ‘somewhat like the Da Vinci Code’ with its ‘secret symbols and clues.’ I agree, it’s a lot like the Da Vinci Code, inasmuch as the Da Vinci Code was a work of fiction, a house of cards built from misinterpretations, false evidence, and wishful thinking, that collapsed under the slightest scrutiny. The story of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ is well known so I won’t go into it here any further than is necessary, and I certainly won’t be trying to convince that they were or weren’t murdered on the orders of Richard III or Henry VII or Margaret Beaufort. But Devon churches are my ‘patch,’ so to speak, so I am going to examine this ‘discovery’ in some detail.

The articles I’ve linked to above all tell more or less the same story: that Richard III and Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, came to a secret arrangement by which the young deposed king was allowed to escape the Tower of London, assume a new identity as John Evans, and live out his days in Coldridge, where he funded work in the parish church and used it to hide ‘secret symbols’ that reveal his true identity. Let’s look at those symbols and clues (quotes in bold are by John Dike, quoted in the Crediton Courier article linked above).

The Church of St. Matthew, Coldridge, contains a stained-glass portrait of the young Edward V.
This is entirely true, and a very fine piece of Tudor stained-glass it is too. Beneath the royal figure it bears the legend ‘Puerys Edward the Fevte’ (sometimes interpreted as ‘feyte’) – the boy Edward the fifth. Some people have identified the portrait at Edward VI, but it’s almost certainly a Tudor image of Edward V based on the inscription.

Is that unusual? Yes, and no. One of the articles linked above (I forget which) makes the claim that there are only four stained-glass depictions of Edward V in England. Aside from the one at Coldridge (16th century), they are at Canterbury Cathedral (c.1480), Little Malvern Priory, Worcs (c.1482), and the Church of St. Laurence, Ludlow (Victorian). However, these are only the surviving examples. Far more medieval and Tudor stained glass has been lost than has survived. Who knows how many other portraits of Edward V may have been destroyed? Apart from the portrait of Edward and a few other fragments most of the medieval/Tudor stained glass at Coldridge has also been destroyed. Who knows what the missing windows depicted? Perhaps there was a whole series of kings and princes, perhaps not.

The point is that Coldridge’s stained-glass portrait of Edward V is rare now, but that doesn’t necessarily make it significant or connect the church with Edward personally.

John Evans was the ‘parker’ of Coldridge until his death in 1511.

Yes, he was. That is to say that on the prayer desk in the church he is described as ‘John Evans parcardis de Colrug’. The inscription is generally accepted to be a Victorian copy of the original 1511 inscription, but there’s no reason to doubt that it is an accurate copy. ‘Parcardis’ is a tricky word though. It’s not a real Latin word – in the medieval world it was not unusual to bastardise or entirely fabricate new Latin words where no classical Latin word existed. Parcardis might mean ‘parker’ – someone who ran a hunting park, a locally prestigious job – but it might also be a Latinised form of ‘parcener’ – someone who owned a share in a piece of land. Either way, it makes John Evans a local notable. What’s interesting about Evans is that nobody seems to know anything about him: he’s got a nice tomb and effigy, and his name written on the prayer desk, but nobody has yet found any evidence of how and when he got to Coldridge.

So far, so good. Portrait of Edward V and a mysterious man called John Evans. We have the making of a good theory here, if only there were some way to connect the two. Here’s where it starts to get awkward.

The ermine on the stained glass includes 41 deer.

Immediately above the portrait of Edward V there is a large crown in the stained-glass. As is typical with Royal crowns it is edged with ermine. Mr Dike point out that “unusually this crown has an ermine lining with ermine spots which are in the image of deer not the usual stoats’ tails. Also these 41 deer link back from 1511, when the window was believed to be finished, to 1470, the year Edward V was born, and there is a clear link here between royalty and the deer parker.”

This is really exciting stuff, definitely worthy of the Da Vinci Code. The only trouble is that there are no deer to be seen, unless you squint really hard, in a bad light, from a fair distance away, and want them to be deer.

They might, I suppose, be giraffes with anywhere from four to seven legs. They certainly aren’t deer (with four to seven legs). They are boring old regular stoat tails. So, no connection to the ‘parker’ there, nor any significance in the number 41.

“This crown has the Falcon and Fetterlock motif of Edward V.”

No it doesn’t. Look at the photo above, there is no falcon or fetterlock. Since we know beyond reasonable doubt that the image is of Edward V, why make stuff up that’s not there?

“This crown is typical of those placed over a royal coat of arms, which you would not expect to find in an isolated rural church.”

Yes you would! Isolated rural churches all over the country are filled with royal coats of arms! Most of them are Tudor or later, but medieval royal coats of arms are not at all uncommon.

“The effigy of John Evans on the tomb has a deep scar across the chin which would cause the teeth to be exposed and cause difficulty in articulation. Was this an injury received by Edward V at Stoke?”

No, it wasn’t. We can be pretty sure of that, because Edward V was not at the Battle of Stoke. The rebels were spear-headed by Lambert Simnel, an imposter masquerading initially as Richard of Shrewsbury, Edward’s younger brother and fellow ‘Prince in the Tower,’ and later as Edward, Earl of Warwick. If Edward V, in the person of John Evans or some other alias, had been present at the Battle of Stoke then the rebels would not have been reduced to using an imposter pretending to be someone much further down the line of succession. If Evans were really Edward V why would he have supported someone else’s fictitious claim to his own throne? This simply doesn’t make sense.

Possibly John Evans was at Stoke, and received an injury there, but if he was then it suggests even more strongly that he was not Edward V. In any case, there’s no reason to believe that Evans fought at Stoke, so it’s pure speculation.

The effigy of John Evans is 510 years old, and has been worn, damaged, and defaced in that time. It has ‘scars’ on the armour, the coat, the shield…

“There is a fragment of a stained glass portrait in the chantry which shows a man, similar in appearance to the tomb effigy, who is carrying but not wearing a royal crown, and has an ermine collar only worn by royalty. This image also shows a scar on the chin and damage to the lips exposing the teeth. Experts believe it was drawn from life.”

Which ‘experts’, and on what basis?

The man in the image looks like the effigy inasmuch as he has two eyes, a nose, some hair, and is male. Frankly I don’t see a scar in either the stained-glass or the effigy. There’s still nothing to link them.

“On the tomb the name John Evans is incorrectly spelt EVAS. EV could be Edward V and AS could be an abbreviation of ASA which is latin for ’in sanctuary’.”

‘Incorrect’ is a fairly strong word when it comes to sixteenth-century spelling. As anyone who has read this blog knows, spelling was far from standardised. EV could be Edward V, but it’s not terribly likely. If someone wanted to proclaim that they were really King Edward then ER would be more typical. If the name EVAS was meant to be a clever word play, then why adopt the name ‘Evans,’ why not just go with ‘Evas’ or, better yet, ‘Erasa’ in the first place?

“Below this inscription is the inverted word KING, possibly medieval graffiti, with nine lines that could symbolise 1509 the year that Henry VII died and Edward V could have reclaimed the throne.”

Possibly medieval graffiti, or possibly not. Whatever the age of the graffiti, it doesn’t say ‘king’ in either direction.

The nine lines below it could date from any time in the last half-millennium. Trying to link them to 1509 is really clutching at straws.

Talking of clutching at straws…

“In the Rood Screen there are three separate small inverted carvings of a Tudor Lady with a long tongue. This could possibly be a swipe at Margaret Beaufort, largely responsible for putting Henry VII on the throne.”

In rood screens, pulpits, bench ends, and other carvings from this period, in this region, humans with various grotesque distortions and additions are very common indeed. There is nothing at all to suggest that these carvings have anything whatever to do with Margaret Beaufort.

“In the medieval floor tiles and roof bosses there appears the Rose of York motif and the Sun in Splendour.”

No, there doesn’t. The rose in the roof boss clearly has two layers of petals. It’s a Tudor Rose, not Yorkist rose. Even if it only had one layer of petals it could just as easily be a red rose of Lancaster as a white rose of York.

Perhaps more importantly, while the roof boss is probably Tudor, the tiles are certainly not medieval. They are Barnstaple tiles and date, at the earliest, to the late sixteenth century. More likely they are seventeenth-century, or even eighteenth. The Daily Mail article, linked above, even suggests that such floor tiles are ‘unusual for a church in Devon.’ Anyone who has spent any time crawling churches in Devon will probably have come across these tiles several times – they are very common in the area. I can think of at least ten churches locally with the same tiles.

In fact, they are so common that we know something about the individual tiles. At some point in its life the mould for the rose tile was broken and fixed, leaving a jagged line in tiles made after the break. We don’t know when the mould was broken, but it does enable us to divide the tiles when they’re found into early and late, depending on whether the rose tile was made from the whole mould or the broken mould. As you can see in the photo above from Coldridge, the tiles there fall into the ‘late’ category.

A supposed ‘white rose of York’ in the stained-glass at Coldridge is not a rose at all, but a cinquefoil. The sun in splendour in the stained-glass is hardly surprising, given that the main subject of the surviving glass is a Yorkist king.

“In March 1484 Richard III did a deal with Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes, and she left the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey with her daughters. Her eldest son, Thomas Grey, who owned lands in Devon and in particular the Manor and Deer Park at Coldridge, had previously fled sanctuary and would join forces with Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) in Brittany. Two days later Richard sent Robert Markenfield, a servant and associate, down from Yorkshire to the tiny village of Coldridge.”

Sinister as this might sound, there’s nothing surprising in it. Grey was attainted for his part in Buckingham’s rebellion in October 1483 and his lands, including Coldridge, reverted to the crown. On 3 March 1484 ‘Robert Markynfeld’ was appointed keeper of the royal park at Coldridge. Robert’s brother, Sir Thomas Markenfield, was a close ally of Richard III and played a part in putting down Buckingham’s rebellion. Robert’s role in suppressing the rebellion is unclear, but it would be perfectly natural for him to have supported his brother and received a reward for his services from the lands of those attainted.

“John Evans’ neighbour, and associate, Sir John Speke, was heavily fined by Henry VII for assisting Warbeck [another pretender to the throne who invaded England via Cornwall in 1497]. It is thought that Warbeck/Richard may have been given hospitality in the Coldridge area, as he would have passed through Crediton to attack the north gate at Exeter, and may have hatched a plan with his brother Edward V, who had been too badly injured at Stoke to take back the throne from Henry VII”

As with the question of John Evans supporting Lambert Simnel at Stoke ten years earlier, we have to ask why Edward V (if such John Evans was) would support a rebellion intended to put an imposter pretending to be his younger brother on the throne. The idea that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard of Shrewsbury has long been discounted by any serious historian. Warbeck confessed that he was an imposter and gave an account of his early life which is borne out by other independent records. Warbeck may well have been given hospitality in the Coldridge area, or more likely at adjacent Wembury, but not because he was really Richard of Shrewsbury, or because John Evans was really his brother Edward.

The ‘Yorkist roses’ at Coldridge are no such thing. The graffito that says ‘king’ in inverted letters doesn’t. The deer on the crown that provide the link between the portrait and the parker are very clearly not deer. The clever wordplay of EVAS isn’t. The attempts to link John Evans first to Lambert Simnel’s revolt and then to Perkin Warbeck’s fall flat. The carvings of Margaret Beaufort aren’t.

What we’re left with, once all the nonsense about secret symbols in Coldridge church has been discounted, is nothing more than a portrait of Edward V which has no particular significance on its own, and a man called John Evans whose antecedents are, at present, a bit hazy, with no real connection between the two. Da Vinci Code indeed. Still it’s a nice bit of publicity for the Ricardians.

In fairness, I cannot prove that Edward V isn’t buried in Coldridge church. But I can’t prove that he isn’t buried in any of the other 10,448 parishes in England either.


4 thoughts on “A Lost Prince, A Devon Church, and The Da Vinci Code

  1. David werndly December 31, 2021 / 7:50 am

    Very well reasoned and well thought out appraisal on these stories. Enjoyed the read and look forward to the next!


  2. Jean ann Townsend January 13, 2022 / 5:12 pm

    Wonderful article on Coldridge church. I am heartily sick of all the nonsense being talked about Edward V being buried at Coldridge. Hopefully your sound and measured article will silence the nutters!.


  3. Anna August 23, 2022 / 3:22 pm

    I’m curious about the fleur-de-lis on the stained glass. I’m not sure I buy the Evans as Edward theory, but that symbol is incorporated into the royal arms of a number of Medieval English kings. Is that something that would commonly be seen in images of non-royals?


    • benchends August 23, 2022 / 3:44 pm

      The fleur de lys shown on the crown in the stained glass here is fairly typical of medieval royal crown depictions, but we know that it’s an image of Edward V so there’s no surprise there.

      In a more general way, fleurs de lys were often used as a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary so appear often in churches with no royal connection at all.


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