The Cat and the Rat: William Catesby and Richard Ratcliffe

Finding out about people in the 15th century: ‘The Cat and the Rat’
Here we shall look at two men who are grouped with Lord Lovel in the famous rhyme by William Colyngbourne:

The Cat, the Rat and Lovel our Dog
Doe rule all England under a Hog

This demonstrates the fifteenth century fondness for identifying people by puns on their names or by using their heraldic crests or badges (Lovel’s crest was a silver wolf-dog and of course the hog is a reference to Richard III’s badge of the white boar). For a biography of Colyngbourne by Kenneth Hillier and a discussion of the rhyme and its second verse see three articles in The Ricardian, numbers 49, 50 and 51 (June, September and December 1975) respectively. If the general effect of the rhyme and reading Shakespeare’s play leave you imagining Catesby, Ratcliffe and Lovel as Richard’s gang of three henchmen then have another look at the true facts of history.

William Catesby came from a minor Northamptonshire family and was trained as a lawyer. By a combination of useful contacts, family connections and legal astuteness he acquired posts as legal adviser, steward or councillor to a number of noble families, including Lord Zouche, Lord Scrope of Bolton, Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham. He was one of Edward IV’s councillors and became a member of the council of Richard III, from whom he received many grants and a knighthood. He rose to be Speaker of the House of Commons in 1484. But as he rose by supporting the House of York, so he fell with them and was executed after the Battle of Bosworth on the 25th August 1485, in his will calling on ‘My Lordis Stanley, Strange and all that blod, help and pray for my soule for ye have not for my body as I trusted you’. Luckily for us the details of Catesby’s life and career have been fully described in two articles: ‘William Catesby, Counsellor to Richard III’ by J.S. Roskell (from the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 42, 1969) and ‘The Hastily Drawn up Will of William Catesby, 25th August 1485’ by Daniel Williams – which despite the title contains a good deal of information on his successful legal and political career (from Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, Vol. 51, 1975-6).

Sir Richard Ratcliffe, or Radcliffe, also from a minor county family, did well being the right man in the right place. He was knighted at Tewkesbury and by the mid-1470s he was Constable of Barnard Castle and a member of Richard’s council at Middleham. He married Agnes, daughter of Lord Scrope of Bolton. He served in the campaigns against the Scots and rose high in Richard’s favour, receiving many grants and official posts. He was killed with his king at Bosworth.

In contrast to the case of Catesby we have no detailed articles on Ratcliffe so here we have a good example of a man whose career can be reconstructed using a number of sources. Brief biographies can be found in basic sources such as the Dictionary of National Biography and the bibliographical section in The Coronation of Richard III: the extant documents by Anne F. Sutton and P.W. Hammond, 1983. A list of the grants and offices he received can be compiled from such sources as the Calendars of the Patent Rolls and the British Library Harleian Manuscript 433. Books such as Richard III: a study in service by Dr. Rosemary Horrox, 1989 and Northeastern England during the Wars of the Roses: lay society, war and politics 1450-1500 by Dr. A.J. Pollard, 1990, will supply further details of his associates and the circles he moved in and set his career in the context of contemporary history. If his will survived it might have afforded us a glimpse of his personality but so far as I know it has not.

All the books and articles on Catesby and Ratcliffe mentioned above (with the exception of the Dictionary of National Biography which should be in all good reference libraries) are available for borrowing from the Society’s Library. CH