In revisiting this epic topic, I shall be running a series of posts examining the actions and fortunes of seven people without whom, in my view, the Wars of the Roses either would not have happened at all – or would not have lasted so long.
This first post is, necessarily, rather long because I shall be introducing many people and themes that will form the core of the ongoing discussion. It has echoes of Baldric’s famous question: how did we get from a situation where there wasn’t a war to one where there was?
The first of my “Magnificent Seven” just has to be Richard, Duke of York because I would argue that without him there would have been no Wars of the Roses at all.
The story of the Duke of York is a tragic one. It’s a story with so many twists and turns you couldn’t write it!
Above all, it’s the story of a wealthy and powerful man who aimed very high but did not possess all the skills or attributes to achieve or hold real power.
Why was Richard so important?
Richard, Duke of York, could trace his descent through his father to the fourth son, and through his mother to the second son, of King Edward III.
Richard had a strong sense of this royal lineage and as one of the leading nobleman of royal blood saw himself as a natural leader of the nobility and destined to play a pivotal role in state affairs. He was to be frequently disappointed in that respect.
His father, Richard, Earl of Cambridge was executed for treason in 1415 and afterwards young Richard was made a ward of the powerful and ambitious Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Ralph Neville later betrothed York, soon to be the wealthiest nobleman in the land, to his own daughter, Cicely. This marriage alliance would prove crucial later on.
What was England like on the eve of the Wars of the Roses?
The England in which Richard lived in the mid-fifteenth century was essentially a peaceful and prosperous society. England’s apparent wealth was frequently remarked upon by foreign visitors.
The country had survived the long and potentially dangerous minority of King Henry VI, who now ruled as an adult. He was married to a young French princess, Margaret of Anjou, and there was every hope that the queen would soon produce the desired son and heir.
But though there was peace at home, the war with France had lasted far too long. It had reached a stalemate and it cost a fortune. Since the resources of the crown were very limited, King Henry relied on loans from merchants to pay for the war and on the nobility – men such as York – to raise men to fight, also to equip them and feed them. Richard of York served his king in Normandy with distinction and in the process amassed huge debts approaching £40,000 acting on behalf of the crown – an astonishing sum in that period.
York’s rise to prominence owed much to the failings of Henry VI’s government, notably excessive corruption. Patronage was all well and good, but when government was compromised by personal interest, then poor decisions were made and there was a feeling at many levels of society that the king had chosen his advisers badly.
At what point did York become a significant political figure?
1447 was a key year in York’s fortunes because in February the last of Henry VI’s royal uncles, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, died in the Tower. This meant that Richard, Duke of York was now the heir presumptive to the throne: if Henry VI died without issue then York would be king.
Henry’s view of this possibility may be judged from his actions: in the summer of 1447 York was replaced in France by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who had little military experience. The Beaufort family were closer in blood to the king than York was but were legally barred from succession to the throne.
Upon York’s return to England he was sent to govern Ireland for ten years – banished to the farthest corner of the kingdom. There he remained for several years, brooding upon his misfortunes and an ungrateful king.
Why did Henry VI not trust York?
For as long as Henry remained childless, York stood to inherit the throne.
By 1450 Henry had been married for five years but there was still no heir. In that year a chain of events gave Henry more concern. Popular hostility to the small ruling clique around him led to the murder of its leader, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. There was much unrest and by the end of the year several other members of Henry’s inner circle were brutally killed.
A rebellion led by Jack Cade in Kent led to the flight of the king and the capture of London. The rebels did not want a new king, they wanted reform but their manifesto suggested that the Duke of York ought to be at the centre of power with the king. Eventually order was restored but the summer of 1450 raise the spectre of rebellion.
Henry recalled Edmund Beaufort from France after Suffolk was killed. He also considered restoring the Beaufort line to the succession which would make the Duke of Somerset, not York, his heir. He did not do this, but the possibility remained.
Why did York resort to force to regain his position?
York dared not leave Somerset unchallenged and decided to return to England. He brought armed men with him and, in doing so he was taking a huge gamble. During the winter of 1450-1 there was a tense impasse between York and Somerset and their various groups of supporters. It was clear though that whilst York had some popular support, notably in the House of Commons, he had little support amongst members of the royal council.
York’s political influence was at an all-time low, and this persuaded him that, if he was going to remove Somerset from power, he would have to resort to force. Whilst he raised an army he waged a propaganda campaign across the country highlighting the government’s already well-listed failings.
The influence of Queen Margaret over crown policy grew significantly in this period and she ensured that Henry raised his own army to meet the threat from York. By February 1452 York brought his army to south London and the king’s army was soon camped nearby. Thousands of men had taken up arms on both sides so here, as early as 1452, was the means of civil war: a powerful subject challenging his sovereign with an army at his back.
But war did not begin in 1452, because not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, York had miscalculated. The popular support he envisaged did not materialise and, more importantly, neither did noble support – and that was vital. Only one or two nobles joined York; the rest remained loyal to the king. York was forced to negotiate or be destroyed. The armies were disbanded and York was detained, albeit briefly. He was humiliated and Somerset remained in the ascendant at court along with the Queen.
York withdrew, his political career in tatters. He could only watch as England’s fortunes in the French war improved led by the hero John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. At last, the war was going better and then came the stunning news in the spring of 1453: the Queen was pregnant at last.
At that moment in time Richard, Duke of York, was finished and what we know as the Wars of the Roses would never have happened.
So, what happened to change York’s position?
In the summer of 1453 two thunderbolts of misery struck the good ship Henry VI. Firstly, Talbot was defeated and killed in France and the war took a turn for the worse again. Then Henry himself succumbed to an illness which left him incapable.
England faced complete annihilation in France and at the same time had no viable king.
Although the Queen and Somerset were already the key drivers of royal policy, it was difficult to rule without a king. After months of muddling through, the council finally took decisive action in October 1453 and appointed a Protector of the Realm. Upon whom could the council call though to undertake this difficult role? Amazingly, Richard, Duke of York was summoned from his own political “black hole” to be raised up as Protector of the Realm.
Why was York chosen when he had received so little support from councillors in 1452?
In 1453 other events [the subject of a later post] were at work as a result of which Richard of York became the staunch ally of the Neville lords, Salisbury and Warwick. This was a seminal moment. The landholdings of these three men together were immense and their combined political influence was almost unstoppable. But it was not York’s character or capabilities which brought this alliance about; Salisbury and Warwick backed him because they came to see Somerset and others at court as their rivals.
We should remember that the Council had to assume the worst about Henry’s illness but hope for the best. The Protector they appointed might need to be in office until the new young prince was old enough to rule – York was the only nobleman with the status to do so. The only real alternative to York was the queen herself and, though she pursued that policy vigorously, York was chosen and he took control: his rival Somerset was imprisoned and York acted promptly to restore order where required and ensure sound government.
At last there was equilibrium and it was on York’s terms. He was recognised as the king’s leading subject and all his major enemies were locked up. Though the king had a male heir, his accession would be many years off.
York had everything he coveted. So, what went wrong?
Unfortunately Henry VI’s unerring sense of tragic timing meant that in December 1454 his recovery plucked chaos from the jaws of stability.
This was a Christmas present the nation could have done without. York was no longer needed as Protector and by February 1455 Somerset was released from the Tower to dominate the government once again.
York left London soon afterwards not prepared to risk his destruction at the hands of the Queen and Somerset. But he was not alone and now he, and the Neville lords, had a decision to make. They had tasted great power in the state; were they prepared to relinquish it? Even now we can see that it was a no-brainer, as it must have been for them. They had little choice but to resort to arms if they were to counter the restoration of Somerset. Yet, at this point there is no suggestion that York intended any more than the removal of his enemies on the king’s council.
Could, or would, the Nevilles have taken this course without York?
No. He was the figurehead and without him they had nothing.
All the urgency and sense of crisis now seemed to come from York. Several times he sent letters to the King in the middle of the night protesting his loyalty and asking for a Council composed of those of whom the York faction approved. The letters had no effect because Somerset and the Queen had already convinced the King that York intended to seize the throne.
On the morning of 22nd May 1455, King Henry arrived at St Albans with his leading councillors and found York and the Nevilles were there already. York’s forces outnumbered the King’s but one of the more moderate councillors, the Duke of Buckingham, advised the king that York was only trying to exert pressure and would not press matters to a fight. Somerset insisted that York would indeed use force if the King did not accept his terms.
Buckingham got it wrong: York risked everything in a skirmish that took place that morning in the streets of St Albans. Overall the casualties were very low but the so-called first battle of St Albans had far reaching consequences. On the face of it, York’s victory was absolute: Somerset and several of his key allies were killed – and that was no accident! The King was forced to pardon York and accept him as his leading councillor. With York’s enemies dead, his allies were rewarded with high office and more besides.
It seemed that York was once more in an unassailable position and he could argue that his minimal use of force at St Albans had prevented a full scale civil war.
But if civil war was averted in 1455, how was it that four years later a civil war did begin?
The skirmish at St Albans settled nothing and the queen felt that her fears about York had been proven. She became York’s implacable enemy and could be relied upon to work steadfastly against him. King Henry was not ill so he could appoint anyone he liked to his government.
York had triumphed by using force – but how long could he carry on forcing Henry?
York decided to get himself appointed as Protector again in November 1455. This was proposed by one of York’s clients in the House of Commons and the excuse was the King’s poor health and the urgent need to settle a noble feud in Devon. It would certainly need a firm hand and the Council, despite its misgivings, acquiesced – as did Henry – but this protectorate only lasted a few months before Henry himself ended it.
Nevertheless, the period 1456-7 saw an encouraging trend of compromise and good sense in the measures the Council was undertaking on the King’s behalf.
Beneath the surface, however, there were seismic tensions.
Queen Margaret was creating a new court power base. She took the young Prince Edward out of London and set up her headquarters at Kenilworth. From there she cemented her ties with key men such as Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Jasper was the king’s half-brother and became the linchpin of royal power in much of Wales and the west. The disgruntled Buckingham too was being shepherded into the royal circle. Critically, by August 1456, Margaret had moved King Henry himself to Kenilworth too and that enabled her to influence appointments once again.
It must have been obvious to all in 1457 that the York-Neville axis was in decline but might that decline be permanent?
King Henry was desperate to unify the factions and the result in March 1458 was the remarkable Loveday event where the two sides paired off in a bizarre attempt to show outward unity as they processed to St Paul’s: the Queen alongside York, Warwick with Northumberland, and so on. This display fooled no-one since even within London both sides had hundreds of armed retainers.
Loveday changed nothing – in fact it only served to demonstrate the deep chasm of division between the two rival factions.
By May 1459 it was clear that the Queen’s party were preparing for war and in June she went for the jugular at a Great Council summoned to meet at Coventry. York and the Nevilles were not invited.
The Council indicted York and his allies; a line had been drawn in the sand and moderates like Buckingham now had to choose a side. He chose the Queen and his support gave her party added momentum.
York arranged to meet his allies at Ludlow, close to his power base in the Welsh Marches. Warwick sailed from Calais and Salisbury set out from his northern stronghold of Middleham. The Yorkist faction met in Ludlow in September but almost at once suffered an ignominious defeat as their army disintegrated at Ludford Bridge.
In November 1459, the so-called “Parliament of Devils” met at Coventry and attainted York and his allies. They forfeited their lands and titles and the lords present took a new oath of loyalty to both King Henry VI and his young son, Prince Edward. It must have seemed, and not just to Queen Margaret, that the Yorkist faction was destroyed forever. Its leaders had fled to Ireland or Calais and with the attainders they could not claim to be acting legally nor would they have the income from their vast estates.
The civil war – if it merited the name – seemed over very swiftly. So, why was peace not assured?
York fled with his second son, Edmund, to Ireland and during that time the Earl of Warwick visited the duke for two months. Whatever was discussed it must have included an invasion of England. Clearly both men wanted to regain their positions but what exactly did York want?
By the time York himself arrived back in England in September 1460, his ally Warwick and his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, had invaded in Kent, entered London and captured the king at the battle of Northampton.
Key to their success was their claim of continued loyalty to Henry VI and a propaganda campaign which concentrated on the familiar themes of reforming a corrupt government and removing “evil” councillors. But in October, York marched into London bearing royal banners and with a sword of state carried upright before him.
Clearly, York had come to claim the throne before the lords in Parliament.
He entered the palace of Westminster expecting to be acclaimed as king. His hand rested upon the throne, but his hopes were to be dashed. The lords were not prepared to consider the deposition of Henry VI and that was abundantly clear.
Despite all his genuine strengths, here lay the fundamental weakness of Richard, Duke of York. He did not grasp the political reality of 1460. The lords had sworn oaths to Henry and he was their anointed king; they would not remove him. Even Warwick did not seem to support York’s gambit. In the two months that Warwick spent with York in Ireland, surely the issue must have come up, yet Warwick seemed more shocked than most when York formally pressed his claim to the throne.
For the first time in the whole sorry story, the claims of Henry and York were now examined.
Legally York’s claim had merit but the lords refused to budge. It’s remarkable how much loyalty they showed to a king whose rule had been such an unmitigated disaster. Faced with having to make some sort of decision on the right or otherwise of the claim, the lawyers and lords passed on it. It was a matter for York and Henry to sort out between them, they said. A compromise was made called the Act of Accord. . It was agreed that York and his heirs would succeed Henry, thereby disinheriting the Lancastrian heir, but it was not what York wanted.
If agreement had been made with Henry why did the war not end?
The compromise of the Act of Accord satisfied no-one and it actually gave the queen an excuse to rekindle the war against York for he had gone far beyond removing corrupt councillors, he had diverted the succession.
The queen was still at large and, though her forces were scattered, her cause resonated with many and her army grew. There was support in the south west and in Wales whilst the north was still largely under Lancastrian control.
In the face of this opposition, York had to do something, so he marched north with Salisbury early in December 1460. It was mid-winter and though York reached his castle at Sandal in time for Christmas, it’s doubtful he did much celebrating. The Lancastrian army was close by at Pontefract and York was short of supplies.
At the end of December, for reasons which are still shrouded in mystery, York attacked the Lancastrians and was utterly defeated. York perished in the field whilst his son, Edmund, was killed in the rout and Salisbury was executed soon after.
Why did York take such a risk when he would have been safe within Sandal?
We’ll probably never know. Some close to the time said it was treachery, others have suggested it was just another of his miscalculations. It seems unlikely though that he would have ventured out idly given that he had plenty of sensible advisers with him – not least the wily Earl of Salisbury.
Why did York come so close to success without achieving it?
Some did not trust York and, rather like the Queen, they found it difficult to believe that York did not want more than the position of chief councillor. However, there is no real evidence that he was anything other than loyal to Henry VI until perhaps 1459 and certainly 1460. You could argue that he was only forced into open rebellion by the fact that he was frequently denied the role and status in Henry’s government that he felt he deserved.
Without York there would not have been the Wars of the Roses as we know them because York was a unique focus for opposition to the king’s chosen advisers. During the periods when York ruled there can be little doubt that he was a good deal more effective than his rivals, yet the nobility as a whole never really warmed to him. One has to conclude that he was a difficult man to like.
York expected honours because of his status but he was too poor a politician to achieve what he believed was his right. He had integrity and gravitas, but lacked personal charm or charisma. There was a lot of pride but not enough personality to create genuine support and affection. He did not build relationships with more than a few of the key players. In this respect he can be sharply contrasted with his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March. York seemed all too often to be angered or weighed down by the problems he encountered, whereas March radiated confidence and energy no matter how bleak the outlook appeared.
Men will forgive many faults in a leader they like – York does not come across as such a leader.