Faction and Politics for Dummies at the Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses

Part 1: Richard, Duke of York, becomes Protector of the Realm

Richard, Duke of York

Richard, Duke of York

In 1454, Richard Duke of York, the leading peer of the realm – was given the poisoned chalice: he was appointed Protector of the Realm in view of the continuing incapacity of King Henry VI. There had already been rivalry at the court before this but the elevation of York was a catalyst for mischief and rebellion on a grand scale. In a series of posts on this theme I set out to try to explain why?

Well first, I’m afraid, a little lesson in politics. I suppose it is stating the obvious to point out that in the monarchical system of government that existed throughout the middle ages the king had to actually rule. The monarch could not simply be a figurehead for government. The role of king in the fifteenth century was complex in some respects and yet essentially pretty simple: the king must provide a strong focus for government by setting the agenda and achieving his objectives by rewarding in particular those powerful subjects who were willing and able to help him. The best way to do so would be to harness the ambitions of the key nobles and use those men to achieve your aims: Henry V did exactly that – but he died young.

The politics of the decades after his early death in 1422 were dominated by an absence of direction and leadership from the king, firstly because he was a minor and then because he was incapable of fulfilling the role. Consequently those key nobles who had a responsibility to serve and support the king in ruling had to play a different part: they were no longer the supporting cast. There was a power vacuum at the centre of government and someone had to fill it.

I’m always a little amused by modern critics of such men: Suffolk, Somerset, York – even the queen, Margaret of Anjou, might fit the argument. Someone had to rule: the nobility could hardly sit around and say “well this chap Henry’s no good, there’s nothing for it: we’ll just have to wait until he grows old and dies?”

Obviously not, but if you were a nobleman who did take up the reins of government there had to be something in it for you: lands, titles, wealth, advantageous marriages and inheritances were the usual rewards from the patronage of a king. After all, it was probably going to cost you a lot from your own pocket. The rewards were great but so were the risks, not just to you but to your family over generations even into the future – and that’s the nub of it.

Whichever of the nobility took the helm they laid themselves open to charges of treason or corruption simply because they were not the King but were attempting to use the power of the king to rule. If a king’s policies were unpopular, he might be described as “badly advised” but if a mighty noble ruling on behalf of the king was similarly unpopular he was at best incompetent and at worst a villain.

Taking a controlling influence in government meant you were raising yourself above your peers and inevitably some of them were not keen on that. So, how do you counteract that reaction from your peers? Well, you acquire some allies to consolidate and maintain your rule and to whom you in return give their share of the spoils of royal patronage: lands, etc.

Now inevitably not everyone is going to be your ally and thus for every ally you acquire you probably create at least one, if not more, potential opponents. These opponents have something in common and their newfound shared interest means that they will want to see you fall so that there can be a redistribution of the rewards of patronage.

It was often difficult for leading nobles to stay out of such factions. There are examples of powerful men remaining aloof from such politics – but almost always, as in the Wars of the Roses, they are sucked into the vortex and often it does not help them that they tried to be neutral. Neutral meant uncommitted and uncommitted meant dangerous.

So, to the occasion of Richard of York’s formal elevation to the role of Protector.

Why was he chosen?

1. The king had been ill since August 1453 and was showing no sign of recovery; he could not communicate nor comprehend. Thus he could not rule.

2. The Council was choosing a man to rule for as long as the king remained ill or until his infant son, Prince Edward, came of age – possibly fourteen years. Such a man might need to be in it for the long haul and York was.

3. As the leading peer of the realm he was accustomed to military command and administration. The new role would acknowledge him as “first among equals.”

4. He had recently acquired some powerful allies: the Neville Earls of Salisbury & Warwick; their support in the Council was critical.

5 The only real alternative to York was Queen Margaret herself and many did not think she was suitable for the role. A vote for York was thus also an anti-Margaret vote.

Now if we apply our lesson in politics to this situation, we can see that the supporters of York now stand to gain a great deal since he will be able to act with the power of the king. Equally, those who oppose him, notably Queen Margaret and her own noble favourite, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, stand to lose heavily.

Oh, did I forget to mention that both York and Somerset had claims to the throne? Well, more of that in Part 2. 

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