Faction and Politics for Dummies at the Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses – Part 2

Part 2: Richard, Duke of York v Edmund, Duke of Beaufort

This is the second of a series of posts intended to explain the events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1455, known as the Wars of the Roses. In Part 1 I talked about the reasons why Richard, Duke of York, was appointed Protector of the Realm in March 1454 and also hinted at some of the issues this appointment might raise. This was a pivotal moment in the politics of the period.

When York was appointed Protector his brief was essentially to defend the realm against trouble from abroad and, importantly, rebels from within. One of the first steps he took was to arrest his chief rival among the nobility, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.

How did the rivalry grow up between York and the Duke of Somerset in the years immediately before 1454.


Courtesy of the British Library

Edmund Beaufort was a ‘royal’ but his descent from Edward III through an illegitimate route meant that it was not expected that he would ever be in a position to claim the throne. There were quite a lot of Beauforts, some with the same first name – regarded by some weary students of history as a sneaky (and sometimes successful) attempt to confuse them.

Edmund rose to prominence partly through his wealthy and powerful uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, and partly through his influence with the new young queen, Margaret of Anjou.

In case I forget to mention it, Henry VI was a completely useless king. True, he was only about nine months old when he became king and had to put up with a long minority when his uncles ruled but, as an adult, he combined the judgement of a lemming with the charisma of a sponge. He was not as is popularly believed, “mad” but by the 1440s he was a king beset with difficult problems: colossal debts, institutional corruption, a breakdown of law and order and, in particular, the limited progress of the long war against France.

The Duke of York had served in Normandy with distinction and had, in the process, got himself close to £40,000 in debt acting on behalf of the crown – an astonishing amount at that time. In 1445 York was recalled and replaced in France by Somerset. This is probably worthy of a whole post to itself but we’ll move on.

The point is that Somerset had little military experience and favoured a policy of peace with France, as did Henry himself. Somerset was not a great success as a war leader and yet he retained royal confidence during a period when York, the heir presumptive if Henry died childless, should have been a prominent member of the government.

Upon York’s return to England few of his debts were repaid by the crown and, in addition, he soon faced charges of corruption and mismanagement in France. York was exonerated but was sent to govern Ireland for ten years – a clear attempt to put him on the political side-lines.

It must have seemed strange to many folk at the time that the king’s most mighty subject was kept so far from the centre of government. Clearly Henry did not trust York, not least because arguably he had a better claim to the throne than Henry himself. As long as Henry remained childless, York stood to inherit. But, by 1450, York could only lurk in the shadows of power as Henry considered whether he should restore the Beaufort line to the succession. Such a move would make the Duke of Somerset, not York, his heir. He did not do this but the possibility remained and both York and Somerset must have wondered whether Henry would do it.

1450 was a critical year in Henry’s reign. It brought a popular rebellion and the murder of the leader of what might be called the Court ‘party,’ the Duke of Suffolk. The fall of Suffolk left a void at the heart of government and prompted the sudden return of both York and Somerset to England. Somerset was recalled from France and York dared not leave him unchallenged. So in 1450 York returned from Ireland with a growing force of armed men behind him. He regarded Somerset as a traitor and an incompetent who belonged in the tower. However, since Somerset had the confidence of both the king, and the increasingly influential queen, there was little chance of that happening.

During the winter of 1450-1 there was a tense impasse between York and Somerset and their various groups of supporters. York had some popular support, notably in the House of Commons, but little backing from members of the royal council. So York held some sway whilst Parliament was in session but once it was dissolved, the status quo prevailed. Thus, in December 1450 Parliament could impeach Somerset and he was sent to the Tower, but a few short hours later he was released by order of the crown. Somerset remained in power and York had done nothing to advance his cause.

York now languished in the political wilderness, his influence 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. Preparing to do this took some time and York was not in a position to risk this dangerous course until 1452. Whilst he raised an army, he waged a propaganda campaign across the country highlighting the government’s already well listed failings.



By unknown/-/–Kuerschner 05:40, 6 February 2008 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The queen’s influence in this period grew significantly and, whilst her motives might be debated, the effect of her actions is clear: she ensured that Henry raised his own army to meet the threat from York. By the end of February 1452, York had 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 stuff of civil war: a powerful subject challenging his sovereign with an army at his back. So why did the war not begin in 1452?
To have a civil war – or any sort of war – you need two viable sides and in 1452 there was not really a credible opposition to the Court ‘party’. York had miscalculated: the popular support he envisaged did not materialise and, more importantly, neither did noble support – and that was vital to his hopes of success.

This gives us an important indicator for what happened later: only one or two nobles joined York; the rest – including those whom he would soon call allies – remained loyal to the king. Nevertheless, no-one was keen to settle the dispute by force at that point. Among those who wanted to negotiate were the powerful father and son Neville lords, Salisbury and Warwick, who were relatives of York and by no means his enemies. The negotiations ended with the armies being disbanded and York being detained, albeit briefly. He was humiliated and Somerset remained in the ascendant at court. Somerset being Somerset, he proceeded to rub York’s nose in it since his position now seemed impregnable.

Finally then, things seemed to be looking up for the Court ‘party’. York withdrew, his political career in tatters; October 1452 saw notable advances by the hero John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, as he began to roll back French control of Bordeaux. Then, in the spring of 1453, great news at last: the queen was pregnant!

Yet, it was to be a false dawn because in the summer of 1453 two thunderbolts of misery struck the good ship Henry. Firstly Talbot, starved of resources and reinforcements, was defeated and killed in France. Then Henry himself succumbed to an illness which left him incapable – to clarify, I mean much more incapable than he was already!

England faced complete annihilation in France and at the same time the absence of a king. Whilst the queen and Somerset were already key drivers of royal policy, they could not rule without a king. If ever there was a moment for someone to utter the immortal words: “oh, bugger!” – this was it.

After several months of muddling through with no-one at the helm, the council took action and appointed a Protector of the Realm? Step forward Richard, Duke of York.

You can see how that works out in Part 3…

This entry was posted in History, Medieval History, Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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