Part 3: Picking Sides
Today I’m continuing my sequence of short posts on the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. Now I know that some folk suggest that the wars did not start in 1455 but earlier – or later, depending on who’s saying it. My contention would be that there were many factors, both long term and short term which led to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses but what made a civil war of such magnitude possible at all was the emergence of two sides and the inability of those two sides to reconcile their differences without warfare. You can’t have a long-lasting war without two sides and it was not until 1455 that there were two sides both willing and able to take action.
Whilst Henry VI was in full possession of his faculties and Richard, Duke of York was in disgrace, there was only one side: the court ‘party’ which was heavily influenced by Queen Margaret and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. York appeared to have neither the inclination nor the support to return to the centre of power but during 1453 several developments radically altered the political landscape.
One of these concerned the rumbling hostility in the north between the two most powerful families of Percy and Neville.
The Neville family in fact had two arterial branches and they were as much rivals as allies. In recent decades the junior branch had made two of the most advantageous marriages of the period and, as a result, two Richard Nevilles, father and son, had each amassed much land and wealth. At the same time, the senior branch of the family had gradually diminished in power and influence.
The Percies too were no longer the force they had been when they had attempted rebellion at the start of the fifteenth century and they never really recovered from its aftermath. Nevertheless, even if they were not dominant players on the national stage, they were still a force to be reckoned with in the north.
Both families could draw on considerable resources: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, was Warden of the West March and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was Warden of the East March. These positions of power, with shared responsibility for defending the border against the Scots, enabled the rivals to raise men at the crown’s expense. With such military resources at hand, the scope for arguments to turn into skirmishes was always a genuine possibility. By the end of 1453 it seemed clear that the local rivalry was likely to turn into something more serious.
Another dispute involving one of the Nevilles also occurred in 1453. Salisbury’s son, Richard, Earl of Warwick, [ubiquitously referred to later – and rather generously in my view – as the Kingmaker] fell out with the Duke of Somerset over land. The Beaufort family, despite their close relationship to the king, had very limited land holdings and thus Somerset was always keen to extend his lands whenever he could. Unfortunately in the summer of 1453 he acquired some lands in Glamorgan which had belonged to the Earl of Warwick and Warwick was not of a forgiving nature where such matters were concerned. This alone would not cause a war but it was a factor in persuading Warwick that Somerset was not the ally he needed against the Percies.
The final ingredient for change was the sudden incapacity of the king and the eventual decision of the council to bring back York from the political wilderness. By March 1454 York had been named Protector and we are now back where we started in the first post on this subject: Richard of York as protector with the power to reward his allies, principally the Nevilles, with the fruits of royal patronage.
Days after his elevation to the Protectorate, York appointed his chief ally, the Earl of Salisbury, to the vacant and key post of chancellor. Salisbury, the effective head of the Neville family, was an influential councillor who had been frustrated by Somerset’s reluctance to act against what he regarded as Percy aggression in Yorkshire. He needed the crown to help him control the Percies and this fitted in with the Duke of York’s desire to show how strong central government could ensure that law and order prevailed. York was determined to take action against the Percies and demonstrate the improvement he could bring after what he regarded as Somerset’s misrule.
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, had remained aloof from the affairs of government for many years, preferring instead to consolidate his northern affinity. His second son, Lord Egremont, however, was hardly a shrinking violet – in fact he was one of the more antagonistic members of the family. Quite early in 1454 Egremont had made an alliance with Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter. Holland was a close relative of the king and harboured the somewhat optimistic notion that he might be declared protector himself – though he was far less suitable for the task than York. His power and resources did not come close to matching York’s but he was a duke nonetheless.
For a time in May 1454, Holland and Egremont held the city of York and then created havoc in the area around the city until the protector brought up sufficient men to oust them. Holland fled to Westminster Abbey, claiming sanctuary, but he was eventually dragged out and imprisoned. Meanwhile in the north, despite York’s firm intervention, Egremont remained a problem and so late in the autumn of 1454 the Nevilles took matters into their own hands. At a skirmish near Stamford Bridge, Egremont was captured and fined so heavily he ended up in Newgate gaol for debt.
By the end of 1454, therefore, we have the makings of two sides but several of the key players of one side: Somerset, Holland and Egremont, are all in prison. There is peace and equilibrium, but it is on York’s terms.
Unfortunately Henry VI’s unerring sense of tragic timing meant that in December 1454 his recovery managed to snatch 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. Soon Salisbury gave up the office of chancellor in a council now once more dominated by Somerset, Northumberland and his northern ally, Lord Thomas Clifford. So, those who were the ‘have-nots’ once again become the ‘haves.’ York, Salisbury and Warwick left London soon afterwards – clearly unwilling to risk their destruction at the hands of the queen and Somerset.
But now they 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 at all that the Nevilles aimed to overthrow the king and even York did not seem to be heading in that direction. This is something that tends to get lost in the broad brushstrokes of popular history.
However, the malcontents moved swiftly, knowing that Somerset was trying to arrange a Great Council to condemn York. By May they had put together an armed force which they hoped would demonstrate their power and enable them to overthrow Somerset’s government. Somerset seemed singularly unprepared for this resort to force and only started to raise an army when York was already on his way south.
Somerset, mindful of York’s traditional support from London, decided to move to St Albans with Henry and the leading councillors. This group were not all enemies of York by any means. Northumberland, Clifford and other close allies of Somerset were prominent but so were others well disposed towards York and the Nevilles, notably the Earl of Devon and Salisbury’s own brother William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, and too there were some ‘neutrals’ like the Duke of Buckingham who was loyal to the king but would not gladly take up arms to support Somerset.
The odd thing about the sequence of events that followed is that all the urgency and sense of crisis seems to have come from York’s side. On several occasions 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 bore no fruit because Somerset and the queen had already convinced the king that York intended to seize the throne.
York and his allies followed close behind his messengers so that when the king arrived at St Albans on the morning of 22nd May he found York there already. York’s forces outnumbered the king’s and the council’s advice to Henry was conflicting. Buckingham advised the king that York was only trying to exert pressure and would not press matters to a fight. Somerset, perhaps understanding his old opponent rather better, insisted that York would use force if the king did not accept his terms. Perhaps it is important to remember that York had been there before in 1452. On that occasion he had backed down and trusted that he would be dealt with fairly. He wasn’t, so this time he was not inclined to back down.
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, Northumberland and Clifford were all killed – how fortuitous that those particular men died! 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 in an unassailable position: there was now only one side again and the prospect of civil war appeared unlikely. The king was also still king because all that York and the Nevilles had set out to do so far was remove councillors who opposed them.
Next week in the fourth, and final, post on this subject I shall have a look at how York’s apparently impregnable position after the battle of St Albans deteriorated and brought about civil war.