Faction and Politics at the Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses – Part 4: Cat Among the Pigeons!

In the fourth, and final, post on this subject I shall have a look at how Richard, Duke of York’s apparently impregnable position deteriorated after the battle of St Albans and brought about civil war.

 The Fallout from St Albans 1455

The bloodshed at St Albans left the York/Neville faction unchallenged. The victory of the Duke of York meant that civil war was averted because there were no longer two sides. How was it then that four years later a civil war began?

The short answer is that the skirmish at St Albans, though it removed several of York’s enemies, actually settled nothing. It did, however, have several key consequences:

1. York had cleared out some of his enemies, but there was nothing to stop King Henry appointing anyone he liked to his government. So unless York was prepared to limit or remove the king, then sooner or later he was likely to face a similar set of circumstances again.

2. The ‘court’ party had been destroyed but the person at the heart of it, the queen, remained and she felt vindicated that her warnings about York had proven corrrect. She remained York’s implacable enemy and could be relied upon to work steadfastly against him in the future.

3. Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, like York and Warwick, was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the kingdom and he had not enjoyed St Albans at all. Not only had he taken several wounds during the fighting but he had then been forced to seek sanctuary. In addition,  by 1458 his own son had died from the wounds he received there.  He also realised that his counsel of trusting York had backfired badly. When, a little later, he was forced to choose sides again, he was not prepared to trust York a second time.

4. Whilst Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford were dead, their sons were very much alive and thirsty for revenge.

York in Power

Richard, Duke of YorkDuring 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. He was a difficult man to like; he had integrity and gravitas but neither charm nor charisma. Some did not trust him and, rather like the queen, they found it difficult to believe that York did not want more than the position of ‘chief councillor’.

In the aftermath of St Albans, all was far from well. At the centre of power the important offices were given to York’s allies – the usual suspects: Salisbury, Warwick and also the Bourchier brothers. Warwick became Captain of Calais which was the main prize.

It is difficult from our vantage point in 2017 to grasp the significance of Calais in the fifteenth century. It was by no means the fag end of the English empire in France after the 100 Years’ War. Calais was crucial: it was the only part of England that had a standing army – though the size of army available for use on the English mainland probably numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. Nevertheless, it had significant resources for war and shipping – both of which were necessary for its defence and it was a major centre of English trade.

When Warwick eventually took up his post there in the summer of 1456, it gave him a strong base from which to operate. In 1457 Warwick was given the responsibility of protecting the sea routes around Calais and he used that power to carve out a reputation for himself – largely through piracy and partly through diplomacy. Warwick’s activities as a pirate greatly enhanced his popularity, wealth and stature witiin England.

Beneath the surface there were seismic tensions following St Albans. It has sometimes been underestimated because it involved fewer numbers than some of the later battles but it was not just a back alley scuffle. It was a full on skirmish fought with serious intent. Important men had been killed and someone had to take the blame. York had won, so it was not going to be him. Though it was York who had pressed for a fight, he ensured that it was recorded in parliament that Somerset was to blame and York’s forces were exonerated for all the actions they took at St Albans.

York’s Second Protectorate

York knew that no matter how many pardons were awarded, he was not yet secure. As a result, he decided to get himself appointed as Protector again in November 1455. This was proposed by one of York’s own clients in the House of Commons. The pretext was the king’s poor health and the need to deal with a renewed outbreak of a feud between the Courtenays and the Bonvilles in Devon. It would certainly need a firm hand to control these two aggressive families and the council, despite any misgivings it might have had, acquiesced in York’s appointment – as did King Henry.

The second Protectorate, however, only lasted 3 months at which point Henry resumed control. After that York had to try to work with the rest of the council and hope to counteract the queen’s hostility. In fact, the period 1456-7 saw a good degree of compromise and good sense in the measures the council undertook on the king’s behalf.

The Queen Builds Her Power

At the same time as Warwick was taking up his position in Calais, Queen Margaret was beginning to work on creating a new court power base. She took the young Prince Edward out of London and toured the north and the west, setting 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 Duke of Buckingham was also wooed into the royal fold and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Wiltshire too.

Critically, by August 1456, Margaret had moved King Henry himself to Kenilworth as well and that enabled her to influence appointments once again. The result was a new chancellor and Shrewsbury became the new treasurer – though shortly to be replaced by the decidedly dodgy Earl of Wiltshire. Her previous allies, the Percies, re-established their influence: the young Earl of Northumberland came to court and his younger brother, Egremont, escaped from gaol. Their ally, the unreliable Duke of Exeter, was released from prison and the heirs of Somerset and Clifford, who were killed at St Albans, were encouraged in their hostility to York.

The queen has often been portrayed as the aggressor in all this but, as she saw it, she was trying to protect her husband and son from the growing threat of an ‘overmighty subject’. Although the queen’s direct involvement in factional politics was calculated to destroy York, there were still lords who were attempting to unify the two increasingly distinct sides. Even Buckingham, despite his closer connections to the queen’s supporters, was still a force for moderation.

It would have been obvious to all in 1457 that the York-Neville axis was in decline but not that the decline was permanent. The exact situation would not have been clear, especially when in August that year a French raid on the south east coast showed how vital York – and especially Warwick – were in the defence of the realm.


In March 1458 came the remarkable Loveday event where the king attempted to encourage a show of unity by getting members of the two sides to pair off as they processed to St Paul’s: the queen alongside York, Warwick with Northumberland, and young Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, with Salisbury. This was papering over the cracks with gossamer for even within London both sides had hundreds of armed retainers.

Loveday, of course, changed nothing – in fact it only served to demonstrate the deep chasm of division between two rival factions. It was only a matter of who would blink first: the queen or York?

Anything at all could have fired this barrel of powder but in the event it was the queen’s fear of Warwick which did the trick. Because he held the pivotal base at Calais, Warwick was the queen’s prime target in hte late 1450s. He was the most potent threat to her success, so in July 1458 he was summoned to London and a train of events quickly got out of hand. Fighting broke out between supporters of Warwick and the queen. Warwick returned to Calais but when he came to London again in the autumn there was more trouble. He escaped to Calais but now he knew that he was no longer safe in England. The opening shots had been fired in the civil war.

From this point onwards war could only have been avoided by the utter capitulation of one side or the other because both sides were now heavily committed.

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, the Nevilles and the Bourchiers were not invited. The Great Council indicted York and his allies and a line was drawn in the sand. The likes of Buckingham now had to choose a side. He chose the queen and his support gave her party added momentum for many others amongst the nobility followed suit.

York had a clear choice: he must surrender or give a sufficient show of force to capture the king’s attention once more. In September 1459, he arranged to meet his allies at Ludlow, close to his power base in the Welsh Marches. Warwick sailed from Calais with some of the garrison from there while Salisbury set out from his northern stronghold of Middleham Castle with an army of several thousand. The Wars of the Roses were about to begin in earnest.

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

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