A month or two ago, after a bit of a rant on Facebook, I started a series of posts to explode a few of the pervasive myths which surround the Wars of the Roses.
Here’s the second part of my exploration into the notion that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, deserves the epithet of “kingmaker”.
We have seen in Part 1 how Warwick’s role in the events leading up to 1460 was that of a supporter of the Duke of York, but not one who was trying to unseat the lawful king, Henry VI. However, with the disastrous defeat at the battle of Wakefield in December 1460, the political landscape of England was changed utterly. As Christmas presents go, it was to say the least, disappointing for York’s heir, Edward, Earl of March. The York-Neville alliance was in tatters and a new strategy was required. Now the decisions rested not with York and Salisbury but with their sons: Edward and Richard, Earl of Warwick.
Surely here then is the prime example of Warwick ‘making’ a king – but is it?
If Warwick himself had been writing the script, I have no doubt that it would have read thus:
The Earl of Warwick took the inexperienced 18 year old son of York under his wing and guided him to power. That Warwick believed this to be the case is almost certain, but that doesn’t make it true.
The ‘kingmaker’ version of events does not match what actually happened.
Though Edward might not have succeeded in taking the throne, without Warwick’s resources, the pivotal events of 1461 were driven by Edward, not by Warwick.
Warwick was important because he drew support for Edward and had enormous resources of men and money, but in 1461 it was young Edward who pulled the strings – both on and off the battlefield. The traditional historical view of Edward was that he was lazy and indecisive – another colossal myth bequeathed to us by the Victorians, but that’s for another day! In fact, especially in his youth, Edward was very decisive indeed and it was his drive and energy which dictated the fast pace of events in the spring of 1461, whereas Warwick was very much on the back foot.
In February, whilst Queen Margaret headed for London with a large northern army, Edward destroyed Jasper and Owen Tudor’s Lancastrian army in the west at Mortimer’s Cross, before marching east to join Warwick. At the very same time, Warwick was making a complete pig’s ear of his attempt to stop Margaret’s advance on London.
The Earl of Warwick was not a great general – nor was he an especially lucky one. His chaotic performance at the second battle of St Albans could have destroyed the Yorkist cause. During the battle, he had no idea what was going on, with the result that most of his army was destroyed or fled. Then afterwards, he contrived to lose the one vital advantage he had which was possession of King Henry VI. Thus, when Warwick dragged the tattered remnant of his army to meet Edward at Chipping Norton, he brought very little to the table.
This, I think, was the moment when young Edward realised that if he was going to be king, he could not rely upon Warwick to deliver the crown to him. Had Margaret decided to unleash her unruly army against London in February 1461 then she might well have secured the throne for her husband, Henry VI. Fortunately for Edward – and Warwick – she did not. Instead, almost inexplicably, she retreated northwards and allowed Edward to enter London in triumph.
In London, often supportive of his father, Edward could use the machinery of government and raise merchant loans to recruit another army with which he would later defeat the queen’s forces at the bloody battle of Towton.
London was therefore vital and there is no doubt that it was Queen Margaret, not Warwick, who handed him the city and all its resources.
The vital occupation of London was thus achieved in spite of, not because of, Warwick’s efforts.
Becoming king in 1461 was not about diplomacy, or having the right policies, it was about winning a bitter and bloody struggle on the field of battle.
During his reign, as I have said, Edward IV is sometimes accused of lethargy but in 1461 it was his drive and fighting prowess which won the day.
Sometimes it’s as well to step outside the cosy narrative of the history books and see the man as he was perceived by others. Edward was a natural leader and in the heat of battle men saw this giant of a youth – well over six feet tall – always in the forefront of the fight, hacking down his enemies with his fearsome poll axe. Warwick was a brave soldier and indeed fought bravely at Towton, but he could not outshine Edward. It was a truly terrible battle and the outcome was still in doubt quite late on in the day. It was the arrival of reinforcements from the Duke of Norfolk which turned the tide of battle in Edward’s favour. So even then, victory owed little to Warwick.
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, though he was very important to Edward’s success, did not make Edward king in 1461; Edward did. Warwick was not a king maker.
The earl is rather like a competitor in BBC’s The Apprentice claiming in the boardroom: “I negotiated that deal, or I got that special price, or I made that massive sale that won us the task.”
Warwick ‘talked a good game’ and after the throne was won, he saw himself – perhaps rightly – as the man who should be the king’s chief adviser. But in the next four or five years, events did not quite follow Warwick’s plan. He hoped to be the guiding hand behind the crown and in his foreign diplomacy he projected exactly such an image.
One of the features of Edward’s kingship, throughout his disjointed reign, is his willingness to give his enemies a second chance. In most cases, this worked well for him and ensured that his government eventually included many who had supported the old king. Though at times this generosity backfired, it did gain him the respect and support of many who had not previously been his allies.
How irritating must Warwick have found it in the 1460s to see his place of prominence being threatened by some who had actually fought against him?
Thus by 1469, Warwick was a very disgruntled nobleman who began to see that his own best interests might lie with an alternative to Edward IV.
But more of that in Part 3…
[Note: This post was first published on the blog of the English Historical Fiction Authors]