All you thought you knew about the Wars of the Roses, but didn’t… Episode One: Henry VI: the mad king?

A few weeks ago, I had a bit of a rant on Facebook about the common myths which persist about many aspects of the Wars of the Roses period. I vowed to do something about it, so to start with, I’m looking at Henry VI himself.

There are two commonly held beliefs about Henry VI: either he was a simpleton or he was mad – not a great choice really… and of course, neither charge is actually supported by the evidence.

Myth #1: Henry VI was a simpleton; he was just plain stupid.

Like most myths of history, this claim is so often repeated that it seems to be regarded by many as truth, despite the fact that there’s no real evidence of it at all.

Henry was not a fool. There is enough evidence, however, to suggest that he was naïve.
For example, he put far too much trust in several of the powerful and ambitious men around him at court – men like Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. But let’s bear in mind that Henry spent the whole of his long royal minority surrounded by noble advisers. He had grown up accepting advice and the habit, for a young man who was not particularly assertive, was probably quite difficult to break.

Was Somerset, or his rival for influence at court, Richard, Duke of York, especially greedy or corrupt? No, not really by the standards of the time, but they did have their own personal agendas – along with every other nobleman, lord or gentleman in the land!

A strong-willed king, who understood such men, might have managed them rather better. Henry was undoubtedly a poor manager of men.


Henry VI, courtesy of wikipedia

Henry VI, courtesy of wikipedia

Henry was more concerned with spiritual matters than political ones – but that doesn’t make him a fool. His piety and his concern for men’s souls is somehow easily dismissed in our very secular age, but such matters were very important to all in the later middle ages and certainly not a sign of folly.
Is it so hard to believe that Henry was simply a peace loving man in an age that valued more martial virtues?

Their king was so different from his warlike father, Henry V, that his subjects felt undermined and confused by his approach. He wanted to bring to an end the long French wars with a peace agreement. In that respect, he was out of step with the majority of his subjects for whom a successful conclusion of the war meant a military victory. Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450 showed the anger and distrust stirred up by Henry’s government but the rebel targets were his councillors not the king himself.

Judge him by what he did: for example, Henry wrote a letter to the French king suggesting peace and offering him some English-held lands in France. That was certainly unwise since such lands were currently held by Henry’s own subjects. Giving them up was not likely to be popular. So he was naïve, but – and here’s why he was no fool – he kept the letter secret.

Why? Because he understood how alarmed his leading subjects would be if they knew about his offer. If he understood that, then he had more about him than your average simpleton.
Naïve then maybe, but not an idiot.

Myth #2: Henry VI was ‘mad’.

Now madness is a very general term and the public perception of madness is therefore quite broad and vague. Consequently, using the word at all is unhelpful in trying to describe or understand anyone.

So what basis is there for this claim? There’s no question that from 1453 – a year traumatic enough for the average king – Henry VI succumbed to bouts of mental illness. Schizophrenia has been suggested – amongst other diagnoses. The first of these rendered him incapable of speech or recognition of those around him.

This was not a ‘mad’ king flinging out commands such as “Off with his head!” or something! It was simply as if the throne was vacant.

This first occurrence was the most significant because no-one was prepared for it and it led to the emergence of the Duke of York as the de-facto political leader of the country. In 1453 York saw himself as rightly restored to a position of great influence. But even York’s closest supporters only ever saw him as a caretaker – whether for the ailing King Henry, or for his very young son, Edward, when he ultimately came of age.

When the King recovered his capacity in December 1454, York’s role as protector was once more unnecessary and his supremacy at court waned. This was not a result of ‘madness’ on the king’s part but further evidence of his inability to manage political factions. Thus it resulted in the victory of one faction – that of the Duke of Somerset – over another.

In the turbulent years which followed, it suited the Yorkists to blacken Henry’s name by emphasising his incapacity to rule: either by promoting the idea of his stupidity or his madness. Either of these slurs might help to undermine public confidence.

Yet, even after the Yorkists had taken up arms against the king and seized the throne in 1461, most of the nobility still sided with Henry VI, their anointed king. A king who inspired such loyalty had clearly earned a great deal of support from many of those closest to him. If he had truly been an imbecile or a mad man, I cannot believe he would have retained such genuine goodwill.

Two key elements of Henry VI’s kingship were:

  1. he was unable to control his leading subjects
  2. he aspired to resolve problems by peaceful means.

These two factors combined to make him an ineffectual king but neither of these factors made him mad or stupid. It’s high time we stopped perpetuating these myths.

Next up, I shall examine the myth of Warwick, the so-called ‘Kingmaker’.

[N.B. This post first appeared in August 2017 on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog.]

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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.

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Faction and Politics at the Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses – Part 3

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.

Henry VIUnfortunately 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.

death of SomersetBuckingham 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.

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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…

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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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Book Review: Days of Sun and Glory by Anna Belfrage



In this second book in her King’s Greatest Enemy series, Anna Belfrage builds on the excellent set of characters introduced to us in In The Shadow of the Storm.

The new novel concentrates once again on the exploits of the knight, Adam de Guirande, and his wife, Kit.

In this sequel we see much more of the king, his queen – the she-wolf – and other members of the royal court, not forgetting the villains of the piece: the offensively indispensible Despensers. Adam finds his support for the exiled Roger Mortimer sorely tested and is forced to choose where his true loyalty lies.

I really like the characterisation of Prince Edward, where the author shows a typically sensitive appreciation of both the youth and his predicament. For the prince spends the entire book between the proverbial rock and a hard place: i.e. his dreadful father and his impossible mother.

The relationship between the two main characters, Adam and Kit, provides the core of the story and, as the political tension builds, along with their anxiety for their children’s safety, that relationship is sorely tested. I enjoyed how we see the pair develop as we experience the upheaval at the centre of power through their own personal turmoil and heartbreak. The sexual chemistry between the two is described beautifully though, for me, perhaps a little too frequently – I guess I would have preferred a little less sex and a bit more violence!

The  story, the locations and the people have an authentic feel to them, giving this well- crafted book some weight and substance. Anna Belfrage has the knack of being able to breathe life into the political events of this period and I am very much looking forward to the next part of the story.

I would heartily recommend this series to historical fiction lovers. I had little detailed knowledge of this period of history yet I found both books easy to follow because the author tells the tale with just the right amount of history to guide the reader.



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Historical Fiction Cover of the Year – the Winner!

Lots of votes! Thank you very m1066uch to all who took part.

As last year, we have a runaway winner!

This time it is 1066 Turned Upside Down that has carried all before it and probably rightly so. It is a very effective cover indeed.

The clear runner-up is Blood and Blade, so well done to the creative team there too.

Mentions in despatches also go to: Iron and Rust, The North Water and The Autumn Throne.

As I said back in December [!] I shall not be doing any regular cover of the month posts in the coming year as I want to concentrate more on 15th century history posts. So, many thanks to those who have followed the cover selections over the past 18 months.



Posted in Covers, Historical Fiction | Tagged , | 8 Comments