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.



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Historical Fiction Cover of the Year Award – the Contest!

I have selected a baker’s dozen of covers for you to consider in this year’s contest – one from each month, except for July, but to compensate I’ve included two from April plus one suggested by you in your comments.

My selections reflect my own personal preferences – so you’re stuck with that but you now have until midnight on New Year’s Eve – UK time – to vote for your winner.

Since I won’t be continuing my monthly feature on covers in 2017, this is my last cover post for a while.

Here are the contenders:

All you have to do is write a comment on this post saying which one you want to win. Comments already posted will count.

The winner will be revealed on New Year’s Day.


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Christmas Bloghop!

So, the Best Supporting Role Bloghop comes to a fitting end with Helen Hollick’s character from the Sea Witch stories: Claude de la Rue. http://ow.ly/If7v307dn4M

Check out the other characters below:


The Bloghop is hosted by the marvellous Helen Hollick.

Join Helen and a selection of other fabulous authors and their Supporting Role Characters. Each author has chosen one of the supporting cast from their books rather than the main protagonists – a new direction and a different introduction to books.

Click on the image to go to the site.

Each day I’ll add a direct link here to a new post!

First up for December 6th is author, Inge H Borg http://ow.ly/n7wn306R6NX

For December 7th we have Matt Harffy’s supporting role: http://ow.ly/qmet306TiHV

December 8th already and we meet Alison Morton’s Lurio from her Roma Nova series. It’s great to see him again because he’s a quirky character I really like: http://ow.ly/xPbI306VA2c

It’s December 9th so it must be Regina Jeffers’ Viscount Stafford – fascinating character who seems to pop up regularly.  http://ow.ly/fgNL306XJDn

And on December 10th the array of interesting supporting role characters continues to grow with Anna Belfrage’s Luke Graham. http://ow.ly/YzFe306ZMMi

Sunday 11th and the supporting role bandwagon hurtles onwards to meet Christoph Fischer’s character, the Countess. https://t.co/mHomwXvU6Q

The second week of the supporting role bloghop begins with Pauline Barclay’s Zilda Gilespie. http://ow.ly/I5Zc3072as7

Today Antoine Vanner introduces his supporting role character. http://ow.ly/lBT330769dZ

December 14th brings Annie Whitehead’s Queen Alfreda to the fore in a supporting role. http://ow.ly/z9f63077aIy

And today, it’s my unsung hero, Hal, who steps up in a supporting role. http://ow.ly/9IiQ3079bGP

December 16th brings us Carolyn Hughes’ character, Matilda http://ow.ly/U1tH307dmXN

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Scars From The Past Goes Paperback

Tomorrow, December 1st, Scars From The Past, is out in paperback.


It’s the first of a new Wars of the Roses series set during the 1480s. The Elder family are still the focus of the story and much of the action takes place in Ludlow, where the young Edward, Prince of Wales, is based.

At the heart of this tale there is also a love story – a troubled love. John Elder, son of Yorkist legend, Ned Elder, brings a whole new generation of characters into play. There are also some old friends that readers of the Rebels and Brothers series will remember. But this is a fresh start, so you don’t need to have read a word of the previous series to enjoy this one.

The first review of Scars From the Past says:

“Derek Birks has taken his usual high standard of storytelling to a whole new level. Scars From the Past is impossible to put down… I defy you to enjoy this book and not want to go back to Feud, where it all started.”

The Review. See the rest of the review here

You can order the paperback from Waterstones, Blackwells, Foyles – indeed, as they say, from all good bookstores – though it appears to me that Blackwells is £1 cheaper – and, of course, Amazon…

Scars From The Past – ISBN: 978-1-910944-23-3

Here’s what it says on the back of the book:

An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy.

By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years.
The Elder family have discovered a fragile peace in the lands they fought to win back, yet scars from the past remain with them all.
Given time, they might heal, but when did the Elders ever have enough time? And close to home in Ludlow, trouble is stirring.

Born out of the bloody devastation of the Wars of the Roses, young John Elder is now the heir to his father’s legacy, but he finds it a poisonous one. Driven from the woman he loves by a duty he fears, John abandons his legacy and flees the country to become a mercenary in Flanders.

In his absence, stalked by a ruthless outlaw, the Elder family must face a deadly storm of blood and chaos. When the young heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, is caught up in their bitter struggle, the future appears bleak.
Only if the Elders can put the scars from the past behind them, is there any hope of survival.

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