The English Wars of the 15th Century.
The Swoppet Knights were cast as participants in the "Wars of the Roses", the name given to the prolonged period of complex dynastic struggle in England during the years 1455-1485. It was not a part of history which was well-known to the average schoolboy. The only item of information which has embedded itself in general consciousness is that the two sides were "York" and "Lancaster", distinguished by the white and red rose respectively, which was of course the feature seized upon by Britains in using the plastic roses as adornments for the Knights' shields. To protest that the roses were only one of several emblems used by the warring armies, and that even the term "Wars of the Roses" was only invented by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th Century, is to miss the point, at least as far as owners of Swoppet Knights were concerned. To the childish imagination, the concept of two sides with such simple, identifiable and above all interchangeable motifs seemed perfect.
The causes of the wars were many, and the events leading up to them took place over many years, indeed over generations, and revolved around the question of succession to the throne of England. [In those times, the Kingdom of "England" included the principality of Wales, which had been annexed since the times of Edward I, but not Scotland, which was then a foreign, and hostile, country.] In England, as throughout Christendom, it was universally accepted that the best, nay the only, form of government for a civilised nation was a hereditary monarch. Though some of his powers might be limited in practice by his Barons or by Parliament, the King was in many respects an absolute ruler, and would in the normal course of events be succeeded by his eldest son. Since ancient times, son had followed father onto the throne, not always without opposition or revolt it's true, but in general without anyone questioning the validity of the system of primogeniture. However, during the Middle Ages, there was no clear rule for establishing precedence when the direct male line of succession failed. If a King left only an under-age son, or only daughters, or, worse, no offspring at all, the legal void which ensued was always likely to result in conflict.
I have tried to clarify the complex relationships between the characters, and to recount the course of history as simply as possible, hopefully without omitting any event of major significance. The inevitable genealogical tables are as simple as I could possibly make them. But the tale is unavoidably a complicated one, featuring many persons of the same name (usually Henry, Edward or Richard, with a few Edmunds thrown in), and many changes of title and inter-marriages. It's not an edifying story either, being for the most part a catalogue of plotting, war, cold-blooded murder, summary execution, and acts of betrayal, many carried out against a person's own family. It would make a great TV soap opera.
As with all great soap operas, our story starts with a man who had many sons. Edward III reigned from 1327 to 1377, the seventh King of the Angevin, or Plantagenet, dynasty (i.e. descended from Henry II), and fathered no less than eleven children. The four eldest surviving sons whose feuding descendents were to bring about the wars of the 15th century were, in order of age: (1) Edward of Woodstock, styled the Black Prince; (2) Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence; (3) John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster; and (4) Edmund of Langley, the Duke of York. (There was a fifth surviving son, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, but his family were to play little part in the wars.) Edward of Woodstock predeceased his father, perishing like so many others from the Black Death in 1376, so Edward III was succeeded by his grandson, the 10-year-old Richard II, the only son of the Black Prince.
The deposition of Richard II in 1399, at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, was perhaps the most significant coup in English politics since the time of William the Conqueror, and set the scene for a long period of civil strife. Richard II was childless, and, if today's rules were to have been enforced, the succession would pass to the descendants of the second son of Edward III. The line of Lionel of Antwerp was now represented by the Mortimer family through his only daughter's marriage to Edmund Mortimer, the third Earl of March, but Edmund and his son Roger had both died young, and so, by 1399, the direct heir of Lionel of Antwerp was Roger's young son, also called Edmund Mortimer, the fifth Earl of March (also titled Earl of Ulster), and the great-great-grandson of Edward III. However, it was not by any means universally accepted that the throne would pass to the Earl of March. Richard II never acknowledged the Mortimers as his heirs, and there were many intrigues in court circles around this time as to who would succeed after his death.
The line of John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III, was complicated by his three marriages, but Henry of Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford, Gaunt's son (through the first marriage) and heir, was perforce a rival claimant of some pedigree. He was exiled to France by the nervous Richard II following a particularly complicated bout of plot and counter-plot. As was always the case in these turbulent times, whether or not an actual conspiracy to seize the throne had been mooted was not the issue, rather that the perception existed that Bolingbroke was in a position where he could have hatched such a plot, and therefore he was judged dangerous by Richard. When, in 1399, Richard rashly extended Bolingbroke's term of exile to life, and announced that all his lands and titles were forfeited, there was little the latter could do except stage a rebellion, and this he did by assembling a force of French mercenaries, landing at Ravenspur and marching on London. With the aid of the northern Barons such as Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Ralph Neville (sometimes spelt Nevill), Earl of Westmorland, who saw their own privileges under attack in the high-handed action of the King, the campaign soon became a rout, and the result was not long in doubt. Richard II was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he ended his days in 1400. Bolingbroke's claim to the throne was endorsed by Parliament, and he was crowned Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian Kings.
When understanding the nuances of medieval history, it is a good idea to first dispense with some of the characterisation in Shakespeare's plays, for while it is colourful and literate it is not necessarily historically accurate - and it must be borne in mind the Bard was writing during the Tudor era, when concerted attempts were being made to defame Kings, and pretenders, of deposed dynasties. Nevertheless, the reign of Henry IV was indeed at first a troubled one, with rebellion by the southern (pro-Richard II) Barons, war in Wales, and a revolt by his former ally, the Earl of Northumberland, whose forces were famously led by the Earl's son, Henry "Hotspur". This last insurrection was effectively defeated at Shrewsbury in 1403, though the war dragged on for several more years. Yet, in spite of all his troubles, and the mysterious skin disease which blighted his later life, Henry IV died with his realm at peace in 1413, not England's best-loved ruler perhaps, but certainly not the wretch tortured by guilt as depicted in the plays which bear his name - and also one of a very small number of people in this story to die in their sleep.
Henry IV was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry V, in folklore the noblest ruler England ever had. Often accused of having plotted his father's downfall, and certainly no stranger to intrigue and statecraft, he was also a true leader of his age, with all the qualities expected of a King in the Middle Ages. He had fought for his father's cause in the Welsh wars with distinction, and relished the prospect of winning glory for himself and his kingdom. There were to be few revolts during his reign, but one must be mentioned because of its significance to the rest of the tale. Richard, Earl of Cambridge, the elder son of Edmund of Langley, was executed in 1415 for plotting in the Mortimers' cause. He had been married to Anne Mortimer, sister of Edmund the fifth Earl of March, and they had a son, also called Richard, who was to inherit the title Duke of York and play a major part in the Wars of the Roses. It should perhaps be mentioned that Edmund Mortimer had no ambition to ascend the throne - indeed it was he who had betrayed the conspiracy to the King. In any case, Henry V had several brothers, notably Thomas, Duke of Clarence, John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, so the Lancastrian succession looked assured.
In the Middle Ages, the politics of England and of France were intertwined more closely than at any time in history. Since the Norman conquest, the English King had had an interest in, and at times aspired to, the throne of France. The claim of Edward III had brought about the protracted series of conflicts known as the "Hundred Years War", which had been been fought, on and off, since 1337. In the early 15th Century, France was itself riven with internal division, as supporters of the Louis, Duke of Orleans, and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, brother and cousin respectively to the insane King Charles VI, squabbled over the succession. The English had already changed sides in this dispute before Henry V ascended the throne, and Henry, in direct contrast to the policy of his late father, allied himself to the Burgundian faction. This made enemies of the Duke of Orleans's followers (now known as "Armagnacs" as they were led by one Bernard of Armagnac, father-in-law of the young Duke who had succeeded his murdered father) who supported the succession of the Dauphin, also called Charles. Henry pressed his claim to what he saw as his rightful inheritance, the lordship of Normandy, Maine and Anjou, by making war on Charles VI. In 1415, he besieged and captured the port of Harfleur, and won perhaps the most famous English victory ever on foreign soil, at Agincourt. The superiority of the English longbow was of course the key to this triumph, as indeed it had been many times in recent years. Indeed, even though the French outnumbered Henry by four to one at Agincourt, most historians count their decision to offer battle that day as foolish. Normandy was conquered between 1417 and 1419, and the English now occupied more French territory than did the forces of the French King himself. With France at his mercy, Henry made what could have turned out to be a very propitious move. He did not claim the throne for himself, as yet, but took the hand of Charles's daughter Catherine of Valois in marriage, and at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 Charles recognised Henry, and the offspring of the union with Catherine, as his own heirs, in preference to the claim of the Dauphin.
However, Henry V died of dysentery in 1422, while his reluctant father-in-law was still alive, and although his infant son Henry VI did become the only man ever to be crowned as King of both England and France, the dream of the two Kingdoms being united was to end quickly. Led by the character known to history as Joan of Arc, the forces of the Dauphin beat the English at Orleans in 1429. The Dauphin was crowned as Charles VII the same year, utterly repudiating the English claim to the dual crown, and the Burgundian alliance quickly fell apart.
As the years rolled by, and Henry VI grew to adulthood, his problems mounted. The young King's most trusted counsellor, William de la Pole, the fourth Earl of Suffolk (and later the first Duke), secured a diplomatic marriage for his master, to the formidable French lady Margaret of Anjou, niece of Charles VII, by the Treaty of Tours in 1444, but this only served to exacerbate the King's problems. The new consort's first act of consequence was to persuade her husband to agree to concede the province of Maine to France, and the resultant outrage meant any prospect of an end to the war quickly vanished, together with the Queen's popularity. The English soon had the worst of the renewed fighting, and lost Normandy in 1450 and, following the defeat at Castillon, Aquitaine in 1453. This last province had been in Plantagenet hands since the days of Henry II.
At home, Henry VI was not a success either. He was not blessed with good health, and suffered from bouts of insanity, a legacy perhaps of his descent from Charles VI. Though devout, educated and full of good intent, he was no leader in himself, nor a good judge of character, and thus the subordinates to whom he delegated authority did little to maintain confidence in the King. The country was effectively controlled by Margaret of Anjou and the Duke of Suffolk, and was more or less on the brink of anarchy, as evinced by the 1450 rebellion of Jack Cade and the men of Kent. Inevitably, speculation began about the succession, all the more so as, by the late 1450s, all the sons of Henry IV (the uncles of Henry VI) were deceased, and, once again, attention turned to the other branches of the Plantagenet family.
Court circles of the time were dominated by the rivalry between, on the one hand, Edmund Beaufort, the second Duke of Somerset, an ally of Suffolk, and, on the other, Richard, the third Duke of York, son of the executed Duke of Cambridge of the same name. The Beauforts (of whom more later) were, like the House of Lancaster, descended from John of Gaunt, albeit through his third marriage, to Catherine Swynford, and Somerset was the only surviving grandson of Gaunt through this branch of the Plantagenet family tree. With Henry V's brothers now all deceased and Henry VI still conspicuously childless, Somerset could hardly fail to aspire to the throne. However, Suffolk and Somerset were largely held responsible for the failures of the recent French campaigns, and were unpopular in the country at large. Further, the third marriage of John of Gaunt had been granted legitimacy only long after the event by the Lancastrian Kings, and then with the explicit proviso that the offspring of the union were debarred from the succession. This Act of Parliament had been brought in at a time when there had been many living direct descendants of Henry IV, and the Beauforts might have been seen more as rivals than as natural heirs.
Richard of York used Plantagenet as his surname, but is generally referred to by historians as simply "York". He was not only the paternal grandson of Edmund of Langley, Edward III's fourth son, but also the son of Anne Mortimer (wife of the late Duke of Cambridge), who was the sister of the Edmund Mortimer, fifth Earl of March, who had died without issue in 1424. York, as Edmund's nephew, therefore had a viable claim on the throne by virtue of his maternal, Mortimer ancestry through Lionel of Antwerp, the second son of Edward III, the senior surviving scion of the old Plantagenet family, as well as the "Yorkist" blood on his father's side. But of course, if York's precedence through his mother's side of the family were to be acknowledged, it would have meant conceding that the entire Lancastrian dynasty were nothing more than usurpers, and that was anathema to the Court of Henry VI. Whether or not his claim (through direct descent from Edward III's fourth son) outweighed that of Somerset (from Edward III's third son, albeit by a dubious marriage) was the crux of the dispute which brought about the early phases of the Wars of the Roses. In passing, it might be mentioned that the white rose motif was originally a Mortimer badge, and, though Richard incorporated it into his banner, it was overshadowed by the falcon and fetterlock emblem of the Dukes of York.
York, an orphan at the age of four when his father was executed, had been made a ward to Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmorland, and had married Westmorland's daughter Cecily Neville, the "Rose of Raby" as she was called. Through this marriage and his Mortimer ancestry, he was now one of the country's principal landowners, owning vast tracts of the Midland areas of England, though he made his base at Ludlow in the Welsh Marches. Two other members of Westmorland's landed family would play key roles in the events that lay ahead: Westmorland's son, Richard Neville, who acquired the title Earl of Salisbury through marriage, who was York's brother-in-law; and Salisbury's own son, another Richard Neville, who became known as the Earl of Warwick following another astute marriage, into the Beauchamp family.
The Duke of York had done the King sterling service in France, acting as the King's Lieutenant between 1436 and 1447, but had not been able to stem the French advances, largely due to interference from Henry VI and his favourite, Somerset, and it was from this period that the rivalry of York and Somerset originated. Following the French defeats, York was "appointed" Lieutenant of Ireland, effectively exiled, but this proved a mistake because, as holder of the earldom of Ulster (another Mortimer heirloom), he could raise troops for his personal retinue easily and unnoticed. York returned in 1452 with a large force at his side, and, in what might be viewed as rehearsal for the forthcoming conflicts, marched on London, ostensibly to defend himself against whispered allegations of treasonable behaviour. Such accusations were already tending to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Somerset, however, forestalled the crisis by duplicitous dealing, undertaking that York's grievances would be addressed once he had disbanded his army, then reneging on his promise, and the status quo was preserved for the time being. The impasse was plain for all to see. York was too powerful and had too many allies for him to be dispossessed (as Bolingbroke had bypassed the claims of Lionel of Antwerp's family, over 50 years before), but he was not trusted by the King's advisors nor, crucially, by the Queen. Forced to swear an oath of loyalty to King Henry (loyalty which he always protested), York withdrew to his estate at Ludlow and bided his time.
In 1453, there occurred an event which seemed to take everyone by surprise, the birth of a son to Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, Edward by name. Henry said the child must have been conceived by the Holy Ghost, but York wondered aloud if Somerset might not be a more likely surrogate father. By this time, Henry VI was manifestly unable to disguise his madness, and so the Duke of York, still affecting allegiance to the King and his infant son, was appointed by Parliament as Protector in 1454. Never a subtle political manoeuverer, York's first act of note was to arrest Somerset. Later that same year, the King recovered his wits temporarily, and York was dismissed as Protector. Somerset, free again, knew the crisis could no longer be averted, and resolved never to find himself at the mercy of York again.
The Wars of the Roses (as we may now call them) began in May 1455, when Somerset and Margaret of Anjou called an armed "Council" at Leicester, purportedly to ensure the King's "safety". Barons loyal to the King, or more specifically to Somerset and Margaret, were summoned to this armed gathering; York and his allies were not. This was tantamount to a declaration of war, and, though York was loath to take arms against the King, his hand had been forced. His followers marched to meet the Lancastrian forces of Henry VI and Somerset. The armies met at what is now called the First Battle of St Albans on 22nd May 1455, and the King's men were quickly and soundly defeated. It was a strange affair, hardly worthy of the name battle at all. Each side had only around 3,000 troops, and the number of fatalities is put at around 60. The Yorkist attacks on the town were at first half-hearted, as if they had no stomach for a proper war at this stage. The Earl of Warwick, however, found a gap in the Lancastrian defences, and his soldiers quickly put the defenders to flight.
Edmund Beaufort, the second Duke of Somerset died in that battle, and the King was wounded and taken prisoner, but York made no move yet to depose Henry VI. Indeed, he still swore loyalty to the King, and, if his oath is to be believed, would have continued to serve Henry - and his son - had events turned out as he expected.
At this point, perhaps an indication as to the make-up of the armies might be useful. The King's true power in those days derived not from his own retinue, but from the arms of the Barons who were loyal to him. Though all Englishmen would fight in the King's name in wars abroad, the idea of a standing English army owing allegiance directly and exclusively to the King was still some way in the future. English society remained predominantly feudal in organisation, and each man gave his loyalty to his own lord, who in turn gave fealty (or denied it) to the King.
The Yorkist camp was mainly drawn from the Barons of what we now call the Midlands, whereas the "Lancastrian" cause was most firmly rooted in the north of England, what is now Northumberland, Lancashire and indeed Yorkshire. [By "Barons", what is meant is the collective ranks of the English peerage, specifically those nobles titled, in order of precedence, Duke, Earl, Marquis, Viscount and Baron.] The private armies ("retinues") of these Barons were drawn largely from the class of professional soldiery that had been established during the Hundred Years War. Typically, they consisted of about eighty percent bowmen and crossbowmen, with twenty percent "men-at-arms", who usually fought with pikes. The days of cannon-fire as the dominant force on the battlefield were not yet dawned, though most armies included some primitive guns in their service. Tactics were fairly rudimentary. Armies were divided into three "battles", or battalions, "vaward", main and rearward, which would each take on the enemy's equivalent "battles". Most proper "fighting" consisted of opening artillery and archery duels, followed by a mêlée of hand-to-hand combat, which by this time, due to horses' vulnerability to arrows, was done on foot. The two armies would slug it out until one side would realise it was losing the day, whereupon the defeated soldiers would turn round and flee. The armies used in the Wars of the Roses varied in size, but were seldom more than a few thousand strong.
Though the casualty rate among the nobility during the protracted conflict was wastefully high, the civilian population was generally left unmolested by the warring armies, and remained for the most part indifferent to the outcome of the wars. Of course, when a hungry and largely undisciplined army marched into a town, it was not exactly a cause of celebration for the inhabitants, but reports of wholesale looting and pillaging were the exception rather than the rule during the Wars of the Roses, in contrast to the scorched earth tactics of the English armies in France a few years earlier. The tradition at the time was that, when a battle had clearly been decided, the order would be given by the victorious commander that all commoners fighting on the losing side were to be spared. However, the nobles who had fought with the vanquished army were very often denied all quarter and mercilessly killed during the rout which ensued. Surrender was no better option for persons of importance who had chosen to fight on the wrong side, for, if they were taken prisoner, they were almost invariably executed as quickly and unceremoniously as possible. In this respect at least, the Age of Chivalry was by this time most emphatically ended.
To continue the story, in November of 1455, the Henry VI's infirmity once more overtook him. York was reappointed Protector, and Warwick was made Captain of Calais, now of course the only English outpost in France. But the peace was to be short-lived. Queen Margaret surrounded herself with a new, younger generation of nobility, chiefly sons of the Barons who had fallen at St Albans, and gradually won Parliament back to her cause. Her motivation seems to have been simply to preserve the rule of the Lancastrian line, ensuring the succession of her son, Prince Edward. This might have been laudable enough, but, in order to achieve this, she deemed it essential that she effectively maintain the rule over the Kingdom during the dotage of Henry VI, and convinced herself that anyone seeking to prevent her from exercising such control was a usurper. York, by contrast, had probably been well enough placed to have seized the throne in 1455 had he desired it, and his declared position was that he was better qualified to rule - as Protector, naturally - until the Prince achieved his majority. Margaret of course viewed this as deception, and the truth is at this distance unknowable. In 1456, as the King had once again regained his health, York was dismissed from office, and returned to exile. Two years of increasing tension followed, both parties arming and preparing for the full-scale war that, everyone realised, was now inevitable.
A further armed Council, convened at Coventry in 1459, proved to be the touchstone. The Yorkist leaders (York himself, Salisbury and Warwick) were instructed to attend, and their absence was taken as the cue for hostilities to commence. The Earl of Salisbury, en route to concentrating at Ludlow, was ambushed by the Lancastrians at Blore Heath, in Staffordshire, but could not be prevented from joining up with the forces of Warwick and York. Lord Audley, the Lancastrian commander, was slain in that battle. However, even when united at Ludlow, the Yorkist army found it was significantly inferior in numbers to that of the Queen, all the more so when the 600 men of Calais commanded by one Andrew Trollope defected to the Lancastrians the day before the anticipated action was to take place. Overwhelmed, the Yorkists withdrew without giving battle, and went back into exile again, York to Ireland, Warwick and Salisbury to Calais. The Queen's army took possession of the town of Ludlow, and, sad to say, heartily sacked it. York, his son Edward, Salisbury and Warwick were "attainted" as traitors by a hastily-convened Parliament.
This would, however, prove to be a temporary setback for the Yorkist cause. In 1460, Warwick and Salisbury landed at Sandwich in Kent, together with York's son Edward, then styled the Earl of March. They soon captured London, and the Queen's Lancastrian army, which, perhaps expecting attack from Ireland, had been based in Coventry, moved to meet them. The opposing armies of the Nevilles and Margaret met at Northampton on the 10th July. Salisbury had remained in London, besieging the Tower, so Edward of March commanded the Yorkist left wing, Warwick the centre, and Salisbury's brother William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, the right. This time, it was the Lancastrians who were betrayed by treachery. Lord Grey of Ruthin, in charge of the right flank of the Queen's army, switched sides during the battle, ensuring a decisive Yorkist victory. Henry VI was captured again, while his Queen and son Edward fled to Wales, taking refuge with one Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and half-brother to the King, a man whose family would later have a much more significant impact on the wars. The Lancastrian army commander, Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, was slain that day.
Warwick and March took the King back to London, where they were joined by Richard, Duke of York, newly arrived from Ireland. York once again had the realm at his mercy, and this time when he entered the capital, he astonished his supporters by wearing as his coat of arms not the falcon and fetterlock motif of the House of York, but the quartered three gold lilies on blue and three gold lions on red - the badge of the King of England. His decision to absent himself from the events leading up to Northampton had in his own mind absolved him from any blame in the deposition of the King, yet now he could restrain himself no longer. York controlled the Kingdom, he had the King prisoner, and his earlier, oft-repeated oaths of loyalty to Henry VI counted for naught. He demanded the crown.
Many who had previously been York's followers balked at this turn of events, especially while Henry VI was conspicuously alive, and Parliament was unable to decide which way to turn. After much debate, a compromise was agreed by all parties in the capital. Henry VI would continue to reign, and York would be Protector as before, but would also become acknowledged as the King's heir, to the exclusion of Price Edward. This agreement was made without the consent of young Edward himself, or of course his mother Margaret of Anjou. She, with a certain inevitability, set about raising a new army, with which she soon overran much of northern England.
York and Salisbury set out to meet her, this time leaving Warwick to hold London, but soon found themselves outnumbered, and were besieged in Sandal Castle, Yorkshire. On 30th December 1460, at the battle of Wakefield, York was deceived into giving battle against an enemy far more numerous than he had realised. Stories vary as to why York, an experienced captain, had chosen to emerge from the safety of his castle. It appears the Lancastrian commander, Henry Beaufort, third Duke of Somerset, had kept a large body of men hidden from the defenders' view, and only revealed his hand when the Yorkists were drawn out, either by stratagem or by treachery, from their sanctuary. Richard, Duke of York, himself was killed in the fray, as was his second son Edmund. The elder Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, was captured and unceremoniously executed. In a bygone age, or perhaps during wars against a foreign power, Salisbury might have expected to be ransomed, but this was now a Civil War, and both sides regarded the other faction's leaders as guilty of treason, and in a touch gruesome even by the standards of this period, the heads of York and Salisbury were displayed on the city walls of York, adorned by paper crowns. Such, it was now clear, would be the price of defeat in this conflict.
At this stage, the Yorkist cause might have seemed lost, as the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury had of course been its leading figureheads. But they both left behind them ambitious and resourceful sons. In early 1461, Richard of York's 19-year-old son Edward, the Earl of March and now of course Duke of York in his own right, fought a brief campaign against another Lancastrian army under Jasper Tudor, and soundly defeated them at Mortimer's Cross, near Wigmore, on 3rd February. Jasper's father Owen Tudor, the second husband of Catherine of Valois, Henry V's widow, was captured in this battle, and of course executed. Having wisely resisted the temptation to seek immediate revenge for his father's death, by attacking the army of Margaret, Edward of York now found himself the master of the situation militarily.
Salisbury's son the Earl of Warwick, encouraged by this turn of events, led his forces out of London to face Margaret. With her victorious army - unusally for the period - engaged in systematic plunder as it marched south, Warwick was the only one who could stop her, and he chose to do so at St Albans. The Second Battle of that name was fought on the 17th February, 1461, and its course went very differently from the First. The Lancastrians, commanded by the traitor Trollope, were again favoured by acts of betrayal, this time by the Yorkist leader Lovelace, but their tactics were also quite innovatory, the day being essentially won by a flank attack at the decisive moment. The battle was also notable for the first use of primitive handguns or "arquebuses" on English soil, again by the troops of Lancaster. Warwick, his tactics and leadership questionable, was roundly defeated, though he was vigorous enough to save the larger part of his force to fight another day, retreating to join Edward. As for Margaret, though she had the person of the King restored to her (Warwick had chosen to take Henry with him to St Albans, and the King was freed in the battle), she did not deign to march on London. The frightened city would certainly have resisted her, and it seemed she was not willing to have her troops sack the capital as they had St Albans and before it Ludlow. Instead, she and Prince Edward contented themselves with a ritual slaughter of captured Yorkists, and fell back to the city of York.
Edward of York joined up with Warwick's survivors, and entered London, where to the approval of most of the populace, he was proclaimed King Edward IV, on 4th March 1461. Clearly, however, he had much work to do, and quickly, before he could consider his crown in any measure secure. Both Edward IV and Margaret of Anjou raised large armies, some say around 40,000 on each side. The two sides met at Towton, near Tadcaster in Yorkshire, on 29th March 1461, in what became the bloodiest battle ever fought in England, with fatalities put at over 30,000. The Yorkists won the day, and the margin of their victory was decisive. Margaret and King Henry VI, together with Prince Edward, fled to Scotland. Although the Lancastrian cause was kept alive through sporadic raids, the Yorkist Kingdom of Edward IV was now firmly established.
In 1464, the last remnants of the Lancastrian army in the north, under Henry Beaufort, the third Duke of Somerset and son of the Edmund Beaufort who had died at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455, were defeated at Hexham in Northumberland by Warwick's brother John Neville, Lord Montagu, and the following summer King Henry VI was again taken into custody, and placed in the Tower of London. Though the terms of his imprisonment were not severe - the Tower was thought of a secure palace in those days, rather than a gaol - Henry was no longer afforded the dignity he had previously enjoyed, being addressed now as plain Henry of Windsor. He was not kept alive through any outdated notion of chivalry, but rather the plain logic of Edward IV, who rightly calculated the pathetic figure of Henry VI made a less convincing figurehead for the Lancastrian cause than would his young son. The former Queen Margaret by this time had fled to France, taking Prince Edward with her, and England presumably thought it had heard the last of her.
The reign of Edward IV, from 1461 to 1483, is best recalled for his relationship with Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, the so-called "Kingmaker". Allies in the early phase of the Wars of the Roses, the behaviour of Edward when on the throne alienated Warwick, who ended up turning against the man who he felt owed him his throne. The new King was perhaps overly determined to show the world he was his own man, while Warwick may have considered himself entitled to greater rewards than what was to come his way. Certainly, it seems somewhat churlish not to have awarded him the dukedom he craved: though it had been unheard of for a non-Royal to be elevated to the highest rank of the peerage, there had been a recent precedent in William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk. It seems the final cause of the split came in 1464, when Edward married Elizabeth Grey, née Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian captain killed at the Second Battle of St Albans - the White Queen of the Philippa Gregory novel. Again, it is wise not to ascribe too much truth to Shakespeare's account of their courtship, but it does seem clear that the King had chosen to marry for love (or perhaps lust would be a better word for it) rather than accept a negotiated match with a foreign heiress, such as Warwick was trying to broker. Indeed, the breakdown of the marriage negotiations were at least partly to blame for earning Edward IV the enmity of the new French King, Louis XI. In fact, Edward had favoured alliance with the Burgundian cause in France anyway, and to this end arranged the marriage of his sister Margaret to Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy.
Warwick's defection, initially, was in the cause of Edward IV's younger brother George, the Duke of Clarence, the third son of Richard of York (the second having died alongside his father at Wakefield in 1460), whom he intended to marry to his own daughter, Isobel Neville. While Edward IV was without issue, Clarence was of course his heir, but that didn't stop this foolish prince from plotting against his own brother. Edward forbade the marriage of Clarence to Isobel, and this drove Warwick and his allies to more or less open rebellion. Clarence married Isobel anyway, in the safe haven of Calais, and another war was imminent.
The revolt was first manifested in the strange affairs of Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale, in 1469, essentially Warwick-inspired revolts in the Yorkshire region. Warwick and his new son-in-law launched a bid for power at the same time, landing at Kent and making war on the King. The combined rebel forces overcame an army led by Lord Herbert at Edgecote Field, Northamptonshire, on 26th July. Edward IV, knowing his remaining forces were well outnumbered, surrendered to the protection of the Church a few days later, essentially defying Warwick to commit sacrilege as well as regicide, a challenge from which the Kingmaker drew back. Warwick, however, was the master of the country, and wreaked cruel revenge for the perceived slights of recent times, executing many members of the Woodville family who had secured advancement since the clandestine marriage of Elizabeth and Edward IV.
But, in England at this time, usurping power was one thing, holding it quite another. A further rebellion, in the Lancastrian cause, by the Westmorland branch of the Neville family served to distract Warwick from his purpose. It had become apparent that he could never himself hold the country in firm rule while Edward IV lived. Neither, as was now realised, would Clarence be accepted as rightful King even if Edward were deposed: the House of Lancaster would only exploit the Yorkists' internal divisions to renew their own campaign for the restitution of Henry VI's son Prince Edward. Warwick bowed to the inevitable, and Edward IV returned to London, remained King, and another uneasy stalemate ensued.
In early 1470, an uprising was arranged in Lincolnshire, to give Warwick and Clarence an excuse to raise another army. However, the ruse was transparent, and Edward knew very quickly that it was the work of the Kingmaker. The rebels were routed at Losecoat Field, near Stamford, on 12th March, and Edward turned his attention onto Warwick, who fled to Exeter and thence to France. Warwick had rapidly became disillusioned with Clarence, the man he would have made King, and his scheming eye turned to the Lancaster clan, exiled in France for some years now. In Swoppet Knight terms, he unplugged the white rose from his shield and replaced it with a red one! His attentions switched to Edward, the Prince of Wales, the now 16-year-old son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, previously disinherited in favour of Richard of York, and still of course the figurehead of the Lancastrian cause. King Louis XI, always anxious to make friends with adversaries of Edward IV, brokered an alliance between Warwick and Margaret, hitherto sworn enemies, and their combined forces landed on the south coast of England in the summer of 1470. Their captains included Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
Distracted by yet another rising in the region of the city of York, Edward IV was caught out by the speed of this invasion, and betrayed by the defection of the forces commanded by Lord Montagu (siding with the man who was, after all, his brother). Together with his surviving brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, and Lord Hastings, the King took ship to Bruges, in what is now Belgium, and was then in the territory of his brother-in-law and ally, Duke Charles of Burgundy. What historians refer to as the "Interim Kingdom of Burgundy" was in those days a powerful state in its own right, comprising not just the eponymous wine-growing region of eastern France, but also what we now call Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. By allying himself with this expanding Dukedom, Edward IV was, it seemed, joining forces with an emerging nation, one which might aspire to dominate and perhaps even annex its neighbours, including the strife-torn Kingdom of France.
Warwick, meanwhile, took power in London, where he caused Henry VI to be released from the Tower, and the bewildered Henry was formally "readepted" as King. Henry thus became the first English monarch to have two separate reigns, 1422-61 and 1470-71. Queen Margaret and Prince Edward had remained in France during this escapade, perhaps not altogther trusting of Warwick's fealty, nor of course certain as to the outcome. In December 1470, the true intentions of the Kingmaker became plain, as the Prince married Anne Neville, Warwick's younger daughter, aged all of 14. Now the restored line of the Lancastrians would run true, Prince Edward would succeed his father (quite soon, probably), and the blood of the Nevilles would run in the veins of English monarchs for eternity. For good measure, Warwick also instigated another purge of Yorkists and Woodvilles in favour of members of the Neville family.
But Edward IV was not to be written off so easily. With the aid of his Burgundian allies, the natural enemies of Louis XI and all the webs he spun, Edward had raised more troops. His new army was not large but from the start he seemed to have history on his side. He landed at Ravenspur, on the Humber, in March 1471, the same port from which Henry Bolingbroke had set out to depose Richard II, 72 years earlier, and the significance was not lost on the populace. No force stood against him, and many men threw in their lot with him as he marched south. Warwick, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, refused to fight, sheltering in Coventry. Edward was reunited - and reconciled - with his brother Clarence near Banbury, and, when Clarence joined his force to Edward's, the outcome of the campaign was inevitable. Edward IV re-entered London in April 1471, taking control of the person of Henry VI. Warwick's army now marched on the capital, and met Edward's army at Barnet on the 14th April. This battle also featured a panic brought on by rumours of treason, as Warwick's men mistakenly took the banner of one of their own captains, Oxford, for that of Edward, and fired on their own troops. The battle was won for the Yorkist side when Edward brought up a reserve force of mounted Knights, and the Lancastrian line began a retreat that, as so often was the case, turned into a rout. The Kingmaker and his brother Montagu died in that battle, Warwick's decision to fight on foot, combined with his clearly discernible coat of arms, making him an easy target for the victorious Yorkist footsoldiers, as his army and his ambitions melted away.
Thus passed away a historical character more the stuff of legend than many actual Kings, but does he really deserve the epithet "Kingmaker"? Certainly his forces and his money played a great role in the ascent of Edward IV, but it must be recalled - it certainly was by Edward - that, in the crucial battles of 1461 Warwick had lost his (St Albans) while Edward had won his (Mortimer's Cross). And neither of Warwick's other attempts to place his puppets on the throne were successful. Perhaps "Would-be Kingmaker" might be more appropriate?
Margaret and Prince Edward had landed in England when they heard of the renewal of war, and their force marched from the south coast towards Wales, where they would join with Jasper Tudor. The city of Gloucester, however, closed its gates against the Lancastrians, denying the passage of the Severn, and Margaret was compelled to try to cross the river at Tewkesbury. Edward IV and his army arrived to give them battle on 4th May 1471, a day that was to see the final demise of the House of Lancaster.
Once more, Edward IV crucially kept mounted forces in reserve, and he used them to outflank the Lancastrians, who once again gave way and fled. Prince Edward, the son of Henry VI, was killed that day, like Warwick at Barnet paying a high price for being so gallantly conspicuous but not mounted. Another fatality, executed the day after the battle, was the army commander, Edmund Beaufort, fourth Duke of Somerset. This Edmund Beaufort was the second son of the second Duke of Somerset, of the same name, who had been killed at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455, and the younger brother of the third Duke, Henry, who was executed after Hexham. As a third Beaufort brother, John, had also died at Tewkesbury, all three sons of the old Duke of Somerset had now perished at Yorkist hands, and the male heirs of the families of John of Gaunt, both Lancaster and Beaufort, were all eliminated - but the line of the Beauforts was not quite extinct.
Queen Margaret was taken prisoner at Tewkesbury, and held in the Tower until such time as her ransom was raised by her French relatives, whereupon she finally departed the shores of England. The old King, Henry VI, having now outlived his usefulness, was murdered in the Tower on the night Edward IV returned to London. And Clarence did not long survive his brother's vengeful homecoming: he was shortly to be incarcerated in the Tower for fomenting further rebellion, and did not survive long in his new realm. Only one major player survived the downfall of Lancaster: Jasper Tudor's brother Edmund escaped to France, taking with him his son Henry.
Though he himself was notoriously overindulgent in later life, Edward IV reigned for 12 years after Tewkesbury, and died in 1483. His reign was marked by peace and sound financial policies at home, and by a rather comical invasion of France in 1475. Let down by his Burgundian allies, who were detained on business in another corner of the shifting map of Europe, Edward's army was effectively bought off by the wily French King Louis XI with a large consignment of wine, and returned home drinking the health of the country's most consistent enemy. The fate of the Burgundian "kingdom", however, was sealed, and its short-lived union of territories would all too soon be divided between France and the Hapsburg Empire.
Edward IV had left two legitimate sons, unimaginatively named Edward and Richard, and they held the equally unoriginal titles Prince of Wales and Duke of York respectively. Though he was aged only 12, it might have been assumed that the succession would pass peacefully to Prince Edward, and indeed such had of course been Edward IV's intentions. As Protector for the young Edward, Edward IV had appointed his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the fourth son of Richard Plantagenet, the old Duke of York (the second son, Edmund, having died at Wakefield in 1460, and the third being the now deceased Clarence). Gloucester had served Edward IV well in time of need, sharing his exile in 1470-71 and having distinguished himself at Barnet and Tewkesbury. He had taken as wife Anne Neville, the 15-year-old widow of the Prince Edward (son of Henry VI) who had died at Tewkesbury, and the sister of Clarence's wife, Isobel. Through this marriage, he had inherited the Warwick estates, and become one of the country's leading landowners.
It is common folklore that the Duke of Gloucester seized the throne for himself, having himself made first Protector and then King with the acquiescence of Parliament, and was crowned Richard III on 6th July 1483, one of history's most controversial characters, given the unflattering sobriquet "Crouchback" due to what was apparently a minor physical deformity, and generally reviled by Shakespeare. His wife became Queen, a move that would have gladdened the heart of her Kingmaker father. The pretext (or provocation, if you prefer) for the coup was the attempt by Edward IV's widow, Elizabeth Woodville, to have herself made Regent. Elizabeth and her family had gained much power during Edward IV's reign, but also made many enemies, and they plainly feared for their positions during a Gloucester Protectorate, whereas Gloucester himself felt his own status would be threatened should the dowager Queen become the nation's de facto ruler. As with Bolingbroke and York before him, Gloucester felt he must either seize the throne or face dangerous isolation.
Though Prince Edward had been declared King, and is listed in the annals of English monarchs as Edward V, he had not been in London when his father died, fatally weakening his position vis-à-vis his enemies. Belatedly returning to claim his inheritance, he was intercepted by Gloucester at Nottingham, escorted to the capital, and housed in the Tower, ostensibly for his safe keeping. While the dowager Queen continued to plot against Gloucester from the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, her other son, Richard, was also placed in the Tower. Also incarcerated was Edward, the new Earl of Warwick, the son of the late Duke of Clarence and Isobel Neville - Gloucester's nephew both by blood and by marriage. The new King hit out at all other possible rivals, latching onto a wild claim that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid, and the young princes were consequently illegitimate. At some unknown point during 1483, the Princes in the Tower perished, and it's hard indeed to explain how this could not have been as Richard III's behest.
History tends to paint the Kings of England in black and white, and in the case of Richard III it has traditionally been mostly deepest black. Common lore portrays him as just about the worst King the nation ever had, usurper, murderer of his kin, and a hunchback to boot. In modern times, attempts have been made to reinterpret his character, and certainly his actions are better understood in the context of an era in which internecine plotting was not so much prevalent as almost universal, and, for anyone close enough to the crown to be considered a potential claimant, winning the crown was just about the only safe policy. Some would say the only mistake he made was to leave alive his niece Elizabeth, Edward IV's daughter, an oversight for which he would pay dearly.
Richard III was soon faced by revolts, the first being led by the Duke of Buckingham, hitherto Richard's most devoted ally. By this point, it may have already been clear that Edward V was dead, and, as Buckingham was descended directly from Thomas of Woodstock, the fifth son of Edward III, this uprising may even have constituted an attempt at securing the throne for himself, to the exclusion of the Houses of both York and Lancaster. The rebellion was not well-timed, and it was swiftly crushed, and Buckingham executed. But true tragedy was not long in overtaking Richard III and his Queen: their only son Edward of Middleham, the Earl of Salisbury (and yet another Edward, Prince of Wales) died in March 1484, leaving the continuation of the Yorkist line even more uncertain.
However, Richard also needed to face another rival before his throne could be secure, and Henry Tudor was to be his nemesis. The son of the late Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, Henry was a nephew of the noted Lancastrian leader Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, and grandson of Owen Tudor, second husband of Catherine of Valois, Henry V's widow. Such ancestry in itself could scarcely justify a claim to the throne, were it not for Henry's maternal pedigree. Edmund Tudor had wedded one Margaret Beaufort, of the line which had given rise to the Dukes of Somerset, and who claimed descent from that colourful character John of Gaunt, the progenitor of the House of Lancaster.
John of Gaunt's first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had been the mother of Henry IV and forebear of the Lancastrian Kings, while his second marriage, essentially an attempt on the throne of Spain, had been childless. His third wife, Catherine Swynford, was the mother of John Beaufort, as well as other sons, but, of critical importance in those times, she had not been Gaunt's wife at the time the children were born. As we have seen, it took an Act of Parliament during the time of the Lancastrians to retrospectively legitimise the Beaufort family, although even this Act also specifically debarred them from any claim upon the throne. This Act was of course disputed by the Yorkists. John Beaufort in turn fathered three sons: Henry, the Earl of Somerset; John the first Duke, and Edmund Beaufort, the second Duke of Somerset, who, as already outlined, along with his three sons died fighting for his Lancastrian cousins. Margaret Beaufort was the daughter of Duke John, and now the only surviving descendant of John of Gaunt. Married, pregnant and a widow by the age of 12 (when Edmund Tudor died in 1456), this remarkable woman gave birth to Henry Tudor in exile in France, and went on to outlive two further husbands and her only son.
Henry, now himself titled the Earl of Richmond, therefore had much royal blood in his veins, even if his claim to the kingship itself was at best tenuous. Nevertheless, his cause attracted many followers by 1485, both Lancastrians and disaffected Yorkists. Now that it was known Edward IV's male heirs were dead, it had been proposed that Henry would marry Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and sister to the murdered Princes in the Tower, thus reuniting the long-sundered lines of York and Lancaster in one of the greatest dynastic marriages of all history - their offspring would after all be able to claim descent from the second, third and fourth sons of Edward III. But first he must deal with Richard III.
Henry Tudor's army, then small in number, landed at Milford Haven in August 1485, and picked up many reinforcements from among his Welsh sympathisers. He marched into the English Midlands, and met the forces of Richard III on Bosworth Field, near Hinckley in Leicestershire, on 22nd August 1485 - a day which is now taken as marking the end of the Middle Ages in England. The battle was one of the strangest in all history, with no less than four armies taking the field that day, only two of them intent on actually fighting. The Wars of the Roses, having begun in almost deferential fashion at the First Battle of St Albans, were to end in near-farce.
The Battle of Bosworth - assuming you are not a believer in the Black Adder! - resulted in an overwhelming victory for Henry Tudor, but, even by the standards of the Wars of the Roses, it was a weird affair. The King's personal retinue was bolstered by the force of John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, giving about 8,000 troops; Henry Tudor had 5,000. The other would-be participants were the force of Lord Thomas Stanley, husband of Margaret Beaufort and therefore Henry Tudor's step-father, and the troops of the Earl of Northumberland. Essentially, these latter contingents arrived to view the battle, try and judge which way the contest was going, and then to join in on the winning side - this may seem cowardly and cynical in the present day, but at a time when the penalty for fighting on the losing side was so severe, especially for the captains, you can hardly blame them. At a crucial stage, it seems Richard himself led a desperate charge against Henry's person, and was cut down in the process. It is unlikely he offered to trade his kingdom for a horse, but it is fairly reliably reported that he declined an invitation to flee the battlefield, stating that he would "die King of England", and that he did, the last monarch to do so on the battlefield. Stanley's men joined in on the side of Henry Tudor, while those of Northumberland, seeing they were not required, took no part in the battle at all. It was Lord Stanley who retrieved the coronet which Richard III wore for battle, and handed it to Henry Tudor.
Although 1485 is generally given as the end of the Wars of the Roses, conflict did linger for some years yet. Henry VII, as the new King was known, was crowned on 30th October, and, by way of insistence that his legitimacy was by his descent and the right of conquest, he left it several months before the expected marriage to Elizabeth of York took place. The early years of the Tudor dynasty were occupied with mopping up resistance, and, though Henry was uniquely fortunate in ascending the throne when all serious rival claimants had been eliminated, he still deemed it expedient to virtually wipe out the ranks of the old Plantagenet family.
As an aside, it should be mentioned that the sole survivor of the Yorkist line was Margaret, the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and later known as the Countess of Salisbury. Margaret was eventually executed (as a Catholic conspirator rather than as a rival to the throne) in 1541. Her grand-daughter was Katherine Pole, Countess of Huntingdon, and it is her descendants who, if you accept the version of history in which Edward IV and, by implication, his daughter Elizabeth of York, were illegitimate, represent the "true" Yorkist royal family, a theory expounded in more detail here.
Henry VII's diligence still did not guarantee his reign would be altogether free from revolt. The leaders of the first major insurrection were the imposter Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Edward, the son of Clarence (and who was actually still in the Tower) and John, Earl of Lincoln, the son of Anne of York (sister of Edward IV and Richard III) and the Duke of Suffolk. This revolt was crushed at Stoke, near Newark in Lincolnshire, on 16th June 1487. Henry VII must have had some sense of humour, as he put the captured Simnel to work in the Royal kitchens. Another noted rebellion was that raised by Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower, and this dragged on from 1491 until 1497.
Henry VII lived until 1509, and was of course succeeded by his son Henry VIII. The struggles of that monarch to ensure the unimpeded continuity of his line (the six wives and the split with the Catholic Church) can perhaps best be appreciated when it's borne in mind the events of the Wars of the Roses were then only a generation old. The Tudor Kings and Queens were able to rule without recourse to their Barons, and generally left the running of the nation's affairs in the hands of a new breed of professional politician.
The Wars of the Roses were said to have lasted 30 years, from the First Battle of St Albans in 1455 to Bosworth in 1485. Although the period of actual fighting took place over slightly more than 12 months, and, as already mentioned, the population as a whole were not greatly affected by the movements and battles of what were, by any standards, relatively small armies, the conflicts left their mark on English history for all time. It's hard to avoid saying that England was a much-changed place by 1485. For one thing, the age of chivalry was more or less at an end. The noble affairs of the early Wars, where sides were almost reluctant to engage in battle, had been replaced by murderous, treacherous fights to the death with no quarter asked or given, and the fact that 1485 is generally taken by historians as the signifying the close of the "Middle Ages" reflects the extent to which the wars mark a turning-point in the story of the English nation.
And which side could be said to have "won" the Wars of the Roses? The only rational answer can be neither. Henry Tudor was of course a Lancastrian by loyalty and by descent from John of Gaunt, but the man he overthrew, Richard III, was himself a usurper of the "true" Yorkist line, and many "Yorkist" supporters were willing throw in their lot with the Tudors even before Henry's union with Elizabeth of York was mooted. The marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth (even though it took place after Henry's enthronement) means that the blood of the Yorkist heroes, Richard of York and his son Edward IV, flows in the veins of the present-day Royal Family, whereas the line of the Lancastrian Kings, Henrys IV, V and VI, is extinct.
For the English state, the wars of the 15th Century represented a significant step in the evolution of the political system towards the balance of power we know today. While the position of the King with respect to the Barons was strengthened in the short term, not least because of the fact that so many noble families were extinct, the precariousness of his position was much more widely appreciated. Revolts against the King were not new, of course, but before the Wars of the Roses the idea that an adventurer could claim the throne itself by force of arms was not taken seriously. The inevitable next step, the notion that the country could do without a King altogether, would not suggest itself for another two centuries, but, without the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War might have been unthinkable.
There are of course many books on the market today about the Wars of the Roses, and 15th Century England generally. But one which I'd particularly recommend to anyone wanting to find out more about this fascinating, turbulent period in history, is an inexpensive but well-illustrated and informative paperback "The Wars of the Roses" by Charles Ross (Thames and Hudson, 1986, ISBN 0-500-27407-X).
Wars of the Roses