Authors: Timothy Venning
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Pen & Sword Military
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Copyright Â© Timothy Venning 2013
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With thanks as usual to my editors at Pen and SwordâPhil Sidnell for his support for the âAlternative History' series and Ting Baker for her painstaking work on the text.
he final thirty years of the âPlantagenet' dynastyâa surname for the family incidentally invented by Richard, Duke of York and his supporters in the 1450s to emphasize their superior dynastic lineage to their rivalsâwas an unprecedented era of political instability in England. In previous centuries the smooth (or not) transfer of power from each monarch to his son or brother, usually his own choice as heir, had been broken only once when childless and autocratic 32-year-old Richard II was overthrown in an invasion by his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV) in 1399. Henry had claimed to be Richard's rightful heir, as son of the next-senior male offspring of Edward III to leave a male heir, Edward's third surviving son Duke John of Lancaster (John âof Gaunt'). But his âelection' by an assembly of nobles excluded the rights of Edmund Mortimer, the grandsonâdaughter's sonâof Edward III's second son, Duke Lionel of Clarence, who was only a child at the time so his accession would have led to the instability of a regency. Indeed, Edmund's claim was not even tested at the election; the âSalic Law' theory that a woman could not inherit or transmit rights to a throne did not apply in England. The feeling that Edmund had been cheated by the illegal usurpation of Henry's âLancastrian' line led to assorted plots and rebellions in his name under Henry IV and later an attempt to murder Henry V, but then these faded away as the Lancastrian throne became more secure and led a successful war to pursue its rights to the throne of France (which ironically relied on the legality of succession via a female line, namely via Edward III's mother, Isabella).
But the incapacity and misjudgements of the unwarlike and allegedly unworldly Henry VI and his coterie of favourites led to renewed dynastic challenges after the humiliating loss of France in 1450â3. As we shall see, this was largely stimulated by the exclusion of powerful nobles from decision-making at court and the fruits of office by Henry's clique, led by the junior Lancastrian line of Beaufort, and was thus politically opportunistic. Dynastic luck and the shifting sands of politics resulted in the current heir of Edmund Mortimer's line, his sister Anne's son Duke Richard of York, being the leader of the politico-military âopposition' to Henry VI's disastrous governance in the 1440s and early 1450s, excluded from power and seemingly under threat of elimination like the King's late uncle Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Thus a mixture of ambition and self-preservation determined his struggle for influence with the King's favourites in 1450â5, a political bid for power over an increasingly feeble and once catatonic King rather than a dynastic challenge, although his role as a potential heir also implied the latter. It was as much a case of âstorming the closet', as eighteenth-century politics called a bid by frustrated âopposition' figures to force their admission to office (and perks) on a reluctant king, as a dynastic coup.
The drastic way in which York secured this, on the battlefield at St Albans in 1455, and his choice to physically eliminate the King's closest advisers in the process, then turned it into a vendetta between his âparty', led by his family and the Nevilles, and the King and Queen's court faction led by the Beauforts and Percies. But York's initial sights were set on the heirship to the King, in place of his infant son who was soon being claimed to be a bastard by the âYorkists', rather than a direct claim on the throne. The latter was only made after York and his allies had been driven into exile and stripped of their lands by the Queen's faction in 1459, fought their way back to power in 1460, and seized the King. Even then most of his own supporters were opposed to his claim to be rightful king, which had to be haltedâand Henry's deposition only followed the next round of the vendetta, when the Queen's men attacked and killed York and other nobles at Wakefield in December 1460 but York's son Edward (IV) successfully fought back. Edward IV's disputed âelection' was then followed by victory on the battlefield of Towton, the elimination of more of Henry's allies, and eventually the capture of Henry and the flight of Queen Margaret to France. Seemingly routed for good, Henry's faction then had an unexpected stroke of luck as Edward quarrelled with his cousin and chief backer Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who killed his chief rivals and arrested the King in 1469, backed down from deposing him, but was driven out of England by Edward in 1470 and in retaliation invaded to restore Henry VI. The unlikely alliance of Warwick with Queen Margaret, the woman responsible for the deaths of his father and brother, was then overthrown by the returning Edward in March to May 1471âbut Edward died aged forty in 1483 and his son Edward V was then deposed as a âbastard' by his brother Richard (III). Richard, the most controversial monarch in English history, then faced the implacable hostility of many of his late brother's loyalists, who lined up with a seemingly insignificant Beaufort scion (Henry Tudor) and other diehard âLancastrians' to overthrow him in August 1485.
The Crown thus changed hands unexpectedly six times in 1461â85âand nearly did so again in a Yorkist invasion in 1487. Kings were deposed, murdered (or not), died in suspicious circumstances, or were killed in battle, the senior nobility were destroyed by deaths in battle and political executions, and high politics seemed dominated by unsavoury and violent blood-feuds. Not surprisingly, this era has provided a rich field for writers since the days of Shakespeare, and is still a favourite for romantic historical fiction (usually centred on Richard III) in modern times. Recent contributors have included Rosemary Hawley Jarman, Josephine Tey, Sharon Penman, and Philippa Gregory, and TV programmes include a âTrial of Richard III' on Channel Four. Was he really a child-murdering psychopath, a self-preserving political strategist who went too far, or an honourable and misjudged figure âsmeared' by Tudor âspin-doctors'? The influence of fiction on the popular conception of the period indeed includes the very concept of a âWar of the Roses'ânot a contemporary term, but thought up by Sir Walter Scott in his novel
Anne of Geierstein
in 1829. The first serious historical novel about the period,
Last of the Barons
by Edward Bulwer Lytton in 1843, introduced the concept of âWarwick the Kingmaker' and of Edward IV as a smooth-talking lecher (whose secret betrothal/ marriage c.1462 is still a topic of controversy).
In reality, the idea of a âWhite Rose' (York) and a âRed Rose' (Lancaster) faction, which Shakespeare peddled in the 1590s, comes from the retrospective viewpoint of post-1485 chroniclers, who celebrated the marriage of Henry Tudor and Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth as uniting the two heraldic roses of their families. As the âPlantagenet' surname was a propaganda invention of 1450s Yorkists who revived the personal sobriquet of Henry II's father Geoffrey, so the notion of a self-proclaimed âTudor' dynasty is inaccurateâHenry VII usually called himself âRichmond' after his earldom. But what is not at issue is that a remarkable degree of political instabilityâsome of it self-generatingâand changes of fortune saw control of power shift with the results of political alliances, chancy battles, kingly mental breakdown, and sudden royal deaths (natural or not). The issue arises âhow easily could things have turned out differently? What if York had been able to secure political power in the 1450s without removing Henry VI or his son, or he had not been killed by the Queen's men in 1460? What if Edward IV had never broken with Warwick, been deposed or killed by him in 1469â70, or had failed to regain power in 1471? What if Edward had not unexpectedly died in 1483, his son's advisers had fought off the challenge of Duke Richard of Gloucester, or Richard had won the battle of Bosworth? This study seeks to explore some of these very real possibilities.
he intense turbulence and political reversals of the period from Henry VI's first outbreak of mental incapacityâa period of catatonic stupor when he was unable to speak or move unaidedâthrew up a series of unstable governments, although the problem of domestic strife long predated his breakdown in 1453. The country was afflicted by private warfare between rival great families, itself a sign of their confidence that they could take advantage of an absence of firm government, with the skirmish between Percies and Nevilles at Heworth Moor in Yorkshire the first serious inter-magnate clash of many. The aftermath of the humiliating loss of the King's last lands in France in 1450â3, leading to anger from those who had suffered from the restored Valois' confiscations of the lands Henry V and VI had granted them there or deplored the poor English military commitment and leadership, was tied in with resentment of the monopoly of patronage by a small faction around Henry VI in the 1440s. The most powerful magnate minister of this period and royal âfavourite', Michael de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was also held responsible for a lack of serious military commitment to Normandy and blunders such as the failed âappeasement' that saw the surrender of Maine in 1448, and was impeached by Parliament and murdered in flight during the popular outbreak of 1450. But his political allies, led by the Beauforts under Edmund, Duke of Somerset, remained at the centre of a âcourt party' who had strong personal support from the increasingly forceful young Queen Margaret (herself the symbol of Suffolk's failed rapprochement with Charles VII in 1444, the occasion of her marriage to Henry) and the partisan King. Edmund bore as much responsibility as Suffolk for the disasters in France, having been an unsuccessful governor of Maine in the early 1440s and overall commander in Normandy at the time of its reconquest in 1449â50 (where his inaction and willingness to surrender were controversial). He and his late elder brother John, Marquis of Somerset, had diverted scarce English royal resources to their governorship of Maine at the time when the Duke of York had been struggling to hold back the Valois advance in 1442â3, and John's Loire valley expedition of 1443 had been a costly failure. (Their uncle Cardinal Beaufort was the principal private financer of the defence of France, and funded their campaigns; he was also more inclined to compromise in the failed Anglo-French peace-talks than York's âhard-line' ally, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester.) This seems to have soured relations between York and the Beauforts, adding to their dynastic rivalry as potential heirs to the childless King Henry.
It should be noted that there was a marked similarity to the situation of the early 1320s and 1380s in official patronage in the 1440s, with a concentration of the grants of offices and lands on one small faction of senior courtiersâand with other figures, who were to be prominent in the violent âreaction' (as in 1326 and 1387), excluded.
Suffolk, like his ancestor Michael de la Pole in 1385â6 and the Despensers in the early 1320s, seemed to have an unnatural grip on patronage and on the King's favour. The King was personally alienated from and feared his âexcluded' close relative and potential successors, Duke Humphrey (to 1447) and then the Duke of York, as Edward II had feared the intentions of his Lancaster cousins Earls Thomas and Henry and as Richard II had feared John âof Gaunt' and his son Henry of Bolingbroke. In all these cases, it was the King's ânatural' advisers, his close relatives, who were excluded from influence and the benefits of patronageâalthough Henry VI did not go as far as Edward II, who executed Earl Thomas in 1322, and Richard II who was accused of plotting to kill Gaunt in 1385â6 and again in 1398 and did kill his uncle Thomas of Gloucester in 1397. It was Suffolk and the Beauforts who were blamed for Duke Humphrey's sudden death while under arrest in 1447, though the King had arrested and ruined him first.
The Duke could be regarded as a âmartyr' of Beaufort intrigue, one in a long line of âhonest' senior royal relatives ruined by jealous court rivals such as Thomas of Lancaster and Thomas of Gloucester. (His arrest and suspicious demise also warned York, already a prickly character insistent on his ârights', of what could happen to him if he let his guard slip.)
The idea of the Beauforts and Suffolk as a âpeace party' at odds with the âhard-line' York in the 1440s is, however, too simplisticâJohn and Edmund both fought hard, if incompetently, to defend their lands in Maine and Edmund did not have the troops, money, or local Norman support to mount a vigorous defence of Normandy in 1450 (though his passivity was still worthy of criticism). John and Suffolk had both fought in France back in Henry V's reign and had been captured by the French, the former at BaugÃ© (1421) and the latter at Jargeau (1429), and were not inexperienced civilian courtiers; and Suffolk's eagerness to negotiate and to surrender Maine in the mid-1440s was the King's personalânaÃ¯veâpolicy not his alone. Arguably both Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort were âdefeatist'âthe first as a negotiator to hand Maine over without a fight, the latter in his somnolence in Normandy in 1449â50âout of hard experience of French military strength, and York lacked their experience of defeat and captivity. For that matter, York had been as ruthless and militarily dilatory as John Beaufort in insisting that he had his ârequests' for extensive legal power over his command in France granted before he sailed there, thus delaying a vital campaign (1436).
His attempt to induce the Council to give him full vice regal powers then delayed his sailing until it was too late for him to co-ordinate his march in Normandy with Duke Humphrey's âpush' southwards from Calais. In 1443, in a similar manner, John Beaufort did not sail for Normandy until August due to haggling over his powers and his rewards (the latter to include a dukedom); he thus arrived too late for his planned march to the Loire and on to Bordeaux to drive Charles VII's army back in Gascony.
Was York really so much more zealous and war-ready than his rivals in the crucial period of 1435â50? The latter were not unfairly traduced by him, however; the demands that John Beaufort made of the government in 1443 were outrageously venal, his brother Edmund was keen to secure his personal safety not that of Normandy as he surrendered Rouen in October 1449, and Suffolk undermined the King's finances in the 1440s by his wasteful administration.
The fact that Charles VII pressed so relentlessly for the return of Maine in 1444â8, invaded it when the English broke their agreed surrender date in January 1448, and then raised more troops to attacked Normandy within a year-and-a-half shows that if anyone was cozening the âwar-averse' Henry in the 1440s it was him, not a âtreacherous' Suffolk. The fault equally lay with Henry for assuming that handing over Maine would satisfy him for years rather than being regarded with contempt as a sign of weakness. The blame for the ignominious debacle in Maine in 1446â8 was, however, laid on Suffolk by York as early as 1447â9,
and was extended when the King's chief negotiator (and ex-Treasurer) Bishop Moleyns of Chichester, hapless facilitator of the surrender, accused him âin extremis' as he was about to be lynched by angry soldiers in Portsmouth.
The disaster in Normandy that followed was duly blamed on Suffolk by a furious Parliament in winter 1449â50 and he was impeached, pardoned by the King but exiled, and was seized and executed as he fled at sea by vigilantes.
The charges against Suffolk had included a paranoid but believable claim that he had betrothed his son to Margaret Beaufort, future mother of Henry VII and daughter of the late Marquis of Somerset, so that her claim to the throne could be used to make this couple Henry's heirs.
The principal loser if this had occurred would have been Yorkâso had York or his allies invented or backed up the charge? The hand of York might be seen behind the disgrace and death of Henry's trusted minister Suffolk, at least in Beaufort eyes, and the events of early 1450 could thus add to the King's alienation from the Duke.
Marginalized senior royal relatives took the lead in the forcible removal of previous kings' âevil counsellors': Edward II's estranged wife and elder son were the leaders of the revolution of 1326â7; Richard's uncle Gloucester and cousin Henry of Bolingbroke were among the âAppellants' in 1387; Henry removed Richard in 1399; and York was accused of suspicious encouragement to rebels in 1450 and defied the King in arms in 1451â2. So was it plausible for courtiers or the King to believe that York was aiming to emulate Henry of Bolingbroke? Or did the fact that a second arrested Duke of Gloucester had died mysteriously in custody in royal hands in fifty years (1397 and 1447) exacerbate the problem that Humphrey's arrest had been meant to solve, i.e. removing or intimidating the King's untrustworthy heirs? It is more likely that Humphrey died naturally than that he was poisoned, but that was not how contemporaries saw it
âand arguably it lessened the chances that York would ever permit himself to be taken alive by the King's officials. Was Humphrey dead more dangerous than Humphrey alive, in increasing the chance of York defying the King with armed force? Was the real âfirst act' in the slide to civil war the Duke's arrest in 1447, neither the fall of Normandy nor the Cade rebellion?
Crucially for the future, Somersetâa personal foe of York by 1450, as shown by their repeated claims against each otherâinherited Suffolk's role as Henry VI's most powerful magnate courtier after 1450 and was regarded as close to the Queen (he was rumoured to be the father of her son).
His faction, in which the semi-royal Dukes of Buckingham and Exeter were prominent, continued to monopolize office and favour and exclude York despite the threat posed by the latter's vast estates in the north and the Welsh Marches. Genealogy and family tradition mattered a great deal in fifteenth century noble politics, and Buckingham was the heir in the female (Bourchier) line of the executed Duke Thomas of Gloucester and Exeter was the head of the Holland descendants of Richard II's loyal half-brothers, enemies of the âusurper' Henry of Bolingbroke. Both had a distant claim on the throne, and could be plausibly elevated to heirship if York was disinherited and the Beaufort claim was disallowed through illegitimacyâor the Beauforts could call on their alliance in joint enmity to the heirship âfront-runner' York. There was, in effect, an alliance of the junior royal lines against the next line to Henry's, that of York, with Somerset representing the family of John âof Gaunt' by his third marriage.
York united the lines of Edward III's second and fourth sons, Lionel and Edmund. He had inherited his mother, Anne Mortimer's, extensive Marcher landsâand her claim to the throne via Edward III's second surviving son, Lionel. Richard II had recognized the March line as his heirs, and its descent via the female line was not an insuperable legal problemâafter all, the English kings claimed the French throne by that means. This genealogical seniority to the House of Lancaster (descended from John âof Gaunt', the third surviving son of Edward III) made York more of a threat than his father Richard, Earl of Cambridge (descended from the fourth son, Edmund of Langley) had been. The latter had already been executed in 1415 for plotting to murder Henry V before the Agincourt campaign. To add to the danger, York had made a name for himself as a reasonably successful military commander in Normandy in the early 1440s (unlike his successor, Somerset's older brother John Beaufort) and had opposed Suffolk's unsuccessful governorship and policy there. He was a magnet for returned captains and soldiers disgruntled at the inadequate support they had received from Suffolk's regime at home in the final years of Henry V's Continental empire. The popular anger at this âbetrayal' and its focus on Suffolk and his cronies as the villains was shown in Parliament and the Cade revolt in 1449â50. âCade' claimed to be from York's Mortimer family,
so was he an ally of the Duke?
The alienation of York, sent out of England by Suffolk's government to carry out the (usually titular) titular governance of Ireland in person in 1449, from the dominant faction at court thus continued after Suffolk's death. Far from solving the conflicts by removing the perceived chief âevil counsellor' attacked in Parliament in 1450, the politically dangerous monopolizer of Royal patronage, Suffolk's death only led to new problems. There were allegations at court that the exiled York had been behind the popular outbreaks of 1450, and that they were aimed at removing the childless Henry from the throne in his favour. (The Cade rebels denied this.
) Whether or not this finally alienated the threatened Queen from York, the Duke was not trusted with any major office or role at court after his return from Ireland. Indeed, amidst the continuing factional confrontations York's leading supporter Sir William Oldhall (in trouble at court as a leader of Parliamentary action against the Suffolk regime) was ostentatiously dragged out of sanctuary at St Martin's-le-Grand in London by Somerset's men in a blatant sign of official ill-will to the Duke.
A first military confrontation between York's armed supporters and the King occurred at Dartford in March 1452, though on this occasion the greater numbers of the royal faction's troops enabled the mediating senior clerics to persuade York into a formal submission.
The tension between court/magnate factions over the correct policy towards France was inevitable, and the disgrace of the loss of both Normandy and Aquitaine in 1450â3 led to Suffolk's enemies blaming him for incompetence or even deliberate sabotage of the English war-effort. His attempt to win a long truce with Charles VII by the Anjou marriage and the âgoodwill' abandonment of undefendable Maine in 1445â8 had been exploited by the French who had returned to the attack as soon as it was convenientâas was probably inevitable. But as far as Suffolk was concerned, the alternative was a financially exhaustive and politically risky long-term war where failure could see overwhelming public demands for York's recall from Ireland to take command. Retrenchment at court would, however, have enabled more troops to be sent to Somerset's army in Normandy, giving him a better chance of holding outâand in 1448â50 court prodigality continued unabated. This was a major mistake by Suffolk, though cutting back would alienate his avaricious clients and threaten his power as well. The political storm that broke in 1449 was at a lower level than magnate criticism, being centred on Parliament in the first instance (with demands to sack and prosecute the âcorrupt' ministers reminiscent of the âGood Parliament' in 1376)
and then a violent popular outbreak. Indeed, Henry arguably made matters worse by not giving in and dismissing Suffolk at the first Parliamentary demands in July 1449, at a time when he still held Normandy and the blackmailing MPs were prepared to fund a new army if he sacked Suffolkâwhich would have helped to raise a larger army than was actually gathered in winter 1449â50. This might have held onto Normandy, at least in the short termâlong-term defence of the âopen' frontier and the walled towns against Charles VII's large army and artillery was unlikely. Instead, Henry dismissed Parliament and had no money to pay for reinforcing Normandy in autumn 1449,
and the French invasion proceeded with only a small English expeditionâunder a minor captain, Sir Thomas Kyriell, not the capable and popular Yorkâto try to halt it. The King's failed gamble on dismissing Parliament to save his chief minister, then having to call a new one in less favourable circumstances later, is reminiscent of Charles I's actions with the âShort Parliament' in 1640. To that extent, Henry bore major responsibility for the debacle in Normandy in 1449â50âas he did for vainly writing admiring letters to his hostile uncle Charles VII in the mid-1440s assuring his goodwill and promising to hand over Maine by a certain date when he could not be sure this would be practicable.
(What if his local garrison-commanders refused to do it?) In reality, Henry was as guilty as Suffolk of naivety and incompetence in his French policy of the 1440s, and his extravagant expenditure at court made his ability to raise armies less possible.