Biographies & Memoirs

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In 1450 the war in France was going badly for the English. Following the deaths of the Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort in 1447, William de la Pole, a former close ally of Cardinal Beaufort,1 had become the chief power-behind-the-throne of Henry VI. He had been created Duke of Suffolk,2 and had also held the appointments of Chamberlain and Admiral of England. William de la Pole had long been one of the leaders of the English forces in France. However, his negotiations with the Bastard of Orléans and other French leaders were viewed with suspicion in England. When English defeats continued, Suffolk became an obvious scapegoat. He fell victim to renewed infighting within government circles, and was arrested in January and imprisoned in the Tower of London. A new military defeat in April 1450 led, about two weeks later, to Suffolk’s banishment for five years. However, his ship was intercepted en route to Calais. It is said that Suffolk was beheaded (see chapter 14 below) and his body thrown overboard. It was widely believed that his chief enemy, Richard, Duke of York, was behind these actions.

Later, during the summer of 1450, the revolt known as ‘Jack Cade’s Rebellion’ broke out in Kent and Sussex. In the years leading up to ‘Cade’s Rebellion’ the weak, corrupt and vacuous government of Henry VI had become increasingly unpopular, particularly in the south-east of England. However, the immediate cause of the revolt seems to have been a local sense of grievance, notably in Kent, where local people were being blamed – unjustly, as they themselves now stated – for the death of Suffolk. Another cause of the rebellion was the unpopularity of the costly and ineffective war in France. Amongst other consequences, this war had led to French attacks on the south-east coast, making the coastal towns of Kent and Sussex unsafe.

In the spring of 1450 a man who is most often called Jack or John Cade (see below) issued The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent, which attacked the king himself, his government, MPs, lords and magnates. A full rebellion against Henry VI was threatened unless the listed grievances were resolved. It was also recommended that the king should abdicate in favour of a better ruler. Simultaneous demands for the return from Ireland of Richard, Duke of York made it not too difficult to guess whom the rebels had in mind as Henry’s potential replacement. Indeed, some see the Duke of York as the secret driving force behind ‘Cade’s Rebellion’.

During May, Cade’s supporters – who came chiefly from Kent and Sussex, and included a few minor landowners and gentry – began to rally in local meetings. In June about 5,000 marched with Cade towards London. They established themselves at Blackheath. The king’s response was to decamp hastily in the opposite direction.

Although the rebels captured and looted London, killing some lesser government servants whom they found still in situ, they were subsequently defeated in fighting on London Bridge, and many of the rebels were killed. Pardons and reforms were promised by Henry VI and his government. Nevertheless, rebel leaders were subsequently declared traitors. A reward of 1,000 marks was offered for the capture or death of Cade, who was killed on 12 June near Lewes in East Sussex by a man named Alexander Iden, who went on to claim his reward. But the death of Cade did not end the rebellion. Campaigns against the government continued in Sussex. Demands were still voiced for the return of the Duke of York from Ireland, and his appointment to a post of authority in the government remained a point of contention.

York’s precise position in relation to ‘Cade’s Rebellion’ is hard to determine. Was he involved in its outbreak? Did he hope to receive a central government appointment as a result of the rebel demands? Or, alternatively, a government call for aid in response to the uprising? If he had expected something of this kind, he was destined to be disappointed. Instead of calling on York for help, Henry VI’s government appointed his rival, Somerset, as Constable of England in succession to the late Duke of Suffolk. This new sign of Somerset’s power and influence in government circles must have set loud alarm bells ringing in the Duke of York’s head.

Contemporaries believed that there were connections of some kind between York and the rebellion. Although the leader of the rebels is generally known as ‘Jack Cade’, he was also called by various other names. Some of his supporters labelled him ‘John-Amend-All’. Significantly, he was described by some sources as an Irishman. Other sources said that he was an English physician whose real name was John Aylmere. However, the leader himself appears sometimes to have used the name John Mortimer. Moreover, he claimed quite explicitly to be related to the Mortimers of March. Thus his supporters described him as a cousin of Richard, Duke of York and his family, and the Yorkist ‘falcon and fetterlock’ badge was reportedly one of the devices displayed by Cade’s followers. Against the Duke of York’s involvement, however, we have the fact that York himself declared that his own property was attacked by the rebels and that some of his jewels were stolen. Whether or not Cade was genuinely connected in some way to the Mortimer family, his use of the Mortimer surname was certainly significant. Should his rebellion be seen as an early episode of the so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’?

As for York’s role (if any) in ‘Cade’s Rebellion’, given the confused nature of the evidence, any conclusions inevitably remain speculative. But whatever its real cause, the rebellion demonstrated very clearly that, even in England, the control exercised by Henry VI’s government was teetering. Meanwhile, Henry’s other nominal kingdom of France was rapidly being lost completely. In August 1450 the forces of King Charles VII took Cherbourg, giving Charles overall control of the whole of Normandy.

It was partly in response to all these turbulent events and disturbances that, in September 1450, the Duke of York left his post in Ireland. There is no surviving documentary evidence to show that he sought permission for this, although he wrote to Henry VI before he left Dublin. Probably specific permission for him to leave Ireland was not required.3 He had only to delegate authority to his deputy – which he did. York was now preoccupied with other issues, and was very much concerned over the question of the succession to the throne. He was widely perceived as the senior living male prince of the blood royal. Ignoring female-line and legitimised (Beaufort) Lancastrian descendants, the Duke of York – direct male-line descendant of Edmund of Langley – had a strong claim to be heir presumptive to the throne at this period.4 But his rights had not been officially recognised in government circles – nor, indeed, by the king himself.

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The Duke of York’s claim to be heir presumptive to the throne in 1450.

York returned to England to attack the alleged traitors in Henry VI’s government, and to formally assert his own claim as heir to the throne.5 He came backed by an army, and he marched towards London. His actions alarmed his younger cousin, the king. Henry did not know the Duke of York very well on a personal level at this stage, and the two men had never been close. Henry VI – or more probably his advisers – may well have sought once again to have the duke arrested en route, but, if so, York evaded capture. He finally repaired to eastern England, where he spent his time and energy recruiting support. He also sought the endorsement of a higher power. On Sunday 11 October he was expected at the Augustinian priory and shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – though his delayed departure from London may have made his arrival at the Walsingham Holy House a little later than planned.

York’s return to England gave the 11-month-old George his first sight of his homeland. Although George was the ninth child born to Cecily, Duchess of York, he did not, at this point, have eight older siblings living in his immediate family circle. It is not recorded when exactly his elder brothers, Harry, William and John, died. However, William and John were clearly dead by 1456 and probably both of them died soon after birth. As for Harry, he must have died before 1445, because in that year the Yorks’ second son, Edward, was created Earl of March, and attempts were made to marry him to a French princess.6 It is therefore likely that George never knew Harry, William or John.

The family in which the new baby began to grow up probably consisted of five other children: Anne, Edward, Edmund, Elizabeth and Margaret. Moreover, George’s eldest sister, Anne, was married in 1446. Her husband was York’s ward, so her marriage may not have led to her immediate departure, but at all events she must have left her family by 1453 at the latest. It is doubtful, therefore, how much the baby George will have seen of her. As for George’s younger siblings, the only other York child to survive to adulthood was the future Richard III.7 But he was not born until 1452 (see below). By the 1450s, George’s elder brothers, Edward and Edmund, had graduated out of the family nursery and had their own establishment. Around the middle of the decade, Elizabeth of York left home to get married. Thus the siblings with whom George grew up on a daily basis were usually not more than three: Elizabeth (until some time between 1455 and 1458), Margaret and Richard (from 1452 onwards).

During the nine years following the family’s return to England, it is assumed that George and the other younger children of the House of York resided primarily with their mother. No precise documentary evidence survives relating to the York nursery in the 1450s. However, as we shall see later, Margaret, George and Richard were certainly living with their mother in 1460. The environment in which George lived and grew throughout the 1450s was probably similar to that which existed in 1460. From the age of about five his immediate circle would have comprised one slightly older sister, Margaret of York, and one younger brother, the future Richard III. These are probably the only siblings with whom George experienced a close brotherly relationship. Moreover, in their nursery environment, George, as the senior surviving male child, would probably have been seen – and would have seen himself – as ‘king of the castle’. This may have significantly affected the way in which he subsequently related to his much older brother, Edward.

It is an interesting fact that the subsequent relationship between Edward and George appears to have been very different in its nature to the relationship that later developed between Edward and his youngest brother, Richard. In Richard’s eyes, Edward was for many years a hero. Even when Edward later proved to have feet of clay, Richard continued to serve him.8 Edward may also have been a kind of substitute father figure for Richard. The slightly older George, on the other hand, seems always to have perceived Edward as an intrusive older sibling – and a potential rival.

The Duchess of York was probably pregnant again when she sailed from Dublin for at some point, either towards the end of 1450, or more probably in 1451, she gave birth to a short-lived son christened Thomas. During 1451, the Duke of York was attending Parliament, and in the summer of that year a proposal was put forward for his formal recognition as heir presumptive to the throne. This infuriated Henry VI – or at least, the new power behind his throne, his cousin, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.

At about this time the fall of Bordeaux (June) and Bayonne (August) effectively brought English rule in Gascony to an end. In September the Duke of York received an official royal summons to answer to the king for his conduct in breaking the peace. He refused to obey the summons and withdrew to Ludlow Castle, where he and his family spent Christmas with their two elder sons, Edward and Edmund. This may well have been George’s first meeting with Edward, but whether he was old enough at the time for it to make any impact upon him seems doubtful.

Towards the end of the following January, or very early in February, possibly at Ludlow Castle, the Duchess of York conceived another child, so that she was pregnant again throughout the greater part of 1452. By 22 February the duke was not far from Northampton, preparing to march south and enter London. But Henry VI, who was then himself in Northampton, mistrusted York’s protestations that his aim was merely to remove traitors, and he gave orders that the duke should be denied entry to the capital.9Unable to enter London, York camped for three days at Kingston-upon-Thames. The king had also hoped to prevent him from entering Kent, the recent focus of Cade’s rebellion, but he failed in this. Heading, perhaps, for his estate at Erith, near Dartford in Kent,10the Duke of York met Henry VI and his army at Blackheath. On this occasion fighting was avoided. York was persuaded to come and put his complaints against Somerset to the king in person. This invitation proved merely a ruse. On arrival, York was disarmed and taken back to London under guard. At St Paul’s Cathedral, on 10 March, he was forced to swear not to rebel again.

In October 1452, probably at the York family’s castle of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, but just possibly at Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire, the Duchess of York gave birth to her last son, the future Richard III.11 It has been claimed that Berkhamsted Castle was a hereditary possession of the dukes of York, granted by Richard II to Edmund of Langley.12 Others, however, assert that this castle belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall from 1356, which suggests that in 1452 it would effectively have been in the hands of Henry VI.13 That would not necessarily make it impossible for Richard to have been born at Berkhamsted. Several of the York children were born at properties not owned by their father.14 Nevertheless, the Duke of York was at Fotheringhay in August and December 1452,15 though the more significant location of the duchess is not specifically recorded.

Despite later rumours, there is no evidence that Richard’s birth was in any way unusual, or that Richard was a sickly child.16 In all questions relating to Richard III, one must be wary of crediting unsubstantiated later myths. The recent discovery of Richard III’s body on the site of the Greyfriars in Leicester has proved conclusively that legends about Richard have to be treated with scepticism.17 At the same time, it has witnessed the creation of new Ricardian legends!18 The birth of this latest (and last) son of the Duke and Duchess of York was followed by what seemed to be a good omen for England. On 22 October the celebrated but elderly John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, recaptured Bordeaux. As a result, England suddenly and unexpectedly regained control of a large part of Gascony.

In London, however, the omens were not so good. During the weeks and months following Richard’s birth, very serious, if surreptitious, Beaufort/Lancastrian machinations against the Duke of York’s claim to be heir presumptive to the throne were under way. In November 1452 Henry VI elevated his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper, known as ‘Tudor’, to the ranks of the nobility. Edmund and Jasper were the sons of Henry VI’s widowed mother, Catherine of France. Edmund had probably been born in 1430 and Jasper a year later, in 1431. Their father is usually stated to be Owen Tudor, but there is no proof of his paternity. In fact, it is much more likely that, in reality, Edmund and Jasper were fathered by Queen Catherine’s lover, Edmund Beaufort, who in November 1452 was the power behind Henry VI’s throne, and therefore probably responsible for the government decision to ennoble the ‘Tudors’ and to grant them differenced versions of his own coat of arms.19 Moreover, in March of the following year Edmund and Jasper were jointly given guardianship of the 10-year-old Lady Margaret Beaufort, the senior heiress of the Beaufort line.20 Margaret had previously been married to the Duke of Suffolk’s son and heir, John de la Pole,21 but that still unconsummated marriage was now annulled,22making Margaret available once again. This change in marriage plans was clearly countenanced by the government and, given Margaret Beaufort’s young age (she was either 9 or 11 years old, depending on her disputed date of birth), probably the king (or those behind him) orchestrated it. The significance of this move – which ultimately led to the marriage of Edmund ‘Tudor’ to Margaret Beaufort and to the birth of the future King Henry VII – is obvious. The Duke of Somerset was advancing the prospects of an undercover Beaufort claim to the throne, despite Henry IV’s earlier attempt to exclude the Beaufort family.

Moreover, while persuading his cousin the king to thus advance the two young so-called ‘Tudors’ (probably his own bastard sons), the Duke of Somerset also had a second – and even more precisely targeted – string to his bow. He had already conducted a very successful liaison with one French-born English queen (Catherine). Now his sights were set upon her successor. It seems that he became Margaret of Anjou’s lover towards the end of 1452. In February 1453, the queen (whose marriage to Henry VI may never have been consummated) finally fell pregnant. The real father of her expected child was probably the Duke of Somerset, who is named in her financial accounts for this year as her ‘most dear cousin’, praised for the service he had performed for her, and commended particularly for ‘the great affection and kindness he had shown in matters vital to her’.23

It was probably in April 1453 that the Duke of York became aware of the queen’s pregnancy. In that month Margaret of Anjou made her own pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to give thanks for the anticipated birth of a Lancastrian heir to the throne. Margaret’s unborn child offered York’s enemies the best possible chance of excluding him from the crown of England. Even a daughter would render York’s claims doubtful. The birth of a son would cast him completely into the wilderness. Although Margaret’s pregnancy was greeted with general astonishment, and was viewed – even, reportedly, by the king himself – as a miraculous event,24 it would have been virtually impossible, in the fifteenth century, to prove that the child she was carrying was not the king’s, particularly if Henry VI himself subsequently chose to grant the baby recognition.

The remainder of 1453 brought mixed tidings for the York family and for England. First, on 17 July the Battle of Castillon in France brought another major defeat for the English, and the English commander, the aged and celebrated John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was killed. In the same month, Henry VI fell ill. He was suffering from the insanity that had also afflicted his grandfather, Charles VI of France. Despite opposition, and an initial attempt on the part of the queen and her supporters to conceal Henry’s illness, the king’s cousin and heir, Richard, Duke of York, was eventually appointed Protector (regent). Later that summer fighting broke out in the north of England between the rival noble families of Neville and Percy. This fighting can be seen as an omen for England, presaging a future filled with conflict.

Meanwhile, the queen’s pregnancy was progressing uneventfully, and on 13 October, in the Palace of Westminster, she gave birth to a son. At the baby’s baptism, the godfathers chosen for him were Cardinal John Kempe, Archbishop of Canterbury and a former protégé of Cardinal Beaufort, and his possible biological father, the Duke of Somerset.25 Perhaps significantly, the little boy was not given the name of his putative father, ‘Henry’, but was baptised ‘Edward’. He was thus endowed with the name of Edward III – probably the last king of England from whom he was truly descended. Six days after the birth, on 19 October, the ‘Hundred Years War’ finally reached its close, with the French recapture of Bordeaux. From this point onwards, the only remaining English possession on the Continent was Calais.

Whatever doubts he may have had about the new-born heir to the throne of England, the Duke of York, in his capacity as protector of the realm, gave public support to the baby’s position. On 15 March 1454, ‘Edward of Westminster’, as he was known, was formally invested as Prince of Wales. Just over a month later, on 23 April, York’s distant cousin, Thomas Bourchier was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury, an office he would hold for almost thirty-two years, crowning Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. In June 1454, the Duke of York suppressed a rebellion in the north of England led by his son-in-law, the Duke of Exeter. By the start of November, York’s wife had once again become pregnant, and in December Henry VI recovered from his mental instability, whereupon York promptly found himself dismissed from the post of Protector. Throughout this period, his son George, now aged 5, had been quietly growing up in the company of his sister, Margaret, and his baby brother, Richard. But where had they been living, and how much contact had the children had with their parents?


1. He had married the cardinal’s cousin, Alice Chaucer.

2. William de la Pole had inherited the title of 4th Earl of Suffolk when his elder brother died childless in 1415. In 1444 his title was upgraded to marquess, as a reward for negotiating Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou. In 1448 he became the 1st Duke of Suffolk.

3. The Duke of York’s Irish appointment is only briefly recorded, with a statement that he enjoyed the ‘usual powers and privileges’ (CPR 1446–52, p.185). However, his precursor, Sir John Sutton, had certainly been authorised to ‘come to England during his term of office, for great and urgent reasons, having appointed a deputy with all powers’ (CPR 1422–9, p.426) [MB].

4. For details of this claim see Johnson, Duke Richard of York, p.99.

5. In the following year (1451) ‘an agent of his was to argue in parliament that the duke should be named as heir apparent’. See ODNB, J. Watts, ‘Richard of York, third duke of York (1411–1460)’.

6. Some writers have suggested that Harry died after only a few hours. Curiously, however, Osberne Bokenham’s poem makes no mention of his death.

7. See Appendix 1.

8. Edward’s failure to help their sister Margaret in 1477 was, perhaps, the first indication Richard received that his eldest brother might not be so great. Possibly the execution of George, the following year, helped to reinforce such doubts!

9. Johnson, Duke Richard of York, p.110.

10. In Kent the Duke of York held Deptford Strand (‘Depfordstrand’), Erith, South-Frith (‘Southfrith’) and ‘Shillingyeld’. See J. T. Rosenthal, ‘The Estates and Finances of Richard, Duke of York (1411–1460)’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History vol. 2 (1965), p.141 [MB].

11. Later versions of the York genealogy in William Worcester’s Annals state that Richard was born at Fotheringhay, as does a note in Richard’s Book of Hours. Sir George Buck, descendant of a Yorkshire family whose ancestors had served the House of York, said that Richard’s birthplace ‘was the Castle of Fotheringhay, or as some write, the Castle of Birkhamsteed’. Buck’s source for Berkhamsted as Richard’s birthplace was probably Stow’s Annales.

12. C. A. Halstead, Richard III vol. 1 (London, 1844), p.421. According to Halstead, ‘Berkhampstead remained in the family of York until that house became extinct, when it returned to the crown.’

13. C. Peers, Berkhamsted Castle (London, 1948, 1968), p.5.

14. See Appendix 1.

15. P. A. Johnson, Duke Richard of York, pp.119–20.

16. Rumours of Richard’s sickliness are based solely on Osberne Bokenham’s poem (see title page), which reports that Richard ‘liveth yet’, not because his life was precarious, but merely to contrast him with those of his siblings who had died young.

17. The present author, whose research into Richard’s burial was one important part of the evidence which led to the excavation of his grave site, remembers very clearly that on the first day of the dig people told him clearly that the excavation was a waste of time and money because Richard’s body had been dug up long since, and thrown into the River Soar. This was despite the fact that I had already demonstrated clearly, and in print, that stories about the exhumation of Richard’s body were later nonsense.

18. The search for Richard III began in 2003, but the University of Leicester, which was not formally involved in the project until 2012, now claims sole responsibility for the discovery. This is the first new legend. Also, the Church of St Mary de Castro appears to have recently invented a story that Richard’s body was taken there after the Battle of Bosworth, though actually it seems to have been taken to the neighbouring (and now vanished) Church of the Annunciation.

19. For evidence of Somerset’s paternity of Edmund and Jasper ‘Tudor’, see RMS, pp.70–71.

20. Margaret Beaufort was probably born on 31 May 1443, though some authorities date her birth to 1441.

21. Later 2nd Duke of Suffolk, and the husband of the Duke of York’s daughter, Elizabeth.

22. Personal communication from Marie Barnfield: ‘Margaret had been infra annos nubiles when she married Suffolk, so all that was needed was for her to “reclaim” the marriage, which is what she did; King Henry was merely giving royal licence to her (as she was a tenant-in-chief) to change her marriage plans in a particular direction’.

23. B. Wolffe, Henry VI (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981), p.276, citing Margaret’s receiver general’s accounts of Michaelmas 1453. Despite this, Wolffe nevertheless accepts the legitimacy of Edward of Westminster.

24. Henry VI was suffering from a bout of madness when the child was born. Later, when he recovered, he acknowledged the boy, while at the same time undermining his position by reportedly declaring ‘that he must be the son of the Holy Spirit’. See Kendall,Richard the Third, p.31, citing CSPM, I, p.58.

25. Wolffe, Henry VI, p.273, citing Davies’ Chronicle, p.70.

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