In This Chapter
● Revealing how the throne changed hands between rival ruling families
● Finding out about the Wars of the Roses
● Exploring England’s troubled relationship with France
● Uncovering a suspected royal murder
When Henry Bolingbroke arrived in England in 1399, he found a power vacuum. The current king, Richard II, was ill - he seemed to have lost his mind and had spent the last few years of his reign falling out with his advisers and showing himself unfit to rule. Bolingbroke took over decisively and ruled as Henry IV, dealing with a number of challenges to his power and showing himself to be a dynamic king.
His son, Henry V, was even more of a man of action, entering the old war with France and winning some of the most famous battles in history. His victories, such as the Battle of Agincourt, were immortalised in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, turning the king into a kind of superhero who licked the French and then married their princess. The reality wasn’t so straightforward, though, especially as Henry died young, before making sure of his gains.
After Henry V died, his baby son became King Henry VI. The boy king had to rule through advisers, and when he did finally take responsibility for the realm himself, he proved unsuited to the job. Although kind and pious, he lacked the ability to govern shrewdly. While his military leaders were losing the lands England had conquered in France, Henry lost his grip on power in England. A civil war began, and the crown passed back and forth between Henry and his rivals of the House of York, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. This conflict, the Wars of the Roses, lasted from 1455 to 1485 and ended when a leader from a different family, the Welsh Tudors, defeated Richard III in battle and claimed the throne through his connection with the Lancastrians.
Strongman: Henry IV
The new king who forced Richard II from the throne in 1399 (see Chapter 8) was a much more attractive individual than his predecessor. Henry IV was a dynamic character, already in his early 30s, who had proved himself as a man of action. He wasn’t a giant of a man like Edward I (see Chapter 8 for him, too), but was athletic, liking sports such as jousting, and had been on Crusade and on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The people who met him - and on his travels he gained many friends in the royal and noble houses of Europe - were impressed by his character, seeing him as strong, courteous, and knightly. Henry seemed to be a good leader of men, too. In other words, he seemed the ideal kingly figure.
But Henry also had a more reflective side. He could read and write and was a patron of poets and musicians. One contemporary said that the king was a good musician himself, perhaps playing the recorder or flute. He was also highly religious, making regular offerings to the church and seeking out the most learned clergymen as his advisers.
The two sides of Henry’s character came together in an ambition he had to bring Europe together and lead a European force on a Crusade to Jerusalem. Many rulers in the Middle Ages shared this dream, but for Henry, it seemed more real than for most - after all, he had already been to the Holy Land, and he had heard a prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem. Henry was a good all-rounder, which made him a leader that people wanted to follow.
Henry was a widower when he came to the throne. His late wife, Mary de Bohun, had had two daughters and five sons. Four of the boys survived infancy, so he had plenty of heirs already waiting to take over when he died. In fact, Henry had no difficulty producing children. He also had several offspring from his second wife, Joan of Navarre.
As you would expect from his character, Henry’s rule was stronger and more decisive than that of Richard II. But his reign was dogged by the fact that others had a better claim to the throne, and Henry had to deal with various rebellions and uprisings.
Grabbing the throne
In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke was a man with a grievance. His cousin, King Richard II, had banished him and prevented him from taking up his rightful inheritance and becoming Duke of Lancaster. This title went with big estates, so it meant riches as well as status, but with the lands in royal hands, Henry could access none of what was rightly his.
So in 1399, Henry crossed the Channel to sort out his inheritance. He did not plan to make a bid for the crown. After all, his cousin Richard was on the throne. Richard had no children, but if he died, another cousin, the Earl of March, had a better claim to the throne than Henry.
But when he arrived in England, Henry realised that he had overwhelming support for his cause. The people, especially the members of Parliament, were fed up with Richard II’s capricious rule and wanted him out. Suddenly, Henry looked like an attractive replacement.
Soon the unfortunate Richard was imprisoned and persuaded to give up the throne. Henry stepped into his shoes, Parliament declared its approval, and just two months after Richard’s imprisonment, the new king was crowned. England seemed pleased with its decisive new king.
Making Henry's case
Henry knew he was on dodgy ground. He had grabbed the throne, but there were other potential claimants and he had to have a good legal case up his sleeve to justify the path he had taken. Henry made his case in several ways:
● He stressed that he was a blood relation of Henry III, thereby tracing his line back to the early Plantagenets and, through, them, to the Normans.
● He argued that royal rule in England was breaking down under Richard II - something had to be done.
● He claimed that God was on his side and had sent him to sort out the kingdom.
A good effort. But it didn’t alter the fact that the Earl of March had a better claim to the crown than Henry. There was going to be trouble ahead.
A raft of risings
Several people challenged Henry’s claim to the throne and took up arms to make their point. The trouble began a mere three months after the king’s coronation:
The old king’s men: In January 1400, a bunch of Richard II’s old courtiers rebelled against Henry. The king quickly put down the revolt, and soon after the imprisoned Richard died under suspicious circumstances.
The Welsh: In September of the same year, an uprising occurred in Wales. Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr (see Chapter 21) started the movement, which was so successful that English forces were pushed back to the borders; fighting went on for nine years.
Harry Hotspur: Sir Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, was the son of the Earl of Northumberland, originally one of Henry’s allies. In 1403, Hotspur upheld the Earl of March’s claim to the throne; Henry defeated him at the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Northumberland: In 1405, the Earl of Northumberland himself rebelled, this time in alliance with Glyndwr and, of all people, the archbishop of York Richard Scrope, the second most powerful churchman in the land. Defeated by Henry, the earl fled to Scotland. Scrope was captured and executed in 1407.
Northumberland - again: In 1408, the Earl of Northumberland returned to launch yet another rebellion, but this time Henry defeated him, and the earl was killed in the battle - an end to the pesky Percy problem.
Henry needed all his skills in warfare and decision-making to cope with this lot. And to make matters worse, he had another problem. England’s old enemies, the French, muscled in on the act, too. They made more trouble for Henry by supporting Glyndwr, attacking English lands in France, and launching raids on English coastal towns, such as Plymouth and Dartmouth.
The taxes to support Henry’s wars against his rivals stretched Parliament to the limit. In 1404, at the height of the fighting, Parliament demanded the appointment of special treasurers who oversaw expenditure on the war. Parliament put the brakes on Henry’s household spending, too, sharply cutting the accounts for the great wardrobe, which supplied robes and clothes for the king, court, officers, and so on, and the chamber, which kept funds for the king’s personal use.
It was only because Henry was so forceful - and well backed up by powerful allies in the nobility - that he was able to carry on with his expensive wars - and also perhaps because, unlike Richard II, he was a good politician who knew how to negotiate with Parliament.
The ailing king
In 1406, after nearly seven years of dynamic, hands-on kingship, Henry IV got sick. Because medical diagnosis wasn’t exactly very sophisticated in the 15th century, no one knows for sure what the trouble was. Some said that Henry had been struck down by leprosy and that the disease was God’s punishment for the execution of the rebellious Archbishop Scrope. But modern historians think leprosy was unlikely.
The most likely theory is that Henry had a number of strokes and that these left him incapacitated. Whatever the trouble was, it meant that the king had to take a back seat. For such a dynamic king, this step back must have gone against the grain.
The rule of the Council
With the king unwell, the Council took over the day-to-day government. To begin with, the king’s main adviser, Thomas Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury, dominated the Council. Arundel was a powerful figure, the third son of an earl who had been made Bishop of Ely at age 21, and by his early 40s, he had the top job in the English church.
Arundel made it his priority to sort out the royal finances. The fact that the royal wars were petering out made this task easier as there was less of a drain on the treasury. And the French were making less trouble in the Channel, so trade picked up, too. Things were looking rosy, except for one thing: Prince Henry, heir to the throne, was flexing his muscles. He wanted more influence in government.
Court in a struggle
Prince Henry was in his early 20s and keen to take a bigger part in the affairs of the realm. He had some powerful allies in the Beaufort family. The most powerful was Henry Beaufort, another formidable churchman, who was Bishop of Winchester and had been Henry IV’s Chancellor.
With the Beauforts on his side, Henry wrested power from Arundel and ran the Council from 1409 to 1411. Young Henry, who already had his own household as Prince of Wales, took on more of the trappings of power, creating what amounted to a royal court to rival his father’s. Ailing Henry IV was under threat from his nearest and dearest.
Tired and ill, Henry decided to rope in his younger son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, as a counterweight to Prince Henry. The two factions clashed over English policy in France. This issue was important because a civil war was raging across the Channel between the French royal family and the Duke of Burgundy. The two English factions had opposing views on this policy:
● View No. 1 - Batter the Burgundians: Thomas, working with the king’s trusted servant Arundel, thought England’s best chance of success in France was to make an alliance with the French king, who would be likely to let England keep its interests in the South of France. But this move would mean sacrificing any English claim to lands in Normandy.
● View No. 2 - Fight France: Prince Henry could not stomach giving up the English claims in northern France. He wanted to join up with the Duke of Burgundy, sworn enemy of the French king, and recover England’s old lands in Normandy - which would mean fighting the French.
Arundel and Thomas won the argument initially, but in 1413, the sick king finally gave up the ghost. Henry IV had pinned his hopes on the old prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem, on Crusade. He longed to get back to fighting strength. But the king passed away in his palace, ironically in a room called the Jerusalem Chamber. Now Prince Henry would be able to get his way at last.
Superking: Henry V
Henry V was well schooled for the role of soldier-king. By the age of ten, he could ride and use both bow and sword. He could also swim and was a keen huntsman. He looked the part, too. Chroniclers described him as handsome, and he was tall, slim, with a long neck, and a lean face. He gave the impression of a rather solemn, withdrawn character - some people even thought he was like a priest - but under the austere exterior was a man who used his intelligence to act decisively.
Henry was both a generous and loyal friend. Occasionally, his loyalty went slightly too far - when a young man, Henry struck the Lord Chief Justice in the face because the judge had been unfair to one of his servants. Henry was a good man to have on your side.
As a young man, Prince Henry was restless. Shakespeare, in his plays, portrayed him as a madcap teenager, always getting into scrapes and getting drunk with dissolute friends. Not a lot of evidence supports this view of Henry. He was restless in a different way, itching to pick up the reins of power while his father, Henry IV, lay ill in bed.
With old Henry’s death, the prince had his chance, and he did not hang around. The young king was soon on campaign across the Channel, beating the stuffing out of France. He seemed even more than his father the true man of action, the ruler who got what he wanted by military force.
In a few years, Henry V had the prize within his reach. He negotiated a deal with the French whereby he would marry a French princess and become heir to the throne of France. Alas for Henry, he was to die before he could take up his inheritance.
Agincourt and all that
Even before he became king, Henry wanted to lead a military campaign in France. There was a civil war on there between the French royal family and the Duke of Burgundy over who should rule France. Henry figured that it would be a good time to move in on the action and resume the long conflict between England and her cross-Channel neighbour. With the French already fighting Burgundy, Henry thought they’d be sitting ducks against an English assault. At worst, England could make territorial gains in France. At best, Henry could even fight his way on to the French throne himself.
Prelude to war
The young king was a gifted leader who could inspire people to join him. Henry managed to persuade nearly all the English nobles to join him on his campaign in France. In fact, out of 17 senior English nobles, only three did not go with Henry to France. (Two of these were children, and one was blind.)
Before fighting, Henry made a show of negotiating with the French. But the demands the English king made were vast. Henry wanted:
● The whole of the old Angevin empire, as ruled by Henry II.
● The ransom money that should have been paid for King John.
● The hand in marriage of the French’s king’s daughter.
● A dowry of two million crowns.
● The throne of France.
Clearly, no French king would agree to this lot, so, as Henry well knew, the stage was set for war. He assembled an army and in August 1415 - shortly after Henry put down an abortive rebellion ordered by the family of the Earl of March, who had a claim to his throne - the force set sail for France.
Landing in France in mid-August 1415, Henry swiftly laid siege to the strategic town of Harfleur. The English had to sit it out for several weeks, but eventually one of Henry’s commanders, the Earl of Huntingdon, got control of part of the fortifications, Henry stormed the town, and the defenders handed over the keys to the town gates.
Henry now held a key town in Normandy, and on 8 October, he led his army on a triumphal march through Normandy toward Calais, which was still in English hands. By 25 October, Henry’s forces had reached Agincourt, some 20 miles south of Calais, and the French, following the English as fast as they could, had caught them up. The Battle of Agincourt proved to be a decisive victory for the English.
The Battle of Agincourt was essentially a clash between around 9,000 English, mostly foot soldiers and archers, and a larger French force, mostly made up of cavalry. The key to Henry’s success was his bowmen. Using a longbow, an archer can shoot several arrows a minute, and the English rained a continuous shower of deadly arrows on their enemy, felling knights and crippling their horses. The exact figures aren’t known, but probably around 6,000 Frenchmen lost their lives, whereas England had only 400 casualties.
When Henry returned to England after the battle, a huge reception was organised, with a pageant in London as a tribute to the king. In the course of the pageant, Henry was compared to some of the greatest heroes from the Bible. Here are some of the key features of the celebration:
● Tall towers set up and decorated with the coat of arms of the city of London.
● A conduit that gushed wine instead of water.
● A performance of the biblical battle between the hero David and Goliath.
● Another performance designed to compare the king to the biblical patriarch Abraham.
● Figures representing the 12 Apostles and past English kings, all of whom gave their blessing on Henry’s achievement.
A victory on the scale of Agincourt was overwhelming. The French ducked out of any more confrontations with Henry. But Henry took the war to the French, landing a large invasion force in 1417 and working his way around northern France. By 1419, when the major city of Rouen surrendered to English forces, Henry had Normandy under his control and was ready to make a peace settlement.
The result of Henry’s negotiations was the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, which had these key provisions:
● Henry was given the hand in marriage of Catherine, the daughter of Charles VI, king of France.
● The English king was recognised as Regent of France, in effect ruling on behalf of his father-in-law.
● On the death of Charles, Henry would become king.
Incredibly, after a short military campaign, Henry was within a whisker of achieving the main goal of his demands of 1415. It had seemed outrageous then, but now Henry was almost there.
A big mistake: Dying young
Henry and France agreed on the Treaty of Troyes on 21 May 1420. Because one of its provisions could be fulfilled immediately, Henry didn’t hang around. At Troyes Cathedral on 2 June, Henry and Princess Catherine were married. Before the end of the following year, they had a baby son and heir, another Henry. The future looked good.
But there were complications in France. In spite of the Treaty of Troyes, the French king’s son, the Dauphin, was still putting up resistance against the English. Henry had left his brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, in charge of the English forces in France while he brought Catherine back to England to be crowned queen. Soon after the coronation in Westminster Abbey, Henry heard that his brother had been killed in a battle at Beauge, near the River Loire in France. It turned out that Thomas had rashly begun to fight without waiting for his archers to arrive at the battlefield. Henry realised that he had to return to France to fight again.
Having gathered reinforcements, the king sailed to France and marched south. The Dauphin would not be drawn into pitched battle again. Henry was known as a fearsome opponent - and he had plenty of archers at his side. Without the prospect of a pitched battle, Henry settled for besieging a city that was in French hands in the hope of gaining territory. So he surrounded the town of Meaux, which surrendered in May 1421.
Henry stayed in France campaigning through the winter of 1421-22, but dysentery swept through the English forces, and the king fell victim. Ever a fighter, he spent the first half of 1422 trying to recover, but finally died on the last day of August at Vincennes near Paris. He was in his mid-30s.
If Henry had lived, he would probably have had further successes in France. A decisive battle would have brought the Dauphin to his knees and made the provisions of the Treaty of Troyes truly achievable. And the French king Charles VI himself died in October 1422, so the Englishman would have been able to claim his French crown. Instead, his baby son became king of England alone.
Musical Thrones: Henry VI and a Pair of Edwards
The years between 1422 and 1483 were some of the most fraught in the whole history of the English monarchy. They began with the accession of Henry VI, who was a nine-month-old baby and the only son of Henry V and his queen, Catherine of France. With an infant on the throne, the real power was in the hands of a Council of nobles, but when Henry eventually took power himself, he proved to be a poor leader who let faction flourish at his court.
The result was a series of squabbles between the nobles of England over who should rule, with the crown changing hands several times. To avoid confusion, here’s a rundown of who reigned when:
● Henry VI, Lancastrian, 1422-61.
● Edward IV, Yorkist, 1461-1470.
● Henry VI, Lancastrian, restored to the throne, 1470-71.
● Edward IV, Yorkist, restored to the throne, 1471-83.
● Edward V, Yorkist, April-June 1483.
With monarchs jumping on and off the throne, there wasn’t much stability, and for a lot of the time, the real power lay not with the king at all, but with the aristocracy.
When little Henry VI took the throne in 1422, a Council of nobles was established to govern on his behalf. The key person on this Council was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the brother of Henry V and thus the young king Henry VI’s uncle. Humphrey took the title of Protector of the Realm and became the most powerful man in England. Almost as important was John, Duke of Bedford, another of the king’s uncles, who was made Regent of France. A third key member of the Council was Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester.
The Council had quite a heavy agenda and didn’t always see eye to eye on how to achieve their goals. Amongst other things, its members had to:
● Carry on fighting the war with France, which had been going on since 1337.
● Try to balance royal accounts at home.
● Maintain law and order in England.
● Secure England’s border with Scotland.
● Not squabble between themselves so badly that the other aims would not be attainable.
Henry on the throne
On the whole, the Council that ruled on behalf of the young Henry VI did not do too badly, and when Henry assumed power in 1437 at age 16, the royal finances were in better shape than under Henry V, and England itself was peaceful, even if war still raged on in France.
But there was a problem. Henry himself seemed temperamentally unfit to rule. He was a complex character, and he certainly had his good side. But he did not work out very well at all as a king. Henry VI, unfortunately, had two sides to his personality:
● Good points: Henry was a model medieval man in one way - he was very religious. But his piety has been exaggerated because one contemporary account emphasised this quality in an attempt to portray the king as a saint. Henry was also a notable patron of education, founding both Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. And he was loyal to his friends, although sometimes stubbornly so.
● Weak points: Henry didn’t want to be a great war leader like his father, Henry V - a drawback in the Middle Ages when kings were expected to be soldiers. He wasn’t much good at government - he was a weak, feeble character who nobles were soon wrapping around their little fingers.
He vacillated and changed his mind a lot. He would pardon wrongdoers and dole out gifts at the drop of a hat and seems to have left a lot of the decision-making of government to his advisers.
Henry VI simply did not have the kingly ability of his predecessors, and his indecisiveness created just the kind of atmosphere into which power-hungry nobles could sink their teeth. And things got even worse when, in 1453-4, the king seems to have had some sort of mental breakdown. He could hardly move and became completely withdrawn, incapable even of the indecisive rule he’d managed to date. After hanging around for a few months hoping he’d get better, the Council appointed the king’s cousin, Richard, Duke of York, as a new Protector of the Realm.
Richard was well connected and ambitious enough to have an eye on the throne himself. When Henry recovered and Richard lost his job as Protector, a power struggle developed. On one side were the followers of Richard (the Yorkists), many of whom hoped to put Richard on the throne in place of Henry. Opposing them were the men closest to the king, such as the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Northumberland, men who wanted to keep the house of Lancaster on the throne.
These two sides came to blows at St Albans in 1455. The Yorkists killed both Somerset and Northumberland, and the long struggle between the House of York (symbol, the white rose) and the House of Lancaster (red rose) was on. The Wars of the Roses had begun.
The Wars of the Roses
The Wars of the Roses, between the rival royal houses of Lancaster and York, went on for 30 years, from 1455 to 1485. Like any wars, the Wars of the Roses caused a lot of pain and destabilised England. Here’s a blow-by-blow account of the main stages:
● 1455, First Battle of St Albans: Richard, Duke of York, seizes control of the government.
● 1459: Parliament declares that Richard, Duke of York, is a traitor.
● 1460, Battle of Northampton: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, defeats the Lancastrians; Henry VI is taken prisoner, but Queen Margaret (see Chapter 22) escapes to Scotland.
● 1460, Battle of Wakefield: Margaret scores a victory for the Lancastrians; Richard of York is killed.
● 1461, Battle of Towton: Warwick defeats Margaret, and Edward IV is declared king; Margaret rescues Henry and retreats to Scotland.
● 1464, Battle of Hexham: Henry VI is captured.
● 1469, Battle of Edgecote: Warwick turns on Edward IV and defeats him.
● 1470: With Warwick on his side, Henry VI returns to the throne.
● 1471, Battle of Barnet: Edward defeats Warwick, who is killed; Henry VI is murdered; and Edward resumes power.
● 1485, Battle of Bosworth: Edward IV’s brother, Richard III, is now on the throne, but he’s defeated by the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, bringing the Wars of the Roses to an end.
Complicated, huh? And that’s just the major turning points. No wonder the monarchy was destabilised with all this to-ing and fro-ing.
Things were not quite as bad as they sound because, as with most medieval wars, the fighting in the Wars of the Roses was not continuous. And most English people were not involved in the fighting - the battles, for the most part, involved nobles, their retainers, and mercenaries. Ordinary people could go for years without seeing a sword drawn.
But the monarchy was in a mess, and in this state of affairs, who held the real power? Well, two people stand out as playing decisive parts in these events: Richard, Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI’s queen, Margaret.
The She-wolf of France
Henry VI married French princess Margaret of Anjou in 1444. The wedding was part of a peace deal between England and France and so was like most medieval royal matches - a diplomatic marriage. Mild-mannered, indecisive Henry probably didn’t realise what he was taking on. Margaret was a handful, and chroniclers referred to her as the She-wolf of France.
Actually, the chroniclers were probably exaggerating. They were writing history from a Yorkist point of view and wanted to find ways of attacking Henry and his family. The queen may not have been as bad as they say, but she was certainly formidable, and when the king had his breakdown in 1453-4, Margaret became a rallying point for the supporters of the Lancastrian cause.
In the 1460s, Margaret fought for the Lancastrian cause from bases in Scotland and northern England. She scored a notable victory at Wakefield where she led the army she had raised in the North against Richard of York, who met his death in the struggle.
In an era when women were usually expected to stay at home, Margaret was remarkable. Women did sometimes get involved in warfare in the Middle Ages - records recount women defending castles under siege when their husbands had fallen in battle, for example. But it was very rare indeed for a woman to lead an army on to the field of conflict.
The kings and the king-maker
The other leader who had a huge influence on the Wars of the Roses was Richard, Earl of Warwick. Warwick was a great soldier who played a major role in the warfare and politics of the Wars of the Roses. He fought bravely at the first Battle of St Albans and became a hero among the English when he defeated a fleet of Spanish ships off Calais in 1458.
In 1461, Warwick was instrumental in getting Edward IV declared king after the Battle of Towton. Nine years later, in 1470, he was the leader of the coup that put Henry VI briefly back on the throne.
These manoeuvres later gave Warwick his famous nickname, King-maker. The person who can put a king on the throne is almost as powerful as the king himself, and Warwick’s power didn’t stop there. During Henry VI’s brief second rule in 1470-1, Warwick ruled on behalf of the king, who sat on the throne weak and bewildered while the power politics went on around him. His power only ended when he was killed by Edward IV at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.
Marrying a commoner: Edward IV
Edward IV came to the throne at age 19, and in the early part of his reign, much of the power was held by his backer and cousin, Richard, Earl of Warwick, the king-maker. But as he grew to maturity and took on the tasks of government, Edward, a tall, rather handsome young man, showed himself to be a hard worker who wrestled with the royal finances and tried to improve the justice system.
Edward was a conscientious monarch who realised the importance of those in society who produced the wealth - the peasants and merchants. He helped the peasants by introducing a new court, the Court of Requests, where peasants could bring problems with their landlords. He also encouraged a boom in trade, which pleased the merchants.
This trade boom was partly the result of improvements in continental Europe. It was also helped because Edward stamped down on piracy, making sea trade safer. And he gave the capital’s merchants more power by allowing them to take part in the election of the mayor of London. The merchants were happy, and all the more so as exports rose steadily during Edward’s reign.
But things were not so straightforward in Edward’s relations with the aristocracy. At the beginning of his reign, the young king relied heavily on the Earl of Warwick as his chief adviser.
Warwick was now more than a royal counsellor - he was a serious power behind the throne. Having used his power to get Edward on the throne in the first place, Warwick now used his role as elder statesman to negotiate a new alliance with France, and in 1464, the talks had reached a turning point. The French king wanted Edward to marry his wife’s sister, Bona of Savoy.
When Warwick told his king about the proposal, Edward took the wind out of his sails. The king announced that he was already married. He had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of Lancastrian supporter Sir John Grey.
Elizabeth, still in her 20s when her first husband was killed, was one of the beauties of the English court. But although she was the daughter of a lord, she was not a member of the higher ranks of the aristocracy, and the wedding was a surprise to most English nobles, who would have expected Edward to marry a foreign princess, just as Warwick had planned. But Elizabeth seems to have captured the king’s heart.
The couple were happy and had ten children, but politically the marriage led to a break between the king and his adviser Warwick, who was seriously miffed that his plans for the proposed diplomatic marriage with Bona of Savoy were to come to nought. The resulting row turned Warwick against the king. The earl led and promoted a series of rebellions that resulted in the former king, Henry VI, being brought briefly back to the throne in 1470-1, before Edward himself was restored to the throne, and Warwick was defeated. A royal marriage can have explosive consequences, as later rulers were to find out.
Once Edward was back on the throne in 1471, he was able to rule competently and relatively peacefully. He worked hard as a ruler, and England’s prosperity continued. The king also had a reputation for enjoying himself - or for living a life of debauchery, as some churchmen put it. He certainly found time to father at least four illegitimate children by several different mothers.
Then, in 1483, Edward had a sudden stroke and died. Some of the churchmen who had criticised his love of loose living said it was a punishment for his conduct, but it was more likely to have been the result of hard work. As so often in the past, a young boy was left to claim the crown. This time, it was the king’s son, Edward, who was just 12 years old.
Scandal! The princes in the Tower
Edward IV’s eldest son Edward became king in April 1483. Not much is known about the 12-year-old Edward. He seems to have lived happily away from the royal court with his mother’s family in Ludlow Castle, Shropshire. Here he was given a good education and was said to have been a good student. The old king had instructed that his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, should act as Protector if young Edward had to become king before he came of age. Richard rushed to the new king’s side, but just before the coronation, a bombshell was dropped: Edward was said to be illegitimate.
But Edward IV and his queen Elizabeth Woodville were married when the prince was born. What was the problem? The reasoning went like this: When Edward IV secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, he was actually officially betrothed to another woman, Lady Eleanor Butler. This betrothal amounted to a commitment that made Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage void, so any children born to Elizabeth were illegitimate.
So who was the rightful heir to the throne? It will come as no surprise that the young king’s opponents had that one worked out. They argued that the rightful king was the old king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard, who in any case held most of the power, should get the real prize and be king in his own right.
It was a debatable point. The old king and queen had been married, after all. But Richard was ruthless and saw that if he moved quickly, he might be able to grab the crown for himself. Once he arrived in London for his coronation, the young king Edward V was bundled off to the Tower of London and kept securely there. His younger brother Richard was sent to the Tower as well, just to make sure that he wouldn’t press his claim to the throne if anything untoward happened to Edward.
The two boys, who have gone down in history as the princes in the Tower, never left the Tower of London. They were seen in the summer of 1483, but after that, they vanished for good. In the 17th century, a pair of skeletons, thought to be of two boys, were unearthed in the Tower. No one knows whether these bones were the princes, but it is possible. The rumour was that Richard of Gloucester had had them killed, but no one knows for sure.
What is sure is this: Edward V’s brief, uncrowned reign lasted only from 9 April to 25 June 1483. That June, Parliament declared Edward to be illegitimate, and Richard of Gloucester became king the next day after one of the shortest reigns in British history.
Much Maligned: Richard III
Richard III came to the throne in 1483 after the mysterious disappearance, and possibly murder, of Edward V. Although he reigned for only two years, Richard has left a big mark on English history - a big black mark as the most maligned of English monarchs.
Many people know about Richard III because of the drama by Shakespeare in which he plays the leading role. The Bard portrays Richard as a scheming, murderous hunchback. But was he really that evil?
Crook or crookback?
Crookback was the Tudor nickname for Richard III. The writers of the Tudor period described him as a hideous, deformed character, whose morality was as twisted as his body and who murdered rivals to the throne. But the fact is that the Tudors had it in for Richard. They wanted to destroy his reputation because he was an enemy of the Tudors. The reality was probably rather different. No hard-and-fast evidence supports the theory that Edward V was murdered. It also seems unlikely that Richard was even a hunchback - contemporaries commented on his good looks, though he seems to have been shorter and slighter than many of his ancestors.
Perhaps to distract people from his small stature, Richard became well known for his fine clothes. He was certainly well-dressed at his coronation. For this occasion, Richard wore
● A doublet of blue cloth-of-gold decorated with nets and pineapples.
● A gown of purple velvet and ermine adorned with 3,300 thin strips of lamb’s fleece.
● Later in the day, a long gown of purple cloth-of-gold lined with white damask.
So Richard made a kingly impression. The quality went deeper than his clothes, too, because Richard did have some good character traits. When his brother, Edward IV, was on the throne, he was unflinchingly loyal to him. He was also valiant in battle, proving his bravery when he fought on the Yorkist side in battles such as Tewkesbury. Richard had other good personal qualities. He was brave, seems to have had a genuine Christian piety, and, with his queen, Anne, was interested in education and funded colleges at Cambridge.
So what went wrong? Well, some English nobles weren’t happy when Richard seized the crown. In 1483, shortly after he was crowned, a rebellion was launched. Unlike in previous reigns, the rebels were not supporters of a rival dynasty; they were Yorkists. In other words, they should have been Richard’s natural allies, being people who had supported Edward IV, but they objected to the way Richard grabbed power.
One of the leaders of the rebellion was Henry, Duke of Buckingham, one of the most prominent Yorkist nobles. Another was Henry Tudor, the son of a Welsh gentleman, but with enough royal blood in his veins to be a potential claimant to the throne. These men posed a serious threat to Richard.
The rebellion was a flop. Buckingham was captured, and Henry, who was arriving with a small fleet from France, was the victim of gales - only a couple of his ships actually landed in England. Most of the other rebels scattered, and Henry fled back to France. Richard had triumphed, and he hadn’t even needed to fight very hard.
But the threat from Henry Tudor was a chink in Richard’s armour. The Welshman was still at large. Richard punished many of the other rebels by taking away their lands. But this move left them disaffected and ready to rebel once more. Many people, especially in the south of England, waited eagerly for Henry Tudor to return.
My kingdom for a horse!
In August 1485, little more than two years after Richard had become king, Henry Tudor, the Welsh challenger for the throne, returned. Richard was astute enough to know that Henry would mount another challenge to his rule, and he was prepared with an army to meet the Welshman.
Henry landed at Milford Haven in South Wales. He had military backing from the French and, as he marched through England, it became clear that he had a formidable force of around 8,000 men. But Richard still had a good chance. He had gathered together an army of 12,000.
The two armies met at Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard thought that if he sent Henry packing, this threat to his power would end. It didn’t work out like that. A number of the king’s key supporters went over to Henry’s side or did not turn up to fight. In spite of this disappointment, Richard launched a brave, or perhaps foolhardy, attack against Henry. Richard fought bravely.
In Shakespeare’s account of the battle, Richard loses his horse, utters the despairing cry, ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ and fights Henry in single combat.
In reality, Richard, desperately slashing his way through the battle, did not quite reach Henry before an opponent cut him down. The crown was left for Henry Tudor to claim, and the power of the Yorkist dynasty was brought to an end.