Post-classical history



During the last years of the fifteenth century, on a morning in late summer, a small man stood alone by himself in a meadow in the English Midlands. His horse had become bogged down in some marshy ground so that he had been forced to dismount. All around him lay his dead or dying supporters, while others could be seen fleeing for their lives. In steel from head to foot, with a jewelled coronet on his helmet, he grasped a steel-handled battle-hammer. Although his sharp face was hidden by the helmet, he could nonetheless be heard shouting ‘Treason! Treason!’, over and over again. A growing mob of enemy soldiers was running towards him but, declining to mount a horse brought by a last faithful squire, he refused to leave the battlefield and waited grimly. He meant to fight to the death. Rank-and-file, men-at-arms, billmen or bowmen, they swarmed about him like so many hounds with a fox. Swinging that murderous little hammer to the very end, still screaming ‘Treason!’, finally he was mortally wounded by a Welshman’s halberd and went down into the mud.1 They ripped off the dead man’s armour and felt under-clothing, kicking the body as it rolled in the dirt. At last his corpse, naked as the day he was born, smeared with mud and blood, a halter tied round its neck, was slung over a horse behind his pursuivant Blanc Sanglier, who was made to carry his banner of the White Boar in derision. When the two rode into Leicester, his dangling head smashed into a stone bridge, bruising the face still further. As he passed, men yelled insults and curses at what was left of Richard III.

According to tradition, Reginald Bray, an official in the household of Henry Tudor’s mother, found the dead monarch’s coronet in a hawthorn bush and at once took it to Lord Stanley, Henry’s stepfather. Stanley, who had betrayed Richard by taking his troops over to the other side, placed the diadem on his stepson’s head, shouting ‘King Henry! King Henry!’, a cry which was taken up joyfully by everyone present.

The Tudor Age had begun. In retrospect, the Battle of Bosworth would be seen as decisive, settling the fate of the English crown. It was almost – though not quite – the end of those thirty years of bloodshed known to history as ‘The Wars of the Roses’.

The Wars of the Roses, that amazing fifteenth-century blood-bath in which partisans of the rival dynasties of York and Lancaster slaughtered each other for over three decades, are part of the English National Myth. However, they do not fill so honoured a place in it as the Hundred Years’ War, when Englishmen fought Frenchmen at Crécy and Agincourt. Battles that cost the lives of so many fellow countrymen are as much cause for mourning as rejoicing. Some historians claim that the Wars of the Roses cannot stir the imagination like the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Yet they certainly stirred Shakespeare’s, prompting him to write his plays Henry VI and Richard III. Admittedly, visits to the National Theatre may not leave anyone much wiser about what really took place, since the Bard turned the conflict into a single bloodstained drama.

Plenty of academic ink has been spilt on showing that no contemporary would have recognized the term ‘Wars of the Roses’. If York bore a white rose among its badges, and was sometimes styled the ‘House of the White Rose’, a red rose was never used by Lancaster. Only under Henry VII did the red rose become the Lancastrian badge, retrospectively; to facilitate the pretty conceit of the Tudor Rose – part red, part white, symbolizing the merciful union between the two dynasties which had brought peace to a distracted land. Nor do we know when the term came into fashion. David Hume is sometimes said to have been the first to use it, in his History of England (1762), though his actual words are ‘the quarrel between the two roses’. It has also been suggested that Sir Walter Scott coined it, in his novel Anne of Geierstein (1829), but in fact he refers to ‘the wars of the White and Red Roses’.

Nevertheless, although the term would not be immediately recognizable to men and women who lived through the Wars, the idea behind it must have been familiar enough to them. The late Professor Charles Ross quoted a line of verse in the Croyland Chronicle, written in 1486 and referring to Richard III’s murder of the Princes in the Tower: ‘And, to avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed.’ As Ross commented, only pedants could reject a name that has been in use for centuries.

Not only have there been many studies of the Wars, but they have inspired a flood of romantic novels. Most of the novelists subscribe to the strange cult of King Richard’s innocence, which has mushroomed during recent years. (The Richard III Society numbers thousands and even has Japanese members.) Yet his short reign is only one episode towards the close of a very long story.

The Wars of the Roses lasted from the first Battle of St Albans in 1455 to the Battle of Stoke in 1487, and were fought to decide which branch of the English royal family should reign – Lancaster or York. Descended from a count of Anjou who had married William the Conqueror’s granddaughter (and taking their name from the ‘plant-genet’ or sprig of broom he wore in his helmet) the Plantagenets had ruled England since 1154. The dispute between the family’s two branches stemmed from Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne at the end of the fourteenth century, when he deposed and murdered Richard II to become the first Lancastrian sovereign. He was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who had been the third son of the great Edward III. For a long time Henry’s Lancastrian dynasty seemed firmly established; his son Henry V ruled England from 1413 to 1422 and, as we know, led further spectacularly successful invasions of France. When he died young, his one-year-old son, another Henry, became king with general acceptance. Although a cousin, Richard, Duke of York (born in 1411), possessed a claim to the throne which was arguably superior – he descended from Edward III’s fourth son in the male line but from his second son in the female line – no one challenged the Lancastrian succession.

The wars would never have broken out had it not been for Henry VI, who reached his majority in 1436 at the age of fifteen. Even his appearance failed to inspire respect. The only surviving portraits show a pitifully weak and worried face, while he was notorious for his drab clothes and clumsy shoes. As for his character, Pope Pius II described him as ‘a man more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit’. The son of the hero of Agincourt was the only monarch since the Norman Conquest to be incapable of leading an army in battle. He was easily dominated by his wife and his favourites, with disastrous consequences. Moreover, in his early thirties he began to suffer from fits of insanity.

During Henry’s minority England had been governed by a council with considerable efficiency. The council had included the King’s uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his great-uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester – a bastard but legitimized son of John of Gaunt. Across the Channel a third of all France, including Paris, was ruled by another uncle, the Duke of Bedford. For Henry was King of France as well as of England, being crowned in Paris in 1430, even if the vast majority of Frenchmen supported the Valois king. Everything changed for the worse when he began to govern in person.

In 1445 he married the fifteen-year-old Margaret of Anjou, a Valois princess, and adopted a policy of peace. At the start of 1449 the English still held Normandy and Gascony, but by August 1450 they did not hold a foot of Norman soil and by August 1451 not a foot of Gascon; an attempt to recover Bordeaux ended in disaster. England had finally lost the Hundred Years’ War.

Much of the blame for the loss of English France lay with Henry’s kinsman Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who had replaced the Duke of York as the English commander. A ‘dove’, unlike York who was very much a ‘hawk’, Somerset was a spectacularly incompetent soldier. The explosive rivalry between Somerset and York – made Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland to keep him out of the way – began in France. In any case York felt increasingly threatened by the Duke of Somerset, who was bent on extracting as many lucrative offices as possible from the King.

There was trouble at home too. Looking back from the 1460s, an anonymous chronicler wrote of Henry VI’s reign:

The realm of England was out of all good governance, as it had been many days before, for the king was simple and led by covetous counsel and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily but payment was there none; all the possessions and lordships that pertained to the crown the king had given away, some to lords and some to other lesser persons, so that he had almost nothing left to own. And such impositions as were put on the people, as taxes and taillages, all that came from them was spent in vain, for he had no [great] household nor maintained any wars . . .

The legal system began to break down. Frequently judge and jury were intimidated by archers lounging menacingly at the back of a courtroom. Gang warfare erupted over law suits – generally about land or disputed wills – sometimes escalating into pitched battles, as magnates vied for supremacy. Banditry thrived. A poem from this time laments the premature death of Henry V, who had ‘kept the law and peace’ throughout England, ensuring good justice. Nowadays, people put on armour instead of going to the courts:

In every shire with jacks and sallets clean
Misrule does rise, and makes the neighbours war,
The weaker goes beneath, as oft is seen.

The king’s lavish patronage of the Duke of Suffolk and other favourites created a greedy court party which battened on him. By 1450 the crown owed £400,000 and was still borrowing, £24,000 being spent on the royal household – out of a total revenue of £24,000.

Popular exasperation came to a head over the loss of France. In January 1450 William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, King Henry’s avaricious first minister, was impeached by Parliament. Sent into exile in May by the King in order to save his life, he was waylaid at sea and executed with a rusty sword – news greeted with applause throughout England.

Jack Cade’s rising during the summer of 1450 was no peasant’s revolt, but an expression of widespread discontent. The rebels demanded that the King dismiss his favourites because ‘his lords are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost . . .’ They urged him to govern with the advice of princes of the royal blood – notably the Duke of York.

However, Cade’s rising was crushed, while Suffolk’s place was taken by the Duke of Somerset – York’s rival. There was little doubt that the years ahead would be troubled. Even so, no one can have anticipated civil war.

A brief résumé of the events of the next three decades is needed here, since the immediate aims of the combatants were constantly changing. When the first blood was shed in 1455 the issue was who should dominate Henry VI, though both sides were more than ready for violence. On one side was what would become known as the Yorkist party; Richard, Duke of York with his brother-in-law Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, and the latter’s son, Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick. On the other side, the Lancastrian, were the ferocious French queen, Margaret of Anjou, and Somerset, with a strong court party. It was vital for York and for Somerset to control the royal purse strings; although the greatest landowner in England, the Duke of York faced ruin if he were not repaid the sums he had spent in France as lieutenant-general and in Ireland as lord-lieutenant – by contrast the Duke of Somerset, under-endowed with estates, depended largely on revenue from royal offices. As for the Nevills, father and son were old rivals of the Percy earls of Northumberland who supported the court, while Warwick was in dispute with Somerset over the rich lordship of Glamorgan.

The conflict was transformed into irreconcilable vendetta in 1455 when, after eleven years of childless marriage, Queen Margaret bore Henry a son and York ceased to be heir to the throne. The queen’s troops forced York and the Nevills to flee abroad in 1459. They returned the following year, defeating the Lancastrian army at Northampton after which, driven by a mixture of ambition and self-preservation, the Duke of York browbeat a reluctant House of Lords into recognizing him as Henry VI’s heir – and into disinheriting the infant Prince of Wales. In response Queen Margaret raised an army in the north of England, which defeated and killed York at Wakefield in December 1460.

York’s son, the eighteen-year-old Earl of March, retaliated by occupying London and proclaiming himself King Edward IV early in 1461, after which he marched north to confront and annihilate the Lancastrians at Towton in the most terrible battle of the entire Wars. The new Yorkist king spent the next few years mopping up surviving pockets of Lancastrian resistance, crushing small risings in Yorkshire and Northumberland, a task which he had completed by 1464 with the total rout of the last tiny Lancastrian army at Hexham and the execution of its leaders.

But the Yorkists quarrelled with each other. Partly from resentment at the King’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, an arrogant lady with greedy kindred, the Earl of Warwick – ‘the Kingmaker’ – plotted implacably to replace him. Outmanoeuvred, Edward fled to Burgundy in 1470 and Warwick brought back Henry VI, who had been a prisoner in the Tower of London.

Henry’s second reign lasted only a few months. Edward IV returned with an army so small that a contemporary called his invasion ‘coming in by the windows’, yet, in two swift, savage campaigns, within a month he had destroyed the Earl of Warwick at Barnet and then the remaining Lancastrians at Tewkesbury; both Warwick and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales fell in battle, while the wretched Henry VI was murdered discreetly in the Tower. The prosperous years that followed were the Yorkist golden age.

When King Edward died unexpectedly in 1483, his brother the Duke of Gloucester seized power in two ruthless coups d’état. Swiftly deposing Edward’s young son Edward V, who disappeared, he ascended the throne as Richard III. The new king was soon opposed by an alliance of outraged Yorkists and Lancastrian diehards, who found a rival candidate for the throne in Henry Tudor – through his Beaufort mother, the last heir of the Lancastrian dynasty. After an unsuccessful rebellion during the autumn of 1483, and much plotting, they succeeded in defeating and killing Richard at Bosworth Field in August 1485.

Two years later Henry Tudor, now King Henry VII, managed to beat off a final Yorkist challenge at Stoke in another fiercely fought engagement. It was the last real battle of the Wars of the Roses, although there would be Yorkish pretenders and plots until well into the next century.

* * *

This synopsis gives little idea of the appalling slaughter involved. In his memoirs Philippe de Commynes – a Burgundian statesman who served Louis XI of France and who had watched from across the Channel – writes of the Wars that ‘there have been seven or eight memorable battles in England, and sixty or eighty princes and lords of the blood royal have died violently’. There were of course other less memorable battles while Commynes exaggerates only a little about the casualties if peers are included in his figures. Three kings, a Prince of Wales and eight royal (or semi-royal) dukes died by battle, murder or sudden death. Edward IV would order his troops to spare common soldiers but to ‘kill the gentles’ – there was no mercy for defeated leaders or their staffs. During the campaigns of 1460–61 alone twelve noblemen were killed and six beheaded – over a third of the English peerage. Entire noble families were exterminated; one Duke of Somerset fell in battle, two were beheaded, and their heir fell at Tewkesbury. The gentry suffered proportionately, though no exact figures are available; sixty knights and gentlemen (including twenty-five MPs) were attainted after Towton – one chronicler records the beheading of forty-two Lancastrian knights who had been taken prisoner during the battle.

The rest of Europe watched in amazement, even if the English were then regarded as the most violent and ferocious race in Christendom. ‘Men of a haughty disposition, hot tempered and quickly moved to anger, difficult to pacify and bring to reason’ was how the French chronicler Froissart had described the English at the beginning of the fifteenth century. ‘They take delight in battles and slaughters.’ Commynes too thought the English exceptionally ‘choleric’ (savage-tempered), especially those who had never been out of England.

Sudden death was not confined to the battlefield. A courtier could all too easily find himself on the scaffold. In a now-unfashionable book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 2 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writes of ‘that hell of hatred and persecution which was the English court’. He quotes the Flemish herald and chronicler Georges Chastellain, who had visited the English court and may well have had it in mind when telling his readers that ‘princes are men, and their affairs are high and perilous, and their natures are subject to many passions, such as hatred and envy’. In a will made a few days after the battle of Bosworth, the Yorkist Lord Mountjoy warned his sons ‘to live right wisely and never to take the state of baron upon them if they may lay it from them, nor to desire to be about princes, for it is dangerous’.3

Commynes says with justice that ‘the calamities and misfortunes of war fell only upon the soldiers, and especially upon the nobility’. The latter faced not just death in battle but, if they were on the losing side, the possibility of attainder. An attainder was an Act of Parliament, which only needed token approval by the House of Commons and the King’s acceptance; the victim was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered while all his goods were confiscated and his heirs disinherited in perpetuity. It has been described as the legal death of a family.

Again and again, magnates and gentry were forced to choose sides – a nightmarish choice with very high stakes indeed. The former could not avoid taking part. They were too prominent politically and socially, while their ‘affinities’ or retinues amounted to private armies which were needed desperately by both sides. Out of 70 adult peers during this period, over 50 are known to have fought in battles they had to win if they wanted to stay alive. Holding office in a magnate’s household or dependent on his influence, few English gentlemen had any option other than to fight for him.

The Wars shocked the gentry at the time, and not merely in retrospect. They saw them as a calamity that affected all their class. An unidentified government spokesman told the House of Commons in 1475 that ‘none [of us] hath escaped’, and clearly he was expressing a general opinion. The Duke of Buckingham claimed in a speech of 1483 that war was never ‘in none earthly nation so deadly and so pestilent as when it happeneth among us . . . nor so cruel and so deadly foughten’. The Duke added that during Edward IV’s reign alone ‘the getting of the garland, keeping it, losing and winning again, it hath cost more English blood than hath twice the winning of France’. In other words, more Englishmen had been killed during Edward’s struggle for the Crown than during the entire Hundred Years’ War.

In many English churches one still finds brasses of long-haired knights and squires in fluted plate armour, with those of wasp-waisted wives in butterfly hats. Brief inscriptions, asking us to pray for their souls, tell us that they lived during these years but not much else. We know that they inhabited an England that was often a place of great beauty as well as cruelty, full of brilliant colour, that of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and the ‘Ballad of the Nut Brown Maid’, of fan-vaulted cathedrals and the polyphony of composers like John Dunstable. Yet, as we can see from the Morte d’Arthur, its inhabitants’ mentality was immeasurably remote from our own, with fantastic values derived from chivalry and a ritualized code of courtly love. For us, Malory’s knight errants, magicians and hermits, his enchantresses and damsels, come from an alien world – for the subjects of Edward IV or Richard III it was the ideal dream world, in which they felt completely at home. No doubt the Nut Brown Maid had a lyrical approach to love between the sexes:

For I must to the greenwood go,

Alone a banished man . . .

Make you ready, for so am I,

Although it were anon,

For in my mind of all mankind

I love but you alone.

But cheerful romanticism of this sort was a rare enough phenomenon in the fifteenth century.

If we knew more about the men and women of Lancastrian or Yorkist England, we should think them rather gloomy people. Melancholy was much in fashion. ‘I, man of sadness, born in an eclipse of darkness amid fogs of lamentation’, wrote Chastellain, emphasizing their pessimism. They were obsessed by death and the fleeting quality of life, an obsession to some extent understandable in a world frequently afflicted by plague or famine, where banditry, armed robbery, housebreaking and murder were commonplace, in which old age began at fifty. The memento mori, the reminder of death, was very popular. At Arundel the tomb of the seventh Earl of Arundel (who fell in battle against the French in 1435) has two effigies; above, he is in full armour with his helmet; below, he is a skeleton in a shroud.

The population numbered no more than three million at most. At the top of the social pile were a group of between fifty and sixty magnates, the peers or lords of Parliament, great landowners whose incomes might be in excess of £1,000 a year – a vast fortune. Below them came the richer knights, about 200 men with incomes of more than £100; then perhaps as many as a thousand lesser knights with over £40; and then at least 1,200 squires with over £20. Another 2,000 gentlemen had rather less.4 According to Chief Justice Fortescue, thousands of yeomen (the more prosperous smallholders and tenant-farmers) lived well on £5 a year. While it is impossible to estimate the number of merchants, we know that a few were wealthier than the richest knights, who nonetheless looked down on them as tradesmen.

Since the population was so much smaller, the landscape was very different from today’s, with much more forest, moor and heath – together with abandoned villages, especially in the Midlands, a legacy of the Black Death. In some areas, however, land was farmed very carefully. In 1466 a Bohemian party travelling through the south-east noted that ‘peasants dig ditches round their fields and so fence them in that no one can pass on foot or on horseback except by the main roads’.5 Towns were surrounded by small farms and allotments reaching to the town walls. There were comparatively few manor houses – in certain regions, such as the West Midlands, barely one village in ten had a resident squire. Frequently manors were moated, as were many farms, to protect livestock, and had ponds which provided fresh fish during Lent – a welcome alternative to salt-herring. Great houses often possessed deer parks to ensure a reliable supply of venison.

Towns and villages alike swarmed with beggars. Their numbers were swollen by refugees from Normandy and Maine after the fall of English France, former settlers who included churchmen, gentlemen and soldiers. Still more were on the road because of ‘enclosures’, which increased during the 1450s; landowners were converting arable ploughland into pasture for sheep, callously evicting villagers and pulling down their cottages: ‘They must needs depart away, poor, silly, wretched souls, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, woeful mothers with their young babes, and their whole household small in substance and much in number’ is Sir Thomas More’s pitiful description in Utopia. ‘Away they trudge, I say, out of their known and accustomed houses, finding no place to rest in.’

Corpses were a common enough sight by the roadside. A wet summer meant a bad harvest, with famine and starvation during the next year. Epidemics followed – bubonic or pneumonic plague. There were serious visitations in 1464, 1471, 1479 and 1485, with minor outbreaks in other years. The ‘sweating sickness’ was particularly vicious, sometimes killing its victims within two hours; its drenching sweat was accompanied by high fever, stomach pains, savage headache and dizziness, with occasionally a rash of black spots – and always a feeling of foreboding.

‘The population of this island does not appear to me to bear any relation to her fertility and riches’, commented a Venetian at the end of the century. He says there was no English innkeeper, however humble, who did not lay his table with silver dishes and drinking cups, that English abbeys were more like baronial palaces than monasteries. He thought the people strikingly handsome, both men and women, and extremely polite. ‘In addition to their civil speeches, they have the incredible courtesy of remaining with their heads uncovered, with an admirable grace, whilst they talk to each other.’ (Commynes records that when Edward IV met Louis XI in 1475 the English king ‘raised his hat and bowed to within six inches of the ground’.) Even so, the Venetian did not care for his hosts, whom he found extraordinarily cold. He never observed any one of them, ‘either at court or among the lower orders’, to be in love. He also remarked on their suspicion of foreigners, while ‘neither have they any sincere and solid friendship amongst themselves, insomuch that they do not trust each other to discuss either public or private affairs.’

Another fifteenth-century Italian visitor, Domenico Mancini from Rome, commented on the Englishmen’s powerful physique – ‘their bodies are stronger than other peoples’, for they seem to have hands and arms of iron.’

The Venetian was horrified by the lawlessness. He thought there was no country in the world with so many thieves and robbers as England – ‘few venture to go alone in the countryside except in the middle of the day, and fewer still in the towns at night and least of all in London.’6 He adds that ‘people are taken up every day by dozens like birds in a covey, and especially in London, yet for all this they never cease to rob and murder in the streets.’ This was written in the 1490s.

Life had been still more hazardous during Henry VI’s reign and the early years of Edward IV’s. In 1458 Margaret Paston wrote to her husband from Norfolk asking him to buy crossbows to protect their house whose windows were too low for longbow shooting; she also suggested buying poleaxes. The two heiresses of Wakehurst Place in Sussex omitted to take Mrs Paston’s precautions and one day in 1463 two fortune hunters, the brothers Nicholas and Richard Culpeper, arrived at their house ‘with force and arms, riotously against the king’s peace, arrayed in manner of war’ – in full armour. They abducted the girls, dragging them off to London where they married them, despite ‘the said Margaret and Elizabeth at the time of their taking away making great and piteous lamentation and weeping’.7

For the workers in the fields who made up the bulk of the population – labourers, ploughmen, oxmen and shepherds, toiling for £3 a year if they were lucky – it was a time of mixed fortunes. Recurrent outbreaks of plague in the previous century had reduced the labour force, raising wages, but though serfdom was disappearing landowners were charging high rents for even the smallest farm. Much to Commynes’ surprise, humble folk were left in peace by the Wars. ‘England enjoyed this peculiar mercy above all other kingdoms, that neither the country nor the people, nor the houses, were wasted or destroyed’, he comments. One reason was that hostilities amounted to a mere thirteen weeks of localized campaigning over a period of more than thirty years.

Cities and towns were almost unaffected by the Wars. There were no sieges, though more than once London was threatened by an army at its gates. Some citizens fought in the battles as men-at-arms or archers, while in London the richer lent money to both sides and aldermen squabbled over whom to support – since the greater London merchants were very close to the throne.

This book is an attempt to evoke the world of the Wars of the Roses, showing how they affected those who lived through them. I have built the book around the careers of men and women whose lives they spanned. Two at least saw the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, and survived to see that of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. I have used contemporary sources as much as possible, particularly the ‘histories’ by Domenico Mancini, Polydore Vergil and Sir Thomas More – they had all spoken with men who actually fought in the Wars of the Roses, and who remembered vividly the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings. To a certain extent the structure of my book has been inspired by Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, but instead of a single shadowy figure I have used five reasonably well-documented personalities.

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