Post-classical history




In London, news of the slaughter at St Albans, magnified by rumour, can only have alarmed prosperous merchants such as John Lambert. Although flourishing, and rising in the esteem of fellow citizens, like everyone else he must have been an increasingly worried man. From a respectful distance the City watched the hatred festering between the two factions – on the one side the young lords whose kindred had fallen at St Albans, and on the other those who had killed them – despite every attempt at reconciliation.1

During the summer of 1455 a nervous Parliament absolved the Duke of York and the Nevills from everything done at St Albans, putting any blame on the late Duke of Somerset and his friends – ‘the which bill many a man grudged full sore . . .’ Henry VI fell ill again in November, York becoming protector once more. Although the Duke’s second protectorate lasted only until February 1456, he secured his hold on Calais, making Warwick’s captaincy a reality by paying the garrison’s arrears of pay. Now he controlled the Crown’s only standing army.

Then the court party began to revive. Among its new leaders was young Harry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset – the late Duke’s son. The foremost of those whose kindred and friends had fallen at St Albans, where he himself had been badly wounded, his charm and his ferocity impressed even enemies. During the summer of 1456, eager to avenge his father’s murder, together with his cousin, the Duke of Exeter, he planned to ambush and kill the Earl of Warwick when the Earl rode to London; the plan entailed a minor pitched battle since like all men of rank Warwick always travelled with a large and heavily armed retinue. However, the Earl was warned and took a different road.

Queen Margaret, transformed by the birth of a son, started to assert herself. By the summer of 1456 York had recognized that she was his principal enemy; it was common knowledge in London that she and the Duke were waiting for each other to make the first move. In August 1456 she persuaded Henry to transfer the court from London to Kenilworth in Warwickshire. She then bullied him into appointing her nominees to key posts, such as Laurence Booth, who became Lord Privy Seal and Bishop of Durham. The situation continued to deteriorate throughout 1457, though it did not break into armed conflict.

In the City of London during the uneasy year of 1456 the mercers – or at any rate their apprentices – disgraced themselves by a vicious riot against the Italian community, particularly the rich traders who were competing for English business. The mercers were far from displeased by their apprentices’ behaviour. A Tudor chronicler describes the Londoners at this date as ‘sore abhoring the Italian nation for licking the fat from their beards and taking from them their accustomed living, by reason that the said strangers imported and transported into this realm all such merchandise, commodities and necessaries as the Englishmen only were accustomed to do . . .’2 Houses belonging to merchants from Venice, Lucca and Florence were looted. Gregory says that during the mercers’ ‘wanton rule’ (rioting) the ‘Lombards’ were treated so savagely that many left London for good, moving to Southampton or Winchester.

The mercers’ riot typifies the xenophobia of fifteenth-century Englishmen of John Lambert’s class. It also reveals the anger felt by many London businessmen at any preferential treatment given to foreign merchants by the King’s ministers. Their resentment was fuelled by a commission set up to investigate the riots, chaired by the Dukes of Buckingham and Exeter. The latter had been appointed to the commission on the Queen’s advice – an appointment that helped to alienate the mercers from the court party. A young man with royal blood, who was hereditary Admiral of England, Harry Holland, Duke of Exeter, had been imprisoned by his father-in-law York during his protectorate, for a foolish rebellion in 1453. He had an unpleasant reputation for violence and cruelty – the rack at the Tower (of which he was Constable) was known as ‘The duke of Exeter’s daughter’ – though one day he would prove to the world that he was a brave and daring soldier. Queen Margaret had made a useful friend by showing that she forgave him for his rebellion.

Clearly Mr Lambert must have known most of the men who had taken part in the riot. It is very likely therefore that he attended the commission’s sittings and watched ‘my lord of Exeter’, who no doubt wished to hang as many rioters as possible. The Duke’s temper cannot have been improved by the commission being forced to postpone its enquiries after a warning that its members’ lives were in danger. Its activities, such as sending apprentices to the gallows, made the court party still more unpopular in the City.

Regardless of Italian competitors or the Duke of Exeter’s hangings, as usual Mr Lambert went on prospering quietly and steadily. In addition to his business as a mercer, he had become what would today be called a banker, lending money; given the rudimentary machinery for credit in fifteenth-century London, the recovery of loans and interest must have needed merciless tenacity. By now he was so highly thought of that in March 1457 he was one of ten financial experts appointed by the royal council to investigate ways of repaying the Crown’s outstanding debts ‘in good money of gold and silver’, and instructed to submit a written report by 1 May 1458. In June 1457 he was to be among six mercers deputed by their company to confer with the King’s French secretary, ‘Master Gervys’ (Gervace le Vulre), presumably about the same urgent problem of what should be done about the Crown’s debts.3

So far the growing enmity between the Queen’s supporters and those of the Duke of York did not affect comfortably-off London merchants such as Mr John Lambert. Nevertheless, they must surely have noticed that some very unsettling rumours were running through the City.

Even Henry VI recognized the danger. Apparently he took the advice of the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke, as rich and powerful a nobleman as York and with royal blood – his mother had been a granddaughter of Edward III – was very close to the King. Although never wavering in his loyalty to Henry, and though his elder son had been killed at St Albans, he always tried to keep on good terms with York, who was his brother-in-law.4 Encouraged by Buckingham, the King made a genuine attempt to reconcile the Yorkists with the court party.


View of Maxtoke Castle in the County of Warwick in 1729.

One gesture was to appoint the Earl of Warwick as Lord High Admiral in October 1457, in place of the Duke of Exeter. (The Duke had failed miserably to protect the Channel coast from French pirates, who had recently sacked the Kentish port of Sandwich.) It was no empty favour, Warwick being given £1,000 for expenses. The next step was to be a great council in London in February 1458, attended by relatives of those killed at St Albans and by York and the Nevills.

The Duke of Buckingham surely took time off in January 1458 to attend the marriage of his son, Sir Henry Stafford, to the widowed Countess of Richmond, Margaret Beaufort. In the spring of 1457, accompanied by Jasper Tudor, she had met the Duke or his agents at his Monmouthshire manor of Greenfield to propose such a match. Clearly this remarkable thirteen-year-old wanted to remarry before a husband was chosen for her, and in worldly terms any son of the powerful Buckingham was a desirable bridegroom. It has been suggested that the wedding took place in the chapel of Maxstoke Castle in Warwickshire, the Duke’s main residence. The castle, a great, square house of red sandstone with a tower at each corner, was to be largely rebuilt in Elizabethan times, yet she would recognize it even today.

From the scant evidence, it really does seem that the marriage of Margaret Beaufort and Henry Stafford was a happy one, perhaps the happiest time of her life. As a second son, he could expect only a small allowance from his father, but his wife’s estates would enable him to live like a great nobleman.

At first the couple lived mainly at Bourne Castle in Lincolnshire on the edge of the Fens. It was near the great Benedictine abbey of Croyland, of whose confraternity they later became members. It was also close to Margaret’s mother and stepfather, Lord Welles, at Maxey Castle, which they often visited, spending six weeks there on one occasion. (Her most recent biographers believe that Welles was a father figure to her.)

At the end of January 1458 the nobles of England rode into London escorted by their retinues, thousands of armed men clattering through the City streets. It was a matter for comment that York, who lodged at his inn of Baynards Castle beside the Thames, brought a mere 140. However, his Nevill brother-in-law of Salisbury, staying at his own inn (the Harbour on Dowgate Hill, on the site of Cannon Street Station), brought 400, eighty of whom were knights or squires. On the Lancastrian side, Somerset and Exeter each had 200 at their back while Lord Clifford and the Percy brothers, Lords Northumberland and Egremont, led a joint force of not less than 1,500 horsemen.

Londoners were fearful that mayhem and looting might break out. The Mayor policed the City and its suburbs with 5,000 citizens in full armour, riding daily through the streets, while 2,000 others under three aldermen kept the night watch until seven o’clock in the morning. (John Lambert may well have ridden on one of these patrols.) Tension mounted in February when the Earl of Warwick – widely blamed for the butchery at St Albans – rode in at the head of another large contingent.

King Henry and Queen Margaret arrived early in March, staying at the Bishop of London’s palace near St Paul’s. The council met sometimes at Blackfriars (where the station is now) and sometimes at Whitefriars in Fleet Street. Eventually Archbishop Bourchier coaxed it into a show of goodwill, York and the Nevills agreeing to pay compensation for St Albans. On 25 March there was a procession from the Bishop’s palace to St Paul’s with the King in his crown and robes of state; before him, arm in arm, marched the former enemies Somerset and Salisbury, Exeter and Warwick – behind him the Duke of York escorted Queen Margaret. Thousands of Londoners watched the ‘loveday’ procession, including, one may guess, the Lambert family.

Then, as now, St Paul’s became the centre of the City of London on ceremonial occasions. Old St Paul’s, later burnt down during the Great Fire of 1666, was even larger than the building that we know today. It was the best place in London for news, much important business being transacted in the cathedral precincts, while royal proclamations were read out at Paul’s Cross – a lead-canopied pulpit just outside.

A Mass of reconciliation having been offered in thanksgiving, the celebrations continued with jousting at the Tower of London in the presence of Queen Margaret. In those days the Tower was not only a fortress but a luxurious palace as well, with long-vanished halls and chambers set among broad lawns and pleasure gardens. Tournaments were the spectator sport of the fifteenth century, watched enthusiastically even by those who, like the Lamberts, were not able to take part because of their class. Amid a solemn pageant of pavilions, banners, tabarded kings-of-arms and pursuivants, caparisoned and armoured gentlemen knocked each other out of the saddle with ponderous lances, or hammered away at one another on foot with blunted poleaxes. They fought beneath the admiring gaze of steeple-hatted ladies who sat in tapestried stands, with the Queen on a throne. The tournament was an Arthurian dream world enacted as well as a sport, a world of heroic knight errants and paladins, even if it was enlivened by an element of athletic competition – a poetic drama of heroism and love, and an escape into fantasy.

Yet even during the loveday of St Paul’s there had been tensions. In February, while the meetings at Blackfriars or Whitefriars were trying to reconcile Yorkists and Lancastrians, it was reported from London that the Duke of Exeter was furious at having been replaced as Lord High Admiral by the Earl of Warwick – ‘taketh a great displeasure that my lord Warwick occupieth his office’. It was no less widely known that the loveday had left undiminished the Duke of Somerset’s bitter hatred of the Earl as the man whom he held personally responsible for his father’s murder at St Albans three years before.

When Warwick attended a council meeting at Westminster in November 1458, fighting broke out between his men and the King’s servants, who then attacked him. He had to cut his way through to the river and escape by barge. Instead of apologizing, Queen Margaret demanded that he be arrested. The Earl took refuge in Calais, insisting there had been a plot to murder him. There were also rumours that members of Somerset’s household had planned to break into Warwick’s London inn at night and kill him.

It was clear to most people in the City that civil war was not very far away. The Tudor chronicler Richard Grafton (who based his history on accounts by contemporary Londoners) observes of the end of 1458, ‘Now again was renewed the cankered dissimulation which the last year was cloaked with, the name of agreement between the king and his lords.’

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!