Post-classical history

Chapter 7
Still at War, 1390–1490

In 1389, when Richard II was 22 years old, he declared: ‘I am of full age to govern my house, and my household, and also my realm. For it seems unjust to me that the condition which I am now in should be worse than the condition of the least of my kingdom.’ The events of 1386–8, when the appellant lords sought to dictate the choice of the king’s friends and ministers and to regulate his political actions, had poisoned relations between the unforgiving king and his critics. Among these were some of the most powerful magnates in the realm, with estates in central and southern England that together rivalled in size the remoter franchises of the Crown in Wales, Cheshire, and Cornwall. After 1389, however, Richard cautiously asserted himself as king of England, and with intelligence and courage he tried to deal with the consequences of his predecessors’ ambitions and policies during the previous century. In a period of comparative political calm, Richard carefully constructed a party of loyalists, based on his household and the distant franchises, particularly Cheshire and North Wales. The earl of Arundel’s forfeited lordships gave him an enhanced royal power in the Welsh march, where aristocratic lordships were at their most independent. The large and expensive expedition to Ireland in 1394–5, the first by an English king since 1210, was successful in revitalizing English rule and bringing Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords to heel by a skilful mixture of firmness and conciliation; Richard may even have had the final and long-delayed conquest of the island in mind. This venture certainly strengthened his power in yet another royal lordship and demonstrated what his household organization and resources could achieve, albeit temporarily. Towards Scotland, following the English defeat at Otterburn (1388), Richard took the more traditional paths of encouraging dissident Scottish magnates and planning military campaigns; but in the 1390s he came to appreciate the benefits of peace. A treaty with France in 1396 and Richard’s marriage to Isabella of Valois halted an even more debilitating war; if the cessation of hostilities had run its intended course (to 1426), it would have provided the longest period of peace in the entire Hundred Years War. At home, the king was able to concentrate on restoring royal government, which had been so seriously damaged by the personal and political weaknesses of the 1370s and 1380s. To this end, ceremony and visual symbolism were creatively used as royal propaganda.

Richard was imaginative, shrewd, and masterful. Other of his attributes were less desirable in a king. His upbringing and adolescent experiences bred an insecurity that led to overconfidence, a lack of proportion, and arbitrariness. Wilfully extravagant towards his friends, he could be capricious, secretive, and harsh towards his enemies, and in 1397–8 he exiled the earl of Warwick, executed Arundel, murdered Gloucester, and then exiled Derby and Nottingham too. Ruthlessly deploying the monarch’s personal powers (‘He threw down whomsoever violated the Royal Prerogative’ was part of the inscription he composed for his own tomb), Richard’s last two years have been justly termed tyrannous. The pope was induced to threaten excommunication against anyone who ‘attempts anything prejudicial against the right of our Crown, our regality or our liberty, or maliciously defames our person’, while Richard’s treaty with France promised French aid against his own subjects should the need arise. His second visit to Ireland in May 1399 presented Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby and now duke of Hereford and Lancaster, with the opportunity to return to England, retrieve his position, and recover the duchy of Lancaster estates of his father that had recently been seized by Richard. The king’s methods had outrun English law and custom – and the tolerance of his greater subjects. But his deposition later in the year (29 September) ended the most coherent attempt yet to lift the burden of war from Englishmen’s shoulders.

England and its Neighbours in the Fifteenth Century

The dethronement of Richard II was a momentous decision. Despite the precedent of 1327, the situation in 1399 was different in one important respect. It was the first time since Richard the Lionheart’s death that an English king had ended his reign without leaving a son and heir, and the realm now faced the possibility of a disputed succession. Custom since 1216 had vested the succession in the senior male line, even though that might mean a child-king (as in the case of Henry III and Richard II himself). But there was as yet no acknowledged rule of succession should the senior male line fail. In 1399 the choice by blood lay between the seven-year-old earl of March, descended through his grandmother from Edward III’s second son, Lionel, and Henry Bolingbroke, the 33-year-old son of King Edward’s third son, John. Bolingbroke seized the Crown after being assured of support from the Percy family whom Richard had alienated. But in the extraordinary circumstances created by Richard II’s dethronement and imprisonment, neither March nor Bolingbroke had obviously the stronger claim. No amount of distortion, concealment, and argument on Bolingbroke’s part could disguise what was a coup d’état. Hence, as in the twelfth century, an element of dynastic instability was injected into English politics which contributed to domestic turmoil, and encouraged foreign intrigue and intervention in the following century.

England, meanwhile, could not escape the consequences of its earlier attempted subjugation of the ‘Celtic’ peoples in the British Isles. After the failure of Richard II’s imaginative policies, a more stable relationship was needed to ensure security for the realm now that further conquest and colonization were patently beyond its resources. In practice, English kings abandoned all serious intention of implementing their claims to overlordship in Scotland and much of Ireland. In the fifteenth century, they were on the defensive against the Scots, partly because of the renewal of war in France and partly because of England’s internal difficulties in Henry IV’s reign (1399–1413) and after 1450; the Scots even sent substantial reinforcements to aid the French in 1419. For a brief time (1406–24), the captivity in England of King James I deterred major hostilities across the border, but thereafter the Scots became more daring, hoping to recover Roxburgh Castle and also Berwick, which they achieved in 1460–1. Raids, sea skirmishes, and piracy, together with ineffective truces, combined to produce a state of interminable ‘cold war’. Only after the end of the Hundred Years War (1453) and the establishment of the Yorkist regime in England (1461) was there a really purposeful search for a more stable relationship. An Anglo-Scottish treaty was sealed in 1475, and a ‘perpetual peace’ in 1502, despite misgivings in France and the occasional English campaign in Scotland, such as Richard, duke of Gloucester’s seizure of Berwick in 1482. This marked a significant shift in relations between the two countries, although border society continued to thrive on raids and disorder was a way of life.

The equilibrium reached in relations with Ireland was less satisfactory for England than for the Gaelic population and the Anglo-Irish nobility. Richard II’s bold assertion of royal authority had failed, and was not repeated in the Middle Ages. The king’s lordship of Ireland, though heavily subsidized from England, was consistently weak: the Gaels enjoyed independence and comparative prosperity, and the Anglo-Irish cherished their own power and came to terms with their Gaelic counterparts. The English government’s main concern was security (‘Ireland is a buttress and a post under England’, declared a contemporary in the 1430s), and only when this was threatened during the Welsh rebellion (1400–9) and in the 1450s was more interest shown in Irish affairs. Internal political fragmentation and separation from England were the result. The greater Anglo-Irish magnates were the only source of power on which the government could rely to preserve some semblance of its authority: most Englishmen were reluctant even to go to Ireland, effective rule from Dublin was impossible, and the resources for conquest simply did not exist. The real rulers of fifteenth-century Ireland were magnates such as the earls of Ormond and Kildare; even if the government had wanted to dislodge them, it could not. An equilibrium in Anglo-Irish relations was reached, but at the cost of surrendering effective English control.

In Wales, the heritage of complete conquest brought its own problems, notably a resentment which, in the unsettled economic climate of the late fourteenth century, was focused on the Anglicized boroughs and directed against officials in Church and State who were mostly from the English border shires or even further afield. This resentment was channelled into rebellion by Owain GlyndImager from 1400, and after this unpleasant experience most Englishmen regarded Wales with suspicion and fear. One contemporary urged:

Beware of Wales, Christ Jesus must us keep,

That it make not our child’s child to weep,

Nor us also, if so it go this way

By unwariness; since that many a day

Men have been afraid of there rebellion ….

Wales, then, posed a security problem and one much closer to hand. It not only provided a landfall for enemies from overseas (as at the height of GlyndImager’s rebellion and repeatedly during the Wars of the Roses), but was a land marred by misgovernment and disorder. Henry V showed firmness tempered by conciliation in dealing with Welshmen immediately after the rebellion collapsed, and marcher lords were ordered to attend to their lordships. But later on, neither the Crown nor the marcher lords were capable of sustaining vigorous rule, and the Welsh squirearchy, brothers-in-arms of the English gentry, showed less and less responsibility. Yet these Welsh squires were needed by the Crown and the marcher lords to govern Wales, for the Crown became immersed in civil war and by the fifteenth century the smaller number of lords were deterred from living in their lordships by falling incomes and Welsh hostility. The country, which by 1449 ‘daily abundeth and increaseth in misgovernance’, consequently presented a problem of order – and therefore of security – for much of the century. Successive English regimes, from Henry VI to Henry VII, sought to keep the Welsh peaceful, improve the quality of government, and control the local squirearchy, for only then could the threat to the border shires and to the stability of the kingdom be lifted. In the first half of the century, the aim was to tighten up the existing machinery of law enforcement, relying on royal officers and marcher lords to fulfil their responsibilities. More radical and constructive solutions were eventually adopted, especially by Edward IV, who settled his son, the Prince of Wales, at Ludlow in the 1470s with a supervisory power in the principality of Wales, the marcher lordships, and the English border shires. This was a bold act of devolution that gave future princes responsibility throughout Wales.

The territorial power of the English magnates (the barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes in ascending order of status) was crucial to the peace of the realm and the success of royal government. They became in the fifteenth century a strictly defined and hereditary social group that was practically synonymous with the parliamentary peerage sitting in the House of Lords. The monarch could create peers (as Henry VI and Edward IV readily did) and could elevate existing ones to higher rank, while the king’s patronage was essential to maintain magnate wealth and influence. Monarchs who did not appreciate this risked serious conflict with their magnates (as Richard II and Richard III discovered to their cost). Though few in number – at most 60 families, and perhaps half that figure after decades of civil war – they were vital not only because of the independent lordships which some of them held in the Welsh march and the dominance of the Nevilles and Percies in the north but also because of their social and political control of the English provinces. They were a more effective buttress of the Crown than its own bureaucracy or civil service. This was especially true in a century when three dynasties seized the Crown by force and had formidable military commitments at home and overseas to which the magnates made a notable contribution. The humiliation of defeat in France and the loss of English territories there was directly felt by the magnates and was something which Edward IV and Henry VII later strove to avoid.

These magnates had an identity of interest with the gentry of England – the 6,000 to 9,000 gentlemen, esquires, and knights who sought the ‘good lordship’ of the magnates and provided ‘faithful service’ in return. The magnates gave fees, land, and offices, and the gentry advice, support, and military aid: in 1454 the duke of Buckingham gave his badge to 2,000 of his retainers. Towns and townsmen were part of this relationship of mutual interest and service which historians have unflatteringly dubbed ‘bastard feudalism’. The behaviour of the magnates and the gentry and townsmen in two distinct Houses of Parliament – the Lords and Commons – was another aspect of this interlocking relationship.

The co-operation of the magnates and their clients was especially vital to the usurping dynasties of the fifteenth century. The Lancastrians were well placed because Henry IV inherited the network of interests created by his father, John of Gaunt. At £12,000 a year, Gaunt was the richest magnate in late medieval England and his extensive estates and patronage were now at the disposal of his descendants as kings of England (1399–1461). The Yorkists (1461–85), as heirs of the earl of March, the alternative candidate in 1399, were less well endowed, except in the Welsh march. Their failure to enlist the support of most magnates was a serious weakness in a dynasty which survived for just 24 years. Henry VII, who inherited the estates, territorial influence, and patronage not only of Lancaster and York, but also of Neville, Beaufort, and other casualties of civil war, established the firmest control of all over the English magnates and gentry.

Rebellion in England and Wales

The first usurper, Henry IV, had the advantage of displacing a king who had alienated many and whose noble sympathizers were discredited. Henry’s drive, perseverance, and powers of conciliation – not to say his generosity – and his Lancastrian connections enabled him to overcome the most daunting combination of enemies that any English king had faced. Richard II’s die-hard supporters were foiled in their plot to assassinate Henry and his sons at Windsor Castle, and these rebels were apprehended and killed at Cirencester (December 1399). The danger from such ‘Ricardians’ led to Richard’s own mysterious death in Pontefract Castle soon afterwards. The Percy earls of Northumberland and Worcester, virtual kingmakers in 1399, were so disenchanted by 1403 with the king’s aim to win over all shades of opinion that they plotted several risings. Northumberland’s son Hotspur, while marching to join the Welsh rebels, was defeated and killed near Shrewsbury. A Percy alliance with Archbishop Scrope of York raised the north of England, but Henry again acted quickly and in 1405 executed the prelate. Northumberland’s last strike, with Scottish aid, collapsed at Bramham Moor, where the earl was slain (1408).

The Welsh rebellion had deeper roots in the soil of a colonial society. The distress experienced by a plague-ridden people, oppression by alien landowners bent on maintaining their incomes, a tendency to close the doors to opportunity against aspiring Welshmen, even resentment at Richard II’s removal, combined to throw the country into revolt (1400). The variety of rebel motives and the divisions in Welsh society meant that this was no purely national, patriotic rising. Yet it was the most serious threat that Henry IV had to face and the most expensive to suppress. From his estates in north-east Wales, Owain GlyndImager laid waste castles and Anglicized towns. He and his guerrilla forces exploited the mountainous terrain to harass and exhaust the enemy and then disappear ‘among rocks and caves’. Their success can be measured by the length of the rebellion, the absence of decisive battles, and the fruitlessness of royal expeditions. GlyndImager could occasionally muster 8,000 men, and he sought aid from France (1403) and fellow ‘Celts’ in Scotland and Ireland (1401). In ‘parliaments’ in 1404 and 1405, he produced grand schemes for an independent Wales, with its own ecclesiastical organization and universities (aims which were not finally realized for another four centuries), and his alliance with the Percies was intended as a prelude to the dismemberment of Henry IV’s realm.

The English, led by the king and his eldest son, Prince Henry, conducted several Welsh campaigns (1400–5), whose strategy was akin to that adopted in France – with pincer movements, destructive chevauchées, and co-ordinated supply by land and sea. The burden fell most heavily and frequently on the border shires and the West Midlands, which time and again were ordered to array men for service in Wales. These armies were substantial ones – 4,000 strong – especially when one recalls that the armies sent to France rarely exceeded 5,000–6,000 men. But service in Wales was nothing like as popular as service in the lusher fields of France; there was difficulty in raising enough cash to pay the soldiers and garrisons, and in September 1403 Henry IV was told that ‘you will not find a single gentleman who will stop in your said country’.

Generally secure in the north and west, Owain had his own problems of manpower, supply, and money, and the failure of his march on Worcester in 1405 caused his star to wane. He lost his Scottish ally when James I fell into English hands (1406), and an Anglo-French truce was arranged in 1407. By 1408, the greatest dangers for Henry IV had passed: by perseverance, decisiveness, and a readiness to live in the saddle, as he pursued his enemies across England and Wales and to Edinburgh beyond, Henry overcame them all. By conciliation, he obtained Parliament’s support without surrendering any significant part of his royal powers, and his four sons, Henry, Thomas, John, and Humphrey, were a maturing asset. Only two further threats to the dynasty occurred after his death in 1413. When the anticlericalism of certain courtiers turned to heresy the following year, Henry V did not hesitate to condemn even his old friend, Sir John Oldcastle. The last revolt before 1450 to be justified by the usurpation of 1399 – that in favour of the earl of March in 1415 – was suppressed just before King Hal left for France. Henry IV could claim considerable success in establishing his dynasty on firm foundations. International acceptance was won by alliances in Germany, Scandinavia, Brittany, and Burgundian Flanders.

Henry V and the War with France

Henry V inherited a realm that was sufficiently peaceful, loyal, and united for him to campaign extensively in France (from 1415) and to spend half of the next seven years abroad. With experience of war and government as Prince of Wales, he proved a capable, fearless, and authoritarian monarch who abandoned the careful ways of his father. Even during his absences in France, his kingship was firm and energetic, enabling him to wage a war that was as much a popular enterprise as Edward III’s early campaigns had been. His reign was the climax of Lancastrian England.

Henry prepared for war by conciliating surviving Ricardians and renewing foreign alliances. The condition of France, with an insane king and quarrelsome nobles, encouraged his dreams of conquest. By 1415 he felt able to demand full sovereignty over territories beyond Edward III’s vision and even to revive Edward’s claim to the French Crown. Henry’s ambitions coincided with his subjects’ expectations. Large armies were raised under the leadership of enthusiastic magnates and knights; the realm voted taxation frequently and on a generous scale, and the king was able to explain his aims publicly so as to attract support. He even built a navy to dominate the Channel. This enthusiasm hardly faded at all before his death, though the parliamentary Commons expressed (1420) the same unease about the consequences for England of a final conquest of France as had their forebears to Edward III.

Henry V’s strategy was Edward’s – to ally with French nobles to exploit their divisions and press his own dynastic claim. Throughout the war, Burgundy’s support was essential to English success. Quite soon, however, the invader’s aims broadened into conquest and colonization on an unprecedented scale. The 1415 expedition tested the water and the victory at Agincourt strikingly vindicated traditional English tactics. In 1417–20, therefore, Henry set about conquering Normandy which, along with adjacent provinces, was the main theatre of war during and after Henry’s reign. The treaty of Troyes (1420) with Charles VI made him regent of France and heir to the Valois throne in place of the Dauphin. This extraordinary treaty dictated Anglo-French relations for more than a generation. Though Henry V never became king of France (he predeceased Charles VI in 1422), his baby son, Henry VI of England and, to the Anglophiles, Henry II of France, inherited the dual monarchy. It would require unremitting effort to maintain it.


Map 4. English military enterprises in Western Europe in the later Middle Ages

Henry V and John, duke of Bedford, his brother and successor as military commander in France, pushed the Norman frontier east and south during 1417–29 and they defeated the French successively at Agincourt (1415), Cravant (1423), and Verneuil (1424). This was the high point of English power in France. Under Bedford, a ‘constructive balance of firmness and conciliation’ sought to make both the conquered lands and further campaigns (southwards in Anjou and Maine) pay for themselves. But the French resurgence inspired by Joan of Arc and the coronation of Charles VII at Rheims (1429) foiled this plan, and the English advance was halted after the defeat at Patay. Thereafter, the Normans grew restless under their foreign governors, England’s Breton and Burgundian allies began to waver, and the English Parliament had to find yet more cash for the war in northern France where garrison and field armies were an increasingly heavy burden. The English were in a military as well as a financial trap – and without the genius of Henry V to direct them.

Henry VI and the Search for Peace

During the 1430s the search for peace became more urgent, particularly in England. The Congress of Arras (1435) and discussions at Gravelines (1439) were unproductive, largely because English opinion remained divided as to the desirability of peace and the wisdom of significant concessions. But the recovery in Charles VII’s fortunes, the mounting cost of English expeditions to defend Lancastrian France, Bedford’s death in 1435, and especially the defection of Burgundy were decisive factors. The government freed the duke of Orléans (a captive in England since Agincourt) to promote peace among his fellow French princes (1440), though he did not have much success. In 1445 Henry VI married the French queen’s niece, Margaret of Anjou, but even that only produced a truce, and a proposed meeting of kings never took place. Eventually, Henry VI promised to surrender hard-won territory in the county of Maine as an earnest of his personal desire for peace. His failure to win the support of his subjects for this move – especially those magnates and gentry who had lands in France and had borne the brunt of the fighting – led to the exasperated French attacking Normandy in 1449. Their onslaught, supported by artillery, was so spectacularly successful that the English were defeated at Rouen and Formigny, and quickly cleared from the duchy by the end of August 1450: ‘… never had so great a country been conquered in so short a space of time, with such small loss to the populace and soldiery, and with so little killing of people or destruction and damage to the countryside’, reported a French chronicler.

Gascony, which had seen few major engagements under Henry V and Henry VI, was invaded by the triumphant French armies, and after their victory at Castillon on 17 July 1453, the English territories in the southwest were entirely lost. This was the most shattering blow of all: Gascony had been English since the twelfth century, and the long-established wine and cloth trades with south-west France were seriously disrupted. Of Henry V’s ‘empire’, only Calais now remained. The defeated and disillusioned soldiers who returned to England regarded the discredited Lancastrian government as responsible for their plight and for the surrender of what Henry V had won. At home, Henry VI faced the consequences of defeat.

Within three weeks of Castillon, Henry VI suffered a mental and physical collapse which lasted for 17 months and from which he may never have fully recovered. The loss of his French kingdom (and Henry was the only English king to be crowned in France) may have been responsible for his breakdown, though by 1453 other aspects of his rule gave cause for grave concern. Those in whom Henry confided, notably the dukes of Suffolk (murdered 1450) and Somerset (killed in battle at St Albans, 1455), proved unworthy of his trust and were widely hated. Those denied his favour – including Richard, duke of York and the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick – were bitter and resentful, and their efforts to improve their fortunes were blocked by the king and his court. Henry’s government was close to bankruptcy, and its authority in the provinces and in Wales and Ireland was becoming paralysed. In the summer of 1450, there occurred the first popular revolt since 1381, led by the obscure but talented John Cade, who seized London for a few days and denounced the king’s ministers. The king’s personal responsibility for England’s plight was inevitably great.

The Wars of the Roses

Henry VI was a well-intentioned man with laudable aspirations in education and religion; he sought peace with France and wished to reward his friends and servants. But no medieval king could rule by good intentions alone. Besides, Henry was extravagant, over-indulgent, and did not have the qualities of a shrewd and balanced judge of men and policies. He was intelligent and well educated, but he was the least experienced of kings and never shook off the youthful dependence on others which had been the inevitable hallmark of his long minority (1422–36). Many of his problems were admittedly unavoidable. The dual monarchy created by his father made heavier and more complex demands than those placed on a mainly military conqueror such as Edward III or Henry V. His minority was a period of magnate rule which created vested interests that were not easily surrendered when the king came of age – particularly by his uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and his great-uncle, Henry Beaufort, cardinal-bishop of Winchester. Moreover, after Gloucester’s death in 1447, Henry was the only surviving descendant of Henry IV in the senior male line, a fact which led him to distrust the duke of York, the heir of that earl of March who had been passed over in 1399. There was, then, ample reason for disenchantment with late Lancastrian rule, and in Richard of York there was a potential leader of the discontented.

Despite the king’s illness, the birth of a son to his abrasive queen in October 1453 strengthened the Lancastrian dynasty, but it hardly improved the immediate prospect for the realm or for Richard of York. As England’s premier duke and Henry’s cousin, York was twice appointed protector of the realm during the king’s incapacity (1454–5, 1455–6). But as such he aroused the queen’s fierce hostility which erupted in the ‘battles’ of Blore Heath and Ludford Bridge (September–October 1459), and in the subsequent Parliament at Coventry which victimized York, the Nevilles, and their supporters. This alienation of powerful men by a regime with a disastrous record at home and abroad led York to claim the Crown in October 1460. After his death at Wakefield soon after, his son Edward took it for himself on 4 March 1461, with the aid of the earl of Warwick. The period of dynastic war that is popularly known as the Wars of the Roses was now well under way amid conditions that had been ripening during the 1450s.

The new Yorkist monarch, Edward IV, suffered from a cardinal disadvantage: the deposed king, his queen, and his son were still at large. They thus provided a focus for their adherents and their Scots and French sympathizers, who were only too eager to embarrass a weak English regime. After Henry’s capture in the north (1465), Edward felt more secure, though even then the former king was kept a prisoner in the Tower of London and his queen and son received shelter in Scotland and then in France. More serious still was Edward’s failure to gain broad support from the English magnates and their clients. Furthermore, in the late 1460s he gradually alienated his powerful ‘kingmaker’, the earl of Warwick, who (like Northumberland after 1399) came to resent Edward’s growing independence. Edward was also deserted by his feckless brother, George, duke of Clarence. These various elements combined to plot rebellion (1469) and, with encouragement from Louis XI of France, came to an uneasy agreement in July 1470 with the exiled Lancastrian Queen Margaret. Warwick, Clarence, Lancastrians, and dissident Yorkists returned to England and sent Edward IV fleeing to his ally, the duke of Burgundy. They promptly restored (or ‘readepted’) Henry VI, the first English king to have two separate reigns (1422–61, 1470–1). When Henry’s Parliament assembled in November 1470, the chancellor was appealing beyond Westminster to the country at large when he took as the text of his opening sermon, ‘Return O backsliding children, saith the Lord’.

But the deposed Edward, like Henry VI before him, was at liberty and he was able to raise a force with Burgundian help. Moreover, Henry’s restored regime was undermined by a series of conflicting loyalties and mutually exclusive interests. Thus, when Edward returned to England in March 1471, he was able to defeat and kill Warwick at Barnet before marching west to vanquish at Tewkesbury the Lancastrian queen and prince, who had only just returned from France. At last Edward IV was dynastically secure: Queen Margaret was captured after Tewkesbury, her son was slain in the battle, and on the very night Edward returned triumphantly to London (21 May) Henry VI died in the Tower, most probably murdered. The main Lancastrian royal line was extinct. The Yorkist dissidents were either cowed or dead, and Clarence, though for a time reconciled with his brother, was subsequently executed for further indiscretions in 1478.

The relative political security which Edward enjoyed in the 1470s allowed him to attempt a period of constructive rule. He tried to repair England’s reputation abroad by alliances with Brittany, Burgundy, and Scotland, and also by retracing the steps of previous kings to France. His expedition of 1475 was a near-disaster when his Breton and Burgundian allies proved fickle, but in the treaty of Picquigny Louis XI provided him with a handsome financial inducement to retire to England. Edward’s attempts to reorganize the government’s financial administration were on lines suggested during the Lancastrian period. If he pleased Parliament by declaring his readiness to rule without special taxes, his desire to reward friends and attract political supporters meant that he could embark on no consistent programme of increasing his revenues. He curried favour with merchants and Londoners, participating in trade on his own account and maintaining good relations with Flanders and the Hanse League of German ports. Above all, the stability of his later years owed much to the continuity of service of several able and loyal officers of state.

Why, then, did the Wars of the Roses not come to an end and why did not posterity come to know of a Tudor dynasty only among the squirearchy of North Wales? The Yorkists fell victim in 1483–5 to two of the most common hazards to afflict a personal monarchy: a minority and a ruthlessly ambitious royal kinsman. When Edward IV died on 9 April 1483, his son and heir, Edward, was 12. His minority need not have been long, and in any case England had weathered previous minorities without undue difficulty. But the degeneration of political behaviour since the 1450s, especially the often arbitrary, ruthless, and illegal actions of Edward IV, Warwick, and Clarence, made Edward V’s accession particularly perilous. The Yorkist brothers, Edward, Clarence, and Gloucester, seem to have been unable to outgrow aristocratic attitudes to embrace the obligations of kingship in the short time their dynasty was on the throne. Edward relied on a circle of magnates, most of them linked with his own or his wife’s Woodville family, to extend his authority in the kingdom: Gloucester in the north, the Woodvilles in Wales, and Lord Hastings in the Midlands. It worked well enough while Edward lived, but in 1483 the dangers of relying on an exclusive faction surfaced. Mistrust, particularly between Gloucester and the Woodvilles, undermined the ruling circle, and those outside it – not least the long-established Percies in the north and the duke of Buckingham in Wales and the West Midlands – saw their opportunity.

In these circumstances, the character and ambition of the sole remaining Yorkist brother, the 30-year-old Richard of Gloucester, led him to contemplate seizing his young nephew’s Crown for himself. He usurped the throne on 26 June, imprisoned (and probably murdered) Edward V and his brother, ‘The Princes in the Tower’, and executed the queen’s brother and Lord Hastings. His only concession to customary rules of inheritance of the Crown was his unprincipled declaration that Edward IV and his sons were bastards; he ignored the children of Clarence. Richard III’s actions and methods led to a revival of dynastic warfare. In October 1483, the duke of Buckingham, who was descended from Edward III’s fifth son, Thomas, rebelled. More successful was the landing from France in August 1485 of Henry Tudor, though his claim to the throne through his mother, representing the illegitimate Beaufort line of Edward III’s son, John, was tenuous. Nevertheless, at Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485 he vanquished and slew King Richard III. By then, Richard’s own royal line seemed bankrupt: his wife and his only son were already dead.

A number of factors enabled Henry VII to keep his Crown after Bosworth. Alone among the usurpers of the fifteenth century, he was fortunate to have slain his childless predecessor in battle. The support which he received from the disillusioned Yorkists was crucial, especially that of Edward IV’s queen. Also England’s magnates were war-weary: their ranks were depleted, and in some cases their territorial power was either weakened or destroyed. As a result, attempts to dethrone Henry were poorly supported in England and the Yorkist pretenders (such as Lambert Simnel in 1487) failed to carry conviction. The actual fighting during 1455–85 may have amounted to only 15 months, and the size of the armies involved may not have been very large; but the significance of a battle need bear no relation to the numbers engaged or the casualties sustained. The Wars of the Roses came close to destroying the hereditary basis of the English monarchy and Henry Tudor’s seizure of the Crown hardly strengthened it. Henry posed as the representative and inheritor of both Lancaster and York, but in reality he became king, and determined to remain king, by his own efforts.


14. King Richard III, third son of Richard, duke of York, and Cecily Neville; married Anne Neville 1472; usurped the throne 1483 and was killed at Bosworth. An early portrait (c.1512–20), possibly from a contemporary likeness

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