A small fleet of ships sailed towards Beaumaris, a port town on the south-eastern tip of Anglesey that jostled in the shadow of a vast, turreted stone fortress. The castle, with its deep outer moat, defensive walls soaring more than thirty feet in the air, and twenty-two stout and round towers slitted all over with arrow-holes, had been the most expensive of Edward I’s large ring of Welsh fortresses. It was so huge, and its design so ambitious, that parts of the building, begun over 150 years earlier, had never been fully completed. What did stand was an ominous symbol of English royal power on the fringes of the king’s territories. Beaumaris was a formidable place to approach.
It was early September 1450 and the ships had been expected for some days. They carried Richard duke of York, the king’s cousin and lieutenant in Ireland, and his men. York had left Dublin on 28 August, and the news of his coming had shaken Henry VI and his advisers. Instructions had been issued for the town to be on its guard. The captain of Beaumaris, Thomas Norris, was waiting along with several other local officers of the Crown. They had been told very firmly to delay York, and they sent a message to the duke at sea informing him (as he would later complain) ‘that I should not land there, nor have vitaile [i.e. food], nor refreshing for me and my fellowship … for man, horse nor other thing that might turn to my worschip or ease’.1 York was told that the commands issued directly from William Say, usher of Henry VI’s chamber, who was convinced that he came unbidden, as a ‘traitor’. He was refused permission to disembark; his ships were forced to stay at sea in search of another, friendlier, landing spot.2
York’s ships finally landed near the mouth of the river Clwyd, some twenty-five miles along the coast of northern Wales. By 7 September the duke and his retinue had reached his own castle at Denbigh. From there they rode to Ludlow, and from Ludlow they crossed the midlands. As York travelled, he amassed followers: armed men from his extensive lands throughout Wales and England. On 23 September a writer in Stony Stratford, Northamptonshire, saw the duke appear in stately magnificence: ‘riding in red velvet, on a black horse and Irish hobby’. He would lodge that night in a tavern outside the town gates, called the Red Lion.3 He did not stay long: on 27 September he arrived in London, entering the city with three to five thousand men under his banner, marching through the streets and then out of the gates and down the short road from London to Westminster, where he was received in a short meeting by his beleaguered cousin, the king.
The panic that York’s unscheduled return from Ireland struck into the heart of the royal administration was easy to understand. Jack Cade, whose rising had brought an entire summer of chaos to the realm, had called himself ‘John Mortimer’, deliberately implying that he was related to the duke. Cade’s articles of grievance warned that, unless there was reform, the commons of England would ‘first destroy the king’s friends and after himself and then bring in the duke of York to be king’.4 And plenty of other, pettier rebels had also invoked York’s name in opposition to the royal government.
In 1449, when Henry VI had been travelling to Leicester for the session of parliament, he had also ridden through the town of Stony Stratford. A local writer recorded that as the king’s entourage passed through the streets one ‘John Harris, sometime a shipman dwelling in York’ approached the king waving a flail – a wooden agricultural tool, sometimes used as an improvised weapon, consisting of a long handle with a shorter pole attached to the end by a chain. Egged on by others in the town, Harris had beaten the ground in front of Henry with the flail, crying that he meant ‘to show that the Duke of York then in Ireland should in like manner fight with traitors at the Leicester parliament and so thrash them down as he had thrashed the clods of earth in that town’.5 For this impudence Harris was arrested, thrown in the dungeon at Northampton Castle and later hanged, drawn and quartered. But his point had been made: as the people of England rejected the regime around Henry, so they projected their dreams of national recovery onto the duke across the Irish Sea.
There is no reason to believe that York had courted this. He was unquestionably the greatest English lord, a man of royal blood and huge landed power, which gave him much the same status as had once been possessed by John duke of Bedford and Humphrey duke of Gloucester. He was relatively untainted by the political failures of the previous three years: his time as lieutenant of France had preceded the dramatic loss of Normandy that took place on the duke of Somerset’s watch, and his time as lieutenant of Ireland had taken him away from the centre of politics at precisely the moment when Suffolk’s regime dissolved into blood and blame.
But this is not to say that York was a rebel-in-waiting. He would always claim that his return from Ireland was an act of obedience: a move designed to assure the king of his loyalty against ‘diverse language … said of me to your most excellent estate which should sound to my dishonour and reproach’ – in other words, to demonstrate that whatever claims were being made of his ambition, he was a loyal subject. In bills drawn up and sent to the king, probably in the first weeks of his return from Ireland, he wrote that he had come to England in order to assure the king of his loyalty and to ‘declare me your true man and subject as my [duty] is’.6 Yet touring England and Wales in the company of thousands of armed retainers was a provocative way to demonstrate loyalty. Why, then, did he come?
It is possible, but unlikely, that York left Ireland out of dynastic ambition. His ‘true blood’ had been noted by the Kentish rebels, but this was hardly a novel observation. The king was certainly childless and the matter of his heir apparent had not been formally addressed, but by the same token none of the noble promotions of the dukes of Somerset, Exeter or Buckingham constituted a direct threat to York’s lineage. In the case of Exeter, York’s superior blood-status was explicitly recognised in the first duke of Exeter’s articles of ennoblement. The first duke died in 1447, but his heir, the young Henry Holland, was even more closely tied to York’s family: he was married to York’s daughter Anne, and had been in York’s custody when he was a minor. As recently as 1448 York and the duke of Somerset had been granted lands in joint trusteeship – a sign that there was no division (yet) perceived between those two men.7 Humphrey duke of Buckingham showed no signs of anything other than diligent loyalty to the Crown. In short, there was no dynastic crisis calling York home: despite the turbulence of the reign and the wild claims of Cade’s men, the king was not ill and showed no signs of imminent death, merely prolonged ineptitude.8
In 1451 Thomas Young, MP for Bristol and one of York’s legal counsellors, would stand in parliament and suggest that for the security of the realm the king should name his heir apparent. Unsurprisingly Young nominated York and was duly arrested for his impertinence. If anything, such claims actively damaged York’s political standing. Whatever the rebels of Kent, the tavern-room gossips or upstart lawyers in the commons thought, York’s desire to force his claim to the crown, either immediately or in the near future, was precisely nil.
What he saw for himself, rather, was a role as a sort of saviour of both crown and country. York and his wife Cecily had initially sailed to take up residence in Ireland on 22 June 1449. During the fourteen months that he had spent overseas, England had suffered the worst collapse of government, foreign policy and public order in a lifetime – arguably since the early thirteenth century. Normandy had been lost, parliament had revolted wholesale, the duke of Suffolk had been murdered, a violent and continuing popular rebellion had engulfed the entire south-east of England. And while it was true that York had played his part in the makings of the crisis – he was a prominent member of the nobility that had allowed, or at least acquiesced in, the rule of Suffolk and the royal household over a non-functioning king – he had also, by his fortunate removal from France and posting to Ireland, avoided any serious blame. Quite the opposite, in fact: all the news that reached him in Ireland would have given him the impression that his destiny and duty was now to rescue England from the chaos into which it had sunk. His royal blood gave him the prerogative. The thousands of men whom he could put at his disposal gave him the means. York had served as the king’s hand in France and now in Ireland; the logical next step was to offer his services for the same role within England itself.
What the duke had perhaps not fully calculated, however, was the extent to which his desire to respond to calls for his return might be seen by some around the king not as a kindly offer but as a grave threat. First his ships were turned away from Beaumaris. Then, as York had ridden through north Wales, he had learned of rumours that a number of knights connected with the royal household intended to capture him, imprison him in Conwy Castle and ‘strike off the head’ of a number of his servants, including his chamberlain, the veteran soldier Sir William Oldhall. Finally, he had heard that certain unspecified judicial commissions had been issued to indict him for treason, and thereby to ‘undo me, mine issue and corrupt [my] blood’.9 He returned to England hoping to claim his position as the king’s reformer-in-chief but found on his arrival that this cast him in the role of the government’s most dangerous opponent.
York’s armed parade through London on 27 September put the febrile city in an even greater state of excitement than usual. Following his short meeting with Henry at Westminster, the duke lodged for a fortnight at the bishop of Salisbury’s house in London. From there he began to stake his claim to the central position in government for which he had come out of Ireland.
Since his arrival in England, York had been exchanging bills and letters with the king. His first bill, sent shortly after landing in Wales, complained that he had been treated as a traitor and a criminal at Beaumaris. This was dealt with matter-of-factly in the reply from Henry, which explained patiently that since for ‘a long time the people hath given upon you much strange language … saying that you should be fetched home with many thousands’ to seize the crown, the coasts had been instructed to guard against such a thing. In other words, Henry suggested, his men had overreacted and ‘we declare, repute and admit you as our true faithful subject and as our well beloved cousin’.
York remained affronted. At some point after their meeting in Westminster he sent Henry a second bill, ignoring the king’s calming words and pointing out that law and order appeared to be collapsing in England, and that ‘I your humble subject and liege man Richard Duke of York … offer … to execute your commandments’. He offered, in effect, to take over command of English government in its moment of crisis. This bill, unlike the first, seems to have been widely publicised among the people of London. It was somewhere between an open letter and a manifesto. 10 Once again, he was politely rebuffed. Rather than handing over government to York, Henry said he intended to ‘establish [a] sad and substantial council … in the which we have appointed you to be one’.11 This was plainly not the answer that York was looking for. He left London on 9 October, heading first for East Anglia, and then touring his estates in the midlands. Behind him, London stewed in a state of barely contained agitation. The streets were overrun with soldiers, who rioted during the mayoral elections on 29 October. There were frequent clashes between those who supported and those who opposed the duke of York: across the city the royal arms were torn down and replaced with those of York, restored and then torn down again. If England’s capital reflected the mood in the country at large, then peace lay a long way away.
Among the chief impediments to York’s taking a central role in government was the fact that someone else had already taken that post. Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, had come back from his catastrophic tenure in Normandy not to be censured or chastised, but rather to find himself appointed to more or less the position that York envisaged for himself.12 Within two weeks of his returning from France in August of 1450 he was attending council meetings. On 8 September he had been put in charge of stamping out the embers of revolt in Kent and the south-east and on 11 September he was appointed constable: the highest military post in England.
Like York, Somerset was a kinsman of the king. Unlike York, he had close links to Queen Margaret, just as he had been close to Henry’s late mother, Catherine de Valois. As a nephew of Cardinal Beaufort he was a familiar and comforting figure to Henry, whereas York was more of an outsider. Somerset also benefited from having no significant landed estates to manage; he was able to devote his full attention to the business of government, taking on tasks that had previously fallen to Suffolk: those of concealing the vacuity of the king, allying the disparate interests of household, council and nobility, and somehow attempting to cope with the righteous anger of the commons. Assuming this task set Somerset on a direct collision course with York. Tension between the two men would dominate politics over the next five years.
Parliament met at Westminster on 6 November 1450, and immediately the two dukes and their supporters collided. Chains had been erected in the streets of London in an attempt to limit the excesses of what the chancellor, Cardinal John Kemp, archbishop of York, described as ‘the people of riotous disposition’.13 It was hard to avoid the sense that the capital was on the point of eruption, and that the fate of England hinged on the next action taken by the duke of York.
He arrived at Westminster on 23 November, one day before John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, his chief ally since his return from Ireland. Both men, and indeed all the lords who attended the November parliament, brought with them large armed retinues. The author of one chronicle of the period describes seeing York come ‘riding [through] the city his sword born afore him’, a mark of great pomp and authority.14 There was an atmosphere of barely constrained violence. One important element in York’s adoption of the mantle of reform was to take a bitterly critical stance towards the ‘traitors’ who had allowed Normandy to be lost. No one was under any illusion: this meant Somerset. On 30 November a series of rancorous arguments broke out within the parliament chamber at Westminster Hall. Several MPs demanded that justice be done against those who had failed so miserably to protect the king’s possessions in France.
During parliament’s session Somerset was staying at the Blackfriars, a pleasant Dominican house within the western wall of the city just next to the Ludgate, at the point where the river Fleet spilled down into the Thames. On Tuesday 1 December, while the duke was eating, a large band of soldiers tried to break into the house in an attempt to arrest him. The danger to Somerset’s life was so acute that he was smuggled out of the house by the riverside quay and taken downriver on a boat, while the rioters remained at Blackfriars, ransacking and looting. Intriguingly, Somerset’s saviours were the mayor of London and another increasingly close Yorkist ally, Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon, who was said to be acting on York’s direct instructions.
Earlier that day, the same group of men had authorised the public execution of a rioter. As London’s streets seethed with protest and disaffection, York was attempting to play both reforming firebrand and lawgiver. Like the late Humphrey of Gloucester, whose memory he seemed increasingly to cherish and defend, York wished to use his popularity with the common people as a platform from which to disrupt the political process and state his own claim to pre-eminence. In fact, he was just being a nuisance.
It was not York’s actions that eventually put the city into some sort of order, but a parade of all the lords of England united, riding through London on 3 December. As one chronicler put it, ‘… upon the Thursday the next day following the king with all the lords come through the City all in harness [i.e. wearing full armour] and the citizens standing upon every side of the street in harness, which was the gloriest sight that ever man in those days saw.’15
London’s mood began to cool. York’s pandering to the populace had won him no favour whatever with the majority of the lords. He remained close to the duke of Norfolk, but when Christmas came, parliament recessed and the streets ceased to seethe, York found that his support was drifting away. He was appointed to a judicial commission in the new year to carry out justice on the Kent rebels, forcing a natural separation from the men who had cried his name the loudest.
In the new year, Somerset, released from his protective custody in the Tower, resumed control of government, this time with some success. He took the king into the shires to suppress another uprising, this time led by one Stephen Christmas. This was followed by further exemplary punishment of rebels. In an attempt to bring more landed revenue back under Crown control Somerset allowed a new act of resumption to pass parliament and began to try to raise money to defend Gascony, the next portion of English France that Charles VII was determined to conquer. He even managed to deal, after a fashion, with a long-running private war between the warring Courtenay and Bonville families, whose murderous feuding continued to cause chaos in the west country.16 York, meanwhile, appeared ever more to resemble a rabble-rouser rather than the agent of order and peace. His client and counsellor Thomas Young’s parliamentary petition of May 1451 demanding that York be recognised as heir presumptive caused parliament to be more or less instantly dissolved and for York to be wholly excluded from any role in government. The duke’s great play to rescue the crown by inserting himself at its right hand had, it seemed, come to nothing. He spent the rest of the year on his estates, brooding.
The collegiate church of St Martin-le-Grand in the north-west quarter of the city of London, abutting the Greyfriars on one side and the Goldsmiths’ Hall on the other, had a long history of independence. Anyone who entered the college claiming the right of sanctuary could – if their request was granted – be hidden inside the precincts, shielded by the charters of privilege which had long ago been granted to its inhabitants. For this reason, the college had for years been a favourite hideaway for criminals, ne’er-do-wells and escaped prisoners to run to for protection from the vengeance of the law.17
Among its community in January 1452 was Sir William Old-hall, chamberlain to the duke of York, and a prominent politician who had served as the Speaker of the November 1450 parliament. Oldhall had taken to St Martin-le-Grand before dawn on 23 November 1451, prompted, as the dean of the college would later write, ‘by fear of heavy imprisonment, and greatly alarmed for his life’.18 He was accused, most immediately, of having taken part in the looting of Somerset’s possessions from the house of the Blackfriars in 1450, but there were also wild allegations circulating that he had been plotting on York’s behalf to stage a coup in which the king was to be kidnapped. That such a plan was really afoot seems highly improbable, but Oldhall’s fear for his life was very real.
So too was Somerset’s desire to punish him. During the night of 18 January Walter de Burgh – the man who had accused Old-hall of looting Somerset’s goods – was attacked in the street by three strangers and left for dead. In response, Somerset sent a high-ranking delegation to St Martin’s. The earls of Salisbury, Wiltshire and Worcester, along with two barons, one of London’s sheriffs and a posse of servants, broke into the college shortly before midnight. They were, in the dean’s pious words, ‘armed with grievous force, not having the fear of God before their eyes’, and they proceeded to smash ‘all the doors and chests’ they could see, looking for Oldhall’s hideout. Eventually they found him, concealed in the nave of the church. Oldhall was dragged out, loaded onto a horse and bundled off to the palace of Westminster to be interrogated.
Breaches of sanctuary were serious matters. They were both illegal and offensive to God. And indeed, Oldhall’s removal caused such outrage and protest at St Martin-le-Grand that within forty-eight hours he had been returned and placed back under holy protection, where he would remain for more than three years. It was a miserable period in his life. But more significantly, Oldhall’s removal from sanctuary marked an escalation in the feud between the duke of York and the government, represented as it was by Edmund duke of Somerset.
York’s position was impossible to sustain. He was too great a lord to be alienated from the government of a king whose inane rule demanded co-operation between the greatest men in the realm. In any event, alienation was one thing; directly attacking York’s closest servants was another. It was too much to be ignored. Evidently furious with Somerset for the insult to his honour, York sent letters to most of the towns in southern England demanding that they join an orderly march on London to remove Somerset from power in the name of restoring good government to the realm. York made a great play of the fact that Charles VII’s forces had all but overrun English possessions in Gascony and occupied the key city of Bordeaux: he reminded England’s townsfolk of the ‘derogation, loss of merchandise, lesion of honour, and villany’ that had taken place in France already, and insisted that the vital trading port and last foothold of Calais was about to fall too. York insisted that he was ‘the King’s true liegeman and servant (and ever shall be to my life’s end)’. He complained bitterly of the ‘envy, malice, and untruth of the said Duke of Somerset’, who, he said, ‘laboreth continually about the King’s highness for my undoing, and to corrupt my blood, and to disinherit me and my heirs, and such persons as be about me’.
York wished to raise his quarrel above the personal: he stressed the importance of the common weal, or the good of the country at large, and placed his personal enmity with Somerset in the context of a battle for the basic survival of England. ‘Seeing that the said Duke ever prevaileth and ruleth about the King’s person, and that by this means the land is likely to be destroyed, [ I ] am fully concluded to proceed in all haste against him with the help of my kinsmen and friends; in such wise that it shall prove to promote ease, peace, tranquillity, and safeguard of all this land,’ he wrote.19Then, as his letters circulated, York ordered the tenants of his broadly scattered estates to take up arms and march once again with him to London.
As York marched south at the end of February, Somerset brought the king and an armed retinue out to meet him. While York had his personal retainers and two significant allies in the earl of Devon and Lord Cobham, the king was joined by a large number of bishops and at least sixteen other lords, including the three other most senior dukes in the land: Exeter, Buckingham and Norfolk, York’s erstwhile ally. It was a show of near-total unity from the lords.
The royal force camped at Blackheath, and York eventually brought his several thousand men to rest about eight miles to the east, at Dartford. They were equipped with cannon in the field, and seven ships loaded down with baggage and materiel in the Thames. Negotiations took place on 1 and 2 March. York presented a long list of grievances, ‘for the great welfare and the common avail and interest of your majesty royal and of this your noble realm’. Most were levelled against Somerset, who was blamed for the loss of Normandy, for inciting the breaking of the French truce at Fougères, for failing to defend English garrisons, for plotting to sell Calais to the duke of Burgundy and for embezzling money received at the abandonment of Maine.20
York’s grievances were insufficient to impress the king, or – more pertinently – the rest of the lords who had gathered around him determined to maintain England’s fragile peace. Far from being handed control of government and Somerset’s head, York was taken to London, effectively a prisoner. Word quickly circulated that the king had tricked him into submission at Dartford, by pretending that he would agree to his articles of reform and to have Somerset imprisoned on condition that York break up his army, only to go back on his word.21 If true, this was a remarkable and unworthy piece of humbug on the part of the king and his counsellors.
Trickery or no, a fortnight after the encounter at Dartford, the duke was humiliated in public. At a ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral, he was forced to swear a long oath of allegiance to the crown. He announced himself to be a ‘humble subject and liegeman’ to Henry VI, and promised to bear him ‘faith and truth as to my sovereign lord, and shall do all the days unto my life’s end … I shall never hereafter take upon me to gather any routs, or make any assembly of your people, without your commandment or licence, or in my lawful defence.’ As York spoke he laid his hand first upon the holy gospels, and then on the altar cross; finally he was administered the sacrament to confirm that ‘with the grace of our Lord I never shall, anything attempt by way of fear or otherwise against your royal majesty and obeisance that I owe thereto’.22
Beyond London, England remained perilously unstable: scattered risings continued to break out in Suffolk, Kent, Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and elsewhere, revealing the fundamental difficulty of ordering political society at the highest level in the absence of a powerful and forthright king. Separate armed disputes continued between the greater families in Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and East Anglia, while the west country continued to convulse thanks to the dispute between the Courtenays and the Bonvilles. In Warwickshire the arrival of a new lord, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, resulted in several serious disturbances, while in Yorkshire, a very serious clash was brewing between Neville’s extended family and the traditionally dominant Percys: a dispute that would descend by the mid-1450s into something akin to a northern civil war. The dissolution of stable relations between the magnates of England gradually undermined their collective ability to stand together as they did at Dartford in March of 1452. In the short term, however, the faith of the political community lay with Edmund duke of Somerset rather than Richard duke of York. For the second time in eighteen months, York’s efforts to impose himself on the crown in the name of the common good had come to nothing.
York’s defeat handed Somerset an unquestionable mandate and he began to exert himself in government. Out of nowhere, Henry VI suddenly seemed to become a vigorous and energetic king. Law and order remained a problem, but in other areas the government began to make progress. The earl of Shrewsbury was sent to Kent to continue attempts to stem the stream of rebellions in the county. Judicial proceedings were launched against those who had supported York in his abortive Dartford rising, including a thorough destruction of Sir William Oldhall, whose life in sanctuary at St Martin-le-Grand was made daily more miserable by legal action that stripped him of most of his property and loaded him with the shameful status of an outlaw. York’s position as lieutenant of Ireland was given to James Butler, the young earl of Ormond and Wiltshire, who had been close to York in 1451 but now moved decisively towards Somerset’s circle. In a further mark of confidence, the court toured the marches of Wales and the east of England – areas where York held large tracts of land – dispensing justice and bringing the king into the view of his people.
There was even limited success across the Channel. Early in 1452 the government had begun to suggest, apparently in all seriousness, that the king might lead a military campaign to rescue what remained of England’s possessions in Gascony. This did not come to fruition, but in October 1452 news arrived that an advance force sent under John Talbot, the formidable earl of Shrewsbury, had won several splendid victories. Bordeaux had been recaptured with ease from the French and much of the area around the city rallied back to the English flag. This was the best news to have arrived from France in many months, and when parliament met at Reading in March 1453 it responded generously, voting a subsidy in the form of a fifteenth and tenth (a fixed tax on property), as well as a tax payable on wool exports which was to be paid every year for the rest of the king’s life.
The parliament also received a petition concerning two young men who had grown up in relative quiet amid all the turbulence and danger of the 1450s: Edmund and Jasper Tudor. In November 1452, as a way to bolster the ranks of the immediate royal family, the Tudor boys, now in or approaching their early twenties, had been elevated jointly to the peerage. Edmund was made earl of Richmond, while Jasper was created earl of Pembroke. The parliament of 1453 was successfully moved to declare them legitimate half-brothers of the king. The Latin petition began by praising the ‘famous memory’ of Queen Catherine de Valois, and then calling on parliament ‘to esteem highly and to honour with all zeal, as much as our insignificance allows, all the fruit which her royal womb produced’, in this case, ‘the illustrious and magnificent princes, the lords Edmund de Hadham and Jasper de Hatfield, natural and legitimate sons of the same most serene lady the queen’.
The praise was uncommonly high: ‘By their most noble character they are of a most refined nature,’ the petition read; they were also lauded for ‘their other natural gifts, endowments, excellent and heroic virtues, and other merits of a laudable life’. Notwithstanding the fact that, being half Welsh and half French, neither had a drop of English blood in their veins, they and their heirs were confirmed in their right to hold property and titles. The Tudor boys, having left almost no mark on the historical record since their education in Barking Abbey during the late 1430s and early 1440s, were suddenly promoted into the front rank of the aristocracy, their noble blood and royal relations trumpeted. In a highly unsubtle dig at York, lands seized from the now ruined Sir William Oldhall were granted out as part of Jasper earl of Pembroke’s new landed estate.
At almost exactly the same time came more good news. In the early spring of 1453 Queen Margaret, who had for so long been the object of public derision for her failure to produce an heir, became pregnant. Notwithstanding the difficulties of childbirth and the infant mortality rate of the time, there was a real prospect that a direct heir to the crown would soon provide England with a new focus – and that any questions of noble precedence would finally wither away. The queen was delighted, and on discovering her pregnancy immediately set out for Walsingham in Norfolk to give thanks at the famous shrine to the Virgin Mary. Henry VI rewarded the servant who brought him the news with a jewel known as a ‘demy ceynt’. All England stirred in happiness: even York’s wife Cecily – whose relations with the queen were more cordial than those between her husband and the king – was moved to write to Margaret, remarking that her unborn child was ‘the most precious, most joyful, and most comfortable earthly treasure that might come unto this land and to the people thereof’. Finally, after so much misery, so much strife, it appeared that God was smiling on the reign of King Henry VI.
Then, on 17 July 1453, in a field near Castillon, a town on the banks of the Dordogne just twenty-six miles east of Bordeaux, an English army under Talbot was annihilated by the cannon and cavalry of a French force commanded by Jean Bureau. Talbot, the brilliant veteran of half a century of warfare who was known as the ‘English Achilles’ and the ‘Terror of the French’, died alongside thousands of his men, charging headlong into a hail of artillery fire. The English were routed and within three months Bordeaux would once again fall under French control. It would prove to be the final, unequivocal defeat in a war that had been waged since 1337, and was greeted in England as the calamity it was. No one reacted more terribly to the news than Henry VI. In August, as the court was touring the west country, Henry fell into a form of stupor – the crippling, vacant, catatonic insanity of a waking coma under whose grotesque spell he would remain for fifteen months. At a stroke, England was once again kingless. And soon madness would engulf not just the king, but his kingdom, too.