Post-classical history

13 : The Noble and the Lowly

Edward IV was far from the youngest man to have ascended the English throne, but he was perhaps the most hastily prepared. At nineteen years old he had been raised as the eldest son of a great nobleman. He had studied hard, prayed diligently, learned to fight and dance, to speak courteously and to give his attention to the business of managing a great estate. But it was still some distance between growing up to become a duke and suddenly arriving as a crowned and anointed king of England. And yet, here he was: carried to the throne on the wave of his dead father’s ambition, his hands stained with the blood of his enemies.

Fortunately, much of the outward business of kingship came naturally to Edward. As a young man he was more than six feet tall and handsome if not pretty: surviving portraits capture narrow eyes and pursed lips above a prominent chin. Edward was greatly taken with the lavish dress, manners and courtly habits that were fashionable in Burgundy and elsewhere on the continent, and to match his grand appearance the new king was possessed of courtly charm allied with a military swagger. Although he had a fierce temper when goaded, he was generally ‘of a gentle nature and cheerful aspect’, wrote one contemporary, also recalling that the king ‘was so genial in his greeting, that if he saw a newcomer bewildered at his appearance and royal magnificence, he would give him courage to speak by laying a kindly hand upon his shoulder’.1 He had a sharp mind and a keen memory: the author of the extended English history known as the Crowland Chronicle Continuations frequently admired Edward’s ‘foresight’ and political acumen, and marvelled that he could recall the state and business of ‘almost all men, scattered over the counties of the kingdom … just as if daily they were in his sight’. Edward had uncommonly clear trust in his own judgement and the ability to inspire great loyalty in the men whom he picked to counsel him. And like many of the great Plantagenet kings before him – from Richard the Lionheart to Henry V – he had proven himself on the battlefield at a young age.

Many writers contemporary, or nearly contemporary, to Edward’s reign struggled to find faults with his person and his broad approach to government – with one exception. The new king was, it was frequently said, a debauched lecher. He was certainly known in his time to be fond of women, and it did not always matter whether they were attractive or not. Tongues wagged: the Italian clergyman, humanist and scholar Dominic Mancini, who visited England to write a contemporary history and saw his subjects at first hand, called Edward ‘licentious in the extreme’ and reported that the new king ‘pursued with no discrimination the married and the unmarried, the noble and the lowly’, while the Crowland continuator – although writing more than two decades after Edward’s accession – scratched his pen in sadness at the fact that such a talented and confident governor could also be ‘such a gross man so addicted to conviviality, vanity, drunkenness, extravagance and passion’.2 Even if we allow for the prudishness of the writers and for the fact that some of these judgements were more appropriate to the later years of Edward IV’s life than the perilous days during which he first seized his crown, the impression was consistent.

For the first three years of his reign Edward’s main concern was not sensuality but survival. In March 1461 God had smiled on his claim to kingship by blessing him with victory on the battlefield. But the Lord had not given him mastery of his kingdom. Rather, at the point when Edward first wore the crown, he was still essentially the head of a faction, a private lord who needed to build his public authority in order to claim the full loyalty of his subjects. Just as Henry Bolingbroke had found when he deposed Richard II and took the crown as Henry IV in 1399, a usurper was bound to pursue two apparently opposing strategies. He was obliged to prove that he would be an impartial ruler, able to defend the realm and offer justice to all his subjects, but at the same time he was obliged to reward and favour those men who had helped him take the throne in the first place. This was no easy task at the best of times. And it was far from the only issue that faced Edward: there were also very pressing problems of violent public disorder caused by more than a decade of intermittent rebellion, plotting and civil war, and the threat of attack by foreign powers eager to seize on England’s moment of desolation and distress. Charles VII of France died from longstanding infections in his leg and jaw on 22 July 1461, less than a month after Edward’s coronation, but his hot-headed and belligerent son, who succeeded as Louis XI, was sure to want to discomfit the new English king as much as possible. On top of this Edward had to build from scratch a working government, staffed with men whom he could trust not only to be loyal but to be competent. Finally, he had to consider his dynastic duty: to father enough children to be sure that the future was secure and to discourage the schemes of anyone who had watched his rise and now considered the crown a bauble to be contested by anyone with old royal blood in their veins. It was a daunting task.

Edward began with the Lancastrians. A good many of the leaders had been wiped out at Towton, but a hard core of the committed still survived. Several coastal castles in Northumberland were held by Lancastrian captains, and it took a long and concerted campaign of siege warfare to winkle them out. Queen Margaret had taken Henry VI and Prince Edward back into Scotland, and for the next two years she attempted to raise support for a new invasion, allying herself first with the government of James III, and subsequently seeking finance and military aid from Louis XI. She managed to launch a land and sea invasion of northern England during the spring and summer of 1463, linking up with the defenders of the northern castles, but ultimately she was repelled and forced to flee England for good. While Henry VI remained in Scotland, Margaret and Edward were compelled to live the rest of the decade in exile on the continent. Jasper Tudor, the king’s half-brother who had been stripped of his earldom of Pembroke by act of attainder, served as a go-between, travelling back and forth between France and Scotland, while also attempting to raise an invasion fleet and concentrating his efforts on harassing the Welsh coast. A small group of other diehard Lancastrians, including Henry duke of Exeter and Sir John Fortescue, remained with the queen in impoverished exile. But their efforts to return were firmly resisted, and in October 1463 Edward secured a truce with France which forbade Louis XI to engage with Lancastrian plots, effectively dashing all hopes of a swift return.

Meanwhile, sympathisers who remained actively defiant in England were rooted out. Although only a tiny number were attainted in parliament for their part in the fighting of 1455–61, there was still a move to crush the most implacable. Sweeping legal commissions visited rebellious towns and imposed exemplary justice on townsfolk about the realm. In some places, the severed heads of traitors and rebels were left to rot on poles for up to six months. Many of these heads belonged to the low-born and unfortunate, but others fell from noble shoulders. They included that of the ageing and ill John de Vere, earl of Oxford, who had been notable for his neutrality in all the armed conflicts to date. But in February 1462 Oxford was arrested with his eldest son Aubrey and tried for treason, for plotting against Edward’s life. The two men were executed within a week of one another on Tower Hill, on ‘a scaffold of four foot [in] height … that all men might see’.3

Edward’s early efforts in quelling Lancastrian rebellions rested heavily on Warwick and the Nevilles. Warwick was entrusted with defending the north and spent nearly three years bringing it to obedience, fighting a wearisome border war in which great castles like Alnwick, Norham and Bamburgh were reduced with ‘great ordinance and guns’ and the resilience of the rebels and their Scottish allies was slowly but surely ground down. In reward for these duties and his previous long and dangerous service, lands and offices taken from the defeated Lancastrians were given to Warwick on a massive scale. He was appointed great chamberlain of England, admiral of England and warden of the Cinque Ports and Dover Castle for life; he also retained his invaluable post of captain of Calais. He became warden of both the east and west marches in the north, making him the sole military authority below the king. He became steward of the whole duchy of Lancaster. He inherited all his mother’s lands when she died in 1462. He took command of huge swathes of territory, particularly in the north, where he was awarded former Percy estates. He was confirmed, in short, as the wealthiest and the pre-eminent nobleman in the realm.

His family shared in the spoils. Warwick’s uncle William, Lord Fauconberg was raised to earl of Kent and John Neville was created Lord Montague (and subsequently earl of Northumberland, the old Percy title). George Neville, the loyal bishop of Exeter who had preached Edward IV’s accession at St Paul’s in 1461, was repaid by appointment as chancellor and translation to the archbishopric of York, a promotion he celebrated with a dazzling feast at which six thousand guests were treated to several days of gluttonous roistering at Cawood Castle in Yorkshire: more than one hundred oxen and twenty-five thousand gallons of wine were said to have been enjoyed, in the presence of the king’s youngest brother, Richard duke of Gloucester. The Nevilles had backed the Yorks all the way to the crown, and they received their thanks in dazzling abundance.

Of course, other noble families gained too as Edward IV set about expanding his political base. The Bourchier family was rewarded for loyalty as Henry, elder brother of Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury, was created earl of Essex. In Edward’s own family it was his young brother and heir, George, who profited most from the Yorkist victory. George was made duke of Clarence and given a large bloc of former Lancastrian lands, including the late Edmund Tudor’s earldom of Richmond. In Wales, William, Lord Herbert was given most of Jasper Tudor’s confiscated estates, custody of Edmund Tudor’s son and heir, Henry Tudor, and virtually uncontested power in the principality. And in the household, the main beneficiary was William Hastings, who became Lord Hastings, chamberlain of the household, gatekeeper to the king’s presence and will. Other new men were also cultivated: the west-country landowner Humphrey Stafford became an important ally, as did the Bedfordshire knight Sir John Wenlock – both Stafford and Wenlock were raised to the baronage for their friendship and service. None, however, enjoyed so much prestige and royal favour as the Nevilles.

Or so it seemed. Then in 1464, something extraordinary happened. Among all these old and new families coalescing in a pool of political support for the Yorkist king, there arrived another family – one who would rise to outstrip almost every other in their power and prestige, despite extremely humble roots. They were the Woodvilles, and their fortunes would be yoked to those of the house of York for the next two decades.

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Autumn was drawing in and the festival of Michaelmas was approaching: a holiday that coincided with the end of the harvest, which all of England rose to celebrate with merrymaking, dining, drinking and good cheer. It was the middle of September 1464 and the lords of England gathered at Reading Abbey to hold a conference with their king. They met in the glorious abbey chapel, a setting intimately connected with the ancient history of the English crown, not least since it was the resting place of the great Norman king and lawgiver Henry I and his second wife and queen, Adeliza of Louvain.4 There were several political issues at hand – not least among them a controversial recoinage, by which the value of England’s money would be slashed by around a quarter and the Crown would make a handsome profit by reminting England’s coins. The most pressing concern of all, however, was the most personal. The lords had gathered to discuss Edward’s marriage.

Young, vigorous and single, Edward was a royal bachelor whose choice of wife was a keen matter of interest to a very great number of people. Marriage offered the chance to make a lasting alliance with one of the powers beyond the Channel. It was an opportunity for Edward to produce a son and heir – a need that was as pressing as any before him. And of course, it would allow the king to show the realm that he was growing up and taking his duties seriously, since, as one chronicler put it, ‘men marvelled that oure sovereign lord was so long without any wife, and were ever feared that he had be not chaste of his living’.5

There was a clutch of possible wives, each of whom represented a different path through continental politics. In 1461 Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, had suggested a marriage to his niece, a daughter of the duke of Bourbon – apparently rather a beautiful young lady – and it was hinted in 1464 that this proposal remained open. An alliance with Burgundy had strong trade advantages, and was bound to be well received by the merchant elites in the city of London, who had for so long been staunch supporters of the Yorkist cause. There was also a tentative offer for the hand of Isabella, the sister and heiress of Henry the Impotent of Castile – a kingdom with long ties to the English crown and the Plantagenet family, stretching back to the twelfth century. Or Edward could look north: at one point during the worst troubles of his early reign there were thoughts of marrying the king to Mary of Guelders, the Scottish regent and mother of James III, albeit a woman whose reputation for chastity was worse even than Edward’s. Finally, and perhaps most promisingly, negotiations were advanced with Louis XI of France to create an Anglo-French alliance through a marriage with a princess of the house of Valois.

A French match was by far the most attractive offer to those who thought they held the English king’s ear. Warwick and Lord Wenlock had been leading secret negotiations with the French since at least the spring of 1464, and possibly the previous autumn. By September 1464 Warwick felt that he was close to securing the hand of the French king’s sister-in-law, Bona of Savoy. The most obvious advantage to a marriage alliance with Louis was that it would finally poison the stump of Lancastrian opposition – for without the support of the French and their allies, there could be no hope of Margaret of Anjou ever leading an invasion to restore her limp husband to the English crown. There were also possible trade advantages, which could compensate for the loss of business that would accompany an abandonment of Burgundy. Warwick had a certain amount of personal prestige bound up in the negotiations: he revelled in the fact that he was spoken of in the courts and corridors of European palaces as the power behind the English throne, and the man who moved the young king he had created. The ambassadors and dignitaries joked that, as one put it in a letter to Louis XI, the English had ‘but two rulers, M. de Warwick and another whose name I have forgotten’.6 This sort of thing tickled Warwick, whose landed power was quite equalled by his love of finery, display and personal grandeur. But as he discovered abruptly at Reading in September 1464, his role as the chief mover of English policy was not quite so solid as he had reckoned it to be.

Warwick came to Reading fully expecting that he and Lord Wenlock would be asked to go to a conference with Louis XI in St Omer – a town not far from Calais – to finalise Edward’s marriage to Bona of Savoy. The council at large wished to hear the broad thinking behind the French alliance that would naturally proceed from the union. Yet when Edward met them in the abbey church he relayed news that shocked the realm. He announced that he would not be marrying Bona of Savoy – or indeed any other foreign princess. For he was already married, and had been for several months. His wife, the new queen consort of England, was a widow in her mid-twenties with two children by a recently deceased member of the lower nobility. Her name was Elizabeth Woodville.

She was a fair-skinned woman with dark eyes and auburn hair above a fashionably high forehead, her slender and hard-ridged nose finishing in a little bulb that mirrored the smooth, round ball of her chin.7 At twenty-six or twenty-seven years old she was certainly still beautiful, and although she was not a member of the highest ranks of the nobility she was somewhat famous thanks to her father, Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers. Rivers had been a minor landowner in Kent and Northamptonshire until 1437, when he married Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the widow of Henry VI’s mighty uncle John duke of Bedford. The spectacular match catapulted the hitherto unimportant Woodvilles into the aristocracy, with connections both to the Lancastrian royal house and various great European families including the Luxembourg counts of St Pol and the dukes of Burgundy. Rivers had followed up his own excellent marriage by providing solid noble unions for his family. His son Anthony Woodville wedded the heiress of Lord Scales, and as a young lady Elizabeth Woodville had been married to Sir John Grey, heir to Lord Ferrers of Groby, whom she had borne two children, Thomas and Richard Grey.

Appropriately, given Lord Rivers’s connection to Henry VI, the Woodvilles had been loyal Lancastrians and active participants in the wars against the Yorkists. Rivers was one of those assembling a fleet for Henry VI at Sandwich in January 1460 when he and his comrades were kidnapped in a lightning raid by the earl of Warwick and taken to Calais for interrogation. It was at Calais, indeed, that Rivers had first encountered the future Edward IV: for in a humiliating torchlit ceremony before assembled Yorkist partisans, Warwick and Edward (then earl of March) had ‘reheted’ – that is, berated and scolded – the captive Lord Rivers for his humble upbringing, ‘calling him knave’s son’ and scoffing at his ignoble blood.8 Released from their ordeal, Rivers and his son Anthony had both gone on to fight on the losing side at Towton. They had survived that bloody field and been pardoned by Edward in the aftermath, but Elizabeth Woodville’s husband, Sir John Grey, had been less lucky in the business of war: he was killed fighting for the Lancastrians at the second battle of St Albans.

The circumstances of Elizabeth’s marriage to the king were intriguing. It was said the couple had been wed ‘privily in a secret place’ on the amorous occasion of May Day 1464, most likely in a ceremony in Rivers’s house at Grafton in Northamptonshire.9 The wedding had subsequently been kept secret for nearly five months. A story went about – embellished with every retelling – that the king had promised to marry Elizabeth as the most direct means to get her into bed, and that Elizabeth had attempted to defend her honour by threatening Edward with a dagger before eventually succumbing to his youthful charm.10 This titillating tale was included in the Italian courtly poem De mulieribus admirandis (‘Of wonderful women’), written in terza rima by Antonio Cornazzano some time before October 1468, so very clearly it had romantic appeal across Europe. There was probably more poetic fancy than journalistic truth to Cornazzano’s account. All we know from sources immediate to the event is that within a week of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville becoming public knowledge, diplomatic channels were buzzing with the news that the king had ‘determined to take the daughter of my Lord Rivers, a widow with two children, having long loved her, it appears’.11

The idea that the new king had married for love, rather than for hard-headed political gain, must have made a certain amount of sense to the bewildered ambassadors who gossiped together in the courts of Europe. How else to explain the astonishing rise of Elizabeth Woodville – the unlikeliest queen consort in English history? Not least among her imperfections was the fact that she was an Englishwoman. Since the Norman Conquest, a matter of four centuries, no king of England had married one of his subjects; the last to do so had been Edward the Confessor, who married the impeccably noble and virginal Edith of Wessex in 1045.12 As an English subject Elizabeth brought with her no obvious diplomatic gain and no useful foreign alliance. Quite the contrary: her large family were already noted for their social ambition and obvious desire to advance themselves by marrying into other families’ titles and estates. With two sons, a father and more than ten siblings, Elizabeth brought with her obligations for royal favour and grants that would have to be met in part out of the Crown’s precious resources. She promised even less to the Crown than the impoverished Margaret of Anjou had brought when she married Henry VI in 1445.

Indeed, Edward’s sudden marriage threatened to do active damage to England, both at home and abroad. The French king was completely blindsided by the news of Elizabeth’s presentation: the first he knew of it was when Warwick and Wenlock failed to appear at St Omer for the conference concerning Bona of Savoy. Isabella of Castile would much later complain that she was ‘turned in her hart’ from England ‘for the unkindness the which she took against the king … for his refusing of her and taking to his wife a widow of England’.13 It is almost certain that Warwick, like most of the rest of the English peerage, was also taken by surprise. He had fair cause to ‘grumble a bit’, as it was reported by one chronicler, over his young protégé’s eccentric, apparently lovestruck choice of wife.14 Puzzled observers wrote that the marriage caused ‘great displeasure to many great lords’ and ‘greatly offended the people of England’.15

It would be foolish totally to disregard love – the most common contemporary explanation – as an important factor in the Woodville marriage.16 But it is also possible, with hindsight, to detect a line of political thinking that may well have allowed Edward to convince himself that his love-match was also a useful tool of public policy. Could it be that the romantic writers and tattling envoys who gossiped about the king’s incontinent libido missed the broader political dimension of the Woodville wedding?

Unquestionably, in 1464 Edward was a charismatic and extremely self-willed twenty-two-year-old who had enjoyed no apprenticeship or education to prepare him for wearing a crown and was essentially inventing the role as he went along. But he was not completely reckless or heedless of convention, and his crown had been won at a greater personal cost than that of any Plantagenet king before him. Perhaps, then, we can see his choice of Elizabeth Woodville as fitting into a pattern of bold and well-intentioned, if occasionally very naïve kingship that characterised at least the first five years of Edward’s reign.

In the spring of 1464 Edward was still fighting for his throne. Part of this effort was military, and part involved a concerted campaign of persuasion: an appeal to his realm for allegiance. Specifically, he made it a plank of his reconstruction to reach out wherever he could to the exiled and defeated Lancastrians.

The most prominent Lancastrian – albeit the most ungrateful – to find Edward’s conciliatory hand outstretched was Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, one of the chief commanders at Towton, and a man whose opposition to the Yorkists had been most motivated by hate and fear. Somerset fled the realm in 1461 and had been attainted in his absence, but after becoming embroiled in the castle wars of Northumbria in 1462, he had been captured at Bamburgh and surrendered himself to the king’s custody.

Instead of executing, humiliating or otherwise punishing Somerset – as Queen Margaret surely would have done had her side been victorious at Towton and a Yorkist of Henry Beaufort’s status fallen into her custody – Edward treated the twenty-eight-year-oldduke with an amazing degree of affection and forgiveness. One chronicler noted with astonishment that Somerset ‘lodged with the king in his own bed many nights, and sometimes rode a-hunting behind the king’, with the royal bodyguard containing as many of Somerset’s men as Edward’s. ‘The king loved him well’ was the chronicler’s judgement, and it was quite accurate.17 Within six months of his capture at Bamburgh, Somerset’s attainder had been reversed and his estates restored; he was allowed to serve in arms alongside Warwick and he was invited to great tournaments in the south. It was a lightning political rehabilitation. Not everyone was overjoyed, and a correspondent called John Berney wrote from Norfolk to John Paston, complaining that there was much grumbling among local Yorkists, who thought that the king’s ‘great enemies, and oppressors of the commons’ were rewarded instead of punished, while not enough of the spoils of victory found their way to ‘such as have assisted his Highness’.18 But Edward had made up his mind: he would use Somerset as living proof that he could govern as a king, drawing the whole realm and not just his partisan allies to his side.

Unfortunately Somerset’s rapid rehabilitation was followed by an equally swift fall from grace. While enjoying Edward’s hospitality, ‘the duke thought treason under fair cheer and words’.19 In late November 1463 Somerset rode to Northumberland to meet with the enfeebled Henry VI and rouse insurrection anew. It took two battles in the far north, at Hedgeley Moor on 25 April 1464 and at Hexham on 15 May, to squash the rebellion and rout the final embers of Lancastrian revolt for good. Lord Montague led the royal forces at both battles; Somerset was captured at Hexham and executed the following day, along with several dozen other Lancastrian renegades.

It is in the context of all of this – and not the confections of many later chroniclers and poets, who piled romantic myth onto the fact of the king’s affection for his new wife – that we must see Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.20 He was trying desperately – probably too desperately – both to endow allies old and new with the landed power and royal trust that he needed to secure his kingdom, and to extend the hand of friendship to those who had found themselves on the wrong side of the civil war. He had not been wildly successful in concentrating his efforts on the more senior Lancastrian families – for as well as Somerset’s treachery, Edward had also tried and failed to bring Sir Ralph Percy to reconciliation and had found his generosity abused. At precisely the time that he secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the Nevilles were once again taking to the field to defend his crown in the north, while other allies were ducking down and covering their ears against the boom of siege guns as they tried to subdue obdurate defenders of northern castles. Edward was becoming over-reliant on his longstanding friends, and frustratingly unable to bring his longstanding enemies within his peace.

Then, between the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham, Edward found himself close to Grafton, in the presence of a moderately famous if second-rate Lancastrian family, a daughter of whom happened to be extremely sexually attractive to him. Elizabeth had been dealing very closely with Edward’s chamberlain and confidant Lord Hastings in making a deal to protect her share of her late husband’s lands from the Bourchier family who had a claim to them: her name and her situation were therefore unquestionably familiar to the king, and with Hastings’s blessing, Elizabeth had probably put her case to Edward in person. Thus he knew her by sight, and understood her background thoroughly: here was the eldest daughter of a Lancastrian family actively seeking royal favour and patronage. A covert marriage must have seemed like a policy that had very few serious risks and a number of advantages: this was a bride who would demonstrate Edward’s commitment to even-handed kingship, but whose family was not so grand or proud as to feel they had anything to gain by betraying his trust. There was an important foreign dimension, too, since a domestic marriage that could be explained by the romantic impulsiveness of a young and callow king also meant that Edward could avoid marrying Bona of Savoy, avoid committing his foreign policy so early in the reign to France and avoid upsetting his Burgundian allies, whose favour – and trade – was vital for the health of London’s merchants.

The marriage would prove embarrassing to the earl of Warwick, who was leading the foreign negotiations, but Warwick had benefited more than handsomely enough from the Yorkist victory. To take a bride of the Neville family’s choosing would have reinforced the already unpleasantly strong perception that Edward was Warwick’s puppet king. To fly in the face of his ally made the point that in marriage as in all other things it was the king’s ultimate prerogative to do as he and he alone chose.21

Still, the wedding was made in secrecy – perhaps in the hope that it could be denied if necessary – and then kept quiet until such time as an announcement became politic or unavoidable. That time was Michaelmas 1464, when his council pushed him to commit to a foreign marriage. This was the moment at which his crown was secure enough to admit to a controversial step, but also at which he could forestall a decision on a French marriage no longer. Thus the shock and surprise on Michaelmas Day when Elizabeth Woodville was presented to the English court at Reading, processing into the public presence on the arms of the fourteen-year-old George duke of Clarence, the king’s heir presumptive – and a somewhat disgruntled Richard Neville, earl of Warwick.

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Sand crunched underfoot on London Bridge as Elizabeth Woodville crossed the river Thames and entered England’s capital to be crowned a queen. During the previous winter the bridge had been cleaned and cleared of its foul vapours, and forty-five loads of sand were dumped along its length to assure the grip below the feet of the many lords, ladies and dignitaries who were to cross it in the weekend of celebrations that followed.22 It was Friday 24 May 1465, and the kingdom was about to welcome not only a new queen but also a whole new generation of nobles, all learning their places in a world still being rebuilt.

As ever when celebrating a moment of great royal dignity, London put on a spectacular show. The centre of the bridge was awash with colour, in the form of a massive stage, draped in cloth and paper in gold and green, black and white, red and purple, which provided the setting for actors and actresses dressed as blonde-headed angels, their wings made from hundreds of dazzling peacock feathers. Another actor dressed as St Elizabeth read a greeting while the high-pitched voices of boys rang out from the windows of St Thomas’s chapel, singing songs of praise to the incoming queen. The whole of London, as was customary, thronged with crowds and pageants, and Elizabeth, like so many queens before her, took her stately progress through the cramped but well-scrubbed streets, absorbing the proud scenes that unfolded before her.

Two days later, on Whit Sunday, 26 May 1465, she was crowned in Westminster Abbey, having been met in the hall of the adjacent palace by the youthful figures of Clarence and John Mowbray, fourth duke of Norfolk and marshal of England (who had inherited the duchy on the death of his father in November 1461). Clarence was fifteen and a half and Mowbray only twenty – both on the cusp of manhood but gilded with the highest rank and title. They met the new queen in the saddle: riding about the crowded Westminster Hall on great thick-backed horses draped in gold-embroidered cloth. They greeted her, and the party then processed from the palace to the abbey. Beside the new queen walked the king’s sister Elizabeth, duchess of Suffolk, then twenty-one, and the queen’s sister Margaret, eleven years old and betrothed to the earl of Arundel’s heir. These young ladies were accompanied by forty other dignified women, ranging from duchesses to knights’ wives, all of them dressed in scarlet, with miniver and ermine marking out the highest-ranking from the lowest. Bobbing above the crowd were the queen’s youngest sister, Catherine, aged about seven, and her ten-year-old betrothed, Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, who was the grandson and heir of the old duke killed at the battle of Northampton. This tiny couple was afforded the best view in the house: carried on the shoulders of squires above the throng of glorious nobility below.

Once this glittering party was in the abbey, it witnessed a long and lavish crowning. Masses and the Te Deum were sung. Elizabeth sat, stood and sat again with sceptres in her hands and a crown on her head. Then she returned to Westminster Hall for her coronation feast, surrounded and honoured by more nobles. Some, like Henry Bourchier, earl of Essex, were senior figures of the realm, but most of the prominent men in ceremonial positions were of the queen’s own generation. Twenty-four-year-old John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk stood at her right hand holding one of her sceptres, while the twenty-two-year-old John de Vere, earl of Oxford (following his father and elder brother’s executions for treason), served water from a bowl held by Clarence. The hall blazed with splendour and pomp, tables groaned with food and drink, and minstrels’ music blared out from every different shape and size of instrument. Trumpets blew solemnly as every course of the feast was brought before the queen’s table.23 It was a deliberately youthful pageant, wholly appropriate to a fresh and unconventional monarchy. And at the heart of it all was a group of young men and women who had been flung to the front of the English political world within the space of a few months. If the battles of the 1450s and early 1460s had been fought between ageing men quarrelling about feuds that reached back for decades, Elizabeth’s coronation raised up a generation that might be freed from the bloody binds of the past.

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The queen’s coronation was followed by a great coup for Edward’s rule. During the unrest that had led to the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham in 1464 the exiled Henry VI had been smuggled from Scotland into England. For the year that followed he was on the run in the far north, cooped up in the few remaining Lancastrian strongholds and hiding from his enemies. At first he took cover in the massive coastal fortress at Bamburgh, but when that was shot to pieces by Warwick’s cannon Henry moved on, first to Bywell Castle in Northumberland before retreating into more remote hiding places tucked away across the rugged and chilly Pennines. At some times he stayed with one John Maychell in the Cumbrian manor of Crackenthorpe; at others he hid among sympathetic communities of monks. He was more fugitive than returning king. And eventually he was neither: one day in mid-July 1465 Henry was eating dinner with another of his shelterers, Sir Richard Tempest of Waddington Hall, near Clitheroe in Lancashire, when a large party of men, including Sir Richard’s brother John Tempest, burst into the dining room and tried to arrest him. In the scramble Henry was able to flee from the house into the nearby woods, taking with him a handful of loyal servants. But his days of roaming had come to an end. On 13 July the deposed king and his attendants were tracked down and taken prisoner at Bungerly Hippingstones, a crossing point of the river Ribble.24 Henry was lifted onto a horse, ‘his legs bound to the stirrup’, and marched triumphantly from Lancashire to London, where he was placed in the Tower of London, there to remain indefinitely.25 He was fed reasonably well, given wine from the new king’s cellars, occasionally allowed a new velvet gown and permitted visitors, if they were carefully vetted by his jailers. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the deposed and imprisoned King Henry was not murdered. This had been the fate of the two Plantagenet kings who had lost their crowns before him: Edward II died while in custody at Berkeley Castle in 1327, while Richard II was killed at Pontefract in 1400, the year following his deposition. Ironically, Henry’s survival was perhaps a mark of his uniquely pitiful and ineffectual approach to kingship – for it was much harder to justify killing a man who had done nothing evil or tyrannical, but had earned his fate thanks to his dewy-eyed simplicity. Permitting Henry to remain alive was a bold decision that Edward IV would come to regret. But in 1465 it must have struck the king as a brave and magnanimous act.

With Henry in gentle confinement and his enemies in the north contained, Edward’s reign began to develop a sense of normality. His marriage to Elizabeth, surprising as it may have been both at home and abroad, allowed him to start growing his base of royal support. The queen’s large family made it possible to start knitting many of the other great families of England within the new royal house. Two years after the royal marriage, five of the queen’s sisters were married. Young Catherine was already wedded to the underage duke of Buckingham. A welter of other matches followed. Anne and Joan Woodville were married to the heirs to the earls of Essex and Kent respectively. Two more sisters, Jacquetta and Mary, were matched with Lord Strange and the heir to Lord Herbert (who would later become earl of Pembroke). Anthony Woodville – the eldest of the brothers – was married to the heiress of Lord Scales, and used the title himself from 1462. Thomas Grey – Elizabeth’s eldest son – married Anne Holland, daughter of the duke of Exeter. This spider’s web of matches between the queen’s relations and the young men and women of the English aristocracy formed links between the new royal family and the future generations of noble dynasties with estates, interests and followers all across the realm, planting new threads of royal connection from East Anglia and the midlands to Wales and the west country. But before long, the creation of this sprawling new royal affinity became a matter of contention between Edward and the man who felt he was owed most of all by the new regime. As the Woodvilles increased their power and Edward grew in confidence, so the earl of Warwick began to feel more and more uneasy. A succession of clashes over policy and personalities was coming to a head between the king and his greatest subject. The two men whose family alliance had secured the Yorkist crown were about to blow the entire project apart.

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