Post-classical history

14 : Diverse Times

From the very beginning of his reign, Edward was determined to present himself as a king not merely by right of conquest, but by right of blood and birth, even destiny. Following his coronation in 1461 he commissioned for public display a vast, twenty-foot illuminated manuscript roll illustrating his ancient claim to be a king – not only king of England and France, but also of Castile, to which the house of York occasionally trumpeted its right. The ‘coronation roll’ that was produced after months of painstaking work some time before the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464 was a mass of colours, names, heraldic devices and dynastic tables. At the top towered Edward, resplendent in plate armour aboard a bright-liveried warhorse, a huge sword in his right hand, a gold crown on his head and a smile of regal triumph on his red lips. Below this magnificent figure stretched a genealogical chart packed with detail, explaining the king’s descent from Adam and Eve, down through Noah and out into all the known ages of human history, until they coalesced in the three main royal lines of England, France and Castile, all flowing through Richard duke of York and down into an eight-pointed star representing Edward once again. All over this extraordinary public demonstration of the king’s blood-borne, heaven-ordained royalty were Edward’s favourite personal symbols: the fetterlock that his father had worn on his robes when he first claimed the crown in 1460, the black bull representing the Mortimer family’s true claim to the English crown, the arms of Cadwalladr, ancient king of the Britons, the golden sun, recalling both the true Plantagenet line descending to Richard II and, more recently, Edward’s victory at Mortimer’s Cross – and most frequent of all, the five-pointed white rose, the blazing symbol of the house of York.1

For all this magnificent visual posturing, the house of York needed to produce an heir. The king had two younger brothers – George duke of Clarence and Richard duke of Gloucester – and three sisters – Anne duchess of Exeter, Elizabeth duchess of Suffolk and Margaret of York. But his reign would only really acquire security when he produced a son and heir. For this reason, much excitement greeted Queen Elizabeth’s confinement in the new royal apartments at the palace of Westminster during the early days of 1466, to be delivered of her first child.

The baby was born on 11 February in a room staffed solely by women, into which not even the queen’s personal physician, Dr Dominic de Sirego, was allowed. It was a healthy child, although not the boy that the king had been hoping for. The infant was called Elizabeth, a name that had some distant Plantagenet history as well as running in the Woodville family.2 Both the baby and the mother were treated with all honour and reverence. Remarkably, Elizabeth was the first princess to have been born to a reigning queen of England for more than one hundred years and she was given an appropriately splendid christening, at which her grandmothers, Cecily duchess of York and Jacquetta duchess of Bedford, both stood as godmothers. Beside them as the tiny baby was baptised was the princess’s godfather, Richard earl of Warwick.

What Warwick was thinking at the time of the christening will never be known. If he was seriously disaffected by Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville then at this point he was biting his tongue. Certainly he was still gaining handsomely from his position as the greatest magnate under the king. He presided over the lavish churching ceremony, to welcome the queen back into society following the princess’s birth – a public prominence that recalled his ostentatious accompaniment of the captive King Henry VI through the streets of London in July 1465. He was commissioned to seek a treaty with Burgundy in the spring of 1466, notwithstanding his clear preference for a treaty with France. The following February, he was allowed to take a massive entourage on a diplomatic embassy to Louis XI, in which he gave the French king English dogs, and was rewarded with chests full of money, textiles and gold and silver plate.3 At home he was showered with lands and offices: the castle of Cockermouth in Cumberland, the hereditary office of sheriff in Westmorland, custody of all royal forests north of the Trent, profits of all the royal gold and silver mines in the same region, and wardship of the lands of the wealthy peer Lord Lovell when that gentleman died and left an underage heir. Warwick was rich, and getting richer.4 All the same, against this background of royal patronage, favour and delegated power, divisions were opening along several lines between the king and his greatest nobleman. And as the first decade of Edward’s reign wore on, Warwick would come to feel that all the power and riches in the world could not satisfy his desire for more.

The biggest area of disagreement was over foreign policy. Warwick’s desire to come to terms with France, rather than to pursue an alliance with Burgundy – the favoured policy of the queen’s father, now Earl Rivers – had not dimmed. Edward indulged him to a degree. But while Warwick was absent courting the French, the king directly undermined his mission by receiving in great splendour a rival embassy led by Anthony, the grand bâtard of Burgundy – Duke Philip the Good’s second son, born to one of his many mistresses. Like Edward IV, the Bastard was renowned for his taste for fine living, dazzlingly bejewelled clothes and beautiful women. He was a boon companion and an excellent sportsman, famous as one of the most skilful archers in northern Europe. He was fond of jousting, and when he arrived in England during the spring of 1467 Edward greeted him with every honour. A tournament had been arranged between the Bastard and Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, to be held at West Smithfield, just outside the walls of the city of London. As gravel and sand from the banks of the Thames were carted to the tournament ground and a great viewing platform was built by the king’s carpenters, the Bastard was treated to rides along the river in barges hung with tapestry and gold cloth; he slept in gold-hung beds at his London lodgings and was generally borne about the town with all the reverence due to a king.

The tournament, held from 11 June to 14 June 1467, was a success, despite a disappointing first day on which Scales lanced the Bastard’s horse, a dastardly move held to be quite contrary to the rules of the joust, which left the animal ‘so bruised that he died … a while after’.5 On the second day the two men fought on foot with battle-axes, going at one another so fiercely that eventually the king had to intervene, commanding them to stop and refusing their request to finish the fight with daggers. The event ended happily, with the two lords embracing and everyone celebrating the end of the tournament with a huge feast attended by scores of stunningly dressed young English ladies.6 There could have been no greater show of comradeship and courtly affection between the ruling families of England and Burgundy. The Bastard’s visit was cut short by news of the death of his father, Philip the Good, on 15 June. Nevertheless, his departure from the realm concluded a visit that had illustrated the king’s clear desire for friendship.

Duke Philip’s death broke off Warwick’s embassy to France. He returned laden with silver and gold, but aware that in his absence his standing in foreign affairs had been badly damaged. And things were no better at home, where the ejection of his brother George, the archbishop of York, from the office of chancellor – an event buried beneath the blaze of the Bastard of Burgundy’s visit – meant that the family had been removed from their central position in the administration of domestic government, too. As the archbishop fell from grace, the king’s father-in-law Earl Rivers was rewarded with promotion to treasurer and constable – a pair of offices that gave him sweeping powers over royal finance and military might. It looked like a coup designed to put the Nevilles in their place. Warwick had done too much to put Edward on the throne to bear this double slight with equanimity.

Following the death of Philip the Good, Edward’s alliance with Burgundy grew steadily closer. He conceived it as part of a broad anti-French strategy in which alliances could be constructed with a ring of France’s mutual enemies: treaties of friendship were also signed with Brittany, Denmark and Castile, and were pursued with Aragon and Armagnac.7 In October 1467 the king’s clever, courtly and well-educated sister Margaret agreed to marry Charles, the new duke of Burgundy (later nicknamed ‘the Bold’), turning down no fewer than four matches proposed by Louis XI. Just as at Princess Elizabeth’s christening, Warwick played a central ceremonial role in the king’s sister’s marriage. In May 1468 he accompanied Margaret as she left London by the pilgrim road to Canterbury, headed for the busy port of Margate on the isle of Thanet, whence she would set sail aboard a ship called the New Ellen for the Netherlands and her new life as duchess at the dazzling court of Burgundy. Warwick and Margaret rode in splendour on the back of the same horse: he in front and she right behind him.8

Despite his role in Margaret’s departure and the continued flow of royal gifts, Warwick’s discomfiture was becoming obvious. The chronicler Warkworth believed that Margaret’s marriage made decisive his breach with the king: ‘And yet they were accorded diverse times: but they never loved together after.’9 Warwick had been forced to accept two other obnoxious matches. The queen’s son Thomas Grey had married the king’s niece Anne Holland, the only daughter and heiress of Henry Holland, duke of Exeter – despite the fact that Warwick’s nephew had been promised Anne’s hand. Then a far more grotesque and insulting marriage was arranged between the twenty-year-old John Woodville and Katherine Neville, Warwick’s aunt and the dowager duchess of Norfolk. Katherine was not only a four-time widow but also about sixty-five years old. The medieval marriage market was more usually organised according to the principles of political advancement than romance, but there were certain limits of good taste. If anything could be said to symbolise the impertinence of the Woodvilles it was this nakedly grasping match between a vigorous upstart barely out of his teens and a blue-blooded crone. One chronicler, cattily estimating that the duchess was a bride again at ‘the young age of eighty’, called it a ‘diabolical marriage’.10

Warwick had two daughters, Isabel, born in 1451, and Anne, five years younger, who were at or approaching marriageable age. He had no sons, and thus his family’s future depended on their making good matches. Warwick’s great desire was for Isabel to marry George duke of Clarence, but in early 1467, amid a seemingly incessant parade of matches between the king’s and queen’s families and the rest of the English nobility, Edward IV declined to allow it. This along with the steady drip of other insults was enough to drive Warwick into a deep sulk. By January 1468 he had retreated to his northern estates and repeatedly refused to attend the king’s council at Coventry if Lord Herbert, Earl Rivers or Lord Scales was present. His appearance at Margaret of York’s departure for Burgundy was one of the last times that he engaged in any meaningful public way on the side of a king whom he had made, but could no longer control. He was, as one chronicler put it, ‘deeply offended’.

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By 1468 Edward’s kingly experience was growing and his family was expanding. A second daughter, named Mary, was born in August 1467 and a third, Cecily, would follow in March 1469. But the problems of a usurper king had not entirely left him. The threat to his crown was much reduced – not least because Henry VI continued to languish at the Tower of London – but it had not entirely vanished. Having offended Louis XI by allying with Burgundy, Edward had exposed himself to renewed French backing of plots against his throne. In June 1468 Jasper Tudor was funded to launch a small invasion of Wales. He landed at Harlech Castle, raided his way across north Wales, captured Denbigh Castle and proclaimed Henry VI to be the true king at ‘many sessions and assizes’ held in the old king’s name.11 Tudor was beaten back to the sea within weeks by an army under Lord Herbert, who captured the supposedly impregnable Harlech Castle, a bastion of defiant Welsh Lancastrianism ever since Edward’s accession. (Herbert was rewarded for his efforts with his foe’s old title of earl of Pembroke.) The less fortunate captains of Harlech, including one John Trueblood, were taken to London and beheaded in the Tower. But this was not the end of Edward IV’s troubles.

Jasper Tudor’s invasion was followed by rumours of other plots. ‘That year were many men impeached of treason,’ wrote one chronicler.12 The London aldermen Sir Thomas Cook and Sir John Plummer and the sheriff Humphrey Hayford were accused of plotting and deprived of their offices, while a noble conspiracy was detected involving John de Vere, heir to the earl of Oxford who had been beheaded in February 1462, and the heirs of the Courtenay and Hungerford families. De Vere was imprisoned and eventually pardoned, but the other two were condemned and killed in early 1469. And so it was across the realm: ‘Diverse times in diverse places of England, men were arrested for treason, and some were put to death, and some escaped,’ recalled one writer.13 As the plots seemed to spiral, England was becoming generally more violent: a spate of aristocratic warmongering was the subject of complaint during the summer parliament of 1467, which implored the king to deal with the ‘homicides, murders, riots, extortions, rapes of women, robberies and other crimes which had been habitually and lamentably committed and perpetrated throughout the realm’.14

It is hard to know now whether the increased sensitivity to conspiracy was genuinely the sign of more dangerous times, or of paranoia in the king’s council. From late 1467 there had been rumours that Warwick was in touch with Margaret of Anjou, who was living in uncomfortably impoverished exile with a small court of dissidents at her father’s castle of Kœur, 150 miles east of Paris. Even if these rumours were nothing more than baseless gossip, the earl’s cold and obstructive behaviour in early 1468 did nothing to suggest his total loyalty to the regime. And indeed, when another front of disorder and opposition to Edward’s rule opened in 1469, Warwick finally decided to abandon the king and throw in his lot with a man who might prove to be more pliable. But it was not a Lancastrian: rather, Warwick decided to make use of the man who would be his son-in-law, Edward’s own brother and still his male heir, George duke of Clarence.

At the beginning of 1468 Clarence was eighteen years old. Like Edward he was capable of charm and wit and he shared with the king what one writer called ‘outstanding talent’.15 He was smooth, elegantly attractive and sharp-tongued – ‘possessed of such mastery of popular eloquence that nothing upon which he set his heart seemed difficult for him to achieve’.16 His childhood under his brother’s rule had been spent in large part at Greenwich Palace, where he lived with his sister, the now departed Margaret, and his younger brother Richard duke of Gloucester. He had been recognised as an adult on 10 July 1466 – still only sixteen years old – when he paid formal homage to the king and was rewarded with possession of massive estates centred on Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire: a large and modern fortress protected with thick curtain walls and several towers with luxurious residential apartments inside, warmed by giant fireplaces hewn from huge blocks of locally quarried stone. As an important property of the duchy of Lancaster, Tutbury had once belonged to Queen Margaret, who spent a great deal on its improvements. It was a commanding position from which he could survey the sprawling patchwork of lands that he now controlled. Amid this luxury, Clarence enjoyed mastery of the biggest and most lavish household staff of any nobleman in England, consisting of nearly four hundred people at an annual cost of £4,500.17

But if Clarence was superficially attractive, handsomely gifted and indulged by his elder brother, he was also glib, shallow and spoiled.18 Like Warwick, extravagant royal favour only served to increase his ambition. He was bewitched by his own magnificence, and like Humphrey duke of Gloucester (and perhaps like his own father) he saw his position as the king’s male heir as licence to create an ostentatious alternative court. This instinct would lead him into trouble: for while he could at times perform as a competent magnate, settling the debates of his tenants and subordinates, he was a wilful, self-centred and infuriating man with a penchant for skulduggery and schemes.

One such scheme was to pursue marriage to Warwick’s eldest daughter, Isabel. From a royal point of view it would have been considerably more useful for Clarence to have entered into a union with a foreign princess than a Neville (Charles the Bold’s daughter Mary was briefly considered). This may well have been what Edward was thinking when he flatly refused to endorse the marriage in early 1467, though it is more likely that he simply wished to avoid connecting his two greatest nobles by allowing a marriage alliance between them. Warwick’s power needed no bolstering via a direct link to the adult royal heir – traditionally a hub around which opposition to the Crown would gather. The politics of the midlands, meanwhile, would be thrown horribly out of balance by joining together the two most powerful lords in the region. Warwick began plainly to chafe against the restriction. To the king’s clear concern, his brother George – young, impressionable and used to getting his own way – fell under Warwick’s spell.

The consequences of a Warwick–Clarence alliance against the king whom each had every duty to serve and obey became clear from the spring of 1469. It began in April with a series of popular riots in Yorkshire, as large numbers of local men convened under the leadership of a figure calling himself ‘Robin of Redesdale’ or ‘Robin Mend-all’ – a sort of Jack Cade of the north, whose name was clearly a nod to the outlaw ballads that had by this time been in circulation for more than a century, and whose heroes – Robin Hood, Adam Bell and Gamelyn – embodied the ideal of the wronged man who imposes rough justice on corrupt officials. There were a number of likely causes for this disorder, high among them longstanding local disgruntlement at the demands of St Leonard’s Hospital in York, which had long levied the ‘petercorn’ – a tax on arable farmers – in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland. The master of the hospital had the previous year secured his right to the tax in Edward’s court of chancery.19 Under ‘Robin of Redesdale’ a spate of rioting whipped across the county. It was put down by Warwick’s younger brother, John Neville, earl of Northumberland, the hero of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham and one of the crown’s most reliable men of the north. But within two months ‘Redesdale’ had sprung up again, and this time the Neville family were not the scourges of the rebels, but their covert sponsors.

The second wave of rebellion, which took place in June and July of 1469, was significantly different from the first. The leader still went under the name ‘Robin of Redesdale’, but was in this case either Sir John Conyers of Hornby, Warwick’s steward atMiddleham Castle and an experienced soldier, or else a puppet of the same. Whereas the disorder earlier in the year had focused on local disaffection, now, said one writer, the people ‘complained that they were grievously oppressed with taxes and annual tributes by the said favourites of the king and queen’. A regional uprising had been stirred up into a protest against national government. The second Redesdale rising was secretly supported by Warwick with the aim of causing the king maximum discomfort. And it was done with great effect. There was talk of a popular army of sixty thousand men being mustered in Yorkshire. The disturbances were beginning to resemble what the chroniclers called a ‘great insurrection’ and a ‘whirlwind from the north’.20

Edward set off to deal with the rising in mid-June, accompanied by his youngest brother, Richard duke of Gloucester, along with Earl Rivers, Lord Scales and a number of his other Woodville relatives. At first Edward failed to calculate how dangerous the situation had become, but as he rode north it began to dawn on the king that this was more than a local rising and he sent out urgent demands to the towns and cities of the midlands to supply him with archers and men. He also wrote to Clarence, Warwick and George Neville, archbishop of Canterbury, sending each a terse note on 9 July demanding that they ‘come unto his Highness’ with all urgency. ‘And we ne trust that ye should be of any such disposition towards us, as the rumour here runneth, considering the trust and affection we bear in you,’ he added in his letter to Warwick.21 But as the wax was hardening on the king’s letters, Warwick, the archbishop and Clarence were on their way to the military stronghold of Calais, taking with them the earl’s daughter Isabel.

On 11 July Clarence and Isabel were married in Calais, in direct defiance of the king. The following day, Warwick and his allies wrote an open letter to the king in support of the Robin of Redesdale rising. The letter called for reform, accusing Rivers, Scales, Sir John Woodville, the earl of Pembroke, his brother Sir William Herbert and Humphrey Stafford, earl of Devon, as well as others around the king, of allowing the realm to ‘fall in great poverty of misery … only intending to their own promotion and enriching’, and warning darkly that the fate that had befallen Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI might just as easily be visited upon Edward IV. They also named Earl Rivers’s wife, Jacquetta duchess of Bedford, as a malign influence on the king. ( Jacquetta would later be accused of having used witchcraft to engineer the king’s marriage to her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, and of creating lead models of Warwick, Edward and the queen for the purposes of sorcery.) A manifesto for reform was attached to the letter – supposedly belonging to the rebels, although as it took an almost exclusively national outlook and was riddled from beginning to end with the sort of political jargon in whose uses the earl of Warwick was the most practised man alive, it was likely to have been either strongly influenced from or wholly manufactured in Calais.22

The northern rising, swelling by the day, was led by Warwick’s relatives and friends. As Sir John Conyers and his son of the same name, Sir Henry Neville and Henry Fitzhugh marched their northerners towards the midlands, Warwick and Clarence returned to England from Calais, landing in Kent on 16 July. Two days later they began a push up the country to join forces with ‘Robin of Redesdale’. They stopped briefly in London before sweeping up the road towards Coventry, gathering men as they rode. Edward, camped with his army at Nottingham, now found a pincer closing rapidly around him. His best hope for repelling the rebels was to receive reinforcements from Wales under the earl of Pembroke, and from the west country under the earl of Devon.

On Wednesday 26 July Pembroke and Devon’s men had reached Banbury in northern Oxfordshire and were camped in the broad fields surrounding the town when they were attacked without warning by the northern forces. The main body of the royal army was separated from the archers, and they thus went into battle severely hampered. ‘A great battle was fought, and a most dreadful slaughter, especially of the Welsh, ensued,’ wrote one chronicler, who reckoned that four thousand men were killed on the battlefield known as Hegge-cote or Edgecote.23 The considerable disarray among Pembroke’s men was worsened when a small band of warriors bearing the earl of Warwick’s arms arrived in the field, causing panic in the lines and leading many to take flight. The end result was terrible casualties on both sides. The rebel leaders Sir Henry Neville and John Conyers the younger were killed, but the battle was remembered in Wales, as the bloody fate of the Welsh infantry was shared by their commanders. The poet Lewys Glyn Cothi called it ‘the mightiest [ battle] of Christendom’. During the fighting Pembroke and his brother Sir Richard Herbert were captured and taken as prisoners to Northampton, where they were met by the earl of Warwick. On Thursday 27 July Warwick held a summary and utterly illegal trial, pronounced a death sentence and had both beheaded.

Panic spread. News of the disaster at Edgecote took several days to reach Edward IV, but when it did, his men scattered from his side. Alone and totally exposed, the king was taken prisoner at Olney in Buckinghamshire by a party led by Archbishop George Neville. His horse was harnessed to his captors’ and he was escorted to Warwick Castle, the vast and unbreachable midland seat of the Nevilles, to be held captive while his associates were hunted down.24 Throughout August, Warwick’s men stalked England, capturing those men who had served the king and murdering them. Earl Rivers and Sir John Woodville were run to ground in Chepstow and taken to Kenilworth, where both were beheaded. The earl of Devon was taken ‘by the commons’ in Bridgwater, Somerset, ‘and there right beheaded’.25

Despite the fact that Warwick and Clarence were acting effectively alone – mustering their own vast resources rather than manifesting the will of any wider portion of the nobility or the realm – it had taken them less than three months to gain command of the king, butcher his allies and assume control of the government. Edward had spent the best part of a decade establishing his birthright, starting a new royal family, rebuilding a secure crown and a stable government and reasserting the majesty of English kingship. And yet in the late summer of 1469 he found himself in the same predicament as his predecessor: two kings were now prisoners of their own subjects. Seizing the crown had become all too easy.

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