Military history


A Question of Honour

York & Somerset – a struggle for supremacy


In the months after Cade’s rebellion, in the late summer of 1450, there began another oscillating struggle for supremacy between two great magnates whose mutual hatred was visceral. They were clearly seen to be the political heirs of Gloucester and Beaufort, but with one key difference: not just one man but both had a conceivable claim to be heir to the throne. This made their rivalry more intense and finally, more deadly. One of these men was Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, the other was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. At the core of the antipathy between them was the military collapse in France and the vacuum of authority following the death of Suffolk and the implosion of the household clique in 1450.

Traditionally it was thought that York and Humphrey of Gloucester were close during Gloucester’s lifetime. It is now thought that was probably not the case.1 What is certain is that the petition delivered during Cade’s rebellion had thrust York into the role of Gloucester’s heir. Position at birth, the death of a succession of near relatives with no direct descendants and a strategic marriage could propel the beneficiary of such good fortune to a massive landholding; this had been the case with York.

York’s early years had not been so blessed. His mother was already dead when, not yet four years of age, he lost his father, the Earl of Cambridge, in the worst of circumstances. This was the man whom, on the eve of departure for the Agincourt campaign, Henry V had executed on charges of conspiracy. In different times and with a different king, the son, too, would have been permanently disinherited and thus would have vanished from history; but on his return to England Henry decided to take into account the fact that the boy was related to a hero as well as a traitor – his father’s elder brother, Edward, Duke of York, had died at Agincourt – and so the rehabilitation began. In due course, he was permitted to inherit his uncle’s title and lands, and yet more land came his way on the death of his childless maternal uncle Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March (that same Mortimer who had alerted Henry V to Cambridge’s conspiracy).

York’s Anglo-Welsh estates were spread far and wide across the country – this would in time give him a strategic problem – but, taken together with further holdings in Ireland, his landholdings were so vast as to be exceeded only by those of the King himself. His ‘insider’ position was cemented by marriage to Cardinal Beaufort’s niece, the beautiful Cecily Neville, known as the ‘Rose of Raby’ after her childhood home. A dedicated servant of the regime in his young adulthood, York was noted more for his administrative abilities than any great military prowess. Twice in charge of Normandy, he served ably in difficult circumstances.

With the death of Gloucester, York was unofficially presumed to have become the new heir to the throne. Though unlike Gloucester he was not given official recognition as ‘heir presumptive’, there was a clear legitimate descent from Edward III’s fourth surviving adult son, Edmund of Langley, that placed York next in the line of succession. Had succession through the female line been permitted, York – through his mother’s descent from Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Clarence – would have had a stronger claim than the King himself. But, of course, it was succession through the male line that mattered and Henry VI’s direct descent from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, gave him clear precedence.

In all, there were three candidates with a claim to succeed Henry, though the prize they sought was certainly not the throne itself but primacy as the recognized heir. With Henry still childless after five years of active marriage, this was a position that needed resolution.

The closest English royal male relative to the King was the ‘violent and stupid’2 Henry, Duke of Exeter, grandson to Henry IV’s sister Elizabeth. By this stage he was married to York’s eldest daughter, but no closer to York for that.

Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the third contender, boasted an all-male descent from John of Gaunt and was, by 1450, second only to the King in that respect. There was, however, an impediment: as a Beaufort, he was a grandson of Gaunt and Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford. Katherine went on to become Gaunt’s third wife and their children were legitimized by Richard II in 1397. But their right to succeed had been specifically precluded by Henry IV in 1407, in order to protect the succession of his own progeny; it seems that, even then, the machinations of Bishop Beaufort on behalf of his nearest family had been viewed with suspicion.3 Nevertheless, in theory at least, that exclusion could be reversed, as it was not necessarily binding on Henry IV’s successors4(see family tree pp. 200–1).

Certainly Somerset seems to have harboured ambitions to bring about such a reversal. Twenty years before, when he was merely heir to an earldom, he had been daring enough to dally openly with the long widowed and sexually charged Catherine de Valois, Henry VI’s mother.5 The Council, realizing that if Edmund Beaufort took on the role of stepfather to the young King it would threaten their own position, instigated a parliamentary statute relating to the remarriage of the queens of England. Their efforts to keep Edmund Beaufort in check were prescient for two reasons: when Duke of Somerset he did indeed establish a psychological hold over the still childlike Henry VI in the 1450s; and shortly after the statute, and in defiance of it, dowager Queen Catherine secretly married – for love, and most unsuitably – not Edmund Beaufort but the athletic Welsh squire, Owen Tudor. Whether Beaufort would have risked the extreme penalties for making an unmarried dowager queen pregnant is unlikely;6 but the liaison was to be remembered and would set a question mark against his relationship with a future queen and his exact relationship to her son.

In the 1440s, machinations on behalf of his nephews by the elderly Cardinal Beaufort – who though eclipsed by Suffolk, was still regarded by him as a man of residual importance – had led to his nephews John and Edmund both taking on crucial roles in France. These had affected York’s own position, as John had campaigned outside York’s authority and Edmund had succeeded York, but there is nothing to suggest that York reacted with any animosity. On his return to England, York became more involved in Council matters than ever, and when he departed to take up the lieutenancy in Ireland in June 1449, ‘Duke Richard did so as a loyal and well-regarded member of the Lancastrian establishment’.7

Edmund Beaufort’s actions in Normandy during 1449 and 1450 changed everything. He was the man in command when the English dominion in France dissolved. In terms of military disaster, he was following in the footsteps of his elder brother John, his immediate predecessor as Duke of Somerset. Indeed, John’s 1443 campaign had been such a catastrophe that he was called home in disgrace, debarred from court and eventually took his own life.8 Edmund’s fate could not have been more different. Having negotiated his own personal safety, first at Rouen and then again at Caen on 1 July,9 he abandoned what was left of Normandy to its fate and returned home. Yet, within two months Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was playing a crucial role in Council with a place at the centre of Henry’s government in England.

For one man this was anathema. If his disgust at Somerset’s general cowardice was not enough, York had a particular reason to be appalled at the fate of Rouen, for he still held the position of captain of Rouen and as such was responsible for the officials there. He had given his assurances that their positions, lives and lands would be protected. As a trusted figure within the Suffolk regime and a recipient of its largesse, he had done so in good faith, but Somerset had breached that faith and besmirched York’s honour, as well as betraying his country.10

The crucial importance of this in understanding the future actions of both men cannot be overstressed. It may seem strange to the modern mind that so much time should be taken, let alone blood spilled, over the settlement of a matter of honour; or that York’s sense of grievance should increase with each instance of justice for Somerset being postponed. But that is the point: York did not have a modern mind. Chivalric honour mattered intensely to him. Unlike his elder son, Edward, York did not have an easy rapport with people, and certainly not his peers. He was, however, fanatically loyal to his advisers and immediate subordinates.11 Though not immune to indecision, he was a man who, once he had decided on action, could be as remorseless as his youngest son, Richard III.

In the cause of bringing Somerset to justice, York was prepared to use all relevant tools to hand – not Cade and the mob, perhaps, but certainly the House of Commons. As late as 1445, York had been so highly regarded within the Lancastrian inner circle of nobility that his eldest daughter was chosen to marry Henry, Duke of Exeter, the King’s closest male relative. In September 1450, he cast himself out of that circle when he crossed from Ireland without the Council’s permission, citing his authority to act in an emergency. His landing was opposed by agents of the Crown, for they attributed to him a more far-reaching agenda, and the manhandling he received while escaping their clutches gave him further furious incentive to act.

So began the first moves in a struggle for supremacy that would become a vendetta which would ultimately engulf the entire nation.

That York could feel himself so dishonoured by Somerset’s betrayal of the Rouen officials goes, once again, to the heart of the nature of social obligation and the concept of ‘good lordship’. The furious reaction of the men from Kent12 towards Fiennes showed the anger of dependants towards a ‘bad lord’; York’s outrage was that of a ‘good lord’ who had been prevented from fulfilling his obligations to his dependant liegemen by a third party – Somerset.13

The trading of reward and protection in exchange for service was not restricted to the rank and file at the bottom of the chain. The system operated from the very top of society, from the king himself and down through the nobility. Under Henry V the system had worked well, with the nobility serving as a senior officer class for military service in the wars with France, and this practice continued under Bedford. There was nothing new about the nobility fulfilling a martial function. Warfare had long served as a useful setting for social competition: combat brought potential reward, prestige and honour; it also brought potential death, defeat, dishonour and the financial penalty of having to find ransom for one’s release – the latter being a fate that befell Suffolk, Talbot and Fauconberg, amongst others. Importantly, though, this test of valour and fortune was comparative, with Englishmen pitted against foreigners and not directly against fellow Englishmen.

Where there was no active war, as during the peace treaties and negotiations of most of the 1440s, then this focus for noble reward and endeavour was removed. Suffolk’s answer to this – indeed, his means of consolidating his position – was through a policy of rewards for all, or at least for all those he considered of importance. In the 1440s his regime created a rash of new titles to reward its inner circle and to curry favour with the nobility as a whole. The rank of baron, previously used merely to denote someone who had been summoned by the king to the House of Lords, was formally recognized as a rank of hereditary dignity, the fifth and lowest stratum of the peerage. One of Suffolk’s household clique, Lord Beaumont, became a viscount in both England and France, in a grandiose attempt to bring heraldic unity to Henry VI’s two kingdoms: his was the first English viscountcy, creating what remains to this day the fourth rank of the peerage. Marquessates, a short-lived and unpopular creation of Richard II that was, by one rank, superior to an earldom, were now revived, with Edmund Beaufort being the first so dubbed when in 1443 he became Marquess of Dorset. At the very highest level of peerage, Suffolk himself became, in 1448, one of the first non-royal dukes.14 That dukedom may have been seen as a step too far by the higher nobility; certainly that was the perception at the time of his downfall, two years later. But throughout the 1440s he had for the most part been successful in maintaining their support by bestowing honours or generous grants of land and royal patronage in the form of high office and wardships. Suffolk’s overall strategy had been to use the Crown’s resources to reward as many people as possible and thus avoid conflict amongst the territorial magnates. Where such conflict proved unavoidable, the aim was to further strengthen the stronger of the two parties, underpinning those who would lend their power to prop up the regime. The system worked as a temporary expedient. But eventually it helped precipitate Suffolk’s fall, and with him gone it broke down completely, being, as it was, financially ruinous for the Crown.

Somerset tried to revive Suffolk’s approach to patronage, while York sought to bring it to order through ‘Resumptions’, the rescinding of grants and their return to the Crown. These actions resulted in major conflict within the ruling elite, a struggle for central political control and, as both cause and effect of this process, the outbreak of violence in the localities between warring magnates and, at a lower level, between their surrogates.

This vast outpouring of patronage served to make mighty subjects mightier, yet at its heart the problem was not one of the ‘overmighty subject’, rather, as McFarlane neatly put it, of the ‘undermighty ruler’.15 A wise, strong king who was respected and feared, such as Edward I, Edward III, or Henry V, would have been able to ensure that all his subjects would obey his word, his administration and his law. But the weak, non-functioning Henry VI could not do so, and, in the long term, his surrogates were limited in their effectiveness because they lacked the authority that was uniquely held by an anointed and crowned ruler.

The mightiest subjects, however, were very mighty indeed.

They each had their own advisers and their own courts, which became centres of social prestige and display. This in an age which, like our own, though subject to short-term economic and financial dislocations, could also be very prosperous for the well-placed. And it was ostentatious wealth: the great magnates found opportunities for display in all areas of their lives, from their titles, their holdings of buildings and land, their manner of dress and that of their womenfolk, in the personal ceremonies of their households and in the superior nature of what they ate and drank. They did not only dress like peacocks, but, with the birds cooked, stuffed and reassembled in their finest plumage, they ate them too.

The aristocratic lifestyle was what set one apart from one’s social inferiors. It is evident from a visit to the Neville stronghold of Middleham Castle near Ripon, that life for the aristocratic few was so designed that almost literally, as well as figuratively, the feet of lords and ladies need never touch the earthy ground. This was achieved through having covered upper-level wooden bridges linking the accommodation areas of the outer ranges to the public areas of the Keep and with mounting blocks at the bottom of staircases where horses would await noble riders.16

This privileged lifestyle brought with it duties and responsibilities. A lord’s prestige would be measured by his ability to behave according to his status, by the numbers of his personal servants and by their standards of dress and behaviour. He would also be judged by the generosity and quality of his hospitality.17 With the increasing international availability of novel and scarce commodities, a great lord would need to keep up with changes in consumption. He might enjoy ale, but that was a drink for Everyman and therefore deemed inappropriate, in a social context, for the aristocracy and gentry or for those who aspired to climb the social ladder. Thus, just as rich merchants would consume wine in taverns rather than ale in alehouses, aristocrats, in order to underline their higher status, would opt for expensive sweet wines such as rumney and malmsey from the Eastern Mediterranean and seek out scarce furs such as marten in place of the all too common squirrel.18

What they ate with their guests was defined by its succulence and quality, but above all it must be food that would be out of the reach of their social inferiors, whether through its scarcity and price or its restricted nature. Thus on meat days, lighter meats would be preferred and include birds and wildfowl, game and, most impressively, venison from their own estates. If the more generally available meats were served, then it would be of younger specimens: veal rather than beef, lamb rather than mutton, and piglet rather than pork. On the religiously prescribed fish days of Friday or Saturday, in Lent or on days immediately before church festivals, they would dine on freshwater fish from their own ponds and streams, or the finest sea-fish, though the Church was sufficiently generous in its rules that anything thought to come from water, such as ducks and barnacle geese and even aquatic mammals such as beaver could be acceptable, for these were not perceived as ‘flesh’. Vegetables were sparse and primarily in sauces, and the small amounts of bread served were made with the best wheaten flour. In addition there would be morsels of fine dairy products such as cheeses. Consumption of dairy products tended to be greater in houses headed by women, where there was concern for nursing mothers and infants; there is evidence that cheese might be another element on ‘fish’ days.19 The final course would consist of fruit, whether fresh fine pears from local orchards, or dried figs, dates and grapes from the Mediterranean, along with nuts, in small quantities. The Mediterranean was also the source for an increasing range of spices.20 These tended to be used to enhance flavour and certainly not, in a wise household, for disguising a lack of freshness.

The diet of lower status household servants and retainers was different but in no way insubstantial. On meat days there would be vast quantities of the stuff with more beef and mutton than pork in the later Middle Ages. The household records of Richard Beauchamp show that, in 1420, an ordinary member of his household would have consumed the larger part of a pound of beef and two-thirds of a pound of mutton in each of their two main daily meals. This alone would add up to 1,150 calories per meal. Members of the gentry in the same household would also be entitled to one and a quarter pounds of piglet pork and a pound of poultry – an additional 2,864 calories – at each of the meals. This is not counting the bread and ale. And of course, there was breakfast too. It is estimated that the daily calorific content of food available for each adult member of the gentry within this household would come to about 13,000.21 A considerable amount, when one considers that the daily intake of today’s Boat Race rowers approaching the race is up to 8,000 calories and that of Tour de France cyclists on the most arduous days in the mountains is around 10,000 – and these tend not to be meat-based diets. In reality, it is extremely unlikely that such massive portions would have been consumed by any individual; most would have passed part of their allotted portion down the line to retainers in an extending chain of interdependence. Even so, here was a lot of potential energy that could be expended in hunting and military training. If taken on board, it would need to be used up, particularly if the well-fed gentleman hoped to fit into his armour.

This amount of food was available because it could both be afforded and produced. There was also an understanding that those who were undertaking strenuous work would require more of it. Studies of harvest workers in Norfolk have proved both these points. Whereas in 1256 their daily allowance of ale was 2.8 pints and they ate bread that was made almost entirely from barley, in 1424 that had risen to 6.4 pints of ale a day and bread was made exclusively from wheat. As for meat, that rose from less than 2 per cent of calories consumed (the bulk of their daily intake coming from the barley bread) to just under 24 per cent with an estimated 1,169 calories from a total of 4,968, and whereas before, the meat content had consisted of a few bits of bacon, it was now made up of beef and mutton too.22 A century earlier this sort of daily calorific intake would have been restricted to fighting men; accounts listing provisions for Edward I’s army of English troops in Scotland circa 1300, show an allocation of approximately 5,500 calories.23 Of course, England and Wales were far from uniform, socially and economically. There were still pockets of poor peasants scraping along on a diet of pottage – an oaten gruel that would also contain dried peas, beans and very occasionally small scraps of meat. Poor peasants, however, would not be the type of men who would be called upon to fight at Towton.

The men who took to the battlefield would have had some connection to the great lords, either as members of their household, their tenantry, or through some link to a wider affinity of men who would have taken the lord’s food and drink.

For the lords themselves, the connection did not come cheaply: the vast outgoings commensurate with their rank required a vast income. And the higher the rank, the greater was the pressure. This, of course, had been part of the Suffolk principle of promotion; his own rise to the title of duke, for example, demanded that he be supplied with the wherewithal to support the dignity such a rank required. This interconnection between a rank and its cost goes some way to explain the rash adventurism and ill temper of the Duke of Exeter in the 1450s, for he had the royal genes necessary to support a dukedom but not the resources to match.24 It illuminates a whole series of incidents involving English-based Anglo-Norman landowners whose holdings were lost in 1450. The more astute, like Sir John Fastolf, had sold up during the 1430s and 1440s. Of the remainder, there were some who had vast estates elsewhere, such as the Duke of York, so that the loss of their French lands did not present a debilitating problem. However, there were others – including, ironically, the Duke of Somerset – for whom the loss was more serious. In Somerset’s case it provided the motivation for an ill-fated attempt in 1453 to secure part of a large inheritance in order to compensate.

An estate was at the centre of the 1453 wedding-party battle between the Nevilles and the Percys. It was instigated by Thomas, Baron Egremont, second son of the Earl of Northumberland, an ungovernable hothead who has been pithily summarized as ‘quarrelsome, violent and contemptuous of all authority’.25 Though there had been long-running aggressive competition between the two families, the violence was sparked by the Percys’ fear that the marriage being celebrated that day between a Neville and a Cromwell would lead to the manor of Wressle, which had formerly been theirs, passing permanently into Neville hands. For an explanation of Lord Grey’s actions at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, one need look no further than his desire to secure the manor of Ampthill against a further assault by Exeter.26 Finally, to read the Paston Letters is to understand the overriding importance to the Paston family of securing the inheritance of Sir John Fastolf’s estate and the manors it contained.27 Manors and the land attached to them were the source of the required dual benefit of wealth and prestige: in the mid-fifteenth century it was very much a case of ‘manors maketh man’.

The great territorial magnates also had houses in London or just outside. Here opulent open house could be kept. It was later written of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick that:

The Earl was always held in great favour by the commons of this land, by reason of the lavish household he kept wherever he was. When he came to London he kept such a house that six oxen were eaten at breakfast and every tavern was full of his meat. And anyone acquainted with his household could have as much boiled or roasted meat as they could thrust upon a long dagger.28

This must have intensified the distrust and disgust of his aristocratic competitors, who would have seen this behaviour for what it was: the creation of a backdrop of prestige in order to widen his ‘affinity’ – the circle of influential or simply useful men that could be called upon to advance or just protect his interests. Warwick was merely employing, in London, the methods generally adopted within the country at large. The great magnates relied upon a web of interconnected interests to ensure that large numbers of men could be conjured up at short notice. Under the rule of a strong, active and unifying king such as Henry V, the magnates and the great urban centres would put their men at the monarch’s service. In the absence of such a figure, these forces would be put at the independent disposal of the great lord himself as part of what has come to be known as ‘Bastard Feudalism’. And in March 1461, exceptional circumstances would come into play, with the great lords raising vast numbers of men for two competing kings.

In the summer of 1450, Somerset wasted no time stepping into Suffolk’s shoes as chief minister for he knew this was his only hope of avoiding Suffolk’s fate. The residual acolytes of his predecessor’s regime naturally served his successor and King Henry welcomed the familiar presence of a close relative. The administrative functions provided by the Council continued and were strengthened: the veteran Cardinal Kemp, who had served at the side of Lancastrian kings from 1417 – and until Suffolk sidelined both him and Cardinal Beaufort – returned to the fore as chancellor.29

The combined strategy of Council and Household for the restitution of authority was straightforward: with Suffolk’s inner clique of lesser lords and of bishops destroyed, there was a need for all the great lords of the realm, in form at least, to become, in lieu of the King, once again the practitioners of government rather then merely its pensioners. And the foremost of these was York.

If it was hoped that embracing York into the fold would neutralize the threat from that quarter it was a flawed strategy, for it failed to take into account the psychological make-up of the man. Up to 1447, when he was nudged aside for Somerset as lieutenant in France,30 York had been a regime ‘insider’, one of the beneficiaries of Suffolk’s munificence. Though he may have been slow to take up his new position in Ireland, neither that posting nor the fact that he was owed vast sums of money by the regime formed the basis of his grievance. To York what mattered most was the satisfaction of his honour. And that required Somerset to be brought to justice for the betrayal of York’s liegemen in France.

The Crown’s desperate need for money, due to the legacy of debt amassed by the war and Suffolk’s government, gave him leverage. York may not have been instrumental in the rising of the ‘commons of England’ during the disciplined first part of the Cade rebellion, but he was certainly at the heart of what happened next. When a new parliament had to be called in order to raise money, the very first action of the House of Commons was to choose York’s own chamberlain, Sir William Oldhall, as Speaker. Its next move was also instructive: the call for the posthumous rehabilitation of Good Duke Humphrey. The popular identification of York with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was complete.

There followed a spate of popular actions, with a mob of ex-soldiers and London citizenry, doubtless in cahoots with a coterie of York’s own men, engaging in the riotous destruction of a number of courtiers’ houses. This gave York the pretext of an ‘emergency’ to have Somerset brought before the lords ‘in Parliament assembled,’ to be charged with the ‘culpable loss of Normandy’.31 Such was Somerset’s unpopularity, had York not ensured safe passage to the Tower, his rival would very likely have been killed by the mob.

All of this was possible because York had the support of a sufficient number of the great lords – the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Devon and, temporarily at least, the Neville Earls of Salisbury and Warwick – both to start proceedings against Somerset and to lend a firm base for government. Yet there was one crucial element lacking and by January, Somerset had been released and restored to his position in control of the King and the country.

The missing element was the support of the King. When Parliament went into recess, York’s platform there was removed and the magnates who had supported him, almost without exception drifted away. Whereas Somerset’s regime of household officers and longterm councillors such as Chancellor Kemp, having put down a small populist uprising in Kent, stood solid. It also had the quicksilver support of the nobility.

Once again York’s position showed strong parallels with that of Gloucester, but not in the way he would have liked. He commanded great support among the populace and this had been increased rather than diminished by his readiness to take firm punitive action against unruly elements within it. But, to the majority of the nobility, that popular support identified York as a potential instigator, with many assuming that he must have had a part in Cade’s rebellion, for all that he could not have directed it from Ireland. Indeed, it was the desire to defend his honour in the matter of Cade as well as the matter of Somerset that had brought him back to England in the first place.

York’s position and his personal authority might give him preeminence in a crisis, but as John Watts puts it: ‘The lords, once again under Beaufort presidency, responded to York as they and their predecessors had responded to Gloucester, by upholding the common rule of the peers against a more individual authority resting on a mixture of royal blood and popular agitation.’32

Over the next two and a half years, York endured a period of intense frustration as all his attempts to play an active role in the country were thwarted. His enemies saw to it that he was denied access to the King and those who supported him came under attack. When, in June 1451, Thomas Yonge, the Bristol MP and York’s personal lawyer, presented a petition that the Duke be recognized as heir presumptive, the response was Yonge’s committal to the Tower. In November, Speaker Oldhall fled to sanctuary in the Church of St Martin-le-Grand near St Paul’s and was then indicted for treason.

In early 1452, in an effort to end his exclusion, York took up arms to force access to the King in order to petition him. The target of his aggression was unchanged; as he proclaimed to the citizens of Shrewsbury when recruiting there, Somerset’s removal was vital to the interests of the country: ‘Seeing that the said Duke ever prevails and rules about the King’s person, and that by this means the land is likely to be destroyed, I am fully decided to proceed in all haste against him, with the help of my liegemen and friends.’33

By the end of February, York’s army was at Dartford. The King’s only slightly larger force was at Blackheath. York was accompanied by the thuggish Earl of Devon and one other peer, Lord Cobham. Every other available peer and councillor was aligned with the King and Somerset. On this occasion, however, there was to be no confrontation. After the mediation of bishops and lords, York, Devon and Cobham were granted an audience with the King. But it was a trap. Somerset was with the King and he had York disarmed and put under house arrest in Baynard’s Castle, York’s London home. York’s leaderless troops melted away and the commons of Kent were by now too cowed to rise on his behalf.34 Two weeks later he was forced to make a humiliating public repentance in St Paul’s. At this point he retired to his estates, moving between Ludlow, Bewdley and Fotheringhay.35

Somerset, by contrast, strengthened his position at the centre of government. In the wake of the loss of France, the ‘common weal’ revolt of Cade, the mob killings of the King’s chief ministers and the call for vengeance by York, he had pulled off the amazing feat of restoring the government’s authority. By 1453 he had succeeded in giving the King at least the appearance of governing. The county of Kent, in particular, was privileged with a number of Royal Assizes, where, in the King’s presence, often savage justice was dispensed. For all but those found guilty, this was met with general approbation: at long last the King appeared to be ruling. And this revival of fortunes extended across the Channel, with the position in Gascony suddenly transformed: the people of Bordeaux, far preferring English rule to French, revolted. Parliament, now more pliable, voted a large subsidy to send an army under that revered old warrior John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, to reinforce the King’s loyal Bordelais subjects.

Somerset had shown himself to be commanding, competent and politically astute. He had also set about cementing his own position as well as the King’s. The marriage of his niece, Margaret Beaufort, to the elder of Henry’s Tudor half-brothers, Edmund, recently elevated to be Earl of Richmond (the younger, Jasper, was made Earl of Pembroke) helped strengthen the dynastic ties.36 But having achieved his pre-eminence, Somerset’s ambition led him to pursue an inheritance claim against the counter suit of a young Beaufort relative. It was to prove a catastrophic mistake.

The Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, houses a chapel that is considered second only to Westminster Abbey as ‘the most lavish family burial chapel in the country’.37 And of all the jewels contained within, the greatest is a fifteenth-century tomb, hailed by Simon Jenkins as ‘one of the masterpieces of medieval art’,38 for its intricate stonework and a superbly crafted effigy made of latten, an alloy akin to bronze. Importantly, it is almost complete, having survived the desecration and destruction of the Reformation in the sixteenth century and the civil wars of the seventeenth. Fortunately for us, the chapel was protected by powerful patrons: the earls of Warwick.

The tomb is that of one of their number, Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl and the former tutor to the King. On its four sides are beautifully carved gilt bronze statuettes of his children and their spouses: dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses – the top echelon of the nobility that served the Lancastrian regime. Indeed, these were people at its very heart. With this in mind, one side’s five individual figures of men in mourning clothes are particularly striking. These five shared a chilling fate: they either died in battle or were captured and executed immediately afterwards. But they died not in one event but in five separate engagements, four of which took place over the course of just seven years; the fifth, a decade later.

The Chapel of Our Lady – or the Beauchamp Memorial Chapel, as it is commonly known – is a tribute to a highly important and extremely wealthy man. It is also a testament in stone to the collapse of the common purpose of the noble class, marking the final disintegration of the cohesion instilled by Henry V. That collapse was the fatal flaw of Somerset’s regime in the early 1450s.

Richard Beauchamp had been a pillar of the Lancastrian polity. At the time of his death in 1439, Beauchamp had been serving his king as lieutenant-general and governor of the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Normandy. In addition to the landholdings and wealth that had come to him on the death of his father in 1401 and of his mother in 1407, supplemented through marriage and further inheritances, four decades of faithful service to the House of Lancaster had been richly rewarded, making him one of the wealthiest men in the country.39

He left a vast inheritance. After the early death of his only son in 1446 and of that son’s only child, a three-year-old daughter, in 1449, it also became an extraordinarily complicated one. A full point-by-point account of its interconnecting intricacies is magisterially explained on six consecutive pages of A. J. Pollard’s recent biography of the 16th Earl.40 The cogent points may be less fully, if rather less expertly, set down as follows: Earl Beauchamp married twice, firstly to a rich Berkeley heiress with whom he had three daughters and secondly to the fabulously wealthy Despenser heiress who presented him with a son and a daughter. When that son and his infant daughter successively died, there was a case that the daughter of the second marriage, as nearest in blood, should inherit almost everything with the exception of one half of the Despenser estates, of which she was only joint heir. That was to be the least of her entitlement in the view of her young husband, the 16th Earl. He would spend the next four years fighting to enforce the claim.

There were some minor challenges from the daughters of the first marriage, but the major one came in 1453, when the husband of one of the daughters decided to act on behalf of his under-age ward, the heir of the second half of the Despenser estates. That husband was the powerful Duke of Somerset. But Richard Neville, the young man he challenged, was also from the Beaufort core of the Lancastrian establishment and was more than Somerset’s match when it came to decisive and ruthless action; indeed, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick was to become the most famous earl of all, remembered for posterity as Warwick the Kingmaker.

Warwick had, completely illegally, occupied that large second half of the Despenser estates, taking in Cardiff and Glamorgan. Operating on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law, he garrisoned Cardiff Castle and disobeyed all instructions to give way, even when they were issued in the name of the Crown.41

Important in itself, this activity coincided with three shattering events. Firstly, there was the outbreak of open warfare between the two great families of the North, the Nevilles and the Percys. Secondly, the devastating defeat and death of Talbot at the decisive Battle of Castillon in Gascony, which marked the final demise of England’s French empire. Finally, there was the madness of the King.

Although the King was suddenly completely incapacitated in 1453, the basic day-to-day administration of the country by the King’s Council continued under the direction of the ancient Cardinal Kemp, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor. In this it was supported by a series of Great Councils of nobles. Though Somerset sought York’s exclusion, he was overruled, his power base having been weakened by the sudden failure of his policies and by a host of enmities, both old and new. On 21 November, Somerset was again accused of treason, this time by the Duke of Norfolk, and once more sent to the Tower.42

In March 1454, Kemp’s death and, with it, the suspension of the crucial executive function of chancellor, brought all administration to a halt. Hence the desperation with which the delegation to Windsor Castle sought any sign from Henry that he would nominate a successor. After their inability to gain a response, the only hope of providing stability and effective action at a time of continuing threat from France and upheaval at home was to set up some form of regency. There could be only one compelling candidate. Just two years after the complete debacle at Dartford/Blackheath, another movement of the York–Somerset see-saw brought York back into supremacy once again, with his appointment as Protector. This time it was with the full and permanent support of the Neville Earls of Salisbury and Warwick.

On one level this was extremely surprising. Warwick’s father – Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury – may have been the Duke of York’s brother-in-law, but with the pattern of aristocratic intermarriage that fact did not count for much. One of Salisbury’s sisters had even married the Nevilles’ arch rival, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. At one time or another Salisbury had four dukes, one viscount and four earls as brothers-in-law or sons-in-law. Salisbury’s children had twice married into the enormous Beauchamp inheritance: his daughter to the short-lived Henry, only son of Earl Richard, the great Lancastrian servant; his son, the Kingmaker, to Henry’s sole full sister.43

The Nevilles had steadily progressed to the very epicentre of the Lancastrian regime. Following initial service to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, much greater advance had come under Henry IV when Salisbury’s father, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, first abandoned Richard II, then played a major part in defeating the Percys twice and securing the crown of the usurping King Henry. Ralph’s second marriage, to Joan Beaufort, Gaunt’s daughter and Cardinal Beaufort’s only sister, had brought the family closer in blood to the Lancastrian Henries. Thus, even when Henry V, as part of his reuniting of the noble class, restored the Percy earldom of Northumberland, the Nevilles’ power remained undimmed. For the children of the second marriage, such as Salisbury, this remained so even after Ralph’s death in 1425, when Cardinal Beaufort made sure that there was no difficulty with the junior branch receiving the major share of the inheritance. There were also glittering marriages for the children, or at least advantageous ones, with Salisbury’s militarily brilliant younger brother, the diminutive William ‘little’ Lord Fauconberg being married off to a fabulously wealthy heiress who had been an imbecile from birth.44 In just two generations, the Nevilles had thus moved from the edge of the nobility to its very heart, which provoked noticeable, if constrained, Percy resentment.

The elder Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, born in 1400, became a Warden of the West March at the age of twenty, guarding the border with Scotland for Henry V. In 1429, after the death of his father-in-law, he gained the earldom of Salisbury and the vast Montagu estates. In 1437 he was appointed to the King’s Council. Thus by 1454, Salisbury personally had spent over three decades serving the Crown as part of the Beaufort inner circle. Yet now he put himself outside it. That he did so was purely in support of his son’s dispute with Somerset over the Beauchamp inheritance. Unlike York, whose chief aim was the messianic one of good government, the Nevilles acted completely out of self-interest: to secure the inheritance, and to settle scores with the Percys.

That open warfare had broken out between these two great families of the North, the Wardens of the West March and the Wardens of the East, was due to the fatal flaw in Somerset’s regime: it held power at the centre by not adjudicating on disputes between magnates in the localities. Without that firm hand, one that would undoubtedly have been exercised by an active king, the Northern dispute continued to simmer and flare up into raid and counter-raid led by hot-headed younger sons: Sir John Neville on the one side, Egremont for the Percy opposition. By October 1453 a pitched battle between Nevilles and Percys and their large armies of retainers, with Salisbury and Northumberland at their respective heads, was only prevented by the intervention of the Archbishop of York.

This was, by some distance, the most dangerous dispute over property and influence in the country at that time. But there were others: for example, that between the equally matched Earl of Devon and Lord Bonville, his long-time rival in the West Country.

It is difficult, however, to condemn totally Somerset’s general policy of non-intervention in noble disputes. On one of the rare occasions that he did intervene, taking a firm line against the Duke of Norfolk’s warlike activities in East Anglia, it led to an alienated Norfolk denouncing Somerset for assuming ‘over-great authority in this realm’ as well as for the old charge of responsibility for the French defeat.45

Norfolk did not complain when his ally York seized the opportunity offered by Somerset’s removal to assume the greatest authority in the realm. This was officially sanctioned on 27 March 1454, when York was named Protector.

That summer yet another noble dispute flared up: the Duke of Exeter – who had frustrated claims to pre-eminence of his own and was also in dispute with Lord Cromwell – combined forces with the equally foolhardy Egremont in open rebellion in Yorkshire. The Duke of York acted decisively: the rebellious troops were dispersed and Exeter was removed from sanctuary and imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. Egremont had escaped for the time being but his freedom was short-lived. In October, he was captured in a skirmish and, unable to pay levied compensation, was thrown into the debtors’ prison of Newgate.46

In November, at a Council meeting, there was a further attempt to have Somerset committed to trial. The Council as a whole delayed once more. This was to be crucial. By Christmas the King was lucid again and by early in the New Year York had ceased to be Protector. At a Council meeting on 4 March, the restored Somerset was absolved of all blame and regained the crucially important position of Captain of Calais.47

So things stood until, early in April of the next year, 1455, a Great Council was summoned for late May. It was to take place at Leicester, an area of traditional strength for the Duchy of Lancaster. Perhaps this might have brought about the arbitration that York and Somerset had nominally agreed to accept, but with the fate of Duke Humphrey in mind, York and his Neville allies called up their armed retainers and, instead, on 22 May they gathered outside St Albans, sealing off the road to the North.

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