Lancaster Against York
The Wars of the Roses and the Foundation of Modern Britain
By Trevor Royle
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Trevor Royle
All rights reserved.
Woe to the Land in Which a Boy Is King
In purely military terms, the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses properly began in the middle of the fifteenth century during the reign of Henry VI, with the First Battle of St. Albans, and lasted some 30 years. To understand why two English armies found themselves facing one another in the streets of a Northamptonshire town in May 1455 it is necessary to go back to 1399, when the country's anointed king, Richard II, the second son of Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince, and grandson of the great Plantagenet King Edward III, was forced to abdicate the throne. This untimely demission was to usher in a century of turbulence that threatened the collapse of the English body politic as a succession of rulers failed to deal with an "over-mighty" aristocracy. England was plunged into a series of violent encounters that were nasty and brutish but rarely decisive. Richard had the misfortune to be crowned king in 1377 while still a ten-year-old boy, and therefore still a minor; his reign did not recover from that unhappy start.
It was unfortunate that he ever became king in the first place. Not only was he a second son, but his father, the charismatic Black Prince, had predeceased him in 1376 and his older brother Edward of Angoulême should have preceded him as king, but his death five years earlier, at the age of six, prevented the natural succession. As a result of these early deaths, young Richard was propelled to an early throne. Clearly, the boy king needed guidance, but his grandfather's extensive progeny complicated the question of who would be the best mentor. Edward III had fathered thirteen children, and five of the sons had grown to maturity, becoming potent figures in their own right. With their wealth from carefully planned marriages and their noble blood—all had been made dukes—they enjoyed great temporal power and were almost independent of the crown. Edward, the Black Prince, had been the oldest and therefore heir to the throne, but his brothers were equally powerful, and as influential magnates, they entertained their own ambitions. It was only natural that they should have seen in their young nephew's plight an opportunity to enhance their own standing.
The second surviving son of Edward III was Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who had made a good match by marrying Elizabeth de Burgh, the heiress of William de Burgh, Earl of Ulster. Through her mother, she was descended from Henry III, another English king who had succeeded to the throne during his minority, in October 1216. (Elizabeth died in 1363, and Clarence married for a second time, Violante Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan.) Although Clarence had died in 1368, and was therefore not a contender at the time of Richard's accession, his daughter Philippa had married into the powerful Mortimer family, who were (English) Earls of March and would play a considerable role in the dynastic struggles ahead. Descended from Ralph Mortimer, who had crossed to England with William the Conqueror, the family owned large tracts of land on the Welsh borders and had also acquired property in Ireland.
Third in line was John of Gaunt, who had made an advantageous marriage with Blanche, daughter of Henry of Grosmont, the first Duke of Lancaster, a distinguished soldier and diplomat who had served Edward III. Edmund Crouchback, the second son of King Henry II, had founded his family in the previous century. One of the great men of his age, John of Gaunt was born in Ghent (hence his name) and, like his father-in-law, was deeply involved in European affairs. Powerful in his own right, Lancaster was a palatinate (a region whose ruler enjoys considerable authority outside Royal jurisdiction) and enjoyed great wealth and authority in England. His second marriage to Constance of Castile in 1371 brought him Royal titles as putative King of Castile and Leon, and Duke of Aquitaine. With his acres in England and France, his huge retinue, his castles, his love of soldiering, his skills in diplomacy, and his courtly conduct, he would have been the natural choice to have acted as regent for the young king, but as one of the most powerful men in England, John of Gaunt was suspected of wanting the crown for himself. None of the contemporary records suggest that there was any truth to the rumors, but they stuck, and it was Gaunt's misfortune to be identified with plots against the throne while loyally doing his utmost to protect his young nephew.
After John of Gaunt was Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge and later Duke of York, the founder of the House of York, who was married to Isabella, daughter of Pedro the Cruel of Castile. Close to his older brother the Black Prince, Edmund had fought in France, and at the time of Edward III's death he was acting as governor of Dover. Then there was Edward III's youngest son, Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham and later (1385) Duke of Gloucester. He was perhaps the most feline of the brothers and later emerged as a keen threat to Richard's crown.
With the clash of family interests and rivalries potentially spilling over into bloodshed, it was clear that no one brother could claim the title of regent, even though John of Gaunt was the best qualified for the role. Instead there was a compromise. A "continual council" of 12 leading magnates was formed to decide policy and to advise the king's ministers, but it was a mixed blessing. While the arrangement avoided unnecessary splits during Richard's minority and prevented any of the Royal uncles from gaining the ascendancy, it also produced a political paralysis at a time when the country's fortunes were going badly, not just at home but in England's relations with France.
Since the previous century, both countries had been in a state of on–off conflict over the status of Aquitaine, an independent duchy within the kingdom of France that, together with other holdings, was under the suzerainty of England. In 1137 Eleanor, daughter of the French Duke of Aquitaine, had married King Henry II (having divorced Louis VII of France), and as a result of their marriage alliance, successive English kings, as Dukes of Aquitaine, owed homage to the French throne. However, as Henry II and his lineal descendants were sovereign rulers within their own right, French kings feared, not unreasonably, that their English counterparts would take steps to consolidate their power in France. At the same time, the English kings were unhappy with their subordinate position. England had been extending its commercial interests with the weavers and burghers of Flanders, who had become important trading partners. They also considered themselves to be natural allies of the English, and their support had encouraged Edward III to claim the French throne and to quarter the French coat-of-arms with his own. Another factor in this Anglo-French enmity was the "Auld Alliance": the mutually advantageous relationship whereby France gave support and assistance to Scotland as a counterweight to English ambitions in France.
The confrontation between England and France lasted over a hundred years, with eight periods of all-out warfare between 1337 and 1453. It is generally referred to as the Hundred Years War—a Victorian concept still in use although its timescale is not strictly accurate—and it influenced the contemporaneous dynastic struggles in England. Philip IV of France instigated the first period in 1337 after he announced that all English holdings south of the River Loire were forfeit. In response, Edward III established bases in Flanders to mount military expeditions into northern and northeastern France. Following a decisive naval victory at Sluys in 1340, a truce was declared only for war to break out again six years later after the French invaded Gascony, a French region between the Pyrenees and the River Garonne. Edward III's rejoinder was to invade France with an army of 10,000 archers, 3,000 cavalry, and 4,000 infantry. The first major engagement was the Battle of Crecy, fought on August 26, 1346, which left the French badly beaten, with 1,542 lords and knights dead and a casualty list of up to 20,000 foot soldiers and archers. The victory was followed by the English occupation of Calais and the agreement for a further truce that lasted until 1355.
During this interlude, between 1348 and 1349, Europe was ravaged by one of the periodic outbreaks of plague known as the Black Death that halved England's population and left hardly any country unscathed. Conflict was resumed in 1356 when Edward III and his sons again defeated the French at Poitiers. As the French realized that they could not beat the English in set-piece battles, the war descended into stalemate, and the resulting Treaty of Brétigny settled the territorial arguments: England gave up her claim to Normandy, while her holdings in Aquitaine and Calais were recognized by the French.
Desultory warfare continued in the period between 1368 and 1396 when the Constable of France Bertrand de Guesclin carried on a war of attrition against English holdings, gradually winning back possessions and extending French authority in Aquitaine. By the time that Richard II came to the throne, the war against the French was still a live issue, but it was expensive and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The Black Prince's victories in France had been extremely popular, as they enhanced national prestige. How to pay for them, however, was another matter, and it was one of the many problems Richard had to confront when he came of age.
Even so, despite the underlying tensions caused by the relationship with France, the boy king's reign got off to a good start with his coronation, which, by general agreement, was a sumptuous occasion masterminded by John of Gaunt. It lasted two days, the first taken up with a magnificent formal procession from the Tower of London to Westminster, the participants riding through "the crowded streets of the city of London, which were so bedecked with cloth of gold and silver, with silken hangings, and with other conceits to entertain the onlookers, that you might suppose you were seeing a triumph of the Caesars or ancient Rome in all its grandeur." The recorder of the event was Thomas Walsingham, Benedictine precentor of St. Albans and one of the main chroniclers of the period, who built on the Chronica Majora written by his predecessor, Matthew Paris, an earlier chronicler and monk of St. Albans. Walsingham also noted that the coronation was exceptionally well ordered; the procession provided a mirror of English society at the time, with the various earls, barons, knights, and squires riding or walking according to their station. The whole party dressed with white hoods to represent the king's innocence, and they were greeted by cheering crowds whose enthusiasm was no doubt helped by the wine that had replaced spring water in the conduits and flowed freely for at least three hours. At Cheapside they passed a specially constructed castle where four beautiful girls stood on the battlements, and "as the king approached they wafted down golden leaves before him, then, as he drew nearer they scattered imitation golden florins on him and his horse."
Inside Westminster Abbey, Richard was put through the ancient ceremony that anointed him king. Holy oil was poured, the crown was placed on his head, the scepter was put in his right hand, and the golden rod in his left. After the boy king was enthroned on the coronation chair, the Te Deum was sung and mass was celebrated. So exhausted was Richard by the rigors of the ceremonial that he had to be carried on the shoulders of his tutor and the chamberlain of his household, Sir Simon Burley, into neighboring Westminster Hall where a huge banquet awaited.
The proceedings must have left a lasting and profound impression on a boy who, from an early age, was acutely aware of his surroundings and of his own position within them. Already solitary and introverted, with no siblings to divert him, he was spoiled by his mother Joan of Woodstock, also known as the Fair Maid of Kent. Joan was one of the great beauties of her day, and she had had a colorful past: She had married her cousin the Black Prince in 1361 following the death of her second husband Sir Thomas Holland, and, being a granddaughter of Edward I, she was a powerful figure in her own right. From her, Richard understood the primacy of his position, and from an early age she encouraged her son to accept the idea that he was in a unique position as an absolute monarch with limitless powers. Through the efforts of Burley and Sir Guichard d'Angle, Earl of Huntingdon, another strong-minded tutor, he had been instructed in the absolute sanctity of his office, namely that he enjoyed a unique and mysterious status that from the very outset had been blessed by God. At his birth in Bordeaux in 1367 three kings had been present—those of Spain, Portugal, and Navarre—and the symbolism of their presence was so powerful that the young prince developed an intense and lifelong fixation with the feast of the Epiphany, the Adoration of the Magi commemorating the manifestation of Christ, celebrated on January 6. From the example of his coronation with its regalia, its blessings, anointment, and religious symbolism, Richard came to believe at an early age that his tutors' teachings must be true, that he was indeed God's anointed vessel.
All this mattered. At this time, the king was not just a figurehead, he was the embodiment of supreme authority on earth. For the people of England, he was the personification of all their hopes and fears; he could intervene decisively in their lives, and he was the ultimate authority in the land. As such, he had to maintain a physical presence that announced that he was king, as well as the mental agility to keep himself one step ahead of the requirements of kingship. In that sense, it was not surprising that Richard believed so strongly in the principle of divine right: everything he experienced as a boy encouraged him to accept that concept. But being king did not mean that he had to act alone.
Like his predecessors, Richard enjoyed the advice of a council whose members were drawn from the upper reaches of the nobility or were familiars—men of good quality—who helped him form policy and then execute it. There was also a representative parliament to raise taxes and pass laws. It had evolved from its medieval beginnings as a "model" assembly consisting of two knights from each shire and two burgesses from selected boroughs to become an effective council whose members gave consent on taxation and other matters on behalf of those who sent them. By the time of Richard's reign, the term "Commons" was being used—the body met in centers other than London—and the first Speaker was chosen in 1376. One of the two great officers of state was the chancellor, who was head of chancery and keeper of the Great Seal. As the senior legal officer of the realm, he presided in parliament, and the appointment was usually given to a trusted senior church figure. The second of the two great officers was the treasurer, responsible for the exchequer. The king also benefited from the services of his own household of trusted retainers and servants, the cost being met by the public purse and therefore a constant source of financial difficulties. Beyond them, to administer the country at national and local level there was an array of judges, sheriffs, justices of the peace, coroners, and customs officials. But at the apex of English society and responsible for its good governance stood the figure of the king. Not only was it vital that he play the role of supreme arbiter, he also had to look the part and behave as a true ruler of his kingdom.
On that point Richard scored well. Contemporary portraits show him to have been a pleasant-looking young man, tall, fair-skinned, and blond-haired, with an obvious love of fine clothes. Although his weak chin, thin beard, and sly smile betray a less than manly aspect, Richard stares out of his state portrait in Westminster Abbey spirited and alert, a man keenly aware of his position. Dress sense was important to him; he was a dandy who luxuriated in fine clothes and was uninterested in their cost, an affectation that led to growing discontent about the cost of maintaining his court. Little is known about the years of the king's minority, but the fragility of his position was underlined by the Bishop of Rochester, Thomas Brinton, who preached a sermon on the day following the coronation exhorting the nobility to support the new king during the perilous years of his youth and to ensure the safety of the kingdom. Inevitably Richard's closest companions and those who exerted the most influence over him were his tutors, who largely owed their positions to the earlier patronage of the Black Prince. This led to a belief that a gulf had developed between the Royal household, which was perceived to be all-powerful, and the successions of continual councils that were responsible for ruling the country. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lancaster Against York by Trevor Royle. Copyright © 2008 Trevor Royle. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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