Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir


  In 1430, much to the gratification of the English, Joan of Arc was captured by the Duke of Burgundy, who sold her to his ally, Bedford. In May 1431, after being convicted of witchcraft, she was handed over by the Church to the secular authorities and burned at the stake at Rouen in the presence of Cardinal Beaufort. However, her death did not herald a revival of English fortunes in France.

  Henry VI was in Rouen at the time of Joan’s trial, but he was not present at her execution. Soon afterwards he went with the Cardinal to Paris. Bedford was desperate to retrieve the situation in France before it was too late, and had decided that Henry should be crowned King of France in Paris to counter the effect of Charles VII’s coronation the year before. Accordingly, Henry’s took place at the cathedral of Notre Dame on 16 December 1431.

  The French did not want an English king. Fired by a new and vibrant spirit of nationalism, they were determined to oust the invaders and have Charles VII as their ruler. Even as Henry was being crowned in Paris, crowds were rioting in the streets and some of the nobility were hastening to Charles’s aid. The coronation was one of Bedford’s few failures, and he knew it. Judging the mood of the French people to be dangerous, he sent Henry home to England almost immediately, thus ending the King’s first and only visit overseas.

  After a joyful welcome back home, Henry settled down to his studies again. He was progressing well, having read many chronicles of English history and become particularly interested in Alfred the Great, whom he was later to try, unsuccessfully, to have canonised. In 1432, at eleven, Henry was still headstrong, and so rebellious at times that his hard-pressed governor again complained to the Council of the boy’s wilfulness. The lords assured him of their support. It seems that Henry greatly resented his royal person being beaten for misdemeanours, and was fond of threatening Warwick with dire retribution when he came of age. The Council, however, made it plain to the King that Warwick’s disciplinary measures were enforced with its full approval. It also empowered the Earl to dismiss any of the King’s companions who distracted him from his studies and exerted a subversive influence over him.

  Richard, Duke of York, came of age in 1432, when he was twenty-one. Two years earlier he had been given the important office of Constable of England, which carried responsibility for England’s military defences, and in 1431 had attended Henry VI in France. Now, on 12 May, York was recognised as Earl of March, Ulster and Cambridge by hereditary right, notwithstanding the attainder against his father. However, he was only allowed to take possession of his estates after agreeing to pay the King, within five years, the sum of £1646.0s.6d (£1646.02½p) for the privilege of doing so. In 1433 he was made a Knight of the Garter.

  Despite his vast wealth and his nearness in blood to the throne – and probably because of it – York was not given a place on the King’s Council nor involved in the government of the kingdom. There were those about the King who feared he might make a bid for the throne if he were allowed too much power, and it was decided to employ him in a strictly military capacity.

  York was now the owner of great tracts of land in Wales, Ireland and thirteen English counties. The greatest concentration of his estates was along the northern Welsh Marches. From his uncle, March, he had inherited the fabulous wealth of the Mortimers, making him the richest magnate and greatest landowner in England. He also owned the great castles at Ludlow and Fotheringhay, and Baynard’s Castle in London. In 1436, his income was at least £3231, possibly twice as much, and by 1443-4 his income from his Welsh Marcher lordships alone had risen to £3430 net. Despite his loyalty to the King, this wealth, and his powerful family connections, made him potentially a force to be reckoned with.

  The year 1433 saw the emergence of two disastrous trends in Lancastrian history. The first was the decline of Burgundy’s friendliness towards England. After Anne of Burgundy, Bedford’s wife, died in childbirth in 1432, Bedford married Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the beautiful daughter of the Count of St Pol. Burgundy was against the marriage for various political reasons, and from then on relations between England and her greatest ally began to cool.

  By now, it was obvious that England no longer had the resources to support the war. Bedford was ill, and his chief desire was to negotiate an honourable peace with the French before England was ignominiously defeated. Predictably, Gloucester blocked every attempt he made to persuade the Council that this was the best course of action, knowing that if the war ended Bedford would return to England and oust him from power. By 1434 Burgundy was already negotiating his own peace with Charles VII, and before the year was out had written to Henry VI formally breaking their alliance. The young King cried when he saw that Burgundy had not addressed him as King of France, and when the news of the Duke’s disaffection broke in London there were riots, and Flemish aliens, subjects of Burgundy, were lynched. It was clear, however, that without Burgundy’s support the English cause in France was lost.

  Cardinal Beaufort and many others on the Council agreed with Bedford that peace with France was the only solution, but Gloucester was adamant: Henry V’s policies must be carried out until their final objective was achieved. Deadlock had been reached.

  The second trend was illustrated by the emergence of William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, as the dominant influence over the royal household. Suffolk was appointed its steward in 1433, thanks to his avuncular friendship with the young King. But he was a greedy, ambitious, self-seeking man, and saw his appointment as the ideal opportunity to feather his own nest.

  The de la Poles were descended from a Hull merchant who had gained royal favour after lending money to Edward III. Suffolk’s grandfather, Michael de la Pole, had been a favourite of Richard II, who had conferred upon him the earldom of Suffolk. His son, the 2nd Earl, had supported Bolingbroke in 1399 and been rewarded with substantial lands in East Anglia. He died at Harfleur in 1415, and his son, the 3rd Earl, fell at Agincourt.

  William de la Pole was uncle of the 3rd Earl. For seventeen years he had served the House of Lancaster loyally in France, where he had cultivated a friendship with the Earl of Salisbury. Salisbury was a supporter of Cardinal Beaufort, and in 1430, after Salisbury’s death, Suffolk married his widow, Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey, and aligned himself with the Beaufort faction. By 1434 he was an enthusiastic advocate of peace with France.

  He was a man of pleasant appearance and manner, and a competent soldier imbued with high chivalric ideals. Like many magnates, he frequently placed his own interests before those of the realm, although he did sincerely believe in the necessity for peace, the only policy he ever consistently supported. His enthusiasm for any other policies depended upon how popular they were among his supporters and the public, for he would do nothing to jeopardise his own position.

  Suffolk was not well-endowed with lands, which was why he was so anxious to acquire wealth, and he now began to exert considerable influence over the King. The boy was completely won over by his charm, and responded by enriching Suffolk with a steady stream of grants of lands and lucrative appointments.

  Thanks to Warwick’s thorough training, Henry now had a precocious interest in politics, much to the Council’s dismay. The lords were not prepared to have a twelve-year-old boy interfering in government, even if he were the King. Moreover, it was becoming apparent that he was easily led, and the Council, perceiving this, warned him in 1434 to avoid becoming entangled in court intrigues and swayed by persons who were trying to influence him. Occasionally he attended meetings of the Council, and on one occasion acted as mediator between Gloucester and Beaufort. Like everyone else he was weary of the enmity between his uncles, and once he imperiously commanded them to stop quarrelling over the limits of each other’s authority.

  By the autumn of 1435 it was obvious that the French had rejected the Treaty of Troyes, and there were further heated debates on policy in England, Gloucester wanting to sustain the treaty by intimidation, while Beaufort, more realistic, was insisting on peace. The European powers held
a peace conference at Arras in northern France, and the English sent an embassy. However, their ambassadors made unreasonable demands and proved obdurate when it came to surrendering Henry VI’s claim to the French throne. Walking out in high dudgeon, they left Burgundy free to negotiate a peace treaty with France, and undermined the credibility of the peace party in England, leaving Gloucester temporarily in control.

  As Burgundy and France discussed their alliance, Bedford died at Rouen on the night of 14-15 September 1435. Six days later the Treaty of Arras was signed by Philip and Charles, heralding the end of Lancastrian domination in France. When Henry VI heard the news he wept uncontrollably.

  Bedford’s death, following hard upon the victories of Joan of Arc and Burgundy’s desertion, wrecked English fortunes in France and signalled the collapse of the Plantagenet empire. It also spelt tragedy for England because no one but Bedford could hold in check the rivalry and ambitions of Gloucester and Beaufort. After his death their constant elbowing for power became more intense, particularly since Gloucester now replaced his brother as heir-presumptive to the throne, and felt that this should ensure him appropriate precedence.

  There was also the problem of who should replace Bedford in France at this critical time. There were few men of his calibre and this was not a decision that could be made in undue haste. Meanwhile, Gloucester’s views prevailed, and the remaining English armies descended on the occupied territories in France with a ferocity calculated to terrify the rebellious inhabitants into submission. This scorched earth policy cost the English little in expense but a great deal in the longer term, because it made the French doubly determined to get rid of them.

  The events of the autumn of 1435 prompted the young King, now nearing fourteen, to voice his own views on policy and take a greater interest in politics. Beaufort and Suffolk managed to convince him that his father’s policy could not be sustained any longer and that peace was the only realistic solution.

  Early in 1436 the Council decided that York should replace Bedford as Governor of Normandy and Regent of France. Although he was young he was the premier magnate of the realm and his rank demanded high office. The appointment would hopefully satisfy his ambitions and prevent him from trying to meddle in politics in England. However, York lacked experience in military matters and received little support from the Council or Parliament, the latter consistently failing to grant him sufficient funds. Instead, he was expected to finance his men, his campaigns and his administrative costs out of his own pocket. He enjoyed little success against the French, who re-took Paris in April 1436, driving out the English whose authority was now confined to Normandy, Gascony, Aquitaine and the Calais Pale. All York gained was military experience, though this would stand him in good stead in the years to come.

  As if all this was not bad news enough for Henry, in 1436 he realised that his mother was dying, probably from cancer. Some time that year, pregnant with her last child, Queen Katherine withdrew to the Abbey of Bermondsey, a foundation much favoured by royal and noble ladies, to be nursed by the sisters there. Suffolk was entrusted with the care of her children by Tudor, and the King was kept informed of her progress. There is no evidence to substantiate later allegations that the Council had just discovered the Queen’s marriage and had her incarcerated at Bermondsey as a punishment.

  However discreetly her withdrawal to Bermondsey had been managed, the royal family could not escape scandal entirely. Bedford’s young widow, Jacquetta, created a furore in 1436 when she married a Northamptonshire squire, Richard Wydville, who was far below her in rank and had only his looks to commend him. The gossip died down eventually, and the couple settled at Grafton, where they produced sixteen children. History, however, had not heard the last of the Wydvilles.

  At Bermondsey, Katherine’s health deteriorated fast. On 1 January 1437, knowing she was approaching what she herself described in her will as ‘the silent conclusion of this long and grievous malady’, she made her last testament. In it she did not refer to Owen Tudor or their children. Instead, she nominated Henry VI as her executor and asked him to ensure ‘the tender and favourable fulfilling of my intent’, which is not specified, but which he must have known about. Almost certainly he had visited her during her illness, and almost certainly her request alluded to her children and perhaps her husband.

  The Queen gave birth to a daughter who did not long survive, and then on 3 January, having endured pitiful suffering, she died. The King was enthroned in Parliament when they brought him the news. Katherine was buried with royal honours in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, but the fine tomb raised to her memory by her son was destroyed when the chapel was demolished to make way for the Henry VII Chapel in 1509, and thereafter her corpse remained above ground in an open coffin as one of the curiosities shown to visitors. In 1669 the diarist Samuel Pepys saw it and daringly embraced and kissed it, ‘reflecting that I did kiss a queen’. In the eighteenth century Katherine’s bones were still firmly united and thinly clothed with flesh resembling tanned leather, and it was not until 1878 that they were decently laid to rest beneath an ancient altar slab in Henry V’s chantry chapel.

  After Katherine’s death, Owen Tudor sought to return to Wales, but was overtaken by Gloucester’s men and imprisoned in Newgate. His offence is nowhere recorded, and in fact the whole matter was kept very secret. It may be that the Council, having been reluctant to move against Tudor while the King’s mother was alive, now wanted him punished for compromising her honour. This is the reason given by Vergil, writing in the reign of Tudor’s grandson, Henry VII. But the Council’s discretion was in vain, for while Tudor was in Newgate, news of the arrest quickly became public knowledge, as did his marriage to the late queen.

  Katherine’s children by Tudor were now given into the care of Katherine de la Pole, Suffolk’s sister, who was Abbess of Barking. Edmund and Jasper, and perhaps their sister who later took the veil, went to live at Barking Abbey in Essex, and the Abbess was paid £50 for their keep. She provided them with food, clothing and lodging, and both were allowed servants to wait upon them, as befitted their status as the King’s half-brothers.

  By the end of 1437, the Council, divided by squabbling factions, had ceased to rule effectively, and the corruption and inefficiency that had already pervaded local government in many areas were beginning to affect central government also. Suffolk’s influence over the royal household had extended to the Council, where he had grouped about him a nucleus of lords committed to peace with France, headed by Cardinal Beaufort, who had long been its advocate. The war had depleted the treasury, and the Crown now stood on the verge of bankruptcy, its revenues having fallen by more than a third. The King owed £164,815 to his creditors, and could not pay it, for his annual income was then only £75,100. Nor was the Council able to devise any solution to these problems.

  Matters were no better in France, where it was predicted that it was only a matter of time before the English were expelled from the territories they still held. York, with the help of the great military strategist, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, had managed to drive a French force out of Normandy, and the Council, knowing his term of duty was due to end in April 1437, asked him to stay on. York did not consider the financial inducements sufficient, and was angered by the government’s failure to repay monies owed to him, and he refused and came back to England. Once again, the Council faced the problem of who was to take command in France.

  Henry VI had now, at the age of sixteen, not only to confront these troubles but also to assert his authority over the lords of the Council, who had for so long held the reins of government. On 12 November 1437 he declared himself of age and assumed control. With the ending of the minority, the Council reverted to its traditional role of advisory body to the King, even though its powers had been immeasurably strengthened by fifteen years of autonomy. Once he had established himself, Henry VI reappointed all its members to the positions they had formerly occupied, making each conditional upon the holder agreeing n
ot to settle weighty matters of state without first consulting the King. Henry’s coming of age released Warwick from his duties as governor, and he was appointed the King’s Lieutenant in France in place of York, holding this office with honour until his death in 1439.

  Although the young King firmly supported Beaufort’s peace policy, he was neither prepared to relinquish the French lands still held by England nor the title of King of France. He was too weak and inexperienced to stand up to Gloucester, especially when the Duke warmed to his favourite theme, the sacred duty of fulfilling the wishes of Henry’s mighty father. To bolster his position, Henry tried to buy support by bestowing extravagant gifts and grants of land and money on those whom he believed to be his friends. The Council, alarmed at his profligate generosity, was soon warning him against excessive liberality and reminding him of the need to conserve money.

  The appearance in England at this time of a strong and determined ruler might have saved the situation, with the power of the nobles being diverted to other causes, law and order being effectively enforced, and even the war with France successfully prosecuted or brought to an honourable conclusion. Henry VI was not a strong king and never would be; nor was he ever interested in winning military glory. Therein lay the tragedy of the House of Lancaster.

 
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