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


  The Duke was causing so much dissension that Henry VI, in vindictive mood, decided that the Duke must be silenced once and for all. He was supported in this resolve by Queen Margaret, Suffolk, the ageing Cardinal Beaufort, and Somerset, who had all managed to convince their royal master that Gloucester was in fact plotting a coup, with the intention of setting himself up as king and immuring Henry and Margaret in religious houses. Margaret was so convinced of his evil intentions that she begged Henry to order his arrest. The King, however, decided that his uncle should be summoned to answer certain charges before Parliament.

  In February 1447 Parliament met at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, a region where the de la Poles exercised a great deal of influence and Gloucester very little. On the 10th, in bitter weather, the King and Queen arrived at the head of a great army, and the King formally opened Parliament in the refectory of St Edmund’s Abbey. The next day was devoted to a discussion of the Queen’s jointure.

  Gloucester had as usual received a summons to attend Parliament, but he was entirely unaware of the conspiracy against him, and when he arrived at Bury on the 11th he was surprised to receive an order to wait upon the King without delay. When he came into the royal presence he was confronted, not only by his unsmiling sovereign, but also by a hostile group that included the Queen, his old enemy the Cardinal, Suffolk and Somerset. Suffolk wasted no time in charging Gloucester with plotting treason against the King and the realm, and of spreading rumours against the Queen’s honour, rumours that named Suffolk as her lover. Gloucester hotly denied this but Margaret said coldly, ‘The King knows your merits, my lord.’

  Gloucester was allowed to retire to his lodgings while the King decided what was to be done with him, but when he arrived there he was overtaken and arrested by a deputation of lords including the Duke of Buckingham and the Queen’s steward, Viscount Beaumont, who was also Lord High Constable of England. Beaumont charged him in the King’s name with high treason and informed him he was to be placed under house arrest.

  Gloucester remained in his lodgings for twelve days. On 23 February 1447 he died there. The cause of his death has never been properly established. Contemporary rumour had it that he had been strangled, suffocated with a feather bed, or ‘thrust into the bowel with an hot, burning spit’. No one pointed any finger of suspicion at the King or Queen: it was Suffolk who was deemed guilty of his enemy’s alleged murder, although if this had been the case he would hardly have acted without the King’s sanction, for Gloucester was a prince of the blood and heir presumptive to the throne. Nor would Queen Margaret or Cardinal Beaufort have given the order for Gloucester’s assassination without Henry’s knowledge or approval.

  There is no evidence, however, that Gloucester was murdered. His great friend Abbot Whethamstead believed he had died from natural causes, and modern historians have tended to agree with him. The Duke was fifty-seven, and had ruined his constitution by physical excesses and debauchery over many years. There is no doubt that his arrest came as a shock to him, and every possibility that it may have hastened his end, perhaps from a stroke, for he lay for three days in a coma before expiring. Nevertheless, his passing was certainly timely, and undoubtedly many in high places wanted him out of the way as an embarrassment and a political liability. Gloucester’s wife had tried to bring him to the throne by witchcraft, and although he had not been implicated, it is clear that Henry VI had never again trusted him and was all too ready to believe the lies of his detractors.

  Gloucester was buried, as he had wished, in the Abbey of St Albans, where his tomb still survives. He left no legitimate issue. After his death, ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ became something of a legend. People remembered his charities, his generosity and his patriotism, and forgot his self-seeking ambition and anachronistic policies. It was those who were commonly believed to have murdered him who were perceived as the enemies of the state.

  9

  Murder at Sea

  The death of Gloucester left York heir presumptive to the throne until such time as the Queen bore a son – or Henry named Somerset his heir.

  In every respect York was the perfect heir presumptive: wealthy, respected, experienced in warfare and government, and already the father of a growing family with healthy sons. He had a better claim to the throne than Henry VI himself, though few dared voice this opinion, but the Duke by his overt loyalty to the King had already demonstrated that his ambitions did not include a crown. Nevertheless, he had the resources and the ability to pursue his claim if he so wished, as the court party was well aware, and for this reason, York was not acknowledged as Henry’s heir. Instead, the question of the succession passing to the Beauforts was raised, and although the matter was ultimately left in abeyance, once again York’s rights were overlooked.

  York had been dismayed by Gloucester’s death, which left no one but himself to lead the opposition to the court party, who he believed were doing untold damage to the kingdom. As Gloucester’s political heir, he knew himself to be particularly vulnerable, for had not Suffolk just persuaded the King to charge his late uncle with high treason? What might the over-powerful Suffolk now do to York? The Moleyns affair had proved just how malicious the court party could be. York, therefore, was reluctant to assume Gloucester’s militant stance. From now on he would tread a careful path, ever wary of his enemies’ motives, yet ever zealous to reform the present régime and gain a voice on the Council.

  Physically York was not the most prepossessing of men. He was short in stature and stout, with a square-shaped face and dark hair; his youngest son, later Richard III, was said to bear a strong resemblance to him. No portrait of York survives, and there are only two extant representations with any claim to authenticity. One is in a stained-glass window donated to Cirencester Church before 1443 by two of York’s squires. This shows his head and shoulders, adorned with a coronet and his famous gold collar with enamelled roses. His face is clean-shaven and his hair cut in the military style affected by Henry V. He has heavy-lidded eyes, a prominent nose and a small mouth. In Penrith Church, Cumberland, is an engraving showing the Duke with long hair and a forked beard; this is a copy of a lost original, and its authenticity is unsubstantiated.

  York was a man of considerable intelligence, who could speak and read Latin. He was a political conservative, a proud, serious, even austere man, aloof, remote in manner, and difficult to warm to. He was not popular among his fellow magnates and did not see any reason to cultivate their friendship. His mother had died at his birth and the execution of his father when he was four may have led to a certain coldness in him and an insistence on keeping his own counsel. On occasion, he could act impulsively without consulting anyone else, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Indecisiveness was periodically another of his faults, as was inconsistency. He was courageous in battle and an able commander, but even here his record was marred by occasional stubbornness and recklessness. His arrogance was a constant bar to success in every field.

  York, like Gloucester, desired to see the government formulate an aggressive war policy against France, as Henry V would have wished. He was also genuinely concerned about the misgovernment of the court faction and resolved to eliminate the endemic corruption and indiscriminate patronage of its régime. There was, naturally, an element of self-interest in this: York could only gain from the court party being publicly discredited. Moreover, winning the support of the magnates to do this would prove difficult: most were either in awe of the ruling clique or hoping to gain some advantage from supporting it, while others believed that not to support a faction so openly favoured by the King would have appeared as crass disloyalty.

  York, however, preferred to distinguish between loyalty to the King and loyalty to a faction that was doing him no service. To York, loyalty to the King meant demanding the reform of the government and the dismissal of all the corrupt advisers and time-servers who were dragging the reputation of the Crown into the dust with their own. If the King could not see how badly the kingdom was suffering
from misgovernment, York and the few others who supported him could, and meant to do something about it – as well as furthering their own interests along the way.

  York now began to promote himself as the champion of good government and reform, and this was how the people soon came to regard him and why he rapidly gained popularity with the commons. There were those, however, who did question whether York was sincere about reform. His enemies said he was as guilty of oppressing his tenants by intimidation and the perversion of justice as other lords, citing the case of his steward on the Isle of Wight, who was said to live ‘like a lord, with as rich wines as could be imagined’, as a consequence of his extortion and corruption. There is in fact little evidence that such practices were widespread on York’s estates. Certainly there was a degree of self-interest in his aims, but his later record is proof that his concerns about misgovernment were indeed genuine.

  York’s favourite residence seems to have been his castle at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, which was situated on an imposing site above the River Nene and was surrounded by a thriving market town. Today, only fragmentary remains testify to the existence of this magnificent castle and the adjacent buildings adjoining the collegiate church. Mounds of earth to the south of the church are all that remains of the college quadrangle and library. The church, however, survives as a monument to the House of York, and is decorated with York’s personal badge, the falcon and fetterlock; here are the tombs of his family, and here, too, he himself would one day be laid to rest.

  The mightiest fortress owned by York was Ludlow Castle, the ancient stronghold of the Mortimers, which was situated on a commanding and strategic position on the Welsh Marches, and would become the chief headquarters of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. The castle dates from Norman times, and massive remains survive today. In the inner bailey is an unusual circular twelfth-century chapel, as well as the luxuriously appointed domestic ranges, built by the Mortimers in the fourteenth century.

  York’s London residence was to become Baynard’s Castle on the banks of the Thames. It stood in Upper Thames Street between Blackfriars and St Paul’s Wharf, not far from where the River Fleet flowed into the Thames. Built in the eleventh century by one of the Conqueror’s companions, a knight called Baynard, it had passed into the hands of the powerful de Clare family and been rebuilt with stone walls and ramparts in the twelfth century. Later, it was acquired by Gloucester who, after a disastrous fire in 1428, built it anew with battlements and strong fortifications, so that it resembled Warwick Castle. On the Duke’s death it reverted to the Crown, and Henry VI eventually granted it to York, who is first recorded as living there in 1457.*4

  In these residences York lived in some splendour with his duchess, Cecily Neville, a proud woman of robust health who bore him thirteen children. She lived to be eighty, a remarkable age in those days, having witnessed the deaths of four dukes of York and the creation of the future Henry VIII as the sixth duke. Richard and Cecily appear to have been an amicable, even happy couple. She accompanied him on all his overseas tours of duty, and several of their children were born abroad. Cecily’s piety was legendary, and as she grew older, her life was increasingly dominated by religious offices and prayers. She rose at seven, attended eight services, and was in bed by eight o’clock every evening. Occasionally, though, she would take some wine or indulge in ‘honest mirth’. Later on, political propaganda would accuse her of playing her husband false with a French archer called Blaybourne, and of foisting upon the Duke two bastard sons, but her renowned piety makes nonsense of this, as indeed she did herself when she protested very vehemently against being so unjustly slandered.

  The Yorks’ children were born over a period of seventeen years, from 1438 to 1455. There were eight boys and five girls. Four of the boys, Henry, William, John and Thomas, died young, as did two of the girls, Joan and Ursula, who was the youngest child. The surviving children were Anne, born 1439 at Fotheringhay, and married before 1447 to Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter; Edward, born 1442 at Rouen, and styled Earl of March during his father’s lifetime; Edmund, born 1443 at Rouen and created Earl of Rutland in 1446; Elizabeth, born 1444 at Rouen; Margaret, born 1446 at Fotheringhay; George, born 1449 at Dublin Castle; and Richard, born 1452 at Fotheringhay, a frail child whose survival of infancy surprised everyone. Cecily’s will of 1495 refers mysteriously to ‘my children, Katherine and Humphrey’, but these names do not appear in any contemporary list of York’s issue, and were probably his grandchildren, Katherine and Humphrey de la Pole. All of Richard and Cecily’s children were descended thrice over from Edward III, through Lionel of Antwerp, John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley.

  After Gloucester’s death, the vultures descended. The Queen was given his manor of Placentia at Greenwich, a magnificent house set in lovely ‘gardens of pleasaunce’. Margaret immediately arranged for extensive building works to be undertaken there: new latticed windows were installed, others were re-glazed, terracotta floor tiles bearing the Queen’s monogram were laid, and new pillars carved with marguerites were erected outside. A great chamber was built for the Queen’s own use, as well as a parlour and a gallery overlooking the gardens, where an arbour was put up. Finally, new tapestries were hung. In the refurbished house – now a palace – ‘disguisings’ or pageants were mounted for the entertainment of the King and court.

  Gloucester’s greatest rival did not long enjoy his triumph. Cardinal Beaufort was now well over seventy and nearing death. By 1447 he had virtually retired from political life, although his party remained dominant under the leadership of the Cardinal’s protegés, Suffolk and Somerset. On 15 March 1447, Beaufort died at Wolvesey Palace at Winchester; he was buried in the nearby cathedral, where a fine effigy wearing a cardinal’s hat adorns his tomb.

  With his death, the government lost one of its chief financial mainstays. The Cardinal left one last bequest of £2000 to the King but Henry refused it because he felt that his uncle had given him enough during his lifetime. ‘The Lord will reward him,’ said Henry. Beaufort’s nonplussed executors protested, urging that the money be used for the King’s educational foundations; Henry, to their relief, agreed.

  Somerset was now head of the powerful Beaufort family, and was also the King’s nearest Lancastrian relative. Again there were rumours that he would be named heir presumptive despite the existence of letters patent barring the Beauforts from the succession. Somerset, having inherited his uncle’s fortune, was now a very wealthy man, and was accorded precedence as a full prince of the blood. The King relied heavily on his counsel and showered him with gifts and honours, which aroused the resentment of other magnates, especially York, who justifiably regarded Somerset as a threat to his own position.

  Together with Suffolk, Somerset now led the court party, both men enjoying the full confidence of the King and Queen. Suffolk was at the zenith of his power: around this time he was promoted to the influential offices of Chamberlain of England, Captain of Calais, Warden of the Cinque Ports, Chief Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster north of the Trent, Chief Justice of Chester, Flint and North Wales, and steward and surveyor of mines for the whole country.

  With Gloucester dead, there was no one to lead the protest about the surrender of Maine and Anjou, and in the spring of 1447 a French embassy arrived to conclude the matter. This provoked another storm, but again it was not the King who was the object of his subjects’ patriotic indignation – it was Suffolk, who had become the scapegoat for Henry and his councillors and was widely perceived as the villain of the piece. If he had been unpopular before, he was now loathed. The people blamed him for the downward slide of England’s fortunes in France and for giving up Henry V’s conquests in return for a dowerless queen.

  In May, Suffolk offered the Council a satisfactory explanation of his actions, but this did not mollify the commons, who were now blaming him for all the ills that had befallen the realm, especially the faction-fighting in Council – for which he was, to a degree, responsible – the gover
nment’s failure to pay its soldiers in France, the embargo placed on the import of English cloth by the hostile Duke of Burgundy, and the near-bankruptcy of the kingdom.

  By 27 July negotiations with the French were complete. Henry VI agreed to surrender Maine by 1 November provided compensation was paid to his garrison in the province. On the following day he appointed commissioners to transfer Maine and Anjou to Charles VII.

  The Queen also shared in the unpopularity of the court party. In June the keeper of Gloucester Castle arrested a man who had been overheard lamenting the coming of the Queen to England, a sentiment probably shared by many of the King’s subjects. For them, Margaret was irrevocably associated with Suffolk and the loss of Maine and Anjou, and neither the Queen nor the Earl improved matters when they attempted to evade customs duties on the export of wool and alienated the English merchants, who had hitherto been staunch supporters of the Crown.

  With the deaths of Gloucester and Beaufort the Queen’s influence grew. Every letter signed by the King was now backed up by a similar one from the Queen, who demanded that she be kept informed on all political matters, especially negotiations with France and military and financial affairs. State papers and reports on seditious persons were submitted for her inspection, and neither Suffolk nor Somerset, nor their associates Cardinal Kempe, Bishop of Chichester, and Lord Say, would act without Margaret’s approval. It could therefore be said with some truth that an eighteen-year-old girl was effectively ruling England.

 
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