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

  Suffolk died a much-hated man, and many rejoiced at his end. Political songs vilified him and gloatingly recounted his fall. The identity of his killers has never been established; presumably they acted on the orders of men who felt that the Duke should be made a scapegoat, or of those who wished to see him suffer a just punishment for his crimes, a punishment that the law had failed to provide.

  Suffolk’s widow, the indomitable Alice Chaucer, broke the news of his death to the Queen, who was so grief-stricken that she could not eat for three days and wept continually during that time. After that, anger surfaced, and the desire for retribution. Suffolk might be dead, but she still had Somerset and other powerful supporters who would help her avenge him. But the days when the court party could rule unchallenged were now numbered, and there remained the deadly enmity between York and Somerset as the gravest threat to peace between the contending factions.


  John Amend-All

  By 1450 the Lancastrian government had not only lost much of its credibility, but it was also bankrupt, with massive debts amounting to £372,000, increasing by about £20,000 each year. York was still owed £38,000. The cost of maintaining the royal household was a staggering £24,000 a year, twice what it would be twenty years later, while the King’s basic revenues yielded a mere £5000 annually. Other sources of income raised his annual budget to £33,000 – not nearly enough to live on and pay his debts as well. Thus the debts grew ever larger and the Crown’s capacity to pay ever less. Hitherto the government had relied on loans from Italian merchants and bankers, but even they were now wary of lending more money, being aware of the precarious state of the nation’s finances, and in the decade from 1450 they advanced only £1000 in total. Nor would Parliament vote sufficient taxation to meet the Crown’s debts or fund the war in France, which was still a major drain on the economy. Even members of the King’s household went unpaid and were forced to petition Parliament for their wages.

  Under the influence of the court party, Henry VI had given away royal lands and estates on an unprecedented scale, and had thus lost the revenue from rents and dues on them. He had also lavished large sums on Eton and King’s College, and been criticised by Parliament for it. The court faction, whose members were the chief beneficiaries of Henry’s generosity, were milking the country dry, and had strongly resisted all attempts by Parliament to pass Acts of Resumption which would deprive them of their ill-gotten gains. There was no likelihood, therefore, of any immediate improvement to the Crown’s financial problems.

  The people of England were largely united in their desire for political stability, firm government, and the restoration of law and order. They were aware that the court party was manipulating the administration of law to the benefit of its individual members and their affinities, and that it so monopolised the King and the Council that there was little hope of any effective opposition emerging. The anonymous author of An English Chronicle wrote: ‘Then, and long before, England had been ruled by untrue counsel, wherefore the common profit was sore hurt and diseased, so that the common people, what with taxes and other oppressions, might not live by their handiwork and husbandry, wherefore they grudged sore against those who had the governance of the land.’

  The wealthy and influential London merchants were loudest in deploring the endemic disorder, being particularly anxious to see stable government restored, so that the economy could recover. Their sympathies naturally lay with those who opposed the court faction, and later they would support York in his struggle against that faction.

  People were also appalled by what had been happening in France. Early in 1450 English troops began returning from Normandy, having fled before the victorious advance of the armies of Charles VII. In small groups, ‘in great misery and poverty’, they trudged along the roads that led from the Channel ports, begging and stealing as they went. Pitiful and starving as they were, some terrorised the countryside; a few were arrested and hanged. Others caught the imagination of a people infuriated by the humiliation of defeat, compounding their grievances against the government.

  There was growing disorder in parts of Wales, which posed yet another problem for those in power. The Welsh in these areas suffered from neglect by absentee lords or exploitation by rapacious ones, such as William Herbert of Raglan. Herbert was York’s steward in the lordship of Usk in south-east Wales, and he was ambitious, greedy and totally unscrupulous. Contemporary chroniclers gave him a bad press: the annalist of Gloucester Abbey called him ‘a cruel man, prepared for any crime’, while the author of the Brief Latin Chronicle describes him as ‘a very grave oppressor and despoiler of priests and many others for many years’. Herbert was by no means the only oppressor of the Welsh: the native-born Gruffydd ap Nicholas subverted royal authority to devastating effect.

  The trouble was that Henry VI was incapable of exercising that authority. He tried to keep in touch with his people by going on frequent progresses, but this did not distract them from the misgovernment and corruption of the court party. It was also apparent that Henry was unable to control his magnates and this, together with the loss of England’s possessions in France, led to a general loss of faith in his ability to govern effectively. Public loyalty to the House of Lancaster was therefore strained, although few dared to criticise the King outright. In July 1450 two Suffolk farmers were arrested because ‘they falsely said that the King was a natural fool and that another king must be ordained to rule the land, saying that the King was no person able to rule the land’. It was true, but such candour was ruthlessly punished. It says much for the reverence in which Henry VI was held that there were only isolated incidents such as this. It was the court faction which bore the brunt of public criticism.

  With a weak king, a Council whose authority had been undermined, and a divided parliament, central government was weak, ineffective, and unable to control an aristocracy whose chief function was to make war. It was not that Parliament and the Council had ceased to function altogether, but that such government as they did provide was virtually ineffectual against the tide of disorder and injustice that was sweeping the country. By the 1450s it was being said that

  the realm of England was out of all good governance, for the King was simple and led by covetous counsel, and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily, but payment there was none. Such impositions [taxes] as were put to the people were spended in vain, for he kept no household nor maintained no wars.

  The murder of Suffolk had angered many of the King’s supporters, among them William Crowmer, Sheriff of Kent, and Lord Say, the ruthless and greedy Treasurer of England. Both men were convinced that Kentishmen had been involved in the murder, and throughout Kent rumour now had it that the two lords had vowed to turn the county into a deer park. Kent was an area particularly suggestible to rebellion because it had suffered a number of coastal attacks by French pirates, while a decline in trade had hit its ports. Those same ports, and the roads leading out of them, had also witnessed a steady stream of ragged, embittered soldiers returning from France, the embodiment of England’s humiliation.

  On 24 May 1450, three weeks after Suffolk’s death, Whitsun was being celebrated all over the land, and in Kent the people gathered as usual for the festival. But this was a gathering with a difference for it signalled a political revolt orchestrated by intelligent men who were aware of the violent public feeling against the corrupt officials of the royal household and the magnates of the court faction who had abused their power. Many towns and villages in the Weald of Kent and beyond had armed and equipped all their able-bodied men, and on this day the constables of the county summoned hundreds of men to Ashford, where they formed an armed band and marched towards London. One of their leaders, Jack Cade, had incited the people by publicly declaring that the Queen meant to avenge her lover Suffolk by razing to the ground the houses of Kentish peasants and farmers.

  Thus began what became known as Cade’s Rebellion, a well-planned and organised movement that posed a s
erious threat to the government. When news of it reached London, the King and court were at Leicester, where Parliament was in session. Henry VI was thus fortunate in having his lords and their retainers to hand, and had no difficulty in amassing a large army, which marched at once for the capital. He even, for once, donned armour, and the sight of him riding at the head of his men through the streets of London heartened and comforted the citizens.

  Jack Cade was a prosperous gentleman whom Benet describes as ‘a most bold and subtle man’: the men of Kent had chosen him to lead them because of his status and reputation in the local community. The warrant later made out for Cade’s arrest states he had been born in Ireland and had served in the household of a Sussex knight. He then, it alleges, murdered a pregnant woman, but this allegation may have been an attempt to portray Cade as a vicious criminal and so destroy public sympathy for him. His talent as a military leader suggests he had seen active service in France, and he was, to begin with, a strict commander who controlled his men well, forbidding looting and hanging those who disobeyed his orders.

  Cade appealed to the popular imagination by inventing catchy names for himself which yet had a certain political significance. First he used a clerical alias, ‘Dr Aylmer’, then he called himself ‘John Amend-All’. Latterly he had used the more provocative ‘John Mortimer’ to emphasise his sympathy for the Duke of York and other opponents of the government. By using the name Mortimer as a rallying cry he was reminding the people that there was an alternative to the present régime, and that the House of Lancaster had usurped the throne and set aside Richard II’s true heirs. It also denoted symbolic kinship with York, though many people at the time believed there was also a literal kinship.

  Cade published a manifesto listing a catalogue of grievances against the government, grievances that were shared by most members of Parliament and several magnates, and by the nation at large. He cited the alienation of crown lands, the imposition of cruel taxes, the financial state of the realm, the use of bribery and corruption in the appointment of local government officials, the perversion of justice by royal favourites, the rigging of parliamentary elections, the loss of England’s lands in France, the corruption of the court faction, the slighting of York, and the government’s failure to deal with piracy around England’s coasts. There were also complaints about individuals, former supporters of Suffolk such as Thomas Daniel and John Trevelyan, William Booth, the Queen’s chancellor, Sheriff Crowmer and Lord Say.

  Cade demanded that, to redress these wrongs, the King should resume all the lands he had given away and dismiss Suffolk’s supporters from the Council; he should order sweeping reforms of the judicial system and also lift wage restraints. There should be curbs on government spending and an enquiry into whether England’s losses in France were the result of treason. Finally, Gloucester’s murderers should be brought to justice – it was still widely held that the Duke had died of foul play. These demands were hardly revolutionary, indeed, they were all eminently sensible and moderate, and they were not primarily aimed at the King but at his corrupt officials.

  Nor was Cade supported by a rabble of peasants. This was not a second Peasants’ Revolt but a rebellion by well-informed, practical men who were realistic about what they might hope to achieve. They believed in the justice of their cause, and looked upon themselves as campaigners and protesters rather than rebels. Some of them were supporters of York. Few had suffered any particular economic hardship: there was no agrarian depression in Kent, and in recent years Kentish farm labourers had enjoyed increased wages. The list of pardons issued after the rebellion shows that Cade’s army, estimated by Benet at 5000, comprised men from all classes of society and included one knight who had fought at Agincourt, seventy-four gentlemen, three sheriffs, two members of Parliament, eighteen squires, and a substantial number of local officials, sailors, churchmen, tradesmen and yeoman farmers. They came mainly from the south-eastern counties, but their concerns were the concerns of people in every part of the realm.

  Henry VI concluded that York was the prime mover behind Cade’s rebellion, and that he had incited it from his safe base in Dublin. Consequently, he was sure that the rebels’ intention was to make York king. Since the Duke’s criticisms of the present régime were common knowledge, it is hardly surprising that Henry should link him to the rebellion, but there is no contemporary evidence that York or any of his affinity were connected in any way with Cade’s uprising. York, though, was no doubt anxious to be kept informed of its progress by his friends in England; Cade had, after all, demanded that York be recalled to take his rightful place in Council and at court.

  Early in June, a scarlet-clad Cade led his well-disciplined army on to Blackheath, where it encamped as if preparing for war. The King, then lodging at the Priory of St John at Clerkenwell, sent representatives to parley with Cade, who in turn presented them with a copy of his manifesto. Henry passed this on to the Council, whose members rejected out of hand all its demands. The Londoners, meanwhile, were preparing to defend themselves, positioning cannon along the banks of the Thames and blockading the river with barges. The royal army, 20,000 strong, was camped in Clerkenwell Fields outside the city walls.

  The King commanded the rebels to go home. Thinking he would turn his army on them, and knowing they could not hope to prevail against it, Cade ordered a retreat to Sevenoaks in Kent. Here, he waited for reinforcements from Sussex. The court party knew that the King had the advantage, but Henry was reluctant to take the offensive against his subjects. Nevertheless, his advisers persuaded him that it would help his cause to do so: the presence of the sovereign at the head of an army and the sight of the royal standard fluttering in the breeze would have the power to quell the most hardened of rebels.

  As Henry prepared to lead his army in pursuit, someone – probably the Queen, so terrified for her husband’s safety that she had refused to leave his side – persuaded Henry to split his army in two: half remained with him at Blackheath, the rest, under the command of Sir Humphrey Stafford and his brother William, marched on Sevenoaks, where a bloody skirmish lasting two hours took place. The rebels suffered heavy losses, but still succeeded in overcoming the royal forces. The Stafford brothers were killed, and those of their company who did not share the same fate scattered in panic.

  When news of this disaster reached Blackheath, the King’s soldiers mutinied, declaring themselves to be Cade’s men, and ran riot through London, burning and looting the houses of those who supported the court faction and crying out that they would have the heads of the King’s wicked counsellors. This was all too much for Henry, who – at Margaret’s urging – fled to Greenwich. The Queen wanted Lord Say to accompany them, but he declined to do so, knowing that the rebels might well pursue him and so endanger the royal couple.

  In the morning Henry’s demoralised nobles attempted to muster the remainder of the royal army on Blackheath, but were alarmed when a man began shouting, ‘Destroy we these traitors about the King!’ Other voices now began clamouring for the blood of Lord Say, Thomas Daniel and other members of the court party. The King ordered the arrest of Lord Say and Sheriff Crowmer, and consigned Say to the Tower and Crowmer to the Fleet Prison, more for their own safety than to please the rebels. In the meantime, the Archbishop of Canterbury and most of the Council had prudently taken refuge in the Tower, which was under the command of its royal governor, Lord Scales.

  The King issued a proclamation to the effect that all traitors would be arrested, and set up a commission whose members were instructed to bring to justice the extortioners and corrupt advisers and officials against whom Cade and the men of Kent had made their accusations. But, says Benet, ‘Cade and the men of Kent were not thus appeased’. On 25 June, the King quitted London and travelled to Kenilworth, leaving a fearful and ineffectual Council headed by Archbishops Kempe and Wayneflete to deal with the crisis. His retreat left the way clear for Cade to march again on London.

  By now, the whole of south-eastern England was
in a ferment. Men came in droves, flocking to join Cade from Essex, Sussex and Surrey. Inspired by his qualities of leadership, they were confident he would lead them to victory. Almost to a man they remained loyal to the King, believing he had been ill-served and deceived by those in power, whose heads the rebels now meant to have. Royal government had virtually collapsed; the Council was helpless, and unwilling to confront Cade. Simultaneous risings had broken out in Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight, where Lancastrian officials were the targets of mob violence.

  On 29 June the rebel army returned in high spirits, its ranks swelled by deserters from the royal army, and quickly occupied Blackheath before the Londoners guessed what was happening. Cade was now arrayed like a lord in a handsome helmet and a brigandine – an armour-plated jacket – studded with gilt nails. On his shoes he wore the purloined spurs of Sir Humphrey Stafford.

  On that same day, in the chancel of Edington Church in Wiltshire, William Ayscough, Bishop of Salisbury, was preparing to celebrate mass. Ayscough, a close friend of Suffolk, had officiated at the marriage of the King and Queen, but was generally blamed for their lack of an heir because it was well known that, in his capacity as chaplain, he had urged the King to avoid marital intercourse as far as possible. Yet in other respects Ayscough was a worldly bishop, spending the minimum of time in his diocese and the maximum time at court, where preferment was more likely to be had, and where he was a prominent member of the court faction. He was notoriously acquisitive and therefore ‘evil beloved’ by the commons.

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