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


  Finding London barred to him, the Duke swung his army south and waited three days at Kingston, trying to ascertain the strength of the royal army and perhaps hoping for reinforcements. Then he crossed the Thames at Kingston Bridge and headed towards Dartford. The King’s army gave chase, and on 27 February rode through London and set up camp at Southwark. Henry himself followed the next day, lodging that night at the Bishop of Winchester’s palace by the Priory of St Mary Overie in Southwark.

  On 29 February, York reached Dartford, and by 1 March his men had pitched their camp at nearby Crayford. Here, York deployed his men in battle order, splitting the army into three divisions, or ‘battles’ as they were then known. He himself commanded the centre or ‘middleward’ division, Devon the southern flank and Cobham the northern flank, nearest to the south shore of the Thames. In front of the army was drawn up a large number of cannon, which were intended to confront the royal army as it came along Watling Street. Whethamstead says that York had also fortified his ground with pits and other fortifications.

  On 1 March, the King and his army moved to Blackheath, and thence crossed Shooter’s Hill, and so came to Welling in Kent, where they camped for the night. The next day the royal army marched to within three miles of York’s position.

  York had a well-equipped army in a strong defensive position. Benet believed he had 20,000 men against the King’s 24,000. The anonymous author of An English Chronicle, doubtless relying on unreliable rumours, says that York’s army was ‘not strong enough for the King’s party’, but in the Arundel MSS it says that both armies were equal in strength and that York had ‘great stuff and ordnance’; in the nearby Thames he had seven ships laden with supplies, which could also facilitate flight if need be. But York lacked the aristocratic support that had so readily been made available to the King, and his expected reinforcements from Kent had not turned up.

  Neither side was keen to fight. York was convinced that his show of force might be interpreted as an act of treason aimed at the King, and was relieved when, on the morning of 2 March, the Queen sent the bishops of Ely and Winchester and the earls of Salisbury and Warwick to negotiate a peaceful settlement. They commanded York, in the King’s name, to return to his allegiance. York said he would willingly do so if Somerset was punished for his crimes against the state; he said ‘he would have the Duke of Somerset or die therefor’, and he also demanded to be acknowledged as the King’s heir. The deputation agreed to lay his demands before the King.

  Back in the royal camp, the two bishops asked Cardinal Kempe to keep the Queen occupied while they spoke with the King. In her absence they urged Henry to agree to York’s demands. At length he gave his consent, and ordered that a warrant for Somerset’s arrest be drawn up. No one was to tell the Queen what was afoot. The bishops then returned to York and told him that the King would agree to his demands on condition that he dismiss his army forthwith. Believing he had scored a victory, York ordered his force to disband, and his men began to pack up and make haste to their homes. That evening, the royal army withdrew to Blackheath.

  On the following morning, Somerset was arrested, but the Queen saw him being marched away and demanded to know what was happening. When the Duke told her, Margaret exploded in fury and ordered the guards to let him go. She then went to Henry’s tent with Somerset in tow. A few minutes later, around noon, York, accompanied by Devon and Cobham and forty mounted men, entered that same tent, intent on making his peace with Henry. He was surprised and dismayed to find Somerset and the Queen there, but controlled himself and knelt before the King, presenting him with a list of articles of accusation against Somerset. Suddenly, however, it dawned on him that he had interrupted a furious quarrel between the King and Queen, a quarrel which was immediately resumed in his presence and in which he found himself embroiled. Even Somerset joined the fray. York now realised, to his horror, that he was helpless in the hands of his enemies. The Queen was loudly demanding his arrest, but although the King refused to order it, he agreed that Somerset should remain at liberty.

  York was then forced to travel with the court to London, riding ahead as if he were a prisoner, at the King’s command, and obliged to swear a solemn public oath in St Paul’s Cathedral ‘that he had never rebelled against the King and would not rebel against him in the future’. Then he was allowed to retire to Ludlow – that he had not been imprisoned or executed was due to the fact that the court party dared not risk the consequences of proceeding against the hero of the common people, and also to the fact that the gullible Council had just received reports that York’s heir, the Earl of March, had mustered an army of 11,000 men and was marching on the capital. Had they realised that March was not quite ten years old they might not have responded so readily to propaganda obviously put about by York’s supporters.

  The abortive campaign of 1452 may be considered the first military confrontation of what later became known as the Wars of the Roses. More soldiers were present than at the first actual battle, and certain precedents were established, the most important being that a show of armed force had been followed by a parley, both sides trying to avoid a confrontation. This pattern would be characteristic of the early battles of the Wars of the Roses.

  York’s failure resulted from his inability to co-ordinate the isolated pockets of political unrest that he himself had stirred into a cohesive movement, while the support of Talbot of Shrewsbury, the renowned hero of the French wars, undoubtedly contributed to Henry’s success.

  On 7 April the King issued a general pardon to all those who had risen against him, from which York was not excluded, and on 12 August following, in the same spirit of reconciliation, Henry visited York at Ludlow Castle during the annual royal progress. But the court party had no intention of extending the hand of friendship to York; instead, they successfully excluded him from the Council. Humiliated and disgraced, the Duke was once again left in political isolation, and for the next year or so the court party, led by Somerset with the backing of Cardinal Kempe, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1453, was once again supreme.

  From 1452 onwards the Queen endeavoured to court popularity with the people, believing that the best way to earn it was by reconquering Aquitaine and restoring peace to Henry’s disturbed territories. In March 1452, the King received a letter from the citizens of French-occupied Bordeaux, begging for deliverance from the conquerors. But there was no money with which to finance an armed expedition, and though there were plenty of good soldiers ready to defend England’s honour, there was nothing to pay them with. Margaret wrote, explaining the problem, to her kinsman Philip of Burgundy, who responded warmly and sent a large sum of money to finance the army and a fleet of ships. The King was therefore able to dispatch Talbot to France with a small but efficient force of 3000 men. On 17 October, Talbot marched on Bordeaux, whose citizens took heart and evicted the French garrison, and the city was restored to English hands. This unexpected good news, together with tidings that the friendship between Charles VII and Burgundy was deteriorating, served to lighten the mood of the people of England. After Bordeaux fell to Talbot, other towns in western Gascony speedily expelled the French and welcomed the Earl’s army with rejoicing. It seemed that the tide of war was turning.

  Campaigning ceased in the winter, and the King’s thoughts turned to his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, who were now in their early twenties and very dear to him. In the spring of 1452 both had accompanied the Queen on a progress through the Midlands, visiting the Pastons at Norwich and Alice Chaucer at Wallingford. The brothers had then become members of the King’s immediate entourage. On 23 November, Henry raised them to the peerage, Edmund being created Earl of Richmond in Yorkshire, and Jasper Earl of Pembroke. These were royal titles that had previously been borne by the King’s late uncles of Bedford and Gloucester, and as such the Tudor brothers were given precedence over all other Englishmen below the rank of duke.

  After spending Christmas at Greenwich, the King and Queen returned to London whe
re, on 5 January 1453, at a magnificent ceremony in the Tower of London, Henry invested his half-brothers with the trappings of their earldoms, giving them rich gowns of velvet and cloth-of-gold, furs, saddles, and fine caparisons for their horses. On the 20th, the new earls were summoned to Parliament for the first time. From now on they would be given a voice in government and admitted to the King’s counsels.

  Henry was generous to his half-brothers and gave them several grants of land and money; each enjoyed an annual income of around £925. Edmund was endowed with the estates of the honour of Richmond to support his new rank, but Jasper had to wait for the lands belonging to the honour of Pembroke, because they were held by someone else. When in London, Edmund was allowed the use of Baynard’s Castle – later to be the city residence of York – while Jasper owned a house in Brook Street, Stepney. Edmund prospered in his earldom of Richmond as a result of exporting his wool from Boston in Lincolnshire. The estates that Jasper later acquired were mainly in south Wales, and his wealth therefore lay in coal-mining and in trade centred on the port of Milford Haven.

  In return for all this the Tudors would remain utterly loyal to Henry VI till their lives’ ends, protecting his interests in the regions under their control and serving on his Council. They would also support him against York. Jasper was particularly popular in Wales because of his paternal connections, and those lands under his rule became firmly Lancastrian. As York also had great territorial interests in Wales, the principality would come to play an important part in the Wars of the Roses.

  Early in 1453, the heroic Talbot swept through the region around Bordeaux, recapturing town after town. These successes, the first the English had enjoyed in thirty years, gave rise to cautious optimism back home. But when, in the spring, Talbot wrote asking the Queen to send reinforcements, Parliament hesitated and made excuses, leaving Talbot fuming and kicking his heels in frustration at what he saw as unnecessary prevarication.

  Nevertheless, the success of Talbot in the Bordelais ensured that for the time being Parliament’s loyalties lay firmly with the government and not with York. When it met at Reading on 6 March, it had been purged of all the Duke’s supporters, and was primarily Lancastrian. The Tudor brothers were present, taking their seats as the premier earls of England, and the Commons petitioned the King to recognise them as his legitimate uterine brothers, born of the same mother, and requested him to ensure that they were not disabled in law in any way as a result of their father being Welsh. The King graciously acceded to these requests and granted the estates of the earldom of Pembroke to the hitherto titular Earl Jasper.

  This Parliament was much more amenable than its predecessor. It did pass an Act of Resumption, but it only applied to grants made to York and those who had supported him. It then voted the King and his immediate dependants a reasonable income from customs dues and the best of the estates that were to be resumed by the Crown. Generous provision was also made for the Queen, who was granted new lands as part of her dower.

  Then, in response to a petition presented by the Commons, an Act of Attainder was drawn up against Sir William Oldhall, York’s chamberlain and Speaker in the last Parliament. His crime had ostensibly been to support Jack Cade in 1450, and he was also charged with having stolen goods from Somerset, but it was really his support of York in 1452 that had given offence, although York was not mentioned in the attainder.

  Oldhall fled to sanctuary at the priory church of St Martin-le-Grand near Newgate in London, but he was mistaken in thinking himself safe there, for one night a group of nobles of the court faction breached the sanctuary and dragged him out ‘with great violence’. The Dean of St Martin’s was outraged at this violation of the sacred law of sanctuary and made a strong complaint to King Henry, who, notwithstanding the protests of his lords, ordered that Oldhall be allowed to return to the church. However, when the attainder against him became law, his goods were confiscated and distributed among his enemies, Somerset receiving his estate at Hunsdon.

  Clearly Parliament believed that York would rise again in rebellion, for it authorised the King to raise 20,000 archers at the expense of the shires and boroughs for six months’ service, if and when they were requested for the defence of the realm. Finally, on 24 March, her betrothal with John de la Pole having been dissolved, Margaret Beaufort was given into the custody of Edmund and Jasper Tudor as their ward. Henry had probably already decided that she should marry Edmund and so bring him her rich inheritance.

  In February 1453 the Queen had been distressed by the death of her mother, Isabella of Lorraine, after a long and painful illness, and donned dark blue mourning. However, in April she was cheered by the realisation that she was at long last to bear her husband a child – hopefully a male heir. Curiously, the Queen did not break the news to Henry herself, but asked his chamberlain, Richard Tunstall, to convey ‘the first comfortable relation and notice that our most dearly beloved wife the Queen was enceinte, to our most singular consolation and to all true liege people’s great joy and comfort’, as the King later recorded. He was so delighted with the news that he rewarded Tunstall with an annuity of forty marks. He then commissioned his jeweller, John Wynne of London, to make a jewel called a ‘demi-cent’, and commanded him to deliver it ‘unto our most dear and most entirely beloved wife, the Queen’. It cost £200, a great sum at that time.

  Henry had meanwhile been quietly restoring to their former positions all those officers of his household who had been dismissed at York’s request. The activities of these men had been the basis of many complaints made by York, Cade and others, but Henry never learned from his mistakes and by July 1453 they all had regained their former influence.

  It was an unsettled and gloomy early summer, despite the Queen’s advancing pregnancy. There was tension in the north between the Percies and the Nevilles, who had long been feuding. Talbot was beset on every side by the French in Gascony; and there was unrest and disorder throughout the kingdom.

  Parliament had still not voted Talbot the reinforcements he so badly needed, and in the spring of 1453 Charles VII had taken advantage of this and invaded Aquitaine, bringing with him three armies, all of which converged on Bordeaux from different directions. By the middle of June the French had advanced as far as the town of Castillon, whose inhabitants smuggled out a desperate plea for help to Talbot. The Earl’s instinct counselled caution, as did his captains, but his knightly principles would not allow him to abandon those in distress, and in July he occupied Castillon. Shortly afterwards he received intelligence that the French were withdrawing, but this was not true. On 17 July, Talbot led his men out of the town and gave chase to the ‘retreating’ army, which suddenly turned and confronted him. The French used their new artillery to devastating effect, pushing the English back to the banks of the River Dordogne, where Talbot was cut to pieces with a battle-axe. When the English soldiers learned of his death they quickly surrendered.

  Talbot’s death deprived the English of their best commander, the only man who could have stemmed the tide of the French advance on Bordeaux. News of the disaster and of the loss of one of England’s greatest warrior heroes prompted a frantic Queen Margaret hastily to summon Parliament. Parliament now acted – too late. At the King’s request it voted enough money to finance the 20,000 archers, who were to be dispatched with all speed to Gascony in the hope of saving Bordeaux. But corrupt bureaucracy and local inefficiency stood in the way and not a single soldier enlisted. On 19 October 1453 Charles VII entered Bordeaux in triumph, and graciously permitted the English garrison to sail for home unmolested. Thus ended three hundred years of English rule in Aquitaine, and thus ended also the Hundred Years War, which had dragged on intermittently since 1340 – a war England could never have hoped to win.

  Of England’s former possessions in France only Calais remained, and even that was only saved from the French because they had agreed not to cross territory owned by the Duke of Burgundy, and his dominions surrounded Calais on the landward side. Even Calais’
economic importance was fading with the decline of the wool trade. Strategically, however, it remained an important military base, and would continue to be so throughout the Wars of the Roses, when it was used as a springboard, not for the invasion of France, but of England itself.

  There was no avoiding the fact that the King himself was to blame for the defeat. His subjects felt that, had he shown something of the martial spirit of his father, France might not have been entirely lost. Instead England stood humiliated and disgraced. No one was more incensed than York, who had striven so hard and invested so much money in order to maintain Henry V’s conquests. And to add insult to injury, Parliament failed to vote any compensation to those loyal inhabitants of the former English territories who had lost everything, nor was there any pay awaiting returning soldiers stunned by defeat.

  It was no coincidence that the end of the Hundred Years War should coincide with the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. The one was one of the chief causes of the other.

  12

  ‘A Sudden and

  Thoughtless Fright’

  During the first days of August 1453, it became clear that Henry VI was unwell. He had been under severe strain in recent months and this was beginning to take its toll. On 15 August the King was at his hunting lodge at Clarendon, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, when he complained of feeling unnaturally sleepy at dinner. The next morning, he appeared to have completely lost his senses: his head was lolling, and he was unable to move or communicate with anyone. He had, state the Paston Letters, taken a ‘sudden and thoughtless fright’ that utterly baffled his contemporaries. It is possible that the immediate contributory factor was the shocking news of the defeat of Castillon.

 
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