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


  The Queen and Council were extremely alarmed by this turn of events, especially as Henry’s condition showed no signs of improvement as days, and then weeks, went past. Margaret took him back to Westminster and made every effort to conceal his incapacity from his subjects for as long as possible. If York, in particular, were to hear of it, she feared he would almost certainly try to seize power.

  Margaret now found herself, at seven months pregnant, completely responsible for the government of England. At first she hoped to remain with her husband at Westminster, but it soon became clear that his illness could only be concealed by removing him to Windsor.

  What Henry VI suffered in 1453 was a complete mental breakdown, which is hardly surprising given his character and the stress engendered by the catastrophes and tensions of his reign. Whethamstead says that ‘a disease and disorder of such a sort overcame the King that he lost his wits and memory for a time, and nearly all his body was so unco-ordinated and out of control that he could neither walk nor hold his head up, nor easily move from where he sat’. Henry later said that he had been totally unaware of what was going on around him, and that all his senses were in a state of prolonged suspension. He was ‘as mute as a calf’, spending his days in a chair, looked after by attendants. Some medical historians have diagnosed his condition, on the evidence available, as catatonic schizophrenia – complete mental withdrawal from normal life. Other modern experts have described the illness as a depressive stupor. Henry’s contemporaries had only one word for it: madness.

  The genetic components that predisposed to Henry VI’s mental instability were almost certainly transmitted through his mother, Katherine of Valois. Her father, Charles VI of France, had been insane for most of his adult life, and there were parallels between Henry VI’s life and Charles VI’s. Both had become king in childhood, both had been dominated by powerful uncles, and both grew up to be weak and indecisive. Charles had suddenly become insane in 1392 when, during an attack of raging mania, he had run beserk with a lance and killed four people before being overcome by his attendants. His madness had taken a different form from Henry’s, for he had been continually subject to violent fits and delusions, sometimes believing he was made of glass and would shatter if touched; at other times he announced that his name was George, and seemed unable to recognise his wife and children.

  Charles’s illness was spasmodic, and he did have periods of lucidity. But when he was in the grip of insanity he foamed at the mouth, refused to wash, and quickly became filthy, infested with vermin and covered in sores. Like a dog, he would eat his food from the floor, using his hands and teeth. Walsingham says he ‘never recovered completely, for he suffered fits of madness which recurred every year at the same season’. His illness had led directly to civil war between the factions at his court, and clearly there were fears that this would happen in England in 1453 as a result of Henry VI’s insanity.

  An anxious Council wasted no time in summoning a whole host of doctors. Henry’s chief physician, John Arundel, was a specialist in mental illness, being Warden of the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem (later known as ‘Bedlam’) in Bishopsgate, an asylum in which nearly half the inmates were ‘out of their senses’, and which, by this period, was specialising in treating the insane. Mediaeval doctors understood very little about mental illness, but they did distinguish five types: phrenitis (acute inflammation of the brain), delirium (abnormal behaviour accompanied by fever), mania (violent behaviour), melancholia (depression and loss of interest in life), and amentia (loss of mental faculties). Madness was believed to result from an excess of black bile, one of the four humours that mediaeval doctors believed governed the body, an imbalance of which led to illness. Diagnosis was based on observation of the external symptoms. However, having diagnosed what was wrong with the patient, doctors were often at a loss to know what to do for him. Mad people who were not violent were usually left at liberty within the community, often the butt of cruel taunts or ridicule; violent patients were locked up. Legally, the King had custody of all mad persons. Now he was apparently one himself.

  The King’s doctors tried everything within their limited power: bleeding, head purges, ointments, syrup cordials, suppositories, removing the King’s haemorrhoids, gargles, laxatives, baths, special waters, electuaries – medicinal powders mixed with honey or syrup – and even cautery. None of these often painful processes had any effect. Henry was described by the physicians as being non compos mentis, a term applied when the onset of mental illness took place sometime after birth. But there was every hope, they assured the Queen and Council, of his temporary or permanent recovery. Perhaps, they suggested, the King was possessed by devils. Accordingly priests were called in to exorcise any evil spirits that might have taken possession of the royal mind, but to no avail. After all the treatments had failed, the Council authorised the King’s doctors to bleed him as often as they thought necessary in order to let the evil humours out of his body, and apply various head poultices or any other remedy that occurred to them or seemed appropriate.

  Henry VI’s illness was to prove calamitous in several ways. It put an end to all hopes of unity between the opposing factions in government. It brought the Queen, with her poor understanding of English politics, prejudices and customs, to the forefront of power. It deprived the country of its head of state, however ineffectual. It removed, for a time, the last check on the rapaciousness of the court party and on feuding magnates in other parts of the country. Finally, it plunged England into a national crisis at a time when the political situation could not have been much worse.

  In October, weighed down with anxiety over the King, Queen Margaret withdrew to her apartments in the Palace of Westminster to await the birth of her child. A screen was placed in the Queen’s oratory, blocking the door to her bedchamber. It would not be removed until she had been churched and purified after the birth. Nor were any men allowed to go beyond the screen; for the duration of her confinement the posts of her household officers were filled temporarily by gentlewomen. Margaret’s Wardrobe Book records that money was kept in her bedchamber so that she could make offerings during services conducted by her chaplain in the oratory beyond the screen.

  At ten o’clock in the morning of 13 October 1453, the Queen produced the long-awaited Lancastrian heir, a healthy boy who was called Edward. The Queen had him named after Henry VI’s favourite saint, Edward the Confessor, on whose feast day the child had been born, and after Edward III and the Black Prince, both of whom epitomised the heroic ideals of knighthood. The infant prince bore the title Duke of Cornwall from birth.

  Immediately following the birth, letters conveying the glad tidings were sent out to all parts of the kingdom. One such was displayed on 14 October in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, where – as in churches all over the land – the congregation stood as the Te Deum was sung. Church bells rang out proclaiming the joyful news, and there was general rejoicing. But at Windsor, the prince’s father was still in a stupor, and did not even know he had a son.

  The birth of a healthy boy to the Queen resolved the long-standing problem of the succession and also put paid to any hopes York had entertained of being named heir presumptive or even inheriting the crown. Overnight, his status had been diminished, as had that of his rival, Somerset, who had himself expected to be acknowledged as the King’s heir.

  The same month the prince was baptised by Bishop Wayneflete of Winchester in a splendid ceremony in Westminster Abbey. The Queen chose as sponsors the Duke of Somerset, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Anne, Duchess of Buckingham. The baby, wrapped in an embroidered chrysom cloth, was borne in to the church in a procession led by monks carrying lighted tapers, to a font swathed in twenty yards of russet cloth-of-gold. The Queen had paid £554.16s.8d. (£554.83p) for both cloth and christening robe. After the ceremony the prince was admitted to the Order of the Garter. The King, of course, had been unable to attend the christening; nor did the Queen, by custom, attend, for she was not supposed to appear
in public until she had been churched.

  The choice of Somerset as sponsor infuriated York, and it was not long before some of his supporters vindictively spread a rumour that Edmund Beaufort was the prince’s real father. There is no evidence that York himself was the originator of such a slander, nor that it was true, but he nevertheless did nothing to contradict it.

  By now, it was clear that the King was not going to make a quick recovery, and the Queen and her advisers realised that they could not conceal his illness indefinitely. Margaret considered the possibility of Henry abdicating in favour of his son; she may have anticipated that, even if he did recover, he would not be able to cope with the stresses of kingship. But there were other considerations: with the infant prince elevated to the throne, Margaret could look forward to fifteen years in power as regent. The lords of the Council, however, when the Queen sounded them out on this idea, were unenthusiastic; most of them expected Henry to recover.

  There yet remained the urgent problem of how England was to be governed during the King’s incapacity. It was now clear that arrangements must be made soon for some kind of regency. The birth of a son and heir to the monarch necessitated the summoning of a great council of magnates, in order that the prince could be formally acknowledged as heir apparent to the throne. On 24 October, Somerset, in the Queen’s name, summoned such a council. The fact that York’s name was omitted from the list of those chosen to attend drew angry protests, especially from Norfolk, and Somerset was obliged to invite him after all, to ‘set rest and union between the lords of the land’. But when York finally arrived, he wasted no time in gathering support against Somerset and the court party. He had now, at last, acquired powerful allies among the magnates.

  In the north of England, the feud between the Percies and the Nevilles was a long-standing problem that had recently escalated. In July 1453, the Council was so alarmed by reports that the two families had mustered 5000 armed men between them that it issued directives to all concerned, commanding them to keep the King’s peace. But by August the tension in the north had erupted into violence. On the 24th, members of the Neville family had been travelling to a family wedding at Sheriff Hutton Castle, near York, but had been ambushed on the way by Lord Egremont, the brother of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and a band of retainers and thugs from the city of York. The Nevilles gave a good account of themselves and repelled the attackers without any fatalities occurring on either side, but the skirmish, described by contemporaries as the Battle of Heworth Moor, was regarded in retrospect as ‘the beginning of sorrows’ and the first military action of the Wars of the Roses. This was because it drove the Nevilles to seek the powerful protection of York.

  It was natural for them to do so. Since early 1453, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had been involved in a bitter dispute with Somerset over the ownership of substantial lands in Wales that had formerly belonged to the Beauchamp family, in particular the lordship of Glamorgan. Warwick had held this lordship since 1450 and had administered it well, but early in 1453 the King, with his usual bungling ineptitude, had granted it to Somerset. An enraged Warwick prepared to hold on to the lordship, even if it meant an armed struggle against the King. It was not long before he began to realise what York had had to contend with and to sympathise with him. The Nevilles had hitherto been Lancastrian supporters, due to family ties, but York was Warwick’s uncle by marriage, as well as being the most important magnate in England, and although Warwick had until now remained neutral in the conflict between York and the court party, the King’s treatment of him over the matter of Glamorgan had had the effect of permanently alienating him from the House of Lancaster and driving him to take sides. And whither Warwick led, many other members of the powerful Neville clan would follow.

  From 1453, therefore, York was to enjoy the influential support of Warwick, one of the richest and most powerful noblemen in England, and his father, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, whose sister Cecily was York’s duchess. This formidable alliance, which would influence the history of England for the next two decades, posed the greatest threat so far to the House of Lancaster and made York a force to be reckoned with. Commines, the French historian, looking back on that fateful friendship, believed it would have been better for the Queen if she ‘had acted more prudently in endeavouring to have adjusted the dispute’ between the Nevilles and Somerset ‘than to have said, “I am of Somerset’s party. I will maintain it.”’ The alliance with York also created divisions within the Neville family itself, and some junior branches of it remained firmly Lancastrian. Matters were further complicated by the fact that prominent Lancastrians such as the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Dacre were related to the Yorkist Nevilles by marriage, though split family loyalties were to become a common feature of English aristocratic life during the Wars of the Roses.

  The Nevilles were descended from Geoffrey FitzRobert, who inherited Brancepeth and Sheriff Hutton from his mother, the heiress of Geoffrey de Neville, in the thirteenth century, and adopted his mother’s surname. Geoffrey’s grandson married another rich heiress and added large tracts of land in Yorkshire, as well as the great lordship of Middleham in Wensleydale to the family estates. Military success on the Scottish border in the fourteenth century had brought the Nevilles to prominence, and the disgrace of the Percies after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 had served them well, allowing them to establish their supremacy in the north where their territorial influence stretched from Yorkshire to the Scottish border.

  The Nevilles had gained political prominence with the marriages of Ralph Neville, who was created Earl of Westmorland by Richard II, much to the chagrin of the Percies. Ralph married first Katherine Stafford, and then Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. Between them, his wives had presented him with twenty-four children. Several sons married heiresses; Joan’s eldest boy, Richard Neville, born around 1400, married in 1421 Alice, the heiress of the Montacute earls of Salisbury, became Earl of Salisbury in right of his wife, fathered ten children, and had a distinguished military career in France. His younger brothers, William, George and Edward, acquired the powerful baronies of Fauconberg, Latimer and Bergavenny, all by marriage. Some of Westmorland’s daughters became the wives of great magnates, such as the dukes of York and Norfolk and the earls of Stafford and, indeed, Northumberland. Through these, and other connections, the influence of the Nevilles was extended and consolidated, and they were now one of the most powerful families in England. Shrewd and pragmatic, they did not shrink from dabbling in commercial enterprises, and grew ever more prosperous.

  Ralph Neville, realising that his children by Joan Beaufort were of far greater dynastic importance than those born to his first wife, left only the earldom of Westmorland to his eldest son, arranging for the bulk of his lands to pass to Joan’s son, Salisbury. These included the lordships and castles of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire, both enlarged and modernised by Earl Ralph, Raby Castle in County Durham, and estates in Westmorland and Essex.

  The most brilliant marriage of all was that made by Salisbury’s son, another Richard Neville, who was born on 22 November 1428. In 1439, Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, died, and was succeeded in the title by his son Henry. Henry died young in 1446, and his infant daughter and heiress, Anne, Countess of Warwick, followed him to the grave in 1449. Her heir was her aunt, another Anne de Beauchamp, Earl Richard’s only daughter, who had been born in 1429, and was now the wife of Richard Neville. On the young countess’s death in July 1449, the great Beauchamp inheritance and the earldom of Warwick passed to Richard Neville, who became, literally overnight, one of the greatest landed magnates in the country.

  Warwick was the archetypal English magnate, whose chief motivation was the enrichment and promotion of himself and his family. He was power-hungry, acquisitive and arrogant, like most of his caste. Nevertheless, he had great abilities, being a man of considerable courage and a fearless fighter and renowned naval comma
nder. He had been born to govern, hence he could also be ruthless and unscrupulous, thinking nothing of resorting to violence, and even murder, when he considered it expedient. He was a clever propagandist, forceful, persuasive and manipulative, full of energy and tenacity. He was not greatly interested in aesthetic things such as art, literature or architecture, nor was he more than conventionally pious. He used his wealth to buy the support and friendship of influential men and so built up his own power and military strength.

  Warwick’s personality was more charismatic by far than York’s. While people might sympathise with York’s grievances, their imagination was stirred by Warwick, who came to enjoy far more influence with all ranks of society because he had the common touch, coupled with lavish, open-handed hospitality and a ready wit.

  No portrait or effigy survives to show us what Warwick looked like, nor do the contemporary sources contain any descriptions of his appearance. He appears in the Rous Roll in full armour, but bears a marked resemblance to all the other armoured males in the work: Rous made no attempt at portraiture, even though he knew and admired Warwick.

  By 1453, ‘there was none in England of the half possessions that he had’. Warwick owned land in eighteen counties and more than a score of magnificent castles, his main seat being at Warwick Castle, a massive fortress that had been rebuilt by the Beauchamps with a splendid new tower. The Earl also held hundreds of manors, and his territorial influence stretched from Cornwall to the mighty lordship of Castle Barnard in Yorkshire, while the greatest concentration of his lands lay in the west Midlands and south Wales. From these properties Warwick drew a huge income, and could also call upon formidable reserves of fighting men if need be. Indeed, his possessions were so extensive that he was regarded as of greater political importance than his own father, Salisbury, and was thought to be richer even than York. The splendour and extravagance of his household was already renowned, while his huge army of retainers and men of his affinity displayed on their livery of bright scarlet surcoats his personal badge of a white, muzzled bear and a ragged staff, a device inherited from the earls of Warwick.

 
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