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


  ‘Blessed be God,’ wrote Edmund Clere, an esquire of the King’s household, to John Paston on 9 January 1455, ‘the King is well-amended and hath been since Christmas.’ The Bishop of Winchester and the Prior of St John’s, Clerkenwell, had spoken to him two days earlier, ‘and he spoke to them as well as he ever did, and when they came out they wept for joy. And he says that he is in charity with all the world, and he would that all the lords were so. And now he says Matins and Evensong, and hears his mass very devoutly.’

  Nevertheless, the Croyland Chronicle makes it clear that Henry’s mental health remained impaired for some years after his recovery, and there is other evidence that he never fully recovered from his first breakdown. He would, as the years passed, suffer short recurrences of it throughout his life. In 1461, Croyland wrote, ‘The King, for many years, suffered an infirmity of mind; this mental weakness lasted for a long time.’ His illness changed him. He became more unworldly and introspective, and turned to religion for consolation; it also left him at the mercy of his domineering wife and factious nobles. The royal authority would from now on be in the hands not just of a weak king, but a king debilitated by a long mental illness that might recur at any time.

  Part II

  The Wars

  of the Roses

  13

  The Wars of the Roses

  York’s protectorate had not lasted long enough for his reforms of the Council and the royal household to be of any lasting value. On 9 February 1455 the King appeared unexpectedly in Parliament, to the delighted astonishment of all present, thanked the members for their loyalty and concern, and dismissed York from the office of Protector. He then dissolved Parliament, amid cheers from Lancastrian supporters. Benet says that York formally resigned his office to the King ‘at Greenwich, after he had governed England most excellently and nobly for a whole year, miraculously pacifying all rebels and malefactors according to the laws and without great rigour, in a wonderful manner, and he resigned his office much honoured and much loved’.

  As soon as York had stepped down, there was a Lancastrian backlash against his followers. Salisbury was dismissed, and his office of Chancellor given to Archbishop Bourchier, who was careful to remain neutral, although he later came to support the Yorkists. The Queen’s favourite, Wiltshire, was made Treasurer, and the Duke of Exeter was set at liberty. Margaret, of course, wasted no time in demanding of the King that he release Somerset from the Tower, and on the 16th the Duke was set at liberty; the offices that York had taken from him, those of Constable of England and Captain of Calais, were immediately restored to him. ‘Once more,’ wrote Benet, ‘the Duke of Somerset became head of the government under the King, although in the past he had almost ruined England with his misrule.’ Back at court and restored to his former eminence, Somerset now plotted with the Queen to destroy York, while at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Buckingham, the King pardoned all those who had benefited from Somerset’s imprisonment by receiving his confiscated offices.

  On hearing the news of Somerset’s release, York had retired in disgust to his northern stronghold, Sandal Castle, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, knowing that he was once again in the political wilderness and that Somerset would attempt to take revenge on him. Salisbury also rode north to his castle at Middleham; he too faced an uncertain future. But York and his allies had no intention of remaining out in the cold, and soon began discussing how best to deal with the problem of Somerset.

  By March 1455, many Lancastrian lords had been reinstated in their former positions of honour, a policy seemingly calculated to provoke York. The Queen had recently cultivated the support of the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford, both of whom were now committed Lancastrians. Neither had any reason to love York, for he was the ally of their greatest enemies, the Nevilles. Margaret was also whipping up aristocratic support for the House of Lancaster in Wales and the West Country. She was well aware that York enjoyed considerable influence in the Welsh Marches, and could foresee problems if her enemy was able to extend that influence along the whole of the Welsh border. Here were to be found the estates of Warwick, Sir William Herbert, Edward Neville, Lord Bergavenny, and the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was staunchly loyal to the King, but what of the others? Margaret therefore did her best to ensure the continuing loyalty of Jasper Tudor, and even set out to woo Herbert, who was of York’s affinity. Herbert was not a man to be trusted, and for the next few years York and the Queen would compete with each other to win his loyalty. Later, after Pembroke established Lancastrian authority in western Wales, Margaret would redouble her efforts to enlist Herbert’s support.

  Soon after Easter, wrote Benet, another dispute arose between York and Somerset, ‘for Somerset was plotting the destruction of York. He offered advice to the King, saying that the Duke of York wished to depose the King and rule England himself – which was manifestly false.’ Then Warwick learned through his spies that Somerset was planning to hold a secret conference at Westminster, to which only those peers sympathetic to the court faction would be invited.

  York and Salisbury were not prepared to wait and see what the Queen and Somerset would do. Urged on by Warwick, they were busy raising an army, for which they were recruiting men from the northern marches along the Scottish border. It would appear that these levies were summoned to muster at both Middleham and Sandal. Early in May, Warwick began assembling a large force at Warwick Castle. As well as preparing for an armed confrontation, York, Salisbury and Warwick all wrote to the King protesting their loyalty. Their letters were intercepted by the court faction and never reached him.

  Although the Queen and her supporters firmly believed that York had designs on the throne, there is no evidence at this time to show that he did. People might remember that the Lancastrian kings were usurpers, but they had nevertheless occupied the throne virtually unchallenged for half a century, recognised by Parliament and the people, and anointed and consecrated at their coronations. Even if York had wished to make a bid for the throne, very few nobles would have supported him. The risks involved were too great, and he was not sufficiently popular among them. Even if some of his supporters felt that the Duke had been ousted from the succession by a prince of questionable legitimacy, they did not voice their concerns at this time.

  Early in May, the Queen and Somerset, instead of holding a conference at Westminster as planned, summoned a large number of Lancastrian magnates to a great council to be held at Leicester, a town at the centre of a region in which Lancastrian loyalties predominated. The main business on the agenda was to make provision for the King’s safety ‘against his enemies’. As York, Salisbury and Warwick were not invited to attend, there could be little doubt as to who these enemies were and what the true purpose of the council was to be. The Queen and Somerset had persuaded the King that York meant to seize his throne, and Henry issued a summons requiring him and his allies, Salisbury and Warwick, to present themselves before the council on 21 May. To York, this sounded ominously like a repeat performance of what had happened to the Duke of Gloucester in 1447, and he now made up his mind to pre-empt Somerset and strike first.

  A colourful legend, enshrined in the plays of Shakespeare, relates that the Wars of the Roses broke out in the gardens of the Inns of Temple in London. York and Somerset were one day walking there and fell into an argument, in the course of which Somerset plucked a red rose from a nearby bush and said, ‘Let all of my party wear this flower!’ York, not to be outdone, picked a white rose to be the emblem of his party.

  Sadly, there is no truth in the legend. York was in the north in May 1455, when the incident is said to have taken place, and there is no evidence that the red rose was used as a badge by the House of Lancaster at this date. Nevertheless, red and white roses have been grown in the Temple Gardens since the sixteenth century to commemorate the event.

  The white rose was certainly one of the badges of the House of York, although York’s personal badge was the falcon and fetterloc
k. Many modern historians claim that the Lancastrian red rose symbol was invented as propaganda by the first Tudor king, Henry VII. York Civic Records state that in 1486, while on progress in the north, he gave orders for a pageant to be held at York, incorporating ‘a royal, rich, red rose, unto which rose shall appear another rich, white rose, unto whom all flowers shall give sovereignty, and there shall come from the cloud a crown covering the roses’. Thus evolved the Tudor badge of the Rose and Crown, representing the union of Lancaster and York, Henry VII having recently married Elizabeth of York. The Croyland Chronicle, written in April 1486, also refers to the red rose of Lancaster. There is evidence, though, that the red rose symbol dates from at least as early as the reign of Edward IV, for a Yorkist genealogy drawn up during this time, and now in the British Library, shows a bush bearing both red and white roses. It should be borne in mind that the rose badges were just two of a number of badges used by members of the houses of Lancaster and York.

  What we now call the Wars of the Roses were sometimes referred to by contemporaries as the ‘Cousins’ Wars’. The phrase ‘Wars of the Roses’ was coined by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Anne of Geierstein, published in 1829, but the concept was by no means new and originated in fifteenth-century propaganda. A pamphlet of Sir Thomas Smith, written in 1561, referred to ‘the striving of the two roses’, while Sir John Oglander wrote in 1646 a tract called The Quarrel of the Warring Roses, and David Hume, in 1761, published The Wars of the Two Roses.

  Modern historians date the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses to May 1455, when the first pitched battle took place, though, as we have seen, the conflict had been gathering momentum for some time before then.

  Instead of obeying the royal summons, York mobilised his army and began the long march south to London, probably with the intention of intercepting the King before he left for Leicester. With him went his allies, Salisbury, Lord Clinton, Lord Grey of Powys, and Sir Robert Ogle, all with an armed following of their own, Ogle having ‘600 men of the Welsh Marches’. Viscount Bourchier and Lord Cobham may also have been among their number. In the middle of May, Warwick led his army of a thousand men across the heart of England, linking up with York and Salisbury on Ermine Street, the old Roman road. York’s chief objectives were the annihilation of Somerset, the dispersal of the court party, and his own restoration to the Council, which would bring with it control of the King and the government.

  By the 18th, Somerset and the council had been warned that the Yorkists were approaching London with 7000 well-armed men. Benet says: ‘When the Duke of Somerset heard this news he suggested to the King that York had come to usurp the throne. For this reason, the King sided with the Duke of Somerset,’ and authorised him to raise a small army.

  On the 20th York’s company arrived at Royston in Hertfordshire. Here its leaders issued a manifesto declaring to the people that they meant no harm to the King and that they had raised their army and marched south ‘only to keep ourselves out of the danger whereunto our enemies have not ceased to study, labour and compass to bring us’. A copy was sent to the King with a covering letter in which York and his allies begged him not to believe the accusations made against them by their enemies, but again both documents were intercepted, this time by Somerset himself, who destroyed them.

  York was hoping that Norfolk would rally to his support, but although the Duke led a force into Hertfordshire, he made no attempt to join either side, preferring to remain neutral for the present. York had tried on the way south to raise more aristocratic support for his cause, but with little success. His advance at the head of an army looked very much like rebellion, even treason, in view of his public oath that he would never again take up arms against his sovereign.

  While he was still at Royston, York learned that Henry VI and Somerset were about to leave London at the head of an army. On 21 May the Yorkists marched into Ware, where they were told by their scouts that the royal army was advancing north along Watling Street. The Queen was not with them, having taken the Prince of Wales to Greenwich, where she remained during the ensuing hostilities. That same day, York sent a further appeal to the King, along with a copy of his manifesto. Neither got past Somerset.

  Meanwhile, the King and his army had reached Watford, where they spent the night, leaving very early on the morning of the 22nd. York’s scouts advised him that Henry was making for St Albans, and the Duke swung west from Ware to confront him. On the road to St Albans the King received intelligence that the Yorkist army was nearing the town. Buckingham urged Henry to press on to St Albans, meet York’s threat head-on, and deal with it firmly, for he was convinced that York would prefer to negotiate a settlement rather than resort to military force. He was also aware that the Yorkist army was larger than the King’s, and believed it would be safer to await reinforcements in the town than in an exposed position in the countryside.

  By 1455 there was little remaining of the original fortifications that had encircled St Albans, just a thirteenth-century ditch, along which wooden barricades could be erected so as to prevent an enemy from entering the market-place. After arriving in St Albans early in the morning of the 22nd, the King commanded his soldiers to occupy the ditch and make it ‘strongly barred and arrayed for defence’, pitching his own camp in the market-place. York, meanwhile, had decided to camp in Key Field, to the east of St Peter’s Street and Holywell Street (now Holywell Hill), and set his men to blocking the exits from the town on that side.

  In 1460, the Milanese ambassador was informed ‘that on that day there were 300,000 men under arms, and indeed the whole of England was stirred, so that some even speak of larger numbers’. This was a gross exaggeration. Benet says that Warwick arrived with 2000 men, York with 3000 and Salisbury with 2000, ‘all well-prepared for battle’. It has been estimated that the royal army numbered 2-3000 men, and may have been short of archers. The Yorkists not only had a strong force of archers but also cannon. Henry had sent an urgent summons to local levies to reinforce his ranks, but they were not ready in time. Only eighteen out of the seventy peers were present at St Albans; thirteen, including Pembroke, were with the King. Others, including Oxford, Shrewsbury, Lord Cromwell and Sir Thomas Stanley, were still on their way.

  The King’s army was under the command of Buckingham, who was hereditary Constable of the realm and had been appointed the King’s Lieutenant for the occasion. Thomas, 8th Lord Clifford, who commanded the Lancastrian vanguard, had earned a distinguished reputation as a veteran of the French wars and for his successes on the Scottish border. The Lancastrian army consisted mainly of knights, members of the King’s household, and the affinities of those few lords who were with him, many of whom came from the eastern counties. Abbot Whethamstead of St Albans, who gives an eyewitness account of these events, states that the East Anglian lords and gentlemen were less warlike than the men of the north in the Yorkist army, ‘for whom wheat and barley’ – which they meant to have as plunder – ‘are like gold and ebony’. The northerners were regarded as foreign savages in the south, and enjoyed a fearsome reputation as ferocious fighters and rapacious looters.

  York’s army was drawn up into three divisions, as was customary, commanded by himself and ‘the captains of the field’, Salisbury and Warwick, the latter having command of the reserve, who were on foot. With York was his thirteen-year-old son, March, who was receiving his first taste of battle, nominally at the head of a small company of seasoned border campaigners. Also with York was Sir John Wenlock, latterly chamberlain to the Queen, who had transferred his loyalty to the Yorkist cause, which he would support for some years to come.

  The commencement of the battle was delayed for three hours, during which York made every effort to induce the King to listen to his complaints about the misgovernment of Somerset and other ‘traitors’. York’s messenger, Mowbray Herald, opened negotiations by entering the town ‘at the barrier’ at the north end of St Peter’s Street, where he was challenged. The herald bore a message from York, suggesting that the
King’s army might wish to retreat to Barnet or Hatfield for the night while negotiations proceeded.

  Because his army was the smaller, Henry knew it was to his advantage to negotiate a peaceful settlement, and he sent Buckingham, who was Salisbury’s brother-in-law, to ascertain York’s intentions. York told him that he and his company had come as ‘rightful and true subjects’, who desired only that the King deliver up to them ‘such as we will accuse’. When Buckingham reported these words to Henry, the monarch became uncharacteristically wrathful. Goaded by Somerset, he sent Buckingham back to York with a peremptory message:

  I, King Harry, charge and command that no manner of person abide not, but void the field and not be so hard to make any resistance against me in mine own realm; for I shall know what traitor dare be so bold to raise a people in mine own land, where-through I am in great dis-ease and heaviness. And by the faith that I owe to St Edward and the Crown of England, I shall destroy them, every mother’s son, and they be hanged, drawn and quartered that may be taken afterward, of them to have example to all such traitors to beware to make any such rising of people within my land, and so traitorly to abide their King and Governor. And for a conclusion, rather than they shall have any lord here with me at this time, I shall this day for their sake, and in this quarrel, myself live and die.

  York had failed, thanks in part to the hostility of Buckingham who meant to have him accused before the council at Leicester. The King, in any case, had no intention of delivering Somerset into York’s clutches. Instead, he ordered his standard to be raised in the market-place, had himself clad in plate armour, and mounted his warhorse, positioning it under the fluttering banner. Here he remained for the duration of the battle. Before the fighting commenced, he gave orders that only the lives of the common foot soldiers were to be spared: lords, gentry and yeomen might be put to the sword. Many of the royal soldiers were still hastening back to their positions, having drifted off into the town, seeking refreshment after Buckingham had gone to parley with York.

 
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