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

  Warwick was the popular and charismatic face of the Yorkist party, having the dash and common touch that York lacked, and it was largely thanks to Warwick – and to Lancastrian misrule – that the Yorkist party increased its following during these years. The Earl’s use of his great wealth to win it support was, naturally, not without self-interest, for he always had a sharp eye to his own self-aggrandisement.

  Just how far Warwick was prepared to go to discredit the Lancastrians became apparent in August 1457. At that time the Queen was hoping to arrange a new peace treaty with France, so that she could call on her uncle, Charles VII, for military aid if necessary. As her go-between, she used one Dolcereau, who was the agent of her former admirer, Pierre de Brézé, now Grand Seneschal of Anjou, Poitou and Normandy, to carry highly sensitive communications to Richard de Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury, England’s ambassador in France.

  But that month Brézé himself landed a French fleet on the Kent coast, plundering and burning the town of Sandwich, which was almost destroyed. What made the raid so provocative was that the victorious French had been seen afterwards playing tennis in the smoking ruins of the town, before being eventually driven away by Sir Thomas Kyriell. The only comfort the townsfolk had was the satisfaction of knowing later that many Frenchmen drowned in the Channel, thanks to turbulent seas on the journey home.

  The raid unnerved the English, who were alarmed at the government’s inability to prevent it, and the Queen was the target of furious criticism. In an attempt to deflect public anger from herself she tried to pin the blame for the raid on Exeter, who had been Lord High Admiral for the past ten years. No one was fooled by her excuses, and the Yorkists immediately spread word that the Queen had actually invited Brézé to raid the English coast in order to discredit the exploits of Warwick. No one thought to criticise Warwick, who had not lifted a finger against the French, and had indeed decided not to intercept them knowing that anything they might do would stir up feeling against the Lancastrians.

  This wave of criticism of the Queen gave rise to a fresh crop of rumours about the supposed paternity of the Prince of Wales which named the late Duke of Somerset or the Queen’s current favourite, Wiltshire, as the child’s father. Margaret herself told Chastellain later that her son was branded a ‘false heir’ born in ‘false wedlock’.

  Margaret incurred more opprobrium in September when she defied the King over the appointment of a new Bishop of Durham. She wanted her chancellor, Laurence Booth, to be preferred, while the King had nominated another candidate. Margaret secretly put considerable pressure on the Pope, and Booth was elected on 15 September.

  At Michaelmas 1457 the court left Coventry. It had proved impossible for the administration to function effectively away from London, and reluctantly the Queen departed from her ‘safe harbour’ and returned south. She had rid herself of the Yorkists for the moment, but with Warwick in Calais and York in Dublin she did not feel safe. It was imperative that she be able to call upon an armed force if either of them threatened her position, yet such was the reputation of the government that she doubted if she could raise enough men to support her. There was only one solution to this problem, and the fact that she embraced it proves just how desperately insecure she felt.

  The Queen introduced conscription, a measure hitherto employed in Western Europe only by the kings of France. That December she dispatched commissions of array to every shire, empowering the sheriffs to demand that every village, township and hamlet, according to its population and wealth, and as soon as she gave the command, provide the King with a number of able-bodied men and archers at its own expense, in order to defend the realm against the Yorkists. At the same time it was publicly proclaimed that Henry VI had written a letter to his Anglo-Irish subjects in Ireland, encouraging them to conquer that land (and hopefully kill York in battle in the process).

  Henry VI was aware of the growing tensions at court and throughout his realm, but far from wishing to muster support for a new conflict he was determined to foster peace between the opposing factions. Whethamstead says he was fond of quoting St Matthew and saying that ‘every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation’. In January 1458 he commanded that the magnates attend a peace conference at Westminster. It lasted for two months, but achieved only superficial success. One face was missing. One of the Queen’s most valued supporters, the Earl of Devon, had died – some said by poison – at Abingdon Abbey in January, with Margaret at his side.

  The fragile concord of the peace congress was brutally disrupted in February when the vengeful Lord Clifford arrived at the head of a large army at Temple Bar in the company of his cousin, the young Earl of Northumberland, and his kinsman, the Duke of Somerset. All three were demanding compensation for the deaths of their fathers at St Albans. So intimidated was the King that he had no choice but to agree. He commanded that York, Salisbury and Warwick collaborate to found and endow a chantry at St Albans, in which masses for the souls of the three dead lords and others killed in the battle could be sung in perpetuity. He also ordered the Yorkist lords to pay Clifford, Northumberland and Somerset a ‘notable sum of money’, which they did. York paid Somerset’s widow 5000 marks, while Warwick paid the Clifford family 1000 marks. The chantry was duly founded the following March, and a proclamation was issued informing the people of what had been done.

  The peace conference resulted in a staged public display of amity between the two warring factions. On 24 March 1458, which was Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, there was an official ceremony of reconciliation between the King and Queen and the Yorkist lords which was afterwards referred to as the ‘Loveday’. The King, followed by the Queen and York, walking hand in hand, the leaders of both factions, the Nevilles, the Percies and other lords, went in procession through the streets of London to St Paul’s Cathedral, where a service of reconciliation was held. ‘There was between them a lovely countenance’, and they ‘spared right nought in sight of the commonalty, in token that love was in heart and thought’.

  The King and Archbishop Bourchier had laboured to bring about this reconciliation, and Henry was overjoyed that his initiative had produced such a visible result. ‘Rejoice, England, in concord and unity!’ exclaimed a popular ballad commemorating the occasion, and his subjects were only too glad to do so, hoping that this was a complete and final reconciliation. But Robert Fabyan, the Tudor chronicler, was nearer the truth when he referred to the event as ‘this dissimulated Loveday’, for lining the streets had been the retainers and supporters of the rival parties, many of them heavily armed, and most of them regarding each other with ill-concealed animosity.

  Three days after the Loveday Henry and Margaret made a state entry into London and took up residence in the bishop’s palace. York returned to Ludlow, Salisbury to Middleham and Warwick to Calais, and everyone waited to see what would happen next. The King, happily believing that his factious nobles were at peace with each other, kept Easter alone at St Albans Abbey. He was becoming more absorbed in his devotions and his foundations, retreating from political life, and leaving most executive decisions to the Queen.

  When he arrived at Calais, Warwick began courting the friendship of Philip of Burgundy, whose ships he had recently so cheerfully plundered. The merchants of Calais and those in England were anxious to preserve the important trade links between England and Burgundy, and this was Warwick’s response. By the summer of 1458 he had reached an understanding with Duke Philip and had dispatched Sir John Wenlock, now serving under him at Calais, to the Duke to negotiate on the King’s behalf – without consulting Henry – a marriage between the Prince of Wales and a Burgundian princess. Afterwards, Wenlock went to France on Queen Margaret’s behalf to open negotiations with Charles VII for the Prince’s marriage to a French princess. Not surprisingly these negotiations were complicated and long drawn out, but they did have the advantage of keeping both France and Burgundy well disposed towards England for the time being.

  For some time now Wa
rwick had engaged in acts of piracy, on one notorious occasion ordering his ships out of Calais to plunder the fleet of the German merchants of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. This attack violated a truce between the League and the English government, and the Germans had protested strongly to Henry VI about Warwick’s behaviour. The Queen, who wished to oust the Earl from the captaincy of Calais, now saw her chance to get rid of him. She summoned him to London and ordered him to explain his actions before the Council.

  Warwick responded to her summons by arriving in London at the head of 600 armed retainers, all wearing his livery. Margaret demanded of the Council that he stand trial for his crimes. On 31 July 1458 the Council instituted an enquiry, but after the first day Warwick publicly protested that the interrogation he had been made to undergo had been unduly rigorous, and that he believed there was a plot to discredit him. The Queen, he complained, had been acting insincerely on the Loveday, and had no regard for the glory of England’s achievement on the high seas.

  The next day, incited by Warwick’s protests, his supporters – and there were many in London, including a number of aldermen – ran riot, demonstrating against the Queen and the authorities. In the confusion the Attorney General was murdered. The Queen commanded that pikemen be sent into the city to restore order, and when this had been done, those aldermen and citizens who had taken part in the riot were thrown into gaol. The outcome of the Council’s enquiry is not recorded, but there was no doubt that the Queen’s attempt to eliminate Warwick from the political scene had failed.

  In the autumn Warwick again visited the court at Westminster. As he was passing through the royal kitchens, one of the King’s scullions nearly impaled him on a spit. It was an accident, but Warwick and the retainers with him chose to believe that the scullion had been instructed by the Queen to murder him. A fight broke out between the Earl’s followers and the royal servants, who rushed to defend the scullion. During the scuffle Warwick was set upon by the royal guard, though his men soon gained the upper hand, and the unfortunate scullion was seized by them and hauled before the Queen. Margaret knew that if she defended the man Warwick would accuse her of murder, so she ordered his execution. However, he was allowed to escape and flee to Yorkshire, while the Queen announced defiantly that the fight had been caused by Warwick’s supporters at his instigation. Fabyan asserts that she then persuaded the Council to draw up an order for the Earl’s arrest and committal to the Tower.

  As soon as he heard that there was a warrant out for his arrest, Warwick left London and travelled at speed to Warwick Castle, and thence to the safety of Calais, where he would be protected by the garrison. In November, the Queen and Council, incensed at his escape, demanded that he surrender his post to Somerset. At this, Warwick boldly returned to London and stood defiantly before the Council, stating that Parliament had appointed him to his post, and therefore Parliament was the only authority that could revoke the appointment. Tempers were running high, and as he left the Council chamber he was attacked by retainers of Somerset and Wiltshire and only narrowly escaped. This time his claim that the Queen had tried to have him killed was almost certainly justified.

  Warwick knew it was not safe for him to remain in England, and after a hurried consultation with his father, Salisbury, he returned to Calais, where he defiantly continued his attacks on the Lübeck fleet. It was probably this that drove the conciliatory Buckingham off the political fence and firmly into the camp of the Queen’s party.

  Margaret now knew she had to take decisive action against the Yorkists, and Warwick in particular. Late in 1458 she left London and during the following months travelled through Cheshire and Lancashire, cultivating support among the nobility and gentry and recruiting men. Davies’ Chronicle claims she was prompted by her dread that the Prince ‘should not succeed his father’, and states that she ‘allied unto her all the knights and squires of Cheshire, and held open household among them’.

  It now seemed that a further confrontation between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists was inevitable.


  ‘A Great and Strong

  Labour’d Woman’

  ‘The Queen’, wrote a Paston correspondent, ‘is a great and strong labour’d woman, for she spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion to her power.’ None of her supporters now doubted that she would do her utmost to destroy the Yorkists. According to Croyland, Margaret, Northumberland and Clifford caused the Duke ‘to stink in the King’s nostrils even unto death, as they insisted that he was endeavouring to gain the kingdom into his own hands’.

  It was obvious to everyone that Henry VI was no longer capable of leading an initiative against the Yorkists. The Queen’s party needed a more inspiring figurehead, and who better than the appealing figure of the five-year-old Prince, a symbol of hope for the future? Margaret even tried to persuade Henry to abdicate in favour of his son, though he flatly refused. She continued to raise support in the north-west Midlands, and in Chester made the Prince bestow a livery of swans (the swan being Henry IV’s personal badge, and his own) to all the gentlemen of the county, ‘trusting through their strength to make her son king’.

  The Queen spent the early months of 1459 at Coventry. In the spring Sir William Herbert urged her to take the field with her Cheshire levies, who were gathered around the city, before the Yorkists had time to unite in arms. Margaret saw the sense in this, and the Council approved it. In April, the Queen persuaded the King to issue writs commanding all his loyal magnates to meet with him at Leicester on 10 May ‘with as many men defensibly arrayed as they might, and that they should bring their expenses for two months’. She also ordered that commissions of array be issued throughout the realm, conscripting young men from every town, village and hamlet. York responded by issuing a manifesto condemning conscription and asserting that this French innovation was unwelcome to all Englishmen.

  Somerset and other nobles began to muster their private armies, and the city of Coventry sent the Queen forty able men at its own expense. In May, Pembroke was given a tower of the Palace of Westminster as his London headquarters, so that he could be at hand to defend the palace if it was attacked. Soon afterwards the King and Queen took the Prince on a progress through Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire in an attempt to rally support.

  York and Salisbury were also preparing for war, at first resorting to propaganda which had proved successful on earlier occasions. In the early months of 1459 there appeared throughout London a proliferation of seditious bills and mocking verses against the Queen’s government. Once again the Prince’s paternity was questioned, and Margaret herself was accused of ruling like a tyrant through extortion and corrupt practices. This propaganda went home, especially among the merchant community, who at that time were making highly vocal protests against Lancastrian misrule and were already inclined to support York, even though Lancastrian counter-propaganda claimed that ‘people in many places’ were being ‘deceived and blinded by subtle and covert malice’.

  But favouring the Duke was one thing, rising in arms on his behalf and ‘meddling betwixt lords’ entirely another, and they were wary of taking any action that might be construed as treason. Thus York did not find it easy to enlist volunteers. He could, however, call upon his vast following of tenants and retainers to fight for him, as could Salisbury, and in the spring the two lords summoned their armies. However, with York at Ludlow and Salisbury at Middleham, they faced the problem of joining their forces before the Lancastrian army, concentrated in the Midlands, could intercept them.

  The fact that the Yorkists were arming at all, even in self defence, was interpreted by the Queen as treason. Late in June, says Benet, ‘the King held a great council at Coventry, which was attended by the Queen and the Prince. However, despite being summoned to attend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Duke of York and other lords’ – including Salisbury, Warwick, George Neville, now Bishop of Exeter, the Earl of Arundel and Viscount Bourchier – ‘were absent’. York and Salisbur
y had instead sent an urgent message to Warwick, warning him that the Queen intended their ruin and begging him to come to their aid.

  Warwick speedily raised 200 men-at-arms and 400 archers, all of whom were issued with red jackets sporting his badge. These men were mostly professional soldiers who had seen active service in France, and they were commanded by two veterans, Sir John Blount and Andrew Trollope, both of whom would attain renown during the Wars of the Roses; Trollope was the Master Porter of Calais, and Warwick had ‘greater faith in him than any other’.

  Leaving his uncle William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, in charge of the Calais garrison, Warwick crossed with his men to England, landing at Sandwich. He did not stop to raise a force in Kent, but pressed on to London, knowing that his services were urgently required by York. On 21 September he entered London unopposed, leaving it the next day through Smithfield, at the head of a ‘very well armed force’, making for Warwick Castle, where the Yorkist lords had planned to rendezvous. The plan was to go together to the King at Kenilworth at the head of their combined armies and lay their grievances before him.

  The Queen’s soldiers got to Warwick before the Earl did. He lacked enough men for a confrontation, and his scouts warned him that the King’s army was marching north from Coventry and blocking any chance of him linking up with Salisbury. Warwick therefore had no choice but to turn west towards Ludlow, where York’s army waited.

  On the way, at Coleshill, Warwick was warned that the Queen and Somerset had sent a sizeable West Country force to intercept him. Just in time he managed to avoid it, and continued on his way. Salisbury, meanwhile, had left Middleham with a considerable following and, ‘dreading the malice of the Queen and her company, which hated him deadly, took his way towards Ludlow’. No longer did the Yorkist lords entertain ideas of an appeal to the King. Their objective now was to combine their forces and march on London.

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