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


  By 1460, after long years of suffering the misrule caused by Henry VI’s ineptitude, the English were beginning to question the right of the House of Lancaster to occupy the throne, and were showing signs of taking the claim of the Mortimers, vested in York, seriously. The whole issue of dynastic right would now be thrown open for public discussion and speculation. A Yorkist genealogy, prepared for propaganda purposes and now in the British Library, depicts Henry IV slicing through Richard II’s line of descent with a sword, while an Old Testament prophet foretells of vengeance being visited upon Henry’s descendants. Such seeds of propaganda fell on fertile ground in 1460.

  York was descended from Edward III’s second son through two females, Philippa of Clarence and Anne Mortimer, which made him Edward’s heir general. Henry VI, descended in the male line from Edward’s fourth son, was his heir male. Nowadays the question of legitimate right would be decided without question in favour of York. If, for example, the present Prince of Wales had an only daughter, and his brother Prince Andrew a son, the descendants of Prince Charles’s daughter would inherit the throne as descendants of the Queen’s eldest son. In the fifteenth century the law of primogeniture was never so strictly defined. Lord Chief Justice Fortescue put forward a hypothetical case in which a king ‘has a daughter and a brother; the daughter has a son. The king dies without a son. Does the kingdom descend to the daughter, or to her son, or to the king’s brother?’ Fortescue concluded that the king’s brother should succeed him because the woman is subject to the man. A woman, he declared, was not fit to rule or transmit a claim. Adam was superior to Eve because he was able to teach her the moral virtues of prudence, courage and temperance, and man was to woman as the soul to the body. When it came to the question of who should have the crown of England, however, Fortescue played it safe and suggested that the Pope should be asked to decide the issue.

  York was not concerned with such legal niceties. He had had enough. His ineffective cousin must stand aside for the man who was determined and able to restore good government and rid the realm of corrupt advisers – Richard Plantagenet.

  York, however, having failed to take into account the fact that hitherto few lords had actually supported him even in his quest for reform, did not now stop to consult with any of his followers or allies, nor did he try to cultivate sufficient support to back up his claim. He believed that right alone would be enough to win him the crown.

  On 8 September 1460 York returned from Ireland and landed in north Wales, near Chester. From here he marched south to Ludlow and thence to Hereford. His duchess had been freed from house arrest after the Battle of Northampton, since when she had been living at Baynard’s Castle with her younger children, awaiting her lord’s return. As soon as York landed he sent a message asking Cecily to meet him at Hereford as soon as possible, which she did, travelling in a chariot, or litter, hung with blue velvet and drawn by four pairs of fine horses.

  York had timed his return so that he would be in London when Parliament met in early October. He made no attempt to conceal the fact that he had come to assert his claim to the throne, and proceeded to the capital with as much state and ceremony as if he were already king. At Abingdon, he summoned trumpeters and had them issued with banners displaying the royal arms of England undifferenced – the sovereign’s arms. And thus he came to London.

  Somerset, meanwhile, had finally given up trying to wrest Calais from Warwick’s garrison, and had recently been obliged to surrender Guisnes to the Earl’s men. Towards the end of September he too returned to England, and took up residence at Corfe Castle in Dorset.

  Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall on 7 October. The King attended the opening ceremony but thereafter remained in the Queen’s apartments in the palace. In this Parliament Lord Bourchier was made Treasurer of England and Warwick’s brother, George Neville, Bishop of Exeter, was rewarded for his recent support by being appointed Chancellor. At that time he was about twenty-seven years old, a clever, cultivated opportunist who was not at all suited to his episcopal role, for he loved luxurious living and political intrigue. He was a great patron of scholars, corresponded with famous men of letters in other parts of Europe and amassed a respectable library of rare manuscripts. Chastellain describes him as a ‘stately and eloquent man’.

  On the 10th, York rode into London at the head of a great retinue, preceded by his trumpeters, whose banners astonished those who beheld them, and by his sword of state, borne upright before him. Gone was his former restraint and caution. His arrogant and dignified bearing proclaimed to all what his intentions were, and it was noted that from now on he would act ‘more like a king than a duke’. Abbot Whethamstead accused him of the sin of pride.

  In this manner he came to Westminster Hall, where Parliament was sitting. Dismounting at the door, and with his sword still carried before him, he strode through the assembled throng to the dais at the far end, on which stood the empty throne beneath a canopy of estate. Then, after bowing to the Lords, he placed his hand firmly on the throne, symbolically laying claim to it. As he did so, the Lords and Commons alike ‘ran together and looked’ incredulously. Then York turned to face them, expecting cheers of acclamation. Instead there was an embarrassed silence.

  Nonplussed, he moved away from the throne, plainly furious. Nevertheless he announced undeterred that he ‘challenged and claimed the realm of England as heir of King Richard II, proposing without any delay to be crowned on All Hallows Day following’ – 1 November. The Archbishop of Canterbury cautiously suggested he obtain an audience of the King to discuss his claim, but this stirred York to anger. ‘I know of no one in the realm who would not more fitly come to me than I to him,’ he declared.

  Nevertheless he marched out of the hall and made his way to the royal apartments where the King, having heard the commotion, had retired to an inner chamber. York was intent on seeing him, and coming to the door of the chamber he thrust aside the guards and burst in. Henry faced him calmly, but stood by his right to occupy the throne of his forefathers.

  The reaction of most noblemen to York’s astonishing act was one of profound dismay. How could they be expected to uphold his claim when they had all taken an oath of allegiance to Henry VI? That Henry should have inspired such loyalty after decades of misrule is testimony to the mystical power of the institution of monarchy at that time – perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Wars of the Roses – and also the personal esteem in which Henry was held for his many virtues. Equally remarkable is the fact that Henry VI failed to capitalise on such support. Powerful magnates had not hesitated to depose Richard II – but Richard’s tyranny had threatened their jealously-guarded privileges. Under Henry VI, many magnates had prospered.

  Even Warwick and Salisbury were shocked and angered by York’s behaviour. They had supported him in his calls for reform and in his attempts to gain power for himself, but this time they felt he had gone too far, and without even consulting them. Nor did they feel able to support his claim, for – in common with most magnates – they saw no reason why Henry VI, England’s acknowledged and anointed king for the past thirty-eight years, should be deposed.

  Warwick and his brother, Thomas Neville, wasted no time in going to York’s lodging at Westminster to remonstrate with him. Men-at-arms filled the room, and Warwick saw the Duke at the far side, his elbow resting on a sideboard. Warwick was furious and told York so, and why, using ‘hard words’. Young Rutland then came in and, seeing the Earl castigating his father, said, ‘Fair Sir, be not angry, for you know that we have the true right to the crown, and that my lord and father here must have it.’

  March, who was also present, could see that Warwick was in no mood for such talk, and realised that so powerful an ally must not be offended. ‘Brother,’ he said, ‘vex no man, for all shall be well.’ Warwick, controlling his anger, turned away from York and Rutland, and made a great show of speaking only to March.

  Although the magnates quickly made it clear to York that they stood by thei
r oaths of allegiance to Henry VI, he was determined to force the issue. On 16 October, sitting on the throne in Westminster Hall, he formally claimed the crown of England by right of inheritance and then submitted to the Lords in Parliament a genealogy showing his descent from Henry III. The Lords displayed few signs of approval and asked him why he had not put forward his claim before. He answered, ‘Though right for a time rest and be put to silence, yet it rotteth not, nor shall it perish.’

  Next day, the Lords respectfully asked the King for his views on the matter, and he asked them to draw up a list of objections to York’s claim. The Lords then laid the matter before the justices, the serjeants-at-law and the royal attorneys, but all were extremely reluctant to express an opinion as to whether York’s claim was valid or not, saying that it was not within their competence to do so, but was a matter for the King and York to determine between them. In fact, it was such a high matter that it was above the law and beyond their learning, and they referred it back to a higher legal authority – the Lords in Parliament.

  There then followed much debate and poring over yellowing genealogies, statutes and precedents. The Lords warned York that the matter was proving difficult to determine, the stumbling block being their oaths of allegiance to Henry VI and their recent oath recognising Prince Edward as the future king. They pointed out that York had also sworn these same oaths and referred him to ‘great and notable Acts of Parliament which be sufficient and reasonable to be laid against [his] title’. These Acts, they argued, recognised Henry’s title, and should be relied upon as the ultimate authority on the matter.

  York answered that the oaths made to Henry VI by the peers were invalid because the nature and purpose of an oath was to confirm the truth, and the truth was that he was the rightful king, not Henry, and the Lords ought to help him claim what was rightfully his. God’s law, he said, governed inheritance, and that took precedence over all other laws.

  Thomas Thorpe, Speaker of the Commons, later had some scathing words to say in Parliament about York’s claim. But even though York was not yet king, he still wielded great power, and Thorpe soon found himself incarcerated in London’s Fleet Prison, accused by York of trespass and theft. For this he was found guilty and fined, provoking protests in the Commons. It was to no avail, and the members had no choice but to elect another Speaker.

  At length, the Lords grudgingly concluded that York did indeed have a better right to the crown than Henry VI, but by a majority of only five they decided that a change of dynasty was unthinkable at this stage. The Lords were now forced to a compromise, not so much because York had the better claim, but because they knew he had the power to make them acknowledge it.

  On 31 October it was announced that the King and York were reconciled, and the next day, in St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘the King wore his crown and led a procession of dukes, earls and lords, as a symbol of concord’. Parliament now resolved that King Henry ‘should enjoy the throne of England for as long as he should live’, Prince Edward should be disinherited, and York should be proclaimed heir apparent and succeed to the throne on Henry’s death. This was not the best compromise that York could have expected, and it reflected the Lords’ antipathy towards him, for he was after all ten years older than the King and likely, in the natural course of things, to predecease him.

  On 24 October an Act of Settlement – the ‘Act of Accord’, as it became known – was drawn up, enshrining the new order of succession in law. Four days later, Henry VI, under pressure from the few magnates who were present in Parliament – the rest having deemed it politic to stay away – agreed to its terms, and the Act became law. The King at once sent a message to the Queen, commanding her to bring the Prince to London, and warning that if she failed to do so she would be denounced as a rebel.

  Now that the dynastic issue had been raised, the Wars of the Roses changed course. No longer were they primarily a struggle for supremacy between York and the Queen’s party; instead, from now on they would be a struggle for the throne itself, with reform of the government second in importance. The unleashing of the dynastic dispute would have far-reaching consequences for the royal succession over the next twenty-five years and beyond, weakening the concept of legitimate title and fostering the ambitions of those whose might was greater than their right. From now on, also, the outcome of every battle would be regarded as an indication of God’s approval of the claim of the victor.

  In late October Parliament reversed the attainders against York and his followers, and restored to them their titles, lands and goods. On 8 November York was proclaimed heir apparent to the throne and Protector of England. All the lords spiritual and temporal swore allegiance to him as the King’s heir, and he in turn swore allegiance to Henry and the lords, saying that for his part he would abide by all the conventions and compacts that had been agreed.

  York now ruled England in the name of the King. He might reasonably have thought he was in an invincible position, but once again he would find that he was mistaken.

  The Act of Accord provoked a furious political storm. The Queen had marched south with her Scottish recruits, who were reinforced as they went by large numbers of men from Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. Many of the northern lords who joined her army cared little for the political issues at stake but were motivated rather by self-interest and the possibilities of plundering the prosperous and envied south. Meanwhile, Somerset and Devon were coming up from the south-west with a large force of gentlemen, knights and soldiers, marching via Bath and Coventry to York. Then Margaret learned that Lords Clifford, Roos, Greystoke, Neville and Latimer were on their way to join her.

  When, at Hull, she received the news that Parliament had dispossessed her son of his inheritance, she was furious, and instantly stepped up her recruiting campaign, gathering an army of 15,000 men at Pontefract Castle, and placing them under the command of Somerset, Northumberland and Devon. By the time the army reached York, it numbered about 20,000. That the Queen had raised such an army so late in the year, when the campaigning season had long finished, is a tribute to her tenacity and energy, and also testimony to her fierce determination to protect her son’s interests. What was more, the Queen had mustered her force so swiftly and stealthily that it was some time before York realised what was happening.

  At York, Margaret made a formal public protest against the Act of Accord and challenged York to settle the issue of the succession by force of arms. She then summoned a council of war and informed the lords of her intention to march on London and deliver the King from the hands of his enemies. Those magnates who had not endorsed the Act shared her anger, and many more flocked to take up arms on her behalf.

  Late in November, the Lancastrian army began to advance southwards from York. As they marched through Yorkshire the Queen took great pleasure in allowing her soldiers to sack the homes of tenants of York and Salisbury. They also raided York’s castle at Sandal, where it was noticed by the superstitious that no herons had nested in the adjacent park that year.

  As soon as York found out what Margaret was doing, he organised a fresh propaganda campaign which was calculated to instil fear of the Queen’s savage northern hordes into the southerners, and began preparations to march north to deal with this new threat. The Queen and Prince had written to the Common Council of the city of London, requesting monetary and military aid, but their requests had been ignored. York, however, was granted a loan of 500 marks to finance his campaign. He was also in control of the royal arsenal of weapons in the Tower, and commandeered several guns to take north with him.

  York and Salisbury, at the head of about 5-6000 men, rode out of London on 9 December, cheered on by waving crowds lining the streets and leaving Warwick behind to maintain order in the capital. They marched north via Nottingham, recruiting on the way. Many of their scouts, or ‘aforeriders’, however, were killed in a skirmish with Somerset’s men at Worksop, and at the same time Lancastrian scouts discovered that York’s army was vastly infer
ior to their own.

  York made for his castle of Sandal, two miles west of Wakefield, because, says Whethamstead, he desired to be among his own people and enjoy a comfortable lodging at Christmas. He also deemed his presence in the area necessary because his tenants had suffered harassment by local Lancastrian lords. Built in the reign of Edward II, Sandal Castle was a mighty fortress occupying an imposing position, though today it is a crumbling, roofless ruin. York arrived on the 21st and set his men to digging trenches around the castle and positioning their guns at strategic points around the walls, thus putting himself – theoretically at least – in a good defensive position should the Lancastrians attack. His plan was to await March’s arrival from Shrewsbury with reinforcements before engaging with the enemy, and he settled down with his men to celebrate Christmas.

  Somerset and Northumberland would have liked to besiege York in Sandal Castle, and in any case planned to prevent any fresh supplies from reaching him there. However, since they lacked the resources with which to conduct a siege, they decided that York must somehow be lured out of the castle and made to fight before March arrived. The Lancastrians certainly had the greater army, about 20,000 men to York’s 12,000 at most, and they had also a substantial number of magnates, including Exeter, Somerset, Devon, Northumberland and Clifford. York had not a single peer in his army, apart from the ever-loyal Salisbury. While the Queen’s captains included the experienced Sir Baldwin Fulford and Sir John Grey, who was husband to Lord Rivers’s daughter, Elizabeth Wydville, one of York’s captains of foot was a mere London mercer, John Harrow, who had served under Salisbury at the siege of the Tower in July. And although Lord Neville responded to York’s summons, riding to Sandal with 8000 men, he then deserted to the Lancastrians. Even after this, York still underestimated the strength of his opponents.

 
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