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


  The executions of Bonville and Kyriell aroused fury among the Yorkists. Both men had been acting under orders, guarding the King, and had taken no part in the fighting. Bonville, however, had recently gone over to the Yorkists and was regarded by the Queen as a traitor, which was enough to secure his fate. The bloodshed did not end there, for several other Yorkist prisoners were brutally put to death on the Queen’s orders.

  The King and Queen and their retinues now went into St Albans Abbey to give thanks for the victory. At the porch they were received by the abbot and his monks with triumphal hymns, and processed inside for the service. Afterwards Henry and Margaret were shown to their rooms in the abbey’s guest house, where they would lodge for the next few days.

  News of Warwick’s defeat reached London on Ash Wednesday, 18 February. From that day, ‘we lived in mickle dread’, wrote a Yorkist living in the capital, while Bishop Beauchamp told the Venetian ambassador that there was ‘general dread’ in the city at the news. One wealthy citizen, Philip Malpas, whose house had been sacked by Cade’s rebels eleven years earlier, was so frightened that he fled abroad to Antwerp. As the wave of fear swept London, streets emptied as merchants shut up and locked their shops and people barricaded themselves inside their houses. Since Warwick had abandoned them, the Lord Mayor arranged for the city militia to patrol the walls, himself accompanying them. London had for years now been sympathetic to the Yorkist cause, and the reported behaviour of the Lancastrian army disposed the citizens even more in its favour. Already in the south-east there was a conviction that the Wars of the Roses had come to represent a conflict between north and south, and that the Lancastrian victory meant that the prosperous south now lay under a dire threat from the north.

  On the 19th it was reported in London that Edward of York was in the Cotswolds. Warwick had ridden there at full speed and met up with him either at Burford or Chipping Norton. After he had greeted the Earl, Edward apologised ‘that he was so poor, for he had no money, but the substance of his men came at their own cost’. Many, however, were more concerned about protecting their homes and families from the Queen’s army than being paid to do so, and Warwick told Edward to be of good cheer, for the commons of England were on his side. The two men then formulated a plan to race for London and have Edward proclaimed king before the Lancastrians got there, both now realising that in this lay their only hope of victory.

  Meanwhile, even as the King and Queen were being entertained by the Abbot of St Albans, Margaret’s victorious northerners were enthusiastically pillaging and plundering the abbey and town and the countryside round about, creating a trail of destruction. Abbot Whethamstead persuaded Henry to issue a proclamation forbidding such behaviour, but no one took any notice of it, ‘for they were all at liberty, and licensed, as they asserted, by the Queen and northern lords to plunder and seize anything they could find anywhere on this side of the Trent, by way of remuneration and recompense for their services’. In vain the Queen tried to stop them, promising pardon to all those who had committed any crimes, for they paid her no heed. Their violent behaviour was proof indeed that Yorkist propaganda had not exaggerated, and was so savage that it horrified the abbot, who could only conclude that these people had been brutalised by poverty and deeply resented the prosperity of the southerners. The King insisted that the Queen order them at least to spare the abbey from further harm, and this time she seems to have met with some success, though further afield, throughout Hertfordshire and Middlesex, her men were ravaging the countryside at will.

  The royal army was now running desperately short of food, so the Queen sent a chaplain and a squire to the Lord Mayor of London with a peremptory demand for ‘bread and victuals’ and money. The frightened mayor hastily arranged for a number of carts to be laden with coin, meat, fish and other foodstuffs, but the pro-Yorkist citizens, emboldened by the news that Edward and Warwick were now marching together on London, rose in an angry mob, seized the carts and locked the city gates, mounting a guard over them so that no one could get in or out. The food they distributed among themselves and ate; as for the money, ‘I wot not how it departed,’ commented one London chronicler – ‘I trow the purse stole the money!’

  When the Queen heard how the Londoners had flouted her demands, she was so furious that she allowed her soldiery to plunder and lay waste the countryside of Hertfordshire almost to the gates of the capital itself. If the King and Queen had then regrouped their army and marched on London, ‘all things would have been at their will’, but Margaret failed to consolidate her victory. She and the King were fearful of further alienating the Londoners by unleashing their uncontrollable troops on the capital, and their captains may well have advised them to wait and intercept the Yorkists as they marched on London. Whatever the reason, Margaret hesitated – and as Lord Rivers soon afterwards certified to the Milanese ambassador, the Lancastrian cause was ‘lost irredeemably’.

  Upon receiving news of the victory at St Albans, the Lord Mayor of London had written to the King and Queen, offering his obedience, provided that they could assure him that the city would not be plundered or suffer violence. On 20 February the duchesses of Bedford and Buckingham were sent by Margaret to the mayor ‘and reported that the King and Queen had no mind to pillage the chief city and chamber of their realm, and so they promised’, wrote William Worcester. ‘But at the same time they did not mean that they would not punish the evil-doers.’

  The city fathers decided to send the noble ladies back to the King and Queen with four aldermen, in order to come to an arrangement whereby Henry and Margaret might enter their capital, providing that the city did not suffer plunder, punishment or violence. But the Londoners had heard too many reports of the atrocities committed by Margaret’s troops, and were also heartily sick of Lancastrian misgovernment and their French queen. ‘It is right a great abusion,’ wrote one anonymous London commentator at this time,

  a woman of a land to be a regent; Queen Margaret, I mean, that ever meant to govern all England with might and power and to destroy the right line. Wherefore she hath a fall, to her great languour. And now she né wrought so that she might attain, though all England were brought to confusion, she and her wicked affinity certain[ly] intend utterly to destroy this region.

  The citizens prevaricated and dithered: should they admit the Queen? News of the plundering of St Albans was the deciding factor. The Lord Mayor and a few of his aldermen were virtually the only persons in London who supported her, and they were, predictably, not very popular and were overridden by the angry citizens, who were fearful for their homes, womenfolk and possessions. The city’s gates were closed.

  Around 21 February, Margaret divided her army; the main body retired to Dunstable with her, while a detachment of the best troops was sent to Barnet, where it halted. Feelings were running high among the men, who were unpaid and underfed. Many were on the brink of mutiny, and the Queen knew she had to find food and money soon, or risk disaster. Moving to Barnet, she wrote two letters to the citizens of London, assuring them of her good intentions. Her commanders warned her not to proceed further south, urging her to return to the north and avoid forcing the issue with the Londoners, but the northerners, seeing their prospects of pillaging the capital and its environs receding, erupted in fury. Hundreds deserted, though, since the victory at St Albans had led to new recruits joining the Lancastrian forces, the army was kept more or less up to strength.

  Margaret now sent back the deputation of ladies and aldermen to negotiate the terms of the capital’s surrender, ordering the citizens to proclaim Edward of York a traitor and assuring them of an amnesty. They did not trust her, and with good cause, for her next move was to order 400 of her elite troops to march on Aldgate. Here they demanded admittance to the city, in the King’s name, but the mayor, thoroughly cowed by the people, refused it. Another detail of the Queen’s soldiers reached Westminster, but was roughly dealt with by indignant citizens, who drove it back with threats.

  The widowed Du
chess of York was then in residence at Baynard’s Castle and becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of her younger sons, George and Richard, who might be taken as hostages for their brother’s good behaviour if the Lancastrians entered the city. She therefore placed them on board a ship bound for Burgundy, where they would remain under the protection of Duke Philip until it was safe for them to return to England. She herself remained in London, praying for the safe arrival of her eldest son.

  Realising that an attempt on London was impossible, Margaret ordered a retreat to Dunstable, hoping to allay the fears of the citizens. At the same time, Edward was approaching the capital. Prudently, he sent ahead a messenger to proclaim that the Lancastrians had given their soldiers licence to rob and assure the Londoners that he had forbidden his own troops to do so.

  Margaret’s retreat gave Edward the chance to advance on London unhindered, and the citizens, eager to demonstrate their support of the Yorkists, collected the then princely sum of £100, which was sent to Edward to help finance his soldiers. The Milanese ambassador informed his master that the enthusiastic support of the Londoners would probably mean that Edward and Warwick would triumph over their enemies.

  On 27 February Edward of York, at the head of 20,000 knights and 30,000 foot soldiers, rode through the gates of London and took possession of the city. The Londoners welcomed him with rapturous acclaim as their saviour, the man who would save them from the Lancastrian menace. Even at eighteen he cut an impressive figure. The people cried, ‘Hail to the Rose of Rouen!’ and one punned, ‘Let us walk in a new vineyard and let us make a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March!’ At Edward’s side rode Warwick, his strongest and most faithful ally, and there were fervent cheers for him also, who had long been a favourite with the Londoners. Edward rode to greet his mother at Baynard’s Castle, while his army set up camp in Clerkenwell Fields outside the city walls.

  It was no longer possible for Edward to claim, as his father had done earlier, that he had taken up arms in order to remove Henry VI from the influence of evil counsellors. People were now acknowledging that the endemic disorder was directly attributable to the weak government of Henry VI. This time, therefore, the Yorkists’ intentions were to remove him from power and make Edward king. In fact, they had no alternative, for despite his warm welcome in London, he was not in a strong position, being technically an attainted traitor and lacking funds and the support of a majority of the magnates.

  In order to test the mood of the people, whose allegiance was essential to Edward’s success, on Sunday 1 March the Lord Chancellor, George Neville, addressed a crowd of citizens who were mingling with the Yorkist army in St John’s Fields, declaring that Edward of York was the rightful king of England and that Henry of Lancaster was a usurper. When the Bishop asked the Londoners for their opinion, they shouted, ‘Yea! Yea! King Edward!’ and clapped their hands, while the soldiers drummed on their armour. ‘I was there. I heard them!’ wrote one chronicler. The next day Edward, accompanied by Warwick, Fauconberg and Norfolk, rode to Clerkenwell and reviewed his men, knowing that, whatever happened, he would need their services again before long.

  Parliament was in session at this time, and therefore Edward must be seen to be elected king by the will of the people, whose assent would be expressed by their public acclamation of him. Evidence of such acclamation had already been displayed at St John’s Fields, and on 3 March the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of Salisbury and Exeter, Warwick, Norfolk, Lord FitzWalter and other peers held a council at Baynard’s Castle, which resulted in all the magnates there present agreeing that Edward should be offered the throne. On the following day a deputation of lords and commons, led by Warwick, went to Baynard’s Castle and presented a petition to him, begging him to accept the crown and royal dignity of England, while outside a crowd of Londoners was crying, ‘King Edward! God save King Edward!’ and begging him to ‘avenge us on King Henry and his wife’. Edward graciously acceded to the lords’ petition and was shortly afterwards proclaimed King Edward IV at Baynard’s Castle.

  Edward IV was not a usurper, as Henry IV had been, but the rightful heir to the crown of the Plantagenets legitimately restored to the throne sixty-two years after it had been usurped by the House of Lancaster. Yet although his claim to the throne had been acknowledged by the Lords in Parliament as superior to that of Henry VI, what really determined the issue was the fact that he was in control of the capital and had the military advantage over the Lancastrians. He had become king thanks to the efforts of a small group of magnates headed by Warwick, who had seen that the only way to maintain his position was to uphold the Yorkist claim.

  On the day of his accession London’s leading citizens were summoned to St Paul’s, where they enthusiastically acclaimed their new sovereign when he arrived there after being proclaimed king. In the cathedral he made a thanksgiving offering to God, and then, at the invitation of the Lord Chancellor, went in procession to Westminster Hall where he took the oath required of a new monarch. Afterwards, attired in royal robes and a cap of estate, he was enthroned upon the King’s Bench, to the cheers of the assembled lords, who then escorted him past huge crowds, waving and cheering, to Westminster Abbey, where the abbot and monks presented him with the crown and sceptre of St Edward the Confessor. He made more offerings at the high altar and at the Confessor’s shrine before returning to the choir and mounting the coronation chair, which had been hastily placed there. He addressed the congregation, asserting his right to the crown. When he had finished speaking, the lords asked the people if they would have Edward for their king, at which they cried that they indeed took him for their lawful king. The magnates knelt one by one before him and paid homage, placing their hands between his, and afterwards the Abbey was filled with the glorious sound of a Te Deum: at its conclusion the King made yet more offerings before leaving the church and proceeding to the landing stage at the Palace of Westminster, where he boarded a boat which took him back to Baynard’s Castle.

  Later that day his councillors came with plans for his formal coronation, but Edward vowed that he would not be crowned until Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou had been taken and executed or driven into exile. In his speech in Westminster Abbey Edward had declared that Henry had forfeited his right to the throne by failing to honour the Act of Accord and allowing his wife to take up arms against the true heirs. Henry was deposed, wrote Benet, ‘because he ruled like a tyrant, as had his father and grandfather before him’ – that is to say, without benefit of legal title. Warkworth says that ‘when he had been removed from the throne by King Edward, most of the English people hated him because of his deceitful lords [but] never because of his own faults. They were therefore very glad of a change.’

  On 5 March the Milanese ambassador, Prospero di Camulio, heard a rumour that Henry VI, learning of Edward’s accession, had abdicated in favour of his son. The Queen, went the story, was so angry that she ‘gave the King poison. At least he will know how to die, if he is incapable of doing anything else!’ Although the rumour had no foundation in fact, it is testimony that the Queen’s reputation was such that people believed her capable of the deed.

  The House of York, in the person of Edward IV, was now established on the throne, but the deposed king and queen were still at large, and in command of a sizeable army. No one believed that the conflict would end here.

  18

  The Bloody Meadow

  ‘And so, in field and town, everyone called Edward king.’ His accession was hailed by his supporters and propagandists as the restoration of the true Plantagenet line. God would now, it was hoped, look benevolently upon the realm and allow peace and good government to be restored.

  On 5 March the new king wrote to the city of Coventry, thanking the citizens for their loyal support. This was intended to forestall them from transferring their allegiance back to Henry VI, whose cause they had formerly supported so staunchly. Edward also rewarded Warwick for his inest
imable service by appointing him Great Chamberlain of England, Captain of Dover, and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports; he remained Captain of Calais.

  After the Yorkists had entered London, Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, Prince Edward and the entire Lancastrian army, ‘having little trust in Essex, less in Kent and least of all in London, departed into the north country, where the foundation of their strength and refuge only rested’. With them went their prisoners. They marched to York, shocked and despondent, their men pillaging as they went and leaving havoc and misery behind them.

  By retreating to the north the Lancastrians were effectively surrendering the military initiative to the Yorkists. Henry could have given the order to advance on the capital, but the royal troops were by now so disorderly and violent that he refused to do so, being appalled at the atrocities he had witnessed and guessing what the outcome would be and what damage it would do to the Lancastrian cause.

  The royal army camped outside the walls of York, while Henry sent letters to his loyal lieges, listing ‘the Earl of March’s misdeeds’ and commanding them to raise their people and attend him ‘defensibly arrayed’ with all speed. The Queen also called upon all true subjects of King Henry to rally to his standard and appealed to Mary of Gueldres for reinforcements. Mary responded with a small force of men. Some chroniclers claim that within days Margaret had increased the size of her army to 60,000 men, but the figure is likely to have been nearer 30,000. Her generals, Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford, now began to plan a decisive campaign, and persuaded Henry and Margaret to remain in York while they rode to face the enemy.

 
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