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


  In adversity, More says, Edward was ‘nothing abashed’; in times of peace he showed himself ‘just and merciful’. He was pious in the conventional sense, and, although intelligent, he was no intellectual, yet he did enjoy collecting books, which he took with him whenever he travelled and later, when the collection became too unwieldy to transport, deposited at Windsor, where they became the basis for the Royal Library which exists to this day. Although he personally had a preference for illuminated manuscripts, he became a patron of William Caxton, the first English printer. The King was fluent in Latin and French, and wrote a fine italic hand, rare in a mediaeval English sovereign. He was fascinated by the contemporary science of alchemy, by which it was believed that base metal could be turned into gold.

  In his tastes Edward followed the dictates of the court of Burgundy, which at that time led the rest of Europe in style, culture, manners and etiquette. He spent lavishly on clothing, jewels and plate, but was unable to exercise a great deal of patronage of the arts or carry out his cherished hopes of rebuilding or extending the royal palaces until later in his reign. Today, St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the great hall at Eltham Palace in Kent bear witness to the largely vanished splendours of his reign.

  Now that he was established on the throne, Edward gave himself up to the pursuit of pleasure. He was extravagant by nature, dissolute, and loved luxury too much for his own good. Commines says ‘he was accustomed to more luxuries and pleasures than any prince of his day’. He was a good dancer, excelled at sports, and preferred to indulge in his pleasures than attend to matters of state. Almost the only person he went in awe of was his formidable mother who, according to the Paston Letters, could ‘rule the King as she pleases’.

  Edward’s chief vice was his sensuality, and his debaucheries were soon notorious. ‘He thought of nothing but upon women,’ wrote a disapproving Commines, ‘and on that more than reason would; and on hunting, and on the comfort of his person.’ Mancini found him

  licentious in the extreme. Moreover, it was said that he had been most insolent to numerous women after he had seduced them, for as soon as he had satisfied his lust he abandoned the ladies, much against their will, to the other courtiers. He pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried, the noble and lowly. However, he took none by force. He overcame all by money and promises, and, having conquered them, he dismissed them. He had many promoters and companions of his vices.

  More wrote: ‘He was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, for no woman was there anywhere whom he set his eye upon but he would importunately pursue his appetite and have her.’ Croyland, along with many of Edward’s contemporaries, felt that the King ‘indulged his passions and desires too intemperately’. Later it would be said that his sexual excesses in youth had permanently undermined his health and constitution. However, few of his intrigues lasted for long and none of his mistresses was allowed to interfere in politics. The names of only two are known: Elizabeth Lucy, a married woman who had an affair with Edward early in his reign and bore him a son, Arthur Plantagenet, and possibly a daughter too; and Elizabeth Shore, commonly miscalled Jane, who was the only one he is said to have loved, and who remained by his side through the latter years of his life.

  For all his love of pleasure, Edward was an exceptionally able and talented warrior and general. At nineteen, he was already the veteran of several important battles and the victor of two decisive ones. In the field he was ‘manly, vigorous and valiant’; Vergil says he was ‘earnest and horrible to the enemy, and fortunate in all his wars’. Commines remarked, much later, that he had fought many battles but never lost one. He apparently found being in the midst of a mêlée exhilarating, even though he hated war for its own sake and tried to avoid it whenever possible. He abandoned conscription for periods longer than forty days, and restricted it to campaigns affecting the defence of the realm only. Unlike his predecessors, he had no continental ambitions: ‘He was not suited to endure all the toil necessary for a king of England to make conquest in France.’

  As often as possible Edward emphasised his royal status by wearing his crown in public, bestowing higher payments on those persons who were healed by his touch (touching for the King’s Evil being a routine duty of monarchy that was believed to effect a cure for the distressing skin disease scrofula), and frequently presiding from the marble throne over the Court of King’s Bench at Westminster to ensure that justice was being administered fairly. He loved the trappings of monarchy, the display, the ceremonial and the adulation.

  As king, Edward excelled Henry VI in nearly every way, especially as a statesman and a general. He was a firm and resolute ruler, shrewd and astute, and had real ability and business acumen, as well as the willingness to apply himself. He was eventually successful in his attempts to restore the authority of the monarchy and make it into an institution that inspired respect and awe. More, who describes Edward as a great king, says he endeared himself to his subjects by small acts of consideration which made more impression on them than grand gestures would have done. More gives an example of this, relating how on one occasion the King invited the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London to Windsor ‘for none other errand but to have them hunt and be merry with him’. He was undoubtedly popular with the people: ‘To plaintiffs and those who complained of injustice he lent a willing ear,’ wrote Mancini. ‘Charges against himself he contented with an excuse, if he did not remove the cause. He was more favourable than other princes to foreigners.’ He was also unusually tolerant of heresy – only one Lollard was burned at the stake during his reign.

  Edward was an able and energetic administrator, always busy and always accessible to his subjects. It was said of him that he knew the names and fortunes of all men of note in the country, and he personally involved himself in many aspects of government, especially where law enforcement was involved. This is attested to by the unprecedented number of letters and warrants issued under the signet seal, which was kept by the King’s secretary.

  Edward’s court was patterned on that of Philip of Burgundy. ‘In those days,’ remembered Croyland, ‘you would have seen a royal court worthy of a leading kingdom, full of riches and men from every nation.’ Such magnificence had not been seen at court since the time of Richard II. Scholars and men of learning were warmly welcomed. Elaborate codes of courtesy and etiquette were followed slavishly, these being considered the outward manifestations of an ordered society. So intricate were these rituals that a stream of books on manners appeared at this time. The number of steps one took to greet one’s guests was determined by one’s rank. According precedence was a refined art, and social inferiors were expected to refuse precedence a stated number of times, according to rank, before gracefully giving in. Pages and sons of the nobility were forbidden to drink wine while still chewing food, lean over the table, pick their noses, teeth or nails during meals, place dirty utensils on the cloth or eat with their knives.

  During Edward’s reign The Black Book of the Household was drawn up, in which were enshrined the rights and duties of all members of the royal household and the details of ceremonial to be observed at court. This was the result of the King’s determination to impose economies and curb wastefulness. The money thus saved was spent on the trappings of majesty, so that both his own subjects and foreign visitors might be impressed by the magnificence of the King. Although splendid and in some ways extravagant, the court of Edward IV was thus more economically organised than those of his predecessors.

  As time went by, Edward improved and beautified many of his palaces, notably Greenwich, Westminster, Windsor and Eltham. He spent lavishly on ‘chambers of pleasaunce’ hung with rich and vivid tapestries. One of his favourite residences was the Tower of London, where the splendid royal apartments were protected by great fortifications and were convenient for the city of London. Here Edward spent more time than any sovereign before him.

  In all his palaces the King’s apartments – his ‘House of Magnificence’ – consist
ed of three chambers: an outer or audience chamber, where he received ambassadors or visitors; an inner or privy chamber, for private business; and a bedchamber. Edward was attended in these chambers by some 400 men under the control of the Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Hastings. The most important members in this hierarchy were the Knights of the Body, who looked after the King’s personal needs. Then came his knights, squires and gentlemen ushers, whose duty was to ensure that protocol was continually observed, followed by servers, yeomen, messengers, torch bearers, grooms of the chamber, and pages, who were usually the sons of lords, sent to court to complete their education and knightly training as well as performing menial services for the King, such as clearing up after the many dogs in the household.

  The King’s apartments, known as the Chamber, were the scene of royal ceremonial and display, political intrigue and much jostling for power by nobles competing for the monarch’s patronage. Under the Lord Chamberlain the most important officers of the Chamber were the King’s secretary, chaplain, almoner and ushers, all of whom could become quite influential through their daily dealings with the sovereign. It was compulsory for every male member of the King’s household above the rank of gentleman to wear a gold collar of suns and white roses in honour of the House of York.

  Each morning Edward rose at dawn and heard mass before breaking his fast on cold meat and ale. He was dressed by his squires, who slept in his bedchamber on truckle or pallet beds. Twenty squires and a gentleman usher served him at meals, which were conducted with great ceremony, 2000 people eating each day at the King’s expense. A server stood at hand with basin and towel so that Edward could wash his hands after a meal, and a ‘Doctor of Physic’ was always in attendance to advise him ‘which diet is best’, although one suspects that his advice was not always heeded. The royal chefs were experts in the culinary arts, serving not only traditional dishes but also foreign and exotic ones. As the King ate, thirteen minstrels played for him in a gallery above the hall.

  At night Edward slept in a tester bed which had been made up according to an elaborate ritual involving two squires, two grooms, a yeoman and a gentleman usher, who spread upon it fustian upper sheets of bleached linen, a bolster and an ermine counterpane, then sprinkled it with holy water.

  In the summer Edward loved nothing better than to go hunting at Windsor. Here were served ceremonial picnics, with tables laid under the trees in the great park laden with platters of roasted meats and artistic sugar confections called ‘subtleties’. The King would flirt with the ladies of his court in silken pavilions, or sail along the Thames in a gilded barge to the sound of music, laughter and conversation. Commines remarked sourly that Edward had ‘wholly given himself to dances, hunting, hawking and banqueting’, while monastic chroniclers were scandalised by the dress of the courtiers, in particular the short-skirted doublets of the men, which were worn over tight hose and revealed ‘shameful privy members’. The extravagant headdresses of the noble ladies, steeple-shaped hennins and precarious affairs of wire and gauze known as ‘butterflies’, also drew adverse comments from the moralists, who saw in them the lure of the Devil.

  Hospitality at court was lavish. In 1466 the Queen of Bohemia’s brother, the Lord of Rozmital, was a guest of King Edward, and was as impressed with the banquet of fifty courses that was served in his honour as he was with the courtesy and decorum of the courtiers. A member of his train, Gabriel Tetzel, who wrote an account of the visit, was himself overwhelmed by the magnificence and splendour of the Yorkist court and the astonishing reverence shown to the King by his relatives and nobles. He pronounced it ‘the most splendid court that one can find in all Christendom’.

  After Towton, Edward IV found it relatively easy to establish himself as king, even though he still faced opposition and potential rebellion from Lancastrian supporters and even, later on, from discontented Yorkists, who felt that he had failed to live up to his promises. To survive he knew he had to eliminate the Lancastrian threat, both at home and abroad, and adopt a general policy of conciliation towards his subjects, particularly the more influential ones.

  The most important challenge facing him was political reconstruction, a task that would take several years. His chief aims were to re-establish the authority of the Crown, restore law and order, win the support of his subjects, and unite the nation under a strong and stable government, thus laying down firm foundations for his dynasty. He wished to gain favour with the prosperous and influential merchant classes, especially in London, and one of the first things he did was to ban the import of inferior goods in order to protect the interests of English industry. Another priority was to secure the goodwill of other European nations, especially France and Burgundy, and so avoid the expense of war.

  During the first decade of his reign the King was preoccupied with reasserting the royal authority, and several reforms had to wait. However, within this period English trade began to recover, and the Crown became more respected. Edward was not able to eliminate factions at court; indeed, by favouring the Nevilles he seemed to be encouraging them. However, unlike Henry VI, he exercised a tight rein on patronage.

  Edward began restoring law and order at local level by replacing corrupt sheriffs with men of greater integrity, and corrupt officials by professionally qualified ones. In 1464 he accompanied his justices on a tour of duty in the west of England, where he intended to punish ‘risers against the peace’, desiring to be seen to be personally enforcing his laws. He took measures against the rigging of elections of members of Parliament by insisting that only those qualified to vote be allowed to do so, and preventing them from being intimidated by local lords and their retainers. These measures were only partly successful, as Edward did not always dare to alienate the magnates who had benefited from corrupt practices. He enjoyed greater success in his attempts to prevent piracy; gradually the seas became safe again, which pleased the merchants greatly. Contemporary sources show that under Edward’s rule there was an overall improvement in law and order generally.

  Finally – and this was an urgent necessity – the King had to overhaul the royal finances. He began by passing several Acts of Resumption revoking grants and pensions made by Henry VI, though never without lists of exemptions in order to preserve his policy of conciliation. This, naturally, caused some hardship, but Edward had decided on his priorities. He then purged the royal household of numerous Lancastrian officials, replacing them with men of his own affinity. He even tried to close Eton College, but Bishop Wayneflete persuaded him not to.

  At the beginning of Edward’s reign the Crown’s annual expenditure was £50,000. The royal income barely covered that, and the King was sometimes unable to cover his costs. Later in 1461 he gained possession of the estates of Henry VI, including the income from the duchy of Lancaster, which, together with the income from his own Yorkist inheritance and from a great number of confiscated Lancastrian properties, brought him an additional income of around £30,000 a year. Much of this, however, was swallowed up in 1461 by grants and rewards to his loyal supporters, and until 1465 Edward had to live carefully. In that year Parliament granted him the revenues from customs duties at English ports for life, which brought him an extra £25,000 a year, a figure that would later increase as the trade depression lifted.

  Edward IV had some talent for business and finance, and could also be ruthless. As his position became more secure, he demanded of his wealthier subjects forced loans known as ‘benevolences’, and even outright gifts. These were, needless to say, unpopular measures, but their end result was that the Crown, for the first time in decades, became solvent, an extraordinary achievement in the Middle Ages.

  One of the King’s priorities in his early years on the throne was to repay the debts owed by the Crown to London merchants and Italian banks. Henry VI’s reputation for not repaying loans had resulted in him being unable to obtain any further credit. Edward IV had no intention of allowing the same thing to happen again, and by the end of his reign had repaid debts totalli
ng £97,000. To do this, he had tightened controls on royal expenditure, streamlined the administration of the Crown’s finances, and made corrupt practices difficult. He appointed professional receivers and surveyors to manage the Crown’s estates, abandoning the inefficient and unwieldy system by which they had been administered under his predecessor. Estate officials were made accountable to the Chamber, the financial department of the royal household, instead of to the Exchequer, which meant there was less delay before the King received the revenues due to him, while discrepancies could be spotted early. It was not long before the Chamber replaced the Exchequer as the chief financial department of state.

  In 1467 the King promised in Parliament to ‘live of his own’ without borrowing, and not to levy burdensome taxes unless it was for ‘great and urgent causes’, such as the defence of the realm. During the 1460s Parliament voted the King a total of £93,000, and most of this was spent on putting down rebellions. From 1463 Edward became heavily involved in the wool trade for his own profit, exporting thousands of sacks of wool and woollen cloth; over the years the venture proved highly successful and enabled him to pay off his debts and also provide employment for many people.

  Mancini commented that, ‘though not rapacious of other men’s goods, [Edward] was yet so eager for money that in pursuing it he acquired a reputation for avarice. By appealing to causes, either true or at least with some semblance of truth, he did not appear to extort but almost to beg for subsidies.’ Between 1461 and 1463, however, the political situation was such that he was obliged to make many financial demands of his subjects, and this did not endear him to them.

 
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