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

  Marriage was regarded by the Church as a necessary evil, following the dictum of St Paul, who said it was better to marry than to burn. Most people married, unless they were apprentices or in holy orders, and child marriages were not uncommon. One heiress, Grace de Saleby, had been thrice married by the age of eleven; John Rigmardin was a bridegroom at three years old, and thirteen-year-old John Bridge, after being put to bed with his bride on their wedding night, bawled to go home to his father.

  Fifteenth-century children were by no means spoiled. Their elders enforced strict codes of behaviour and manners, and demonstrations of affection were rare. Parental love expressed itself in worldly expectations. Children were expected to be wholly obedient to their parents, and the slightest fault was punished by a beating, in the child’s own interests. One Venetian ambassador commented, ‘The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested toward their children.’ When he asked some parents why they were so harsh, ‘they answered that they did it in order that their children might learn better manners’.

  Upper-class children, even the heirs to estates, were rarely brought up at home but were sent at an early age to be educated and reared in the household of some noble and influential lord, who would hopefully secure future preferment for them. Few of these children then returned home. ‘The girls are settled in marriage by their patrons and the boys make the best marriages they can.’ Childhood ended early. Most children were married, apprenticed or in the cloister or university by their early teens.

  The fifteenth century was a turbulent age, and that turbulence manifested itself in England in the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, a conflict that was by no means continuous but which dragged on intermittently for a period of thirty years and more. This book tells the story of the struggle between Lancaster and York.

  Part I

  The Origins

  of the Conflict


  A Race of Magnates

  Since 1154 England had been ruled by the House of Plantagenet and the succession to the crown had passed fairly peaceably from father to son or brother to brother. The Plantagenet kings, who were reputed by legend to have descended from the Devil, were mostly dynamic men and outstanding leaders, energetic, warlike, courageous, just and wise. They were distinguished by aquiline features, red hair and a ferocious temper truly terrible to behold.

  Edward III (1327-77) was the archetypal Plantagenet king – tall, proud, majestic and handsome, with chiselled features and long hair and beard. Born in 1312, he was only fourteen when his father, Edward II, was deposed and murdered, and eighteen when he assumed personal control of the government of England.

  In 1328 Edward married Philippa of Hainault, who bore him thirteen children. His occasional infidelities did not affect this happy and successful marriage, which lasted forty years. Edward had inherited the notorious Plantagenet temper, but the Queen exerted a restraining influence on him; in a famous incident in 1347, she successfully interceded with him for the lives of the doomed burghers of Calais, which Edward had captured after a long siege.

  Edward lived in great splendour in the royal residences which he enlarged and beautified, and his court was a renowned centre of chivalry. He had a special reverence for St George, the patron saint of England, and did much to promote his cult. In 1348, he founded the Order of the Garter, which was dedicated to the saint.

  Above all, Edward desired to win glory by great deeds. In 1338, concerned by French incursions into his duchy of Aquitaine, in which was centred England’s prosperous wine trade, he laid claim to the throne of France, asserting that he was the true heir by virtue of descent from his mother, who was sister of the last Capetian king. However, the Salic Law, which barred women from succeeding or transmitting a claim to the throne, obtained in France, and the French had already crowned Edward’s cousin, Philip of Valois, who was the male heir of the Capets.

  Edward’s quartering of the lilies of France with the leopards of England on his coat of arms led to the conflict that later became known as the Hundred Years War because it dragged on intermittently for more than a century. Under Edward’s leadership, the English at first scored several victories: Sluys in 1340, Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356. These were the first important battles in which the English longbowmen demonstrated their supremacy over the heavily armoured French cavalry. However, the early successes of the English were not sustained, and in 1360 Edward was forced to return some of the lands he had conquered under the terms of the Treaty of Brétigny, which brought the first phase of the war to a close. When Edward died, apart from the duchy of Aquitaine, all that remained of his French territories were five towns and the land around Calais known as the Pale.

  Edward III’s reign saw many changes. Parliament, now divided into Lords and Commons, began to meet regularly and to assert its authority through financial controls. Parliament’s principal function at this date was to vote taxation, and in this respect it did not always co-operate with the King’s wishes. In 1345 the law courts became permanently established in London and no longer followed the King’s person on progress around the kingdom. In 1352 treason was defined by statute for the first time. In 1361 the office of Justice of the Peace was created – gentlemen of good standing in their locality were appointed magistrates – and the following year English replaced French as the official language of the law courts. Edward’s reign also witnessed the rise to prosperity of the merchant classes and the beginning of the spread of education among laymen.

  The King was a great patron of artists, authors and architects. The origins of the English Perpendicular style in architecture may be traced to his reign. This was also the period of the first great names in English literature: the poets Richard Rolle, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and William Langland. The latter’s epic poem Piers Plowman is an indictment of the oppression suffered by the poor after the Black Death, and of Alice Perrers, the rapacious mistress whose sway over Edward in his declining years was notorious.

  Edward died in 1377. The face of the wooden effigy carried at his funeral, which is still preserved in Westminster Abbey, is a death mask, and the effects of the stroke which killed the King may be seen in the drawn-down corner of the mouth.

  Edward III had thirteen children, including five sons who grew to maturity. He provided for them by marrying them to English heiresses and then creating the first ever English dukedoms for them. Thus he brought into being a race of powerful magnates related by blood to the royal line, whose descendants would ultimately challenge each other for the throne itself.

  It is tempting to criticise Edward for bestowing upon his sons so much landed power, but it was then expected of him to provide for his sons to the best of his ability and make sufficient provision to enable his children to maintain establishments and retinues befitting their royal rank. In Edward’s own lifetime the way in which he married his children into the upper echelons of the nobility and thereby secured for them substantial inheritances, while at the same time extending royal influence, was seen as a very successful undertaking. In 1377, the Chancellor spoke at Edward’s last Parliament of the love and trust within the royal family, saying that ‘no Christian king had such sons as the King has had. By him and his sons the realm has been reformed, honoured and enriched as never before.’

  The eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, was known from the sixteenth century as the ‘Black Prince’. While only sixteen years old, the Prince won his knightly spurs at Crécy, and by his exploits during the next decade earned the reputation of being the finest knight in Christendom. The nickname given him may have been inspired by the colour of his armour or, more probably, the ferocity of his temper. In later years, dogged by ill-health, he tarnished his fame by ordering the notorious massacre of innocent citizens at Limoges. He predeceased his father in 1376, leaving one heir, nine-year-old Richard of Bordeaux, who succeeded his grandfather in 1377 as Richard II. It is one of the ironies of history that the successor of the fertile Edward II
I should produce no children at all, a circumstance which indirectly brought about the Wars of the Roses half a century later.

  Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (1338-68), made a highly advantageous marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, sole heiress of the Anglo-Irish Earl of Ulster and a descendant, through her mother, of King Henry III (1207-72). Elizabeth died in 1363, having produced only one daughter, Philippa of Clarence (1355-81). After his wife’s death, Lionel, in a bid to establish some kind of Italian principality for himself, married Violante Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan, but he died in Italy in mysterious circumstances, possibly of poison, only six months afterwards.

  Lionel’s marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh brought him an Irish earldom and the ancestral lands of the de Burgh family in Ulster, although Ireland was in such chaos that he was never able to exercise more than nominal control over his inheritance. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of the long association between his family and the land and people of Ireland.

  Lionel’s daughter Philippa became the wife of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March (1352-81). In 1363, on the death of her mother, Philippa became Countess of Ulster in her own right. The House of York would one day base its claim to the throne on its descent from Edward III through Philippa of Clarence, and certainly by the law of primogeniture, after the Black Prince’s line failed, the crown should have passed to the heirs of his next brother, Lionel. But it did not, and this was one of the crucial issues raised during the Wars of the Roses.

  The Mortimers were a family of great barons whose chief sphere of influence was along the Welsh border – the Marches. Their principal seats were Wigmore Castle – now a ruin – and Ludlow Castle. Through marriage, they had absorbed the estates of other Marcher barons, the Lacys and the Genvilles. At the peak of their power, in the late fourteenth century, they were the richest of all the magnates and the most powerful family on the Welsh Marches. They owned extensive estates, not only there, but also in Ireland, Wales, Dorset, Somerset and East Anglia. They extended and improved Ludlow Castle, building a magnificent range of domestic apartments which are considered to be the best surviving examples of the domestic quarters of a late mediaeval aristocrat.

  Edmund Mortimer had become 3rd Earl of March at the age of eight on his father’s death; he was also Earl of Ulster in right of his wife. In 1379 he was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland, a post held by several of his descendants. His tour of duty there lasted less than three years, but he achieved a great deal in that time. He drowned whilst crossing a ford in Cork in December 1381, leaving his son Roger (1373-98) as his heir.

  Edward III’s third surviving son was John of Gaunt (1340-99), who became Duke of Lancaster by right of his marriage to his distant cousin Blanche, the heiress of the House of Lancaster, which had been founded by Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, second son of Henry III, in the thirteenth century. The Duchy of Lancaster was a palatinate, which meant that it was virtually an independent state in which the king’s writ counted for very little.

  Gaunt, a tall, lean man of military bearing, was a fabulously wealthy prince. Proud and ambitious, he maintained an impressive establishment organised along the lines of the royal household and staffed by a retinue of 500 persons. He owned vast estates, scattered throughout England and France, thirty castles and numerous manors, and could summon a formidable army of tenants at will. Gaunt’s favourite residences were his London palace of the Savoy, which rivalled Westminster in magnificence but was burned down in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, a place much beloved by his Lancastrian descendants. It is now a ruin, but Gaunt’s magnificent banqueting hall with its huge windows remains.

  He loved ceremony and, like most of his class, held to the laws of chivalry as if they were a second religion. He was a cultivated man who loved books, patronised Chaucer, and enjoyed jousting. Dignified, reserved in manner and guarded in conversation, he was also peaceable, rarely exacting revenge for wrongs done to him and looking after his tenants. He was merciful to the humble and compassionate to villeins, or bondsmen, who wanted their freedom and even to lepers, the outcasts of mediaeval society. When dealing with rebellious peasants after the revolt, he acted with fairness.

  Although he fought many campaigns, Gaunt never achieved any significant military success, and thus remained very much in the shadow of his father and elder brother, never enjoying, as they did, the status of public hero. Indeed, by the 1370s he had become very unpopular with the people of England. Edward III was sick and enfeebled, given over to the wiles of his rapacious mistress, Alice Perrers; the Black Prince was wasting away with a crippling disease. England’s victories in the Hundred Years War were long past, while her government, lacking cohesive leadership, blundered from one crisis to another. Gaunt, as the senior active member of the royal house, was blamed for its failings and the loss of some of England’s conquests in France. His wealth and influence were also resented, and after the Black Prince died there were rumours that he meant to seize the throne for himself. Other rumours had it that Gaunt was a Flemish changeling, smuggled into his mother’s bedchamber to replace a stillborn daughter. None of the rumours was true, but when his nephew Richard II succeeded, Gaunt made a great show of loyalty and avoided being identified with any opposition to the minority government. Thereafter he saw his life’s work as maintaining the honour and integrity of the English Crown. He remained faithful to Richard, during whose minority he was virtual ruler of England, but he nevertheless made bitter enemies, especially among the clergy, who attacked him for supporting John Wycliffe, who caused a furore by attacking abuses within the Church. Many magnates suspected him of harbouring designs on the throne, but in fact the only throne Gaunt coveted was that of Castile, which he claimed through its heiress, his second wife Constance, though he failed in his attempt to establish himself as king there.

  Until the 1390s, Richard II respected, trusted and relied upon Gaunt. The latter’s status as a politician had so improved by that time that even his avowed enemy, the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, was moved to describe him as a man of worth and loyalty. Chaucer, whose sister-in-law became Gaunt’s third wife, called his patron ‘treatable, right wonder skilful, and reasonable’, while Froissart described him as ‘sage and imaginative’.

  According to Chaucer, who dedicated his work The Book of the Duchess to Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche of Lancaster was beautiful, golden-haired, tall and shapely. She could read and write, which was unusual in an age when female literacy was discouraged because it would give women the means to write love letters. But so pure was Blanche’s reputation that she was regarded as a chaste patroness of men of letters. She bore Gaunt eight children, of whom only three grew to maturity: Philippa, who married John I, King of Portugal; Elizabeth, who married John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter; and Henry of Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s heir. Blanche died during the third outbreak of the Black Death in 1369, and was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral.

  Gaunt’s second marriage to Constance of Castile was made for political reasons. They had two children, John, who died as a baby, and Katherine, who married Henry III, King of Castile. Constance died in 1394.

  On 13 January 1396, at Lincoln Cathedral, Gaunt married for the third time, this time for love. The bride was the lady who had been his mistress for a quarter of a century. Her name was Katherine Swynford, and she was the daughter of a herald of Guienne and the widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, who died fighting the French in 1372. At the time of her marriage to Gaunt she was about forty-six. She is thought to have been the sister of Philippa le Picard, a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen and pantry woman to Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, and probably also the wife of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

  Katherine first came to Gaunt’s attention when she was employed as ‘gouvernante’ to his daughters by Blanche. Froissart alleges their affair began the year before Blanche’s death. It was certainly going on when Gaunt married Constance, but did not become notorious until 1378
, when, according to Walsingham, the couple began openly living in sin. Three years later the liaison had become common knowledge. Gaunt’s accounts record gifts given to Katherine between 1372 and 1381, but in that year, interpreting his losses during the Peasants’ Revolt as evidence of God’s displeasure, he renounced Katherine, and in 1382 she resigned her post and retired to the estates given her by her lover in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

  Katherine bore Gaunt four children, all surnamed Beaufort after a lordship and castle once owned by him in the Champagne region of France, but lost in 1369, before they were born. These children and their descendants were to dominate English politics for the next century and more, and it has been said with truth that the history of the Beauforts is the history of England during that period. Their dates of birth are not recorded, but the eldest, John Beaufort, must have been born in the early 1370s because in 1390 he rode in triumph at the celebrated jousts held before the French court at St Inglevert in France. From John would be descended the Beaufort dukes of Somerset and ultimately the royal House of Tudor. The second son, Henry, was educated in law at Aachen, in Germany, and then at Cambridge and Oxford, before entering the Church, within which he would rise to the rank of cardinal and become one of the most influential men in the kingdom. The third son, Thomas, was too young to be knighted in 1397, when the Beauforts were legitimised, but went on to become Duke of Exeter and play a prominent part in the French wars, while Joan, the only daughter, would marry the powerful Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, and become matriarch of the widespread Neville family.

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