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


  At the beginning of Edward IV’s reign, his subjects had looked forward to prosperity and peace; instead, they had witnessed – and paid for – ‘one battle after another and much trouble and great loss of goods among the common people’. The dominance of the Nevilles and the resurgence of factions at court had helped to convince Edward’s subjects that he, like Henry VI, was unable to control his magnates. Some had never been won over, being jealous of the power enjoyed by Warwick and the Nevilles, or resentful of the men of better brains but lesser degree whom the King favoured.

  The country at large was still subject to disorder and lawlessness, two problems that Edward had as yet been unable to tackle effectively. In many areas travel was dangerous and few people dared venture out at night. The late 1460s saw an alarming decline in law and order, due largely to the corrupt practices of the Yorkist magnates in their own territory; feuds between these peers inevitably led to outbreaks of violence. Discontent was especially rife in the north, where it was exacerbated by disaffected magnates such as Warwick. This posed as serious a threat to Edward IV as had the Lancastrian rebellions of the early 1460s. Lancastrian chroniclers claim that by 1469 the people of England had become disillusioned with Yorkist rule because Edward had not been able to fulfil the promises made at his accession, having been too preoccupied with foreign policy and crushing Lancastrian resistance. Warkworth says that the fifteenth taxation granted by Parliament in 1469 ‘annoyed the people’ because the King had promised not to tax them too heavily, and they had already been overburdened with taxes to pay for military campaigns.

  There is no evidence that the King himself was unpopular; the fact remained, however, that Warwick was more popular than the King and had now set about exploiting that popularity and fuelling public discontent to further his own interests. Hitherto Edward had depended on the Nevilles to hold the north safely for him, but Warwick’s disaffection undermined this security. It was easy for the Earl to resurrect the slumbering grievances of the northerners, and not long before the north became a hotbed of anti-Yorkist feeling, so much so that England seemed to be on the brink of another civil war.

  Edward’s position might have been more secure had he had a son to succeed him, but in March 1469 the Queen gave birth to yet another daughter, Cecily. Although the infant was ‘very handsome’ and her arrival ‘rejoiced the King and all the nobles exceedingly’, they would have preferred a son. The King’s lack of a male heir was becoming a matter of concern to everyone.

  Government agents were still seeking out and arresting Lancastrian activists who were working on behalf of Margaret of Anjou, conveying letters and co-ordinating plans for a future Lancastrian invasion. Those who were taken were tortured in order to make them reveal the names of other traitors. Some accused seemingly reputable merchants and citizens, and more arrests and executions followed. In January 1469 Henry Courtenay and Thomas Hungerford were tried and found guilty of treason, and suffered the full horrors of a traitor’s death. Sir Richard Roos, who had been imprisoned at Windsor since his arrest after Towton in 1461, risked his life by sending a poem, written in double acrostic anagrams, to the Earl of Oxford. The poem contained a coded appeal to all supporters of Henry VI to rise and support Warwick against Edward IV, and Oxford disseminated the message among his contacts. It was now only a matter of time before Edward’s enemies united in opposition against him.

  By the spring of 1469 Warwick was secretly in league with Louis XI, who had promised to give him the principalities of Holland and Zeeland if he could bring about the overthrow of King Edward. Warwick may not have intended to go so far, but he was certainly scheming actively to curb Edward and set himself up as the power behind the throne. Clarence, however, enthusiastically supported Louis’s plan, for his main objective was the throne, and at this time he was attempting to undermine Edward’s position by spreading an unfounded rumour that the King was not the son of Richard, Duke of York, but the bastard son of Duchess Cecily by an archer of Calais called Blaybourne. This tale quickly gained currency in Europe, where it was gleefully repeated by both Louis XI and Charles of Burgundy, and it would be used again in 1483 in England by the Duke of Gloucester to suit his own purposes. Neither Clarence nor, later, Gloucester, scrupled to cast such a slur on their mother’s honour, and she, outraged, emphatically denied the story.

  In the spring of 1469, Warwick and his wife and daughters returned to Calais for a time, so that Warwick could fulfil his duties as Captain. The northerners, their prejudices, grievances and fears heightened by the Earl’s inflammatory propaganda, were now restive and complaining that they were sorely oppressed by high taxes, for which they blamed the Wydvilles. There was unrest throughout the region, and that spring several unco-ordinated risings took place. Warwick, from his base at Calais, had been in touch by letter and through his agents with disaffected northern lords and gentry, and had masterminded a full-scale revolt against the King, which would be led by Sir John Conyers, Warwick’s cousin by marriage and one of his most loyal adherents. The plan was that Conyers and Warwick’s relatives – including Archbishop Neville – and their allies would raise their tenantry and affinities to crush the Wydvilles, restore Neville influence at court, and seize control of the King. Around 28 May they answered the call to arms, rioting and inciting the people to rebellion

  At the same time another revolt broke out in the East Riding of Yorkshire. This was led by the mysterious ‘Robin of Holderness’, whose identity has never been discovered. It was an entirely separate movement from that led by Conyers, its objective being the restoration of Henry Percy to the earldom of Northumberland. Its leaders were therefore no friends to the Nevilles, and Warwick’s brother, John Neville, who held the earldom, marched into Yorkshire with an armed force and made the rebels disperse.

  News of the northern uprisings had not reached the King when he set out on 1 June on a pilgrimage through East Anglia to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, accompanied by Gloucester, Scales and Sir John Wydville, but it must have caught up with him soon afterwards. Yet for more than two weeks he did nothing. Only on the 18th did he finally bestir himself to devise a strategy for dealing with the rebels and begin recruiting men.

  Warwick, meanwhile, had returned to England and on 28 June issued a summons to his ‘servants and well-wishers’ to arm themselves and march with him against the northern rebels, as the King had commanded. In fact, Warwick intended to join those same rebels, but his recruits knew nothing of this. The King, however, was suspicious, and issued an order prohibiting his subjects from forming assemblies unless he himself authorised them to do so.

  At the end of June Edward arrived at Croyland Abbey in Lincolnshire, where he stayed a night, and then proceeded by boat along the River Nene to Fotheringhay Castle. He stayed there a week with the Queen, and on 5 July marched to Stamford while Elizabeth returned to London. At Stamford the King wrote to the mayors of various towns, commanding them to furnish him with contingents of soldiers arrayed for war. Five days later, from Newark, he was issuing similar letters, couched in more urgent tones, ordering the levies to muster there. However, says Croyland, ‘the common people came to him more slowly than he had anticipated’, and there were barely enough of them: judging by alarming reports he had received from the north, he had one man to every three rebels. Knowing he could not hope to prevail, he reluctantly marched his army south to Nottingham, there to summon and await reinforcements from the west.

  Warwick had now managed to purchase a dispensation from the Pope for the marriage of Isabel to Clarence, and this arrived in early July. Armed with it, the Earl left England on 4 July and sailed to Calais with Clarence, Archbishop Neville and the Earl of Oxford. He was planning a coup that would entail the renewal of civil war in England. The Duchess of York had found out what was going on and had travelled to Canterbury to try to dissuade Clarence from playing any part in it, but to no avail. Clarence had too much to gain to back out now.

  When he and Warwick arrived in Calais they w
ere ‘solemnly received and joyously entertained’ by the Countess of Warwick and her two daughters. On 11 July, Clarence and Isabel were married at the Church of Our Lady in the castle of Calais, with Archbishop Neville officiating. Waurin says there were ‘very few guests and the celebrations only lasted two days, for Clarence was married on a Tuesday, and on the following Sunday he returned to England’. The marriage served to bind the Duke more closely to Warwick and identify him with the Earl’s interests.

  In the second week of July, records Warkworth, Sir John Conyers marched south through Yorkshire, leading ‘many knights, squires and commons, numbering 20,000 men in all’. Conyers ‘called himself Robin of Redesdale’, a persona based on Robin Hood, the people’s hero. Croyland claims that the rebel army was 60,000 strong: it was certainly impressive, because reports of its advance caused panic in the south,

  The rebels were to join up with Warwick’s affinity in the Midlands, and the leaders were careful throughout to avoid any attack on the King himself, skirting Nottingham on their way. Edward was slow to react to this new threat, and wasted much valuable time in summoning Warwick from Calais to assist him and then, when Warwick failed to obey, waiting for Herbert of Pembroke to arrive. Herbert was bringing with him 43,000 Welshmen, and in the west Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon, had mustered 7000 archers. In the meantime, the King had ordered the Wydvilles to seek refuge in castles in East Anglia and Wales, but Rivers and his son Sir John Wydville, who had been lodging in Herbert’s castle at Chepstow, joined Edward on his march north to intercept the rebels. In Yorkshire, Northumberland forced Redesdale’s men to disperse, but they merely crossed the border into Lancashire and regrouped.

  From Calais, on 12 July, Warwick issued a manifesto proclaiming that he and Archbishop Neville had been urged by the King’s true subjects to save his Grace from the ‘deceivable and covetous rule and guiding of certain seditious persons’. He then went on to list all-too-familiar grievances, such as ‘lack of governance’, ‘great impositions and inordinate charges’ and the corruption of justice. He promised the people that he would petition the King to remove his evil counsellors, the Wydvilles and Pembroke, cut taxation, and pay heed in future to the true lords of his blood – in other words, Warwick and Clarence. If the King did not meet these demands, he would deserve the same fate as Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI – deposition. The manifesto ended with a plea for armed support from all true subjects of the King and a promise that Warwick would be in Canterbury in three days. Already, his agents were in Kent enlisting men.

  On 16 July, later than planned, Warwick and Archbishop Neville returned to England unopposed and received a heartening welcome in Kent. At Canterbury crowds of armed men flocked to join them, and the common people hailed Warwick as their deliverer. On the 18th he left Canterbury and marched on London at the head of a now substantial army; two days later the Lord Mayor permitted him to march through the city on his way north, in the belief that the Earl was taking reinforcements to the King. Crowds cheered him as he went.

  Pembroke, meanwhile, was hastening to join the King with his Welsh reinforcements, having joined up with Devon and his force. But on the evening of the 24th, when they came to Banbury, the two earls quarrelled over who should have the best lodgings at the inn. Pembroke, as the senior commander, insisted that he should occupy them, but Devon, who had arrived first, protested that they had earlier agreed to take lodgings on a first come, first served basis. Pembroke peremptorily ordered Devon out of the rooms, and Devon, put out because he had just seduced the innkeeper’s daughter, marched off in a rage with all his men.

  The next morning, Pembroke rode back to where his army was encamped by Edgecote Hill, six miles north-east of Banbury. The camp was on the western bank of a tributary of the River Cherwell, in the valley of Danes Moor. The next day, long before he had expected to do so, Pembroke sighted Robin of Redesdale’s northern army, which caught him unprepared for battle. Even though Devon and his archers had now rejoined him, his army was still considerably smaller than that of the rebels, who were drawn up in battle order on Blackbird Hill, to the north-east of Danes Moor.

  The Battle of Edgecote began at dawn on 26 July 1469, when both sides advanced to a crossing place on the river and tried to take it, Pembroke going ahead with a troop of horsemen and defending himself manfully against a savage northern onslaught. Despite the odds, he managed to secure the crossing and hold on to it, while the northern army withdrew to await reinforcements from Warwick. While they were waiting, they regrouped into battle order. Pembroke, meanwhile, had been joined by Sir William Parr and Sir Geoffrey Gate with fresh troops, but was still outnumbered.

  Then there appeared in the distance a force of 15,000 men of Kent and soldiers of the Calais garrison, who had been sent ahead by Warwick; at the sight, Devon and his archers fled, believing that this was Warwick’s entire army. After Devon had withdrawn, Pembroke found it impossible to maintain a continuous battle line, but he nevertheless led a ferocious charge and forced the rebels to fall back. His brother, Sir Richard Herbert, fought heroically, twice crossing the enemy line, swinging his poleaxe, ‘without any mortal wound returned’. Victory was almost within the Yorkists’ grasp when a second force of 500 rebel reinforcements came thundering downhill behind them: it was Warwick’s advance guard, and its banners bore his device of the bear and ragged staff. This was enough to strike terror into the hearts of Pembroke’s Welshmen, who fled the field in disarray, many wading across the river. Casualties were high on both sides, but Pembroke’s Welshmen suffered the worst losses, with 2-4000 men dead.

  The rebels – and the Nevilles – had scored a resounding victory. Pembroke was taken prisoner along with his brother, the craven Devon fled into Somerset, and Rivers and Sir John Wydville went into hiding, knowing that Warwick would try to hunt them down.

  After the battle, the Herbert brothers were brought before Warwick and Clarence at their headquarters at Northampton, where Warwick had no compunction in condemning them as traitors and ordering their executions. There was no legal justification for his action, since neither Herbert nor his confederates had committed treason against their lawful sovereign, nor were they guilty of any crime. Nevertheless, both were beheaded on 27 July. Herbert’s wife had once promised him that if anything should happen to him she would take a vow of perpetual widowed chastity. Before he was led out to die, he wrote her a last letter: ‘Pray for me, and take the said order that ye promised me, as ye had in my life my heart and love.’

  People were shocked at Herbert’s execution: he had been one of the chief mainstays of Edward IV’s throne. His death meant that the earldom of Pembroke was once more vacant and that Jasper Tudor would almost certainly try to reclaim it. It also meant that nothing now stood between Warwick and his ambitions in Wales.

  The loss of his powerful guardian left young Henry Tudor without a protector, but the widowed Countess of Pembroke took him to live with her at Weobley in Herefordshire. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, tried at this time to regain custody of him, but without success.

  After Edgecote, Conyers and his northerners returned home; there is no record of Conyers receiving any reward for the sterling service he had done Warwick, yet he remained loyal to the Earl. On 17 August, the fugitive Earl of Devon was captured by the common people of Somerset at Bridgewater, where, says Hall, he was ‘cut shorter by the head’.

  Meanwhile, on the 29th the King had decided it was unsafe to remain at Nottingham waiting for Pembroke, and had ridden south. At the village of Olney, near Coventry, he learned of the Earl’s crushing defeat at Edgecote, news which prompted many of the nobles with him to desert, leaving him isolated and vulnerable. He now had no choice but to dismiss those lords who were still in attendance, and leave himself at the mercy of his enemies. Only Gloucester and Hastings remained with him.

  Archbishop Neville soon found out that the King was at Olney ‘and that all the men he had raised had fled from him, so, on the advice of the Earl of Warwick, he
went with a few horsemen’ to seize him. At midnight, the King was awoken by the sound of many horses’ hooves and men shouting outside his window. Looking out, he saw in the street below a troop of soldiers wearing Warwick’s livery. Then there was a sharp knock on the door. The King’s attendants opened it to reveal Archbishop Neville, fully armed, standing in the antechamber. The Archbishop offered a courteous greeting to the King and bade him dress at once. Edward refused, saying he was tired and had not had sufficient rest. But the Archbishop was firm – this was no social call. ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘you must rise and come to see my brother of Warwick, nor do I think that you can refuse.’ Edward meekly did as he was told, as Gloucester and Hastings, roused from sleep, looked on helplessly. Presently the King was ready, and rode with the Archbishop and his soldiers to confront a triumphant Warwick and Clarence. The Nevilles were now in control.

  On 2 August, Edward was brought before Warwick and Clarence at Coventry. He greeted them amiably and made no protest at their treatment of him. For Warwick, the capture of the King was in some respects an anti-climax. Now that he had him, what was he to do with him? He himself had no royal authority, he and Clarence were not in a strong enough position to indict and execute Edward without fear of reprisals, nor had they gathered enough support to depose him and set Clarence on the throne in his place. In fact, by deferring to Edward as king while holding him in captivity they had placed themselves in an invidious position, for it was no light matter to imprison one’s anointed sovereign. Moreover, without the King at the helm much of the business of government must be held in suspension.

 
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