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

  In 1388, in recognition of the esteem in which she was held by Gaunt, Richard II made Katherine Swynford a Lady of the Garter, and we should perhaps assume that she and Gaunt again became lovers at that time. Hostile chroniclers compared Katherine to Alice Perrers, calling her an adventuress and worse: it was said she had none of Alice’s charm but far more influence. Priests delivered sermons on her vices and the common people spat at her when she appeared in public. But in Gaunt’s magnificent residences, as well as at court, the great deferred to Katherine, and were not too proud to present petitions to her, hoping she would exert her influence on their behalf. After her marriage, she ranked as first lady in the land until Richard II married Isabella of France, though her lowly birth and scandalous past made her the butt of much gossip on the part of the great ladies of the court, who protested that they would not come into any place where she would be present. Froissart says they thought it a ‘great shame that such a duchess should have the pre-eminence before them’. But Katherine continued to behave with a decorum and dignity that would silence them in the end.

  Edward III’s fourth surviving son was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York (1341-1402), an ineffectual ditherer of little ability, whose achievements were few, for he lacked the ambition and energy of his brothers. His remains, exhumed during the reign of Queen Victoria, showed him to have been a stocky man of about 5′8″ tall. Although his contemporaries described him as handsome, he had an abnormally sloping forehead and a prominent, thrusting jaw. On his body there was evidence of several wounds, none of them in the back, which suggests that if Edmund was somewhat lacking in brain power, he was no coward in the field. His long military career began when he was eighteen, when he fought the French, but in the years that followed, despite the odd moment of glory, he was dogged by one misfortune after another and was rarely given an independent command.

  During the reign of Richard II Edmund was a political lightweight; his views were deferred to because of his rank, but he enjoyed little real influence. The greatest passion in his life was hawking, which he preferred to any political duty. The chronicler John Hardyng described Edmund as a cheerful and well-meaning man who ‘lived without wrong’, but whose abilities did not match the role his birth dictated.

  Edmund was staunchly loyal to his brother, Gaunt. In 1372 he married Isabella, the younger sister of Gaunt’s second wife Constance. Her corpse was also examined by Victorian experts, who discovered she was only 4′8″tall and had strange, forked teeth. In life she was said to be beautiful and notorious, with a number of lovers, the most famous being John Holland, later Duke of Exeter. Chaucer satirised their affair in a poem entitled ‘The Complaint of Mars’, while monastic chroniclers referred to Isabella as a ‘soft and lascivious woman, devoted to lust and worldliness’. She loved beautiful things: in her will are listed items of exquisite jewellery, such as a heart set with pearls, and illuminated manuscripts of romances. In later years she became faithful to her husband and turned to religion, dying in 1392 ‘pious and repentant’. Isabella left three children: Edward (born c.1373), his father’s heir; Richard (born c. 1375-6); and Constance, who married Thomas le Despenser, who later became Earl of Gloucester.

  Edmund was the founder of the House of York and received his dukedom from Richard II on 6 August 1385. In July, Edmund had helped to command an army on an abortive expedition to Scotland, and had camped at York on the way there. Although he had no special connection with the city, Richard II may have intended the creation to signify his gratitude to York for its recent hospitality and also his intention to make it the capital of England instead of London, where Richard was at that time very unpopular.

  The fifth son of Edward III was Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, whose fifteenth-century descendants were the Dukes of Buckingham.

  Richard II’s reign was one of the most disastrous in English history. It laid the foundations for a power struggle that would last well into the next century and lead ultimately to the Wars of the Roses. Richard had been raised to the throne at too early an age. Impressed very young with a strong sense of his unique importance, he came in later life to bear grudges against any who dared criticise him. The praise he earned, at fourteen, for his courageous behaviour during the Peasants’ Revolt convinced him that he was a born leader of men.

  He was six feet tall, slim and very fair-skinned, with dark blond hair which he wore at shoulder length. He cut an impressive figure, but he was no soldier and never took part in a joust. Yet he could be brave, and a passionately loyal friend. He was also at times unstable, extravagant, headstrong, suspicious, temperamental, irresponsible, untrustworthy, and cruel. Politically inept, he was often abrupt in conversation, and capable of insulting behaviour, on occasions bawling out his detractors in Parliament. Once, in a violent temper, he tried to take a sword to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and had to be forcibly restrained from doing so.

  Richard was a highly cultivated man and a great patron of the arts and literature. He was impressed by French culture and customs, and installed French cooks in his kitchens, something his subjects viewed as fraternising with the enemy, against whom they would have preferred to be scoring military victories. But Richard was no seeker of martial glory and considered that peace with France was preferable to war, a highly unpopular view at that time.

  The King had pronounced aesthetic sensibilities and raised the cult and mystique of monarchy to an art form, giving much thought to the ceremony and pageantry attached to it. He dressed ostentatiously – one coat cost 30,000 marks – and was very fastidious: he is credited with inventing the handkerchief – ‘little pieces [of cloth] for the lord King to wipe and clean his nose’. He had exquisite taste and his elegant court reflected his passion for the arts, its fame adding lustre to his crown.

  Richard was a great builder and improver of the royal palaces, to the extent of installing bathrooms with hot and cold running water, stained-glass windows, vivid murals depicting heraldic symbols, and colourful floor tiles. He lived in the greatest luxury, and Westminster Hall, which he rebuilt, remains today as testimony to the splendours of his reign.

  His household was sumptuous and extravagant. Walsingham describes the courtiers as rapacious and ‘more valiant in bed than in battle’, accusing them of corrupting the young King. Many chroniclers strongly criticised the outlandish fashions of the court, targeting the men’s built-up shoulders and collars, pointed-toed shoes and tight hose that prevented their wearers from kneeling in Church. Long sleeves that swept the floor were reviled as ‘full of slashes and devils’.

  In 1384, after an uneasy minority, Richard had assumed personal rule. However, his incompetence in government and his reliance on favourites such as Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, provoked bitter opposition among his nobles. Richard’s first queen, Anne of Bohemia, exercised some restraint over him during her lifetime, but not enough, and although he loved her deeply, they were childless.

  Richard’s infatuation for Robert de Vere was a political disaster. De Vere was a courageous, ambitious and resourceful young man, and as a magnate he had a legitimate role to play in government, but many believed his influence over the King to be pernicious and unnatural and his abilities mediocre. Married to the King’s cousin, Philippa de Coucy, he embarked upon a notorious affair with one of Queen Anne’s Czech ladies, Agnes de Launcekrona, whom he abducted and made his mistress. He then produced fraudulent evidence to secure an annulment of his marriage in order to marry her. As if this were not scandal enough, there were strong indications that his relationship with Richard was of a homosexual nature. Walsingham refers to ‘the depths of King Richard’s affection for this man, whom he cultivated and loved, not without a degree of improper intimacy, or so it was rumoured. It provoked discontent among the other lords and barons, for he was no superior to the rest of them.’ Elsewhere, Walsingham describes the relationship between the King and de Vere as ‘obscene’.

  De Vere compounded his of
fences by continually urging Richard to ignore the advice of his nobles and the decrees of Parliament, and Richard, completely besotted, complied; some said bitterly that if de Vere said black was white, the King would not contradict him. He lavished land, honours and wealth on the favourite, and turned a blind eye to his adultery and the slighting of his royal wife, which aroused the anger of many of Richard’s family.

  One nobleman who was particularly dismayed by the King’s behaviour was his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s heir, who had hitherto been as loyal to the King as Gaunt himself.

  Henry of Bolingbroke had been born in 1367 at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire. For much of his youth he was styled Earl of Derby, one of Gaunt’s lesser titles. Around 1380-1 he married Mary, co-heiress of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton, and a descendant of Henry III. The Bohuns were of ancient Norman stock, one of England’s greatest noble families, and Mary’s sister Eleanor was the wife of Bolingbroke’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, later Duke of Gloucester.

  Mary, born around 1369-70, had hardly reached puberty by the time of her marriage. She had been reared for the cloister but Gaunt wanted her half of the Bohun inheritance for his son. Unwisely, the young couple were allowed to cohabit immediately, with the result that Mary’s first son died at birth in 1382. Five years later she bore her next child, Henry of Monmouth, and then five others in quick succession: Thomas in 1388, John in 1389, Humphrey in 1390, Blanche in 1392 and Philippa in 1394. Mary did not survive this last birth. Henry’s faithfulness to his wife was commented on throughout the courts of Europe, and he sincerely mourned her death.

  Henry of Bolingbroke was of medium height, good looking, strongly built and muscular. Examination of his corpse in 1831 showed his teeth to have been good and his hair to have been a deep russet colour. In life, he had a curling moustache and a short, forked beard. He was a man of great ability, energetic, tenacious, courageous and strong. He had a charismatic personality, being humorous, courteous, even-tempered and somewhat reserved and dignified. However, he could be stubborn and impulsive, and occasionally lacked foresight.

  He was well-educated, and proficient in Latin, French and English. For preference, he spoke Norman-French, the traditional language of the English court. A skilful jouster, he loved tournaments and feats of arms, and his reputation as a knight was widespread. He adored music, and a consort of drummers, trumpeters and pipers accompanied him wherever he went, while he himself was a musician of note. Like his father he maintained great state and kept a large retinue.

  Bolingbroke was devout and markedly orthodox in his religious views, and his charities were lavish. He went twice on crusade, first in 1390 with the German Order of Teutonic Knights against Lithuanian pagans in Poland, and secondly in 1392 to Jerusalem. He was popular and respected, and thus was a potentially formidable opponent to Richard II.

  To counteract the threat posed by de Vere, Bolingbroke allied himself in opposition to the King’s favourites with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, a leading magnate, Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, and the Earl of Warwick. Because they were appealing to Richard to restore good government, they called themselves the ‘Lords Appellant’. In 1387, Bolingbroke and his allies scored a victory over de Vere at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, which led to the Earl of Oxford’s enforced banishment. After the battle Richard had no choice but to submit to the demands of the victors, and in 1388, in the ‘Merciless’ Parliament, the Lords Appellant asked for other royal favourites to be executed and de Vere’s property confiscated. After that, it was only a matter of time before Richard, compliant for the present, took his revenge.

  In 1389 Richard wrested the reins of government from the Lords Appellant, and for the next eight years ruled England himself, governing fairly wisely and achieving some success in establishing his authority in Ireland. Anne of Bohemia’s death in 1394 removed a moderating influence from the King. Thereafter he refused to listen to advice and began to govern with increasing autocracy.

  In 1392 de Vere had died in abject poverty at Louvain, after being savaged during a hunt by a wild boar, but in 1395 the King had his embalmed body brought back to England for burial. Most magnates refused to attend the funeral, and those who did were scandalised to see Richard order the coffin opened so that he could once more see de Vere’s face and kiss his friend’s hand.

  In 1396 he signed a 28-year truce with France and sealed it by marrying Isabella, the six-year-old daughter of Charles VI. Both the peace and the marriage were unpopular with the English people, who would have preferred to see England’s claim to France reasserted, but, with the advantage of historical hindsight, we can now appreciate that the truce was a wise move on the part of a king who knew that England’s resources could not support another prolonged war.

  At this time, in the face of so much opposition from his other magnates, Richard was anxious to retain Gaunt’s loyalty, and that same year he persuaded Pope Boniface XI to issue a bull confirming Gaunt’s marriage to Katherine Swynford and the legitimacy of the Beauforts. On 9 February 1397, as Gaunt and his family stood in the House of Lords beneath a canopy known as a ‘care cloth’, which was used in a ceremony for the legitimising of those of noble birth, the King issued letters patent and a royal edict declaring the Beauforts to be legitimate under English law, and this was afterwards confirmed by Act of Parliament. Shortly afterwards he created John Beaufort, the eldest, Earl and then Marquess of Somerset and a knight of the Garter, while in 1398 the ageing Bishop of Lincoln was forced out of his diocese so that the King could bestow the bishopric on Henry Beaufort.

  The Kirkstall Chronicle says that in 1397 the King emerged like the sun from the clouds, but in fact it was at about this time that he began to display pronounced megalomanic, even psychopathic tendencies. His growing paranoia and detachment from reality, and the obvious concern of his friends, all argue some kind of mental breakdown, and it has been suggested he was perhaps suffering from schizophrenia.

  From 1397, Richard was determined to be an absolute monarch and rule without Parliament. That year by fair or foul means he took steps to see that Parliament was packed with enough supporters to vote him sufficient funds to ensure that he never needed to summon it again. He then dismissed it. This heralded his reckless slide into disaster: he now ruled as a tyrant, banishing any magnate who opposed him and declaring that the laws of England were within his own mouth and breast and that the lives and property of his subjects were at his mercy, to be disposed of at his pleasure.

  He doctored the Rolls of Parliament so that his enemies could be attainted without judicial process; he gathered a formidable private army to intimidate his enemies and protect himself; he imposed illegal taxes; he failed to keep order at a local level in the realm; he tried unsuccessfully to secure his election as Holy Roman Emperor; he became irascible, unpredictable, and broke countless promises. Petitioners, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, were made to grovel before him on their knees, and he would sit on his throne for hours at a time in silence, with the whole court gathered around him; if his gaze rested upon anyone, that person had to make obeisance to him.

  That same year Richard felt strong enough to move against his youngest uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, whom he had never forgiven for Radcot Bridge and the banishment of de Vere. He instructed his cousin Edward, Earl of Rutland, son of the Duke of York, to arrange Gloucester’s murder. Rutland, it was rumoured, sent two servants to the inn where his uncle was lodged in Calais, and here they smothered him beneath a mattress.

  Rutland had by this time replaced de Vere in the King’s affections, and he too may have been a homosexual, since his marriage to Philippa de Mohun produced no children. In appearance and character, Rutland took after his Castilian mother: he was intelligent and good looking, but later became very overweight. His chief role was that of courtier, but he was also a cultivated man who wrote a popular treatise on hunting. Richard ‘loved him exceedingly, more than any other man in
the kingdom’, according to the French chronicler Jean Creton, and Rutland quickly became the most influential man at court.

  Richard was now ready to deal with the other former Lords Appellant. Thomas Mowbray secretly warned Bolingbroke that the King intended to destroy them all, and that his malice was directed chiefly towards the House of Lancaster. Bolingbroke confided this to Gaunt, who nevertheless went at once to the King and repeated what Mowbray had said. Bolingbroke, who was with him, pointed at Mowbray and accused him of speaking treason, which Mowbray hotly denied, flinging the same charge at Bolingbroke. The King decreed that the dispute should be referred to a panel of lords. In April 1398 these lords decided that the issue should be settled ‘according to the laws of chivalry’ – by trial by combat, an ancient European custom whereby God was invited to intervene by granting a victory to the righteous party.

  On 16 September, at Coventry, the two Dukes faced each other before a tense crowd in the presence of the King and the whole court. Bolingbroke cut a dashing figure in full armour and mounted on a white destrier caparisoned in blue and green velvet embroidered with antelopes and gold swans, the swan being the Duke’s personal badge. Mowbray was resplendent in crimson velvet.

  Just as the combat was about to begin, the King threw down his baton from the dais to call a halt to the proceedings. He then deliberated for two hours while the dukes sat waiting on their restive mounts. Then Richard returned and, without preamble, sentenced both men to exile, Bolingbroke for ten years, Mowbray for life. Walsingham commented that the sentence was based on ‘no legal grounds whatsoever’ and was ‘contrary to justice’, being merely an excuse to rid himself of two former opponents. Nor would the remaining Lords Appellant escape the King’s wrath: Arundel was executed the same year and Warwick was exiled for life.

  As soon as the sentence was passed, the King summoned Bolingbroke’s ten-year-old heir, Henry of Monmouth, to court as a hostage for his father’s good behaviour. Bolingbroke sought refuge in Paris, where he was lent a mansion by a French nobleman. Mowbray never saw England again: he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but died of the Black Death on the way home.

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