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


  With Prince Edward died the hopes of the House of Lancaster. His remains were ‘homely interred with the other simple corpses in the church of the monastery of the black monks in Tewkesbury’ with only ‘maimed rites’. A modern diamond of brass beneath the church tower and a vaulted roof emblazoned with gilded suns in splendour (placed there to commemorate the Yorkist victory) marks his resting place, and bears the Latin inscription:

  Here lies Edward, Prince of Wales,

  cruelly slain while a youth.

  Anno Domini 1471.

  Alas, the savagery of men,

  Thou art the sole light of thy mother,

  the last hope of thy race.

  While the Battle of Tewkesbury raged, Queen Margaret and Anne Neville had remained with the other ladies in their party at Glupshill Manor, anxiously awaiting news. When a messenger brought them the dreadful tidings of the Lancastrian defeat, the Queen determined on flight, but was so overcome by the realisation of the disaster that had overtaken her and anxiety as to the fate of her son, of whom there was no news as yet, that she fainted and had to be carried out by her ladies to a waiting litter. She and her party then travelled to a house called Payne’s Place in the village of Bushley, where a loyal family was willing to hide them for the night.

  After the battle, Somerset and other Lancastrian leaders, including Sir John Langstrother, Sir Humphrey Audley, Sir John Fortescue and Dr John Morton, had sought sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey. Notwithstanding this, they were dragged out by the King’s men. Some were killed on the spot, others were left to await judgement, and the rest, including Fortescue and Morton, remained prisoners for a time.

  On 6th May Somerset and twelve others were brought before a military tribunal presided over by Gloucester as Constable of England, and condemned to immediate execution as traitors and rebels. That same day, Somerset was beheaded in the market place at Tewkesbury and buried in the abbey there. He was the last direct male descendant of the Beauforts, and on his death, Margaret Beaufort became the senior representative of her house. The other twelve leaders also suffered that day in the same manner, ‘at the King’s will’. Edward pardoned all the common soldiers who had fought against him.

  The Battle of Tewkesbury effectively ended Lancastrian resistance for good, and was the last battle of the wars between Lancaster and York. When it ended, Henry VI was a prisoner, his only son was dead, his wife was in hiding, and the last male heir of the Beauforts – whom Henry might conceivably have chosen to succeed him – had perished. No one yet regarded Henry Tudor, a fourteen-year-old fugitive, as the hope of the House of Lancaster, which now lacked a male heir. The Lancastrian heir-general was Alfonso V, King of Portugal, a descendant of John of Gaunt, and no one in England was going to rise in his favour. Even Margaret Beaufort had abandoned the Lancastrian cause and declared her loyalty to Edward IV. ‘In every part of England’, says the Arrivall, ‘it appeared to every man that the said party was extinct and repressed for ever, without any hope of again quickening.’

  On 5 May, as the King rode in triumph to Worcester, he had been informed that Queen Margaret could not be found and had probably fled after the battle. In fact, Margaret and Anne Neville had left Payne’s Place and made their way in secret to a fourteenth-century moated and fortified manor house called Birtsmorton Court, a fine building enclosing a courtyard and boasting a handsome hall. The Queen was accommodated in a chamber which still exists, but evidently did not feel it was safe to remain there, for she soon removed herself and her party five miles north-west to Little Malvern Priory in Worcestershire, ‘a poor religious place’ founded in 1171 and situated in woodland beneath Hereford Beacon.

  Meanwhile, the King had been receiving reports of rebellions brewing in the north and in Wales, and, having dismissed the soldiers who had fought for him at Tewkesbury, began to recruit a new army. Jasper Tudor had been at Chepstow with Henry Tudor when he learned of the Lancastrian defeat, and was now doing his best to maintain his hold over south Wales. On Edward’s orders, Roger Vaughan of Tretower tried to trap him there, but was unsuccessful, and it was Jasper who managed to capture Vaughan and have him beheaded. Some said that this was in revenge for Vaughan having urged Edward to order the execution of Jasper’s father, Owen Tudor, in 1461. Afterwards, Jasper fled west to Pembroke Castle, where he was besieged by a Yorkist partisan called Morgan Thomas. He was rescued a week later, however, by a loyal supporter and friend, David Thomas.

  By 14 May, the King received word that the Earl of Northumberland, now returned to his allegiance, had snuffed out the northern rebellion before it gathered momentum.

  King Louis’s worst fears were confirmed on 1 June, when he received credible tidings of Edward’s victory. Charles the Bold, however, was delighted by the news, and hastened to dispatch his envoys to offer his congratulations and remind Edward of the enmity of Louis, urging him to set about re-conquering England’s lost lands in France and assuring him of Burgundy’s assistance in that venture.

  For the present, however, the King had more pressing matters to occupy him. On 7 May Queen Margaret and Anne Neville had been discovered by Sir William Stanley and his men at Little Malvern Priory and taken into custody. It was Stanley who informed the Queen, none too gently, of her son’s death. Margaret collapsed on hearing this bitter news, and had to be dragged almost senseless from the priory by Sir William’s soldiers. On the 11th, both she and Anne Neville were brought before the King at Coventry. Margaret was in a state of great distress, calling down curses on Edward’s head and screaming abuse at him, so that for a time he seriously considered ordering her execution. But then he relented: knights did not behave thus to women, and this woman was distracted by grief and the burden of failure. He would be lenient with her. When she had calmed down, he informed her she would be dealt with honourably and with respect, to which she replied, with commendable meekness, that she placed herself ‘at his commandment’. On the 14th Edward left Coventry for London with Margaret of Anjou in his train, having consigned Anne Neville to the custody of her brother-in-law, the Duke of Clarence, who arranged for her to enter his household, where she would come under the care of her elder sister, the Duchess Isabel. Her name does not appear among those of the prisoners who rode with Edward to London.

  While these events were taking place, says Croyland, ‘the frenzy of the King’s enemies was in no way quelled, particularly in Kent, and their numbers increased in spite of the fact that King Edward’s double victory seemed to all a clear sign of the justice of his cause. Incited by the few men who remained of those who had been with the Earl of Warwick, as well as by the Calais regulars, sailors and pirates, such men assembled under the command of Thomas, Bastard of Fauconberg.’ Fauconberg was Warwick’s cousin and had managed to retain control of the Earl’s ships. On hearing of Warwick’s death at Barnet, he had landed in Kent and begun to incite rebellion, calling himself ‘captain and leader of our liege lord Henry’s people in Kent’.

  Men came flocking to him ‘from the furthest corners of Kent’, ready to march on London. Sir Geoffrey Gate, who had taken asylum in Calais, sent Fauconberg 300 soldiers, while the mayor of Canterbury joined him with 200 citizens. ‘In Essex,’ records the Great Chronicle of London, ‘the faint husbands cast from them their sharp scythes and armed them with their wives’ smocks, cheese cloths and old sheets, and weaponed them with heavy and great clubs and long pitchforks and staves, and so in all haste sped them towards London, and so joined unto the Kentishmen.’ Many, says the Arrivall, ‘would right fain have still been at home and not to have run into the danger of such rebellion’.

  The rebels travelled to the capital by road and by boat along the Thames, ‘surveying all the ways in and out of London, to discover what forces would be necessary and how they might enter to pillage that most wealthy of cities’. On 8 May, Fauconberg, from his base at Sittingbourne, demanded that the Lord Mayor of London open the city gates to him, but the Londoners had already learned of the King’s victory at Tewkesbury and w
ere not going to be bullied. When Edward IV heard of Fauconberg’s rising, he sent commissions of array out to many shires and within days ‘there came to him men to the number of 30,000’, according to Warkworth.

  On the 13th, the Bastard appeared before London on the Surrey shore of the Thames and announced his intention of taking the city and freeing Henry VI from the Tower. But God, says Croyland, ‘gave stout hearts to the people of London that they might stand firm in the battle’. The Lord Mayor and aldermen refused him entry, saying they were holding the capital for King Edward. Fauconberg then marched his men to Kingston and crossed the Thames there, intending to lead an assault on Westminster, but when he received reports that the King’s army would soon be at his back, he retreated to Southwark, near to where his ships were moored. He then lined his guns up along the shore and fired upon the Tower, where Queen Elizabeth and her children were in residence and ‘all likely to stand in the greatest jeopardy that ever there was’. Elizabeth’s brother, Lord Rivers, was in command of the Tower, and ably defended the city against its attackers, ordering an intense bombardment of Fauconberg’s position by the cannon on the Tower walls and beating off the rebel assault.

  The following day, Fauconberg made a futile attempt to fire London Bridge, but was driven back by cannonfire. Meanwhile, 3000 of his men had burst into the city through St Katherine’s Docks and were rampaging through the streets, firing guns and arrows indiscriminately, pillaging, and setting fire to Aldgate and Bishopsgate. At that point the Earl of Essex arrived to reinforce the city levies and sent them against the rebels, just as Rivers was sallying forth from the Tower with 4500 men. Fierce fighting ensued, and many of Fauconberg’s men were killed. Gradually the rebels were forced back to the banks of the Thames, and from there they were pursued to their ships, although not before they had impudently led away fifty of Butcher Gould’s oxen – destined to feed the Queen’s household – from their grazing place by the Tower.

  On the 15th the rebels retreated quietly enough to Blackheath, where they regrouped. However, at news that the King was advancing at the head of 30,000 men, all their courage melted away, and they decided that they should disperse. The Duke of Gloucester, riding ahead of the King’s main force, received Fauconberg’s submission. Nothing now stood in the way of Edward’s triumphal return to London.

  On Tuesday 21 May, the King was formally welcomed by the Lord Mayor and the city fathers at Islington and then, accompanied by a larger retinue than was usual, which included almost the entire peerage of England, he rode into the capital, says Croyland, ‘ordering his standards to be unfurled and borne before him. Many who saw this were surprised and amazed, for no enemy remained to be dealt with, but this prudent prince was familiar with the untrustworthy ways of the people of Kent and resolved not to lay down his arms until he had punished those rebellious men, which he did soon after.’ He also knighted those who had distinguished themselves in the defence of London.

  Praise of the King ‘sounded through all lands’ and the Londoners were enthusiastic in their acclaim of his triumph, cheering exuberantly and crying out blessings upon him. He had emerged victorious after a brilliant campaign, during the course of which he had eliminated most of his enemies. His success had not only been due to his speed, tenacity and daring, but also to his outstanding abilities as a general and his deployment of men of calibre in positions of command.

  But if there was triumph in London that day, there was also the manifestation of tragedy, for ahead of the King in the procession was borne a litter in which sat Margaret of Anjou, exposed to the derision and taunts of the crowds and tasting the bitter dregs of humiliation and grief. As she passed, bystanders flung mud and stones at her and yelled abuse.

  Henry VI was still in the Tower, but Fauconberg, by rising in the name of Lancaster, had virtually signed his death warrant. With Prince Edward dead, Edward IV no doubt felt that there was every justification for removing the deposed King. While Henry lived, there would always be further military confrontations involving pointless loss of life and consumption of the Crown’s revenues, and with these demands on his purse and his energies, Edward IV could not hope to make progress with his programme of reconstruction. There was no point in allowing civil war to continue unchecked. Therefore Henry must die.

  ‘And in the same night that King Edward came to London,’ wrote Warkworth, whose account is contemporary, ‘King Henry, being in ward in prison in the Tower of London, was put to death, between eleven and twelve of the clock, being then at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester.’ Tradition has it that Henry’s murderer came upon him as he knelt at prayer in a deep niche in the eastern wall of his chamber in the Wakefield Tower, a room in which the crown jewels were later displayed.

  The official account of his death in the Arrivall states that Henry reacted to news of the death of his son, the capture of his wife and the bitter certainty that his cause was ‘utterly despaired of’ with ‘so great despite, ire and indignation that, of pure displeasure and melancholy he died’. Few were deceived by this. The Milanese ambassador in Paris soon heard that King Edward had ‘caused King Henry to be secretly assassinated in the Tower. He has, in short, chosen to crush the seed’. Commines had reason to believe that it was Gloucester who ‘killed poor King Henry with his own hand, or else caused him to be killed in his presence’, while Vergil states that by the time of Henry VII it was generally believed that ‘Gloucester killed him with a sword’. Whatever Richard of Gloucester’s involvement – and it seems probable, from Warkworth’s significant mention of him, that his purpose at the Tower that night was to see that the act of regicide was carried out – the order for the murder of Henry VI can only have come from King Edward. Gloucester would not have acted alone in such a matter.

  For murder it most certainly was. Henry VI died of the effects of a severe blow to the head. In 1911, when his body was exhumed and examined, his skeleton was found to be in pieces, and the bones of the skull were ‘much broken’, according to the report in Archaeologia. Moreover, ‘to one of the pieces of skull there was still attached some of the hair, which was brown in colour, save in one place, where it was much darker and apparently matted with blood’.

  Croyland was in no doubt as to the cause of death.

  I shall pass over the discovery of the lifeless body of King Henry in the Tower of London. May God have mercy upon, and grant sufficient time for repentance to him, whoever he may be, who dared to lay sacriligeous hands on the Lord’s Anointed! Let the doer merit the title of tyrant, and the victim be called a glorious martyr.

  On 22 May, says Warkworth, the late King’s corpse was laid in a coffin and carried through the streets of London to St Paul’s where it lay in state for several days. ‘And his face was open that every man might see him, and in his lying he bled on the pavement there; and afterwards at the Black Friars was brought, and there he bled new and fresh.’ The people murmured at this, and the Great Chronicle reports that ‘the common fame then went that the Duke of Gloucester was not all guiltless’ of Henry’s death.

  The chroniclers do not record where Margaret of Anjou spent the night of the 21st. However, on the following day she was certainly imprisoned in the Tower. Her reaction to the news of her husband’s death is not recorded either, but she did make a determined attempt to gain custody of his body, which was denied her. Before long, she received a letter from her grief-stricken father, King René: ‘My child, may God help thee with His counsels! For rarely is the aid of man tendered in such reverse of fortune.’ René himself had recently suffered a triple bereavement – his son, John of Calabria, his bastard daughter Blanche and his son-in-law Ferry de Vaudemont had all died within weeks of each other the previous year. ‘When you can spare a thought from your own sufferings,’ he wrote to Margaret, ‘think of mine. They are great, my daughter, yet would I console thee.’

  Henry VI’s funeral service was conducted at the monastery of the Black Friars, after which his body was carried in a barge ‘suitably equipped wi
th lamps fifteen miles up the Thames’ to Chertsey Abbey in Surrey where it was ‘honourably interred’ in the Lady Chapel.

  ‘There is many a great sore, many a perilous wound left unhealed,’ records the Parliament Roll of 1474, three years after the wars between Lancaster and York had ended. Croyland states that ‘this unhappy plague of division’ had spread ‘not only among princes and people, but even in every society, whether chapter, college or convent’. Many lords came out of the conflict facing financial ruin. ‘The slaughter of men was immense, for besides the dukes, earls, barons and distinguished warriors who were cruelly slain, multitudes almost innumerable of the common people died of their wounds. Such was the state of the kingdom.’

  The Wars of the Roses did not in fact bring about the destruction of most of the mediaeval aristocracy, as this lament would seem to imply. Although thirty-eight peers perished, only seven noble families, not counting the royal houses, became extinct. And while the conflict undoubtedly led to the aggrandisement of some already ‘over-mighty’ subjects, other members of the aristocracy refused to become involved in it at all. Certainly the effect of the wars was to narrow the gap between the King and the magnates and gradually erode the royal authority, while the slaughter of so many lords and knights also signalled an end to the age of chivalry.

 
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