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


  From 1399 onwards, the government of Charles VI of France steadfastly refused to recognise Henry IV as king of England, denouncing him as a traitor to his lawful sovereign and referring to him, when addressing English envoys, as ‘the lord who sent you’. This led in 1401 to the reopening of the Hundred Years War. The Valois court was at that time divided into opposing factions led by Charles VI’s powerful relatives, the dukes of Burgundy and Orléans. Henry IV became adept at playing these two nobles off against each other, but despite England’s declaration of war, little action was seen in France during his reign.

  Meanwhile, the former King Richard was still a prisoner in the Tower in the care of Sir Thomas Rempson. Thomas Walsingham heaps praises on Henry IV for his courteous treatment of Richard at this time, but it would not be long before Adam of Usk was referring to his being held in chains.

  On 21 October 1399, the Commons petitioned in Parliament that Richard be called upon to answer the charges laid against him. One magnate suggested he be put to death to ensure the security of Henry’s throne, but Henry strongly objected. On 23 October Parliament sat in secret session and debated what to do, concluding that it would be dangerous to let Richard be seen by the public because he would be a natural focus for rebellion. It was therefore decided, on a majority vote, that the ex-king should be condemned to perpetual imprisonment in a secret place from which no one could rescue him, and this sentence was read out in Parliament four days later. Denied any opportunity of speaking out in his own defence, Richard was made to disguise himself as a forester and on 28 October conveyed secretly by river from the Tower to Gravesend, and thence to Leeds Castle in Kent, a luxurious dower palace of the queens of England. But he was not to remain so comfortably lodged for long, for within a few days he was moved north, first to Pickering Castle in Yorkshire, then to Knaresborough Castle, and finally to Pontefract Castle, where he was placed in the custody of Sir Thomas Swynford, son of the Duchess of Lancaster by her first husband, and a staunch Lancastrian.

  Richard still had friends in high places who were determined to restore him to the throne and so regain their former influence. They wore his badge of the ‘white hart’, called themselves ‘Richard’s nurselings’, and even had someone to impersonate him, a priest called Richard Maudelyn. After Christmas, four of these lords, the earls of Salisbury, Gloucester, Exeter and Surrey, made an attempt to assassinate Henry IV and his sons. But Rutland, who had become involved, betrayed their plans to the King, who wasted no time in gathering a great army and tracking down the traitors. Three of the rebel lords were lynched and decapitated by hostile mobs, and twenty-six other persons, including Maudelyn, were executed by process of law. The King returned to Westminster with the heads of the traitors, which were publicly displayed in London as a deterrent to other would-be rebels. Henry had been badly shaken by the rebellion, and was beginning to realise that he would not sit safely on his throne while Richard still lived.

  The order for Richard’s murder probably went to Pontefract soon after the executions of his friends in January 1400. Adam of Usk says that death came miserably to the former king as ‘he lay in chains in the castle of Pontefract, tormented by Sir Thomas Swynford with starving fare’. A French source described in graphic detail how, in the agony of starvation, Richard used his teeth to tear strips of flesh from his arms and hands and devoured them. Most of his contemporaries believed he had been deliberately starved to death, although the government claimed that, having learned of the abortive plot to restore him, he was so distraught that he killed himself by voluntary starvation. When it had become too late, he had tried to break his fast, but his throat was too constricted to swallow: thus he could not have been guilty of the mortal sin of suicide. In the seventeenth century, a panel of distinguished antiquarians examined Richard’s skull, which showed no marks of a blow or wound, thus giving the lie to other contemporary tales that he had been bludgeoned to death.

  Predictably, there is very little official evidence as to his fate. Even the date of his death is not known. The Council’s minutes for 9 February 1400 state that, if Richard still lived, he should remain in close confinement; if he was dead, his body should be shown to the people. The wording of this implies that he was actually dead or dying a long-drawn-out death. He had certainly died by 17 February, because on that date the Exchequer issued funds to cover the cost of bringing his body to Westminster.

  It was important to Henry IV not only that Richard should be dead, but also that he should be seen to be dead. Only then would his supporters be deterred from rising on his behalf. On 27 February, his corpse was therefore conveyed to London at a cost of £80, being shown to the people at the more populous places that lay along the route. At length it was put on view for two days at St Paul’s Cathedral. Only the face, from the forehead to the throat, was exposed; the rest of the body was encased in lead. While the corpse lay in state, King Henry attended a solemn requiem mass in the cathedral and laid a rich pall on the coffin. He also commanded chantry priests to say one thousand masses for the repose of Richard’s soul. On 12 March, the former king was buried in the church of the Dominican Friars at King’s Langley. A richly decorated tomb adorned with heraldic shields, which may have once held Richard’s body, may still be seen there today.

  In the spring of 1400, Henry IV may have felt rather more secure on his throne, but he was shortly to be disabused of that comfortable illusion.

  When the news of Richard’s death was broken to his ten-year-old widow, she was stunned with grief and lay prostrate for a fortnight. Young as she was, she guessed who had been responsible for depriving her of the husband who had been so kind to her, and when she returned to France the following year, she went ‘clad in mourning weeds, giving King Henry angry and malignant looks, and scarcely opening her lips’, according to Adam of Usk. Eight years later, having married the poet Duke of Orléans, who adored her, she died in childbirth.

  Richard II was more popular in death than he had ever been in life. Rumours that he was alive persisted for nearly two decades after his murder, and were so strongly believed that people were willing to incite rebellions and risk a traitor’s death in order to restore him to the throne. Some were prepared to impersonate Richard in the belief that he was alive somewhere and would materialise once the Lancastrian usurper was out of the way. Others tried to assassinate Henry IV: in September 1401 a caltrap with three poisoned spikes was found in his bed. Soon after this, Jean Creton, having been asked by the French government to ascertain the truth about Richard, sent his masters evidence obtained from certain persons in high places which proved to their satisfaction that the former king was dead. But there were many who believed otherwise.

  In 1402, Friar Richard Frisby was tried for plotting to restore Richard II in order to make Henry ‘the Duke of Lancaster, which is what he ought to be’. Frisby and his associates had been caught before they had a chance to do anything. Asked what he would do if he learned that King Richard were still alive, Frisby retorted that he would fight anyone to the death on his behalf. The friar told Henry IV to his face:

  I do not say that he is alive, but if he is alive he is the true King of England. You usurped his crown. If he is dead, you killed him. And if you are the cause of his death you forfeit all title and any right you may have to the kingdom.

  These words sealed Frisby’s fate, and he was hanged, drawn and quartered wearing the habit of his order.

  In 1407, according to Walsingham,

  documents circulated in many parts of London which claimed that King Richard was still alive and would return in glory and splendour to recover his kingdom. But shortly afterwards the lying fool who had committed such a rash act was captured and punished. This tempered the joy he had aroused in many people by his lies.

  At the same time, a man was going about London pretending to be Richard. The Lord Mayor, Sir Richard Whittington, had him arrested, and thereafter the rumours ceased for a time. But although it was now a capital crime to spread false rumo
urs of Richard’s continued existence, nothing could prevent continued speculation on his survival, especially in the north. For years, the belief persisted that Richard was living in Scotland, a conviction fuelled by the fact that the Scots had coached a lunatic, known as the ‘Mummet’, to impersonate him. Although Henry IV was not deceived, others were, and the Mummet was retained by the Scots until 1419.

  Impersonations of his dead rival were not all that Henry IV had to contend with. Shakespeare calls the first decade of his reign ‘a scrambling and unquiet time’ because it witnessed a series of rebellions against the King.

  Henry believed that young March would be an obvious focus for malcontents, and because of this he ordered that the boy be kindly treated but kept under house arrest in the care of a governess. To this post the King appointed his cousin Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester, whose husband had been executed in 1400 for plotting Henry’s death. As we shall see, she was an unwise choice.

  A far greater threat came at this time from Wales. Owen Glendower was an obscure Welshman, a descendant of the princes of Powys, who had studied law in London before serving Bolingbroke as a squire, in which capacity he demonstrated extraordinary martial abilities. By 1400 he was living in a moated wooden manor house at Sycarth in Wales with his wife and a brood of children, but in that year he quarrelled over possession of a minor Marcher property with one of the King’s councillors, Lord Grey de Ruthin, and this led to a serious rift with Henry IV. Glendower appealed to the Welsh to support him and began calling himself Prince of Wales, at which the King had him proclaimed an outlaw. Thereafter, Glendower inspired the Welsh people to revolt against English rule, and made efforts to drive the invaders out of Wales. The English hated and feared him, and his guerrilla warfare and devious but deadly strategies earned him the reputation of being a wizard.

  Owen was a man of great ability and charisma, and by 1404 his power in Wales was such that he was able to summon a Welsh parliament. In that same year he made a treaty with France and secured French aid against the English.

  In June 1402, Glendower scored a great victory over the English at Pilleth in Radnorshire, and had the good fortune to capture Sir Edmund Mortimer, March’s uncle. Mortimer, an important Marcher baron, was a considerable prize and a potential bargaining counter, and he was treated with great courtesy by his captor. He soon came under Glendower’s spell and, already resentful of his nephew’s claim having been passed over, abandoned his allegiance to Henry IV, entered into an alliance with Glendower and was given the hand of his daughter Katherine in marriage.

  Henry IV was by no means anxious to ransom Mortimer, much to the chagrin of the elderly but formidable Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and the Earl’s son, the brave and volatile Harry Percy, nicknamed ‘Hotspur’, who was married to March’s aunt, Elizabeth Mortimer. The Percies, powerful lords in the north, were a constant thorn in Henry’s side and he feared they would form a coalition with the disaffected Mortimer, which is exactly what did happen when Glendower made much of Henry’s failure to ransom his kinsman, fanning the flames of Mortimer’s disaffection.

  In December 1402, from his base in Radnorshire, Mortimer informed his tenants and supporters that he and Glendower intended to rescue Richard II, restore him to the throne, and secure for Glendower his rights in Wales. If Richard was indeed dead, then March, ‘my honoured nephew, who is rightful heir to the crown’, would be made king. Mortimer then appealed to Hotspur for support, which was readily given, and very soon the northerners were rising in revolt against Henry IV.

  This led to open warfare between the King and the Percies. Hotspur sent a formal defiance to the ‘Duke of Lancaster’, accusing him of breaking his promises not to harm Richard, levy high taxes or break the laws, and of forcing Parliament to proclaim him king to the detriment of March, the rightful claimant. Henry regarded this as treason, and took to the field against Hotspur. At the Battle of Shrewsbury on 23 July, Hotspur was killed and the conspiracy shattered. The King had his mangled corpse exhumed, salted and cut into quarters, which were then put on display in various cities. Northumberland fled from Henry’s wrath, and sought to ally himself with Glendower and Mortimer, who were planning to invade England.

  Unknown to the King, the Countess of Gloucester, March’s governess, had secretly remained loyal to her husband’s belief that the crown belonged of right to the late king or his true heir, March. She had concealed her antipathy to the House of Lancaster well, because Henry IV had entrusted her, not only with the care of March, but also with that of his younger brother. Late in 1404, the Countess learned that Glendower was in control of Glamorgan, and decided that, if she could somehow get them there, her charges would be in safe hands and at liberty among men who would fight for their cause. In February 1405, she managed to remove the boys from Windsor and travelled west with them as far as Cheltenham, where they arrived a week later. Here, however, the King and his men caught up with them and placed them under arrest. After this, young March and his brother were kept under a much stricter guard.

  After her arrest, the Countess had her revenge on her brother, the new Duke of York, for his abandonment of Richard II. She accused him of conspiring to assassinate Henry IV in order to place March on the throne, alleging he meant to murder Henry in his bed. The King had York arrested and kept in strict confinement in the Tower, where he occupied his time by writing a treatise on hunting called The Master of Game, which he prudently dedicated to the Prince of Wales. Nothing could be proved against him, and he was released after nine months. By 1406 he was once again the King’s ‘dear and loyal cousin’.

  After his return to favour York devoted his attention to building a spacious choir and other buildings in and around the church at Fotheringhay, one of his principal residences. The foundation of a collegiate chantry dedicated to the Virgin Mary and All Souls at Fotheringhay had been the brainchild of York’s father, but he had died before it could become reality. York founded a college of priests there in 1411 and endowed it with six acres of land between the castle and the newly built rectory house, and Henry IV further endowed the college with an annual grant of £67.6s.8d (£67.33). During the fifteenth century the House of York would beautify and enrich this magnificent foundation, intending it to be their mausoleum. Eventually, there were twelve chaplains, eight clerks and thirteen choristers, all under the rule of a Master, and their chief duty was to pray for the good estate in life and the souls after death of the King and Queen, Prince Henry, the Duke of York, and all the royal family.

  In Wales, Glendower, Mortimer and Northumberland still plotted the overthrow of Henry IV. When this had been accomplished, they proposed to divide the realm of England between them: Northumberland would rule the north, Mortimer the south, and Glendower Wales. This was enshrined in an agreement known as the Tripartite Indenture, and it was signed in February 1405 at Bangor. The conspirators reckoned, however, without the martial Prince of Wales, who vengefully descended on them with a great host, crushed the incipient rebellion, and began the gradual task of clawing back the lands that had been lost to Glendower.

  In May 1405, at the Battle of Shipton Moor, the victorious Prince captured one of the rebels’ chief supporters, Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, a connection of the Percies who had given the rising the Church’s blessing. The King considered this the ultimate treachery and, despite an appeal from Archbishop Arundel for clemency, insisted on Scrope’s execution. Scrope paid the extreme penalty in a field of barley belonging to the nuns of Clementhorpe, having ridden there ‘ignominiously facing the tail of his mare’. Most people regarded the beheading of Scrope as an outrage, and this single act turned the tide of public feeling against Henry IV. He would almost certainly have been excommunicated for executing a prince of the Church but for the fact that the Church was then riven by schism, with rival popes battling for pre-eminence. However, there were many who claimed that miracles were taking place at the dead archbishop’s tomb, and it was said that the King had murdered a s
aint.

  After the rebellion had been suppressed, Northumberland fled abroad, while Glendower and Mortimer, realising that their power was in decline, entrenched themselves in the seemingly impregnable castle at Harlech. In 1408, Northumberland, who had returned to take up arms against the King, was killed at the Battle of Bramham Moor, and the following year, after a six-month siege, Harlech Castle fell to the Prince of Wales, When he breached the walls, the Prince found that Mortimer had ‘brought his days of sorrow to an end’ by dying during the siege. His three infant daughters, and Glendower’s two adult daughters, were still in the castle. These the Prince sent to the Tower where they shortly afterwards died.

  Of Glendower there was no trace. He had disappeared into the Welsh hills whence he had come and thence into legend. Such records as we have are mostly silent as to his activities or existence after this time, although he was probably dead by 1417, when his son received a royal pardon.

  Henry IV’s title to the crown was enshrined in an Act of Parliament passed in 1406. In 1407 the King took further steps to ensure the future security of his dynasty by excluding his Beaufort half-siblings from their rightful place in the succession. As the only surviving legitimately born son of Gaunt, Henry may well have resented the promotion of the Beauforts, and although he confirmed Richard II’s statute legitimising them, he added an amendment by his own letters patent, inserting the words ‘excepta dignitate regali’, which effectively barred the Beauforts and their descendants from inheriting the throne of England.

  However, this amendment was of dubious legality and caused some controversy because it was never incorporated into an Act of Parliament, nor was it approved by Parliament. Nevertheless, it had the effect of debasing the status of the Beauforts, and it was not until much later in the fifteenth century that lawyers acting on their behalf would assert that letters patent could not supersede an Act of Parliament and that consequently the Beauforts should not have been excluded from the succession. That Henry’s bar was not very highly regarded was proved in 1485, when the son of a Beaufort became king of England.

 
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