The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir


  It is significant that York made no attempt at this time to press his claim to the throne. He came instead with the purpose of leading an opposition party and thereby reforming the government and gaining conciliar power for himself, though the Queen and many of the magnates believed there was a more sinister reason, and acted accordingly in a hostile manner. Yet the most York wanted at this time was to be formally recognised as heir presumptive, for undoubtedly he was concerned about Somerset being named heir in his place.

  On 30 September, York submitted to the King two bills of complaint. One listed personal grievances, and was obviously an attempt to forestall an attainder. It set forth York’s claim to be heir presumptive, his request to be paid the £30,000 still owed him by the Crown (£8000 had in fact been repaid already of the original £38,000) and a complaint about having been excluded from the King’s counsels. The other bill was a catalogue of grievances that reflected the concerns of the people of England at large. By reiterating abuses that had been highlighted in Cade’s manifesto and identifying himself with the miseries suffered by the King’s subjects, York was making an overt and successful bid for popular support and public sympathy. Now, the gauntlet thrown down, he retired to Fotheringhay to await Henry’s response.

  York’s demands for personal recognition and reform, coupled with the humiliation of the loss of Normandy, aroused Henry at length to the realisation that his cousin had to be appeased if he was to remain loyal; accordingly, he admitted York at last to a newly constituted ‘sad and substantial Council’. But there was a catch: Henry explained to the Duke that he could not act on the advice of one man alone – notwithstanding that he had done so with Suffolk and was now doing the same with Somerset – and that therefore the Council would discuss York’s proposals for reform and implement them as they saw fit. In other words, York would have a political voice at last, but no one would necessarily heed it.

  There was an added complication in that York and Somerset, those deadly rivals, were now both on English soil, which created a potentially explosive situation. York would find that, from now on, he had a great deal of support from the Commons in Parliament and the people, but very little from his fellow councillors or from the Lords in Parliament, all of whom resented his haughty arrogance.

  On 6 November Henry VI opened Parliament at Westminster. York had used his influence to get men of his own affinity elected, and as a result they were the dominant party. The attending magnates brought with them a massive armed presence; London was packed and lodgings were not to be had anywhere, while an armed confrontation between the affinities of York and Somerset was expected daily. York was supported by his powerful brother-in-law, Norfolk, who arrived with a great following and ‘six clarions before him blowing’. For the first time it was recorded that there was ‘a great division between York and Lancaster’, which led to riots in the streets. When York arrived from Fotheringhay late in November, he too brought 3000 armed retainers.

  Parliament tried to stay neutral and would not discuss the merits of the King’s councillors: it was readier to talk about the provision of a fixed income for the royal household. But the Commons, who supported York, demonstrated that support by electing his adherent, Sir William Oldhall, as Speaker. Oldhall was a wealthy Norfolk landowner who had known the Duke for many years, serving him first as a councillor in Normandy and latterly as his chamberlain; he was an influential man, with powerful friends and relations.

  Under Oldhall’s auspices, the Commons demanded, and got, an Act of Resumption providing for the return of all Crown lands alienated during the past twenty years and the establishment of a committee whose function was to oversee any royal grants proposed in the future. They also secured a promise from the King that efforts would be made to restore law and order in the shires.

  While Parliament was sitting, York’s falcon and fetterlock badge mysteriously appeared all over the city of London each night, only to be torn down every morning and replaced by the royal arms, which were in turn removed the following night. The Lord Mayor, anxious to maintain order, put on his armour each day and rode through the city with a band of soldiers ‘harnessed defensibly for war’. He also ordered the crying of a proclamation forbidding the people to speak of or meddle ‘with any matters done in the Parliament’.

  When York came to Parliament he publicly criticised the government’s policy of ignoring the demands of the people and taxing them heavily while rewarding royal favourites and allowing them – already rich men – to keep their wealth. But if York had entertained hopes of removing his enemies by constitutional means he was destined to be frustrated.

  Many were angry that York’s complaints had been ignored. On 30 November, says Benet, a crowd of Londoners and

  the armed men who had come with the nobles learned that neither the King nor the nobles had spoken of punishing the traitors whose actions were a scandal throughout England, in particular the Duke of Somerset, whose negligence was responsible for the loss of Normandy. So they cried out thrice in Westminster Hall to all the lords, saying, ‘Give us justice! Punish the traitors!’

  After the death of Suffolk, the Queen had turned to ‘our dearest cousin, Edmund, Duke of Somerset’ to take his place in her counsels and as leader of the court party. Her friendship extended not only to the Duke but also to his wife, Eleanor Beauchamp, one of her closest confidantes. Within two years the Queen would award Somerset an annuity of £66.13s.4d. (£66.67p) for ‘his good and laudable counsel in urgent business’. Favouring Somerset could only alienate York, but the Queen already regarded him as her enemy, and when York returned from Ireland she made it very clear that it was Somerset, and Somerset alone, who, with her favour and the King’s, would enjoy prominence in the government.

  York’s influence, however, prevailed for the time being over the Queen’s, and on 1 December he had his way when Somerset was impeached by Parliament: the Duke was condemned to imprisonment in the Tower of London and taken there the same day. Having netted – or so he thought – the biggest fish, York made plans to snare other members of the court party, but the King and Queen refused to accept the judgement of Parliament and Margaret ordered Somerset’s release only hours after his imprisonment had begun.

  York’s supporters were incensed. That afternoon, after Somerset had returned to Blackfriars, about a thousand of them marched on his house with a mob of angry citizens, meaning, says Benet, to kill him. They dragged him to a waiting barge, ‘but the Earl of Devon, on the Duke of York’s request, calmed them and prudently arrested their leader, who was taken in secret to the Tower, so as not to provoke the common people’. When Somerset returned home he found that his house had been stripped of all his possessions, and the looters had also ransacked the homes of men who were friendly to him.

  On 3 December, the King, angered by this treatment of his favourite, put on armour and rode through the streets of the city at the head of a procession of lords, knights and 1000 soldiers. This had the effect of quelling the rioters but not the ill-feeling of his subjects at large. Somerset nevertheless remained high in royal favour and was soon afterwards appointed chamberlain of the royal household.

  Parliament reassembled in January 1451, after the Christmas recess. An angry Commons now submitted to the King a petition demanding the removal from court of twenty-nine persons who had been ‘misbehaving about your royal person and in other places, and by whose undue means your possessions have been greatly amenused [abused], your laws not executed, and the peace of your realm not observed’. The list was headed by Somerset’s name and included also those of Suffolk’s widow, Alice Chaucer, William Booth, Bishop of Chester, Thomas Daniel, John Trevelyan, Thomas Tuddenham and Henry Heydon. Many of those named had also been denounced in Cade’s manifesto, and not only were they to be exiled from court, but they were also to be deprived of their lands and tenements.

  Henry VI declared testily that he ‘was not sufficiently learned of any cause why he should banish his favoured advisers in such a wa
y’, but was persuaded to agree to the removal of everyone but the magnates listed and a few personal servants. The rest he promised to banish from court for a year. Thanks to York’s influence the notorious Tuddenham and Heydon, and several more of Suffolk’s former supporters, were brought before judicial commissions in East Anglia and charged with extortion and other crimes. York also tried to have the murderers of Sir Thomas Tresham indicted, but this time without success, and far from banishing William Booth, the Council promoted him to the archdiocese of York. Henry did not keep his promise to banish his evil advisers either.

  The Lords in Parliament, a majority of whom were members of the court faction, knew very well that if York gained full control of the government, many of them would be replaced by opponents such as the Mowbrays of Norfolk, the de Veres of Oxford and the Howards, all magnates of York’s affinity. This would mean a huge shift in the balance of power, both at national and local level, and too many vested interests were at stake for the Lords to risk that happening.

  Without the backing of a majority of the aristocracy, York found his hard-won influence gradually slipping from his grasp, while control of the King and the administration reverted by degrees to the court party. Seeing York’s power diminishing daily, Henry VI defiantly refused to dismiss Somerset, who had quickly regained his former eminence at court, and early in 1451 Henry appointed him Captain of Calais, an important and influential post. Notwithstanding the fact that he had just presided over the ignominious loss of Normandy, Somerset was now to be in command of the largest garrison maintained by the English Crown. By May 1451, the court party, headed by the Duke and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Kempe, had regained its position once more, despite the worsening situation in France, where the French were making serious inroads in Gascony and Aquitaine

  The mood of the times was apparent when one of York’s supporters, Thomas Young, a member of the Duke’s council and a member of Parliament for Bristol, persuaded the Commons to submit a petition to the King requesting that ‘because the King had no offspring, it would be for the security of the kingdom that it should be openly known who should be heir apparent and [Young] named the Duke of York.’ Young had naively hoped to deflect any ideas the King may have had of making Somerset his heir, but his proposal provoked a horrified uproar amongst the Lords and incurred the rare displeasure of the King, with the result that the unfortunate Young soon found himself a prisoner in the Tower. This was an infringement of his right as a member of Parliament to speak freely without fear or favour, and it in turn angered the Commons, who petitioned for his release. The King passed the petition to the Council, which ignored it, and Henry abruptly dissolved Parliament the same month.

  The case of Young illustrates how factional contentions were interfering with the processes of Parliament, and also points to a crystallisation of political opinion in favour either of Lancaster or York. As for York himself, after Parliament was dissolved he found himself in an isolated position, distrusted more than ever by the King and most of the magnates.

  On 30 June 1451 the French occupied Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine. The inhabitants of the city did not look upon their ‘liberators’ as friends, for they regarded themselves as English, the city having been a jewel in the Plantagenet crown for three hundred years. The fall of Bayonne, another Aquitainian city, followed a few weeks later and on 23 August the duchy of Aquitaine itself surrendered to Charles VII. News of this engendered great shock and dismay in England, especially among the merchant community, who were concerned about the future of the lucrative wine trade.

  England was in a state of high tension, characterised by intermittent outbreaks of rioting, mainly in the West Country. By the autumn of 1451 it was obvious that Henry VI had no intention of implementing any plans for government reform; he had closed his ears to complaints and was content, in his blinkered way, to let things remain as they were. France might be all but lost, his government in England corrupt and rotten to the core, local government and justice subverted, and disorder and anarchy prevalent throughout the realm, yet Henry seemed genuinely unaware of the seriousness of the situation, and his advisers and councillors were too busy looking to their own interests to care. Nor had the pressing question of the succession been answered.

  The King was still deeply in debt. How much so had been made dramatically clear the previous Christmas when, on the feast of the Epiphany, the King and Queen had arrived at the high table for the customary feast to find themselves confronted by a distraught steward of the household, who broke to them the news that there was no food, as the tradesmen who supplied the palace had refused to deliver any more on credit.

  York was now faced with the bitter knowledge that the only way to make Henry do anything was by using force; reluctantly, he realised there was no alternative. The spectre of civil war was looming ever closer as that autumn York began to prepare for a confrontation with the King, or rather, with the court party.

  Rumours of an imminent armed conflict between the opposing factions were already rife, and the Duke meant to capitalise on the nation’s fears. In the autumn he instigated the first of the many propaganda campaigns launched by the House of York, beginning in September by writing to influential people in Norfolk, a county much disrupted by disorder and injustice, with a view to rousing support for reform of the government by peaceful or other means. In November, he sent Sir William Oldhall to encourage the people of East Anglia to rise in protest against the abuses in government. Then he gave out warnings of a possible rebellion.

  The Queen hated and feared York, and by the beginning of 1452 she and Somerset had managed to convince the King that the Duke was plotting a coup that would lead to him seizing the crown. In fact, York’s agents were now putting it about that ‘the King was fitter for a cloister than a throne, and had in a manner deposed himself by leaving the affairs of his kingdom in the hands of a woman who merely used his name to conceal her usurpation, since, according to the laws of England, a queen consort hath no power but title only’. Such propaganda served only to inflame Margaret’s temper. That there was truth in it is revealed by a study of the Queen’s Wardrobe Book for 1452–3, in which the extent of her influence over the government is to be seen by the number of grants made ‘by the advice of the council of the Queen’.

  Knowing that York was planning some sort of confrontation, Margaret decided to take action. When the Scottish Earl of Douglas visited the court that winter, she eagerly sought to win his friendship, knowing he could command military support from one third of Scotland. Douglas was sensitive to the Queen’s concerns and promised he would bring an army to Henry’s aid if the King was unable to prevail against York.

  By enlisting the aid of Douglas, Margaret demonstrated that she was completely out of touch with the prejudices of the English. A single-minded woman, she was unable to perceive that, although to her the Scots represented a much-needed ally, to her husband’s subjects they were traditional enemies, whose military presence on English soil had for centuries been feared and resisted. It was perhaps fortunate for her that Douglas was murdered not long after his return to Scotland, which meant that she could no longer rely on substantial Scottish support.

  York’s propaganda was beginning to take effect. The King sent to inform the Duke, then at Ludlow, that he was most displeased with his defamation of the characters of his most trusted advisers. On receipt of this letter, York met with John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Reginald Boulers, Bishop of Hereford, and solemnly declared to them that he was a true liegeman of the King, asking them to convey to Henry VI his willingness to swear his loyalty upon the Holy Sacrament in the presence of two or three lords if the King would be pleased to send them to Ludlow. Instead, on 1 February 1452, Henry dispatched the clerk to the Council from Westminster to summon York to a meeting of the Council at Coventry, a city with strong Lancastrian sympathies. York, sensing a trap, refused to obey the summons.

  Queen Margaret, whose spies had informed her that York was muster
ing an armed presence, now set about urging Henry to do the same. He refused, and his wife, in desperation, resorted to emotional blackmail, asking what would become of her if he was killed. Reluctantly he agreed to issue commissions of array for the raising of a royal army.

  On 3 February, York issued a manifesto addressed to the burgesses and commons of Shrewsbury, which read: ‘I signify unto you, that with the help and supportation of Almighty God and of Our Lady and of all the company of Heaven, I, after long sufferance and delays, though it is not my will or intent to displease my sovereign lord, seeing that the Duke [of Somerset] ever prevaileth and ruleth about the King’s person, and that by this means the land is likely to be destroyed, am fully concluded to proceed in all haste against him with the help of my kinsmen and friends.’ He went on to blame Somerset for England’s disastrous losses in France and for the King’s failure to respond to the grievances which York had laid before him the previous year. Somerset, he complained, was continually labouring about the King for his, York’s, undoing. Finally, he asked that the town of Shrewsbury send to him in this cause ‘as many goodly and likely men as ye may’. Similar letters were sent by the Duke to other towns likely to offer support.

  York, accompanied by Lord Cobham, had now left Ludlow and was leading his force towards London. His aim was to take the capital, and he sent heralds ahead requesting that the citizens allow his army peaceful passage. The Londoners’ response was to man their defences. They knew only too well that supporting York would be construed by the government as treason, and, lacking powerful leadership, were reluctant to commit themselves to rebellion. On 12 February the clerk to the Council arrived back at Westminster and conveyed York’s defiance of his summons to the King, warning Henry of what the Duke was planning. At the same time the Council received news that the Earl of Devon was raising men in the West Country and preparing to join York. Two days later the King appointed the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Bonville as chief commissioners to deal with the rebels in the west.

 
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