The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

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 with 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.

  Tudor historians were fond of reminding their readers of the horrors of the Wars of the Roses, recounting how the realm had been plunged into a vicious civil war over a disputed crown that lasted more than thirty years. They spared no efforts to portray this as a grim period of violence, political anarchy and social decay. Edward Hall posed the rhetorical question, ‘What misery, what murder, and what execrable plagues this famous region hath suffered by the division and dissension of the renowned Houses of Lancaster and York, my wit cannot comprehend nor my tongue declare. For what noble man, what gentleman of any ancient stock or progeny, whose lineage hath not been infected and plagued by this unnatural division?’ The Elizabethan antiquarian, John Stow, referred to the Wars of the Roses as ‘all that heaving in and hurling out’, while Shakespeare wrote a cycle of plays about them, saying famously:

  England hath long been mad and scarred herself,

  The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,

  The father rashly slaughtered his own son,

  The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire:

  All this divided York and Lancaster.

  Croyland, writing in 1486, viewed the Wars of the Roses primarily as a dynastic struggle that had its origins in York’s assertion of his claim to the throne. This became the accepted Tudor view, and proves that the tradition had a very early source. Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian, traced the origins of the conflict to the usurpation of Henry IV, but this was too simplistic a view and did not take account of the political decline of the 1440s and 1450s. Vergil had no difficulty in believing that God had visited the sins of Henry IV upon his descendant, Henry VI, yet he did not explain how this was to be reconciled with the triumphant career of Henry V.

  Tudor historians were adepts at rewriting history. The dynasty they served had brought peace, firm government and prosperity to England, but its monarchs were still usurpers. A striking contrast had to be drawn, therefore, between the peaceful England of Tudor times and the political anarchy it had suffered under the later Plantagenets, the implication being that if Henry VII had not become king in 1485, the civil wars would probably have dragged on for much longer. More importantly, the subjects of the Tudor kings had to be reminded of what might happen if the crown came into dispute again.

  There is certainly no doubt that violence and lawlessness flourished during the Wars of the Roses. Soldiers brutalised in the French wars behaved with a ferocity which their commanding officers were powerless to control, while some magnates were little better than sadistic ruffians. Thousands of men died horribly in battle, or were mercilessly butchered while trying to escape. Murder was often committed with impunity both on and off the battlefield.

  Yet the wars were by no means continuous, as we have seen, nor did England experience many of the usual horrors of civil war, like those suffered in fifteenth-century France or seventeenth-century Britain. There were, at most, thirteen weeks of fighting in the thirty-two years covered by both of the Wars of the Roses, while the total amount of time spent campaigning amounted to approximately one year. The problems of keeping an army fed and watered meant that individual campaigns lasted for a matter of days or weeks, not months. Some of the battles were very short, and none lasted longer than a day. Most took place in open countryside and hardly affected life in the towns and villages. The conflict had very little effect upon the population at large, except on the rare occasions when a battle resulted in great loss of life that devastated a whole local community, as happened at Towton in 1461. This was why the behaviour of the Scots and men of the north on the Queen’s march south that year provoked such outrage. Relatively few civilians suffered attack or privation, and – with the exception of Stamford, St Albans and Ludlow – no town suffered a siege or a sacking. Nor did the castles, halls and manors of the aristocracy suffer greatly. Only the great defensive castles of the north became targets for military action.

  The accounts of foreign visitors to England give the impression that the country appeared settled and prosperous in the second half of the fifteenth century, not torn by war. The architecture of the period reflects a trend of growing prosperity rather than a need to build defensively. Fortifications were no longer added as a matter of course to castles and manor houses, and moats and crenellations had become merely ornamental. Neither does the literature of the age reflect a preoccupation with the evils of civil war. This was because most of the population did not regard the Wars of the Roses as a civil war as such, but as a dispute between noble factions. Few English people really cared who sat on the throne, so long as he was able to govern effectively and maintain justice. The leaders of the political factions therefore used propaganda to sway public opinion, which was very fickle, and did their best to canvass the support of other magnates who, left to themselves, would have remained strictly neutral. In fact, the majority of peers, both spiritual and temporal, managed to avoid committing themselves wholeheartedly to either party, while some tended to wait and see which way a battle was going, and only went in to assist the winning side. Self-interest usually governed political loyalties.

  Henry VI’s reign had been one of the most catastrophic in England’s history, yet after his death his reputation grew steadily. Tales of his piety and holy life spread rapidly, and were just as rapidly embellished. Within weeks of his death, pilgrims were hastening from all over the kingdom to pray at his tomb, many from the north of England where Lancastrian sympathies were still strong. It was said in those parts that Henry had died a martyr. Soon he was venerated as a saint, and 155 miracles were said to have taken place at his tomb, most of them cures for the sick. Croyland says that ‘the miracles which God worked in response to the prayers of those devoutly seeking his intercession are witness to h
is blameless life, the extent of his love for God and the Church, of his patience in adversity and his other outstanding virtues’. People forgot that Henry had failed them in nearly every way that mattered – as king, as warlord, and as the fount of justice – and remembered only his virtuous life and the fact that he had bequeathed to them two enduring monuments to his piety and love of learning – Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.

  In 1484, Richard III, apparently with the aim of making reparation for Henry’s murder, ordered his reburial to the south of the high altar in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Rous says that when the King’s body was exhumed after lying for thirteen years at Chertsey it was found to be virtually incorrupt. The face was skeletal and sweet-smelling – ‘certainly not from spices, since he was buried by his enemies and tormentors’ – a sure sign of sanctity. The body was reverently laid to rest in a vault beneath a plain stone slab near the tomb of Henry’s great adversary, Edward IV. In recognition of the common people’s devotion to ‘Saint’ Henry, King Richard ordered that his armour, robes and other possessions be displayed near the tomb as relics; Stow records that his crimson velvet cap was considered an effective cure for headaches. An iron alms box bearing a gothic ‘H’ was set up for pilgrims, and still remains in place today.

  By Tudor times, Henry VI’s saintly reputation had grown immensely, and people forgot that he had been a weak king who was responsible for decades of misrule and the loss of England’s possessions in France. John Blacman’s memoir was written in this climate, and for centuries was accepted as a reliable account of Henry’s life. Only recently has its veracity been called into question. It was in fact written to support Henry VII’s campaign to have his uncle formally canonised; it would have been beneficial to the image of the new dynasty to have a Lancastrian saint among its forbears, but despite strenuous efforts on the part of Henry Tudor, the campaign was unsuccessful. In England, however, up until the Reformation, people continued to venerate Henry VI. As his cult spread, the room in the Tower in which he had met his end was converted into a shrine, and was also visited by pilgrims. The shrine was dismantled by Henry VIII’s commissioners in the 1530s, but ever since then, each year on the night of 21 May, the governors of Eton College have placed a sheaf of lilies and red roses on the traditional site of Henry’s murder.

  Margaret of Anjou did not remain long in the Tower. Elizabeth Wydville pleaded with her husband to mitigate the severity of the former queen’s imprisonment, and Edward IV, who could never resist his wife’s importunings, soon ordered Margaret’s removal to the more congenial surroundings of Windsor Castle, where she remained under house arrest until 8 July 1471, when she moved to Wallingford Castle. This was an act of kindness on Edward’s part, for Wallingford was near Ewelme, the Oxfordshire home of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, one of Margaret’s closest friends. Alice was appointed by the King to be her guardian and was paid five marks a week for her expenses.

  In 1476, after the Duchess’s death, Margaret was ransomed by Louis XI and returned to France, where she was maintained by her father. After René’s death in 1480, she lived in very reduced circumstances, subsisting on a meagre pension provided by King Louis. She died in great poverty after a short unspecified illness on 25 August 1482 and was buried in Angers Cathedral.

  Anne Neville became, in 1472, the wife of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to whom she bore one son, Edward of Middleham, who died in childhood. Two years after Richard became King, Anne herself died, possibly of tuberculosis or cancer, in 1485, at the age of twenty-nine.

  George, Duke of Clarence was executed for treason in 1478; he died privately, in the Tower of London, probably – at his own request – by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine. His wife, Isabel, had died in childbed in 1476.

  After learning of Henry VI’s murder, Jasper Tudor fled to Henry Tudor in France, to begin fourteen years of exile. After Henry became King in 1485, Jasper was created Duke of Bedford and married Katherine Wydville, dying in 1495.

  Sir John Fortescue was pardoned after he had written a treatise upholding Edward IV’s claim to the throne and abjuring his former writings; he was made a member of Edward’s Council and died around 1477–9. King Edward also pardoned Dr John Morton, the Earl of Ormonde, Sir Richard Tunstall, young Lord Clifford and Sir Henry Vernon.

  From 1471 to 1483 Edward IV ruled England firmly and well, unchallenged by any. In 1473, the birth of another son, Richard, to Elizabeth Wydville made the House of York seem almost invincible. But when Edward died suddenly, in 1483, and his twelve-year-old son Edward V succeeded him, a power struggle erupted between the Duke of Gloucester, whom Edward had designated Protector of England, and the Wydville faction. Gloucester emerged the victor from this, imprisoned the boy king, deposed him, and had himself crowned Richard III, all within three months. He then almost certainly arranged for young Edward and his brother to be murdered in the Tower of London. This made him so unpopular that within two years both he and the House of York had been overthrown by Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII after winning the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

  ‘Time has his revolutions,’ wrote a seventeenth-century Lord Chief Justice, Sir Ranulph Crew,

  there must be a period and an end to all temporal things, finis rerum, an end of names and dignities and whatsoever is of this earth. Where is Bohun? Where is Mowbray? Where is Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality.

  Simplified Genealogical Tables

  1 Lancaster and York

  2 The Beauforts

  3 The Tudors

  4 The Nevilles

  5 The Wydvilles

  6 The Dukes of Buckingham and Exeter

  7 The Bourchiers

  8 The Percies and the Cliffords

  1 Richard II. His reign was one of the most disastrous in English history. (illustration credit 1)

  2 John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He saw his life’s work as maintaining the honour and integrity of the English crown. (illustration credit 2)

  3 Henry IV. The legitimacy of his title to the throne would remain a sensitive issue. (illustration credit 3)

  4 Henry V. He possessed all the attributes required of a successful mediaeval ruler. (illustration credit 4)

  5 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, an intensely ambitious man who was Beaufort’s deadly rival for power during the minority of the young Henry VI. (illustration credit 5)

  6 Cardinal Henry Beaufort, a shrewd politician who exerted enormous influence over the King. (illustration credit 6)

  7 Henry VI as a young man. He was ‘neither intelligent nor experienced enough to manage a kingdom such as England’. (Jean de Waurin: Chronicle.) (illustration credit 7)

  8 Henry VI in later life. His severe nervous breakdown resulted in his withdrawal from normal life and precipitated the outbreak of civil war. (illustration credit 8)

  9 René, Duke of Anjou. Despite his landless status, he was a considerable power at the French court, and was rumoured to govern the realm in Charles VII’s name. (illustration credit 9)

  10 Margaret of Anjou. She was beautiful, talented, courageous, autocratic, changeable and vindictive – ‘more like to a man than a woman’. (illustration credit 10)

  11 Richard, Duke of York. He had a better claim to the throne than Henry VI, but preferred to promote himself as the champion of good government. (illustration credit 11)

  12 The Falcon and Fetterlock badge of the mediaeval dukes of York. Duke Richard inherited the fabulous wealth of the Mortimers and became the richest landowner in England. (illustration credit 12)

  13 ‘The harvest of heads’: the gruesome aftermath of Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450, a largely middle-class revolt against misgovernment by Henry VI’s favourites. (illustration credit 13)

  14 A nineteenth-century portrayal of the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses: the Dukes of Somerset and York confront each other in Temple Gardens, London. This colourful scene, enshrined in the pages o
f Shakespeare, is fictitious, the stuff of legend. (illustration credit 14)

  15 Ludlow Castle, Shropshire: the mightiest fortress owned by York, and his headquarters during the Wars of the Roses. (illustration credit 15)

  16 Westminster Hall, London. Here, in October 1460, York formally laid claim to the crown of England. (illustration credit 16)

  17 Edward IV. Affable, handsome, promiscuous and generally indolent, he nevertheless brought stable government to England and was consistently victorious over his enemies in battle. (illustration credit 17)

  18 Elizabeth Wydville. In his choice of wife, King Edward was ‘governed by lust’; the marriage caused not only scandal but political disruption. (illustration credit 18)

  19 Warwick the Kingmaker. Next to the King, he was the greatest man in England, and virtually controlled the government during the early years of Edward’s reign. (illustration credit 19)

  20 George, Duke of Clarence, with his wife, Isabel Neville, and their son. Clarence, who wanted to depose his brother the King and rule in his place, was Warwick’s natural ally in the late 1460s. (illustration credit 20)

  21 Edward IV sets sail from Flushing in March 1471. Although few believed he stood any chance of victory, he had no intention of retreating. (illustration credit 21)

  22 Edward IV watches the execution of the Duke of Somerset, last of the male Beaufort line, and twelve others, in May 1471. The King pardoned all the common soldiers who had fought against him. (illustration credit 22)

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