The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

By 1415, March had gained a degree of fame, and Jean Fusoris, who visited the English court from France that year, reported that many people would have preferred him to Henry for their king. However, their opinions were shortly to undergo a rapid change.

  Not two months after Henry’s accession a poster had been nailed to the door of Westminster Abbey proclaiming that Richard II was still alive in Scotland. The monks of Westminster Abbey had continued to support those who wished to restore Richard, even to the extent of backing an earlier Lollard conspiracy against Henry IV, which was suppressed with shocking brutality: seven proven culprits were roasted in chains over a slow-burning fire and another twenty-four were hanged.

  In 1413, therefore, Henry V arranged for the body of Richard II to be moved from Langley to Westminster Abbey by night in a ceremony conducted with great pomp. The reinterment took place by the light of 120 torches in the presence of the King and many mourners, who watched as the coffin was laid to rest in the tomb occupied by Anne of Bohemia. Henry had not ordered Richard’s reburial as an act of atonement, but to emphasise to the public that he was really dead. Nevertheless, claims by rebels that he was still alive were made twice in 1417 and even as late as 1419. Only then was the ludicrous pretence of the deposed king’s survival finally abandoned.

  Having established himself firmly on the throne and taken steps to neutralise potential enemies, Henry V turned his attention to the fulfilment of an ambition he had cherished since he was Prince of Wales: the prosecution of his ancestral claim to the kingdom of France and the conquest of that kingdom. In this enterprise, Henry firmly believed that God was on his side, that his cause was just, and that he was undertaking a sacred duty. He also knew that the accomplishment of his desire would immeasurably strengthen his position and thereby ensure the future of his dynasty. By unifying his people, high and low, in such a cause, he would channel their energies and interests into a profitable enterprise and so avert any threat of rebellion.

  The magnates, and the people at large, greeted Henry’s declared war policy with enthusiasm, as did Parliament, which did not hesitate to vote funds for an invasion force. This seemed the ideal moment to strike: the mad King Charles VI reigned in France and the country was divided by the aristocratic quarrels of the Burgundian and Armagnac factions.

  Henry, blinded by zeal for his cause, cannot have imagined the enormity of the task he was about to undertake, nor did he foresee that England’s resources would never be sufficient to carry his plans through to their conclusion. It did not occur to anyone that the successful prosecution of Henry’s war policy depended on him alone.

  One day, in the summer of 1415, as preparations for war were advancing steadily, Sir Thomas Grey of Heton was summoned to attend the Earl of Cambridge at Conisburgh Castle in Yorkshire. Grey held an important position on the King’s Council and was constable of the castles of Bamburgh and Norham in his native Northumberland. He was connected by marriage to the Nevilles and the Percies, and was a prominent and respected figure in the north, having distinguished himself also in a military capacity. His son was betrothed to Isabella, the four-year-old daughter of the Earl of Cambridge.

  Cambridge was the King’s cousin, the younger son of Edmund, Duke of York, by Isabella of Castile. He had been born at Conisburgh in c. 1375–6, and the twelfth-century stronghold, improved by his father, became his principal seat. Richard was named after his godfather, Richard II, and during the reign of Henry IV he had supported at least one impersonator of the late king. Some time after June 1408, when a dispensation was granted, he had married his distant cousin, Anne Mortimer, March’s sister, who had been born in 1390 and spent her childhood at Wigmore Castle on the Welsh border. Anne’s second child, born on 21 September 1411, was a son named Richard, who would grow up to be one of the central protagonists in the Wars of the Roses. Sadly, Anne died during or soon after his birth, and was buried beside her father-in-law in King’s Langley Church. After her death Richard married Matilda, sister of John Clifford, Hotspur’s brother-in-law, but there were no children of this union.

  In May 1414, in Parliament, Henry V had confirmed York, Richard’s elder brother, in his dukedom. At the same time, York had surrendered his father’s earldom of Cambridge to the King, who bestowed it on Richard, who was indentured to supply Henry, on request, with two knights, fifty-seven esquires and 160 mounted archers. The new Earl of Cambridge was not a wealthy man and had not the resources to support his new status. Normally, the monarch granted some endowment when he raised a man to the peerage, but Henry V had omitted to do so in Cambridge’s case. His title was an empty conceit and, being an ambitious man, he resented the fact.

  The business that Cambridge wished to discuss with Grey at Conisburgh was treason: the assassination of Henry V and his brothers and the proclamation of Richard II – in the person of the Mummet in Scotland – as rightful king. If the Mummet proved to be an impostor then March would be raised to the throne. Cambridge was the most important of the plotters, but it is unlikely that he was the prime mover in the conspiracy. That honour probably belonged to Henry, 3rd Lord Scrope of Masham, a clever, gifted and attractive man who, like the other conspirators, the King should have been able to trust implicitly. Scrope was forty-two, well-born, well-connected and rich. Archbishop Scrope had been his kinsman but he had not been involved in his rebellion. He was a serious and pious man, given to reading mystical religious works, and owned eighty-three manuscripts, a sizeable library for the time. His private chapel was his pride and joy, and was stocked with ninety copes.

  Scrope had been close to Henry V for some years, and on occasion they even shared a bed, a practice having no homosexual overtones in those days, when it was regarded as a sign of especial royal favour. Scrope had been Treasurer of England under Henry IV and was Treasurer of the Household to Henry V; Titus Livius called him ‘an ornament of chivalry’. Scrope’s second wife, Joan Holland, was the widow of Cambridge’s father, York. There were thus strong family ties between the conspirators, and these proved greater than their loyalty to the Crown.

  Why Scrope should have plotted to kill the King remains a mystery. Most of his contemporaries believed he had been offered financial inducements – some said as much as one million pounds, though this must have been an exaggeration – by the French government, who were anxious to prevent the English from invading France. The timing of the plot argues this, and the bribes could have been offered during a recent visit by French envoys to the court at Winchester. Scrope later denied being the instigator, as did Cambridge; both claimed they had been persuaded to join the conspiracy by the others.

  The Earl of Northumberland was also involved, and it was probably he who suggested that Cambridge enlist the support of Grey. At Conisburgh, the Earl took Grey into his confidence and told him the details of the plot. Grey enthusiastically committed himself to joining the conspirators, and he and Cambridge rode south to meet the others. Cambridge had most to gain if the outcome was successful: his son Richard was March’s heir, and March had so far remained childless. The Earl cherished dreams of his son wearing a crown.

  As soon as Cambridge and Grey reached Southampton, Grey sought out Scrope, and several meetings of the conspirators took place. At this late stage, March was brought into the plot. It seems that the others persuaded his chaplain to urge him to claim the throne because it was his by rightful inheritance. March also owed Scrope large sums of money, and this may have been the price of his involvement, but he was a lukewarm conspirator, fearful of what would happen if the conspiracy failed, and not privy to all its details.

  The conspirators were now meeting at March’s manor of Cranbury, near Winchester, and at a house at the Itchen Ferry, beneath the walls of Southampton. Various suggestions as to how to kill the King were considered, such as setting fire to the invasion fleet, but most were rejected. Eventually a plan was formulated: Northumberland would raise the north, while March would raise his standard in the New Forest and advance into Wales, where he would be pro
claimed king and Henry V branded a usurper. The Scots and Welsh would be asked to support the rebellion, and even the legendary Glendower would be called out of retirement if he could be found. The notorious Lollard rebel, Sir John Oldcastle, then in hiding on the Welsh Marches, would help to raise the West Country, and the King would be assassinated on 1 August, after which March would be crowned as King Edmund I. It was a masterplan involving every contentious element in Britain, one of the most dangerous conspiracies of the late Middle Ages, and it had a very good chance of success.

  However, March had angered the religiously orthodox Scrope by bringing the Lollards and the taint of heresy into the plot. Scrope had soundly berated him for ruining everything, and at this March’s courage – never very great at the best of times – failed him, and he tried to dissuade Scrope from going through with their plans. When this plea fell on deaf ears, he decided to confess everything to the King.

  Henry had ordered the building of a fleet of ships for his invasion of France. On 1 August, the date set for his murder, he was at Porchester Castle inspecting his troops. That night, the Earl of March arrived, insisted on seeing the King urgently, and confessed all. Henry at once perceived that these were tidings ‘most ominous as a presage for the future’. He was bitterly hurt by Scrope’s betrayal, which was indeed incomprehensible to most people at the time.

  Henry acted at once, summoning the chief magnates who were in his retinue to attend him. After urgent talks, they recommended that the King have the traitors arrested and tried. All were taken that same night, charged with high treason, and imprisoned in Southampton Castle, where they confessed their crimes.

  Grey was tried on 2 August in the hall of what is now the Red Lion Inn in the Lower High Street of Southampton. He had made a written confession of his guilt and was condemned to a traitor’s death. He made a pitiful plea for mercy but this was ignored, although the King graciously commuted his sentence to simple decapitation. He was then taken from the court to the Bargate, the northern entrance to the town, and beheaded outside it. His head was sent to Newcastle to be exhibited as a warning to the men of the north.

  On that same day, Cambridge and Scrope, as lords of the realm, claimed trial by their peers. A committee of twenty lords, including March and Cambridge’s brother York, was appointed to hear them. On 5 August they were brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death. In Southampton Castle afterwards, Cambridge wrote to the King, begging for his life, but Henry was implacable, and later that day the Earl was beheaded outside the Bargate. His head and torso were buried in the chapel of God’s House in Southampton, and all his honours, titles and estates were declared forfeit to the Crown that same day.

  The sentences on Grey and Cambridge had been commuted but no such mercy was shown to the faithless Scrope, who was seen as the most wicked of the conspirators and who consequently suffered the full punishment reserved for traitors. He had asked in his will to be buried with his kinsfolk in York Minster, but the King ordered that his head be displayed in York above the Micklegate Bar,

  Walsingham says that Henry wept over the fate of Cambridge and Scrope, but his ruthless treatment of the plotters ensured that there were no more serious rebellions against the House of Lancaster during his reign. March was pardoned and thereafter remained staunchly loyal to the King, serving under him in France and helping to guard England against any naval threat from her enemy. In November, Parliament confirmed the sentences of the Southampton court by passing retrospective Acts of Attainder upon the condemned men. The foiling of the conspiracy strengthened Henry’s position, for people were inclined to see the hand of God in his preservation, Even Northumberland made his peace with the King, as did Oldcastle’s son after his father’s execution in 1417.

  In 1421, March’s kinsman, Sir John Mortimer, made a futile attempt to place the Earl on the throne. He was arrested and imprisoned in an underground dungeon in the Tower, from which he managed to escape, only to be recaptured and held more securely. Mortimer had raised little support for his venture; in fact, few took him seriously, and in 1424, after a second attempted escape, he was convicted of treason and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

  In the late summer of 1415, Henry V crossed to France with an army of 10,000 men, laid siege to the port of Harfleur and took it. Many of his men died during the siege, not so much of wounds as of dysentery. The King then led his depleted force to Calais. Although he imposed strict discipline and banned prostitutes and alcohol, his men marked their progress through northern France by violence, murder, robbery, arson and rape; nor did Henry himself show any mercy to the French civilian population.

  In October, the English scored an unexpected and spectacular victory over the flower of French chivalry at the Battle of Agincourt. Henry’s force was heavily outnumbered and, had it not been for his brilliant generalship, the victory would surely have gone to the French. Once again, as at Crécy and Poitiers in the reign of Edward III, it was the skill of the English archers that proved the decisive factor. The arrows from their longbows were deadly against the heavily armoured French knights who, once unseated, were often unable to rise from the ground, and in any case found it almost impossible to fight effectively on foot. Henry had positioned his troops in such a way that the initial advance of the French was across marshy ground, and he kept his own armoured cavalry in reserve until the charge of the French cavalry had been thrown into confusion by his archers.

  The King, says Walsingham, ‘fought not as a king but as a knight, leading the way, the first to assail the enemy, giving and receiving cruel blows’. After the battle, however, he so far forgot his oath of knighthood as to order the slaughter of all disarmed prisoners, noble or otherwise, and his foot soldiers watched, deeply shocked, as two hundred archers stabbed, clubbed or burned the captives to death.

  After returning to England, Henry was received in London with an outburst of rejoicing, and was fêted with nine hours of pageantry and processions culminating in a service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s, as the bells of London pealed out. Not once, in all that celebration, was the austere King seen to smile, even though his people were wild with joy and shouting their acclaim.

  The importance of Agincourt must not be underestimated. Apart from demoralising the French, it fired the imagination of every Englishman, made Henry V a popular hero, and bolstered the growing nationalism of his subjects. Few would now question the title of Lancaster to the throne, for both Henry and his people believed that God had vindicated his right by granting such a decisive victory. A grateful Parliament happily voted further subsidies to finance the continuation of the war, even though the cost of the campaign had been enormous and had placed some strain on an already overburdened treasury.

  The English had suffered very few casualties at Agincourt. The only nobleman killed was Edward, Duke of York, who had commanded the right flank of the army during the battle. He was a big man and very overweight, and it was reported that he either suffocated to death in his armour or suffered a heart attack in the press of the fighting. His corpse was put in a huge cauldron of water and boiled all night, so that the flesh dissolved and the bones could be transported back to England, where they were buried in the collegiate church at Fotheringhay. A handsome monument to York’s memory was later raised on the orders of Elizabeth I, and may still be seen today.

  York left no children, and on his death his dukedom fell into abeyance. The attainting of his dead younger brother Cambridge meant that the latter’s four-year-old son, Richard, could not inherit it, although he was able to inherit the entailed estates of the earldom of Cambridge, but not the title. Attainders, however, were often reversed, and there were those who foresaw that this little boy might one day inherit not only the dukedom of York, but also – through his mother – the vast wealth of the Mortimers, for he was also heir to the childless Earl of March, his maternal uncle. For the time being, however, the orphaned Richard, now a royal ward, was being brought up in Yorkshire, at Pontefract Castle and
Methley Hall, under the guardianship of a royal retainer, Robert Waterton.

  In 1417, Henry V began a well-planned campaign to conquer Normandy, the patrimony of his ancestors. Caen and Lisieux fell to him that year, Falaise, Domfront and Louviers in 1418. The Norman capital, Rouen, capitulated in 1419 after a long and bitter siege, occasioning great celebrations in London. Henry then went on to take Paris, the capital of the kingdom of France. In 1419 the Duke of Burgundy, England’s ally, was murdered by supporters of the Dauphin Charles, heir to Charles VI. The murder drove his son, the new duke, Philip the Good, into an even stronger alliance with the English, which was highly advantageous to King Henry.

  As the war dragged on, the King’s reputation for cruelty grew. At the siege of Rouen, his harsh treatment of non-combatants – women, children and old men – resulted in 12,000 people dying from hunger and exposure. A French monk of the Abbey of St Denis accused Henry of abusing ‘the right of kings to punish disobediences’. Anyone bearing arms who refused to surrender to him was put to death, and once Henry had a deserter buried alive before his horrified companions. When Caen fell, 2000 people were rounded up into the market place and slaughtered, their blood running in rivulets through the streets. Henry himself turned a deaf ear to the cries of the doomed citizens until he came upon the corpse of a decapitated woman with a dead baby at her breast. Only then did he call a halt to the killing, although he allowed his men to continue to plunder and rape. As he rode by on his charger, stern and implacable, hordes of terrified people fell on their knees, crying for mercy.

  By 1420, Henry was master of Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Champagne and the Duchy of Aquitaine (or Guienne). But already there was in England a backlash of opinion against the war. The King was a hard taskmaster, and as the memory of Agincourt grew dimmer, Englishmen were becoming less enthusiastic about serving under him in France. Some of his soldiers were deserting and turning to a life of crime back in England.

 
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