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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

Beginning of the Wars of the Roses

 The loss of Normandy in 1450 was a great blow to the prestige of Henry VI. The country rose against the small group of men who dominated the royal council, against whom people had long grumbled..

In  January of 1450. The bishop of Chichester, Adam Moleyns, keeper of the privy seal and a key member of the royal council for years, was lynched in Portsmouth by unpaid sailors

In February, parliament met and the commons impeached the Duke of Suffolk -- in other words, they demanded his trial on a number of counts. They accused him of malfeasance and even treason. . Suffolk was condemned to exile in a bid to save his life. But when Suffolk was crossing to the continent, his ship was met by another called the Nicholas of the Tower, whose crew arrested, tried, and executed Suffolk as a traitor.

Then, the county of Kent, one of the most prosperous, freest, and most politically aware regions of the realm -- partly because of its proximity to the dangers and opportunities of the continent --
rose in a revolt, known as Jack Cade's Rebellion. Jack Cade was a Welshman who for political purposes took the significant alias "Mortimer." In June of 1450, thousands of Kentishmen, not just peasants and yeomen, but knights and gentlemen too, followed him to London, where they killed another bishop and demanded reform.

Reform meant throwing the rascals out and bringing in a broadly based government that should include various important peers heretofore excluded -- chief among them, the Duke of York.

Cade's revolt was put down, but in September the Duke of York returned uninvited to England from Ireland, where he had been in semi-exile. York was determined to take a leading role in the royal councils from now on.

These events were the beginning of more than a decade of jockeying between various parties who wished to dominate the royal government. Between 1450 and 1461, politics would get increasingly nasty, turning into civil war and eventually into a dynastic dispute between York's family and the reigning Lancastrians. These 11 years are the first phase of the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses.

Because the events are so complicated, I will discuss the reasons for and the effects of the Wars of the Roses while drastically summarizing the course of events.

Reasons for the political crisis

We have to start well before the specific crisis of 1450.

There was political instability in England from 1422, when the year-old Henry VI began to reign in England.   Rivalries between people who, in France, would have been called royal princes caused trouble.

On one side was Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the king's uncle, and something of a war hero. He felt unjustly deprived of the leadership.

On the other was Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester and later a cardinal. He was a powerful ecclesiastical politician and personally very wealthy. And as the king's great-uncle, he too was a prince of sorts. He was the senior representative of the Beauforts, John of Gaunt's family by his mistress Katherine Swynford. (They were legitimized later but by law  barred from ever claiming the throne.)

Rivalry between these men came close to civil war several times in the 1420s and 30s. Only the respected Duke of Bedford was able to keep them apart.

But in the late 1430s, things changed. In 1435, Bedford died. Then, in 1437, Henry VI came of age, and took an important role in his own government. Under Henry, the attempt to maintain a broadly based government broke down. Rather than taking firm control, he relied on a small clique of men he could trust. Henry assured the victory of the Beaufort interest, first under Henry Beaufort, then under Henry's nephew Edmund, earl and duke of Somerset and his ally the Duke of Suffolk. These men, working with a few professional bureaucrats like Adam Moleyns, controlled the country for almost fifteen years.

It was a bad government, militarily ineffective and financially irresponsible. The king loaded his ministers and friends with gifts and pensions. Many people who were owed money at the Exchequer, such as military commanders, could not collect on their debts because there was not enough money to go around. Those in favor at court got paid, others had to wait, perhaps indefinitely.

Furthermore, this kind of favoritism extended into the administration of justice. Those in good odor with the council got a sympathetic hearing, others were out of luck. People lost faith in the courts and turned to threats and violence to gain victory in their inevitable disputes. The result is a social climate approaching gangsterism.

The social violence before and during the Wars of the Roses is often blamed on a phenomenon known as "bastard feudalism." Bastard feudalism is a form of patronage and clientage that does not depend on the granting of fiefs in land.   It was not really new.  In this period, lords and their men regulated their relationships by written contracts, called indentures. The lesser man received an annual retainer, and promised to be ready to serve his lord whenever he called upon him. In war the retained man would receive wages, and share his loot with the lord; if he stayed with the lord in his household, he would be fed. In return the lord not only paid his client, and gave him livery -- clothing in his heraldic colors and decorated with his heraldic badge -- but he maintained him against his enemies. Livery and maintenance is another name for the system.

Some of the possibilities for abuse are obvious. The lords might uphold their men even if they were engaged in criminal activity.

But there was another side as well. Most retainers who received indentures were not insignificant thugs -- they were knights and squires, men of standing, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and MPs. By keeping such men under obligation to them, the lords gained the potential to manipulate the entire system of local government.

Livery and maintenance or bastard feudalism cannot, however, be blamed for the Wars of the Roses.   It had existed as far back as the time of William Marshal.  In normal times, livery and maintenance was simply one more prop for the social system -- a system not noted for its justice at any time. During foreign wars, it enabled lords to meet their military commitments. It got out of hand in the 1440s and later because there was no firm and respected hand on the tiller

It was then that great lords and their retainers routinely turned to violence. J.R. Lander has calculated that between 1448 and 1455 at least one-sixth of the peerage was, at one time or another, imprisoned for violent conduct. An astonishing proportion, when you reflect that these were the men who were supposed to be the king's partners in government.

This then is the background to the Duke of York's attempt to take a leading role in government.

The Duke of York and his cause

Richard, duke of York  was, except for the anomalous Beauforts, the still-childless king's closest male relative, and had inherited the the seniority of the Earls of March.

He was chronically short of funds. Not all of this was his fault. The Exchequer owed him tens of thousands of pounds for wages paid to his soldiers in Normandy in the 1440s, but would not not pay him. York quite rightly blamed Suffolk and the Duke of Somerset for this state of affairs.

He also was embittered against them because they had frustrated his desire to command in France just before the fall. He thought that he could have made the difference, but had been prevented by the court clique, no doubt a delusion.

York's grievances were the grievances of the nation, and as the senior duke, he was the obvious person to do something about those grievances. He was a potent political symbol.

Whatever principles York started out with were soon tarnished in his struggle for power. The court clique, led first by Somerset after Suffolk's death, then after 1455, by Queen Margaret, was always strong enough to keep York from attaining control of the government. In the face of this opposition, York did not hesitate to use violence and intrigue to get his way.

York's maneuvering went through several stages, which I will describe briefly.

In 1450, his partisans pressed for financial reform, which received general support, and also to have him recognized as the king's heir. This angered the court, and an MP was imprisoned for introducing a bill to that effect. York lacked enough support among the peers to get his way, and he remained excluded from the king's counsels.

In 1452, he came up with another plan. Gascony had been lost by this time, and the government looked bad again. York arranged for demonstrations in his favor to break out all over England; then he marched through Kent -- still restive after Cade's rebellion -- to London, in hopes of taking power by force. The plan was a miserable failure. Few of the demonstrations took place; Kent refused to rise; and almost no peers supported his demands. The king agreed to have the Duke of Somerset tried for his so-called crimes, but the moment York's forces dispersed, York himself was forced to ask for pardon, and some of his retainers were executed.

In 1453, however, he got another chance. An attempt to retake Gascony had flopped, and this was followed by a mental breakdown on the part of the king. York and Queen Margaret (who had just borne a son, Edward Prince of Wales) competed for leadership, and York won. Somerset was imprisoned, and parliament made York protector of the realm. For the next year or so, he was officially in charge.

Under his leadership, however, things got worse rather than better. Uncertainty at the top meant feuds increased. One of the most important was the feud between the Percies and their northern rivals the Nevilles (who had the earldoms of Westmoreland, Salisbury and Warwick). York was soon fighting beside the Nevilles against the Percies. In a sense, civil war had already begun.

In early 1455, Henry VI regained his senses, and York lost his protectorship. He was now more firmly excluded from influence than ever before.

The Beginning of the Wars of the Roses

York was unwilling to go peacefully, so he and the Nevilles raised an army in the North. In May of 1455, York's forces attacked the king's court at St. Albans. There was a short battle; York and Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, won. Somerset was killed, as was the Percy earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford, a Percy cousin. York and the Nevilles had destroyed their worst enemies in the peerage.

The parliament that was summoned to clean up the mess had little choice but to make York protector once again. But it was an empty title. Most of the peers were unenthusiastic about York and gave him no real support. Somerset had been unpopular, but the man who had attacked the king was resented, not cheered.

In February of 1456, the king simply came into parliament and relieved York of his office. Since Henry was the king, York had no pretext to refuse. All St. Albans had gained him was the more bitter hatred of the Beauforts, the Percies and the queen.

Richard earl of Warwick an ally of York, had been made commander of the garrison at Calais, a position he refused to give up when York lost power. It was the one card that the Yorkists still held.

In 1459, war broke out again. This time the Yorkists lost. York himself was forced to flee to Ireland, Warwick returned to Calais. In the aftermath, the queen and her partisans called a parliament to attaint York and his allies of treason.

The process of attainder was invented to crush York's party once and for all. A private bill was introduced into parliament that declared the king's enemies to be guilty of treason, and sentenced them to death and their families to forfeiture. There was no semblance of a trial. The invention of attainder reduced Parliament, which had proved too weak to control noble rivalries, into a rubber stamp for the victorious faction. This parliament, called the Parliament of Devils, seems actually to have evoked some sympathy for York. His family had been legally destroyed by a new and suspect legal process, and a few peers joined his side.

In 1460, Warwick invaded England from Calais and captured the king. York quickly returned from Ireland. When a new parliament met, he claimed the throne, on the basis that the Lancastrians had been usurpers all along. Parliament did its best to avoid accepting or rejecting York's claim. Again, hereditary rights, the basis of all social order, were being attacked.

Eventually a compromise was reached:

  • Henry VI would retain the crown as long as he lived.
  • After that, York and his descendants would inherit.
  • Edward Prince of Wales, Henry's son, would be ignored.
Henry, the beneficiary of the Treaty of Troyes, which had attempted to disinherit Charles VII, was to have his own son disinherited in the same way.

There were two problems with this settlement.

  • York still enjoyed the support of only a handful of peers, and even they seem to have been taken by surprise by his claim to the throne.
  • The Percies and the Beauforts, and Owen Tudor, earl of Pembroke in Wales stood by Henry, his queen, and his son. Queen Margaret who was still at large, pulled her party together and struck back.
In late 1460, Margaret's supporters, the Dukes of Somerset and Devon, defeated York at Wakefield in Yorkshire and killed him. In a second battle at St. Albans, the earl of Warwick was defeated. He lost possession of the king, who rejoined his wife. In a simple world, this would have been the end of the Wars of the Roses.

The apparent defeat of York put the strength of desperation into the surviving members of his party. Knowing that they would never be forgiven their treason, the Yorkist lords, led by Richard earl of Warwick, declared York's son, the nineteen-year-old Edward, earl of March to be the rightful king of England: Edward IV. They then gathered all their forces, marched north and in a terrific and bloody battle, defeated the Lancastrians, killing most of their leaders. Henry VI, Margaret, and their son Edward fled to Scotland, leaving the new king in possession of the realm.

In mid 1461, fresh from a victory that he had done much to win, Edward was crowned king of England, the first of a new dynasty, the Yorkist dynasty, which, like the Lancastrian one, was founded on usurpation.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.