‘Robin of Redesdale’ Invades the South Country, 1469

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick

The sequence of events and the changes of fortune during the months from April 1469 to August 1470, when Edward IV lost his throne, are among the most complex and confusing in all English history. Those who lived through them, even those who were directly involved, such as Lord Oxford, can have had surprisingly little understanding of just what was taking place. The confusion was very largely due to the Earl of Warwick – partly because of his carefully calculated dissimulation, and partly because he was constantly altering his political aims and adopting fresh plans.

Duke of Clarence

First Warwick attempted to govern England by the hopelessly unrealistic expedient of putting King Edward under strict control and ruling through him (rather as the Duke of York had tried to rule through Henry VI). Then he contemplated replacing Edward with the Duke of Clarence. Finally, as a last resort, he decided to restore King Henry. The bewildering ramifications of the Earl’s plotting extended all over the kingdom and across the sea to the exiled Lancastrian court in Lorraine. What makes all this even harder to unravel is the fact that Warwick’s ultimate success was far from being a foregone conclusion.

The first signs of a revolt against Edward seemed to be no more than local disturbances, having no apparent connection with the Earl. Only with hindsight, and a very great deal of detective work by historians, does the involvement of Warwick, and also of Clarence and Oxford, become clear. In the spring of 1469 a mysterious leader called ‘Robin of Redesdale’ or ‘Robin Amend-all’ placed himself at the head of a band of North Country malcontents. (The name ‘Amend-all’ was borrowed by Robert Louis Stevenson for a character in a novel inspired by the Paston Letters, The Black Arrow.) According to the chronicle of Dr John Warkworth – the Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge from 1473 until 1498, from whom much will be heard later – these dissatisfied northerners numbered ‘divers knights squires and commoners’. Although Redesdale is in Northumberland, Robin seems to have been a Yorkshireman, either Sir John Conyers of Hornby or his brother, Sir William Conyers of Marske, cousins by marriage of Warwick, who was almost certainly behind the rising. Ironically, towards the end of April the rebels were dispersed by the Earl’s brother, Lord Montagu, still a loyal Yorkist.

A second, unconnected rising by ‘Robin of Holderness’ in the East Rising, shortly after, muddied the water still further. What had provoked this new revolt was a tax on corn to subsidize an almshouse in York, but its members then demanded that Henry Percy should be restored to the earldom of Northumberland. As Montagu was in possession of the earldom, he had every incentive to put down the rebels, which he did swiftly, capturing Robin of Holderness and beheading him.

Robin of Redesdale

In June, Robin of Redesdale reappeared in Lancashire, this time with several thousand men, and began to march south. He issued a revealing manifesto, similar to Jack Cade’s in 1450. The King had excluded the lords of the blood royal from his council and would listen only to ‘the deceivable rule and guiding of certain seditious persons’ – notably Earl Rivers and the Woodvilles.

Meanwhile, on 11 July, the Duke of Clarence and Isabel Nevill were married by Archbishop Nevill in the presence of Warwick, and probably of the Earl of Oxford as well. A marriage expressly forbidden by King Edward, it was a deliberate, carefully premeditated act of rebellion. From Calais they circulated an open letter to everyone who, as they put it, wished to heal England’s ills; attaching Robin of Redesdale’s manifesto, they asked them to come fully armed to Canterbury on 16 July.

Just before the wedding in Calais, rumours began to reach Edward that Warwick and the Duke of Clarence were hatching a plot. At first he could scarcely credit it. On 9 July he wrote very friendly letters from Nottingham to the Earl, to Clarence and to Archbishop Nevill, telling Warwick that he did not believe he was ‘of any such disposition towards us as the rumour here runneth’. However, when the King learnt of the wedding he at once realized that not only was there a very dangerous plot against him but that Robin of Redesdale was involved in the plot too – and Robin was marching rapidly towards him with an unexpectedly large army. Edward made the mistake of staying a little too long in Nottingham, waiting for reinforcements to reach him from Wales, despite the news that Warwick, Clarence and Archbishop Nevill had landed in Kent.

Robin’s manifesto referred to ‘mischiefs that fell in this land in the days of King Edward II, King Richard II and King Henry VI to the destruction of them, and to the great hurt and impoverishing of this land’ – these monarchs had ‘estranged the great lords of their blood and [were] not advised by them, and taking about them others not of their blood, and inclining only to their counsel, rule and advise’. In recent years the Woodvilles, William Herbert, Henry Stafford and others had played just the same role, said the manifesto, impoverishing the King by obtaining from him possessions ‘above their deserts and degrees’. They were responsible for debasing the coinage, imposing extortionate taxes and impeaching anyone they disliked, causing ‘the utter impoverishment of us, his true commons and subjects, and to the great enriching of themselves’.

The Earl of Warwick was a popular figure in Kent (for having swept the English Channel free of French pirates), and he and Clarence had prepared their Kentish rebellion no less carefully than their northern. Large numbers of supporters rallied to them at once, and without wasting time they marched up to the Midlands to reinforce Robin of Redesdale.

William Herbert (recently created Earl of Pembroke) tried to reach the King at Nottingham but, separated from their archers, on 29 July he and his Welsh men-at-arms were intercepted by Robin and cut to pieces at Edgecote in Oxfordshire. Herbert was taken prisoner, to be beheaded the next day on Warwick’s orders. Shortly afterwards, the Queen’s father, Earl Rivers, and her brother, Sir John Woodville, were also beheaded, again without trial and on Warwick’s orders.

Many of King Edward’s men fled when they heard the news of Edgecote Field. The King tried to make his way south to London but was caught in Buckinghamshire en route by the Archbishop of York. He was sent under guard into strict if respectful confinement, first at Clarence’s castle of Warwick and then in Nevill country at Middleham Castle in the North Riding.

The Earl of Warwick’s plan was to rule England in King Edward’s name, just as the Duke of York had ruled in King Henry’s during the 1450s, and he hoped to summon a compliant parliament at York. However, Edward IV was no weak-minded simpleton like Henry VI, and the Earl soon began to realize that his scheme was unworkable. Within a very short time, early in August, a very well-informed Milanese observer in France had heard a plausible report that Warwick intended to announce that Edward was a bastard and to replace him on the throne by his son-in-law, the Duke of Clarence. This plan too had little hope of success. Robin of Redesdale and his men had rebelled because they disliked the Woodvilles, not the King, and now they had eliminated the Woodvilles.

Edward IV’s enforced absence from public affairs was generally seen as a complete breakdown in central government instead of a change of regime. A situation verging on anarchy ensued. Some magnates took advantage of a golden opportunity in which to revive private feuds and settle old scores, one or two of them fighting pitched battles with each other. There were riots and looting in London. In mid-August Sir Humphrey Nevill of Brancepeth, a Lancastrian diehard despite his name, emerged from his hiding place in the Lake District and once again raised the banner of King Henry VI.

Normally, Warwick would have had very little difficulty in putting down so puny a rising without delay, but this time the northerners declined to fight for him. Understandably, they were baffled by King Edward’s disappearance. Eventually, the Earl – who, at this stage at any rate, had no wish to see a Lancastrian restoration – was forced to allow Edward to make public appearances at Pontefract and at York, in order to find the soldiers he needed, and, in response to the King’s summons, troops flocked to Warwick’s standard. Within a few days the Earl was able to hunt down and capture Sir Humphrey, who was executed at York in Edward’s presence at the end of September.

Edward seized the chance to get away from his gaolers, calling on loyal magnates to join him – Lord Hastings among them. After seven weeks as a prisoner, the King rode back to London escorted by his friends. A chronicler commented that ‘in a way which was almost miraculous and quite unexpected, he did not so much escape as find himself set free with the earl of Warwick’s full agreement’.

Not only had Warwick and Clarence imprisoned the King but they had executed his father-in-law and brother-in-law and some of his most faithful followers. Astonishingly, Edward seemed willing to forgive them. He accepted George Clarence’s marriage to Warwick’s daughter while he betrothed his own eldest daughter to Warwick’s nephew George Nevill, whom he created Duke of Bedford, hitherto a royal title. When he restored Henry Percy to the Percy earldom of Northumberland in March 1470, he compensated Warwick’s brother John – who had been Earl of Northumberland for the last six years – with the Courtenay lands in Devon (though not Mr Lambert’s) and made him Marquess Montagu. Even so, Warwick remained secretly determined to depose the King. If Edward would not reign as a puppet, then he would have to make way for the Duke of Clarence, who was only too ready to take his brother’s place on the throne.

For several months King Edward continued with the farce of pretending to forgive the plotters, ostentatiously inviting them to council meetings, though the atmosphere was fraught with tension. Sir John Paston wrote darkly to his mother in October 1469 that when Lord Oxford (Sir John’s patron) and Archbishop Nevill had prepared to ride out and greet the King as he approached London, Edward had sent word that they were not to come near him unless summoned. ‘I wot not to suppose therin,’ comments the worried Paston. ‘The king himself hath good language of the lords of Clarence and Warwick, and of my lords of York [and] Oxenford, saying they be his best friends, but his household men have other language.’ However polite in public, Edward and the earl were intent on each other’s destruction. Even the chronicler Waurin, who rather admired Warwick, was shocked by the ‘great treacheries’ (grans faulsetez) with which that almost insanely ambitious subject tried to bring down his sovereign lord.

An obscure affray in Lincolnshire turned into another plot against King Edward. Lord Welles (Margaret Beaufort’s stepbrother) and his brothers-in-law, Sir Thomas de la Lande and Sir Thomas Dymoke – the King’s Champion – had been feuding with Sir Thomas Burgh of Gainsborough, Master of the Horse. No doubt they were jealous of him as a ‘new man’, a favourite to whom the King had given confiscated estates, disliking him much as the old nobility disliked the Woodvilles. In February 1470 – almost certainly encouraged by Warwick and Clarence – they attacked his house at Gainsborough, demolishing it, stealing his goods and chasing him out of the county. This was exactly the sort of ‘abusion of the laws’ which Edward had sworn to stamp out, and the victim was a member of his own household. He announced that he would visit Lincolnshire as soon as possible in order to punish the rioters.

Warwick and Clarence sent secret messages to Lord Welles and his son Sir Robert, asking them to gather as many men as they could. Early in March 1470, calling himself ‘captain of the commons of Lincolnshire’, Sir Robert Welles summoned every man in the county to join him in resisting the King, who was coming to ‘destroy the commons of the said shire’. Many responded to his summons since a fair number of Lincolnshire men had marched with Robin of Redesdale. Then Lord Welles and Dymoke lost their nerve. They went to court, hoping to defuse the situation, and were given a royal pardon, as was Sir Robert Welles.

When questioned by Edward, trusting in their pardons Lord Welles and Dymoke admitted that they were responsible for the rebellion, though they insisted that Warwick and Clarence were in no way involved. The King made Welles write to Sir Robert, telling him that his father and his uncle Dymoke would be executed unless he surrendered at once. Instead, Sir Robert Welles marched as fast as he could to attack the royal army, in the vain hope of saving his father.

Regardless of their pardons, King Edward ordered the immediate beheading of Lord Welles and Sir Thomas Dymoke. On the same day, 12 March 1470, he crushed the Lincolnshire rebels near Stamford at ‘Losecoat Field’ – so called because they threw away their doublets in order to run faster. During the battle the rebels had shouted ‘A Clarence! A Warwick!’, and before his execution their leader, Sir Robert Welles, confessed that the real instigators of the rebellion were the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Clarence and that its object had been to make Clarence King of England.

Simultaneous risings had been planned to take place all over northern England, but they collapsed at the news of Losecoat Field. Although the Earl and the Duke rode through Derbyshire and Lancashire, hoping to find allies, no one would join them. Warwick may well have told his fellow peers that King Edward made ‘more honourable account of new upstart gentlemen than of ancient houses of nobility’ (if one may believe Polydore Vergil, writing a quarter of a century later), but for the time being this was no longer true. Very few men of substance wanted to risk their necks and their property by involving themselves in the Earl’s quarrel with Edward. Still fewer can have wished to have the Duke of Clarence for their king.

On 2 April Edward IV issued a proclamation in which he publicly denounced Warwick and Clarence as ‘rebels and traitors’. They fled south to Exeter, from where they took ship to Calais.