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Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Of the many sudden changes of political fortune which mark English history in the fifteenth century, none is more remarkable than the recovery of the Yorkist cause following the débâcle of October 1459. Within a month of Ludford its leaders were proscribed and attainted exiles. Yet by June 1460 they were able to mount a successful invasion of England and take control of London. Shortly after, they defeated the king’s forces at Northampton and Henry VI became a prisoner in their hands. This made possible a period of Yorkist-controlled government lasting to the end of the year, when the disasters at Wakefield (30 December 1460) and St Albans (17 February 1461) again put all in suspense, and thrust Edward of March onto the English throne.

Why this Yorkist revival was so successful has never been properly explained. Certainly, the rebels’ control of bases outside England kept these out of the clutches of the Lancastrians and allowed York and his allies to prepare their armed welcome in Ireland. His clever appeal to the Anglo-Irish lords’ desire for autonomy strengthened his hold in the province and caused them to reject James Butler, earl of Wiltshire, whom Henry VI appointed to supersede him as lieutenant. In Calais Warwick, Salisbury and March defeated all the efforts of the duke of Somerset to dislodge them.

But the possession of useful springboards for invasion does not explain the success of the invasion itself. In England the majority of the baronage remained loyal to Henry VI and his heir. Amongst those who swore an oath of loyalty in the Coventry Parliament were several of York’s kinsmen, including the dukes of Buckingham and Norfolk, Viscount Bourchier, and Edward Nevill, Lord Abergavenny. Of the gentry some former Yorkists, like Sir William Herbert of Raglan, shared the rewards as the confiscated estates of the exiles were distributed, or were confirmed in offices they already held. Such behaviour, however, was no more than discreet and politic in the circumstances, and Bourchier, Abergavenny and Herbert, at least, were quick to join the rebel earls on their landing in England. Many Yorkist sympathizers lay low and awaited a change of fortune. Those attainted in the highly partisan parliament of Coventry in November 1459 represent a small proportion of Yorkist well-wishers, especially among the gentry. They included only six peers: York himself, and his sons, Edward of March and Edmund of Rutland; the earls of Salisbury and Warwick; and the insignificant John, Lord Clinton, poorest of the English barons. Younger sons or kinsmen of peers included Viscount Bourchier’s sons, John and Edward, Salisbury’s cadets, Thomas and John Nevill, and William Stanley, brother of Thomas, Lord Stanley. The rest of the twenty-seven persons attainted were knights and esquires, nearly all of them already in exile with their leaders. The personal clemency of Henry VI saved some from the dread sentence of attainder, amongst them Lords Stanley and Grey of Powys, and Sir Walter Devereux, later Lord Ferrers, and was, of course, extended to the duchess of York and her younger children. Others escaped with fines or obtained pardons. The government was clearly anxious to conciliate all those Yorkist servants and connections who had not fled the realm, but this did not prevent them from joining the rebels when the invasion came; and in some parts of the country, especially in Wales, they continued to defy Henry VI’s authority.

How much popular sympathy the rebels enjoyed is more difficult to assess. Pro-Yorkist chroniclers present a rather distorted picture of an England which was primarily Yorkist in the south and east and royalist in the north and west.4 Nevertheless, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest considerable popular support for the rebels in Kent and some other parts of the south, including London. This was partly due to the growing reputation of the earl of Warwick, who had now emerged as the most forceful of the Yorkist leaders. His successful attacks from Calais on Spanish and Hanseatic shipping in the Channel appealed to anti-alien sentiments and provided a rallying-point for a bruised national patriotism. Skilled in the use of propaganda, vigorous and open-handed, Warwick was already displaying that capacity to win over the common people which was later to prove so troublesome to Edward IV.

More important was the prevailing disillusion with Lancastrian government. In the ten years since Kent had risen against Henry VI’s regime in 1450, little or nothing had been done to remedy the manifold abuses of which the rebels under Jack Cade had complained. Hence a list of grievances originally drawn up in 1450 could quite plausibly be refurbished and used again in 1460 to support the Yorkist cause. In London, too, there was no great sympathy for the Lancastrian court, which had deserted the capital for the midlands, and had alienated some sections of London society by its commercial policy. The large number of popular recruits which joined the rebel earls as soon as they landed suggests the extent of the reaction to Lancastrian misgovernment. The unpopularity of the regime in the south-east was certainly a major asset of the Yorkists in the early stages of their campaign.

The flames of disaffection were fanned by a vigorous publicity campaign conducted from Calais by the rebel earls. Before they landed in England, they sent letters all over the country, claiming that their only purpose was to remedy the sufferings of the realm. They insisted that they intended no harm to the person or title of Henry VI. Their sincerity need not be doubted, for it would have been political folly to challenge the widespread loyalty to the king’s person, whatever the defects of his administration. Shortly before they left Calais they issued a manifesto, in which the name of Edward of March appears besides those of York, Salisbury and Warwick. This dwelt upon the failures of the government-the poverty of the Crown, the corruption of the law, the extortions practised upon the Commons, the loss of France. All these were blamed upon evil and grasping councillors, especially the earls of Shrewsbury and Wiltshire, and Viscount Beaumont, ‘oure mortall and extreme enemies’. For the most part couched in familiar terms, the document introduced one skilful touch in its allegation that Shrewsbury, Wiltshire and their friends had planned the attainders of the Coventry Parliament to enrich themselves: who, it asked, could know where such malice and greed for other men’s inheritances might end? The property-owning classes at least were likely to be moved by any threat to the sanctity of inheritance, which has rightly been called ‘one of the most deeply rooted emotions of the age’. Thus the Yorkists tried to present themselves as champions of good government and as rightful claimants to the inheritances of which they had been unjustly deprived. Formal manifestos were backed by popular ballads, like that pinned on the gates of Canterbury just before the landing of the earls. It dwelt again on the misfortunes of the realm and presented the rebel lords as the saviours of the kingdom:

Richard duk of York, Job thy servant insigne …

Edward Earl of March, whose fame the earth shall spread,

Richard earl of Salisbury named prudence,

With that noble knight and flower of manhood

Richard, earl of Warwick shield of our defence,

Also little Fauconberg, a knight of great reverence….

By now the Yorkist leaders had gained a useful recruit in the person of the papal legate, Francesco Coppini, bishop of Terni, who had joined them at Calais. Coppini had been sent to England in 1459 by Pius II to seek Henry VI’s backing for the crusade planned by the pope, but was led by his own ambition to attach himself to the earls. He now became their active partisan, and his share in their propaganda campaign lent prestige to their cause. He was also feeding back strongly pro-Yorkist accounts of events in England to his master in Rome. Pius’s judgement on Henry VI- a man more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit, who left everything in his wife’s hands’ – owed much to Coppini’s bias.

By the early summer of 1460 the earls in Calais were ready to make their descent on England. A further effort by the duke of Somerset to recapture Calais from the nearby fortress of Guiñes had been defeated at Newnham Bridge on 23 April. A muster of troops under Sir Osbert Mountfort to reinforce Somerset was destroyed by a Yorkist raid on Sandwich in June, led by William, Lord Fauconberg. On 26 June he was joined there by Edward of March and the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, with a force of some 1,500 to 2,000 men. They soon had the support of that staunch Yorkist Lord Cobham, and large numbers of Kentishmen. As they approached Canterbury, the ‘captains’ appointed to hold the town against them, John Fogge, John Scott and Robert Home, decided to join their standard: Fogge and Scott were soon to be amongst Edward’s most trusted servants. From Canterbury, with a large and growing force, the earls moved on unopposed towards London. After some hesitation the city authorities decided to admit them, and a force of royalists commanded by Lords Scales and Hungerford withdrew into the Tower. On 2 July the earls entered London, and were welcomed by the mayor and by the archbishop of Canterbury. The following day they appeared before the convocation of the province of Canterbury, then in session, and once more explained that they had come to reform the realm but intended no ill to King Henry.

It was no part of the rebels’ plan to linger in the capital. Their main aim was to confront the king, who was now gathering his forces near Northampton. The earls spent two days in organizing horses and baggage for their army and in raising funds. They were acutely short of ready cash and borrowed eagerly from all who could be persuaded to lend. A corporate loan of £1,000 from London indicates the rather reluctant commitment of the city fathers to the rebel cause.5 On 4 July the vanguard of the Yorkist army moved out of London, the rest following the next day. Salisbury, Cobham and Wenlock were left behind to contain the still defiant Lancastrian garrison in the Tower. The earls had now been joined by several lords (Viscount Bourchier, Audley, Abergavenny, Say, and Scrope of Bolton) who represented most of their support amongst the peers, but they had with them a notable company of churchmen, including Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury, brother of the viscount, and the bishops of London, Exeter, Lincoln, Salisbury, Ely and Rochester, with the papal legate not far behind.

As in 1455 and 1459, their professed aim was to parley with the king, not to fight him. Opinion in the royal camp was divided on whether to grant them a hearing, but when the duke of Buckingham threw his considerable influence against negotiation, a battle became inevitable. The king had the backing of Shrewsbury, Beaumont, Egremont and Grey of Ruthyn, as well as Buckingham, but the rank-and-file of his army were probably outnumbered by the rebels (another indication of their popular support). The royalists took up a defended position beside the River Nene outside the walls of Northampton. On 10 July the Yorkists advanced to the attack in three divisions, commanded by Fauconberg, the young Edward of March, and Warwick. Their men had orders to spare the king and commons, but to slay the lords, knights and esquires. In the event, the battle was decided largely by the timely treachery of Edmund Grey, Lord Grey of Ruthyn, commander of the Lancastrian vanguard, and the fighting seems to have been over in half an hour. Amongst the three hundred or so found dead on the field were the royalist captains Buckingham, Shrewsbury, Beaumont and Egremont. The hapless king became a prisoner. Treated with every possible mark of respect, he was escorted back to London, where the victorious earls arrived on 16 July. The stubborn Lancastrian garrison in the Tower then capitulated, and many of their number were condemned to death before the earl of Warwick, who, then as later, showed scant mercy to his enemies.

From the Yorkists the most important consequence of Northampton was their possession of the person of the king. They could now exercise the government of England in the king’s name and in their own interests. On 25 July Warwick’s brother, George Nevill, bishop of Exeter, became chancellor of England and Viscount Bourchier was made treasurer. Warwick proceeded to reward himself with a valuable and lucrative series of offices and wardships. On 30 July writs were sent out for a parliament to meet at Westminster on 7 October. Its purpose was to get the sanction of the high court of the realm for this latest political revolution and to remove the sentences of attainder passed by the Coventry Parliament. This would formally reinstate the rebels as the king’s loyal subjects and enable them to recover their inheritances; and the annulment of the proceedings at Coventry was, in fact, the first formal measure passed by parliament when it assembled.

With these measures the rebel earls had achieved the immediate purpose of their invasion. It had never been part of their plans to depose Henry VI. Indeed, the stubborn sentiment of loyalty to the king’s person could only be regarded as a political asset by those who had him under their control. But they had reckoned without Duke Richard of York. Some time before he returned to England, and apparently without informing his friends, he had decided to lay claim to the throne in his own right. From the moment he landed near Chester, on about 8 September, it was clear that he had renounced his allegiance to Henry VI. Documents drawn up in his name on 13 September omit any reference to the regnal year, and were dated instead by the year of grace, quite out of conformity with usual practice. Lingering in Ludlow and Hereford until parliament assembled, he then marched on London, his trumpeters bearing banners charged with the arms of England, and with his sword carried upright before him-the very mark and privilege of a king. On 10 October he reached Westminster Hall and strode through the assembled lords of parliament to lay his hand on the empty throne. His reward was an embarrassed silence, for his intervention was unexpected and unwelcome, apparently even to his closest allies, the Nevill earls. Again York had miscalculated, but he did not intend to allow his claim to be ignored. On 16 October he formally asserted his title to the throne. Based essentially upon legitimism, his argument stressed his superior descent from Lionel of Clarence, elder brother of John of Gaunt, great-grandfather of Henry VI. Neither the judges nor the serjeants-at-law were prepared to give an opinion on a matter which (they said) was ‘above the law and past their learning’, and it was left to the lords to advance objections to his claim. To the last and most practical of these-why, if he were the heir of Clarence, had he always carried the arms of his paternal forebear, Edmund of Langley ?-he replied that he had abstained from bearing the arms of Clarence for reasons known to all the realm, adding forcefully: ‘though right for a time rest and be put to silence, yet it rotteth not nor shall it perish’. Yet still the lords would not abandon a king to whom they had pledged solemn oaths of loyalty. Their reluctance is the more remarkable since many of the overt partisans of Lancaster were not present in this parliament. The lords were, however, less attached to Margaret of Anjou and her son Prince Edward-they may even have believed in the rumours that he was not Henry VI’s son-and agreed to accept York and his male issue as right heirs to the throne on the death or earlier abdication of King Henry. On 24 October a formal Act of Accord was ratified whereby York should succeed immediately on Henry’s death, unless he previously decided to abdicate. 10,000 marks a year were to be provided for York and his sons, of which 3,500 marks were assigned to Edward of March and 1,500 to Edmund of Rutland. With this York had to be content.

More urgent and threatening matters now demanded the attention of the Yorkist leaders. King James II of Scotland, taking advantage of English weakness, captured Roxburgh and Wark in July 1460, and his army continued to threaten Berwick and the northern border. Much more dangerous was the inability of the Yorkist-controlled government to extend its authority over large areas of the realm. Much of Wales defied it. In Devon, Hereford, Shropshire and Yorkshire bands of armed men roamed the countryside. Much of the north was under the control of the earl of Northumberland and Lords Clifford and Roos. Repeated orders to them to yield up key castles like Pontefract in Yorkshire and Penrith in Cumberland were wholly ignored. By October the government had been reduced to issuing hopeful commands to a mixed bag of Lancastrian and Yorkist partisans to expel evildoers from these castles, and to call out ‘the lieges of Yorkshire and adjacent counties to storm the same’ in case of resistance. But there was little hope of success. The Yorkshire estates of York and the Nevills were devastated, and men were forced on pain of death to join the swelling Lancastrian resistance. In the south-west the duke of Somerset, returning from Calais in September, joined the earl of Devon in raising troops, and early in December they marched north to rendezvous at Hull with the queen’s North-Country supporters. The duke of Exeter, the earl of Northumberland, and Lords Roos, Clifford, Nevill and Dacre came in to swell the royalist army; this rapid muster took the Yorkists by surprise.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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