Of everything that came out of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in the Leicester parking lot, one clear benefit was renewed debate over the reputation of the king outside of the usual cast of historians. Hearing the man’s complicated and lengthy career summed up for the purposes of pithy synopses, I was struck again by the symmetry in the stories of Richard III and his father. Both grew up with fathers deemed traitors by the English government; both had a long track record for ability; both claimed the throne when other men sat on it. You could make the argument that both men were known for loyalty up until the 11th hour, but that is a trickier argument when discussing Richard, Duke of York.
On October 10, 1460 York entered Parliament, held at Westminster, and walked directly to the empty throne where he placed his hand on it, laying claim. After more than a decade of insisting his protests against the rule of his cousin, Henry VI, were based out of a desire for reform and not ambition, this severely undermine the purity of the Yorkist cause. It is also a critical intersection of two ways of looking at the Wars of the Roses: were the wars fought over a dynastic struggle or a response to mismanagement? Likely, it began as the latter and turned into the former. But still, at what point did York begin fighting to name himself king instead of closest councilor?
Richard was born on September 21, 1411 to Richard, Earl of Cambridge and his wife, Anne Mortimer. His father was the younger brother to the childless Edward, Duke of York and both men were the grandsons of King Edward III through his fourth surviving son, Edward, Duke of York. Richard’s mother, Anne, was the granddaughter of Philippa Plantagenet, only daughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, second surviving son of Edward III.
Put more simply: Richard had an excellent claim to the throne, being descended from Edward III through both his parents.
His mother died giving birth to him and in the summer of 1415 his father was executed for treason against Henry V. Two months later his paternal uncle, the Duke of York, was killed in the Battle of Agincourt. Despite being the son of a traitor, young Richard was allowed to inherit his uncle’s title and was styled the Duke of York from the age of four on. He was given as a ward to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and was duly betrothed to his youngest daughter, Cecily. In 1425 he joined the household of Henry VI, accompanied him to France when he was crowned in Paris, and in the late 1430s and early 1440s was consistently shown royal favor.
The First Turning Point: 1445
In the spring of 1445 York was living in France with his wife and children, serving as the Lieutenant of Normandy and overseeing England’s extensive holdings in the region. Unfortunately for him, there was no consensus from Westminster over how to manage France. Some members of council, including Henry VI’s uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, favored continued and sustained military aggression, while others like William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk and eventually the Beauforts favored securing a peaceful settlement through negotiation. York himself favored the former policy.
In April of 1445 Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou, niece of Charles VII, King of France, via his brother-in-law, Rene I of Anjou. Not only did she lack a dowry, but Suffolk had agreed to cede Maine and Anjou back to France in an under the table tenant of the marriage treaty, a move he knew would be unpopular with the English when it was discovered. Gloucester was firmly against the match and what it symbolized, for Margaret also brought with her one more critical tool: a truce between the two countries, albeit one with a firm end date.
For obvious reasons, Margaret sympathized with and became close to members of the “peace” party, the leaders of which were Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Somerset and York disliked one another and in August of 1445, York was recalled from France and replaced by Somerset. While York’s tenure as Lieutenant in Normandy had been frustrating due to inconsistent support from home, this marked the first clear instance of York losing a position of power to Somerset based on the favor of the king and queen. He was eventually named the King’s Lieutenant in Ireland, a downgrade and a handy way for Margaret of Anjou and Suffolk to keep him away from London.
Second Phase: 1446 – 1451
The first incident that caused members of court to question York’s motivation came in December 1446. An apprentice of York’s armorer, John Davies, claimed to have overheard Davies saying that York had a better claim to the throne than Henry VI. Davies was brought before Council and York, looking to distance himself, called for the man to be brought to justice. Davies and his apprentice engaged in a trial by combat, Davies lost and was hanged.
By 1450 a rebellion was brewing, led by a man popularly referred to as John “Jack” Cade. The rebels were angered by what they saw as abuses of power from the councilors closest to the king, namely Suffolk, and the financial burden of over 30 years of continued warfare in France. The halcyon days of Agincourt and the sack of Rouen long over, England’s presence in France was remote and tedious to the next generation of Englishmen. Notably, Cade adopted the moniker of “Plantagenet,” the surname York had begun using in 1448.
While there is no evidence that York was directly involved in the uprising, his decision to whip out “Plantagenet” two years before was pointed and politically motivated. The move referenced the House of Lancaster’s usurpation of the throne in 1399, when Richard II was forced to abdicate in favor of his cousin, Henry IV. York, descended from Edward III’s second son, had a better dynastic claim than his cousin, Henry VI, descended from Edward III’s third son. The timing of it also couldn’t have been worse. In 1448 Somerset finally took up the mantle of Lieutenant of Normandy and left for France and between that summer and 1450, England consistently ceded ground to the French, eventually losing everything except for Calais.
Somerset fled to Caen and Suffolk, easier to grab hold of, was charged for treason for mishandling France and abusing his position of authority as a councilor to Henry VI. Margaret of Anjou and Henry downgraded his punishment from execution to banishment, but on board a ship taking him out of England he was murdered. As court was catching its breath, news came that Cade’s rebellion was brewing.
By July, the uprising had been quashed and its leaders executed in front of Henry VI in what was known as the “Harvest of the Heads.” York, however, correctly sensing the tide of public opinion was on his side, called for Somerset’s arrest. By the autumn he had arrived in London and over the course of the winter briefly held some political sway at court. Somerset, whom York had successfully been able to have arrested, was freed only by the intervention of Margaret and had his London home raided by a mob. Had this situation held, it is interesting to consider whether war would have still inevitably unfolded. Regardless, it didn’t and by the spring York had lost his influence over Henry, saw Somerset named Captain of Calais and retired from court in disgust.
This period was critical as York morphed from a disgruntled member of Henry VI’s coterie of friends and families to a political figure purposefully positioning himself as the opposition and publicly calling for government reform. Certainly by the end of these years York and Margaret of Anjou were diametrically opposed and the rise of one led directly to a loss of power for the other. Whether this also marked the beginning of York considering whether England would be better off if he was king is less clear.
Third Phase: 1452 – 1455
If the second phase solidified for York that working with Somerset and the queen was impossible, without a full-on rebellion, the next few years limited York’s options. From here on out, York was unequivocal in his call for Somerset’s arrest and consistently sought to marginalize Margaret of Anjou. While he still seemed to believe that if he could only meet Henry VI one-on-one and hash it out, a solution could be found, this would be dashed by Henry’s mental break in the summer of 1453.
However, before that happened three things took place that altered the rules of the game. First, 1452 saw the first time that Henry and York both raised armies against one another, deepening the suspicion with which Margaret viewed York. She was now completely convinced York was in it to take the throne and all of her subsequent dealings with him were of a sitting queen staving off a potential usurper.
Second, in the spring of 1453 Margaret of Anjou finally announced she was pregnant. This came after eight years of childlessness where the court had all but despaired of an heir and had made the sniping between York and Somerset all the more politically significant given that either of them could have been considered an heir. York’s claim was better, but Somerset’s position as a Beaufort and his close relationship to Henry and Margaret made him a viable threat.
This was further complicated by the third occurrence, which was the introduction of Edmund and Jasper Tudor into the peerage as the Earls of Richmond and Pembroke respectively. Shortly before Margaret’s pregnancy was made public, Parliament petitioned Henry to recognize his half-brothers from his mother’s second marriage as his “full” brothers, a move seen by many as indication Edmund, the older of the two, would be named Heir Apparent.
The birth of Prince Edward in October 1453 solidified York’s powerlessness and considerably bolstered Margaret’s influence. It also meant that from this point forward Margaret was not only fighting on behalf of Henry, but to protect the interests of her son. This was undermined, however, by Henry’s mental health: in August of 1453, while at his hunting lodge at Clarendon, the king went insane. By the end of the year Somerset was forced to summon York to Parliament and, despite a competing bid from the queen, York was duly named regent. He swiftly moved Henry, Margaret and Edward to Windsor Castle, had Somerset arrested and cleaned house.
But it was short-lived. Henry recovered his senses on Christmas Day 1454 and appeared before Parliament in February 1455. By May the First Battle of St. Albans had taken place, Somerset was killed and war was inevitable. Five months later York officially claimed the throne and two months after that he was killed at the Battle of Wakefield. His eldest son, Edward, picked up the Yorkist mantle was officially proclaimed king in June 1461.
York as King
So, when did York decide Henry VI should be deposed? Given that York was 10 years older than his cousin, it’s unlikely he originally based his career off of his position as Henry’s assumed heir. And it wasn’t until the mid-1440s, when Margaret entered the scene as queen and Somerset’s position at court came into focus, that there was any sense York was on a path to become increasingly marginalized. Based on the timeline outlined above, my sense is that York was frustrated by England’s war effort (or lack thereof) by 1445 and was probably wary of Margaret of Anjou by time he was sent to Ireland. Somerset’s incompetence in France solidified York’s contempt and upon seeing clearly that Somerset would never be held accountable under Margaret, York’s options were either do away with the status quo or retire.
It’s worth noting that York did retire from court here and there, retreating to Ludlow or Fotheringhay in disgust on a fairly regular basis. But from York’s perspective, not only was he being denied his rightful place beside his cousin, but England’s value abroad was declining and its people dissatisfied. I believe York’s motives were that of a desire to reform, mingled with a belief that he was an abler leader than Henry, until the events of 1453 – 1454. Once he witnessed Henry lose his sanity and got a taste for what a government under his control could look like, there was no turning back.
By May 1455, the traditional start date for the Wars of the Roses, I believe York was gunning for the throne, despite what he may have said publicly. Ironically, since Margaret appears to have suspected his motives long before that, it’s quite possible she helped to create the very situation she feared the most.
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