Two weeks ago we took a look at the assassination of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, noting that his unpopularity was wrapped up in the humiliating losses in Normandy under the command of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. His death in March 1450 was swiftly followed by the first serious rebellion in Henry VI’s reign – that of a man under the moniker “Jack Cade,” who led an uprising that swept the countryside that summer. It was suppressed and its participants put to death, but an uneasy pallor settled over Henry’s court.
Shortly after its end, Somerset returned to London with his tail between his legs. Richard, Duke of York – his erstwhile political rival – was fit to be tied, and promptly called for his arrest as a traitor, but it was Somerset, not York, who had the ear of Henry’s wife, Marguerite of Anjou. York was put off until the autumn, when he, too, arrived in the capital for the opening of Parliament. York showed his first sure signs of aggression by physically moving through Henry’s apartments and banging on the door to his private chambers for a personal audience. Indeed, personal audiences with Henry were usually the only way that York got his way, but any progress made would then be undone by Marguerite, Somerset or, once upon a time, Suffolk.
On December 1, York got his way through Parliament and Somerset was impeached and arrested, but Marguerite, terrified that yet another supporter would be put to death, immediately ordered his release. Indeed, he came close to meeting the same fate as Suffolk, for later that day a group of rioters broke into his London home of Blackfriars and forced him on to a barge, only to be called off by the Earl of Devon on York’s ordered. York, you see, was ostensibly still only calling for government reform, not lawlessness – or he was orchestrating the long game, depending on your view of him.
The year ended with Henry and Marguerite being confronted by their Steward during a Christmas feast at court with news that there wasn’t food since tradesmen refused to supply the royal household with any more goods on credit.
1451 brought more of the same – further land in Aquitaine was lost, more political back and forth via Parliament as York attempted to wedge his way into Henry’s government and continued unrest through the countryside. The year closed with York making a definitive call for rebellion, encouraging the English people to rise up against corruption. These years, of course, are a pre-cursor to a civil war that ended with York’s son on the throne, but it’s still worth highlighting that York had not at this point publicly expressed a desire to depose Henry VI, only to remove the men around him who he believed were giving bad counsel.
And so, let’s move into 1452, one of the more interesting, eventful and dramatic years from this era:
Marguerite and Somerset prepare for war, assuming the worst, and persuade Henry that he has to accept the inevitable: York is coming for his crown. Henry sends word to York, living at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border, that he doesn’t like what he was hearing about him.
York, in turn, meets with John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and Reginald Boulers, Bishop of Hereford. He swears to them that he is a loyal subject and wishes to swear as much on the holy sacrament in front of witnesses, if Henry would deploy men to Ludlow.
On February 1, Henry summons York to meet him at court, then stationed in Coventry. York, afraid that he will be arrested as the Duke of Gloucester was five years before, refuses. Meanwhile, Marguerite urges Henry to raise an army, but the King declines on the grounds that they must avoid outright warfare.
Two days later, York issues a manifesto listing his grievances with Henry’s court. He then heads out from Ludlow at the head of an army to London. He sends heralds ahead asking for a peaceful passage, but is refused – Londoners may well have disliked Henry and Marguerite, but they had little desire to be mixed up in the first acts of military violence against a sitting king.
On February 12, Henry and Marguerite not only learn that York has refused summons to attend Parliament, but that he is marching towards them. This is then followed by news that the Earl of Devon has raised an army in the west and is prepared to join him. Henry snaps into gear, appointing Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and Lord Bonville as the heads of his army. By the 16th, the royal army is marching out of London, hoping to intercept York. They quickly learn that seven towns have already been incited into rebellion.
On the advise of his councilors, Henry writes a letter to York forbidding any further action, and then follows it up with another to the Mayor of London, forbidding him to allow York to enter the city. When York arrives at the city gates and finds them barred, he moves south to Kingston and holds for three days, before crossing the Thames to Dartford on the 29th. The royal army in hot pursuit, they station themselves in Southwark, with Henry residing in the Bishop of Winchester’s palace.
On March 1, York’s men sets up camp near Crayford and split into three divisions for battle, while Henry’s army marches within three miles. The next morning, Marguerite sends the Bishops of Ely and Westminster, and the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, to negotiate peace with York. The latter two names may ring a bell for those who know this history, for Salisbury was York’s brother-in-law and Warwick his nephew by marriage – both men would later become his most visible and loyal champions, but as of 1452, they have not yet broken from the King and joined York’s cause. As such, their status as kin is enough to promote them as the best-suited to talking York down.
The four men order York to confirm his allegiance to Henry and call off his army. York agrees, but only on the grounds that Somerset be punished for his “crimes” and that he be named heir. Henry is childless at this point, but in naming York his heir, he would be putting to bed rumors that he might appoint the role to Somerset or, less probably, his Tudor half-brothers.
The four ambassadors return to the royal camp and deploy Cardinal Kempe to occupy Marguerite so that they can approach Henry without her – again, this is the best way to convince Henry to agree to York’s terms. They succeed, and then confirm as much to York on the grounds that he disband his army. Meanwhile, the royal army withdraws to Blackheath.
The next day, Somerset is arrested, but Marguerite catches sight of him being hauled away. She runs over to her intercept him, at which point he tells her how she has been betrayed. She orders his release and then takes him with her to confront Henry. They are soon joined by York, Devon and Cobham, who have come to reaffirm their loyalty to the King, but are displeased to find the Queen and a man who they believed to have already been arrested. Even so, York kneels and begins going through a laundry list of Somerset’s wrongdoings.
Henry and Marguerite began arguing, which quickly expands to include the rest of the tent as Marguerite shouts for York’s arrest and Somerset’s liberty and Henry shouts back that he will let Somerset go, but refuses to arrest York. By then, York has not only failed to accomplish his goals, but is effectively in royal custody. He is forced to ride with their party into London to present a united front, but ahead of them as though he is a prisoner. He is then bade to swear a public oath at St Paul’s Cathedral, before he is free to return to Ludlow.
If that wasn’t enough drama, the French, under Marguerite’s uncle, Charles VII, are attacking Bordeaux. The English citizens write to Henry and Marguerite for help, but they have no money in order to do so. Marguerite writes to Philip, Duke of Burgundy for a loan, and he accepts. John Talbot is then deployed at the head of a large army to help relieve the siege.
By now, Henry’s half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, have joined court as young adults, though it’s unclear to everyone what role they will have. Since they don’t share a father with Henry, they have no direct claim to the throne, however they are his closest family and their presence prompts questions as to whether Henry will in fact name Edmund his heir. It’s unclear what Marguerite makes of them, given that they call attention to her own lack of child, but in a display of family unity, both brothers accompany her on a progress through the Midlands.
Along this progress, they stop at Wallingford Castle and visit Suffolk’s widow, Alice Chaucer. Nineteen years later, Marguerite would arrive at this same site under house arrest, to be held for four years with Alice as her guardian.
In even more family unity, Henry stops at Ludlow during his own summer progress to visit York and his family. Tantalizingly, this means he would have come face-to-face with the young man who would actually succeed him on the throne, then only 10 and known as the Earl of March. Even better, York’s wife, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, would then have been heavily pregnant with the future Richard III.
Five days later, Talbot marches on Bordeaux and successfully rids the town of the French army. Other towns in Western Gascony follow suit and welcome the English in – a false sign of stability for the crumbling empire.
Back in London, Henry raises his half-brothers to the peerage in another clear sign that he means make use of them. Edmund is created the Earl of Richmond and Jasper the Earl of Pembroke.
And that, my friends, is 1452. We’ll pick up soon with 1453 and make our way through the Wars of the Roses’ first half.