Ok, we’re picking up where we left off yesterday with Richard III. You can catch up on how I’m approaching him here. As I mentioned yesterday, we know very little about Richard’s early years save that they were predominantly spent at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, and that his most constant companions were his sister, Margaret, and his brother, George. Our next glimpse of him comes in October 1459 when Richard was seven, by which time the first half of the Wars of the Roses was well underway.
The true outbreak of consistent violence was years in the making, but once it started, battles followed one another in swift succession. The Duke of York’s most ardent supporters were his brother-in-law (Cecily Neville’s brother), the Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury’s son, the Earl of Warwick. York’s eldest son, Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were 17 and 16 in 1459, but while they were absolutely engaged in the war, they were usually under the protection of either York, Salisbury, or Warwick.
Separating out the first Battle of St. Albans in 1455 (which was a bit of an outlier and four years earlier), the first battle of prolonged warfare was the Battle of Blore Heath, which resulted in a Yorkist victory under Salisbury’s command. The royal army then proceeded to follow the Yorkist army, while the Yorkists lords – then reunited – attempted to protest their loyalty to the crown. At this point, their public agenda was simply to remove men they viewed as corrupt from King Henry’s government, not to depose him.
By October, both armies were camped near Ludlow and took the field against one another at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, resulting in a Lancastrian victory. The Yorkists were undermined when a man in Warwick’s camp defected to the royal army, and in response York, Salisbury, Warwick, Edward, and Edmund announced they were returning to Ludlow Castle. Once there, they hatched a plan for survival that amounted to abandoning their armies and fleeing for safety. Salisbury, Warwick, and Edward sought refuge in Burgundy, while York and Edmund hid in Wales.
Also in residence at Ludlow Castle were Cecily and her three youngest children. Leaning on the understanding that a woman and children weren’t in physical danger, they – like the Yorkist soldiers – were effectively abandoned. It was a curious first lesson in warfare for Richard to receive, and not the stuff of old school chivalry, but it speaks to the desperate situation in which the Yorkist lords found themselves. It’s worth noting that while York, Warwick, Edward, and Edmund could have hoped for forgiveness, Henry VI made clear that Salisbury’s command at Blore Heath excluded him from the possibility of a pardon.
We don’t know why exactly Cecily and her children moved from Fotheringhay to Ludlow, save the obvious, which is that Ludlow was a far more defensible fortress and thus safer. It also marks a firm moment in time in which Richard can be placed in the company of his father and elder brothers. As historian Matthew Lewis writes:
“These weeks represent the first, and last, time all four sons of York can be confidently placed at the same location. It may well have been the first time Richard had ever met his older brothers Edward and Edmund, who had been at Ludlow for years receiving their training. The first impression they made must have made a mark on Richard.”
The royal army – and the Yorkist army, for that matter – discovered the Yorkist lords’ flight on October 13th. Their soldiers had no choice but to submit, and they were duly pardoned, but the royal army was allowed to ransack the town to mete out punishment. Legend places Cecily and her children in the market center with violence unfolding around them, but that’s highly unlikely. Instead, they would almost certainly have remained safely in the castle.
Well, “safety” – the castle, like the town, was pillaged. While they were protected physically, the children would have been able to at least hear the violence unfolding within the castle, not to mention in the nearby town.
Cecily and her children were placed under house arrest and left in the protection of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham is an interesting figure in this phase of the civil war because he maintained neutrality between the two sides for years before eventually declaring for King Henry when it became clear how far York was prepared to go. As such, Buckingham understood – if not sympathized – with some aspects of the Yorkist cause. He was also married to Cecily’s sister, Anne, and thus family.
The four Yorks were stashed in Maxstoke Castle in Warwickshire for nine months. Their residence wouldn’t have been physically uncomfortable – indeed, day-to-day it would have felt like a prolonged visit. In late November, Cecily was summoned to Coventry, where Parliament convened, and forced to listen to Acts of Attainder against her male relatives. As a result, all were legally traitors in the eyes of the government, and the entirety of the Yorkist estate was seized, leaving the family with nothing.
We know very little about this period of house arrest. Another of Richard’s biographers, Desmond Seward, notes that, “This may well have been when Richard first began to know his mother,” underlining that Cecily was nearly as remote a figure to her children as their father. We can only wonder what Richard thought, but this was a shining moment for Cecily – thanks to her intervention in Coventry, she was able to secure an annuity from Henry for her and her children, which either speaks to her personally maintaining a good relationship with him and Marguerite, or Henry’s reluctance to punish a woman for her husband’s actions.
By the spring of 1460, the exiled Yorkist lords reunited in Ireland while the English government prepared to defend itself from attack. Salisbury, Warwick, and Edward finally returned to England in June, landing at Sandwich and making their way for Canterbury and then London. And unfortunately for the Lancastrians, the House of York was more beloved to Londoners than the royal family – particularly Queen Marguerite – and they were let in. They made another public pledge of loyalty to the crown, while Henry and Marguerite declined to defend their capital out of fear that York would soon descend.
Eventually the two sides met at the Battle of Northampton, resulting in a Yorkist victory. Not only was Buckingham killed in the fight, but Henry was captured and force marched back to London, while Marguerite fled abroad to Wales and then Scotland for safety. Cecily and her children were immediately freed from house arrest and joined Edward in the capital. By October, they were back in their own London residence of Baynard’s Castle, and it was then that York finally arrived, having left Ireland in September.
Worth noting, while York was on his way, Cecily left her sons at Baynard’s to meet her husband on the road, and Edward made a point of visiting his younger brothers daily in her absence. Given that much of the next two decades was defined by the relationship between these three men, it’s worth underlining that Edward took a special interest in them, and it’s not hard to imagine they in turn had some element of hero worship for him.
York’s arrival was a defining moment. York made directly for Westminster Hall where England’s nobility had gathered, walked straight for the royal dais where the empty throne sat, and placed his hand on it – a clear signal that he intended to claim it. Unfortunately for him, he was met with silence. It’s unclear whether York did this on his own, or whether this was part of some master plan cooked up in Ireland, but there are reports that Edward at least was angry with his father. Certainly the other four Yorkist lords stayed quiet.
York followed this up with a written claim to the throne, and Henry, hardly in a position to negotiate, agreed to a deal in which he kept his crown, but disinherited his seven-year-old son, Prince Edward, in favor of naming York his heir. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the Queen, and Marguerite began her march south, while the Yorkist army marched north from London.
They met around Sandal Castle, with York, Salisbury, and Edmund inside the castle, and the royal army camped nearby. The Lancastrian Duke of Somerset and Earl of Northumberland cut off supply to the castle, but ostensibly both sides agreed to a ceasefire for the Christmas holiday. For unknown reasons, York decided on the evening of December 30 to attack, resulting in his death. Edmund and Salisbury escaped, but were both captured and killed.
Richard would have learned of his father, brother, and uncle’s deaths on January 5, 1461 when Cecily did. Cecily would have also learned that York and Edmund’s corpses were beheaded after death, and that all three heads were then placed on display by the jubilant royal army. Marguerite, meanwhile, was free and clear to return to England with her son, and though Edward, now technically the new Duke of York, had his revenge by way of victory at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in February, things were far from settled.
Cecily, afraid for her younger sons’ lives, placed them in hiding with a woman described as a “London widow” named Alice Martyn. It’s unclear when exactly they were put in Martyn’s custody, but as Matthew Lewis writes, the boys’ status had markedly changed when their father claimed the throne:
“With York and Edmund’s death, George stood second in line to the throne behind Edward, and Richard was third in line. If Queen Margaret were to descend on London determined to be rid of all Yorkist threats to her son’s position, then George and Richard could be in mortal danger.”
What’s so compelling about this moment is that it so closely mirrors the condition of the Princes in the Tower 22 years later. The irony is only made greater by the fact that Richard was one of the young “princes” at risk, and what he saw – and would have remembered – is that it was possible to place children in hiding. Did he see this as a road map for how to protect his nephews? Or a warning since he and George in fact survived to the House of Lancaster’s detriment? We’ll get there.
The royal army won the Second Battle of St. Albans and Queen Marguerite regained custody of King Henry. Cecily then took a further step to preserve her sons by sending them abroad to Burgundy. The choice of Burgundy was perhaps the best of only bad options – Ireland was too far away, Calais’s loyalty could shift as power changed hand, and France itself was too closely linked to the House of Lancaster. Burgundy, on the other hand, was a tad more neutral, and York had once had a good relationship with its Duke and Duchess.
Matthew Lewis notes that it’s possible a man John Skelton accompanied them since he later received payment for “his good service to the king and his brothers,” but regardless, both boys had to have been aware on some level they were in serious physical danger, and at risk for a long exile if their brother failed. For his part, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, stashed the boys in Utrecht, afraid to show them too much favor in case Queen Marguerite persevered, but safe, in case their brother did.
But the boys were in luck, thanks in large part to London, which refused to open its gates to its hated queen even after her victory at St. Albans. She retreated north and Edward and Warwick were instead welcomed in. Edward was formally petitioned to take the throne in Henry’s place on March 3, and proclaimed king on March 4. His victory was complete when the two armies clashed again on March 29 at the Battle of Towton, often described as the largest and bloodiest battle in England’s history.
News swiftly reached Duke Philip, who immediately summoned George and Richard to join him in Sluys. There they were feted and honored as befitting their new status until Edward summoned them home. They were back in London, again residing with Cecily and Margaret at Baynard’s, by the time Edward was crowned on June 28, 1461.
We’ll pick up there next time.