The “Rightful” King: Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March

On this day, January 18, in 1425, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March died at Trim Castle, on the south bank of the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland. At the time of his death, Edmund was only a distant cousin of King Henry VI of England, with limited fortune and slim career prospects at court. However, he was a controversial figure in England and his death caused the royal family a certain amount of relief since some of his contemporaries maintained he, and not Henry VI, was the rightful king.

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The Old Palace of Westminster

Henry VI’s grandfather, Henry IV, was the founder of the House of Lancaster after deposing the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, in 1399. Richard II’s claim to the throne was undeniable – he had been the only surviving son of the monarch’s eldest son (Edward, the Black Prince) – and he had smoothly inherited the throne from his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377 at 10 years old. It was less clear, however, who his own heir was since he, despite two marriages, was childless.

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Richard II

While today the laws of succession are clearly defined, it was bit murkier in the 14th century and Richard II’s own choice of his many uncles and cousins would have held significant sway, even if they were not next in birth order. The most powerful of Richard’s uncles – the sons of Edward III – was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He was enormously wealthy, politically savvy and had decades of governing and military experience – he also had a capable heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford. However, Gaunt wasn’t popular with his nephew the King and there were many at court that mistrusted his ambition – afraid that he would end up with too much centralized power during Richard’s minority or, worse, would attempt to seize the throne for himself.

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The Motivation of Richard, Duke of York

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?

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Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

The Beginning

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.

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