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By Mike Ingram
The History PressCopyright © 2012 The History Press
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Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of war; see that ye be not troubled, for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
The Wars of the Roses were like no other in the medieval world as they were neither for for land, wealth nor religious ideals, but the right to rule the country. For the majority of the time it was relatively peaceful, with most of the 'war' being fought with words and political manoeuvring within the royal court. In fact, there were only sixteen major battles and half of these occurred between 1460 and 1465. The wars began with Jack Cade's rebellion against Henry VI in 1450 and lasted thirty-seven years, but rather than one long war it was a series of interconnected campaigns in five distinct phases.
A Family Divided
The wars may have started in 1450, but we have to go back a hundred years to the reign of Edward III to find its roots. Edward III, unlike his father Edward II, was a strong and energetic king, who succeeded in regaining royal authority and transforming England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. In 1337, and after Edward declared himself rightful heir to the French throne, conflict with the French was inevitable and the series of wars that followed, known as the Hundred Years War, ravaged France and the south coast of England until 1453. Within a few years, England controlled huge parts of France, prompting the contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart to write of Edward, 'His like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur'.
To prosecute a war of this scale, Edward needed huge amounts of manpower, but soon found that the old feudal system of obligatory service was ineffective. Instead, he created a system of recruitment by contract, with the nobles acting as recruitment agents: the nobles recruited lesser nobles, who in turn would each recruit a set number of men or even lesser nobles and so on. In return for a fixed period in the army, a soldier could expect to receive pay, clothing and support from the noble, and all this would be laid out in a written contract. In effect, this created private armies for the nobles. Under a strong king and a common cause this system was very effective; however, as we shall see, in different circumstances it was also open to abuse.
Edward had five sons who were to reach maturity: Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (the name Black Prince came long after his death); Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence; John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster; Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York; and Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester. Edward, as the eldest, was heir to the throne and appeared to be following in his father's footsteps after the stunning victories over the French at Crécy and Poitiers. However, tragedy struck in 1376 when he died after an illness. Edward III died a year later and in accordance with the rules of succession, the Black Prince's 10-year-old son Richard succeeded to the throne.
Richard II's reign was a troubled one, and plots and revolts continually plagued him. He did not enjoy war as his father and grandfather had done and negotiated a twenty-eight-year truce with the French, losing much of the past won territories in the process. As the years passed, Richard became more tyrannical, possibly due to some form of mental illness. As he had not produced an heir, Richard named his cousin Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, as his successor. The earls of March (the March was the borderlands between England and Wales) were the chief Anglo-Norman lords in Ireland and the second most senior line of descent in succession to the throne through Roger's mother Phillipa, only daughter of Lionel of Antwerp.
Next in the line of succession was Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. During Richard's minority, Gaunt had effectively ruled the country and had become the wealthiest and most powerful man in England after the king. He also had an eye for the ladies, marrying three times. His third wife was his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford and they already had three sons by the time they were married and legitimised by Parliament in 1397. The children took the family name of Beaufort and were eventually known as the dukes of Somerset.
On Gaunt's death in 1399, Richard II confiscated all his land and exiled his son and heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, for life. Wishing to reclaim his lands, Henry returned to England with an army, and on a tide of popular support, aided by disaffected nobles, he was soon in control of the kingdom. On 13 October 1399 he was proclaimed King Henry IV, bypassing the descendants of Edward III's second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence. Meanwhile, Richard II was held captive in Pontefract Castle where he eventually died, probably from starvation, in February 1400. The House of Lancaster now ruled over England.
Henry IV's reign, like Richard II's before him, was plagued by rebellion, which was often instigated in part by the Mortimers, rightful heirs to the throne, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, with his son, Harry Hotspur. However, Henry IV survived and in 1413 his son Henry V peacefully succeeded him.
Henry V was the epitome of medieval kingship and an outstanding military commander. He renewed the war against France with vigour and his famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt has long since entered national myth. Henry conquered much of northern France, which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, recognising Henry as the heir to the French Crown. His successes intensified English pride in the king and his dynasty, ending the uprisings that marked his early reign. He also married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI of France, which further strengthened his claim to the French throne.
In 1402 Edward III's last surviving son, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, died at the age of 61. Although a competent military commander during the Hundred Years War, he was retiring and unambitious, playing little part in the politics of the time. Edmund's eldest son, Edward, inherited the dukedom but was killed at Agincourt without an heir, while his younger son, Richard, had married his cousin twice-removed, Anne Mortimer. The same year as his brother was killed in battle, Richard was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot to depose Henry in favour of the Earl of March. The dukedom of York therefore passed to his son, another Richard, who was just 4 years old. Through his mother, Richard junior also inherited the lands of the earldom of March, as well as the Mortimer claim to the throne; the House of York was finally going to step into the limelight.
Tragedy struck in August 1422 when Henry V died, probably from dysentery, and once again the country found itself ruled by a child – the 1-year-old son of Henry V. During the king's minority, the longest in English history, England was governed by a council that included the king's younger uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and his great-uncle, Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. English territories in France, which by this time amounted to almost a third of the country, were governed by Henry's eldest paternal uncle, John, Duke of Bedford. Henry VI was crowned at Westminster in 1429 and under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes was to be proclaimed King of France on the death of Charles VI. However, in 1429 the peace that had followed the treaty was shattered when, with the help of Joan of Arc, Charles VI's son was crowned King Charles VII in Reims.
In 1437, 15-year-old Henry was declared old enough to rule England, but unfortunately he lacked the charisma and strength of his father, with Pope Pius II describing him as 'a man more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit'. Henry was an exceptionally pious man, with no interest in war, and spent his time on pursuits such as the foundation of Eton College and King's College, Cambridge, to which he diverted funds that were urgently needed elsewhere. He had little understanding of the workings of government and much of the day-to-day running of the country was carried out by the royal council. These were advisors selected by the king to give counsel on questions of foreign and domestic policy, as well as raising finance, dispensing justice and conducting the daily administration of the country. Unsurprisingly, the great nobles considered themselves his natural advisors and the weak-willed Henry was easily persuaded by the self-interested nobles and frequently granted titles, lands, offices, pardons and monetary rewards without any thought to the merits or the consequences of their requests.
One of these nobles was Richard, Duke of York, who at the age of 18 married Cecily Neville, daughter of the Earl of Westmorland and sister of Richard Neville, the powerful Earl of Salisbury. By 1430 he was constable of England, and two years later appointed Guardian of the Coast of Normandy. In 1436 he was appointed to the most prestigious post in the royal court, the king's lieutenant in France, although due to the poor state of the royal finances, largely due to Henry's spending (in one year alone he spent the entire royal income on his court), York financed most of his campaigns himself.
Preferring to pursue a policy of peace between the two countries, Henry allowed England's military position in France to deteriorate. In 1444 a truce was negotiated with France and marriage was arranged between the 23-year-old Henry and Charles' 16-year-old niece, Margaret of Anjou. Once crowned, it would not take long for the formidable Margaret to establish herself as the power behind the throne and, like her husband, had her favourites in court. Henry, anxious to achieve a final settlement in France, soon fulfilled a rash promise to surrender Maine and Anjou in western France, but the decision to sue for peace was not popular with the English people or the Duke of York, who openly opposed it in court. This led to York being replaced in France by one of Henry's favourites, his cousin Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, in 1446. To add insult to injury, York was made lieutenant of Ireland for the next ten years, effectively sending him into exile.
In 1449 war with France flared up again; however, the Duke of Somerset was a poor military commander and was responsible for the surrender of the strategic town of Rouen, the gateway to Normandy, and within a year Normandy itself had fallen. As a consequence, Somerset became distinctly unpopular and although he retained the king's favour, maintaining his prestigious position at court, his continuing presence fuelled unrest at home.
The recruitment of troops under contract instigated by Edward III had grown into a system of 'Livery and Maintenance', which maintained the feudalism of the previous years and is referred to as 'bastard feudalism' by some historians. Livery, an expression deriving from the French word livrée, meaning delivered, referred to the badge or emblem in the lord's colours, given to a retainer (employee). Maintenance referred to the lord's duty to maintain or support his retainers, by word or action, in any lawsuit in which they were involved. By the fifteenth century, maintenance, although banned by law, had become one of the recognised benefits of 'good lordship' that a retainer could expect from the magnate to whom he had sworn allegiance. During the 1440s and 1450s, as the influence and authority of the Crown declined, maintenance began to have a far more sinister meaning – the bribing, intimidating, or even kidnapping of judges, jurors, witnesses and opposing councillors. The country was, in effect, being run by the medieval version of the mafia.
Descent into War
In June 1450, 3,000 men of Kent and Sussex rose in revolt and marched on London, led by a mysterious figure known as Jack Cade. Unlike the Peasants' Revolt almost seventy years earlier, their number included lords, landowners and merchants. Their demands were simple: the removal from power of those they considered traitors (such as Somerset); the restoration of justice to the counties; and the placing of men of royal blood (such as York) in key positions. As with so many other protests of this type, it began peacefully but soon turned ugly. After presenting their complaints, the rebels began to return home; however, the king's men began to harry the rebels and attacked the county of Kent as well, threatening to turn it into a 'deer forest'. The rebels returned to London, dragging members of Henry's council into the street and executing them. An orgy of violence and looting followed and only ended when the citizens of London drove them out after vicious street fighting which left hundreds dead.
Within weeks, York returned to England without permission, and after evading an attempt by Henry to intercept him, arrived in London on 27 September. By this time, the unrest in London was such that Somerset had to be put in the Tower of London for his own safety. In April 1451 Somerset was released from the Tower and appointed captain of Calais. When one of York's councillors, Thomas Young, the MP for Bristol, proposed that York be recognised as heir to the throne, he was sent to the Tower and Parliament was dissolved. Frustrated by his lack of political power, York retired to Ludlow. In 1452, York, declaring that his sole object was to get rid of Henry of Somerset and other evil councillors, raised a force and marched on London. Henry and a royal army met him at Dartford and York laid before him a bill of accusation against Somerset, before swearing fealty to the king. However, York still lacked any real support outside Parliament and his own retainers. Later, a bitter feud between the Neville and Percy families boiled over into armed conflict, with Somerset supporting the Percys' cause. The Nevilles, although related to York, had up to this point been Lancastrian supporters, but with Somerset against them they sided with York.
During the summer of 1453 everything changed. Firstly, Margaret of Anjou found herself pregnant. Then, in August an attempt to regain lost territory in France ended in disaster when an English army in Gascony was ripped to shreds by French artillery at the Battle of Castillon, the defeat spelling the end of English rule in France. Soon after, Henry VI suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown, becoming completely unresponsive and having to be led from room to room. Modern analysis of his symptoms have led experts to agree that it was a form of schizophrenia, probably inherited from his grandfather, Charles VI of France, who believed he was made of glass. With no sign of Henry recovering, a Great Council was called, and despite attempts by Somerset to prevent him attending and protestations by Margaret of Anjou, York was appointed Protector of the Realm and chief councillor.
York wasted no time in committing Somerset to the Tower and appointing his brother-in-law, Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, as chancellor. When Henry recovered his reason in January 1455, York was quickly dismissed and Somerset released. York, Salisbury and Salisbury's eldest son, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (who would be known to future generations as 'the Kingmaker'), returned to their estates and gathered their armies; York's dispute with Somerset would have to be settled by force. On one side was the House of York, with their powerful Neville supporters, and on the other was the House of Lancaster, supported by Somerset and the Percy family, earls of Northumberland.
Whilst the two sides were squaring up to each other, a marriage took place that would have far-reaching effects on the future of England. It was the marriage of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, to 12-year-old Margaret Beaufort, great- granddaughter of John of Gaunt. Tudor was the half-brother of Henry, the eldest son of a secret marriage between his mother, Catherine of Valois, and a Welshman named Owen Tudor, one of her household servants. Their son Henry was born the following year and would give the Lancastrians an alternative, although tentative, line of succession to the throne.
On 21 April, the king and his advisors decided to hold a council at Leicester the following month. York, Salisbury and Warwick were invited of course, but they suspected it was a trap and instead decided to intercept the king and take him into their 'protection'. The two sides collided at St Albans on 22 May, although the fighting that followed was closer to an armed brawl than a battle. However, significantly, among the dead was Somerset, Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, and Thomas Clifford, 8th Baron de Clifford, plus the king was effectively York's prisoner.
Excerpted from Bosworth 1485 by Mike Ingram. Copyright © 2012 The History Press. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
A Family Divided,
Descent into War,
The War of Succession,
The Destruction of the Nevilles and Lancaster,
The Usurpation of the Throne,
The Days Before Battle,
The Storm Clouds Gather,
The Battlefield: What Actually Happened?,
After the Battle,
Bosworth as a Tudor Victory,
Bosworth's Place in History,
Orders of Battle,