A History of the Yorkist Realm II

The Second Reign of Edward IV and International Affairs

In many respects, Edward IV's 'second' reign was much less troubled than his first, but it was by no means without incident. Edward's spectacular military successes in 1471 had re-established his reputation as a great warrior, and it is clear that many Englishmen hoped that he would go on to campaign against England's 'ancient enemy', France. Edward did eventually invade France, in 1475, but the expedition disappointed the expectations of those who hoped to gain military glory. Edward had expected to fight alongside the Burgundians (who had encouraged him to attack the French), but Duke Charles did little to assist the English. Moreover, the Burgundians denied Edward access to the bases he had been promised, as the French adopted scorched earth tactics to deny the English supplies. When Louis XI offered to discuss peace terms, Edward felt obliged to listen to the French king's proposals.

By the terms of the Treaty of Picquigny Louis agreed to pay Edward a regular pension in return for the English going home. For the next few years this pension (which the English referred to as tribute) formed a substantial part of the latter's income. However, the deaths of Charles the Bold (1477) and his heir Mary (1482) neutralised Burgundy as an effective threat to France, shifting the balance of power. French forces took control of much of Burgundy, and Louis repudiated the Treaty of Picquigny. With hindsight, it is easy to argue that Edward was out-manoeuvered by Louis XI, but even the 'Spider King' cannot have predicted the opportunities that came his way; nor could he have anticipated the curious behaviour of Charles the Bold in 1475, which had made the English position difficult.

Relations with England's northern neighbour, Scotland, were also complicated. In the 1460s Scotland had provided a refuge to Lancastrian exiles, and in 1461 the Scots had taken advantage of civil war in England to regain control of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Edward reciprocated by supporting the exiled Earl of Douglas, and by encouraging insurrection by other disaffected Scottish magnates. For a time it looked as though there would be a renewal of full-scale hostilities between England and Scotland, but eventually both sides were happy to arrange a truce. The Scots' position was hampered by the fact that their king, James III, was still a minor, and after he reached his majority he followed an idiosyncratic policy by actively pursuing peace with England.

Berwick Beacon

For much of the 1470s relations between the English and Scottish crowns were unusually cordial. However, James's policy towards England was unpopular with many Scots, including his younger brother Alexander, Duke of Albany. Breaches of the truce on both sides eventually led to open war. Edward delegated command to his youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was by now the greatest magnate in northern England. In the summer of 1482 Gloucester invaded Scotland at the head of a vast army. His stated aim was to replace King James with his brother Albany, who had by now (somewhat paradoxically) gone into exile in England. But Gloucester was denied the decisive battle he sought when a Scottish 'palace coup' removed King James from the field. Duke Richard occupied Edinburgh, but funds to pay his troops were now running low. After the fickle Albany returned to the Scottish fold, Gloucester decided to return to England. Nevertheless, the English were able to complete the final capture of Berwick, after it had gone back and forth between England and Scotland for much of the later Middle Ages.

The Fall of the Duke of Clarence

In domestic politics, the most dramatic episode was the fall of the Duke of Clarence. In the wake of his wife's death, in 1476, Clarence's behaviour became increasingly erratic and volatile. In June 1477 Clarence appeared at court to protest against the execution of one of his retainers, Thomas Burdett, who had been found guilty of conspiring against the king (although the duke himself was not implicated). At this, something seems to have snapped in Edward IV. Clarence was arrested, and at the subsequent trial Edward put forward a series of charges against his brother. Clarence was convicted of treason, and, albeit after much prevarication, Edward ordered his brother's death. He was executed in the Tower in February 1478. The contemporary Crowland Chronicler was shocked. Thereafter, suggests Crowland, Edward became a king more feared than loved.

The Tower of London

Edward IV undeniably had a dark side, but some modern historians, assessing other evidence, have nevertheless preferred to focus on the more positive aspects of Edward's rule. Edward's dealings with the gentry of Warwickshire, for example, have been described as a model of medieval kingship, balancing firm authority (when required) with a shrewd understanding of local interests. Professor Christine Carpenter believes that Edward applied this sense of balance more widely, concluding that he should be regarded as one of England's greatest kings.

Many people must have appreciated the political stability provided by Edward's 'second' reign, and the absence of civil war, although it is important to realise that (with a few notable exceptions) wider society was rarely affected directly by the campaigns of the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, the famous letters of the Pastons (a gentry family from East Anglia) - and also those of the Celys, Stonors and Plumptons - shed light on every facet of human existence, and they remind us that it would be very wrong to characterise the history of the Yorkist period as wholly given up to war and civil strife. One important development of the Yorkist era, for example, was the introduction of the printing press to the British Isles. Books were also imported from abroad (including splendid illuminated volumes from Flanders), although this, of course, was only a minor aspect of international trade; Edward's second reign also saw a noticeable improvement in the economy, as England finally began to recover from the damaging 'Great Slump'.

Another more peaceful aspect that might be considered is the role of the Church. One eminent historian has characterised the English attitude to religion at this time as 'lukewarm', but the institutions and practices of medieval Catholicism - including monasteries and pilgrimage - remained essential elements within the fabric of society. Whilst there were some dissenting voices, as always, there was little suggestion of the religious tumult that would engulf England and her neighbours during the next century.

Fotheringhay Church

After his recovery of the throne in 1471 Edward IV ruled England for almost twelve more years. However, in April 1483 he suddenly died, still barely forty. His premature death would lead to a new phase of political discord.

Richard III: Victim or Villain?

Edward IV left two male heirs, the princes Edward and Richard. The elder boy, Edward, though still only twelve years old, was briefly acknowledged as King Edward V. But, as is well-known, Edward V was never crowned. His uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester - after a brief period as Lord Protector - took the throne in young Edward's stead. Richard’s actions were justified (or prompted?) by the revelations of Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Stillington stated that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid. According to Stillington, Edward had already entered a secret contract of marriage with Lady Eleanor Talbot; if so, this would have made all Edward’s children by Elizabeth illegitimate, and it was therefore argued that they should be barred from the succession.

Richard III has become one of the most controversial figures in British history. For some, he remains the archetypal wicked uncle (as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III), but others see him as an unfairly maligned man who would – if given the chance – have developed into a great king. Arguments about Richard’s actions and motives continue to rage today. Was Stillington’s story true, for example, and did Richard really believe it? Was Richard motivated by a sense of duty or by ambition - or perhaps a bit of both? But the most hotly-debated question concerns the fate of Edward IV’s sons, who disappeared shortly after Richard’s accession to the throne. It is often assumed that Richard was responsible for their deaths, but this has never been proved.

Richard overcame a major rebellion early in his reign, but he continued to face opposition. The ambitions of Richard’s enemies now rested with the exiled Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Richmond represented the last hope of the House of Lancaster, although it must be said that his claim to the throne was rather tenuous. However, he also promised to marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, thereby holding out the prospect of a union between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Richmond invaded England, with French support, in the summer of 1485. On 22 August Richard III was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Richmond took the throne as King Henry VII, marking the end of the Yorkist dynasty and the accession of the Tudors.

Fenn Lane, near the site of the Battle of Bosworth

The Battle of Bosworth has traditionally been seen as a landmark event - marking the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era - but this was not quite the end of the story. Early in his reign Henry VII faced a number of threats from Yorkist dissidents - including Richard III's great friend Francis, Viscount Lovell - who were determined to avenge the defeat at Bosworth. Henry's victory at Stoke in 1487 secured his throne, but in the 1490s he faced a new threat from the enigmatic Perkin Warbeck (who claimed to be the younger son of Edward IV), whose activities were sponsored by various foreign powers. Warbeck was executed in 1499, but Yorkist plots and intrigues continued into the reign of Henry VIII. The first Tudor king and his son would doubtless have understood the words that Shakespeare gave to one of their namesakes, Henry IV: 'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown'...

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