A History of the Yorkist Realm

The following two pages provide a concise history of the Yorkist realm. This section offers an introduction to important events of the Yorkist period, especially the Wars of the Roses, with an emphasis on the politics and key personalities.

Setting the Scene

The first Yorkist king, Edward IV, took the throne in 1461. He won his crown by force of arms, displacing Henry VI, the third Lancastrian king of England. Henry had been king since he was a baby, in 1422. As he grew to manhood, however, it became increasingly obvious that he would never provide the leadership that a medieval kingdom required. He devoted considerable energy to certain personal projects - including the foundation of Eton, as well as King's College, Cambridge - but in affairs of state he largely abdicated his responsibilities to others. It has been argued that Henry was schizophrenic.


King's College, Cambridge

Henry VI had also been crowned king of France (due to the conquests of his father, Henry V), but during his reign the French recovered most of the lands they had lost. By 1453 the English only retained Calais, whereas twenty-five years earlier they had controlled much of France. A shattering English defeat at Castillon induced Henry to have a breakdown. He remained in a catatonic state for more than a year. Even the birth of Prince Edward - his first and only child - was not able to shake him from his torpor.

By this time opposition in England had gathered around Richard, Duke of York, Edward IV's father. Duke Richard possessed a strong claim to the throne in his own right; he was descended from the Mortimer family, whose claim had been passed over when Henry VI's grandfather, Henry IV, had seized the crown. However, for many years York put himself forward as a reformer, not an alternative as king. He gained crucial support from the Nevilles, an influential northern family with lands throughout England. The Nevilles included Richard, Earl of Salisbury and his eldest son (yet another Richard), the powerful Earl of Warwick.

The Wars of the Roses and the Accession of Edward IV

The resulting civil wars are now known as the Wars of the Roses – a later reference to the famous red and white rose emblems that eventually became associated with the Houses of Lancaster and York. The first clash of arms took place at St Albans, in 1455, where the Yorkists defeated King Henry's forces. The fatalities among Henry's supporters included York's great rival Edmund, Duke of Somerset (whom York hated with a passion), and the king himself was captured. York became Lord Protector, ruling in Henry's name.


Modern re-enactors of the Wars of the Roses

The Duke of York was soon compelled to give up the Protectorate, although further bloodshed was avoided for several years. However, the intervening period also marked the political emergence of Henry VI's formidable queen, Margaret of Anjou, which did little to promote reconciliation. In the face of what she saw as York’s unwonted ambition, Margaret was determined to protect the rights of her husband and infant son. Further conflict became inevitable. In December 1460, the Duke of York was defeated and killed at the Battle of Wakefield. His second son Edmund was also among the dead, as was the Earl of Salisbury. At this time the Yorkist faction had gained control of London, and regained custody of Henry VI, but in the New Year the Lancastrians swept south. The Earl of Warwick was defeated at the second Battle of St Albans, and Henry VI was reunited with his wife and their son.


Sandal Castle, Wakefield

The Lancastrians appeared on the cusp of victory, but they chose not to assault London (when the citizens refused to admit their army), and retired to the north. This gave the Yorkists a chance to regroup, but the key factor was the emergence of Edward of York - though he was still in his late teens - as a substantial figure in his own right. On 3 February 1461 Edward had crushed a Lancastrian army at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross: an achievement that was thought to be heralded by supernatural portents. He then joined forces with the remnants of Warwick's battered forces, and on 4 March, after London had opened its gates to the Yorkists, Edward was proclaimed king. A few weeks later he emerged victorious from the horrific Battle of Towton, confirming his right to the crown.

The First Reign of Edward IV

Edward IV would remain on the throne for much of the Yorkist period. A handsome man, over six feet tall, he also possessed deeper qualities, but he was a complex, intriguing character. His personal motto was ‘comfort and joy’, yet he was the most formidable warrior of his age. He appeared to be an easy-going man, with great personal charm, but he was also capable of ruthless acts. Periods of self-indulgence would be followed by bursts of dynamic activity, showing determination and drive.

Edward, who looked and (usually) acted like a king, was a marked contrast to Henry VI. He started his reign as a popular monarch, notwithstanding continued Lancastrian resistance, especially in the north. By 1464, however, only Harlech Castle still defied Edward's forces. In the following year Henry VI, by now a hunted fugitive in the hills of northern England, was captured yet again and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Margaret of Anjou and her son sought refuge in France, establishing a meagre court in Lorraine.

At around the same time Edward married, although his choice of bride was controversial. The new queen was Elizabeth Grey, nee Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight. When she refused Edward's advances, so the story goes, the young king impulsively decided to marry her in secret. Elizabeth was beautiful and intelligent, and her mother came from one of Europe's noblest families, but a king was expected to marry a princess, ideally one who was a virgin. The marriage also had political implications because Edward felt obliged to provide for Elizabeth's many relatives, securing them advantageous marriages with members of the highest nobility. The family also gained additional titles; Elizabeth's father became an earl.

The Woodvilles are often depicted as grasping, ambitious people - and there is almost certainly some truth in this portrayal - but they were also cultured and talented. Elizabeth's brother Anthony became a particularly important figure. His chivalric combat with Antoine, Bastard of Burgundy, which took place in 1467, was an event of European significance. This was only one of many such events, however. The tournament, with conscious echoes of Arthurian literature, once again became an important aspect of life at court. Sir John Paston, who took part in a combat at Eltham, wrote excitedly to his brother that 'it was the goodliest sight that was seen in England this forty years'.


Eltham Palace, London

Edward's splendid court also won praise from foreign visitors, although by the mid 1460s he faced growing difficulties. In the country at large there was a growing perception – exacerbated by continued economic depression - that the young king had not, after all, solved England’s problems. But there were also divisions within the Yorkist regime. Most crucially, Edward’s relationship with the Earl of Warwick – his foremost ally and greatest subject – was now breaking down.

Edward and Warwick

Traditionally, Edward's marriage has been seen as a trigger for the breakdown in his relationship with Warwick, but there were other factors. There were disagreements about the direction of foreign policy, for example. Warwick believed that England should abandon its traditional antipathy towards France, whereas Edward increasingly came to favour an alliance with France's other great enemy, Burgundy. As well as offering support against France, Burgundy also had important economic links with England (because Flanders was a key market for the English textile trade). Eventually Edward overrode Warwick's objections, and the alliance with Burgundy was sealed by a marriage between Duke Charles 'the Bold' and Edward's sister Margaret.


Near Bruges, modern Belgium

It does seem very likely, though, that personal issues were also important. Continental writers - perhaps influenced by Warwick's own propaganda - believed that Warwick was 'like a father' to Edward, and 'guided him in his youth'. Nevertheless, while Edward had clearly valued (and amply rewarded) Warwick's support in the early 1460s, it is not at all clear that he ever thought of him in quite such terms: did the victor of Mortimer's Cross and Towton really need a 'Kingmaker'? If Warwick subsequently felt personally betrayed by Edward's efforts to broaden the base of his support (leading to a corresponding decline in the earl's influence) then it seems possible that there had always been a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of their relationship.

Turning Fortune's Wheel

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1469. Warwick exploited a local rising in the north for his own purposes, and launched the first of several campaigns against Edward. He was joined by Edward's own brother, George, Duke of Clarence, who married Warwick's daughter Isabel. The next two years would see a bewildering sequence of events, as both sides encountered dramatic changes of fortune. An army loyal to Edward was defeated at Edgecote on 24 July, and Edward himself was surprised and captured. But Warwick found it impossible to rule in Edward's name, and he was forced to release the king. An uneasy reconciliation ensued, although there was further conflict the following year. In April 1470 Warwick and Clarence were forced into exile in France, following attempts to make use of another local rebellion in Lincolnshire.

In France, encouraged by King Louis XI, Warwick and Clarence formed an unlikely alliance with Margaret of Anjou and the exiled Lancastrians. Warwick's younger daughter, Anne, married Prince Edward of Lancaster. When Warwick and Clarence invaded England in September 1470, with French support, King Edward was forced into exile in his turn. Henry VI, though now a broken man, was restored to the throne. But Edward IV found his own foreign support in the person of his brother-in-law, Charles of Burgundy, and by March 1471 he was ready to return. The stage was now set for a final reckoning between Edward and Warwick.

On 14 March 1471 Edward landed at Spurn Head in Yorkshire. Initially, the Yorkist position appeared precarious. However, through a mixture of boldness, deception and speed, Edward managed to avoid becoming trapped, striking hard for the heart of the kingdom. By the time he reached the Midlands he was in command of a much larger army. He also received a significant boost when Clarence deserted Warwick and returned to his brother’s side. On 11 April Edward's army swept into London. The hapless Henry VI was once more taken into Yorkist captivity.


Spurn Head, Yorkshire

In the weeks that followed Edward overcame all his foes. On 14 April he defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet - a confused, grim struggle in thick fog - where 'the Kingmaker' was slain. Now, though, Edward had to face other enemies, as by this time Margaret and her son had also returned to England. But on 4 May, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, the Lancastrian army was destroyed. Prince Edward of Lancaster was killed, and Margaret was later captured. A further Lancastrian rising was put down with little difficulty, and on 21 May King Edward returned to the capital in triumph. Henry VI was put to death on the same day. Edward's right to rule would never be seriously challenged again.

To read more about the Yorkist period, including the reign of King Richard III, click here.