Henry VI and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses


bullet During Henry VI's childhood, various magnates and their factions jockeyed for control. His uncles, the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, were largely in control until Bedford's death in 1435; yet even during these years, the Beauforts vied with them for dominance. Even when Henry officially came of age (1435 or 1437,) he remained the puppet of court factions. Pious, mild and rather dim, Henry was gullible even when sane.
bullet William de la Pole, Earl (later Duke) of Suffolk (1396-1450) was one of the Beauforts' chief supporters. During the 1440s, Suffolk's influence over the young Henry VI grew and he played an important part in arranging Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou.
bullet Gloucester's influence waned - particularly after his wife, Eleanor Cobham's conviction for using magical arts against the king's life (1441.) Suffolk and Margaret combined to convince Henry that Gloucester was plotting his overthrow. Gloucester was arrested and died in prison soon afterwards (February 1447) - possibly murdered, possibly of a stroke.

The window of Wingfield Church constructed by William de la Pole in memory of his father John who died at the siege of Harfleur.

Suffolk now dominated Henry and the government, and he greedily set about enriching himself. In July 1448, he became Duke of Suffolk. He also gave himself the lucrative posts of chamberlain of England, captain of Calais, warden of the Cinque Ports and chief steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, amongst other profitable offices.

bullet Nemesis followed this hubris in 1450, when Suffolk was indicted by parliament on a series of charges blaming him for the defeat at Formigny and the loss of Normandy.
bulletHenry VI sentenced Suffolk to banishment, but when he tried to cross the channel to France his ship was intercepted. Suffolk was beheaded and his body thrown onto Dover Beach (May 1450).

The discontent with England's government was widespread. One serious expression was Jack Cade's rebellion. The violence began in Kent in May 1450 and was initially directed against a particularly corrupt sheriff, William Crowmer. The protest obtained support from many minor gentlemen as well as from ordinary people. Jack Cade drew up a summary of grievances and the rebels marched on London, but were repulsed by its citizens at London Bridge. A peace was agreed, but Cade continued resistance and he was fatally wounded in July 1450.


bullet Jack Cade significantly used the name "Mortimer," and the rebels asked for the return of the Duke of York to England. Even popular disturbances were linked to the growing tension between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

[The family trees of the Yorkists and Lancastrians.]


Richard, Duke of York

bulletRichard, Duke of York became heir presumptive on Gloucester's death in 1447. In the view of some, he had a better title to the throne than Henry VI himself - combining descent from two of Edward III's sons, Lionel (who was senior to John of Gaunt) and Edmund.
bulletRichard's wife was Cicely (Cecily) Neville, whose mother was Joan Beaufort - daughter of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford. The Neville family (Earls of Westmorland) was  powerful, wealthy and well-connected to other noble families  - especially in the North of England. (The head of the Neville family in the early 1400s had 23 legitimate children - most of whom married into the English nobility, so the Nevilles were related to almost everyone.)
bulletRichard was also extremely wealthy in his own right - his annual income of about ₤7,000 exceeded any other nobleman's.

Richard's rivals did their utmost to keep him away from the seat of power. He was sent first to Normandy and then (in 1447) to Ireland as Lieutenant.

Sandal Castle, one of many inherited by Richard Duke of York.

bulletRichard went to Ireland only very reluctantly, but after his arrival there in July 1449 did all he could to win the Irish to his personal cause. In particular, he formed an alliance with the powerful O'Neill clan.
bulletHowever, Richard wanted to be closer to power and after Suffolk's fall, he returned (with 4,000 troops) to England (August 1450.)

York and Somerset

Margaret of Anjou
(The picture is of a stained glass window in Mucklestone church, where Margaret is said to have watched the battle of Blore Heath).


bulletRichard's new rival at court was Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset (1406-55) who replaced Suffolk as Henry VI's (and Margaret's) favorite, and who was head of the Beaufort faction. On Richard's unauthorized return from Ireland, he did all he could to encourage criticism of Somerset and royal government.
bulletRichard of York was successful in encouraging the commons to complain about the royal court's extravagance, but many nobles were suspicious that the York-Neville faction aimed only at selfish aggrandizement.
bulletMatters came to a head in the summer of 1453 with two key events: in July, Henry went completely insane, and on 13 October Margaret gave birth to a son, Edward.
bulletHenry's insanity worked in favor of Richard Duke of York, for he was the obvious candidate to be regent. But the birth of Edward removed him from the succession to the throne. (Yorkist partisans muttered that Henry was not up to begetting a child, and that Edmund Beaufort was the real father.)

Contemporary comments on Henry VI

 "... our king is stupid  and out of his mind, he does not rule but is ruled"

(Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.)

"... his mother's stupid offspring ... half-witted in affairs of state"

(The Register of St. Albans)


bullet In March 1454, Richard (over the opposition of Margaret of Anjou) was appointed "protector and defender" of the realm by the Lords. Somerset went to prison and Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury (Richard's brother-in-law) became chancellor.
bullet Richard was in control for less than a year, for early in 1455 Henry returned to what senses he had.


The Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, 1450 - 1460

The First Battle of St Albans
bullet Factional rivalry had produced various acts of violence for some time, but on Thursday, 22 May 1455 a corner was turned.
bullet Henry VI with Margaret of Anjou and his supporters - Somerset; Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland; and Thomas Lord Clifford - were traveling north from London to a council in Leicestershire.
Richard of York, angered and threatened by the shift in power after his removal from the protectorship, had ridden north and obtained the support of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and his son, also called Richard, the Earl of Warwick. Both had many armed retainers (about two to three thousand on each side.)
bullet The two forces met at St Albans north of London, and Richard demanded that Henry hand over the "traitors" in his company. Henry refused and York attacked.
bullet The entire encounter only last a few hours, and only about 300 people were casualties - but these included some very important nobles:  Somerset, Northumberland, and Clifford were killed, and Henry VI wounded and captured.

St Albans Cathedral

The response to Yorkist control
bullet York took control of Henry VI and established a Yorkist administration dominated by himself and Richard, Earl of Warwick, who became governor of Calais in 1456.
bullet His most formidable opponent was Margaret of Anjou. Margaret was convinced that Richard intended to supplant her son, Edward from the succession to the throne. She became the most enthusiastic and unyielding partisan of the Lancastrian cause.
bullet Margaret initially pretended to accept York's ascendancy, but from 1456 to 1459, she plotted unceasingly to overthrow him. In the summer of 1459, she took the plunge and dismissed York from his offices.
bullet York recalled Warwick from Calais, bringing many soldiers from the garrison, and the two joined forces at Ludlow Castle. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury marched south from Middleham Castle, Yorkshire to join his army with theirs.
bullet Margaret ordered her army to intercept Salisbury and the two forces clashed at Blore Heath, 23 September 1459. In a few hours of bloody fighting, the Lancastrian forces were broken and scattered.
bulletYork moved his forces towards Worcester, but when they met a Lancastrian force at Ludford Bridge (12 October 1459), most of the Calais garrison troops defected to Henry VI and York's own supporters folded. (This battle became known as the "rout of Ludlow;" Ludlow was near Ludford Bridge.)

Drogheda castle

York fled to Ireland, and summoned an "Irish parliament" at Drogheda to rally the Irish to his cause.


bullet The Nevilles went to Calais and began to raise forces there.
bullet Determined to destroy the Yorkists, Margaret instituted a "judicial tyranny" in England. She attainted York's supporters, seized their lands, and used oppressive measures to levy new troops.


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