Post-classical history



The Self-Made King – Edward IV

It was in the hour of need that his genius showed itself, cool, rapid, subtle, utterly fearless, moving straight to its aim through clouds of treachery and intrigue, and striking hard when its aim was reached . . . His indolence and gaiety were in fact mere veils thrown over a will of steel

John Richard Green1

The conqueror

The reason why the Yorkists won at Towton was Edward IV’s leadership. Even in a snowstorm, he stood out. A giant in ‘white’ (burnished) armour with a coronet on his helmet, wherever he pushed his way forward his pole-axe felled every enemy who dared to face him.

For Stubbs, Edward was ‘vicious far beyond any king that England had seen since the days of John, and more cruel and bloodthirsty than any king she had ever known’.2 But Stubbs could not forgive him for destroying a Lancastrian constitution that never existed. There were Victorians who disagreed with Stubbs, such as Green, with whom the king’s contemporaries would certainly have sided. Thomas More, only five when Edward died, but friendly with men who had known him, says he was ‘of heart courageous, politic in counsel, in adversity nothing abashed, in prosperity rather joyful than proud, in peace just and merciful, in war sharp and fierce, in the field bold and hardy’.3

Edward IV gave England the firm rule she had lacked for decades. The best-looking man of his day, with a magnetic personality, he ended by being worshipped by his subjects who overlooked his massacres as well as murders, that included his predecessor, his brother and his brother-in-law.


Edward was born on 28 April 1442 at Rouen where his father Richard, Duke of York was Lieutenant General of Lancastrian France. His mother Cicely Neville, the Earl of Westmorland’s eighteenth child, was known in the north country as the Rose of Raby from her beauty. (Stories of Edward being the bastard of an archer called Blaybourne when York was away are ridiculous – if the duke was defending Pontoise at the time the boy was conceived, he could have commuted to Rouen quickly enough, on a ballinger along the Seine.) His nurse was a Norman girl, Anne of Caux, to whom he gave a large pension after he became king. He spent most of his childhood in the great castle at Ludlow, York’s favourite residence.

In 1454 Edward was created Earl of March. The next year, barely thirteen, he accompanied his father to St Albans, and presumably watched the battle. When the duke and his friends fled from Ludford Bridge, instead of going to Ireland with his father, Edward went to Calais with Salisbury and York, returning with them to London in summer 1459. Had he ridden north with York in December, history might have been different – his brother the Earl of Rutland was stabbed to death after the Battle of Wakefield by Lord Clifford, who shouted, ‘By God’s blood, thy father slew mine and so will I and all thy kin!’4

March had gone to crush Henry’s army in south Wales, 2,000 strong and led by Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, which was marching towards London to join Queen Margaret. On 2 February 1461 it was intercepted by Edward with a slightly larger force, on the banks of the River Lug at Mortimer’s Cross near Leominster. His men were alarmed at seeing three suns in the sky (a ‘sundog’) but he assured them it was a good omen – ‘therefore let us have a good heart and in the name of almighty God, go we against our enemies!’5 In his first battle as a commander, he routed Jasper Tudor’s men, who became bogged down advancing over marshy ground, then launched a ferocious pursuit. When sensing victory Edward always gave the order, ‘Kill the gentles and spare the commons!’,6 sending captured enemy leaders to the block. Among the dozen beheaded this time was Owen Tudor, the former husband of King Henry’s late mother.

Then he joined forces in the Cotswolds with Warwick, who had just escaped from defeat at St Albans. Fourteen years older, the ‘Kingmaker’, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick had married the heiress of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick (just as his father married the heiress of the Montague Earls of Salisbury) and become England’s richest magnate, while the deaths of his father and his uncle York turned him into an elder statesman. If a poor soldier, prone to panic and losing the two battles where he commanded, Warwick was a redoubtable fighting seaman who when Captain of Calais rid the Channel of pirates. He was also an exceptionally wily and determined politician, his young cousin relying on his support.

Shaken by Margaret’s victory at St Albans, the pair knew they were dead men without a king of their own. March therefore claimed the throne as his father’s son and by right of the Accord of 1460, riding into London on 28 February. He was warmly welcomed, if observers noted that apart from Warwick there were few great lords with him – his only other ally of substance, the Duke of Norfolk, was absent, raising East Anglia. At Westminster on 4 March, although not crowned king, ‘Edward IV’ was invested with the Confessor’s regalia.

On 13 March he rode out from the City to find and destroy Margaret, driving his army of about 16,000 men so hard that regardless of snow and bad roads it covered 180 miles in sixteen days. He then engaged an army of fellow countrymen numbering approximately 20,000 who firmly believed that Henry VI was their rightful sovereign.

The Lancastrians occupied a strong defensive position on higher ground, but the wind blew the snow into their faces so that the Yorkist archers outshot them. Forced to come down and fight at close quarters, they held their own for six hours. Even after the Duke of Norfolk arrived with Yorkist reinforcements and charged their flank, they fought on into the dusk before breaking. Thousands were killed as they tried to flee over the narrow bridge across the River Cock or drowned in the little river which was in spate. An area of snow-covered ground 6 miles long and 3 miles wide was red with blood – heralds are said to have counted 28,000 bodies, although 16,000 is a more likely figure. Edward had ordered his men to give no quarter, and magnates and gentry taken prisoner were beheaded on the battlefield.7


When Edward returned to London he was greeted euphorically. Not only had he won a decisive victory, but he was strikingly different from the former sovereign – young, handsome, high spirited, commanding. Everybody expected reform and good government. There was a sense of renewal during his coronation at Westminster Abbey on 29 June 1461, and when Parliament met in November it warmly confirmed his right to the throne, the Speaker even complimenting him on his ‘beauty of personage’. Henry VI was attainted as a usurper, with twelve peers and a hundred knights and squires who, whether dead or alive, became outlaws under sentence of death, losing their lands and property. Two new earls and seven new barons were created, while his brothers were made princes – George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester – and England acquired a new royal family.

Edward knew the war was not over, as he hinted in an address to parliament when he referred to the ‘horrible murder and cruel death of my lord, my father, my brother Rutland and my cousin of Salisbury, and others’.8 The Milanese Prospero di Camulio commented, ‘Anyone who reflects at all upon the queen’s wretchedness and the ruin of those killed and considers the ferocity of this country, and the victors’ state of mind, should indeed, it seems to me, pray to God for the dead, and not less than the living.’ The canny Milanese added, ‘grievances and recriminations will break out between King Edward and Warwick, King Henry and the queen will be victorious’.9

The new king could not feel safe, and established a widespread network of spies who regularly sent him reports. In 1462 he gave the constable, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, power to proceed in cases of treason, ‘summarily and plainly, without noise and show of judgment, on simple inspection of fact’,10 which was contrary to Common Law and earned Tiptoft the name Butcher of England. In their ‘simple inspection’, the council used the rack or ‘burning in the feet’.

Yet Edward also tried conciliation, pardoning the Duke of Somerset who had been Lancastrian commander at Towton, restoring his estates and even sharing a bed with him. But ‘Harry of Somerset’ was the son of the duke killed at St Albans and rejoined Henry VI at Bamburgh. Warwick and his brother Lord Montague then eliminated Henry’s last bastions. They did so with enthusiasm since it involved the final destruction of their arch-enemies in the North, the Percys. Resistance came to an end in 1464 when Montague routed Somerset at Hexham, executing him immediately on Edward’s express orders. In reward, Montague was made Earl of Northumberland.

Warwick dominated England, to the extent that a Frenchman joked that the country had two rulers, ‘M. de Warwick and someone whose name escapes me’.11 Even the chancellor was his brother, Archbishop George Neville of York. The earl also dictated foreign policy, and from across the Channel Louis XI set out to make friends with him, rightly suspecting that King Edward intended to renew the Hundred Years War.

But a fortnight before Hexham was fought, Edward had secretly taken a step that nearly cost him his throne.

The man

Like Stubbs and Green, modern historians differ in their view of Edward IV, but no one denies he was colourful. With an overwhelming presence that matched his physique, he dominated everyone around him.

When his tomb was opened at Windsor in 1789, the skeleton was found to be 6 ft 3½ in tall – a fifteenth-century giant. No portrait conveys the yellow-haired, fair-skinned good looks noted by the chronicles, but Philippe de Commynes says he had never seen a more handsome prince when he first saw him in 1470. In an age when a nobleman spent a year’s income on clothes, he dressed with eye-catching opulence, in cloth of gold, velvet brocades, silk damasks, in furs and the finest linen, and was covered in priceless rings, chains and hat badges.

His manner was unusually informal and friendly, ‘so genial in his greeting that when he saw a newcomer bewildered by his regal appearance and royal pomp, he would give him courage to speak, by laying a kindly hand on his shoulder’, writes the Roman scholar Domenico Mancini. ‘He listened very willingly to plaintiffs or to anyone who complained to him about some injustice – charges against himself he disarmed by an excuse even though he might not put the matter right.’12 Flatteringly, he could remember the name of every landed gentleman in the kingdom, with the name of his estate. He was equally charming to City merchants and their wives, whom he often entertained. When he asked a rich widow for a loan and she said she would give £10 he kissed her, whereupon she gave him £20.13

Although in no way an intellectual, he collected several hundred illuminated manuscripts, bought in Flanders, mainly histories or historical romances (which were more or less indistinguishable), including the chronicles of Froissart and Waurin. Apart from missals or primers, all were in French. Several English chroniclers dedicated their works to him, such as Capgrave and Harding, but there is no evidence he read them. Nor is there evidence of his patronizing the printer Caxton. He built more lavishly than any king since Edward III, adding to his favourite castles of Fotheringhay and Nottingham, but – except for the hall of Eltham Palace and St George’s Chapel at Windsor, little of it has survived. As for relaxation, hunting ranked high, especially fallow buck or hares in the Thames Valley, while he enjoyed angling. A gentler side is revealed by a ‘garden of delights’ at Windsor – herbs, roses and lilies.

Apart from gluttony – he purged his belly after a meal to begin all over again – Edward’s main pleasure was womanizing, which eventually ruined his health. When he married, he told his mother that his bride was sure to bear him children since she had plenty already, while ‘by God’s Blessed Lady I am a bachelor and have some too’.14

Mancini heard how the king behaved badly towards his conquests, whom he seduced by money or promises, passing them on to friends as soon as they bored him. He pursued ladies whether married or unmarried, high born or low, getting Lady Eleanor Butler into bed by promising her marriage, which later caused serious political trouble. Although Mancini says that he never forced them, Vergil tells us he tried to rape one of Warwick’s kinswomen under the earl’s own roof. Nonetheless, he treated Queen Elizabeth with respect and was an indulgent father to his daughters. (At least one, Elizabeth, inherited his looks.)

Edward was a good friend, especially to William Hastings, a young Warwickshire squire who had fought for him with outstanding bravery at Mortimer’s Cross, doing so again on more than one occasion. William became his boon companion and trusted lieutenant, rewarded by being made a peer and Lord Chamberlain. Thomas More heard that he had been ‘a loving man and passing well-beloved’,15 although the queen hated Lord Hastings for encouraging and sharing in her husband’s womanizing, and as an enemy of her kindred.

When at Sheen, a favourite residence, Edward liked to hear Mass in the external chapel of the charterhouse next door. He established a friary at Greenwich, also a favourite palace, for the Observant Franciscans, one of the period’s few genuinely fervent orders. A cleric who knew him well comments that despite his self-indulgence he was ‘a most devout Catholic, an unsparing enemy towards all heretics, and a most loving encourager of wise and learned men, and of the clergy’. The same writer adds that the king died a sincerely religious death.16

Marriage and the Wydevilles

For all his piety, Edward’s uncontrollable libido brought him a most unsuitable wife. Elizabeth, Lady Grey was the widow of an impecunious Lancastrian knight mortally wounded at Towton and a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Margaret. Her father, Richard Wydeville, Lord Rivers, was a very minor Lancastrian peer who had married the Duke of Bedford’s widow Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Twenty-six, blonde, beautiful and tough, she resisted the king’s attempts to seduce her, even when he drew a dagger, saying that if she was too humble to be his queen she was too good to be his harlot.

In despair, he married Elizabeth ‘in most secret manner’ early on the morning of May Day 1464 at Grafton near Stony Stratford, while supposedly hunting. The only other people at the most romantic wedding in royal history were the priest, the bride’s mother, two gentlewomen and a young man to help the priest sing. Not until September did Edward reveal he had a queen – making a fool of Warwick, who had been in Paris negotiating the king’s marriage to Louis XI’s sister-in-law. Some of Edward’s subjects were so shocked that there were rumours of witchcraft. Even so, Elizabeth was crowned at Westminster in May 1465. The Earl of Warwick did not attend the ceremony.

A grasping courtier on the make whom Warwick described contemptuously as the son of ‘but a squire’,17 old Lord Rivers quickly exploited the situation. By 1466 he was treasurer of England and an earl, marrying his numerous children to the greatest catches in the country, the immensely rich Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, ‘a slip of a girl of about eighty’, being forced to wed his twenty-year-old son John, in what an anonymous chronicler called ‘a diabolical marriage’. (She was only in her sixties.) Allying with new magnates such as Lord Herbert, the Wydevilles formed what was virtually a court party.

Warwick defects

In 1467 it became clear that Edward had turned against Warwick when he dismissed his brother Archbishop Neville from his office as Lord Chancellor. He also repudiated Warwick’s pro-French foreign policy. The earl did not want to revive the Hundred Years War, fearing King Louis might finance a Lancastrian revolt, but in 1468 Edward married his sister Margaret to the new Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, who was Louis’s arch-enemy. Warwick realized he had lost all influence.

Humiliated at home and abroad, the ‘Kingmaker’ saw the Wydevilles as the Duke of York had seen the Beauforts, convinced they meant to destroy him. He tried to regain power with a series of political manoeuvres that came in three phases. First, he plotted to put Edward under strict control and rule through him, as York had done through Henry VI as Protector; then to replace him on the throne by his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, who was the Yorkist heir presumptive; and finally to restore Henry.

The first phase began in July 1469 when, with Warwick’s secret encouragement, thousands of north countrymen led by a mysterious ‘Robin of Redesdale’ rose in Yorkshire. Listing grievances similar to those of Jack Cade, pointing out that Henry VI had lost his throne because of bad government and courtiers such as the Wydevilles, they marched south. At the same time Clarence sailed with Warwick to Calais where the earl was still captain and married his elder daughter Isabel, then returned to England with his father-in-law. On 24 July Robin’s men cut a royal army to pieces at Edgecote Heath near Banbury, Rivers being captured and beheaded. Edward, who had not accompanied the army, surrendered, but after a brief confinement and promising to govern as Warwick and his brother wished, freed himself and returned to London. No more was heard of Robin of Redesdale. This first coup had petered out by Christmas 1469, the king issuing pardons. He did not feel himself strong enough, however, to move against Warwick and Clarence.

The second phase opened in Lincolnshire in February 1470, after Lord Welles and his son Sir Robert attacked a neighbour who was Master of the Horse, and Edward announced his intention of punishing them. Encouraged by messages from Warwick and Clarence, Sir Robert started a full-scale rebellion. Lord Welles lost his nerve, however, and went to court, hoping to defuse the situation. Although he pardoned him, the king sent a message to Sir Robert, saying he would execute his father unless he surrendered. When Robert defiantly marched to attack the royal forces, Edward beheaded Lord Welles, then crushed the rebels at ‘Losecoat Field’ near Stamford – where they threw away their doublets to run faster.

During the battle they had shouted, ‘A Clarence! A Warwick!’ and on the scaffold Sir Robert confessed he had hoped to make Clarence king. Similar risings had been planned elsewhere, but collapsed after Losecoat Field, despite appeals by Clarence and Warwick, who rode through Derby and Lancashire in the hope of finding supporters. On 2 April Edward denounced his brother and the earl as ‘rebels and traitors’ and they fled to Calais.

Outwardly, the Yorkist regime still looked safe. The king felt confident enough to restore Henry Percy to the earldom of Northumberland, compensating Warwick’s brother with the title of ‘Marquess Montague’ and lands in the West Country – a package that privately the new marquess spurned as a ‘[mag] pie’s nest’. Looking back from the 1480s, Dr Warkworth comments how everybody had hoped Edward would ‘bring the realm of England in great prosperity and rest’. Instead, there had been ‘one battle after another and much trouble, and great loss of goods among the common people’.18 And the Great Slump went on and on.

Warwick’s third attempt against Edward started at Angers in July 1470, where he begged Queen Margaret’s pardon for having fought against the House of Lancaster. He acknowledged Henry VI as king and Edward of Lancaster as Prince of Wales; Edward was then betrothed to Warwick’s younger daughter, Lady Anne Neville. Surrendering his place as heir presumptive, Clarence was accepted as the prince’s heir – should the prince not beget sons. Eager to overthrow an ally of Burgundy, Louis XI supplied funds, and a Lancastrian invasion force landed in Devon on 13 September. Having been decoyed up to Richmondshire by a feigned rising, which melted away as soon as he arrived, Edward was too far off to organize a defence in time.

Overthrow and recovery

Only just avoiding an attempt by Montague to arrest him at Doncaster, Edward galloped to Lynn. From there, on board a small English merchantman and two ‘hulks of Holland’ together with 800 Yorkists who included his brother Richard, he sailed to Flanders on 28 September, pursued by hostile Hansa ships. When they landed at Flushing he presented the English skipper with a marten fur coat in lieu of payment as he was penniless. The Duke of Burgundy gave Edward a pension but refused to see him, sending envoys to congratulate Henry VI on his restoration. Living at Bruges or The Hague, Edward heard how Warwick took control of England as Lieutenant of the Realm, with Clarence as deputy and George Neville as chancellor, and how parliament confirmed Henry’s Readeption. The Neville brothers felt so confident that they dismissed their troops.

In reality, Warwick faced alarming difficulties. He was obliged to restore the confiscated estates of Lancastrian grandees, such as the Duke of Exeter and the new Duke of Somerset, upsetting those to whom they had been granted. In any case, it was clear that Exeter and Somerset hated him. Nor did they conceal their dislike of Clarence. The situation was likely to grow even worse for the earl and his son-in-law after Margaret’s return.

When Louis XI declared war on Burgundy in December 1470, Duke Charles changed his mind, giving Edward £20,000 to equip an invasion force. On 11 March thirty-six little ships sailed out from Flushing with 1,200 troops on board – Yorkist exiles and hired hand-gunners. Anchoring off the Norfolk coast and learning that the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford was waiting for him, Edward sailed north, only for his fleet to be scattered by a gale. Barely escaping shipwreck, accompanied by Gloucester and Lord Hastings, he landed at Ravenspur at the mouth of the Humber (where Bolingbroke had disembarked eighty years before) and assembled about a thousand troops who had also survived the storm.

Entering York, he ordered his men to shout ‘King Henry! King Henry!’, swearing at the minster’s high altar that he merely intended to claim his duchy of York. However, joined every day by supporters, he proclaimed himself king again at Nottingham. Warwick, always an indecisive soldier, did not try to intercept him, waiting for Clarence to bring reinforcements, but Clarence rejoined his brother at Banbury in a public reconciliation. On 12 April Edward rode into London, to be greeted by his queen, who during his absence had given birth to their first son in the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

Yet Warwick could call on troops from his northern and Midland estates, from Wales (of the sort who held out for so long at Harlech), from the West Country and from Kent. Had they combined, Edward would have been doomed. Instead, Warwick advanced on London, while the Earl of Devon went down to the west with the Duke of Somerset to meet Queen Margaret, who was coming over from France with the Prince of Wales.

On the day after Edward’s arrival in London, Yorkists and Lancastrians confronted each other at Barnet (then a market town called Chipping Barnet) 11 miles north of the City. The king, who had about 9,000 men, commanded his army’s centre, the Duke of Gloucester the right and Lord Hastings the left. The Lancastrian force was bigger, probably 15,000, its centre under Marquess Montague with Warwick behind in reserve, the right under the Earl of Oxford and the left under the Duke of Exeter. Throughout the night Lancastrian gunners bombarded their opponents’ camp, but, miscalculating the range, fired over it.

Edward attacked at 4.00 am next morning, Easter Sunday, in a thick fog that hid the opposing divisions’ uneven alignment – Oxford on the Lancastrian right outflanked Lord Hastings, while the Yorkist right outflanked the Lancastrian left. As a result, the battle pivoted like a rugby scrum, swinging round at right angles, Exeter’s defeat on the Lancastrian left being counterbalanced by Hastings’s rout on the right.

Then Montague in the centre mistook the star and streams worn as a badge by Oxford’s troops for Edward’s sun and streams and turned on them, so that Edward was able to launch a decisive charge. Montague fell on the battlefield while Warwick was killed as he lumbered towards the horse-park, trying to find a mount on which to escape. (Later, the two brothers’ bodies were exposed in coffins on the pavement at St Paul’s.) The Duke of Exeter, knocked unconscious, was saved by a faithful servant, Oxford being the only Lancastrian leader to escape unhurt.

Landing at Weymouth with Edward of Lancaster two days before Barnet, Margaret was met by Somerset and Devon, who had raised an army about 9,000 strong, but with too few men-at-arms. As Edward guessed, they made for Wales, hoping to join forces with the Lancastrians of Wales and Lancashire. Determined to intercept them before they crossed the Severn, despite burning hot weather he drove his own 2,000 men-at-arms and 3,000 foot at a merciless pace, covering over 30 miles a day.

He caught up with Margaret’s army at Tewkesbury on the evening of 3 May, attacking next morning. Her troops occupied an excellent position on a low ridge south of the town, guarded by hedges and lanes, but the king’s archers and hand-gunners shot volley after volley at them until Somerset, an inexperienced commander, was provoked into charging down on the Yorkist left. Ambushed by a body of mounted men-at-arms, the duke’s troops broke and ran. Regaining the ridge, Somerset accused Lord Wenlock, who led the centre, of treachery and brained him with a pole-axe. When the Yorkists advanced uphill all along the front, what was left of the Lancastrian army bolted, 2,000 being slaughtered in the pursuit, including the seventeen-year-old Edward of Lancaster. Somerset and a dozen other leaders took refuge in Tewkesbury Abbey, to be dragged out and beheaded in Tewkesbury marketplace. Margaret was captured at a nearby nunnery.

Warwick had been popular in Kent, because of his campaigns against Channel pirates, and his cousin, Thomas Neville, the Bastard of Fauconberg, helped by the mayor of Canterbury and a small force from the Calais garrison, raised 5,000 Kentishmen. The Bastard attacked London on the day Tewkesbury was fought, bringing cannon to bombard the City. Led by Earl Rivers, the Londoners beat back their attempt to enter across London Bridge, and then used pardons to trick Fauconberg and the mayor into abandoning their men. The pair were hunted down and executed regardless of pardons, their heads being set up on London Bridge.

‘From the time of Tewkesbury field’, crowed a Yorkist chronicler – ignoring the Bastard’s onslaught – ‘King Henry’s party . . . was extinct and repressed for ever, without any manner hope of again quickening.’19 With Henry’s murder the direct male line of Lancaster was extinct. So was the male Beaufort line, except for a boy who was only a Beaufort on his mother’s side and a refugee in Brittany – ‘the only imp now left of Henry VI’s brood’.20

The second reign of Edward IV

Edward’s entry into London after Tewkesbury resembled a Roman triumph, with Margaret of Anjou dragged along in a cart for the public to jeer, on her way to the Tower. A Yorkist future seemed assured. Not only did the king have siblings, but he had a son and heir. He felt so secure that he forgave many old enemies, thirty attainders being reversed between 1472 and 1475, besides employing former Lancastrians as ministers – such as Dr John Morton, whom he made Master of the Rolls and Bishop of Ely.

He also pardoned Sir John Fortescue, once Lord Chief Justice, who had gone into exile with Margaret, on condition he drew up a refutation of his arguments in favour of Henry VI. Before his death in 1479 Fortescue (the finest English legal mind of his age) wrote that Edward ‘hath done more for us than ever did King of England, or might have done before him. The harms that hath fallen in getting of his realm be now by him turned into the good and profit of us all.’21

A last flicker of resistance came during the winter of 1473–4 when, supplied with ships by King Louis, the Earl of Oxford (who had been one of the Lancastrian commanders at Barnet) occupied St Michael’s Mount. In whose name he did so is unclear. It was definitely not that of Henry Tudor, and his action may have been a mere gesture of defiance. He was soon starved into surrender.

Otherwise, Edward’s only worry was bad blood between Clarence and Gloucester. ‘These three brothers, the king and the two dukes, were possessed of such surpassing qualities that, if they had been able to live without dissension, such a threefold cord could never have been broken’, commented someone who saw a lot of them.22 But George and Richard fell out. Clarence had married Isabel Neville, the older of Warwick’s heiresses, while Gloucester married Anne, the younger, despite Clarence trying to hide her in the City disguised as a kitchen maid. Both men quarrelled furiously over who should inherit the earl’s vast estates.

Edward took care not to make excessive demands on parliament. In 1472 the first assembly for two years voted new taxes, but when their collection descended into chaos he resorted to ‘benevolences’ – forced gifts from the rich – not merely from London merchants, but from those in all the towns he visited on progress. He made sure that customs duties (which went to the royal Treasury) were collected more efficiently, raised rents on Crown lands, enforced feudal dues and economized on his household. Having long been a ‘merchant king’, who on his own account exported wool, cloth (dyed and undyed), tin and pewterware, he used Italian and Greek agents to engage in the lucrative Levant trade – in commodities such as alum, prized as a dye-fixer by cloth manufacturers.

The Hundred Years War again?

One reason why Edward levied benevolences was to restart the Hundred Years War. He had a grudge to settle with the French king, who had financed Warwick in 1470. Originally, he planned to invade Normandy and strike at Paris, flanked by a Burgundian army on his left and a Breton army on his right. When Duke Francis II of Brittany lost his nerve and dropped out, Edward still believed a Burgundian alliance should be enough to defeat Louis XI.

An English invasion force crossed to Calais at midsummer 1475, 11,000 men with cannon and a wagon train carrying supplies in case of scorched earth tactics. Philippe de Commynes – who saw them ride by – thought they resembled a mob on horseback, not realizing the English dismounted to fight. However, they did not begin the campaign until July and were hampered by heavy rain. Worse still, obsessed with trying to found a kingdom, Duke Charles saw them as merely a means to stop Louis intervening in his war against the Habsburgs. He had no intention of providing Burgundian troops.

‘Ah, Holy Mary, even now after I’ve just given you 1,400 crowns, you don’t help me a bit!’, Louis moaned on learning of the invasion.23 Nonetheless, he suspected he might be able to buy off Edward, who was in poor shape for a long campaign. He sent a message in which he apologized for aiding Warwick and offered good terms. He had guessed correctly. English envoys agreed to make peace if the money was right, and Louis made sure it was. On condition Edward left France at once, he would pay him 75,000 crowns down, with an annual pension of 50,000 crowns, while the Dauphin was betrothed to his daughter Elizabeth. Louis also bought Margaret of Anjou for 50,000 crowns – he wanted her to bequeath him her rights in Lorraine and Naples.

Terrified Edward might change his mind, the French king neutralized the English army with a week’s free eating and drinking at Amiens. There were tables in the streets laden with wine, unlimited credit at the taverns and whores free of charge. An orgy of drunkenness ensued, English troops lying in heaps all over the city – while many caught the pox. The two rulers met on 29 August 1475 to sign the treaty, on a bridge at Picquigny near Amiens. Commynes tells us that the King of England, wearing cloth of gold and a black velvet bonnet with a fleur-de-lys jewel, bowed to within 6 in of the ground, and spoke quite good French. He also noted that although still good looking, he was running to fat.

By early September, the English army was back in England. (One casualty on the way home across the Channel was the king’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Exeter, who did not fit into a Yorkist world – thrown overboard on Edward’s orders.) Having been told for three years that it was their duty to pay for a war, not everybody at home was pleased. In Burgundy Duke Charles was so angry that he was said to have eaten his Garter. But England could not afford to go on fighting France while, added to the profits from his business ventures, the French pension enabled Edward to rule without parliament. The Great Slump was ending and prosperity returning. Picquigny marked the start of a Yorkist golden age.

The Yorkist golden age

Nobody enjoyed ladies, feasting and hunting more than Edward IV. According to Thomas More, he boasted he had three concubines, each with a special gift – ‘one the merriest, another the wisest, the third the holiest harlot in his realm, as one whom no man could get out of the church lightly to any place but it were his bed’. The merriest was Jane Shore, adds More. ‘For many he had but her he loved.’24 The estranged wife of a City merchant, Jane was famous for her kindness as well as promiscuity, intervening with the king to save friends from ruin – there is a tradition that she stopped him from dissolving Eton. Mrs Shore was hated by the queen, on whom Edward nonetheless found time to father at least ten children.

Not even siblings defied the king with impunity. Angered by Edward stopping him from marrying the heiress to Burgundy, Clarence became impossible. Early in 1477 he hanged one of his late duchess’s ladies for supposedly poisoning her beer, then hanged a servant for poisoning his younger son. He also claimed the king was trying to kill him with witchcraft. In July, after two men were executed for plotting to murder Edward with sorcery, the duke pushed his way into the council when the king was absent, insisting that they were innocent. Infuriated, Edward arrested his brother and in January 1478 had him attainted for treason – among the charges were practising necromancy and spreading rumours that Edward was a bastard. Clarence died at the Tower the next month, drowned in a butt of wine.

Trouble abroad began in 1482. War broke out with Scotland, while at the end of the year Louis XI and Archduke Maximilian, Burgundy’s new ruler, made peace. Throwing over Princess Elizabeth, the Dauphin was betrothed to Maximilian’s daughter, while Louis stopped Edward’s pension. Throughout Christmas, the king thought of nothing but vengeance, summoning parliament in January to vote money for a war. Yet he no longer had the energy for campaigning, self-indulgence having made him ‘fat in the loins’.25

About Easter 1483 Edward fell ill. Mancini heard that it began by his catching cold during an angling party on the Thames.26 The disease may have been pneumonia, to which his corpulent body could offer little resistance. After ten days, still only forty years old, the king died in the Palace of Westminster on 9 April 1483. Immediately after his death his body was exposed for ten hours, naked from the waist, so that it might be seen by the lords spiritual and temporal, and by the mayor and aldermen of London.


Modern historians stress that when Edward IV died there was barely enough money in the treasury to pay for his funeral. Yet he had been far from unsuccessful. Although his foreign policy was wrecked by the alliance between French and Burgundians, he deserves credit for realizing that England could not continue the Hundred Years War against a reunited France.27 He never lost a battle – Towton, Barnet and Tewkesbury were no mean victories – and kept the Crown he usurped until he died in his bed.

Despite Edward’s murderous streak, he was mourned by his subjects, who admired his infectious zest for life and conviviality. Pleasing everyone who crossed his path had become second nature, while his scandalous private life only enhanced his popularity. During his last summer he invited the aldermen of London to ‘hunt and make merry with him’ at Windsor. Nothing earned the first Yorkist king more affection than this friendliness – ‘gat him either more hearts or more hearty favour among the common people’.28

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