Our latest blog comes from Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 project. In October 1460 Richard, duke of York attempted to claim the English throne from his cousin Henry VI. He was technically unsuccessful, but Parliament agreed to an unusual arrangement…
On 10 October 1460 there occurred the most dramatic event in the history of the fifteenth-century Parliament. Henry VI’s cousin, Richard, duke of York, entered the parliament chamber and laid claim to the throne. The scene was described in a contemporary letter:
‘my lorde of york with viij hundred horse and men harneysed atte x of the clok …entred the paleis (of Westminster) with his swerde born uppe right by for him thorowe the halle and parleament chambre. And ther under the cloth of estate stondyng he gave them (the assembled Lords) knowlich[e] that he purposed nat to ley daune his swerde but to challenge his right’.
If he expected an enthusiastic reception to this unprecedented action, he was to be sorely disappointed. One chronicler records that ‘all the lords were sore dismaide’ at the claim, a dismay all the more surprising in light of the absence of the Lancastrian lords, who, although summoned, had not attended. This dramatic, and from York’s point of view, embarrassing, scene is not mentioned in the official record of the Parliament. This contents itself with a rather sparse record of what followed. Six days later, the duke formally submitted his claim in the most undramatic form of a written instrument delivered to the chancellor. The Lords agreed to give it a hearing but not an answer on the grounds that ‘the mater is so high, and of soo grete wyght’ that it could not be discussed without the King’s assent.
On the following day they put the matter before a compliant King and there followed a period of consultation in an effort to find arguments against the duke’s claim. These were duly drafted and were feeble enough to be easily repudiated by the duke. On 25 October the Lords arrived at the compromise that Henry should remain King but that York and his heirs should succeed him. Six days later York and his two eldest sons, the earls of March and Rutland took a formal oath in the parliament chamber to abide the accord, and the King promised his own adherence to its terms. Thus was the house of Lancaster, which had ruled for 60 years, was disinherited by parliamentary act.
In constitutional terms, this whole proceeding was confused. No contemporary would have accepted the notion that a King could be made by Parliament, for the King’s right to rule depended on hereditary right determined by, in the duke’s words, ‘Godds lawe, and all natural lawes’. In deposing the Lancastrian line, the Lords were accepting the duke’s claim that he was the true King, for he was descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel, duke of Clarence, whereas Henry VI was descended from his third, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (no reference was made to the central objection that York’s title depended on female descent whereas the Lancastrian claim did not). The act merely recognised the validity of the Yorkist title, but it did so in an unsatisfactory and illogical fashion. The whole proceeding had depended on the compliance and assent of the King who was to be deposed. This assent was easily achieved in Henry VI’s case for he was a mere cipher – in the words of the papal legate, Francesco Coppini, ‘utterly devoid of wit or spirit’ – but, if the King had refused to cooperate, York’s claim could not have been discussed, let alone validated, in Parliament. More significantly still, the solution contradicted the very basis on which it was made. Either the duke was the rightful King or he was not. If he was, then Henry VI can have no right to rule until his death or abdication.
In truth, of course, the act of accord was determined not by constitutional theorising but by the practicalities of politics. York appears to have misjudged these when he dramatically made his claim. It may be that in the previous March, when he was visited in exile in Ireland by his most powerful ally, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, the two men had agreed that the assertion of that claim was the only way they could find security. By the autumn, however, much had changed. In March the Lancastrians held the reins of government; now, after the successful Yorkist invasion of the summer, both government and the person of the King were in Yorkist hands. Further, oaths of loyalty to the person of Henry VI had been one of the means the invading Yorkist lords had employed to win over the uncommitted. As a result, Warwick may have come to see the continuation of Henry VI’s kingship under Yorkist control as the safest mode of proceeding.
On this reading, York laid public claim to the throne to force the hands of his closest allies. It may thus be that the act of accord does not represent the rebuff to the duke it is often said to have been. Certainly, his claim to immediate possession of the throne was rejected, and his presumption in claiming it made to look just that. Yet he achieved as much as he could in the circumstances. In face of the hostility of the Lords as a body and the doubts of his leading ally, he had won the throne (at least, if Lancastrian resistance could be overcome) for his eldest son, even if he, some ten years older than Henry VI, did not live to take it himself. Further, it might be that his own succession would come not to depend on Henry’s death: the act of accord made provision for his accession in the event of Henry’s abdication. Indeed, this may have been its crucial point, the act intended simply to postpone Richard’s accession to a moment more politically propitious. Unfortunately, for him, the resistance of Queen Margaret and the Lancastrian lords meant that that day never came. He met his death at the battle of Wakefield at the end of the year.
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