On 4 March 1461 Edward duke of York was proclaimed King in Westminster Hall. But the authority of this new regime was not universally accepted. Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, continues our look at what some call the ‘first’ war of the roses, 1459-1461 and the parliamentary rulings behind it…
On 4 March 1461 a piece of political theatre was played out in Westminster Hall. At its heart was a tall strapping 18-year-old, Edward, since the death of his father at Wakefield little over two months earlier, duke of York. With him was a small band of nobles, and some carefully selected commoners. Before this select audience, and with their acclamation, Edward was ceremonially installed in the marble chair of the King’s bench and proclaimed King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland. The ceremony consciously mirrored what had been done 62 years earlier, when Henry IV had displaced Richard II. Then, too, any involvement by a formal Parliament had been carefully avoided. It is tempting to see in this an early example of the time-honoured concern of the English ruling classes that the wider community of the realm ought to be kept at arms-length from the making of kings, lest they might also take a fancy to unmaking them, a consideration that seems ironic in the face of the revolving-door monarchy of the 15th century. The reality is perhaps more complex. If at a time of acute political crisis those making the decisions even had time to ponder the constitutional niceties of what was to be done, their concern may have been more that a divinely-ordained kingship should not arbitrarily be subjected to an institution that took its legitimacy from a royal summons.
Nevertheless, Parliament was accorded a place in the king-making of March 1461 at least in so far as the justification for the change of dynasty was based on the notion that by re-joining his wife and son at the battle of St. Albans on 17 February Henry VI had broken the accord sanctioned by the Lords and Commons in the previous autumn (which had settled the crown on Henry VI for his life, before it was to pass to his cousin, Richard, duke of York, and the latter’s descendants). Thereby, it was argued, Henry had immediately forfeited his throne, which should now pass to Edward of York as the senior representative of his line. The reality was, of course, rather more prosaic. Since taking Henry VI into their custody at the battle of Northampton in July 1460, the Yorkist lords had effectively ruled in his name. Having lost control of Henry’s person, they could no longer exercise power in his name, and a new King was thus needed.
In London, where the citizens were still reeling from the narrowly-avoided threat of having their city ransacked by Queen Margaret’s northerners, Edward’s accession was greeted with relief, and in some quarters even with enthusiasm. ‘Lette us walke in a newe wyne yerde, and lette us make us a gay garden in the monythe of Marche with thys fayre whyte ros and herbe, the Erle of Marche’, ran one verse current in the streets of London in the spring of 1461. Certainly, as winter gave way to the first shoots of spring, the arrival of a new King who looked the part must have held out hope that the bad times might finally be at an end.
Yet, not all of England could share in the Londoners’ enthusiasm. Spring had yet to arrive for large parts of the country: the battle of Towton which secured the throne for Edward IV was fought in driving snow and bitter cold. Until it was fought, the question of who would rule remained in the balance. Queen Margaret of Anjou’s northern army that had defeated the duke of York at Wakefield and the earl of Warwick at St. Albans on 30 December and 17 February remained intact, even if it had withdrawn into Yorkshire.
Nor did the Lancastrian army’s defeat necessarily improve matters. A winter of battles had left the countryside awash with the dregs of defeated forces seeking to make their way home, and living off the land as best they could. Nor were the victors necessarily much better: some years later, Humphrey, Lord Stafford, who had been in the Yorkist army at Towton, would voice his regrets for his behaviour on the journey home: where the commanders led, the common soldiers presumably followed. The combatants were soon joined by a new breed of vigilantes and bounty hunters. The ‘Parliament of Devils’ of 1459 had set a precedent with its attainder of the Yorkist leaders and it was clear that as soon as Edward IV summoned a Parliament, it would be the turn of the leaders of the Lancastrian party to suffer a similar fate. Until this could be done, the new rulers issued orders for the arrest of named individuals, and – more problematically – of all those deemed guilty of insurrection by panels of local commissioners.
Under the guise of such orders – but often also without such authority – many sought to settle old scores by hunting down long-standing opponents and summarily executing them, or by extorting ransom payments from them. So, for example, Sir Robert de Vere, a younger brother of the earl of Oxford, chamberlain to Henry Holand, duke of Exeter, and a former MP for the county of Devon, fled to the south-west where he held lands in the right of his wife. He apparently reached Exeter before his pursuers caught up with him; within a few weeks however, it was reported that Sir Robert had been ‘slain in Cornwall’. On the very day of Towton, the Suffolk esquire John Mannok was compelled to seal bonds for the payment of a ransom to Charles Nowell, and for years thereafter the Neville retainer John Barowe was seeking to recover the money he had been forced to pay following his capture at Wakefield by a servant of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland.
Neither the spectacle of 4 March in Westminster Hall nor even the victory at Towton removed all doubts over who was the rightful King. Just a week later a group of townsmen in the market place of Bedford proclaimed Edward of York and the lords supporting him traitors; later that month, the London grocer Walter Walker was beheaded in Smithfield ‘for mysbehavyng and wordis spokyn agayn the kyng’, and it is a mark of how stable Edward IV’s rule had become by the end of June that a similar fate was not meted out to the notary John Clerk who, when invited by his neighbours to join them to see the King’s coronation procession, ‘Twutte and tourde for hym. I had as leef se the hunting of a dooke as him!’.
More generally, the new regime was keen visibly to assert its authority and in many places across England the new dawn of 1461 was blood red, as the heads and severed body parts of executed Lancastrian partisans came to adorn town gates and other prominent places. Here they would remain as a grim reminder of the civil war for years to come: at Exeter, the head of the former county sheriff and MP, Sir Baldwin Fulford, remained on a stake on the Guildhall for almost two years until the spring of 1463, when its removal and burial was permitted on the grounds that the ‘flesch thereof is now rotyn and dayli fallyth among youre peple of youre saide cete’.
H. Kleineke, Edward IV (Routledge, 2008).
H. Kleineke, ‘England 1461: predominantly provincial perspectives on the early months of the reign of Edward IV’, in The Fifteenth Century XVIII: Rulers, Regions and Retinues. Essays Presented to A.J. Pollard (Woodbridge, 2020), 81-92.