Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The House of York and the House of Tudor

Steve Muhlberger
Edward IV's early years

Edward IV was effectively king in 1461. The Lancastrian party, represented by the displaced rival king Henry VI, his wife Margaret of Anjou, and their young son and heir, also named Edward (Prince of Wales).

Despite his victory at Towton, Edward IV, the Yorkist king, was far from being secure on his throne. The Lancastrians held parts of Northumberland (an area dominated the Percy family, which supported them) and they hoped to hold out there with the help of the Scots and Margaret's French relatives.

The attitude of France was very important. The French king, Louis XI, was at odds with his cousins the Dukes of Burgundy. As in the reign of Henry V, England potentially held the balance of power. Louis XI wanted a friendly government in England, or if that was not possible, a weak one. Since Margaret was a royal relative, and the Yorkists leaned towards Burgundy, Louis inclined toward the Lancastrians.

Between 1461-64 Edward IV, his chief ally the Earl of Warwick, and John Neville, Warwick's brother fought to gain control of Northumberland. At the same time they used all the wiles of diplomacy to isolate Henry and Margaret. On both fronts they met success. By 1464, the Lancastrians had lost their northern castles and were reduced to a mere court in exile.

As soon as the Lancastrians were beaten, Edward IV  began to have trouble with Warwick. Warwick was the senior member of the Yorkist party in terms of length of service. He had been Richard, duke of York's chief supporter since Edward, York's heir, had been a mere child.
He felt entitled to a leading part in the government. In the 1460s, he was particularly anxious to turn Edward away from the Burgundians and towards a French alliance.

Edward wanted -- and needed to be -- own man. Running a very narrow government would lead to disaster.

He demonstrated his independence by marrying a most unlikely woman -- Elizabeth Wydeville (Woodville), the widow of a minor baron with a Lancastrian past.

In 1469, Warwick and the king's second brother George, duke of Clarence, seized Edward in an attempt to control his policy. It was a very stupid move. The country was thrown into uncertainty, and threatened to become ungovernable. No one would follow Warwick's orders. Very quickly Warwick and Clarence decided they had to release the king. Warwick and Clarence were forgiven, but they feared for their ultimate safety. In 1470 they both fled to France.

Louis XI would promise Warwick support only if he would make common cause with the Lancastrians. Thus 1470 saw the curious spectacle of Warwick, the senior Yorkist, and George, the brother of Edward IV, allied with Queen Margaret, the Beauforts, and the Percies, recently their deadliest enemies.

That summer, Warwick invaded England with French support -- successfully. Edward and his youngest brother, Richard duke of Gloucester were caught by surprise, and decamped to Holland (part of Burgundy).

The Lancastrian regime, however, never solidified. Edward and Richard of Gloucester returned with Burgundian help and destroyed Warwick's forces in two quick battles. Furthermore, Warwick, and the Lancastrian prince Edward, were killed in battle, and Henry VI and Queen Margaret were captured. Henry VI was secretly killed soon afterwards.

The Lancastrian party was ruined and Edward seemed secure at last. There was only one Lancastrian candidate for the throne, Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond, a Beaufort connection. He was not an important figure save for his descent, and in 1470 he was being held in honorable captivity in Brittany. So Edward had the opportunity, and thirteen more years, to establish his dynasty.

Edward turned out to be a very talented and reasonably popular king.

A standard theme of English history has been that the Tudors, beginning in 1485, created a despotism, or a New Monarchy, that with the support of the gentry was able to tame the unruly baronage and peerage. More recently, some historians have pushed the introduction of the New Monarchy back into Edward's reign. Although I am no expert, I am somewhat skeptical of the New Monarchy. Like some of the real experts, I suspect that renewed monarchy may be a more appropriate term. There is no doubt that Edward was important in substantially improving the political position of the crown. The only question is whether his methods were really very innovative, whether he introduced a new style of government.

Edward's efforts to widen his support and rebuild his finances

One of his first acts was to call a parliament where his enemies and their supporters were attainted in great numbers. They were declared guilty of treason and they and their children disinherited. As he became more established, however, Edward proved willing to sell his forgiveness.  By the 1470s, only the most adamant of his enemies were left out in the cold.

Edward had to make himself wealthy enough to meet not only his own expenses, but also the demands of his followers, present and future, for leases of crown lands, pensions, and other favors. He had to do this without extraordinary taxation. Asking the commons for parliamentary grants was the surest way to forfeit public support.   He had to use other methods.

Among them were:

Resumption tempered with dispensation. Resumption meant that all existing pensions and other crown grants were canceled. This was very popular with most taxpayers. However if resumption had been strictly enforced, it would have made Edward many enemies, as all sorts of important people were tossed off the gravy train. What Edward did was to allow those who had grants to apply for dispensations. Edward examined each request himself, and agreed to many of them. Those whose support he really needed got at least something. So Edward saved money, redistributed his patronage in what he hoped was an efficient manner, and demonstrated his power, all at once.

The introduction of up-to-date management techniques to the crown estates.

The benevolence. When Edward traveled across the country, he made a point of dropping in on people known to have money, and asked them for gifts of money. To gain the king's good will -- thus the name benevolence -- most came across with something. After all, it was harder for individuals, talking directly with the king, to say no to such a request than it was for the commons assembled in parliament to do so.

Engaging in trade as a private individual. It might have been more lucrative to restructure the out-of-date customs taxes,  but this was politically impossible. So Edward traded, mostly in wool, like many other great landlords.

Cultivating public opinion

Edward knew to survive he had to be popular in the country as a whole.

Currying public favor had been an important part of government since at least the time of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort. Not all kings, however, had realized just how important it was. Failure to gain the loyalty of the people was one reason that Henry VI had fallen. Richard of York, by contrast, had always appealed to the country at large (partly because his peers showed no great disposition to follow his lead).

Many of Edward's methods of government had been used by Richard II and by Henry VI's hated ministers.  But when Richard II or the duke of Suffolk did such things, they acted out of bad conscience, to control a country they saw as hostile to themselves -- and naturally they were hated.

Edward, though he was no soft touch, tried his best to be everyone's friend, insofar as that was possible. Though he was a usurper, he acted as if he were the rightful king, and many responded favorably.

A famous story about Edward shows him asking a rich widow for money. He asked her what her good will (benevolence) would be towards helping to pay his great expenses. When she said £10,  a large sum, he thanked her and gave her a hug and a kiss. She was so pleased that she doubled her contribution.

Edward had Henry VI killed,  had his brother George drowned in a barrel of sweet wine, the famous butt of malmsey. But  for most, he was an accessible, even lovable king. Like his remote ancestors, he was an itinerant king, moving through the country, constantly checking his power base, and winning hearts and minds.

Successful foreign policy

Edward was required by traditional feeling, and by the old Yorkist claim that they represented the traditional martial valor of England, to renew the war on France.

Edward also had close ties with Burgundy, ties that had saved his bacon in 1470. So in 1475, he planned an expedition to France in conjunction with the current duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (or the Rash, according to taste). The combined campaign failed to come off, but Edward gained anyway. Louis XI paid him 75,000 crowns to leave and promised him a pension of 25,000 crowns a year to stay away.

Together with his other initiatives, the pension made it possible for Edward to be the only king in centuries to die with no debts outstanding. English politics also benefited from a prolonged period of domestic and foreign peace -- the latter, at least, achieved more or less by accident. Edward was thoroughly medieval in his taste for war.

Richard III's reign

Edward died in 1483 at the age of 40. His impressive accomplishments then came unraveled. He left two sons, Edward V and Richard duke of York, but unfortunately they were quite young. Edward V was only thirteen.

Edward IV had left a will naming his brother Richard of Gloucester as protector, but he did not get along with the queen's family.  Richard quickly decided to push for full control. After he got custody of the young princes, and secured them in the Tower of London, Richard of Gloucester had them denounced as illegitimate. Richard claimed that his brother had been engaged before he married Elizabeth Wydeville, and this was enough by church law to invalidate the later marriage. So Edward V was never crowned. His uncle Richard mounted the throne as Richard III, and young Edward and his brother soon disappeared, and were presumed dead by contemporaries.

Richard III had the character to be a capable king, but the irregular way he came to power destroyed his legitimacy. During his two year reign he faced a variety of plots, backed by the Wydevilles, the remnants of the Lancastrian interest, and his own protege, the Duke of Buckingham. No one but those Richard had personally enriched were interested in supporting his regime. Not that the country was actively against him; but no one would lift a hand to save him.

Thus in 1485, when the ministers of the new French king, Charles VIII, obtained Henry Tudor's freedom and gave him money for an invasion of England, the political nation sat on the sidelines. On August 22, 1485, Richard III was killed in battle at Bosworth Field, betrayed in the end by some of his small core group of supporters.

Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, and a descendant of John of Gaunt and Edward III, became Henry VII. He secured this dubious hereditary claim by marrying Edward IV's daughter.

Henry VII's reign

Henry VII, a very obscure and inexperienced man at his accession, commanded no great loyalty in England. For years he was insecure, especially since he knew how little support he had had during his own usurpation. There were a number of revolts against him in the early years of his reign in favor of men who were supposed to be the young Richard duke of York, the second son of Edward IV.

Henry VII's most important accomplishment was to survive these attempts. He was a suspicious ruler, one who ruled by recognizance. Recognizances were ruinous fines that he had adjudged against various peers, which were to be collected if they ever got out of line again. His methods, many of which were taken over from Edward IV and Richard III, and implemented by men who had previously served the Yorkists, worked well enough that Henry was able to pass his kingdom on to his son, the infamous Henry VIII.

If, however, Henry VII had died only a few years earlier, anything might have happened - - Henry VIII was just 18 when he became king.

Perhaps the most important continuity between the House of York and the House of Tudor was peace with France. Although Henry did invade France once, in the 1490s, this was not a serious attempt to reconquer the lost continental dominions.  France was stronger and more united than it had ever been. Henry VII recognized that little England could not fight this French colossus, and so he did not try.

Like the earlier belligerence toward France, non-intervention evolved into a habit of English foreign policy -- despite Henry VIII's two attempts to revive the glories of Henry V's time. England was on its way to becoming the island kingdom of modern times; its monarchs were ceasing to be warlords, and without taking on the characteristics of continental despotism. They would devote most of their time in the future, to the eternal balancing act necessary to control an island of peaceloving landlords.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.