- The Yorkists
- Hambledon & London, 200 pp.
Winters of Discontent
“Now is the winter of our discontent…Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” So wrote William Shakespeare in his 1594 play, Richard III.
To be sure, the fifteenth century was one of the most politically unstable periods in English history and most modern readers’ view of the period is heavily colored by Shakespeare. He portrayed the bitter civil war known as the Wars of the Roses as divine punishment for the Lancastrian usurpation and the murder of Richard II, and in his portrayal of Richard III he created one of the most magnificent villains of the English stage. Shakespeare was certainly right to suppose that one cause of the war was the rivalry of two branches of the family of Edward III, but, more immediately, the war was a result of the incompetence of Henry VI’s government rather than Yorkist ambition. Was he also right in his depiction of the last Yorkist king? Richard III is probably the most controversial king ever to sit on the English throne, forever overshadowed by the general belief that he murdered his nephews, the sons of Edward IV, in the Tower. While in Shakespeare’s mind, there was no doubt about his guilt, modern readers will wish to make up their own minds and, to this end, Anne Crawford’s meticulously researched and thoughtfully written text brings much to the discussion.
Crawford, a former Assistant Keeper at the British Public Record Office, and current archivist to historic Wells Cathedral, is certainly no stranger to the period. She is the editor of Letters of the Queens of England, 1100-1547 (1994) and Letters of Medieval Women (2002). Accordingly, she embraces the House of York with the eye of a historian tempered by an in-depth familiarity with the social and familial perplexities one encounters when researching period British royalty. To steer the reader though these difficulties, Crawford includes detailed genealogical charts to clarify the familial relationships upon which Yorkist and Lancastrian intrigues are drawn. They will be an indispensable addendum to the text for those not particularly well-versed in the period.
Crawford introduces the Yorkist rise to power with a study of the decline of the Lancastrians, “since one was a direct result of the other,” and “there was nothing inevitable about the accession of the Yorkist kings.” The history is important, and the author approaches it in a concise and an engaging account. For the first half of the fifteenth century, the family was only one of a number of similar ones, wealthy, descended from the royal house and active in royal service. Richard, duke of York, born in 1411, was the progenitor of the dynasty and for a while it appeared that he would take his rightful place among the ruling elite of Henry VI’s government. Yet the king’s lack of interest in ruling and the resulting rise of factions among those struggling to govern in his name led to York being excluded from the inner circle surrounding the king. He needed the repayment of large sums of money he had expended in previous royal service and his attempts to regain these and what he saw as his rightful position led to direct confrontation with the government. He also, unexpectedly, found that the role of reformer was thrust upon him by the commons.
During the period of Henry’s mental incapacity Richard was twice successful in being named Protector, but the insecurity of his position meant that his achievements were limited and he found himself drawn inexorably to challenge Henry for the throne itself. The armed struggle was not for the most part, between two contenders for the throne, but between two factions vying for control of the king and hence the government in his name. While York had the support of a number of peers in this, he had little or none in his attempt to dethrone Henry. The exception was his wife’s family, the Nevills, specifically his brother-in-law, Richard, earl of Salisbury and his son, Richard, earl of Warwick. The deaths of York and Salisbury at Wakefield in 1460 led to a desperate gamble, masterminded by Warwick, to place York’s eldest son, Edward, on the throne. The Yorkist dynasty had begun and young Edward IV held on to the throne by his military victory at Towton and spent the next few years eliminating any remaining pockets of Lancastrian resistance.
But Crawford argues that, while to many it seemed that the 1460s were a decade when the Nevills, Warwick, and his brothers were the most powerful force in government, this was to some extent a misconception. Edward was his own man, pursuing a pro-Burgundian policy abroad where Warwick favored an alliance with France and crowning it with a match between his youngest sister, Margaret, and Charles, duke of Burgundy. The king’s own marriage, contracted secretly to a Lancastrian widow with two sons, Elizabeth Woodville, Lady Grey, was a political blunder of the first magnitude that was to have unforeseen consequences for his dynasty. Warwick’s alienation was completed by the king’s refusal to permit a match between his brother George, duke of Clarence, his heir presumptive, and Warwick’s elder daughter.
The earl’s decision to stage a coup d’etat, however, was indefensible. In his ambition, Warwick first tried to force Edward into a position where he might recover some of his lost influence, and failing that, to replace him with a more malleable king, his new son-in-law, George of Clarence. Clarence’s disloyalty to his brother was the first indication of the internal rot that was to destroy the house of York. When Edward turned the tables on his cousin Warwick, the earl and Clarence were forced into exile, where Warwick performed a complete volte-face and allied himself with Queen Margaret of Anjou to restore Henry VI to the throne, thus earning himself the nickname of “Kingmaker” by which he is known to history. The Readeption of Henry ended with Edward’s return from exile, and his military victories at Barnet and Tewkesbury, culminating with the deaths of both Henry VI and his son, Prince Edward, thus ending the Lancastrian dynasty. Edward IV is the only English king to have successfully regained his throne after being dethroned, and one question to be addressed is why did Henry VI, so incompetent a king, hold on to his throne for so long, while Edward, able and popular, lost his after a decade? Against this backdrop, we again witness the value of the genealogical charts.
The Yorkists were the shortest-lived dynasty to have occupied the English throne since the Norman Conquest, reigning between 1461 and 1485. And, as Crawford notes, “They comprised only two kings in any real sense, Edward IV and his brother, Richard III; the boy king Edward V’s brief reign was in essence only the prologue to that of his uncle, Richard. Countless books have been written on Richard III and his motives for replacing his nephew. All are agreed, however, on his loyalty to Edward during the king’s lifetime.” Still, moving beyond any questions of loyalty, it is Crawford’s portrayal of Richard III that demonstrates her command of the literature and current scholarship.
For centuries, the popular image of Richard III derived from Shakespeare’s arresting portrait of the monstrous hunchback; however, Crawford suggests that recently opinions have changed and “a society has dedicated its efforts to rehabilitating his character” to counter the view of him disseminated “by Tudor propaganda.” Indeed, the alleged murder of his nephews aside, Crawford opines that Richard was a highly complex man…intelligent and pious, qualities reflected in his extensive collection of books. He almost certainly had considerable personal charm, he was a good soldier and capable of establishing a just and benevolent regime in his area of influence. Where his own interests were concerned, however, he was also ambitious, aggressive, and ruthless. “All in all” opines Crawford, “It may be said that he was a true man of his times.”
In the final analysis, Crawford’s lucid prose and attention to detail bring forth a valuable contribution to fifteenth century British studies. It should be should be required reading for students not only of the English monarchy, but also of Shakespearean literature.