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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 33: England's position at the start of the 1440's


Nearly two very eventful decades had passed since King Henry VI, a babe in arms, had come to the Throne, and since this work [Chapter ] attempted an overall view of the situation which faced England at the start of the 1420s.

Events which were to lead to the Wars of the Roses happened thick and fast in the 1440s, so it is worthwhile pausing to consider the position as it was around the opening of 1440. This will be done by describing events in greater detail than was done in Chapter because these best paint the actual picture which existed.

The War in France - late 1439

Up until Joan of Arc's dramatic intervention in 1429, the balance of success had lain with the English, and their Burgundian allies, even though they seemed unable to end the war in final and decisive victory. Since that date, the balance had shifted to the French. Although they were faced with many difficulties, they were now, slowly but surely, pushing the English out of France. It was they, and not the English, who were making most of the offensive moves, and had forced the English to fight a defensive war.

Something seems to have happened to King Charles VII.

In previous years, he had been content to remain at Court,  keeping out of harms way, and avoiding the hard blows of battles, sieges and all the other hazards of war. If something had to be done, then his favourites, and in particular La Tremoille, would tell him what to do. Now, after the fall of La Tremoille [page ] he was a new man who had acquired a new lease of life. Often he was to be seen, mounted on his charger, at sieges and in other hazardous places, encouraging his soldiers to yet greater deeds of valour without necessarily feeling that he had to share their dangers. Charles was all too well aware of his own shortcomings, and did not undertake to lead his troops in battle. This he felt able to leave to the many brave and very competent commanders who were in his service. From the French point of view, this was perhaps just as well. He felt that he was doing what was required of him by lending encouragement by his presence, and cheering his men on from a safe distance. This can only have been due to his new Chief Minister, Charles d'Anjou, who had persuaded him that Kings did not only need a Crown. They must have, and be seen to have, some backbone as well. This new found activity did not impress the Dauphin, Louis. The son, a serious-minded and very able young man, despised his father heartily, and took few pains to conceal the fact.

Ever since the near success of Rodriguez de Villandrada's campaign in 1438, when he had come within an ace of taking Bordeaux, the French had realised the advantage of forcing the English to fight the war on two fronts, Normandy in the north, and Guienne and Gascony in the south. The French could move on interior lines of communication without ever leaving France, whereas the English could only reinforce their southern possessions on exterior lines, and this involved a voyage by sea. This was not the only English difficulty. That grim and battle-hardened old soldier, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, went to his final rest on 30th April 1439, worn out by the hopeless struggle.[See page for what happened to his Earldom] His place was taken by John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, the elder brother of Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Dorset [Edmund, previously Earl of Mortain, became Earl of Dorset in 1438] England was obliged to reinforce John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, the Lieutenant of Guienne, and there was little to spare for Normandy. What there was appeared under the command of Sir William Chamberlain and Jacquette's husband, Sir Richard Wydeville, whose fortunes seem to have taken a turn for the better after some unpleasantness with the Council. [page ]

The newly, and marginally, more pugnacious King Charles VII obliged the Free Companies which he had tamed to join Arthur of Brittany in the siege of Meaux, the last substantial English stronghold to the east of Paris. A troublesome and insubordinate group, they still served Arthur well. The siege started on 19th July 1439. Meaux had resisted King Henry V for five months and nothing was left to chance. Earthworks were erected, approaches dug, and the very effective French artillery was supervised by the skilled Master of the Ordinance, Jean Bureau. Hearing that an English relieving force was approaching, Arthur ordered a grand assault on 13th August. It carried all before it, only failing to capture the Market of Meaux, an easily defensible position protected by a bend in the River . Neither Arthur nor the English wished to have a pitched battle, and after reinforcing and resupplying the garrison the English withdrew. Arthur persisted, and his King was present to see Sir William Camberlain march out with the honours of war.

The French had another major success in November 1439, when the Sieur de Bueil managed to capture Sainte-Suzanne, one of the most formidable English strongholds in Maine, but success eluded them when they attacked Avranches.

It is worth describing in detail because it illustrates the skilful pre-combat manoeuvring which was quite common at the time. [Chapter describes how manoeuvring before joining battle was frequent and often very skilfully executed, although manoeuvring on the battlefield once battle had been joined was rare] Avranches stood on the left (north) bank of the River See, with the River Selune four miles to the south. Below Avranches, the two Rivers joined to flow into a common estuary near Mont-St-Michel. Arthur of Brittany and the Duke d'Alencon had laid siege to Avranches, and an English force commanded by Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, John, Lord Talbot, and Thomas, Lord Scales was marching to its relief from the south. The English reached the River Selune to find the French lining the opposite (north) bank. Judging it unwise to attempt to force a river crossing in the face of the enemy, the English marched off to the estuary, crossed the sands at low tide, and marched along the combined rivers on the north side until they came to the junction of the rivers. There they crossed to the south side of the River See and faced the French force between the rivers. The French considered it imprudent to give battle and withdrew from the siege.

Events in England

Parliament had regularly met between 1422 and 1439, even if its meetings were not in strict compliance with the Statute of King Edward III's time that it should meet annually:-

Date of meeting Adjourned/ Prorogued Place Dissolved
9/11/22 - Westminster 18/12/22
20/10/23 17/12/23


" 28/2/24
30/4/25 20/5/25


" 14/7/25
18/2/26 20/3/26


Leicester 1/6/26
13/10/27 8/12/27


Westminster 25/3/28




" 23/2/30
12/1/31 - " 29/3/31
12/5/32 - 17/7/32
7/7/33 13/8/33**


" 21/12/33
10/10/35 - " 23/12/35
21/1/37 - " @ 27/3/37
12/11/39 21/12/39


" @@ ?

[* Originally summoned for 13th October, it was 'abbreviated' (brought forward) to 22nd September 1429

**Prorogation was due to the plague in London

@ First summoned to Cambridge, later altered to Westminster

@@First summoned to Oxford.later altered to Westminster]

King Henry VI attended the 1425 Parliament to prevent Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester proposing that he should act as the Regent [page ]. The small child of four years sat in his mother's lap. Although still a small boy, the King attended the 1427 Parliament and every Parliament thereafter. The Speakers were elected at the start of each Parliament, but sometimes persons who had discharged this office before were elected to do so again. For instance, the Speaker of the 1422 Parliament was Roger Flouer, who was elected for the fourth time. John Tyrell was elected three times, 1427, 1431, and 1437, although on the last occasion he fell ill four days before the Parliament was dissolved and was unable to attend when the most important question of all, the grant of taxation, was considered. William Boerley took his place. John Russell seems to have undertaken this burden twice, in 1423 and 1432. There was a definite reason for choosing the winter and spring months whenever possible. The Plague was endemic to London, and was less prevalent then than in the hot summer months. Parliament also dutifully adjourned for the Christmas festival, although sometimes it adjourned too late for those who came from far away to reach their homes in time.

The length of time for which each of these Parliaments sat is impressive, and indicates that a considerable amount of business was got through. No doubt there was much discussion, even wrangling, over some of the measures put before them and this would have taken a lot of time. While election to Parliament was a much sought after honour, it was still a burdensome business which took a man away from his family and his occupation for a lengthy period of time. Yet it seems that this time was not begrudged, and that the members were diligent in disposing of Parliament's business.

Grants of taxation were now left to the last item of business in the way which had become customary since the previous century. This was sensible, because it allowed the Common House proper time to listen to, discuss and consider the reasons why taxation was necessary, and to raise questions on matters which puzzled them and to have them answered. Resumption [Chapter ] was constantly raised, and equally constantly the members thought that it was not pursued as effectively as it should have been, and that they were being 'fobbed off'. This did not prevent Parliament from raising it again and again; it was not disposed to give up in spite of a long record of failure to achieve what it felt was justified. This in itself played some part in Parliament's reluctance, which many historians have ascribed to meanness, to give the Crown the money which it needed.

The way in which money was raised to pay the expenses of running the country is described earlier in this work. [Chapter ] It must be borne in mind that the crude administrative apparatus of the time made it impossible to raise any taxes other than those which were 'easy to collect'. Even though people have always complained, and no doubt always will, that the taxes are a great burden, the Common House felt, with much justification, that those of the mid 15th-century were already too heavy, even if they were only required to meet purely domestic expenditure. On top of this, there were the astronomical expenses of the War in France.

It has often been said that the Parliaments of the 1420s, 1430s, and 1440s, and the people whom they were elected to represent, desired the war to continue until final and complete victory was achieved but refused to pay for it. It is suggested that this view is incorrect, and being incorrect, is unfair as well. It had long been made clear to the members of the Common House that, even though decisions on taxation were their affair, the war was the concern of the King and the Council, and not theirs. It was in any case a dynastic struggle, and if it was successful, the King and the Lords would enjoy all the benefits. Very little, if any, would come the way of the common man. Unquestionably the honour and prestige of the country would be greatly enhanced, but honour and prestige did not put food onto the family table, or pay the wages bill of the business, or ease the other burdens of life. Told that the conduct of the war was not his business, and unable to see any benefit in it for himself, the war had become rather a remote affair to the average member of the Common House and to the people who had elected him. This lead to the view that, if others wanted the war, then they could pay for it. If the King could not, or would not, 'resume' the lands which he had given away, then let him solve the problem of the financial deficit. If the benefits of 'good' English administration were to be conferred to the French in place of the generally abominable government they had received from the French Kings, then they could pay the necessary expenses. When pressed, the Common House had voted some extra taxation,  but had often taken good care to see that it did not fall onto them or their electors. Most of these taxes had been a failure in any case. [pages ] Parliament had resorted to authorising the Crown to borrow substantial amounts from anybody who was willing to lend the money. By failing to provide for the raising of the money to pay off the loans, it had merely ensured that the Crown would slide yet deeper into debt. It was not as though the Common House particularly liked the war any longer. In 1431, they had had the temerity, albeit with due humility, to ask that the war should be brought to an end. They had got nowhere with this plea, [page ] and a succession of failed peace conferences was not reassuring. It seemed the war would go on for ever.

Outside Parliament.people could still cheer and clap their hands at the rabble-rousing with which their darling, the 'Good Duke' Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, shamelessly indulged them. They could still feel the warm glow of the dazzling victory of Agincourt, although this was now a quarter of a century ago. They could still rejoice in the thought of thrashing the French wherever they could be found. Yet by 1440, to the elected member of the Common House and the man and woman in the street alike, there had long been a general weariness of the war and all the evils which it brought in its train. Lawlessness, which was in any case endemic to England, had reached very serious proportions. Bands of discharged soldiers, unable or unwilling to leave behind the way of life they had learnt abroad, roamed the countryside, pillaging, burning, raping, beating and killing just as they had done in France. In 1429, the Chancellor had appealed to the Common House for means to put it down, [page ] but little had changed, and the Government seemed unable, possibly even unwilling, to suppress it. Now there was hunger, and sometimes famine, as well. [page ]

Parliament 1439

On 12th November 1439, Parliament was summoned to Oxford. It seems that fear of disease in London played a part in this decision. On second thoughts, this fear was overcome sufficiently to alter the meeting place to Westminster, although the King was requested not to give the customary kiss to those doing homage because of the possibility of contagion. It was adjourned on 21st December for Christmas, and reassembled in Reading on 14th January 1440. By this time the original fears of disease had turned out to be well founded.

The Chancellor, the Bishop of Bath and Wells gave a highly coloured account of the Oye Conference, and once again the English were represented in the totally false light as having striven for peace with all their might and main whereas the dastardly French had thwarted this noble objective. There was of course no hint that the real cause of the conference's failure was the inadequate English diplomacy and negotiating skills, which lead to their envoys being outwitted by the French. Parliament, not having the means or the knowledge to challenge the veracity of the Chancellor's account, had perforce to accept what it was told. There were no charges to return to the negotiating table and try harder next time, and there were no complaints about the continuance of this never-ending war, but there were plenty about the hardships that it brought in its train. For instance the Royal Purveyors, having no money, were not discharging loans which had become due for repayment, and the judges, who had received neither salary nor new robes for two years, were threatening to resign in a body. The unsatisfactory nature of the King as the countries Chief Executive was plain for all to see. Rather than make a decision after taking advice he had fallen back on a rather neat formula of his own devising, that he was content if his Lords were content. This satisfied nobody.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had seized the opportunity to gloat over the failure of the Oye conference, and this gave him the chance to re-open the old feud with his uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Had not he, Humphrey, almost single handed, thwarted a monstrous piece of treachery by the Cardinal in seeking to make a peace treaty which would have forgone the Conquest of France, and would have released the Duke of Orleans, totally contrary to the expressed wishes of two national heroes, his dead brothers,  King Henry V and John Duke of Bedford? No matter that these matters had been encompassed by the instructions to the English envoys, the chance to harry the Cardinal and to play to the gallery was too good to miss. Nobody in the Council or in Parliament seems to have been much impressed with this diatribe, but it was well received by the man and woman in the street to whom it was principally aimed. Humphrey enjoyed himself tremendously.

There was yet more fuel to pour onto the furnace lit by Humphrey. John Kempe, archbishop of York, sought permission to accept the Cardinal's hat which was now offered to him by the Pope.

Humphrey gleefully seized the opportunity for a further attack. Cardinals had no place in England, and the King should dismiss both of them from the Council. A letter, which was circulated as a pamphlet,  [This was quite a common practise, and served well to disseminate propaganda even though few people could read] accused the two prelates of many misdeeds. They had emancipated James, the King of the Scots, for private gain; due to their mishandling of the Congress of Arras 1435, Burgundy had been alienated and had changed sides; the 'infamous proposals' of the Oye Conference had been prepared by them; they were intent on liberating the Duke of Orleans contrary to all good sense; Cardinal Henry Beaufort had advanced much money to the Crown with an 'evil intent'; both deserved to be impeached.

Humphrey, with his penchant for believing facts, particularly accusatory facts made against individuals against whom he bore a grudge, to be proved beyond all doubt simply because he had stated them, had no doubt all this would be well received outside Parliament. It was indeed, and served to enhance his image as the 'Good Duke Humphrey'. It is possible that this was his main, perhaps only, purpose. The Council, although it had proved unwilling to gainsay Humphrey on the matter of a peace treaty with France, took a harder line, and one which reflected its exasperation with his constant personal attacks. It took no notice of the accusations made against the two prelates, and The Archbishop was given permission to accept the Cardinals Hat. It also declared that it was the King's wish that the Duke of Orleans should be given his freedom. That being so, there was no more to be said. Humphrey, by now alarmed, expostulated that the release of the Duke without some substantial concession by the French would simply serve to increase their power. The Council ignored him.

The release of Charles, Duc de Orleans - 1440

The Duke, now the only remaining Agincourt prisoner, had resided in the Tower of London since 1415. He had not languished in some noisome dungeon all this while, but had lived in style and considerable comfort as befitted one of his exalted rank. He was a frequent and welcome visitor to Court, where his advice was sought on a number of issues. He was also a frequent guest to the many country houses of the magnates where he was lavishly entertained. He partook in their out-door pursuits, such as hunting, which gave him ample opportunity to escape. He had given his word not to make any such attempt, and it would have been regarded as dishonour-able to do so, both in England and France, until his ransom was paid. He was a charming, urbane and accomplished man, and a poet of some renown who had a great liking for Chaucer's work. His presence gave much pleasure to his hosts, particularly William de La Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and his Countess Alice. They were his especial friends.

It is quite possible that it really was the good nature of King Henry VI that set him at liberty. The thought that somebody had been a prisoner for 25 years would have affronted him. Since however he had no capacity to make up his own mind except on the very simplest issues, it is a matter for speculation if anyone in the peace party, such as it was, was urging this course upon the King, and who that person was. It is certainly very curious that no substantial concessions were required from the French, although they were known to set great store on the Duke's release, and that the ransom required bore no relation to the price set on his release by the instructions given to the English envoys who attended the Oye conference. [page ]

The mystery deepens when the actual terms of the Duke's release and their background are considered. The only conclusions that are possible are that the peace party on the Council, such as it was, was now managing to master its awe of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, sufficiently to urge that further attempts to make peace should be undertaken whether Humphrey liked it or not. It is difficult to see anyone other than one person, both leading the peace party and urging peace with France to the King, and that person can only have been the King's great-uncle, Cardinal Henry Beaufort. This in turn pre-supposes that the Cardinal had somehow mastered his long-standing abhorrence of renouncing the Crown of France, without which there could not be peace at all. The 'fall back' instructions given to the envoys who attended the Oye conference, even though they were not used, are some indication of a desire for peace on the part of some members of the Council. The Duc de Orleans had constantly asserted that if only he was set at liberty, he could easily compose the differences between England and France, and there was now a readiness to accept these assertions at their face value. Already on 31st January 1440, safe conducts had been issued to permit French envoys to come to Calais to reopen peace negotiations.

At Oye in July 1439, the English envoys were to demand 100, 000 marks for the Duke's release. This was obviously a minimum figure, and they were expected to get more if they could. Now, exactly one year later in July 1440, after inter-cession by Philip-the-Good, Duke of Burgundy, agreement was reached on a ransom of 50, 000 marks, with 20, 000 marks to be paid immediately, and the remainder to be secured by the bonds of the Dauphin and other French nobles. The Duke was to be 'enlarged' for a year, and was to do his utmost to bring about a peace settlement. If he was not successful, then he was to return to captivity, and the ransom would be refunded. The peace negotiations were, as subsequent Chapters will show, fraught with difficulty, but the Duke did not return to England. It was accepted that he was more use to the cause of peace while at liberty in France than as a prisoner in England.

It took some time to complete all the arrangements and only on 28th October 1440 did the Duke solemnly swear in Westminster Abbey to abide by all the agreed terms without evasion or equivocation. This was all too much for Humphrey, who stormed out of the Abbey, slamming the doors behind him.

The Duke was now free to go, and left London escorted by Lord Fanhope, [Sir John Cornewall had been promoted for his many services in France. There is some speculation that he was the Duke's captor at Agincourt] the Bishop of Rochester, and the other English envoys travelling to the resumed peace conference. [Nothing seems to have come of this Conference, and if it ever took place, it appears from subsequent events to have been yet another failure.]

The Duke's first act on setting foot on his native soil once again was to visit Philip-the-Good, Duke of Burgundy and his formidable Duchess Isabella. His object was to give thanks to them for their intercession which had helped to secure his release. Whilst at their Court, the two men, now both well advanced in years, took the opportunity to settle the old feud which had been going on between their two Houses since 1407. [page ] Philip had come well out of the War. Burgundy was now larger, stronger and more secure from attack than ever before. Now the chief figure of his old opponents, the Armagnacs, was making his peace with him at his Court, and sealing the bargain by seeking the hand in marriage of Philip's niece, Mary of Cleves.[Mary was the Duke's third wife. The fruit of their union was a future King of France, King Louis XII]. There was, Philip felt, much to be thankful for. 

Help for Constantinople

On 5th July 1439, the Decree Laetentur Coeli - Let the Heavens rejoice - was signed in Florence, and on the following day it was published in the splendid cathedral surmounted by the beautiful dome, that marvellous feat of engineering built by the genius of Brunelleschi. The Greeks acknowledged by this Decree that the Pope in Rome was the Sovereign Pontiff of all Christendom and agreed, somewhat uneasily, to settle the doctrinal disputes which had for so long divided the Eastern and Western Christian churches. The most important of these points which they conceded was that the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and the Son as from one origin and by a single emanation. [The reader who wishes to study the course of the Conference more closely will find a spirited account in "Byzantium-The Decline and Fall" pp 398 to 402 by John Julius Norwich] When the Emperor John Palaeologos returned to Constantinople, he was denounced as a traitor by those of his subjects who preferred long and engaging theological discussions on how many angels could dance on the head of a pin rather than face up to their desperate military situation.

The circumstances which had brought John first to Venice and then to Ferara to plead for Western help were as alarming as they were simple. [The meetings first took place in Ferara, but were later shifted to Florence because of the Plague. Also the Pope hoped that the Medicis could be induced to help out with the expenses] The once proud Byzantine Empire, which in its heyday had ruled over the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, was now much reduced in size. Even at the time of the First Crusade [1096-1099], it had held sway over territory which stretched from Belgrade in the West to most of modern Turkey in the East.

With the success of the First Crusade, which had founded the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem and some Christian Principalities in what is now Syria, it had allies, albeit not always totally reliable ones, on its south-eastern flank, and the formidable Frankish army could be counted upon, at least most of the time, to play its part against the Moslem hordes.

Now all that was gone. The Crusaders had been thrown out of the Holy Land and Syria by the end of the 13th-century. Bit by bit, as their own fractious politics, and their own innate suspicions and bitter hatreds of each other had allowed, the Moslems had driven Christian Byzantium out of Turkey. Now the Empire consisted of no more than what is roughly the European Turkey of today. Constantinople was once the richest and most splendid city in the World, although recurrent disasters and defeats had much reduced the splendour and the wealth. It was still the object of temptation to the greedy eyes of the martial Turks, now under their vigorous Sultans far more united than they had ever been before, and the equally rapacious barbarians who lived in modern Bulgaria. Constantinople needed military help, and she needed it immediately. Some of the worst fears of Pope Martin V in the early 1430s [page ] now seemed on the point of being realised.

In return for these concessions, against which the Greek churchmen had argued with the fierce persistency of their race before they were overruled by their Emperor, Pope Eugenius IV promised to seek help from the West, and to dispatch 2 galleys of his own with 300 men. This was all he could spare from his own resources, and they duly went. His approaches to the Western governments fell on deaf ears; none of the Western Princes, although invited, would attend the Conference. Spain had problems of her own with the Moslems in Southern Spain. England and France, who would have to provide the bulk of the military help, were engaged in a hopeless struggle which neither could conclude nor settle. No help was forthcoming from them, and until the War in France was brought to an end, they had none to give. The struggle even inhibited Burgundy, the power most sympathetic to the Crusading ideal, from providing any soldiers.

Constantinople was doomed, and in 1453 the City fell to Sultan Mehmet II and his Turkish army. Those who have seen the walls built by the Emperor Theodosius can only be impressed by the military achievement of the Turks. Some help did come from the West. The famous Italian condottieri [mercenary] Justiniani and his 7, 000 men, aided by as many of the citizens as could be induced away from the joys of theological discussion, made a valiant defence. Genoa sent ships with provisions, and there was a spirited naval action in the sea of Marmara as the Genoese ships lay becalmed. They defended themselves with vigour and courage, pouring boiling oil onto the heads of the Turks in their galleys below. A rise in the wind then sent the heavier Genoese ships crashing through the frailer Turkish hulls. The boom across the Golden Horn was lowered, and the Genoese, bruised and battered but triumphant, entered the port and delivered their supplies. But it was all far too little, and far too late.

Events during 1440 - 1455 (The prelude to the fighting of The Wars of the Roses)

The immediately following Chapters will deal with events between 1440 and 1455 (the date of the 1st battle of St Albans), and in particular with:-

1). The continuance of the War in France in spite of the hopes placed in the release of the Duc d'Orleans.

2). The steadily deteriorating political position in England; King Henry VI's illness, and Richard, Duke of York's rule as Protector of the Realm.

3). The continuing disorder and lawlessness in England and the helplessness of her government.

4). The downfall and death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

5). The rise to power of the Beauforts and William, Duke of Suffolk.

6). Richard, Duke of York's suspicions and jealousies of the Beauforts and Suffolk.

7). Suffolk's murder.

8). The French attack, as they chose, the English in the north in Normandy, or in the south in Gascony and Guienne.

9). The marriage of King Henry VI and Margaret d'Anjou in 1445; the use the French make of the truces that follow it.

10). The expulsion of the English from France in 1453.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003