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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 42: Richard, Duke of York, rebels: February 1452


England was as stunned and dismayed by the loss of the Southern Provinces in France as it had been by the loss of Normandy in 1450. Again the cry on everyone's lips was "How did it happen?" The Government had done very little to foresee or forestall the French attack. Some paltry sums of money (all the government could spare) and a few men had been dispatched, but what had been required was a substantial force. Sir Richard Wydeville, who had been created Baron Rivers in 1448, was appointed Seneschal of Acquitaine and was authorised to raise such a force of 300 men-at-arms and 2, 700 archers and lead it to the relief of the endangered provinces. [The proportion of men-at arms to archers seems to have been unduly small. Usually one to three, here it was one to nine] [This was the Sir Richard Wydeville who had married Jacquette, Dowager Duchess of Bedford to the fury of the Council See page ] So difficult was it to persuade soldiers to enlist that he had to offer an extra 50% to the normal rates of pay. In late 1450, a fleet had been assembled in Plymouth to transport his force to Bordeaux, but so pressing were the government's money problems, and so short was the Crown's credit, that it had still not sailed by the time of the fall of Bordeaux in June 1451. By then, it was pointless to sail, and the project was abandoned.

The Ship of State was now a broken hulk, stopped dead in the water. The government had no money, and without it could do very little. There was no point in calling Parliament and asking for a grant of taxation; Parliament would certainly refuse it until it was clear that the Resumption Statute of 1451 was going to have the desired effect before it would vote that the taxpayer should dig yet deeper into his pocket. Now the Crown was paying the price of cheating and frustrating the desires and ambitions of Parliament as it had so often done with previous Resumption Statutes. [Chapter ] The members of Parliament may have been different from one Parliament to another, but memories had proved to be long and unforgiving.

Fighting had again broken out in the West Country between Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, and William, Lord Bonville, who found himself besieged in Taunton by his rival.

Several other Lords had joined in the miniature civil war that these two were conducting from sheer love of fighting rather than sympathy for one or other cause. King Henry VI and his Court, for want of anything constructive to do, went on Royal Progresses through the Midlands and the Southern Counties, and he busied himself with ever more futile efforts to persuade his feuding Lords to live at peace with each other. So far as the Earl of Devon and Lord Bonville, and more particularly Richard, Duke of York, and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset were concerned, it never occurred to him that he was engaging in tasks as difficult as that of squaring the circle. Of a gentle and peace-loving nature himself, he was incapable of understanding that others would never forgive and forget unless they were obliged to do so. Caught between the Queen's noisy and vociferous demands that Edmund should be employed as a bulwark against her arch enemy Richard, and Richard's enmity towards Somerset, he took refuge in vain attempts to reconcile these two with each other. He could not grasp that the Queen's hatred of Richard prevented her from even making the attempt to come to terms with the man she regarded as the chief foe of the dynasty of Lancaster. He was 'the Pretender', although Richard had never held himself out as such, and this was not to be forgiven. In human affairs, compromise is usually a virtue, but the King took it to the extent where it became a vice.

Richard raises an army - February 1452

If Richard had been living quietly on his estates in the North, keeping a close eye on the King to see if he would live up to the promises which he had given in August 1450, he did so with a troubled mind. He had been in communication with his Neville supporters and John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, with the aim of keeping his faction together. He had striven to distinguish between the King, to whom they all owed allegiance, and his discredited and untrustworthy adviser Somerset. Whilst Somerset was out of the way in Calais, there was still some time for the King to honour what he had promised to do. In late 1451 however, to satisfy Queen Margaret's clamorous demands, Somerset had been welcomed back to Court and had even been appointed Constable of England. In modern parlance, the Constable would be known as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces on land. Whilst there was only a small regular navy of King's ships, and nothing in the way of a standing army, it would be a bold man who disobeyed the Constable's commands to raise troops and deploy them in accordance with his orders. Queen Margaret persisted in regarding her own position as being threatened with extreme danger with Richard as its source. She was thus prepared to flout public opinion on a grand scale, although she must have been aware that Somerset was commonly loathed and distrusted.

Once his fury at this appointment had subsided a little, Richard realised that his communications could be given the gloss of treason. Normally a most careful man, he now took a step which was uncharacteristically rash. He issued a proclamation which protested that all he had done since his return from Ireland had been done in a constitutional way, and that all he was seeking was the removal of the bad advisers from around the Throne; their peculations had bankrupted the country, and their abominable administration was responsible for the losses in France besides many other evils at home. On 3rd February 1452, he followed this up by calling on the men of Shrewsbury to raise a force and join him in removing these bad advisers by force.

It is difficult to understand why Richard, so it appears, did not call upon his main supporters, the Nevilles and the Mowbrays, for help. Anger is always a bad councillor, and possibly Richard succumbed to her influences. It seems that what he did took them by surprise, and left them without the time to ready themselves. Not even the rumbustuous Richard, Earl of Warwick, who would normally have taken to arms with alacrity, came to his aid. They had been ready to fight in 1450, but then they had been bidden to put their trust in Parliament, and since then had been told to be patient. They found it confusing that there was now, after all, to be a recourse to arms. The men of Shrewsbury were similarly confused, and answered his call, where they answered it at all, reluctantly and in small numbers. Richard must have thought that the cause which was to him so blindingly obvious was similarly apparent to others; he thought that once he had raised his standard, men would flock to his banner as they had to Jack Cade's, and that he had only to appear in London, where he knew he enjoyed strong sympathies, for the citizens to provide him with a large army.

This did not happen. Richard, who had so coolly judged the mood of the people in 1450, misjudged it badly in 1452. As his small force marched through the countryside on its way to London, he found that the people, although they may have loathed Queen Margaret and detested Somerset, were in no mood to take up arms against their anointed sovereign. They looked for guidance from their Lords, and getting none, refrained from joining Richard. A small but welcome reinforcement was provided by Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, who was ready to let his feud with Bonville rest for a time, Sir Edward Broke and Lord Cobham. Cobham, who was distantly related by marriage to Sir John Oldcastle, who had gone to the gallows for his Lollard beliefs in 1417, [page ] was himself a leading Lollard. His company may have been looked upon with mixed feelings, although the others were in no position to decline his help.

The government, naturally, had regarded Richard's proclamation and his rising in arms as a declaration of war.

A small Royal army marched out of London to bar Richard's passage to the Capital. Richard neatly side-stepped it, and pressed on for the Capital where he thought he could find the support he expected. At Kingston-on-Thames, he was alarmed to hear that the City gates would be closed to him. Crossing the river at Kingston, he marched on to Dartford, and took up a strong defensive position along the River Darent. From there, he hoped to be able to win over the City to his cause.

The Royal army, finding that it had been out-manoeuvred, retraced its steps to London, reaching the Tower on 27th February. On 1st March 1452, it marched to Dartford to confront Richard. The two forces were roughly equal in size with possibly a small superiority in numbers on the Royal side. There was undoubtedly some disaffection in Richard's camp, and there was no knowing how his men would behave in a battle; some might even desert to the Royal Standard. Somerset wanted to attack at once but the King, to whose nature fighting and bloodshed in a civil war was abhorrent, looked for a reconciliation. This accorded with the views of the Chancellor, Cardinal John Kemp, Archbishop of York, who always preferred a peaceful solution.

Embassies, which included William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, Thomas Bouchier, Bishop of Ely, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, were sent to Richard's tent. Whilst they well understood what Richard's grievances were, their basic mission was to ask him what on earth he thought he was doing. Richard may have been surprised and somewhat dismayed to see his chief supporters among the Royal delegates, but if so, he hid his feelings. He responded that he should be openly recognised as the heir-apparent to the Throne, that he should be given a share in the government and no longer be treated as some sort of leper, that Somerset should be arrested and put on trial on charges which he was preparing, and that free pardons should be given to all who had joined his side.

Exactly what happened next is confused, apart from the facts that all who had risen in arms were pardoned, and Richard found himself a prisoner. According to one account, Richard, thinking that he had got satisfactory assurances of Somerset's arrest, went to the King's tent to protest his loyalty. There, to his horror, he found Somerset sitting in his accustomed place. He paid the price of being too trusting and was himself arrested. [Paston letters vol i cxlviii; Chronicles of London 137; R.Fabian 626; Whethamstede i 162] There is a far more picturesque account which probably represents the truth, given the personalities involved.

The two Bishops, with the help of the Chancellor who kept Queen Margaret occupied elsewhere, contrived to see the King on his own. They seemed to regard Richard as a distinct potential asset to the government, whereas Somerset was a proven liability. A substitution of one for the other could not fail to be other than a most welcome development. They persuaded the King, who was as always inclined to follow the line of least resistance and do what the immediate adviser told him he must do, that Richard's demands, although presented in a rough and unlawful fashion, were reasonable and proper. King Henry VI ordered the Captain of his Guard to arrest Somerset at once and bring him his sword. The astonished Somerset was confined to his tent, and his sword was laid before the King. Satisfied, the Bishops sent a herald to Richard's tent with a message that he should come at once to see the King.

Whilst the herald was on his way, and Richard was riding for the King's tent, Somerset managed to send word to Queen Margaret to tell her what had happened. The Captain of the Guard did not think his orders precluded this, and in any case was uncomfortably aware of how suddenly the wheel of fortune could spin; it would go badly for him if he ended up on the losing side. In a towering rage, the Queen rushed to the King's tent and shrieked out the question how could he bring himself to trust such a villain as Richard? Why could he not see Richard in his true light as a traitor? Did he not understand that Richard would soon displace them both? Could the King not grasp that Richard would destroy them, and he would forever destroy the Lancaster dynasty? He would confine them in religious houses, and if the King yearned after the monastic life, she was worthy of far better things than a nunnery, for which she observed, with undeniable truth, she was scarcely fitted. Somerset must be released at once to take his old place as their protector against the intrigues of the House of York, and it was Richard who should be put under arrest and charged with treason.

Like all weak men with forceful wives, who so frequently have to make good their husband's deficiencies, King Henry VI went in mortal terror of his wife. To calm her strident demands, which she shrieked forth without regard for who was listening, and must have audible some distance from the Royal tent, the King set Somerset at liberty once again and restored his sword to him. Somerset knelt before his King and protested that he was a loyal subject, whilst the King stammered forth that it had all been a misunderstanding, now happily resolved. When a few minutes later, Richard arrived, he was promptly arrested and told he would stand trial for treason.

When the clamour had died down, and the Queen's virago-like shrieks of 'Traitor' had for the moment ceased, Richard looked the King straight in the eye and denied that he was a traitor. He told the King in no uncertain terms that he had been deceived, and that he was only guilty of putting too much trust in the King's word. The King, not altogether without justification, put great store in his personal honour and this accusation touched him to the very core of his being. For once overruling his wife, who loudly called for Richard's summary execution within the next hour, he formally pardoned Richard and his whole following, bidding them to disperse to their homes forthwith. He kept his word, and no proceedings were ever undertaken to prosecute those who had taken up arms against him.

Somerset saw to it that the King had not yet finished with Richard. Richard was required to walk in a solemn procession through the City to St Paul's Cathedral, and there swear an oath on the Host that he would never again take up arms against his sovereign.This proceeding, besides being an humiliation for the mighty Duke of York, was aimed at showing the citizens who entertained sympathies for Richard that they would be most unwise to put their trust in a broken reed. Once this was done, Richard was permitted to depart for his home in the North. 

Spring 1452

The net result of Richard's rebellion, ill thought-out and dogged by bad luck, was the triumph of Queen Margaret, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and their party. Richard must have reflected, once he was back at home on his estates, that he had undone all the good he had achieved by leaving Ireland, his interview with the King in August 1450, and his handling of the 1450/1451 Parliament. He had urged the Nevilles and the Norfolks to be patient and to do nothing rash. He had now discredited himself in their eyes by being both impatient and rash, and he had paid the price for doing so; he had even put their support at risk at a critical moment. The position was the same as it had been in 1450 when he had returned from Ireland to put things right, but with one important difference; he had tried and failed, and by his actions he had released the King from the performance of his promises. There was plenty of time to mull over the draft of the charges which he had proposed to press against Somerset. This has survived, and is a recital of Somerset's failings in Normandy. He made two additions. It was alleged that it was Somerset, and not Suffolk, who had embezzled the money intended for the compensation of the displaced English settlers in Maine.[page ] Somerset was said to have been prepared to exchange Calais as part of the marriage settlement of his son to a Burgundian princess. Apart from this last accusation, which was almost certainly untrue, a charge of treason could not have been made out, but only one of incompetence, and at times cowardice. Even so, in the hot-house atmosphere of the public hatred of Somerset, it might have been enough to unseat and disgrace him. Now it was not to be. [Ramsey Vol 2 page 150]

In the spring of 1452, it must have seemed to Richard that he was a spent and thoroughly discredited force who would never again rally men to his side, while the Queen and her faction were in the ascendant and were likely to remain so. By rebelling, he had released King Henry VI from all the promises he had wrung from him in 1450. [pages ] Many in prominent positions around the Throne sympathised with him; they saw in him the man who was most likely to bring about the reforms in government which they also desired. The Queen however had two distinct assets which they found very difficult to deal with. She had a will of steel, which she used without hesitation to protect her weak-willed ninny of a husband, forcing him to appoint incompetent and sometimes venal ministers who she thought would protect him against the likes of Richard and his friends. At the age of 23, she was now at the height of her beauty, and the strong aura of sexuality which hung about her bewitched and enslaved many, sapping their will and bending them to her purposes. Few could, or even would, gainsay her; instead they spinelessly did her bidding. This was all very lacking in spirit, because even strong-willed and beautiful women can be controlled, and their machinations brought to nought, by a sufficient degree of firmness. Primarily, this should have been exercised by the King, who had all the tremendous powers of the Throne at his disposal, but others cannot be totally excused. Exercising control over his wife was well beyond King Henry VI; he never once attempted to call her to order or draw in the too loose a rein.

Richard had been forgiven for his rebellion, but there was still ringing in his ear the final jibe of Somerset, who had told him that he was most fortunate to escape the usual penalties of treason on this occasion, but that next time he would not be so lucky. This he had no reason to doubt. If his star seemed to have set, it was only to be for a short time. Things were to change more rapidly than even Richard could have foreseen.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003