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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 45: Richard,  Duke of York,  Protector and Defender of the Realm: April to December 1454


Richard's position

The wheel of fortune had once again spun one of its curious circles, and Richard, Duke of York and his faction, which had seemed so subdued at the opening of Parliament in March 1453, was now in the ascendant when Parliament dissolved in April 1454. It had achieved this by proceeding carefully and always in a constitutional way. It had neutralised the chief of its enemies; Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset was in the Tower anxiously awaiting the Commission of Enquiry. He could be left to cool his heels there, and Richard was in no hurry to establish the Commission. Thomas, Baron Thorpe, was in a debtors prison wondering how he was going to raise the money to pay the damages his own Court of Exchequer had awarded to Richard. It would appear these were substantial and beyond his means, because he could have easily re-gained his freedom by paying them. Queen Margaret was not under lock and key, but she too was effectively neutralised because she could not leave the side of the sick King in Windsor. She could not even remove the young Prince Edward from the safety of the castle walls; this would have risked the abduction, or even the murder, of the infant by the Yorkist faction. On these two lives, her own safety was dependant. What Richard could not properly do was to deny those Lords sympathetic to the Lancastrian dynasty access to her. He would have to rely on his spies among the Royal entourage to report any comings and going and the plotting of any mischief.

Still, Richard reflected, the position was satisfactory for the moment, and a judicious use of the enormous powers which had been entrusted to the Protector and Defender of the Realm should be enough to make sure that it remained so.

In the meantime, the country was beset by horrendous problems. Richard and his friends had always held out that he could provide effective government. Now the time had come to show that he could.

Queen Margaret

Queen Margaret's dismay at Richard's appointment took expression in loud and continuous lamentation. She ran from room to room, shrieking that all was lost. Now her Yorkist enemies had seized power, they would use it to destroy the Lancastrian dynasty. Richard's pretensions that his office only lasted during the King's Pleasure, which meant until King Henry VI should recover or until the infant Prince came of age, were dismissed as pious and hypocritical humbug. She raged, with all her woman's sense of what was practical, misplaced as it so often is, that Richard and his friends would establish his own dynasty at the expense of the Lancastrian. It was only a question of time before she and her husband were separated and confined to religious houses.

As for the young Prince, his life did not seem worth an hours purchase.

In her desperation, she could only see that the only hope of survival lay in the King's recovery, and the unfortunate doctors were urged in ever more strident terms to cure him. They put him on a diet, purged him, shaved his head, bled him, rubbed in embrocations and fermentation's made from noisome ingredients of which we happily remain ignorant, and applied other unspecified remedies of which 'learned men have written or may write'. All was to no avail. Henry awoke from his trance-like state only in the last days of 1454. One imagines that his recovery was in spite of, and not because of, the ministrations of the doctors.

Queen Margaret's problems were largely of her own creation, and yet it would not be fair to say that she was wholly wrong. The characters of human-beings and constitutional organisations do not admit of absolute values.and there is no absolute certainty that they are going to act in a predictable way, whatever the circumstances. Yet it is wrong to assume, as Margaret readily did, that they are going to behave in the worst possible way regardless of the obligations imposed on them by law. It is fair to criticise her for failing to understand Richard, Duke of York, and what motivated him, and for a similar failure to understand the constitutional apparatus of the country over which her husband reigned. She had spent no less than eight years in England, and a better under-standing might have been expected. Richard had an outstanding record of loyal public service, both in France and in Ireland, and never once had he claimed that it was he and not King Henry VI who should have sat on the Throne. This self-denial was maintained even when he was in rebellion in 1452. His whole demeanour in the handling of the recent Parliament had been re-assuring to those who took the trouble to examine the record. Queen Margaret never understood that if you treat people as enemies, like enemies they will behave. They have to, for their own protection. If she had shown greater friendliness towards Richard, and a greater understanding for his undoubted abilities and his wishes to take a meaningful part in government, she would probably have found it much easier to keep him under control and head off any aspirations which he may have nurtured towards the Throne. After all, things had begun well between them. [page ] In her native France, Richard would have been justly regarded as a potential enemy, to be eliminated or neutralised by whatever means lay to hand. But this was England, not France, and Queen Margaret never grasped that in England, things happened and were done in a different way.

Queen Margaret never understood the people over whom her husband reigned. In France, the monarchy was far more totalitarian, and people were expected to do as they were told. For the most part, they did. England was different in a way her French outlook found difficult to comprehend, and never succeeded in doing so. The English King was an absolute monarch, but why could his absolutism not extend to the control and dictation of matters which lay with this curious body called Parliament? Why did the King have to go, cap in hand, to ask these disagreeable burgesses and knights of the shire for the taxes which he needed? Why did Parliament exist at all? Why was it necessary to summon persons of low degree from the farthermost parts of the Kingdom, to decide matters which in France would have been dealt with by the King and his Ministers, which was only right and proper, for they were grave and weighty matters beyond the comprehension of lowly beings? Did it greatly matter that these ministers were often the King's favourites and that some of them were incompetent while others were venal? To crown it all, who were these upstarts who had vested Richard with all the powers which rightfully belonged to her husband? Doom was written large for all to see.

In part, the blame for Queen Margaret's incomprehension lay with King Henry VI, her poor witless simple husband. He should have taught her to realise that England was not to be equated with France. He should have guided her liking and ability for public affairs into more constructive channels. Cardinal Henry Beaufort, or possibly William de La Pole, Duke of Suffolk, might have done so had they lived. But both these men were dead; the Cardinal had died in 1447, and Suffolk had been murdered by the sailors in 1450. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, might have taken their place, but Somerset, although he had started well as a brave soldier in France, was now just an effete buffoon intent only on his own survival. Anyway, Somerset was now in the Tower.

Queen Margaret sent for the Lords who were known to be sympathetic to the reigning Lancastrian dynasty. At them she ranted and raved, and used all the powers of her considerable beauty and sexuality which had so entranced the lusty young knights and squires of the Royal entourage. Why did they not raise armies, and ride to the rescue of the besieged and helpless dynasty, and displace the vile usurper Richard? Were they men, or were they mice waiting to be devoured by the slavering jaws of the insatiable cat?

Gently they explained that Richard's appointment lasted only until the King recovered, or until the young Prince came of age. In either event, it would lapse. There was no question of displacing the Lancastrian dynasty, which would reign as before; indeed it was still legally doing so. This was brushed aside as so much dross, and a sharp and venomous tongue told them they were a spineless and supine bunch who were no better than cowards and poltroons. Margaret resolved that the future of the dynasty and its survival lay upon her shoulders and hers alone. God save women from mere men! For all their pretensions to being so strong and manly, they were supine, irresolute, and lacking in any moral fibre. They took refuge in legalisms, and refused to see the obvious threat posed by a merciless and greedy enemy.

What Margaret never seems to have grasped was that her main bulwark against the hated usurper Richard was that body she detested most and comprehended least - Parliament. Englishmen, then as now, had a deep respect for the Law even if they withheld from it their love. The Law, based upon the Christian ethic, was the standard by which their lives and doings were governed, and they would not readily abandon it. One of the main planks of the Law was that the King was the Lord's Anointed. His person was sacred, and no man may displace him. Another was that the heir to the Throne, the issue of the King's own body, should succeed him when he died. It was therefore as certain as anything could be that King Henry VI would continue to reign until he died, and then Prince Edward would reign in his place. It was true that English Kings had been displaced, but only when they had become intolerable despots who threatened the lives and happiness of their subjects. Apart from this, Parliament could, and would, prevent any usurpation. In fact, it came very close to doing so, when Richard finally claimed the Throne in 1460; had Margaret taken any pains to comprehend Parliament and to understand its powers and uses, it is very possible that it would have refused to disinherit her son. [page ] That was the nature of the Parliament which she so despised. Had she put greater trust in it, her future, and the future of the Kingdom, might have been very different.


Richard had much to do after Parliament dissolved in April 1454, and he could not imprison all his enemies. Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, and William, Lord Bonville, had restarted their feud in the West Country, but Thomas was his supporter, and the matter had to be left for the moment. [Later, Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, became a staunch Lancastrian] Coming to some sort of terms with those whose sympathies lay with the Lancasters, and who might be tempted to rebel, was a matter of the first importance. Pre-emptory summonses were sent, amongst others, to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, and Thomas, Lord de Roos to come and discuss their differences with the Protector. They were not all summoned for the same day, lest their followings should be tempted to combine and thus become unmanageable. Richard felt he should have been able to count on Henry Holland. He had been Lord Admiral at the time of Suffolk's murder and may well have had a hand in it. [page ] He was then affianced to Anne, the Protector's eldest child. By now, Anne was 15 years old, and was either married or on the point of being so.

Before he could proceed very far with the proposed meetings, disturbing news was received that Henry Holland and Henry Percy's very aggressive son Thomas, Lord Egremont were raising troops in the North. Richard hurried north, and was able to persuade them to disband their men. It seems Henry Holland kept well out of his way, and slunk off to sanctuary.

Richard summarily removed him, and sent him off to his own Castle at Pontefract to consider at leisure the obligations which a son-in-law owed to his bride's father.

[In spite of everything, Henry Holland was, from this time forth, a staunch Lancastrian. Anne divorced him in 1472. see page ]

Richard relieved Somerset of the Captainship of Calais, and assumed the post himself on 17th July 1454. This was a lucrative post, and its salary supplemented the nominal salary of 2, 000 marks which was all the Protector received. There was a lot of trouble getting Somerset to release the staff of office, and this was not achieved until the end of the year.

Throughout the summer of 1454 Richard managed, by supreme exertions, to prevent the march of armies hither and thither across the Kingdom but the peace, if peace it was, particularly in the West Country, was a precarious one. The two factions, York and Lancaster, were eyeing each other with suspicion and hatred and were measuring each other up as opponents. He was only just able to keep the lid on the pressure cooker before it exploded. The country was like a dry tinder box, and any spark, however small, could burst into flame. Still Richard persevered, and at the Council Meeting on 21st October, felt strong enough to summon the Peers who had stayed away from Parliament at the start of the year to come and explain themselves, and to be given stern warnings that they had better behave. At the same meeting, John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, was bidden to press on with the Commission of Enquiry into Somerset's doings; Richard was not anxious for great expedition in the matter, as he felt things went far better with Somerset firmly shut-up in the Tower. He also felt he could now propose something which at any other time would have been a most provocative step. On the grounds of economy, the King's House-hold at Windsor must be reduced. Something had already been done to reduce the Royal Stables. Now the King would have to manage with 428 people, both great and small, whilst the Queen would have 120 at her beck and call with a further 38 for the infant Prince Edward. Richard was pleasantly surprised when this was agreed.

The King recovers

What Richard had achieved in the 9 months that he was Protector was indeed remarkable, but in this short time he could not produce order out of chaos. Things would not come right by waving a magic wand over them, and the time he held the office of Protector, from 27th March 1454 until the last days of the year, was quite insufficient for the task.

In the last few days of the year, King Henry VI recovered his senses. It was as though he had woken from a deep sleep, and was restored as though by magic to what powers and senses he had ever possessed. He learnt for the first time that he was a father, and heard all that had happened since the onset of his illness 18 months before.

With this happy event, Richard's commission as Protector lapsed. He was no longer in a position to continue his work.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003