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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 51: Richard, Duke of York, claims the Throne: October 1460


The Change in Richard's views

Richard had been in Ireland during the momentous events of the Yorkist return, and had not been present at the battle of Northampton in July 1460. Warwick sent him news of his victory, and bade him return from his exile.

The natural course would have been for Richard to set out at once for London, arriving probably in the second half of July. This he did not do, and the question must arise why he only landed in Cheshire during the second week in September, a full two months after the battle, and took a further four weeks to reach the Capital, thus taking three months to complete a journey which should have needed no more than 10 days. Possibly some business delayed him in Ireland, but it must have been very pressing to postpone so important a journey. Perhaps also there was some business on his estates in the North which needed urgent attention. His tardiness was to have serious consequences.

The next question to ask is the nature of the forces which were now pressing upon Richard to make him act in the way that he did during October 1460. Richard had always been a careful and conscientious man in most things that he did, and previously he had been a stickler for the constitutional position as he found it and as it was commonly understood and accepted to be. Up until now, he had not pressed his own claims to the Throne, but had accepted King Henry VI as the properly anointed King, and had only sought changes in the ministers of the government; he had not sought a change of King, even though the King was the Chief Executive of the country and the head of the government he desired to change. It is not unknown for careful and conscientious men who, as was the case with Richard, have a measure of indecisiveness in their natures, to abandon their cautious ways and undertake impulsive, rash, and ill-considered acts which can often end in disaster or something close to it. Richard himself had been guilty of such an act of folly in 1452,  [page ] when he had rebelled without first seeking the help and support of his friends. What now prompted him to abandon his habitual caution and reach for the Crown in such a reckless way?

There is only one supposition which appears likely. The powerful advocacy of Bishop Coppini, that busy-body who could not resist and did not hesitate to meddle in English politics in the cause of his Master Pope Pius II, must have persuaded Richard, as it had persuaded his friends in Calais earlier in the year, that only the substitution of Richard for King Henry VI would ever give England the stable government for which she was crying out. The Bishop may have crossed to Ireland to see Richard, and even if he did not do so, there was ample opportunity to talk to Richard between his landing in Cheshire and his arrival in London a month later. The theatrical way in which Richard claimed the Throne fuels suspicion that Coppini was in some way involved because this was the way that such a thing would have been done in his native Italy. There was already some warning of what was to come; Richard now openly wore the Royal Arms instead of the humbler blazon of Edmund of York which had previously been his badge.

If Coppini can be excused for failing to understand and appreciate that this was not Italy, but England where things were done differently, the same excuse will not serve to exculpate Richard. Richard had plenty of experience of his own, and there were many people to whom he could turn for advice. There was Archbishop Bourchier, a learned cleric of immense experience who was a Yorkist in all but name. There were several other Bishops as intelligent and as crafty as the Primate himself who had espoused the Yorkist cause. There were the Nevilles, and if Warwick was young and headstrong, he was still an able politician who could read people's minds. There was Warwick's father, also Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, whose eyes had seen much since he had succeeded to his title some 30 years before and had fed it all into a wise old head. These advisers would surely have pointed to the precedent, that guide which, then as now, was so persuasive to the English, of what Henry of Bolingbroke had done in 1399. [Chapter ] In 1460 however, there was no attempt on Richard's part to express reluctance and allow himself to be propelled towards the Royal Chair. There was no attempt to persuade King Henry VI to abdicate, something which he might have been willing to do now that he was not badgered by Queen Margaret's strident cries; the monastic and scholarly life would have had much appeal to him, far from all this turmoil and killing. There was, in short, none of the careful preparation which Henry of Bolingbroke, guided by Thomas Arundel, had undertaken. [Chapter ] Richard, probably on the advice of Coppini, seems to have had a thought such as "Let boldness be my friend" and, with a bold gesture, all would fall into place.

It did not work out this way. Richard had wasted much valuable time which could have been put to the better use of consulting his friends and preparing the ground. He had also mistaken the public mood and ignored the way that Englishmen liked things to be done. It was wholly unlike him.

Richard arrives in London - 10th October 1460

Richard seemed in no hurry to reach London, and only did so three days after Parliament had punctually assembled on 7th October 1460. Parliament had already opened with King

Henry VI present in person, and a notable absentee was Richard Duke of York. The new Chancellor had already given his address, and on 10th October, a Friday, Parliament was in the process of the formal selection of the Speaker, John Grene, in Westminster Hall. This was a solemn and lengthy ceremony before both Houses (the King having withdrawn), and was not lightly to be interrupted. It was however and Abbot Whetehamstede, who was probably present, recorded in what manner.

However slow Richard had been to attend Parliament, there was nothing tardy about his actions when he eventually did so. A flourish of trumpets heralded his entry into Westminster Hall, that scene of so many dramatic events in England's history, as though he was the King himself. Richard strode directly towards the splendid Throne which stood empty and awaiting its occupant. Apart from the noise of Richard's footfalls and the clanging of his spurs on the stone floor, there was absolute silence as some 250 pairs of eyes anxiously watched him. Reaching the King's gorgeous chair, he placed one foot upon its lowest step and one hand upon the richly embroidered cushion and paused, awaiting the shout of acclaim which would indicate that he should mount the Throne and thus assume the Royal Crown. Instead, there was a deathly silence, while all held their breath. It was finally broken by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury:-

"Will it please your Lordship to go and greet the King?"

Richard frowned, and then turned round to face the Archbishop:-

"I know of no person in this Realm the which oweth not to wait on me rather than I on him."

The two stared at each other straight in the eye, neither flinching. Still the deathly silence continued, almost as tangible as any noise. Then Richard, in a fury, turned on his heel and strode forth from the Hall.

Richard petitions Parliament

Richard had behaved in an extraordinary fashion for one who was normally so careful and who had previously shown such a marked sensitivity and appreciation for the thoughts and feelings of others. What he did on 10th October smacked of arrogance, and arrogance has never been acceptable to the English. Certainly Richard had greatly annoyed Parliament. He had done even more than this, because it left men thinking that if the easy-going if ineffectual King Henry VI was displaced, a man for whom many people felt sympathy and affection however much he exasperated them, would they not get a tyrant in his place? They had had tyrants before, and were not willing to risk another.

All of this would have been made clear to Richard by his friends over the week-end of Saturday and Sunday 11th and 12th October. It is more than possible that his own son Edward, who was to show such a degree of sensitivity in his handling of Parliament when he was King himself, joined in the chorus of disapproval which would have been voiced by Archbishop Bourchier and the Nevilles. With one act, Richard had cast aside the goodwill he had earned for himself by his patient demeanour during recent years, and particularly when he was Protector. Much chastened, Richard accepted that the only thing which could now be done was to petition Parliament with every sign of humility.

[This account and quotations are taken from Rotuli Parliamentorum Fol 375 et seq.]

Accordingly on Thursday 16th October 1460, Richard, Duke of York, laid before the House of Lords a document,  described as a Memorandum, in which he traced his ancestry.

He traced his descent from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the second son of King Edward III whereas King Henry VI was a descendant of John of Gaunt, the third son. By the rules of primogeniture, Henry was an usurper. Richard asked formally whether or not he would be heard. The House equally formally answered him:-

"In asmuche as every persone high and lowe suyng to this High Court of Parliament of right must be herd."

Richard's petition involved matters of constitutional law, and with it religious doctrine and belief. It also involved consideration of practical politics. Was it now to be said that Parliament had acted wrongly in 1399 when it had placed Henry of Bolingbroke on the Throne as King Henry IV, even though King Richard II had abdicated? Was it now to be said that the hero King Henry V, of glorious memory, was nothing more than an usurper? Was Parliament empowered to displace a reigning and anointed King who had not abdicated? These were serious matters to which the Lords would give no immediate answer. On Friday 17th October, the Chancellor pressed the House which then showed its perplexity. Richard may have desired an early answer but:-

"in eschuyng and avoidyng of grete and manyfold inconveniences that weren lykly to ensue, yf hasty provision of good answere in that behalf were not had, it was thought and agreed by all the Lordes, that they all shuld goo unto the Kyng, to declare and open the seid mater unto His Highnes, and to understond what his good grace wuld to be doon farther therin."

The King's answer was reported thus:-

"It pleased hym to pray and commaunde all the seid Lordes, that they shuld serche for to fynd in asmuche as in them was, all such thyngs as myght be objecte and leyde ayenst the cleyme and title of the seid Duc."

This does not sound like Henry, who had always been one to seek for the right. Henry had never had a will of his own, and usually did what people told him to do, especially now that he was much enfeebled by his two bouts of illness.

It seems much more likely that these words were put into his mouth, and duly reported as the King's will, by those who, even now, objected to Richard's petition, and were minded to find some way of refusing it.

On Saturday 18th October, the Lords sent for the Judges, and charged them to consult with each other and:-

".to serche and fynde all such objections as myght be layde ayenst" (Richard's claim) "in fortefying of the Kynges right."

From the tenor of these instructions, it may be concluded that by now there was a strong body of opinion in the Lords which was not in favour of Richard's claim, but who its leaders were remains uncertain. Leading Lancastrian Lords who could have been expected to oppose Richard were by now few in number. Many were already dead, Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewesbury, John, Viscount Beaumont, and Thomas Lord Egremont being slain at the battle of Northampton 1460, whilst James, Lord Audley had suffered a similar fate at the battle of Blore Heath 1459, and Thomas, Lord Scales had been murdered on leaving the Tower earlier in 1460. Edmund, Lord Grey of Ruthyn and John, the new Lord Audley had changed sides and gone over to the Yorkists. Some were unable to attend. James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, was in sanctuary in Ottery-St-Mary and Sir Richard Wydeville, Lord Rivers was languishing in a Yorkist prison. Both Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter are recorded as having been sent summonses to attend Parliament, but both thought it wiser to disregard them and stay away. Somerset was at his home in Corfe Castle whilst Exeter was with Queen Margaret in Wales. Others too felt that absence was the wiser course, and that they were better employed at their homes preparing for an uncertain future. Among these was Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, John, Lord Clifford, and Ralph, Lord Dacre of Gillesland. Yet so strongly were the Lords who were present against Richard, that it would appear that some had no sympathy for him at all, whilst others, who supported him politically, thought that he was going too far by claiming the Throne.

On Monday 20th October, the Judges gave their reply. They pointed out that they were the King's Justices whose task it was to hear and determine disputes between parties according to the Law. They were not allowed to counsel the parties to a dispute. Apart from this:-

"...it hath not be accustumed to calle the Justices to Counseill in such maters, and in especiall the mater was so high, and touched the Kyngs high estate and regalitie, which is above the lawe and passed ther lernyng, wherfore they durst not enter into eny communication therof, for it perteyned to the Lordes of the Kyngs blode, and th' appanage of this his lond, to have communication and medle in such maters."

At first sight, this seemed very pusillanimous, but in effect the Judges were saying that this was not a matter where the law could give any guidance, and it was something for Parliament to decide. Probably Chief Justice Fortescue had a hand in drafting the answer. His views on the omnipotence of Parliament have already been described. [page] It was so high that it could change laws, and make laws where there were none. It could do what it saw fit to do, and nobody could challenge what it did.

The same question was then put to the Crown's Law Officers, and on 22nd October they gave their answer. If it was too high a matter for the Judges and past their learning, then the same applied to them as well. The Lords pressed them angrily, pointing out that if the Judges were forbidden to advise parties, this was the very function for which the Law Officers were paid their salaries. The Law Officers conceded this but:-

"..they were the Kynges Counseillers in the lawe in such things as were under his auctorite or by commission, but this mater was above his auctorite, wherein they myght not medle....."

Many of the Lords were infuriated at what they saw to be the timorous attitude of the Judges and the lawyers, but one man at least was able to see what the true position was. George Neville, the youthful Bishop of Exeter, and the new Chancellor, understood that the petition raised matters which were beyond and above the law; those who were in charge of the law's administration had declared that the law could give no guidance and had effectively withdrawn it from consideration of the problem. This was helpful rather than otherwise; the law, with its preoccupation with precedent, and no two lawyers could ever agree in which direction precedent pointed, was not likely to be helpful in finding an answer to the present problem. Taking Chief Justice Fortescue at his word, [page ] this was a matter for Parliament, which in its omnipotence was so high that it could change existing law, and where there was none, make law as it saw fit. He called the House of Lords to order, and reminded everybody what the King had bidden them to do. In language which must have seemed strange from the mouth of a committed Yorkist, who owed his position to family connections, the Chancellor reminded the Lords that the King:--

"...desired all the Lordes, that every of theym shuld sey what he cowede sey in fortefiyng the Kyngs title, and in defetyng of the clayme of the seid Duc. And than it was agreed by all the Lordes, that every Lord shuld have his fredome to sey what he wuld sey, withoute eny reportyng or magre [harm] to be had for his seiying."

This procedure was adopted, and the House of Lords decided that Richard's petition could not be granted because:-

(1) Richard had sworn allegiance to King Henry VI, not once but many times.

(2) Various Acts of Parliament had confirmed the present King's title to the Throne and:-

"The which Acts been of mache more auctorite than eny Cronycle, and also of auctorite to defete eny manere title made to eny persone."

(3) King Henry IV had assumed the Crown in 1399, not as a Conqueror, but by right of descent from King Henry III who had reigned in the 13-century.

Richard answered testily that all were bound to obey God's Law, and it was on God's Law that his petition was founded; oaths of allegiance to an usurper were invalid; the only Act confirming the House of Lancaster in its title was the Act of Succession 1406; King Henry IV's claim to be descended from King Henry III was false as he well knew, otherwise he would not have needed the 1406 Act. Richard was of course brushing over the Resolution of Parliament, made in September 1399,  [page ] that Henry of Bolingbroke should ascend the Throne, and this would have had the same force as any formal Act of Parliament.

None of this swayed the Lords, but they did have to have an eye on practical politics. The Yorkists were by now the foremost force in the Land, and it would be most unwise to provoke further civil war, a possible consequence of sending Richard away empty-handed. In any case, a number were by now beginning to have doubts whether they had made the right decision in rejecting Richard's petition. Nobody was averse to tying the hands of Queen Margaret, even to a limited extent, because they loathed and distrusted the Queen as much as any man or woman in the street. On Saturday 25th October 1460, the forty-fifth anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, a compromise was proposed. King Henry VI should reign to his life's end, and thereafter Richard and his heirs should succeed him. They took this compromise to the King without delay, and he, after a period of prayer, formally accepted it.

Richard however was a little slower to do so.

With his sons, Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland, he kept an all-night Vigil in All Hallowes, and grudgingly realised that he would have to be content with what was suggested. On Friday 31st October 1460, he came to the House of Lords and, in the presence of the King and of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, he formally accepted the compromise. He was required to swear an oath to keep his side of the bargain, which included a promise that he would do nothing to shorten the King's life. He requested that the compromise should be formally entered on the Record as an 'Accord', and that the 1406 Act should be amended. All this the King undertook to do.

Parliament dealt with one other piece of business. All the proceedings of the Parliament of Devils, held in Coventry a year before, were annulled on the grounds that not all of the members of the Common House had been properly elected. There was some grounds for this allegation,  [page] and what the 1460 Parliament did effectively disposed of the Acts of Attainder passed against the leading Yorkists, which disappeared as though they had never been.

Richard in his chagrin had not finished with the King. He came into King Henry VI's presence that same night of 31st October 1460, and by the light of the torches, upbraided him noisily, going over all the arguments which he had deployed in the House of Lords. Henry listened calmly, and merely answered that the matter was now settled. There was nothing more to be said.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003