Yorkists and Lancastrians
The dynastic quarrel between the Yorkists and Lancastrians for the throne of England was only one aspect of the dispute known as the Wars of the Roses, and it would be wrong to assume that Yorkshire was solid for those who bore the White Rose as their emblem, and that the people of Lancashire supported the Red Rose. This may be a convenient legend with which to add spice to present-day rivalries on the cricket field, but historically it is not well founded. In fact the Percys, the family of the Earl of Northumberland, were Lancastrians but they owned estates at Leconfield and Wressle in the East Riding, at Seamer and Topcliffe in the North Riding and at Spoffortb in the West Riding.
The Cliffords of Skipton, who also owned a large part of Wharfedale, and the Talbots of Hallamshire were also Lancastrians. Much of the North Riding was owned by Yorkist families, the most powerful of these being the Nevilles of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton; the Scropes of Masham and Castle Bolton; and the Latimers of Danby, Snape and Well. Both the Scrope and Neville families had at different times in the 15th century occupied the Archbishopric of York, and one of the sons of Ralph Neville, the founder of the family fortunes, became Bishop of Durham. Inter-marriage amongst the numerous children of the great magnates resulted in family connections being forged between the houses of York and Lancaster, as when Ralph Neville took as his second wife a daughter of John of Gaunt, the head of the House of Lancaster, whilst one of his daughters married Richard, Duke of York, whose seat at Sandal Castle, near Wakefield, was a Yorkist stronghold.
The ordinary people of Yorkshire—the yeoman farmers, the townsfolk and the rural labourers—had little choice but to follow the allegiance of their overlords, but for many of them the even tenor of their everyday lives was little disturbed by the Wars of the Roses.
The rivalries between the great families often erupted into armed conflict, and important issues were settled by these struggles, but it is probable that many Yorkshire people knew little of them. The private war between the Nevilles and Percys which resulted in pitched battles at Hewortb and Stamford Bridge in 1453 and 1454, involved scores, rather than hundreds, of participants, and did not greatly affect the lives of people living away from the scene of the battle.
The roots of the conflict go back into the 14th century and to the disputes which arose following the death of Edward III in 1377, after a reign of half a century. The throne passed to Richard II, who was then a young child, and the effective ruler was his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. On John of Gaunt’s death in 1399 his oldest son, Henry, returned from exile, ostensibly to claim his inheritance. The welcome which he received, when he landed at Ravenser at the mouth of the Humber with Archbishop Arundel, persuaded him to go south to claim the crown from Richard who was then in Ireland. Richard was replaced by Henry IV and, after an attempt in 1400 to restore him, Richard was murdered in Pontefract Castle. The Percys, although nominally Lancastrians, like Henry, made several attempts to overthrow him. These events are the subject of Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV (Part 1), although historical accuracy gives way to dramatic licence in the account of the relations between Henry Percy (Hotspur), the King and Sir John Falstaff. Hotspur was slain at Shrewsbury in 1403, but his father, the Earl of Northumberland, organised another revolt in 1405, in which he was joined by Archbishop Scrope and the Earl of Mowbray. The rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Shipton Moor and Scrope was taken prisoner whilst discussing peace terms. After a brief trial Scrope had the dubious distinction of being the first archbishop to be executed for treason. Mowbray was also executed, but Northumberland escaped to lead another rising, which ended in his death on the field of battle at Bramham Moor, in 1408.
Henry IV died in 1413 and was succeeded by his son, as Henry V; and in 1422 by his grandson, Henry VI. (Henry was a favourite Lancastrian Christian name; Edward and Richard were preferred by the Yorkists.) The gains made by Henry V in France, including the famous victory at Agincourt in 1415, were lost during his son’s reign (1422-61). The incompetence and temporary insanity in 1453-4 of Henry VI gave his cousin, Richard, Duke of York, an opportunity to advance his claims to the throne. Richard was a grandson of Edward III’s fifth son, Edmund, brother of John of Gaunt.
In 1455 a Yorkist army took possession of St Albans, captured the King and killed several Lancastrian nobles, including the Earl of Northumberland. This first battle of St Albans is generally regarded as marking the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. The Yorkists, after this temporary success, were routed at Blore Heath, near Ludlow, in 1459, by a force which included many Yorkshiremen, recruited by the Earl of Salisbury. The Duke of York, together with Salisbury and his son, the Earl of Warwick, fled to Calais, which was then still under English control. The ‘Calais Earls’ regrouped their forces and invaded in 1460, defeating the King and taking him prisoner at the Battle of Northampton. Queen Margaret fled to Yorkshire and refused to accept the compromise known as the Act of Accord, under which York would become King on the death of Henry. The Queen wanted the throne for her infant son, Edward, born in 1453. In Yorkshire she raised an army of Lancastrians and in early December marched them from Hull to set up camp near Pontefract. Richard, Duke of York, travelled north with a force of 4,000 men, to his castle at Sandal, near Wakefield. The Lancastrians mustered five times that number. Richard’s men, ‘environed on every side, like fish in a net’, were easily defeated at the Battle of Wakefield, 29 December 1460, and Richard himself was killed. His 18-year-old son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, was killed in hand-to-hand combat by ‘Butcher’ Clifford, the lord of Skipton Castle. Richard’s head was carried to the city of York, where, adorned with a paper crown, it was placed on a pole on Micklegate Bar. According to Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part 3, act 1, scene iv) Queen Margaret declared ‘Off with his head, and set it on York gates; So York may overlook the town of York’. Many other Lancastrians who survived the battle were slaughtered, including the Earl of Salisbury, who was beheaded at Pontefract.
The Queen, at the head of the victorious Lancastrian army, its numbers swollen by marauding bands of Welsh and Scottish adventurers, headed south, where, to Margaret’s dismay, they pillaged and looted as they advanced on London. At the second Battle of St Albans, 17 February 1461, Margaret’s forces again defeated the Yorkists and also released the King. Reports of the barbarous behaviour of the Lancastrian forces stiffened the resistance of the Londoners, and Lord Mayor Lee broke off negotiations which he had begun to arrange for the admission of Margaret’s forces to the city. Instead, he invited the Yorkists, led by the Earl of Warwick and Edward, Duke of York, son of the slaughtered Richard, to occupy London, where Edward was proclaimed King Edward W. Margaret returned to Yorkshire, pursued by the Yorkists, who gathered recruits from all parts of southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia. At this time the Wars of the Roses appeared rather as a fight between north and south than one between Lancashire and Yorkshire, and Yorkshire was the stronghold of the Lancastrians!
In March 1461 the Yorkist forces, led by their King, Edward IV and by the Earl of Warwick, a Yorkshireman of the Neville family, advanced on Margaret’s Lancastrians who were waiting near Tadcaster. For a time they were delayed by ‘Butcher’ Clifford’s defence of the crossing of the river Aire, near Ferrybridge.
Lancastrians Warwick succeeded in overcoming Clifford’s resistance and forced his way through to Towton, on the main Doncaster to York road, where, on Palm Sunday, he met the Lancastrian forces and decisively defeated them. Clifford was killed during the retreat from Ferrybridge. Warwick is said to have killed his horse in the presence of his troops in a flamboyant gesture to demonstrate that he was willing to fight and die alongside his foot soldiers. This action had a tonic effect on the morale of the Yorkists, who fought like tigers to avenge their defeat at Wakefield. Cock Beck, which flows past the scene of the battle, ran red with the blood of the slaughtered Lancastrians and Yorkists, and when the Yorkists swept on- to York, where Henry and Margaret were staying, they carried with them the heads of the Lancastrian barons. The heads of the Yorkists, still impaled on Micklegate bar, were replaced with those of their enemies. The Battle of Towton was probably the bloodiest fought on English soil up to that time. The Yorkists mustered some 15,000 men, who were thrown against 20,000 Lancastrians, and the casualties amounted to about a quarter of those involved. It is said that the path of the retreating army could be traced all the way to York by the trail of bloodstains across the snow-covered Vale of York.
Although the 19-year-old Edward IV was crowned at Westminster Abbey in June 1461, the dynastic issue was far from settled. Margaret and Henry escaped from York and fled to Scotland, where, with help from the French and with the backing of the surviving Percys, who were still powerful in the north-east, they began to organise a Lancastrian revival. These efforts came to an end with Edward’s victory at Hexham in 1464. Henry fled to Bolton-by-Bowland, near the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, where he was given refuge by Sir Ralph Pudsey. The church in Bolton contains a monument to Sir Ralph and to the 25 children whom he fathered by his three wives. In 1465 Henry moved in to Lancashire, where he was found wandering aimlessly. He was taken prisoner and on Edward’s order was placed in the Tower of London.
New life was given to the Lancastrian cause, when Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and one of the chief Yorkist supporters in Yorkshire, changed sides in 1470. The Nevilles of Middlebam and Sheriff Hutton had been well rewarded for their contributions to the Yorkist party. Richard himself, known as the ‘Kingmaker’, had received a host of lucrative public offices from the grateful Edward IV: Admiral of England, Captain of Calais, Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to name but a few. In addition to these prestigious posts Warwick was known to wield enormous influence over the King and was regarded by some foreign observers as the true ruler of England. His brother John was given the title and estates of the disgraced Earl of Northumberland, and therefore became inheritor of the power of the Percys in Northumberland and Yorkshire. Another brother, George, became Archbishop of York, as well as Chancellor of England.
The ‘Kingmaker’ was not satisfied with the trappings of office for himself and his family; he wanted power, not simply in Yorkshire and the north but also over the whole realm. When it became apparent that Edward had a mind of his own, and was not prepared to accept Neville’s guidance, Warwick began to intrigue against his ruler.
The first sign of Edward’s independence occurred as early as May 1464, when Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, widow of a Lancastrian whose family had fallen on (comparatively) hard times and were determined to use marriage as a means of improving the family fortunes. Through the Woodvifies’ marriages—Elizabeth had two sons by her former marriage and five brothers and six sisters—links were forged with other titled families, including William Herbert, the newly created Earl of Pembroke. Even Warwick’s aunt, the 60-year-old Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, was cajoled into marrying the new Queen’s teenage brother, John. These liaisons helped to create the nucleus of a court party which was outside the influence of the Nevilles. They also snapped up most of the eligible bachelors whom Warwick saw as possible husbands for his two daughters. The last straw came in 1467, when Edward allied himself to the Duke of Burgundy, and sealed the bargain by agreeing to the betrothal of his sister Margaret to the Burgundian ruler, Charles the Bold. Warwick had been working for an alliance with Louis XI of France who was the enemy of Charles. In the same year, Warwick’s brother, Archbishop Neville, was dismissed as Chancellor of England, a clear sign that the influence of the Yorkshire family was on the wane.
Warwick began in 1468 to intrigue with the King’s older brother and then heir to the throne, George, Duke of Clarence. In July 1469 Warwick went to Calais for the wedding of his daughter Isabel to Clarence, the service being conducted by Archbishop Neville. Whilst they were away a rebellion began in the East Riding led by the mysterious Robin of Holderness, ostensibly to restore the Percys to their estates. Another of Warwick’s brothers, who had replaced a Percy as Earl of Northumberland, was easily able to suppress it. Shortly afterwards another revolt broke out in Yorkshire, led by Robin of Redesdale—thought to be in fact Sir John Conyers of Homby near Richmond, a relative of the Nevilles. Although the original rebels were mainly tenants of the Nevilles, other Yorkshire folk, who were dissatisfied with Edward’s failure to bring peace and prosperity, joined in.
The Yorkshiremen gathered strength as they advanced south to meet the King’s forces. At the same time Warwick and the newly-wed Clarence crossed from Calais, collected support in London and moved towards Banbury. Edward, deserted by many of his erstwhile supporters, was defeated at the Battle of Edgecoat, near Banbury and was taken prisoner. After a short period of incarceration in Warwick Castle Edward was sent to imprisonment in the Neville fortress of Middleham Castle. Warwick attempted to govern in the name of the imprisoned King, but within a few weeks a Lancastrian revolt on the Scottish borders forced him to release Edward, and a transparently unworkable display of amity between Warwick, Archbishop Neville and Clarence lasted only as long as the emergency. Edward, acting with a newly found sense of authority, successfully put down a rising in Lincolnshire in early March 1470 and then proceeded to York, where he denounced Warwick, Clarence and others as traitors. He pursued them to Exeter, averaging 16 miles a day in a forced march, a remarkable achievement at that time, but he arrived too late to prevent the traitors from fleeing to France.
Edward returned to Yorkshire during the summer to suppress a rebellion led by Lord Fitzhugh of Ravensworth, north of Richmond, and remained there whilst Warwick and Clarence plotted with their former Lancastrian enemy, ex-Queen Margaret, to effect a Lancastrian restoration. The bargain, achieved through the mediation of King Louis XI of France, ignored the claims of Clarence and envisaged the return of Henry VI. Inevitably, the agreement was sealed by another politically-inspired marriage, this time between Warwick’s second daughter, Anne and Margaret’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales.
In September, Warwick and a somewhat reluctant Clarence landed in Devon. Edward found himself isolated in Yorkshire and was unable to gather his forces to resist the invaders. He fled with some of his supporters to Holland, where they were sheltered by the Duke of Burgundy’s governor, a representative of Edward’s old ally and brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy. His wife, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where she bore a son, later to become Edward V.
Henry was released from prison and again became King of England, but he was back in the Tower six months later, and was murdered there in May 1471.
Edward landed with 1,500 supporters at Ravenspur, at the mouth of the Humber, where Henry IV had landed in 1399, but, unlike his predecessor, he found the people of Holderness unfriendly. The local people, led by the vicar of Keyingham and a local landowner, Martin de la Mare, on hearing that he was there merely to claim his family estates and not the crown, were eventually persuaded to allow him to spend the night at Kilnsea, ‘a poore village, two miles from the place where he first set foot on land’. The next day he found the gates of Hull locked against him, but be had a more friendly reception at Beverley and York. He then went south to his family estates at Sandal, where he received only lukewarm support; even from his old ally, Lord Montagu of Pontefract, who was a Neville and, like his kinsman, Warwick, had changed his allegiance. Warwick, assuming that Montagu would deal with the threat which Edward’s arrival posed, remained in the Midlands. Edward marched his men south, gathering support on the way, and bypassing Coventry, where Warwick was installed, made for London, where he was reunited with his wife and saw his infant son for the first time. Warwick met him at Barnet and was defeated and killed there on 14 April. Queen Margaret, who by this time had landed from France with her son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was defeated on 10 May at Tewkesbury, where the young Prince was killed. Margaret was later ransomed by Louis XI and returned to France. Edward entered London in triumph on 21 May, as the undisputed master of England, having probably ordered the killing of the unfortunate Henry.
That might have been the end of the Wars of the Roses, with the Lancastrian claimants and their chief supporters now dead and Queen Margaret a lonely exile. ‘Many of the survivors changed sides when they saw the Lancastrian cause was lost, and those who did not lost their titles, and estates to Yorkist supporters.
The Neville estates in Yorkshire passed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother and husband of Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville. The King’s other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, who had adroitly changed sides in 1471, was pardoned, but was later put on trial and condemned as a traitor. In 1478 he died in the Tower, reputedly by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Edward was succeeded in 1483 by his young son, a boy of ten. Although he was proclaimed Edward V, he never had a chance to enjoy his royal status. After a struggle with the King’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, his uncle, Richard ‘of Gloucester, was appointed Protector, to govern until Edward came of age. Richard had the King and his younger brother, the Duke of York, confined to the Tower. He certainly dethroned his nephew and had himself proclaimed King Richard III; and almost certainly had the two princes, murdered. Richard had a short and violent reign.
In 1485 Henry Tudor, a descendant of John of Gaunt through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, landed at Milford Haven and defeated and killed Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, 22 August 1485. Amongst the troops who fought for Richard were 80 men from York, a somewhat meagre contingent, considering the favours which Richard had bestowed on the city. Despite this lukewarm response, the city records recount that ‘a great heaviness’ fell upon the town on the news of their patron’s death. Bosworth is usually taken as marking the end of the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings, was a descendant in the female line of the Lancastrian, John of Gaunt. In 1485 he married Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth, thus uniting the rival houses.
To symbolise this union he took as his badge the Tudor rose, which combines the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster. Although during the first 15 years of his reign Yorkist claimants challenged Henry, by the time Henry Vifi succeeded him in 1509, the succession was not in doubt.
One consequence of the turmoil and slaughter of the 30 years between the first Battle of St Albans (1455) and the Battle of Bosworth (1485) was to break the power and thin the ranks of the landed magnates whose rival ambitions had wreaked so much havoc. This was very obvious in Yorkshire, where the Percys, Cliffords, Nevilles and Scropes could no longer hold the country to ransom. Some of their estates were taken by the Crown (which explains why today Her Majesty the Queen, as Duke of Lancaster, is a major Yorkshire landowner) and others were passed to newly-ennobled subjects who were considered to be loyal to the Crown. Although the numbers killed were not large and the disruption to everyday life was much less than during the Civil War of the 17th century, a high proportion of those killed were members of the nobility. In over thirty years there were only 13 weeks of actual fighting, and more people died of plague than from battle wounds. The largest pitched battle was at Towton in 1461, and it was said that memories of this carnage discouraged Yorkshiremen from rallying to the support of Edward IV when he landed in 1471.