Edward IV: champion of the Wars of the Roses

The first Yorkist king of England was given short shrift by Shakespeare. Yet AJ Pollard, author of a new book on Edward, argues that he was a remarkable military leader who decisively won the bloody, dynastic conflict

A portrait of Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England. From the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Shakespeare did not have much time for Edward IV. None of his history plays are dedicated to England’s first Yorkist king. Instead, the writer split that monarch’s reign between two plays: Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III – and Edward almost disappears between the two. A shallow, fickle man, he is overshadowed first by the heroic Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’, then by his own villainous younger brother. In Richard III, the second part of his reign (1471–83) is reduced to five scenes, in which the king is a bit player in all but two. Rendered sick and pliable, Edward is largely irrelevant to the course of events as he is manipulated by the Machiavellian Richard.

In part, Shakespeare’s representation reflected a Tudor perception that Henry VI was the legitimate king until 1471, but this depiction also emerged from the playwright’s instinct – which decreed that Richard III was a more dramatic subject. But though that might make compelling theatre, it is a travesty of history.

Edward’s eventful life began in Rouen on 28 April 1442. He was the eldest surviving son of Richard, Duke of York (then serving as governor and lieutenant general of the English-held duchy of Normandy) and his duchess, Cecily Neville. Edward spent much of his childhood at Ludlow, where he was brought up to succeed to the Marcher inheritance of the Mortimer family, from whom he was descended through his paternal grandmother.

Edward was just a boy when he became Earl of March, and at the age of 13 became embroiled in a civil war when his father rebelled against the Lancastrian king Henry VI, sparking the Wars of the Roses. Edward fled to Calais in the company of his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (‘the Kingmaker’) after the rout of Ludford Bridge in October 1459. They returned in 1460 and defeated the Lancastrians at Northampton in July. That autumn his father laid claim to the throne in place of Henry VI. Denied the crown at that time, York was instead installed as heir – but on 30 December 1460 he was killed at the battle of Wakefield.

A fair white rose

On becoming duke, Edward, who was then in the Welsh Marches, acted with precocious confidence, speed and decisiveness. Still only 17, and now fully in command, he overwhelmed the local Lancastrian forces at Mortimer’s Cross. Moving rapidly on London, and rallying en route the remnants of Warwick’s army that had been defeated at St Albans, Edward reached the capital before the main Lancastrian army.

There, through a hastily rigged ‘election’, he made himself king on 4 March and immediately pursued his enemies north. He caught up with them in Yorkshire and routed them on the field of Towton on 29 March. Returning to Westminster in triumph he was crowned on 28 June. Thus did the teenage Edward IV transform his family’s fortunes and win the first round of the Wars of the Roses, which his father and Warwick had almost lost.

There was great hope of a new beginning. “Let us make us a gay garden… with this fair white rose… the Earl of March,” ran a verse composed when Edward first became king. Yet it took time – longer, in fact, than expected – for him to establish himself securely on the throne. The far north of England was not finally subdued until 1464, and the distant north-west of Wales held out until 1468. Edward’s deposed predecessor, the feeble Henry VI, was at large until 1465. Even after Henry was captured and incarcerated in the Tower, his son and heir, Edward of Westminster, was safe in exile with his mother, Margaret of Anjou in France, representing a focus for further resistance.

At first Edward was able to hold his own. He was, though, in the shadow of and dependent on support from the powerful Warwick – an older and experienced politician – along with the Neville family and their followers, and members of the Yorkist family affinity who had been promoted to positions of authority.

And the young Edward was his own worst enemy. He was tall and imposing, reputedly one of the most handsome princes of his age. He fought and worked hard to establish himself on the throne at the very beginning. But by 1464 he began to take his ease and enjoy himself in the typical pursuits of a young aristocrat: jousting, hunting, feasting and womanising. He had a particular penchant for young widows. A bachelor still, a marriage alliance with a European power was an important diplomatic card and was being actively pursued by Warwick. But in 1464 Edward secretly married an English widow, Elizabeth Woodville, behind Warwick’s back. Initially the ‘Kingmaker’ accepted the fait accompli, but it marked the beginning of a rift between them – a schism that intensified when the king began to empower members of the queen’s family, especially her father, Earl Rivers, as a counterweight to Warwick.

Deposition and recovery

By the end of 1467, after Edward completed a treaty with the Duke of Burgundy that had been opposed by Warwick, king and Kingmaker were at loggerheads. In 1469 Warwick moved against the man he considered beholden to him, thus launching the second round of the Wars of the Roses. In truth, a usurper would always need to be wary of powerful supporters, and Edward IV cannot be faulted for seeking to distance himself from the Nevilles and build up his own independent power. But he was deceitful in his dealings with Warwick and complacent about the consequences.

At first, in 1469, Warwick sought to control the king by force. When that did not work, the following spring he sought to replace Edward with the king’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, to whom Warwick married his eldest daughter, Isabel. Finally, when that strategy also failed, Warwick fled to France, where Louis XI brokered a reconciliation with Margaret of Anjou and the House of Lancaster.

In October 1470 Warwick invaded England with French support and restored to the throne the hapless Henry VI. Outmanoeuvred, Edward and a handful of his closest followers fled to Holland. Edward had promised, one informed contemporary remarked, “to restore peace and prosperity, but instead there had been nothing but trouble and loss of goods”. The kingdom as a whole welcomed the restored Henry VI. The house of Lancaster was seen as the better bet, and the usurpation of the Duke of York seemed to have come to an end.

In March 1471 Edward took one last desperate gamble. Sponsored by the Duke of Burgundy, but with very few men, he landed at the mouth of the Humber. Once more a hopeless situation became a triumph. Gradually gathering support from his old loyal servants and with the timely turn of coat of his brother George, he first destroyed Warwick at the battle of Barnet on 14 April, then on 4 May defeated a Lancastrian army, newly arrived in England under Margaret of Anjou, at Tewkesbury.

In that battle the young Lancastrian Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed – perhaps murdered after the fighting had ended. His death sealed the fate of Henry VI, who was himself murdered in the Tower on the night of 21 May. All of Edward’s enemies, Nevilles and Lancastrians, had been vanquished. As a bonus, during his absence Elizabeth Woodville had given birth to his first son, the future Edward V. By such a remarkable change of fortune Edward was now not only king again but finally secure on the throne. To all intents and purposes, the Wars of the Roses – two of them, at least – were over.

In fear of no one

It took Edward two more years to impose his authority completely. In an effort to unite his kingdom he adopted a well-worn strategy: he embarked on a war with France. Considerable effort was expended diplomatically, politically and logistically to forge an alliance against Louis XI, to raise taxes from parliament and to raise troops and supplies. He was on schedule when, in July 1475, he launched his attack. But at the last minute he was abandoned by his chief ally, Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Rather than fight the French alone, Edward came to terms at Picquigny and accepted a generous pension (or tribute, as he called it) from Louis XI. Declaring that he had won a great victory without striking a blow, he returned home.

In truth, it was an ignominious anticlimax. But though it did nothing to unite the kingdom behind him, it does not seem to have weakened Edward’s standing. More threatening was another quarrel with Clarence, which culminated in a show trial in parliament; the duke was found guilty of treason, and in February 1478 was put to death. Yet he was guilty only of insubordination, not treason, and the judicial murder of Edward’s brother was a vicious act that shocked contemporaries. After it, as a well-placed commentator later remarked: “He could rule as he pleased throughout the whole kingdom [and] appeared to be feared by all his subjects while he himself stood in fear of no one.”

Thus Edward became untouchable. The long hoped-for peace and prosperity finally came. At the centre of a splendid court, his finances on a sounder footing, he exuded wealth, power and authority. Now with an heir and a spare, all looked well for the future of a Yorkist dynasty, Edward could indulge himself without fear of opposition.

Yet his regime remained the rule of a faction that had won power in a civil war, and was overly dependent in the regions on a favoured loyal few – especially, in the north, on his youngest (and only surviving) brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. As the years passed, more great lords who were not part of the inner circle became alienated, especially by the manner in which the king perverted the law to favour members of his family.

Down again

From 1475 onwards Edward went to seed, and by the early 1480s the once-handsome youth had run to fat as a result of excessive eating and drinking. His unhealthy lifestyle probably brought on his early death. He was not yet 42 when, at the end of March 1483, he fell ill, probably from a stroke. He died on 9 April and was buried with great ceremony in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

His tomb was never completed. The deposition three months later of his heir, Edward V, then only 12, was completely unexpected. Had Edward IV lived for a further four years, his son would have succeeded without challenge. Moreover, no one anticipated that the threat to the succession would come from – of all people – the new king’s uncle, Richard of Gloucester, who took on the responsibility of governing the kingdom during his minority. But because of the fault lines in Edward IV’s regime, the ruthless Gloucester was able to depose his nephew and make himself King Richard III; there were just too many disaffected lords who were ready to support the usurper. Two years later, the dynasty fell.

The Wars of the Roses, if understood as the dynastic conflict between the rival royal houses of Lancaster and York, were won by Edward IV. He was twice the comeback kid, in 1461 and 1471. His military achievement was remarkable. He won every battle he fought – six in total. His method was simple: get at the enemy as soon as possible, and engage them in hand-to-hand combat on foot. He led by example: “manly, vigorously and valiantly in the midst and strongest” of his enemies until they were overwhelmed. Yet, as one contemporary commented: “He was not cut out for war,” which he avoided if he could. By inclination he was a man of peace – a man who preferred to enjoy the pleasures of peace.

Edward’s political ability and standing as a monarch are, on the other hand, harder to assess. He has been characterised as one of the greatest of English kings, a man of profound political ability who rescued his kingdom from a shambles and left his dynasty secure on the throne. But he has also been portrayed as a mere pleasure-seeker who lacked judgment and was largely ineffective as a monarch, failing to reunite his kingdom after civil war. In truth, he was both: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and even on occasion both at the same time.

However we might envisage this enigmatic king, Edward IV’s dynasty did not survive his premature death. The plots, rebellions and battles after 1483 contested his legacy and for this he bore some responsibility. Yet this upheaval was not a continuation of the dynastic conflict between Lancaster and York, though it suited Henry VII to present himself as heir to Lancaster – healing the dynastic division by marrying Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. Edward IV had ended the original Wars of the Roses in 1471; what followed his death was merely an extended coda.

AJ Pollard is a medieval historian and professoremeritus at Teeside University. His new book Edward IV: The Summer King, in the Penguin Monarchs series, is published by Allen Lane in July.

The rise and fall of Edward IV

28 April 1442

Edward is born in Rouen, son of Richard, Duke of York and Duchess Cecily. Because he was born abroad, rumours of illegitimacy later spread.

30 December 1460 

Richard is killed at the battle of Wakefield; Edward becomes duke.

4 March 1461

Edward seizes the throne, and goes on to destroy a large Lancastrian army at Towton on 29 March, finally being crowned on 28 June.

1 May 1464

Edward secretly marries Elizabeth Woodville.

1467

Edward forges an alliance with the duchy of Burgundy, leading to an open rift with Warwick.

October 1470

Edward flees to Holland and Henry VI is restored by Warwick.

March–May 1471

Edward recovers the throne, defeating Warwick at Barnet on 14 April and Margaret of Anjou at Tewkesbury on 4 May. Henry VI is murdered on 21 May.

July–August 1475

Edward invades France and is bought off at the Treaty of Picquigny (29 August).

18 February 1478

George, Duke of Clarence, is executed in the Tower of London by means unknown.

9 April 1483

Edward IV dies at Westminster after a short illness. The new king, his 12-year-old son Edward V, is deposed three months later by the Duke of Gloucester, the young king’s uncle, who takes the throne as Richard III (pictured).

“He is the bluntest wooer in Christendom”

Thomas More and Shakespeare both told us that Edward IV was a womaniser – but was it true?

It is not possible to identify all Edward IV’s sexual conquests. He had three known mistresses and at least three, possibly five, illegitimate children. His most famous mistress was Elizabeth Lambert, later known as Mistress Shore. Thomas More later joked about three harlots, “the merriest, the wiliest and the holiest”. Shore was the merriest; he did not name the other two, who were more high-born. More condoned Edward’s “fleshy wantonness”, claiming that he took his pleasure without violence and that his subjects accepted it was natural for a vigorous young man to behave as he did.

Some historians have questioned whether Edward was really so promiscuous. But a contemporary noted current gossip that the king was licentious in the extreme, pursuing indiscriminately the married and unmarried, noble and lowly. He added that Edward was “most abusive” to women after he had seduced them, immediately casting them aside.

Nevertheless, this contemporary was told that Edward took none by force. In contrast, the recitation of Richard III’s title to the throne stated: “For every good maiden and woman in England stood in dread to be ravished and defouled.” Though Richard carefully did not name his brother, it must have been the dead king he had in mind.

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Now Richard may well have wished to slander Edward, but he was in a position to know, and to exploit for his own ends, what had gone on. We may then question whether Edward IV was the harmless philanderer More took him to be.