Britain’s Bloody Crown Part 1 07.01.2016


Henry VI 1540 at the National Portrait Gallery
Henry VI 1540 at the National Portrait Gallery

Nearly 600 years ago Wars of the Roses fought over the crown.

30 years crown changed hands 7 times.

Struggle erupted when there was a feud between Margaret of Anjou (Queen of England) and Richard, Duke of York, over the control of the weak king, Henry VI.

Trouble began because Henry VI was so weak that a vacuum opened in England that takes 50 years to be fixed.

May 1450 Henry VI in power, Duke of Suffolk papered over the cracks, but he is now dead by rebel hands.

Summer 1450, no one now left to keep a lid on trouble for Henry VI – rebels enter London and cause violence and looting.

Henry VI never seen a battlefield, shallow, pious and foolish.

Henry VI tries to placate rebels by giving them the corrupt Lord Say – they try and execute him at the Guildhall.

England dissolving into anarchy – Henry VI leaves London for Kenilworth.

Lord Mayor left to deal with chaos – rebels pushed back over London Bridge but fighting continues all night. In the morning the bridge is full of bodies, and many more are floating in the Thames.

Mayor has put the rebels down … for now.

Margaret of Anjou remained in the city – she promises to pardon any rebel who is willing to give up and go home. The royal pardon seems to work and many go home.

Margaret of Anjou gathers the rebels together who failed to accept the pardon, in front of Henry VI, then orders them executed.

Taking control comes naturally to Margaret of Anjou – her mother took control of her father’s territories when he was imprisoned. Sees it as her job and duty to protect the royal family and the country from her weak husband.

Richard, Duke of York (king’s cousin), heir to the throne as Henry and Margaret are childless. Rules Ireland for the king – sense of his own importance, so decides to support the king and return home.

York isn’t subtle about it. September 1450 marches into London with thousands of men under his banner. Enters Westminster Palace where parliament is meeting.

York demands parliament dismisses old advisors and demands protectorate. He is denied.

Somerset appointed Protector of the realm – led failed action in France where he lost Rouen. York called him a traitor.

Somerset is the Queen’s most trusted advisor and friend. By attacking Somerset, York is attacking the Queen.

Margaret and York’s good intentions threaten to tear the country apart – York raises an army at Dartford and demands Somerset is put on trial. Henry agrees and York disbands his army. York walks into a trap.

York effectively taken prisoner, and is taken to St Paul’s to swear a public oath of allegiance.

Queen Margaret seems to have it under control. Spring 1453 Margaret is pregnant – a son would secure her power and position.

Trouble brewing in war with France. In Henry VI’s reign he lost much of France – only part left is Gascony. July 1453 Gascony falls. France is lost – final collapse of English empire in France.

Henry VI collapses into a catatonic stupor. Nothing can rouse him, not even the birth of his son, Prince Edward, 2 months later. Margaret tries to keep a lid on the king’s condition.

Margaret and Somerset can’t act without the king’s seal of approval.

October 1453 at Westminster Abbey – Somerset is appointed godfather to Prince Edward. More than a show of solidarity – planning to govern England in the authority of the prince.

Needs the backing of the nobles – Somerset calls a council to acknowledge the prince as heir to the throne and sideline York. York not invited. York’s allies insist that he attends, but refuses to debate the prince’s position.

One of York’s allies denounces Somerset as a traitor. York has Somerset arrested, and neuters both Somerset and Margaret.

Queen Margaret isolated from power.

In order to claw back power, Margaret publishes a bill of 5 articles – she wants the rule of the land, appointing offices of state, etc – she sees nothing unusual in a woman ruling.

Nobles refuse to comply.

27 March 1454 York is made Protector of the Realm – stamps out bloody noble feuds and creates unity. Enhances York’s vanity.

Margaret of Anjou from an illuminated manuscript c. 1445 by Talbot Master
Henry VI 1540 at the National Portrait Gallery

Margaret is powerless without her husband.

Christmas Day 1454 Henry VI wakes from his stupor and immediately releases Somerset from the Tower. York is stripped of all his powers and Margaret is back in power.

York has fallen out with Queen Margaret – he expects Margaret to repay the favour. York decides to strike at them first, before they can arrest him. He raises an army and marches south, which is perilously close to treason.

Margaret sends Somerset north to head him off. The two sides meet at St Alban’s in 1455. York aims to take out Somerset. York has an army of 3000 and Somerset an army of 2000. Somerset also has the king – who has the king fights for the good of the realm.

Negotiations go nowhere.

The Earl of Warwick makes the first move in the Wars of the Roses. The men easily dismantle Somerset’s barricades and kill the king’s men.

Somerset’s men are taken by surprise. York’s men capture the king and take him to the abbey. Now York only wants Somerset’s death. A high-born noble expects to be taken prisoner, but Somerset is killed, along with Lord Clifford and the Earl of Northumberland.

York has attacked the king’s army and killed several senior nobles.

York’s original plan was to bring peace and stability, but has done exactly the opposite – no way back now.

After the battle, York, Warwick and Salisbury meet the king, fall to their knees and proclaim their loyalty. York demands that they be made the king’s advisors. Henry VI agrees and York is made Protector. Not a unified government.

First test after just 4 months. Need to restore the royal coffers – war with France has bankrupt the exchequer. Tries to enforce a law to say that nobles should give over some of their lands. Resounding no from the nobles.

Frustrating for York but needs support of parliament – effectively powerless so resigns the protectorate and heads north.

Technically Henry VI is now back in full control of the country.

In reality (Brute Chronicle) 1456 government seems to have been run by the Queen and her councillors. She does a pretty good job – aim to stabilise England, but mutual hatred between York and Margaret has gone too far.

Margaret recruits an army to take York down – York is at Ludlow in October 1459 when Margaret’s army, with the King and Queen, reaches Ludlow. York refuses to surrender.

Some of York’s men refuse to fight against the king and risk treason – they defect.

November 1459 after York flees Ludlow, Margaret persuades parliament to pass acts of attainder against York, Salisbury and Warwick, depriving them of lands, titles and wealth – legal death.

While York is alive he is still a danger – Warwick attacks the royal forces at Northampton 1460 and captures the king and Margaret flees. York returns to England and marches to London under the arms of England.

Only the king is allowed to march under the arms of England – he has made his decision to take the crown.

10 October 1460 York marches into the council chamber and demands the crown be taken from Henry VI and given to him – he actually has a claim to the throne at least as strong as Henry’s.

Parliament is thrown into chaos – siding with either Henry or York risks civil war.

Parliament takes 2 weeks to make a decision. They bow to York, he doesn’t get the crown but becomes Lord Protector again, and is promised the throne on Henry VI’s death. Margaret’s son is effectively disinherited.

Margaret has been hiding in Scotland, and knows that York would be coming for her and her son.

York wastes no time and heads north to bring in the Queen. York’s stronghold near Wakefield, Sandal Castle, becomes his seat from 21 December 1460. York sets off so quickly that he only has 6000 troops. Underestimated support for Margaret. York outnumbered 2 to 1. All he has to do is wait for reinforcements.

30 December 1460 one of York’s scavenging parties is attacked. York sets off in pursuit of the attackers.

The battle doesn’t go well. With less pride and more caution, York could have taken the throne. It takes less than an hour for Margaret’s men to capture York. He is mocked with a paper crown and executed.

His head is stuck on a pole and displayed above the Mickelgate at York, still with the paper crown.

Neither Margaret nor York is the villain – both were trying to support the kingdom from a weak king, Henry VI.

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