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“The poor dare not speak so”: The populist political rhetoric of the Yorkists

“For though I dare myself speak what seems to me to be the truth, the poor dare not do so.” – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in a statement to Henry VI, 1440

The Yorkists seem unique, almost tantalizingly modern, in their use of populist rhetoric during the Wars of the Roses. Of course, they were not populists themselves, as Richard Duke of York would never have approved of Cade’s Revolt or the ruffians who came to London in 1450 and created mayhem, vandalizing and looting property. Nevertheless, the shift in tone of political rhetoric is quite remarkable in its appeal to the average person, and the wrongs committed upon them by the Lancastrians and their style of governance. This shift in tone can be traced directly back to an earlier Duke of Gloucester: Humphrey, that most “noble, valiant and true prince”, younger brother of Henry V, a patron of Italian humanism, and famous for the collection of books he left to Oxford University.

Humphrey was not so honored during his life. Dying an ignominious death in 1447, either from stroke or political assassination, he lived his last years ostracized from the center of power at Henry VI’s court, then dominated by William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk. Earlier, in 1441, Humphrey’s wife Eleanor Cobham had been tried for treason and witchcraft, and made to do penance in the most publicly humiliating manner. Thus, the political life of Humphrey essentially ended in 1441.

It may be said, however, that in death Humphrey became far more influential than in life. Humphrey’s ideas and populist appeal played a significant role in shaping the rhetoric of political dissent in the following decade. The Kentish peasants who joined Cade’s Revolt in 1450, declared: “Item. We say our sovereign lord [Henry VI] may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him.”[1]

These complaints mirror Humphrey’s declaration of 1440, which is striking in that it was possibly made publicly, during the preceding Parliament. Although framed as a pointed attack against Cardinal Beaufort and other cronies who surrounded the king, Humphrey uses this as an opportunity to bemoan the state of affairs in England, and to plead the case for the common people:

“Also, my right dread lord, it is well known that it was not possible for the said cardinal to have acquired such great wealth except by such [corrupt and deceptive] means. For from his church it might not arise, and inheritance has he not. Wherefore, my right dread lord, since there is need of much goods at this time, for the welfare and salvation of your realms, and your highness understands the poverty, necessity, bareness, and need of your liege people, may you please to consider the great wealth of the said cardinal and the great deceit by which you are misled by the labour of him and of the archbishop of York. Both in your realm [of England] and in your realm of France and duchy of Normandy, there might be had neither office nor livelihood nor captaincy, except by the gift to him of much wealth. And this is the reason of a great part of all the losses there sustained…

“And furthermore, it is to be considered greatly how the said cardinal forfeited all his goods because of Provision, as the statute made on the matter can more plainly show; but because he had the rule over you, my lord so dread, he purchased for himself a charter of pardon, in great defrauding of your highness. Which moneys, had they been well disposed of, might have sustained your wars for many a year without any tax on your poor people….

“Wherefore, considering that the said cardinal and archbishop of York claim the government of you and of your realm, may it please your highness, my full dread lord, to expel them from your council…. For though I dare speak what seems to me to be the truth, the poor dare not do so.”[2]

What is so striking about Humphrey’s plea is not so much his full-frontal attack on Cardinal Beaufort’s corruption of royal favor, but the way he presents the impact on the common people, who are made to suffer oppressive taxes for a disastrous French war policy, and who find no “good lordship” in the king’s ministers.

The Commons in parliament, too, were emboldened by Humphrey’s rhetoric. Its petition of November 1450-January 1451 excoriated the Henry VI for continuing to surround himself with “misbehaving” personnel who continued to impoverish his realm and to pervert the rule of law. They sought formal condemnation of Suffolk, his widow, and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who now occupied the position left vacant by Suffolk. The Commons demanded Suffolk be held accountable for the “final destruction of the most noble, valiant and true prince, your right obedient uncle the duke of Gloucester”.[3] The redemption of Humphrey’s reputation became a motivating force to those who wanted the Duke of York to play a more prominent role in the king’s government.

The Duke of York and his adherents also invoked Humphrey’s rhetoric, especially in the years leading up to and after the first battle of St. Albans in 1455. York’s bill of October 1450[4] and his address to the burgesses of Shrewsbury of February 1452[5] maintain a vehement attack on “traitors” who surrounded the king, namely Somerset. This line of attack became more provocative while York remained the heir apparent and rumors were circulating that he sought the throne. York perhaps saw in Humphrey a parallel role: loyal to the king but unfairly isolated; desirous of sound economic policy; a protector of the common weal against onerous taxation; and a reformer of corrupt practices in the administration of the royal estate and the legal system.[6] However, with such a populist flavor, this also served to embolden Henry VI and his queen to become more entrenched in their positions.[7] The tensions erupted in violence at St Albans, and continued thereafter to give grist to the mill of discontent that fomented civil war.

Humphrey’s populist rhetoric continued to be a tone expressed by Edward IV and later Richard III. One of the most caustic of Yorkist proclamations was made in 1460, when Edward was still Earl of March. Here, he is joined by his father the Duke, and the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury, in decrying the abysmal state of affairs for the “common weal” caused by the king’s favorites, notably Somerset and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Wiltshire. Note the reference, again, to Humphrey:

“First, the great oppression, extortion, robbery, murder and other violence done to God’s church and to its ministers, against the laws of God, and man.

“[The king’s] laws have been directed with partiality, and those whom should most love and cherish his law have most favoured oppression and extortions. In general, all righteousness and justice are exiled from the land, and no man is afraid to offend the laws.

“Also, the commons have often been greatly and astonishingly charged with taxes and tallages, to their great impoverishment. Out of this, little good has accrued either to the king or to the land…. They cannot end there; and they now begin new impositions and tallages on the people, never before borne.   That is to say, every township is to find men for the king’s guard, following in this the example of our enemies and adversaries of France. If this imposition and tallage are to be continued to our heirs and successors, they will be the heaviest charge and worst precedent that ever grew up in England. And the aforesaid subjects and their heirs and successors will be in such bondage as their ancestors never were.

“Also, continually, since the piteous, shameful murder at Bury, cause of sorrow to all England, of that noble, worthy and Christian prince, Humphrey duke of Gloucester, the king’s true uncle, there have been activities, plots, and conspiracies, to destroy and murder the said duke of York and the issue which it pleased God to send me of the royal blood. Also [the same] against us, the said earls of Warwick and Salisbury. There was no other reason except the true heart which God knows we have ever borne, and bear, for the profit of the king’s estate and for the common weal and defence of same realm.” [8]

The concern for “the common weal” was one way Edward IV justified the deposition of Henry VI and his accession to the throne. (Of course, he also had a strong hereditary claim that he took great pains to publish.) Moreover, Edward took care that his accession should be premised upon a petition from the Commons, literally at the request of the people, which was recorded by the clerk as follows:

“Commendation made by the Commons to the King: The commons thanked God for the king’s victory, and asked that the following be enrolled: Edward had redeemed the realm from the persecution of its enemies. He had defeated them at Mortimer’s Cross. He had saved London from Margaret. In the third place, it had pleased him to take upon himself the rule of the realm ‘to which you are rightfully and naturally born’. He had been victorious, with God’s help, over rebels, Scots and French. The commons proceeded to refer to Edward’s courage, beauty, and wisdom, and to his devotion to the common weal.”[9]

Richard III, like his brother, rooted his accession to the throne in the Commons, which presented a petition for him to take the throne. In language that is remarkably similar to that used by Humphrey and Edward IV, we find the following in his 1484 Parliamentary Roll:

“First, we consider how, hitherto in times past, for many years this land stood in great prosperity, honour and tranquility, because the kings then reigning used and followed the advice and counsel of certain lord spiritual and temporal, and other people of demonstrable gravity, prudence, astuteness and experience, fearing God and having tender zeal and affection for the impartial administration of justice, and for the common and politic weal of the land. Then our lord God was feared, loved and honoured; then there was peace and tranquility within the land, and concord and charity among neighbors; … by which things listed above the land was greatly enriched, so that merchants and artificers, as well as other poor people who labour for their living in various occupations, earned enough to maintain themselves and their household, living without miserable and intolerable poverty.

“But afterwards, when those who had the rule and governance of this land, delighting in adulation and flattery and led by sensuality and concupiscence, followed by counsel of insolent, vicious people of inordinate avarice, despising the good, virtuous and prudent people … the prosperity of this land decreased daily, so that felicity was turned into misery, and prosperity into adversity…. As a result of which many calamities and misfortunes ensued, such as murders, extortions and oppressions, particularly of poor and powerless people, so that no man was sure of his life, land or livelihood, or of his wife, daughter or servant, with every virtuous maiden and woman standing in dread of being ravished and defiled.”

Amongst the great evils to the common weal and people were Edward IV’s benevolences, and here again, Humphrey’s populist rhetoric is taken up:

“The king [Richard III] remembers how the commons of this realm have been put to great thralldom and unbearable charges and exactions by new and unlawful inventions and inordinate covetousness, against the law of this realm, especially by a new imposition named a Benevolence. By this, in diverse years, the subjects and commons of this land have paid great sums of money, against their will and their freedom and almost to their utter destruction. By occasion of it, many and diverse worshipful men of this realm were compelled by necessity to break up their households and to live in great penury and wretchedness. Their debts were unpaid and their children had no preferment. Such memorials as they had ordained to be done for the profit of their souls were brought to nought and annulled, to the great displeasure of God and to the destruction of this realm.”[10]

So, we’ve traveled from 1440 to 1484 – almost 50 years and we see how Humphrey’s appeal on behalf of the common people becomes a full-throated expression of populist political ideas. Many have observed that not only were Richard III’s statutes the first to be inscribed in English, but they also represent the first real platform for the reformation of laws and problems that dogged the common man. Even detractors of Richard III like Sir Francis Bacon in Stuart times, admitted he was “a good law-maker, for the ease and solace of the common people”. H.G. Hanbury, professor of law at Oxford, following his analysis of the public statutes enacted during Richard III’s parliament, concludes that they reveal him to be “a singularly thoughtful and enlightened legislator, who brought to his task a profound knowledge of the nature of contemporary problems, and an enthusiastic determination to solve them in the best possible way, in the interests of every class of his subjects.” [11]

The baton was handed through the ages from Humphrey to Richard III. It is a rather nice symmetry, being that they were both Dukes of Gloucester.


  1. Cade’s Proclamation of Grievances,
  2. Gloucester’s letter attacking the king’s advisors, dated 1440, from B. Wilkinson, Constitutional History of England in the Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (London, 1964), pp. 52-56.
  3. Petition of the Commons, in the parliament of November 1450, prorogued on 18 December until 20 January 1451, from Wilkinson, supra, at pp. 113-114.
  4. York’s “bill” attacking traitors, dated 6 October 1450, from Wilkinson, supra, at p. 112.
  5. Richard of York’s address to the burgesses of Shrewsbury, 3 February 1452, from Wilkinson, supra, at pp. 114-116.
  6. Christine Carpenter, The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the constitution in England, c. 1437-1509 (Cambridge 1997), p. 118-120.
  7. According to the Paston Letters, the Queen on 19 January 1454 formally made a claim to the regency by submitting a bill of five articles, requesting the powers of a regent. Wilkinson, supra, at pp. 117-118.
  8. Yorkist Manifesto of 1460, from Wilkinson, supra, at pp. 134-136.
  9. Rolls of Parliament, Rot. Parl., V, 420, cited in Wilkinson, supra, pp. 176-177.
  10. Richard III’s Act against Benevolences, from Wilkinson, supra, at p. 192.
  11. G. Hanbury, The Legislation of Richard III, American Journal of Legal History, vol. 6, p. 95 (1962).

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