In the summer of 1450, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, threw in his appointments in Ireland to return to England to assert his rights as heir to the throne of the inept Lancastrian king, Henry VI. The ensuing confrontation with poor Henry, who really was too gentle to be king, led to Parliament being called for 6th November, 1450.
From then began the relentless slide into the thirty years of civil strife, now known as the Wars of the Roses. And the event that prompted York’s return was, I believe, the Kent rebellion of that summer, led by a mysterious figure known to us as Jack Cade.
Before I go on, it is necessary to explain York’s strong claim, which came through two sons of Edward III. One was Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, who was Edward’s fourth surviving son. The other—much more importantly—was Edward’s second son, Lionel, 1st Duke of Clarence, albeit through Lionel’s daughter and only child, Philippa. She married Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, and their children therefore had a strong claim to the throne. Lionel’s was the premier surviving branch. His elder brother, the Black Prince, only produced Richard II, who died childless. The only trouble was, Philippa was not a man. If she had been, the whole matter of the succession would have been cut and dried.So the blood of Lionel’s daughter Philippa was far senior to that of the children of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, from whom descended the line of Lancastrian kings that had usurped the throne from Richard II in the first place.
So, Richard, Duke of York, had the blood of Lionel and Edmund, 2nd and 4th sons of Edward III, whereas the Lancastrians had the blood of Gaunt, the third son. All in all, York rightly considered himself to have the superior claim. And he pushed for recognition.
Henry VI was not unpopular in himself, he was too mild and pious for that, but his government, his queen and her favourite, Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Earl of Oxford (widely suspected of being the queen’s lover and the father of boy born suspiciously long after the royal marriage) were exceedingly unpopular. There was no justice for any man unless he had influence, and influence was mostly corrupt and ruthless. The Lancastrian government and its friends rode roughshod over the people, and conspired to see the troublesome York appointed Lieutenant of Ireland, safely out of the way.
Then at the end of May 1450, along came Jack Cade, who was also known as John Amend-All, on account of his rallying cries that he would right all the many wrongs committed by Henry VI’s regime. But he called himself John Mortimer, and as Captain of Kent began rousing the men of that county to march on London. Cade’s army at one point numbered 40,000 men, so it was not a meagre little uprising that didn’t warrant much attention. Declaring that he was the Captain of Kent, Cade even held London, and on his way to take possession is said to have passed the London Stone in Cannon Street, which he struck with his sword and proclaimed that now Mortimer was lord of the capital.
By choosing the name Mortimer, he conjured York to people’s minds. Mortimer indicated the premier right to the crown of England, and Cade was pushing the fact. So…who was he? An agent of the Duke of York come to claim his crown? Or a real Mortimer—the line of which was believed extinct—come to follow his own destiny?
A real Mortimer was what Cade claimed to be, presumably from the wrong side of the blanket. The last Mortimer Earl of March was Edmund, the 5th Earl, who died in 1425. Edmund married a daughter of Owain Glyndŵr in 1402—was Cade the result of this union? If so, he was descended from Llewellyn the Great. He also had a claim not only to the title and lands of the Mortimers, but to the throne now occupied by Henry VI.
According to The Holy Kingdom by Adrian Gilbert, there was at around that time, i.e. 1425, an enigmatic Welsh poet named Sion O’Caint, which translates as ‘John of Kent’”. John Cade? Caeade (pronounced Cade) means ‘covered over’ in Welsh. Was it a play on words that actually referred to ‘covered over’ or hidden Mortimer blood? Did this Sion O’Caint have anything whatsoever to do with Cade? Who can say?
Was the Duke of York involved up to this point? He does not seem to have been, even though his Yorkist followers clearly regarded Cade’s cause as their own. Among the articles and requests Cade submitted to the king was a demand for the return to England of the Duke of York, and by now it was clear that many of the king’s men were in sympathy with the rebels. In fact, it was clear that a great part of the realm wanted York to come home.
Over the following days there were disturbances and deaths, both noble and common, and among those executed at Whitechapel was one John Bailey, who was “supposed to have known too much about [Cade’s] antecedents”. His head was displayed on London Bridge. Then the government fought back and there was a full-scale attack on London Bridge, which was held by the rebels.
The struggle went on all night, until the Bishop of Winchester, William of Waynflete, sought an armistice. He had a meeting with Cade, and offered pardons—Cade’s was to be under the name John Mortimer.
This was to spell the end, because under the name John/Jack Cade, he was still a hunted man. He was pursued and mortally wounded, dying when being conveyed back to London. His body was exhibited for identification, and then quartered and beheaded. The head was exhibited on London Bridge, probably while John Bailey’s was still there.
What was it about Cade’s background that Bailey might have known? We will never know.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Duke of York had been following events with great interest, and was very well aware that the country had risen for the name Mortimer. The time had come for him to assert himself, and his rightful claims. So he left Ireland and came to London.
The rest, as they say, is history.