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Henry VI: saint or sinner?

A gentle and devotional life

About seventy years ago, the historian John Harvey wrote this in an essay about King Henry VI: “The life and death, and the thwarting of his noble designs are one (sic) of the sorriest tragedies of English history. He was a victim of forces outside his control, for whose existence he was not responsible, but set in motion by his grandfather’s crime and his father’s one-sided ambition. Inheriting the love of justice of his Plantagenet forefathers and the a artistic culture and melancholia of Charles VI of France, his character was in sharp contrast with that of his age, possessed in marked degree by his wife. In his charity, his love of art and his spirit he was a true Plantagenet, though a paradoxical one…. He saw the world as a place of brief sojourn in which to do good, to learn courtesy and to seek God. There was nothing political in his martyrdom; except as the shadow of a name, and the crowned and anointed husband of Margaret, he represented no threat to anybody in the world. Yet the callous and sacrilegious hand that struck him down, though it ended a gentle and devotional life on earth, ensured that Henry’s virtues and lasting benefits should be perpetually bought to the mind of oblivious posterity” [1]

 

Harvey took this version of Henry’s life and death from a tract entitled ‘A Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI’, which is attributed to John Blacman and was published in 1510.[2] The tract is in fact a collection of anecdotes of Henry’s religious devotions from the recollection of one of his chaplains and other intimates of his personal life. The aim of the collection is to present Henry as a holy saint whose ‘kingdom’ was not worldly. He performed a miracle of loaves (but not fishes) for his troops and endured hunger, thirst, mocking, abuse and other hardships in his life including wounding in his side by a dagger. He foretold his own death but was not believed. And he suffered a violent death so that others might live in peace. Blacman’s depiction of Henry as an exemplar of Christian virtue, though not of this world was also the standard Tudor view echoed by Henry VII’s historian Polydore Vergil: “ King Henry was a man of mild and plain-dealing disposition who preferred peace before war, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility and leisure before business: and to be short, there was not in this world a more honest and a more holy creature. There was in him honest shamed-facedness, modesty, innocency and perfect patience taking all human chances, miseries and all afflictions in his life in good part as though he had justly by some offence deserved the same. And he ruled his own affections that he might more easily rule his own subjects; he gapped not after riches nor thirsted for honours and worldly estimation but was careful only for his souls sake; such things as tended to the salvation thereof he only esteemed for good; and that very wisely; such again as procured loss thereof he only accounted evil.[3]

 

To set against this Tudor narrative of the martyred Henry, we have his known failings as a king. Henry is mainly remembered as the king who lost the Hundred Years War and during whose rule the Wars of the Roses started. Indeed The late Bertram Wolffe thought that Henry as such an insubstantial and unsuccessful king that writing his biography was a long and dispiriting task. I do not deny that Henry was a weak and ineffective king. That judgement was made in his lifetime and has not been seriously challenged since. However, I do think that John Harvey may have an arguable point about Henry’s culpability. Was he wholly to blame for the calamities of his reign, or was he the victim of circumstances? That is the question I wish to discuss in this article; first, by setting Henry’s reign in the context of events from his accession until his mental breakdown in 1453; second, by discussing his performance in three key policy areas: maintenance of the dual monarchy, royal finances and the rule of law.

 

Divided opinions

Until the twentieth century, studies of Henry were dominated by the story of an innocent king at the mercy of greedy and violent nobles. However, modern biographies challenge that simple narrative and in doing so have broadened our understanding of the complexities of Henry’s reign. In 1981, two contrasting studies of Henry VI appeared almost simultaneously. The first was by Bertram Wolffe; whose, unforgiving verdict of King Henry goes well beyond the accusation that he was incompetent.[4] Wolffe judges Henry by what he did as revealed in the government records, and he completely rejects the notion of the mild, martyred king. In its place he describes an actively malign king, whose piety was too ostentatious to be virtuous, and whose nature was too unforgiving and vindictive to be saintly. He was also a poor judge of character, prone to interfering, and lacking in judgement and proportionality. He disregarded his royal oath and he was wilful. In essence the inconsistencies and failures of English foreign policy were due to Henry’s capricious changes of mind and his susceptibility to improper influences. Thus Wolffe rejects the whole idea that the loss of France was due to the divided opinion of the English aristocracy.[5] He does not doubt that Henry’s failures as a king left the establishment of Eton College and of King’s College Cambridge as his sole achievements.

 

Also in 1981, Ralph Griffith’s published his evaluation of Henry’s reign. It is a nuanced and detailed assessment of Henry’s performance as monarch and his qualities as a man. Griffiths recognises the military and fiscal difficulties that dogged Henry’s rule, and the factionalism of the nobility, which would have tested even a high performing and confident king. The essence of Griffiths’ evaluation of Henry is best put in his own words: “Henry VI was in reality a well-intentioned man with aspirations that were laudable enough, in an age when king’s could not rule by good intentions alone. He had an interest in the realities of government with the aim of realising those aspirations, especially in education, relations with Valois France, and the reward of friends and servants. Other of his qualities were obstacles to effective kingship. He was extravagant, credulous, over merciful and compassionate to those at fault yet fearful suspicious of those rumoured to be doing him harm. These are not the qualities of a shrewd and balanced judge of men and politics. Henry also lacked the foresight, prudence and calculation that make a king’s actions responsible ones; he showed little sagacity, subtlety or discrimination in his administrative actions and none of the political astuteness necessary to achieve an acceptable balance among his subjects competing interests — as contemporaries recognised who stressed his simplicity. Not that he was uneducated or unintelligent but he was the least experienced of English medieval kings at his succession and never shook off his youthful dependence on others in the routine and detail of affairs…With his naively defective judgement, Henry’s advisors were too often unworthy of his confidence.[6] Griffiths’ explains this last sentence later in his book. “Those contemporaries who …[observed]...Henry VI as a boy were agreed that he grew into a personable, intelligent and even precocious youth. His years as a minor between the ages of one and fifteen were naturally of considerable importance to his education as a monarch of two realms. His relatives had already created for him an atmosphere of political bitterness, even personal hatred, and after Bedford’s death, both (Humphrey duke of) Gloucester and (Henry) Beaufort (bishop of Winchester) strove to be the single most dominant influence on him as he grew older. They would be reluctant to allow him the exercise of free will as an adult king. The end result of these intense personal pressures was to accustom Henry to dependence, to being told what to do. Even after Gloucester and Beaufort had receded into the background he found other pillars on which to lean: the earl of Suffolk. Archbishop Kemp, the duke of Somerset and finally, when he was least able to fend for himself, the Queen.”[7] In Griffiths’ view, therefore, Henry is far less culpable for the disasters of his reign than those relatives and other advisors who instead of supporting the king betrayed his trust in them.

 

John Watts’ appraisal of Henry, which first appeared in 1999, is the antithesis of Wolf’s ‘active’ king.[8] He also questions Griffiths’ negative assessment of Henry’s relatives and advisors. Watts argues simpliciter that Henry was so passive that he created difficulties for the nobility, who in their own interactions tried to compensate for a king who was chronically unable to exercise royal authority, and was especially ‘incapable of giving judgements, managing the counsel of his advisors and making policy appear his own.’ This depiction of Henry as a simpleton is not a new one. In the opinion of at least one anonymous fifteenth century commentator, Henry was simple and easily led: “In the same time the realm of England was out of all good governance as it had been before, for the king was simple and led by covetous counsel and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily but payment there was none. All the possessions and lordships that pertained to the crown the king had given away, some to lords and some to other simple persons so that he had almost nothing left. For these misgovernances and for many others, the hearts of the people were turned away from them that had the land in governance and their blessings were turned to curses” [9]

 

Watts contends that what others describe as “‘the king’s unfair and unwise distribution of patronage and the opportunistic behaviour of his household servants’, should be judged in the context of ‘how this [patronage] was turned into power in the localities or why the nobility who might have been expected to resist the king’s agents did nothing until the 1450’s.[10] His own explanation is that: “The England of the 1440’s was governed by a very extensive network of men, including most of the old nobility; their difficulties stemmed more from lack of co-ordination and lack of authority than from partisanship.” Central to this thinking is late twentieth century research carried out by Christine Carpenter, Anthony Pollard, Helen Castor and others into the dynamics of local politics and relationships in the fifteenth century. These several studies suggest a different and more complex regional dynamic from the factional politics of the greater nobility.[11]

 

Local cooperation between landowners, merchants, farmers, artisans and labourers, coupled with the complex inter-relationships of the gentry forged by their arranged marriages, were the bonds that held English society together. The importance of these local transactions, whether they were commercial, legal, social, successional or familial, is that often they transcended the politicking of the great nobles. In view of Henry’s inability or unwillingness to govern and on the basis that ‘something had to be done’, it is argued that rather than fleecing Henry, his closest advisors were in fact trying to maintain the everyday cohesion of national and local life from collapsing into anarchy. This is an important new hypothesis; since even though the English nobility were a turbulent and quarrelsome bunch, their relationship with the king was based on mutual cooperation and benefit.[12] In the absence of a national police force or standing army, or civil service the king relied on the nobility to enforce his law, his peace and his policies through their network of local officials and law officers. In return, the king was expected to provided the national leadership that ensured “…an outward calm for the defence and surety of the realm”.[13]

 

Professor Christine Carpenter in her own leading study of this period holds the view that Henry was so deficient in kingly qualities that whilst he might be allowed to approve some insignificant grants and pardons, though not necessarily as an act of personal rule, he was hardly likely to be allowed to formulate foreign policy for the war in France, which “…was absolutely central to the domestic politics of England…It is scarcely conceivable that they would have allowed the king to dictate policy on which their very lives depended when they seem to have been able to dictate to the king on everything else that mattered.” [14] However, she does not deny the possibility that Henry’s wishes may be seen in some of his ‘over-generous grants and pardons and in the foreign policy of the 1440’s’, which may be the result of Henry’s genuine desire for peace rather than an example of his capriciousness.

 

It seems, therefore, that though modern scholars agree that Henry was in the general sense incompetent, there is less certainty about whether he was culpable for the deficiencies of his reign. In considering that question, it is important to bear in mind that Henry VI is unique among English monarchs. He was not only born to the purple, but also surrounded with the divinity of kingship from the cradle. The untimely death of his father Henry V bought baby Henry to the throne of two kingdoms before he was a year old. He is the only English king to have presided at his first parliament sitting on his mother’s lap. Consequently, his character and his performance can only be judged in a regal context and by bearing in mind that in respect of both his kingdoms he never had the benefit of growing-up under the wing of his father from whom he might have learned the art of kingship.

 

Kingship

The English had high expectations of Henry. He was, after all, the only son of a successful warrior king. They expected him to rule in the common interest and they recognised his absolute, personal and inalienable authority to do so. There was no conflict between these principles if the king was competent. Ideally, such a king was prudent and took representative advice before acting. He made sound decisions and implemented them efficiently. Sir John Fortescue in his treatise on fifteenth century governance noted with smug pride that though in theory English kings had the powers of a tyrant, they generally ruled responsibly ‘in the common weal’.

 

Much depended on the vigour and personality of the king. He was expected to devise his own foreign and domestic policies, conduct affairs of state, make peace or declare war, lead the army against enemies foreign and domestic, dispense justice, and live off his income from crown lands and feudal dues. In theory, baby Henry was expected to do all these things from the moment he ascended the throne. In practice, of course, that was impossible. Henry could neither walk nor talk, nor control his bodily functions, nor even chew his own food much less govern his realms. This practical problem was complicated by the established constitutional doctrine, which held that the person of the king and the institution of king (the Crown) were indivisible. Royal authority, therefore, rested solely in the king’s person from the very instant of his accession. No other person could exercise royal authority on behalf of the king under any circumstances; to do so, was treason.[15] In 1422, therefore, the king’s true subjects were wondering how their baby king could rule them if he was physically and intellectually incapable of exercising his authority.

 

‘The king’s tender years’

On his deathbed, Henry V entrusted the governance of England to his youngest brother Humphrey duke of Gloucester, signifying that the duke should have the principal safekeeping and defence ’of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[16] These words implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent answerable only to the king and then only after Henry reached his majority. It was a settlement that recognised the indivisibility of the person and office of king, and devolved royal authority to the regent. However, when the matter came before the lords in parliament in 1422 they disregarded Henry V’s will and rejected Gloucester’s claim to be regent[17]: they did so again in 1428.[18] Distrusting Gloucester’s motives and preferring a conciliar minority rule to his autocratic regency, the lords determined on legal advice that exceptionally during Henry’s minority the indivisible estate of the king was incomplete since it lacked will or reason, which must perforce be supplied by the lords of the King’s Council, who would exercise the king’s authority collectively, whether assembled in Parliament, in the king’s continual council or in the Great Council, until the king was able to assume his personal rule.[19] John duke of Bedford the heir presumptive was appointed to the specially created and limited position of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm, and chief councillor to the king. Gloucester was allowed to hold that position only during Bedford’s absences abroad. Professor Watts regards this as a paradox in which the lords are both the king’s servants and his representatives, but in reality, it was a practicable solution to a practical problem. It was a settlement that prevented a non-regal autocracy, whilst enabling the realm to be governed during the king’s incapacity. It did not transfer royal authority to the lords and its legitimacy was founded squarely on the English lords’ collective responsibility. Moreover, this constitutional model stood the test of time. It was used again when Henry was incapacitated by mental illness in 1453, and also in 1483 when the child king Edward V succeeded to the throne. I am labouring these points now because of their importance in understanding the nature of Henry’s reign.

 

A minority council was therefore appointed to govern the kingdom collectively during the protectorship and throughout the king’s minority.[20] From the start, the council’s work was undermined by two long-term problems. First, a conflict of interests between the king’s relatives Gloucester and Beaufort soon became apparent. Gloucester, acting head of the council vice his absent elder brother, was overly ambitious and used his position to influence the direction of policy. Beaufort, the king’s Chancellor, was wealthy and used his wealth to promote his own policies. Their differences, which were personal as well as political, were irreconcilable. And their disgraceful behaviour did much to bring the council into disrepute. Second, many of the minority councillors exploited loopholes in the council’s financial regulations and abused their authority for their aggrandisement. There can be little doubt that Henry’s relatives and his venal councillors set a very poor example for the impressionable king. Even so, it is unlikely that Henry’s inadequacies were apparent when he was a child, since his involvement in affairs of state was notional.

 

A personable, intelligent and precocious youth

Henry’s transition from child king to adult king was a complex, and for some an arcane process. Unfortunately, a definitive appreciation of those events is hardly possible due to an academic disagreement between historians about what really happened and why. The undeniable facts that can be elucidated from the minutes and archives of government are straightforward. On the 1 October 1435, two months before his fourteenth birthday, Henry attended his first council meeting. Gloucester and Beaufort were also present since it was a strategically important gathering to appoint a new captain for the Calais garrison. Evidence of Henry’s subsequent attendances at minority council meetings and also at the less frequent but larger assemblies of his Great Council can be gleaned from the minutes of those meetings. In addition, petitions and warrants signed by the king signify that he regularly exercised his royal prerogative in matters of grace from at least the 28 July 1436, which was well before his fifteenth birthday. [21] For example, between the 7 November 1436 and the end of the month, he signed twenty-seven petitions and warrants.[22] Nor was Henry’s involvement in government restricted to matters of grace. There is evidence that he played a significant part in substantive foreign policy decisions such as the Duke of Orleans peace mission to France.[23] Despite the council’s natural concern about the liberality of Henry’s grants,[24] there was no obvious reason at this stage and on this evidence for anybody to think that Henry would not make a satisfactory king. He was young and could reasonably be expected to become more prudent as he gained experience and wisdom.

 

Following a meeting of the great Council, which lasted from the 12 to the 14 of November 1437, Henry declared the formal ending of his minority and assumption of his personal rule; he was not yet sixteen and the youngest English king since the Conquest to do so.[25] All the existing councillors were reappointed on oath to ‘counsel (Henry) well and truly and to keep his secrets, and to put forward their whole labours and diligence for his worship’.[26] Their terms and conditions of service were changed. Payment was now at the king’s discretion. The most contentious part of Henry’s declaration was the description of his future relationship with the new council, which was set out in a series of detailed ‘ordinances’ taken partly from those established for the council by Henry’s grandfather in 1406.[27] As far as I can see, the core of the declaration amounts to this: i) Henry’s prerogative on matters of grace is unfettered. ii) The council will continue to discuss ‘weighty matters’ moved before them, though no decision will be made or action taken without the king’s ‘advice’. iii) The council will continue to discuss and dispose of routine matters unless the council is divided or unable to make a judgement; in which case, the matter will be referred to the king for judgement. So much for the facts, I now turn to the debate about their meaning.

 

Professor Griffiths considers Henry’s declaration to have been no more than “…an announcement that Henry VI would take a prominent part in affairs henceforth, though without jettisoning the councillors who had served him during his youth.”[28] He dismisses the idea put forward by Watts et al that it was prompted by conciliar apprehension; neither does he accept that it was an attempt to restrain the king. It was, he argues, a material restraint on the council’s power vis-à-vis royal authority, as all matters of grace were in the king’s prerogative. “Pardons were his to give, all collations and benefits his to bestow, royal offices his to fill and anything pertaining to the Crown estates, bounty or favour were reserved to him”. [29] Moreover, though matters of weight might be discussed in council, nothing could be moved without reference to the king. Even routine matters must be referred to the king if the council were divided or unable to make a decision. Griffiths’ further suggests that the outcome was no more than Henry’s personal assumption of powers delegated to the council in 1422. The vagueness of the term ‘great weight or charge’ is an indication of Henry’s intention to intervene in anything important. Griffiths does not see this as a forceful return to personal rule or a wilful thrusting aside of wise councillors. Even less is the council attempting to preserve its authority by ‘ encircling the king with restrictions devised thirty years before’. “Henry’s declaration...[heralded]…the re-establishment, after fifteen years of conciliar government, of traditional royal rule in which the king’s councillors had an acknowledged part. Perhaps the only surprising feature was that it was published so soon in the young king’s life.”[30]

 

Bertram Wolffe’s conclusion is not materially different from that of Griffiths on this issue. Though, he is more vigorous in his assertion that, as far as could be judged in 1437, Henry possessed some kingly qualities such as physical strength, piety and ambition, and that there was a reasonable chance that wisdom and judgement would follow in due course. Henry was keen to assume the reins of power “just as soon, if not sooner than his advisors approved“.[31] Wolffe came to this conclusion after a careful and thorough analysis of the official record, minutes, petitions, warrants commissions and ‘the workings of government’, which demonstrate that Henry was not merely a cipher authorising everything and anything they put before him. In Wolffe’s opinion there were no grounds for the minority council to cling to their powers once the king determined he had come of age. The ordinances of 1437, though based on those of 1406, indicate that the council was shedding power, not increasing it. I do not think that either Wolffe or Griffiths is arguing that Henry was not an ineffectual adult king, or that his incapacity was not an important factor in the catastrophes of his reign. Their point is that these things were not necessarily obvious in 1437.

 

Professor Watts takes a completely different line.[32] For reasons I have already touched on, he argues that Henry insufficiencies were apparent before 1437. He rejects the notion that between 1435 and 1437 Henry was initiating his personal rule. The impetus for that, he argues, was coming from the council who managed his exercise of favour: “from grants made by the king and council in 1435-36 to grants made by the king alone but only during pleasure in 1436-37 and finally grants made for life from the spring of 1437 onwards.”[33] Watts adds that the council and wider nobility were worried that Henry was both unable and unwilling to rule the kingdom independently. He writes: “…if he had been behind the events of 1436, the whole tiresome process of recognition, definition and tentative restriction could have been avoided. The king would have begun to exercise his free will over the full range of royal responsibility, while counsellors, those of 1422 and others, advised him[34]

 

The emerging problems of 1437 were twofold. First, it was next to impossible to prevent individual petitioners seeking patronage from the young king, whose largess was well known. Second, the effective formulation of state foreign and justicial policy depended on active royal leadership and authority; in the absence of these two prerequisite, the effective management of the realm could only be achieved if the various factional groupings and vested interests reconciled their differences in a common approach. It was for these reasons, Watts suggests, that the council devised the 1437 declaration. “ [Since] the impetus for royal activity came from below…It was for the political community, if they could not bind the king, to define and govern the exercise of royal power.” [35]

 

The Suffolk years

The period between 1437 and 1450 saw the gradual but inexorable erosion of conciliar government and the establishment of an oligarchy based on the royal household and headed by William De La Pole earl (later duke) of Suffolk. As Steward of the King’s Household he had unrestricted access to the king and unrestrained influence over him.[36] As a result of this centralisation of government and the staff changes introduced by the council, state affairs were increasingly determined by only a small number of royal advisors, usually comprising Beaufort, Suffolk and their henchmen. Further administrative ordinances in 1444 aimed at streamlining administrative procedures and tightening the purse strings further reduced the number of royal advisors to, sometimes, not more than one or two. Finally, the deaths of Beaufort and Gloucester in 1447 consolidated Suffolk’s dominating position as the king’s chief advisor — sometimes his only advisor.[37]

 

Regardless of whether their motive was benign or malign, it is questionable whether the shift in power promoted by Suffolk’s and his affiliates was in the national interest. Even if the bulk of the English nobility acquiesced in the establishment of an oligarchy that pretended to be a monarchy, and even if the nature of the Henry’s incapacity was so desperate that ‘something had to be done’, Suffolk’s effort to prop up a non-functioning king by acting as his proxy was as reckless as it was treasonable.[38] It reduced the royal household to the status of a ‘faction’ and was the cause of such angst that it led eventually to civil war. If for whatever reason, the king lacked the will or reason to exercise his authority, then his royal estate was incomplete. In which case, the only proper course open to the lords was to resurrect the protectorship and the conciliar regime ratified by parliament in 1422.[39] Though this solution was not perfect, it had the dual benefits of legitimacy and utility. By thus broadening the government’s base and unblocking the king’s access to advice from the wider nobility there was a better prospect of consensual government during the king’s disability. Suffolk’s perseverance with the pretence that Henry was a functioning king damaged the Crown and fuelled public suspicions that he was acting in bad faith. Even professor Watts concedes that “Towards the end of the decade the court actually began to resemble the small body of household intimates and administrators depicted by its critics.”[40]

 

Of all the problems facing the English at this time, the most pressing were maintenance of the dual monarchy and Crown finances. These two problems were inextricably linked and could not be resolved separately. Moreover, an acceptable solution was more difficult to achieve owing to a conflict between the king’s peaceful ambition for his realms and the aspirations of his English subjects, for whom the conquest of France was a matter of national pride, prestige and power. Nevertheless, the key drivers that convinced Beaufort and the council (except Gloucester) of the need for peace were practical and not moral. The war was going badly for English arms. They were on the defensive everywhere. The conquest of the isle de France was no longer achievable or affordable. The burgeoning cost of defending the dual monarchy was pushing the Crown towards bankruptcy.

 

Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty began under Beaufort in 1437 and dragged on until 1444, when Suffolk agreed a temporary truce, which was only secured at the cost of two major English concessions. Henry was to marry a minor French princess, Margaret daughter of Renee of Anjou, Lorraine and Bar, and titular king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. From the English point of view, it was an inauspicious choice for their queen. Though Margaret was related to Charles VII, she was not an heiress and her family were not important in diplomatic terms. Besides, the attitude towards her in England was likely to be suspicious, it not downright hostile. The second — and secret — English concession was the surrender of Maine, which Suffolk is supposed to have promised to Charles verbally. Henry confirmed the promise secretly in writing in 1445, at the entreaty of his French wife. The English, when they finally heard of this concession were naturally suspicious that Margaret aided by Suffolk had put undue pressure on the king. The English army refused to cooperate and Maine was not actually ceded to the French until 1448.

 

There was a third problem, which though not quite as pressing as the other two was important and getting worse. There is evidence of clashes between local gentry and also between national magnates in the north, in the midlands, in south wales, in the west and in the Home Counties.[41] The use of private armies to resolve local grievances and disputes alienated lords and commoners alike. Their resentment was aggravated by the belief that the king’s ministers and servants condoned this anarchy. These problems were about to come to a head and would change the course of history.

 

Annus horribilis

The year I have called annus horribilis began on the 6 November 1449 with the hasty recall of Parliament. Such was the magnitude of the emergency at home and abroad that only nine weeks after the dissolution of parliament in July, another was summoned in September. The members of parliament who assembled at Westminster on the 6 November 1449 had the crisis in Normandy and misgovernment at home uppermost in their minds, and they were looking for the culprits.[42] As the king’s most influential counsellor, it was Suffolk who bore the brunt of their resentment. His fall from power was triggered by his attempt to block a complaint by Lord Cromwell against William Tailboys from going before the King’s Council.[43] The infuriated Cromwell drew the matter to the attention of the Commons who included it in a list of charges they were compiling against Suffolk. Meanwhile, during the parliamentary recess, English sailors murdered the much-hated Adam Moleyns bishop of Chichester. As he lay dying, Moleyns ‘confessed’ to Suffolk’s many misdeeds. Following this, Suffolk felt it necessary to make a statement answering Moleyns allegations and the many ‘…slanders and misconceptions running throughout the land’.

 

The Lords’ refusal to commit Suffolk for trial on the basis that there were no specific charges provided the Common with the opportunity to present a formal petition (indictment) containing eight specific articles (counts) of high treason against the duke. The most serious charge was that Suffolk conspired with Charles Valois to destroy Henry and put his own son, John De La Pole, on the English throne. The other charges amounted in general terms to examples of his treason by aiding and abetting the king’s enemies. However, after Suffolk was called to answer the charges, the king put the whole matter in abeyance. Whereupon, the Commons presented Henry with a second petition containing eighteen articles setting out the details of Suffolk’s corruption (including Cromwell’s complaint) and financial mismanagement. For which “…offences, misprisions, faithless acts and false deceits specified“ the Commons “accused and impeached” Suffolk.[44] Henry tried to delay the proceedings but was unable to stop Suffolk’s impeachment. In a desperate attempt to save his most important advisor from a traitor’s death, Henry exercised his prerogative to declare the first indictment for high treason ‘neither declared nor charged’. In other words, he was simply not prepared to accept it. On the second indictment of misprision, he exercised his prerogative for clemency by banishing Suffolk for five years. Nevertheless, Henry’s effort to save Suffolk was unavailing. On the 1 May 1450, somewhere in the English Channel off the Kent coast, Suffolk’s ship was intercepted by a small flotilla, which included the Nicholas of the Tower. The Captain and crew of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and ignoring his royal safe-conduct tried, convicted and executed him with a rusty sword. His headless body was dumped on the shore by Dover.[45]

 

Suffolk’s death did not alleviate England’s crisis in 1450 but it did pave the way for the Commons to petition Henry for a resumption of Crown lands alienated since the beginning of his reign, and the termination of all annuities, corrodes and pensions.[46] This Act would enable Henry to resume his economic and hereditary rights to all Crown properties, offices and custom taxes he gave as patronage. It was strongly resisted and there is no record in the Parliamentary Roll that Henry assented to it. However, without Suffolk to stiffen the king’s sinews it was passed into law; albeit, with 186 individual exceptions granted by Henry, which rendered it ineffective.[47] The Commons also made supplication to the king about purveyance abuses. They were concerned that money allocated for the defence of the realm was being used to pay the royal household’s subsistence expenses: this had to stop. It was the price Henry had to pay for the life of Suffolk and for obtaining a tax subsidy from the Commons.[48]

 

Charles VII invaded Normandy in 1449 and drove the English out. The English garrison were deficient in all the basic necessities of fifteenth century siege warfare except fighting spirit.[49] The professional French army was superior in numbers, leadership, tactics, arms, equipment and organisation. This situation is all the more discreditable since the English politicians were warned in good time by the English commander, Edmund Beaufort duke of Somerset, that the French were amassing a large army on the Normandy border and that the Duchy was defenceless without a large reinforcement of men and equipment. Measures were hastily put in hand to recruit and equip a force under the command of Sir Thomas Kyriell for service in France, but it was too little too late. On the 15 April 1450 the small English field army under Kyriell’s command was overwhelmed at Formigny near Bayeux; though outnumbered, they fought hard until virtually the last man.[50] The loss of Normandy was regarded as a national disgrace by most of the king’s subjects. There was also a general feeling that the heart of government was corrupt, and doubts that royal authority was being exercised properly.

 

Anybody looking for a connection between local and national politics need look no further than the rebellion that began in Kent in May 1450, and spread through the Home Counties and beyond during the summer. Jack Cade’s rebellion was short, sharp and brutal. Inevitably, the rebels were crushed and their leader killed. However, while it lasted, the rebellion shook the Lancastrian regime to its very core. The king fled from London, his household panicked and gave-up a few defenceless scapegoats to the rebels, and four hundred royal soldiers were defeated in the Kent Weald. Cade occupied London and in a series of quasi-judicial tribunals meted out rough justice to those whom he regarded as traitors. The rebellion was supported by a broad cross section of English society from powerful landowners to rural peasants. And they had put their grievances in writing. The ‘Complaints of the Poor Commons of Kent’ and “The Articles of a Captain of Kent’ are distinguished by their intelligent articulation of local and national grievances and for their proposals for reform. The rebels’ grievances are neatly summarised: “…the king had false counsel for his laws are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, himself so poor that he may not have [pay for] his meat or drink…[51] It is clear that the rebels did not blame the king for this misgovernment; they, blamed his advisors.

 

Although Cade’s rebellion did not produce instant results, it was the catalyst for Richard duke of York’s intervention in English politics as a champion for reform. York did not hold a formal constitutional position within England. He was not a member of the king’s inner circle, nor did he have a natural line of communication to the king. He was, however, the king’s heir presumptive and the senior royal duke, and as such, neither the king nor his inner circle of advisors could ignore York. He served as the King’s Lieutenant in Normandy (twice) and also in Ireland, where he proved himself to be a brave soldier and an excellent administrator: in fact, the quintessential ‘good lord’. His sudden return from Ireland (where he had been sent by the king for ten years in 1447) in September 1450 still troubles scholars: was it due to private grievance or public right? Interesting though that question is, it is irrelevant for my purpose. My point is simply that York’s intervention, for whatever reason, was bound to change the whole nature of English politics, which it did. His criticisms of the government were essentially the same as those of Cade’s rebels. He did not question the king’s competence and embellished his own comments with the suggestion that Henry was the innocent victim of evil councillors. It was a situation from which York — the king’s true and loyal subject — would recue him; thus, allowing him to rule properly as he always intended. It is difficult to regard this approach as anything other than a tactic intended to prevent the imputation of treason against York. It was also an approach guaranteed to antagonize the duke of Somerset who had succeeded Suffolk as Henry’s chief advisor.

 

The hostility between York and Somerset, which had been an undercurrent in English politics from the late 1440’s, became dominant in 1451. Their mutual dislike matured into personal and intense hatred that expressed itself through the medium of opposing Lancastrian and Yorkist factions. And there was worst to come: soon Gascony would be lost, leaving Calais as the last remnant of the first English overseas empire. At home the violent disturbances and aristocratic lawlessness continued, together with real or imagined conspiracies against the king. There was and is a suspicion that York was behind these plots, for which the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. However, it is unlikely that he condoned efforts by his supporters to remove the king. He wanted to rescue Henry from the clutches of his evil advisors, not replace him. The problem with York’s simplistic approach is that it ignored the much profounder question of the king’s fitness to rule, which nobody — least of all York — was prepared to consider at this stage. More worrying from York’s perspective was the fact that whilst his power and influence waned, Somerset’s waxed. By 1452, York was politically isolated. The bulk of the unaligned lords regarded him as an incorrigible troublemaker with no constitutional legitimacy to challenge the king’s choice of advisors. The pretence that Henry was a fit to rule England persisted until he was deposed in 1461.

 

The king was ill. We know nothing about the illness except that it caused mental collapse and it was kept secret until after the birth of his heir on the 18 October 1453. Just prior to the birth, a Great Council meeting was called, from which York was excluded. Nevertheless, in Somerset’s absence on business, a group of non-aligned lords sent for York. Their decision was made on the grounds of his legitimate right to be involved in the discussion about the governance of the realm. It was their hope was that the dukes of York and Somerset would be able to work together and with the Great Council in the public interest: some hope! The mental collapse of Henry and the appointment of York as Lord protector and Defender of the Realm marks the end of this narrative. It is doubtful whether Henry ever recovered from this collapse and nobody even pretends that he was an independent functioning monarch thereafter. After Somerset’s death at St Albans in 1455, Henry was helpless and in the grip of his wife. After York’s death at Wakefield in 1460, Henry was deposed.

 

‘Chide him for faults, and do it reverently’

Personally, I doubt the historical significance of the various interpretations of Henry’s reign. Whether he was a malicious interventionist (Wolffe), a well-meaning duffer (Griffiths) or an inert simpleton (Watts et al) matters not in reality, since the outcome was the same on each case. Henry was a bad king. In fact, it is hard to imagine a man less suited to rule the kingdoms he inherited by an accident of birth. He did not look or behave like a king. Plainly he was incompetent and often disinterested in the minutiae of government. He failed to exercise royal authority properly and lacked the force of personality to uphold the king’s justice in his English kingdom. His shortcomings created a vacuum at the heart of government, which some of his overly ambitious subjects were quick to occupy and keen to exploit to the detriment of the common interest. It is unsurprising therefore that by the middle decade of his reign many of Henry’s English subjects were offended by the losses in France, oppressed for the want of royal justice at home and impoverished by the burden of taxation. These things are all matters of historical record and a blot on his rule. Nonetheless, despite his faults, Henry’s critics tend to underestimate contemporary evidence of the almost insuperable problems he faced from the moment of his accession, which would have tested even his renowned father. For all his heroic stature, Henry V’s legacy to his baby son was not a happy one.

Any hope the English had of conquering Valois France went to the grave with Henry V in 1422. Any realistic hope they had of preserving Henry VI’s sovereignty over his French possessions disappeared with the death of John duke of Bedford in 1435 and the defection of Burgundy from their English alliance that same year. Militarily and diplomatically, the tide had turned irretrievably against the English while Henry VI was still a minor. Their tactics were outmoded, their army was outmatched and the cost of the war was becoming unsustainable: none of this was Henry’s fault. Nonetheless, the subsequent failure to negotiate a realistic and workable peace treaty with Charles VII did bear his hallmark. Henry’s negotiating position was unrealistic. He thought that Charles would stop fighting and allow him to retain sovereignty of his French inheritance: that was a Lancastrian ‘red line’. It was one thing for Henry to be ejected from his French inheritance by the fortunes of war but he could never concede that he was not the king of France by right. In reality, of course, Henry had no leverage over Charles who was winning the war anyway. Besides, he regarded it as a war of liberation and could not allow Henry to retain his possessions except as a vassal of the French king: that was the Valois ‘red line’.

 

The truce with Charles VII that was agreed in 1444 and then extended, was broken by the Duke of Somerset, who enraged the Duke of Brittany by attacking his territory. It is unclear whether Somerset was ‘encouraged’ by the king to do that, but it seems likely. Even if Henry was dealt a bad hand, he played it badly. His pacifist nature was unsuited to the task of defending his French realm in the face of a warlike and implacable foe, and his lack of judgement showed in the promotion of commanders whose only qualification for the task was that they were his favourites. Henry was also hampered by a lack of money to pay for the war and the normal expenses of government.

 

The Crown’s financial difficulties began soon after the battle of Agincourt. The lay and clerical subsidies granted by parliament for 1415-1416 raised £216,868. However, the overall costs of maintaining Harfleur, negotiating with the Duke of Burgundy, the naval expedition of 1416 and fitting out a flotilla for service in 1417 came to £256,885. The deficit of £40,017 was made-up from loans at commercial rates and the ransom payments of French prisoners. These figures do not include expenses incurred during the Agincourt campaign, but not yet met.[52] By the end of Henry V’s reign, the English exchequer had a deficit of £30,000 and outstanding debts of £25,000 due mainly to war costs.

 

It was Henry V’s policy after 1418 to transfer the burden of the war to Normandy. The Duchy was supposed to pay for itself and also contribute money to the general war effort. However, the first complete financial accounts for the Norman Estates shows that all but 5,000 livre (li)[53] of Norman revenue was spent on the administration and defence of the Duchy; nor did finances improve over time. In fact, they deteriorated even further during Henry VI’s minority. In 1423, for example, the accounts show that of the 90,000(li) granted to Bedford by the Norman Estates, only 29,000(li) was available for defence. Between 1419 and 1435, the Norman estates met twenty four times and made impositions totalling 3,150,000(li). Even so, this revenue fell short of costs. The idea that Normandy could be self-funding was illusory; their treasury could only just about cover its own administrative costs if they did not also have to pay for military operations. Moreover, these financial demands alienated the Normans against their English overlords and demonstrated that without an English subsidy the Duchy was, more or less, defenceless.[54]

 

Whilst there is no doubt that Henry VI’s foolish generosity did not improve Crown finances, there is convincing evidence that even had he been judicious and thrifty with the grant of patronage, his means were barely sufficient for his needs. The inherited costs of defending his French inheritance, the expansion of the royal household, the costs of his marriage and the Queens household expenses were more than the Crown could bear without tax subsidies from parliament and the convocation. Significantly, during Henry’s minority neither parliament not the convocation gave generous subsidies; furthermore, the revenue raised was unpredictable. Exemptions given to poor towns and villages reduced the amount raised, as did fraud and administrative incompetence. The alternative of individual taxation was so unpopular that it was only imposed twice (1428 and 1436). Even then, the revenue raised was erratic due to resistance, fraud and administrative incompetence. It seems that the Crown was expected to manage cash flow and income by borrowing, using the Crown Jewels as security.[55]

 

So appalled was Ralph Lord Cromwell by the state of public finances in 1433 that he presented to parliament a highly detailed and precise analysis delineating to the last farthing the Crown’s insolvency. Having just succeeded Lord Hungerford as Treasurer, Cromwell was keen to highlight the problems he had inherited and to impose some fiscal discipline on the government by, for instance, vetting all requests for expenditure and patronage. The demands placed on the royal purse during the king’s minority were many: the royal household, the Queen’s household, Calais, France, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine, Fronsac, grants of Henry V’s will, and prisoner expenses etc. In summary, ordinary expenditure exceeded income by £47,887. 7s. 4d farthing, to which must be added provision for the repayment of debts totalling £164,814. 11s.1d halfpenny.[56] To control debt, Parliament set an arbitrary annual limit on Crown borrowing, which could now be secured against tax revenue. These measures under Cromwell’s capable stewardship delayed the inevitable but could not prevent it. By 1449, Cromwell had moved on from the Treasury and the Lancastrian regime was bankrupt. When Parliament met again later that year, the main thrust of the Commons’ criticisms was the belief that corruption and fraud were partly responsible for the crown’s bankruptcy. Their priority now was to put Henry’s finances on a sustainable basis.[57]

 

The aristocratic violence and lawlessness, and the corruption in high places that so oppressed Henry VI’s subjects were not unique to his reign. In fact, the preservation of law and order was a recurrent problem for most, if not all, medieval English monarchs. Late medieval England had an unenviable reputation among the rest of Christendom for lawlessness. While studying the legal records for 1348, the historian L O Pike was so shocked by what he found that he described that part of Edward III’s reign as a period of widespread depravity. E G Kimball, studying the Shropshire Peace Rolls for 1400-1414 concluded that ‘serious crime was not being punished in Shropshire or for that matter anywhere in England’. There are many scholarly studies and records of late medieval crime, none of which has identified even a few consecutive years of effective law enforcement between 1290 and 1485.[58] Neither is this simply a question of policing, since such lawlessness touched on the general lack of public confidence in the integrity of royal justice and the corrupt exercise of power that pre-dated Henry VI’s reign.[59]

 

The reasons for such pervasive criminality are many and complex, and are such that I cannot hope to address them all in this essay. However, there is a combination of circumstances that are part systemic and part behavioural, which I should explore in the context of Henry VI’s reign. The failure of successive medieval kings to outlaw ‘livery and maintenance’, coupled with the collapse of royal justice encouraged the lords and gentry to take grievances into their own hands.[60] The result during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the creation of ‘over mighty subjects’ with their affinities, which very often included organised criminal gangs of violent men with a penchant for feuding and ignoring the law of property.[61] This undesirable situation was further aggravated by the king’s reliance on local magnates and gentry to administer, dispense and enforce the king’s justice. Chief among these royal officials were the permanent county Sheriff’s who were each had judicial and administrative responsibilities for overseeing and dispensing justice in their county. They presided in the Shire Courts and also framed and selected indictments for hearing in the king’s courts. Moreover they were also responsible for selecting and empaneling jurors to sit on Grand Juries and Trial Juries in the various courts within their bailiwick. Unfortunately, owing to the system of livery and maintenance, Sheriffs were themselves more often than not in the service of a lord and, therefore, were hardly likely to be impartial judges or administrators in any cases involving their lord or members of his family and affinity.[62]

 

Aristocratic lawlessness was a problem, even for strong monarchs such as Edward I and Edward III. A parliamentary petition of 1331 complained that gangs of men were “kidnapping for ransom and killing the king’s lieges, churchmen and royal judges…” [63] Edward tackled the problem with his customary vigour, which, nevertheless brought only temporary success. By 1443 even Edward had to admit that the law of the land was not well kept; it was a problem that only got worse during the king’s absence at the wars. Although Henry VI inherited a situation that was not of his own making, it is hard to refute professor Bellamy’s assertion that the criminality was worse in the fifteenth century than it had been during the fourteenth. Crime had not actually increased but it was more pernicious during Henry’s reign. I don’t think anybody can seriously dispute that this was due primarily to Henry’s lack of kingly qualities as previously discussed

 

My final point is about Henry’s mental health during his adult years prior to 1453, when we know he had some form of mental breakdown, which lasted until 1455 at least. The precise nature of his mental collapse cannot now be known. There is no evidence that Henry suffered mental ill-health prior to 1453, but the inference that he had inherited his grandfather’s (Charles VI) ‘melancholia’ is almost irresistible. It would explain his detachment from temporal affairs and the comments about him made by some of his subjects. It is not impossible, therefore, that he suffered from a mental illness: I put it no higher[64].

[1] John Harvey – The Plantagenets (T Batsford Ltd 1948): I have quoted from the 1967 Fontana edition (p.169)

[2] M R James [Ed] – Henry the Sixth: a reprint of John Blacman’s memoirs (Cambridge 1919): Blacman was a precentor at Eton College (1445-52) and subsequently of King’s Hall Cambridge. There is no evidence that he is the unnamed author who writes in the first person, since his name does not appear in the list of Henry’s chaplains or clerks. It is possible that the tract was simply found among his papers after death.

[3] Sir Henry Ellis [Ed] – Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (Camden Soc 1844) pp. 70-71

[4] Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition)

[5] Wolffe; pp.12-18 and passim

[6] RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) pp.253-254

[7] Griffiths pp.231

[8] John Watts – Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge 1999)

[9] Griffiths p.2 note 5: Griffiths cites JS Davies [Ed] – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden Soc 1856) p.79

[10] Wolffe pp. xxiv-xxv; introduction by John Watts

[11] Watts chs.5-7; Christine Carpenter – The Wars of the Roses: politics and constitution in England 1437-1509 (Cambridge 1997) passim; Christine Carpenter – Locality and Polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society 1401-1499 (Cambridge 2009; AJ Pollard – North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses: lay society war and politics (Oxford 1990); Helen Castor- The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: public authority and private power (Oxford 2000).

[12] JR Lander – Government and Community 1450-1509 (Edward Arnold 1980) p.3

[13] Lander pp. 33-34; Lander is here quoting the words of Robert Stillington in 1468, when he was Lord Chancellor to Edward IV.

[14] Carpenter (WOTR) p.90

[15] Chris Givern-Wilson [General Ed] The Parliamentary Rolls Of Medieval England (Boydell 2005), Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) PROME ibid; SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp. 35-37; by the fifteenth century the courts had declared that the royal prerogative ‘ must be intact in the king’s person alone’ (p.35, citing VYB. SEIV, Micho.fo 118-23 [App No 48]).

[16] PROME Vol 10 p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong – ‘The Last Will and Codicils of Henry V, (EHR, 96 [1981] 99) et al.

[17] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24; ‘it was not the English custom’, they said

[18] PROME Vol 10, pp. 347-348, items 24-27

[19] PROME ibid; Chrimes p.37

[20] JF Baldwin – The King’s Council in England during the Middle Ages (Oxford 1913) p.169; Henry VI’s first minority council comprised a representative body of twenty-one men, all of whom had served as councillors to his late father. The original list is as follows: the duke of Bedford (protector), the duke of Gloucester (protector in Bedford’s absence), the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Durham (Chancellor), William Kinewelmersh (Treasurer), John Stafford (Keeper of the Privy Seal), the bishops of London, Winchester, Norwich and Worcester, the duke of Exeter, the earls of March, Warwick, Northumberland, Westmorland and the Earl Marshall, Lord Fitzhugh (Chamberlain), Ralph Cromwell, Walter Hungerford, John Tiptoft and Walter Beauchamp, knights. In the absence of any specific instructions from parliament, the council defined its own terms of reference, which were intended to safeguard their superiority under the king by nullifying the autocratic ambitions of Bedford and Gloucester (p.172).

[21] Wolffe pp.87-88; Griffiths pp. 275-278 and Watts pp.127-131: Henry’s first recorded grant of patronage was to his uncle Cardinal Beaufort at Canterbury in July 1436. The king was in Kent to witness the embarkation of English reinforcements for the Calais garrison.

[22] Wolffe p.188: see also Watts p.130, Griffiths p.275 and Baldwin p.184. Baldwin notes: “already in1435-36 the king’s personal intervention in the matter of favours may be observed, as in his own boyish hand the royal signature appears upon various bills ‘R.H. nous avons graunte’.”

[23] Wolffe p.90: in the autumn of 1437, the council was divided on whether the king should pay Orleans’ expenses for his peace mission to France. They were worried that it might be construed as a concession and encourage Charles Valois to make further demands. The matter was put to Henry for a decision. He decided to pay the duke’s expenses from taxation.

[24] Baldwin; ibid

[25] Henry III was eighteen when he assumed his personal rule. Edward III was twenty before he shook off Mortimer’s yoke. The more problematic Richard was twenty-two before he ended his minority.

[26] Baldwin; ibid: the eighteen councillors were as follows: the duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Lincoln and St David’s, the earls of Huntingdon, Stafford, Salisbury, Northumberland, Suffolk and Devon, Lord Hungerford, Lord Tiptoft, the bishop of Bath (Chancellor), Lord Cromwell (Treasurer), William Lindwood (Keeper of the Privy Seal), William Phillip (Chamberlain), John Stourton (knight of the household) and Robert Rolleston (Keeper of the Wardrobe)

[27] PROME Vol 8 pp.321, 323 and 337-67: contains a useful analysis and details of the 1406 ordinances. They appear to have little relevance to the circumstances of 1437, since in 1406 a concerned parliament was seeking to restrain the king’s autocratic tendencies by increasing the council’s powers: arguably, that was not the case in 1437.

[28] Griffiths p.276

[29] Griffiths pp.274-278: see also Wolffe pp.87-92

[30] Griffiths p.277

[31] Wolffe p.92

[32] Watts chps. 4-7; see also Carpenter chps.1- 5, passim, which makes many of the same points

[33] Watts p.30, notes 27-30

[34] Watts p.132: this is a reference to Suffolk’s successful attempt to secure his personal hegemony of the council and of the royal household.

[35] Watts p.133

[36] Baldwin pp.190-191″ Suffolk did not frequently show himself in council but with excessive disregard of his enemies carried his policy with the king independently of colleagues.

[37] Griffiths pp. 284-286; Baldwin ibid; the Council Ordinances of 1444 were only intended to improve the government’s administrative efficiency. However, Henry’s more unscrupulous officials used the ordinances to consolidate the move of government from the council to the household.

[38] Watts chps 5 & 6, pp.181-254; contains detailed and complex arguments in defence of Suffolk’s actions. Put briefly, Watts’ argues that Suffolk’s service to the king forced him to exercise royal authority because the king was incapable of doing so. The real problem he suggests was not venal counselors but a useless king. Such a narrative suggests that England was governed by a group of aristocrats who abandoned the rule of law in favour of the edict ‘might is right’. The image of these royal officials and court favourites disposing of power, wealth and privilege among themselves in order to maintain a privileged status quo and regardless of the rights of others, whether noble or commoners is unedifying to say the least. It brought royal justice into disrepute and was the cause of the social unrest that erupted with catastrophic consequences in the summer of 1450. Watts’ detailed analysis of the working of government and interesting tables and statistics on attendances are meant to support his contention that between 1435 and 1445 Suffolk was acting with the tacit consent of almost all of the English nobility. That may be so, but it doesn’t make Suffolk’s ‘rule’ legitimate nor does it explain why Watts seems to think that such criminal behaviour was in the national interest. By ‘the later 1440’s, even Watt’s acknowledges the lords’ support for Suffolk’s policy was falling away and in any event was ‘insufficiently visible to the rest of political society’.

[39] That is exactly what happened in the 1454 and 1455 when Henry’s metal health collapsed. One wonders whether Henry was of sound mind earlier than this. Did he inherit his maternal grandfather’s ‘melancholia’?

[40] Watts P.240

[41] Griffiths Chapter 20, p.562-609, contains a detailed analysis of the lawlessness and aristocratic violence during Henry’s reign; see also Wolffe pp.106-125; IMW Harvey – Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford 1991) Chp.2; and RL Storey – The end of the House of Lancaster (Sutton 1999 2nd Edition) passim for further extensive details of lawlessness

[42] PROME Vol 12, PP 72,73 & 159

[43] Roger Virgoe – William Tailboys and Lord Cromwell: crime and punishment in Lancastrian England (Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library 55, 1972-71973) pp. 459-482; the first charges brought against Suffolk were that he plotted with William Tailboys to murder Lord Cromwell on the 28 November 1449 at Westminster. Even though the incident might have been exaggerated, the fact that this offence was included in Parliament’s second petition for Suffolk’s impeachment is an indication of its seriousness.

[44] PROME Vol 12, pp. 75,76, 93-105 & 154-156 appendix1, article1; this is easily the most comprehensive account of Suffolk’s impeachment with the detailed petitions and and proof, and Suffolk’s own response. See also EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987) pp. 492-495 for an excellent summary of these events.

[45] James Gairdner (ed) – The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Cambridge Library edition 2010) six volumes, Vol 2 pp.146-147. This letter from William Lomer to John Paston is dated the 5 May; it contains a vivid and detailed account of Suffolk’s death at the hands of the hands of the Captain and crew of HMS Nicholas at Tower. This being a royal ship, it is inconceivable that they acted independently. It is impossible for obvious reasons that they either the king or the queen were behind this murder. However, the Duke of York is a suspect; though there is no evidence.

[46] PROME ibid

[47] PROME ibid; Wolffe p.230; Harvey p.189.

[48] PROME p.78

[49] Alfred H Burne – The Agincourt War (Greenhill Books 1991 edition) chp18 pp. 306-330: contains a useful summary of this campaign with a common sense assessment of numbers and tactics etc. Colonel Burne would, he wrote, gladly have passed over the loss of Normandy in silence since it was such a discreditable period in English history, for which he blamed Suffolk whom he described as ‘shuffling’, even ‘shifty’.

[50] Burne pp. 318-322

[51] Harvey ibid

[52] Jacob pp.202-220, & 255; Jacob provides a useful analysis, with tables, of the monetary grants made to Henry V from 1415 until the end of his reign. This information is extrapolated from the English and Norman exchequer records of the time and includes the detailed costs of in defending and administering Normandy.

[53] Livre: ‘old French currency equivalent to a pound of silver.’ (SOED)

[54] Jacob ibid

[55] Griffiths pp. 376-394 contains a detailed analysis of the crown’s financial problems and the measures taken to overcome them. Griffiths also provides useful tables of taxation trends and prominent Crown creditors.

[56] PROME Vol 11 pp.69, 70 and 102-113; Cromwell’s lengthy schedule is in the form of a petition to the king, which provides a fascinating and detailed description of the Crown’s estate and sources of income in 1433, together with its expenditure and indebtedness. See also Griffiths pp.107-122 for a instructive discussion of these financial problems and some very useful tables of taxation, loans etc. during the minority. It is clear from the evidence and Griffiths’ analysis that parliament underestimated the cost of the war and overestimated the ability of the French territories to pay for it. One consequence of borrowing was that any imbalance between unpaid debts and taxation would inevitably lead to bankruptcy. Significantly, in 1433 the Crown’s indebtedness was two-and-a-half times greater than its annual revenues.

[57] PROME Vol 12, p.77

[58] John Bellamy – Crime and Public Order in England in the Late Middle Ages (Routledge 1973) pp.4-6 citing LO Pike – A History of Crime in England (London 1873-73) i p.297; EG Kimball – The Shropshire Peace Rolls 1400-1414 (Shrewsbury 1959) p.45; RH Hilton – A Medieval Society (London 1966) p.258, who from an analysis of the Assize Rolls for the reign of Edward I formed the opinion that the sanctions of common law were ineffective in curbing violence and corruption; GO Sayles (Ed) – Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench, Edward II (Selden Society,74 1955) p.iii. See also PROME 1275-1504 all volumes, which contain hundreds of petitions attesting to the lawlessness and corruption of the Middle Ages. Finally, there is also a mass of unpublished material in the National Archives as described in Bellamy’s bibliography (pp. 205-206). “Every verdict seems unfavourable” (Bellamy p.4).

[59] Bellamy passim

[60] Livery and maintenance was the practice whereby individual lords recruited large numbers of retainers who were personally loyal to them and wore their livery. These men were expected to respond to calls for military and other services in return for their lord’s protection (‘maintain their part’) in litigation and/or any other disputes they were involved in, and their preferment on matters of patronage Prime examples of these over-mighty subjects during Henry VI’s reign were the dukes of York and Somerset, and the earls of Suffolk and Warwick. Livery and maintenance continued to plague the monarchy until Henry VII outlawed it.

[61] Bellamy pp.1-36 and 69-88

[62] A Harding – The Law Courts of Medieval England (Geo Allen and Unwin 1973) pp.51-53; see also Bellamy passim; from the twelfth century, civil and criminal cases in the country were dealt with under the general eyre. This was an itinerant system of justice introduced by Henry II, whereby professional judges and legal administrator’s from the curia regis (the King’s Court) accompanied the king during his progress around the kingdom and paid prolonged visits to individual counties. Their jurisdiction was wide-ranging and superior to that of the Hundred and Shire courts. The king’s judges were entitled to hear all pleas presented to them and not just those from a special group. Furthermore, their hearings were very thorough by medieval standards. More particularly, these judges were authorised to investigate any and all excesses, misdeeds, taking of bribes and other dishonest practices of sheriff’s and bailiffs, and to review the work of previous eyres. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the demands placed on the general eyre were too great for the limited number of professional judges available and the system fell into abeyance during the thirteenth century. It was a pity as the misconduct of the sheriffs’ was no longer monitored and corrected.

[63] Bellamy p.6; PROME Vol 4, pp. 164 and 166

[64] Wolffe pp.152-153; Griffiths pp. 715-718; Watts pp.301-325 passim and Storey p136 note 13

Warwick, the “Kingmaker” in Dartmouth….

 

The following quote is an interesting glimpse of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”, in the spring of 1470, when it was prudent for him to leave England for a while. It is taken from Devon, its Moorlands, Streams & Coasts by Lady Rosalind Northcote, published 1908 by Chatto & Windus.. See here :-

“….In 1470 Dartmouth was a step in the retreat of Warwick, ‘the King-maker,’ when Edward IV pursued him as far as Exeter. Warwick embarked here for France, and his arrival in those unsettled times must have created much bustle and excitement amongst all the gossips of the place. The Earl was ‘in danger of being surprized, whereupon leisurely (for his great spirit disdained anything that should look like a Flight) he retired to Exeter, where having dismissed the Remainder of the troops that attended him, he went to Dartmouth, and there, with many ladies in his company and a large Retinue, he took ship and sailed directly to Calais’….”

The ladies, of course, included Warwick’s heavily pregnant elder daughter, Isabel, wife of George, Duke of Clarence. Stormy weather was to keep the ship she was in from entering Calais, and tragically, on 17th April, she went into labour and lost the baby.

But, before that sad outcome, what was Dartmouth like when Warwick was there? (Some sources claim he sailed from Exeter, but Dartmouth seems more likely to me.) Well, the town had a castle, that’s for certain. Dartmouth grew where the River Dart empties into the English Channel, and was a thriving port and safe harbour.

Dartmouth Castle today, showing the town on the right.

In 1388, French raids during the Hundred Years War had led to the commencement of a castle. In this year Richard II commanded the mayor of Dartmouth, the privateer and merchant, John Hawley, to oblige the citizens to provide a “fortalice”. For much more information about Hawley, look here. Incidentally, Merriam-Webster claims fortalice to be a 15th-century word. Clearly that’s not so. It’s 14th century at the very least.

Then, according to English Heritage :-

“In 1462 Edward IV awarded them [townsmen] £30 annually for 20 years towards the cost of Dartmouth’s defences, including the laying of a massive iron chain across the River Dart to stop marauding ships getting through. But it was almost 20 years before work began on a new tower and a bulwark, or strongpoint, purpose-built for artillery. In 1486 Henry VII demanded completion of the gun tower ‘with all godly haste’.

A reconstruction showing Dartmouth Castle as it may have looked in about 1550. In the foreground, the iron chain across the estuary is being raised and tightened. Illustration by Peter Urmston.
The Fortalice as built by John Hawley

“The defences were eventually completed around 1493, and the gun tower became the heart of Dartmouth Castle. It contained the winding mechanism for the river chain, which was secured close to a defensive tower at Godmerock on the opposite bank.”

Cutaway impression of the gun tower at Dartmouth Castle. Illustration by Peter Urmston.

Well, marauding ships may have been kept out, but if a chain was operating in 1470 (as distinct from the eventual gun tower mechanism), it didn’t stop Warwick from getting in! Who in his right mind at Dartmouth Castle would raise a chain of any sort in the face of a great lord of Warwick’s power and reputation? The better part of valour, and all that….

So, chain or not, away the Kingmaker went! He’d return to England again on 13th September, landing at Dartmouth, and then meet his end at the Battle of Barnet on 14th April, 1471, almost exactly a year after his daughter lost her baby in a ship off Calais.

I have written more about the medieval history of Dartmouth. See https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/a-little-of-the-history-of-dartmouth-in-devon/

THE ANGLO SCOTTISH WAR 1480-82

 

Richard duke of Gloucester – The King’s Lieutenant in the North

“And he governed those countries very wisely and justly in time of peace and war and preserved concord and amity between the Scots and English so much as he could. But the breaches between them could not so strongly be made up to continue long, And especially the borderers, whose best means of living grew out of mutual spoils and common rapines, and for the which cause they were ever apt to enter into brawls and feuds. And while the duke of Gloucester lay in these northern parts, and in the last year of the reign of the king, his brother, the quarrels and the feuds and despoils were much more outrageous and more extreme than before. And thereby there grew so great unkindness and so great enmity, and such hostile hatred between the kings of England and Scotland, and so irreconcilable that nothing but the sword and open war could compose or determine and extinguish them”

(Sir George Buck – The History of King Richard III, 1619)[1] 

Introduction

The fifteenth century writer and French courtier Philippe De Commynes ascribed this ancient enmity between the English and the Scots to God’s will: “All things considered I think that God has created neither man nor beast in this world without creating something to oppose them in order to keep them humble and afraid… Nor is it only in this nation (he is referring to his homeland of Ghent) that God has given some sort of thorn. For the kingdom of France he has opposed the English, to the English the Scots…”[2] Although Commynes’ theory about the will of God cannot be proved in human terms, he was surely right to bracket the interrelationship between England, France and Scotland as being a significant influence on the behaviour of their respective kings. From Commynes’ perspective it was an unholy trinity, which was necessary to correct the evil of princes and prevent the abuse of power. What we can say with some degree of certainty is that the military and diplomatic dynamics of the three kingdoms constrained Edward IV’s freedom of action when formulating English foreign policy. Put simply, he could not pursue his dynastic ambitions in France without first securing the frontier against a Scottish incursion[3], since: “… the old pranks of the Scots… is ever to invade England when the king is out.” [4]

Border Reivers

Edward’s problem was complicated by the fact that royal authority did not always extend to the English northern borderlands. Border society was feudal in nature; their focus was fixed on local issues and disputes. It was the local laird or lord who held sway, not necessarily the king or his policy.   The north of England was sparsely populated and economically poor[5]. English and Scottish borderers relied on reiving to survive. Crimes of murder, robbery, cattle rustling, kidnap, blackmail, extortion and looting were endemic.[6] Sean Cunningham explains the king’s difficulty: “…this cross-border network had a very different view of formal Anglo-Scottish conflict to that of the two royal governments. In addition, local and regional interests in the northern English or southern Scottish counties bred a different attitude to the opposing side. This existed within the sphere of wider foreign or diplomatic policy, but its micro focus on the effects of cross-border feuding and low-level warfare often confused and undermined otherwise clear national foreign policy objectives of either monarchy.[7] 

In the north of England the dominant nobles were the Neville family led by Richard earl of Warwick and the Percy family, headed by the hereditary earls of Northumberland (In the 1470’s and 80’s it was Henry Percy the 4th earl). Needless to say there was no love lost between these families who vied for hegemony in peace and were enemies during the Wars of the Roses. King James III’s problems of enforcing his authority in southern Scotland differed from Edward’s only in degree. The rugged and wild Scottish countryside made communication difficult; it was slow and in the highlands possibly dangerous. The feudal allegiances of the clans together with the jealous independence of the border lairds meant that royal authority north of the frontier went only so far as the monarch’s personal prestige and the laird’s goodwill would take it. Unfortunately, for James, his prestige was low and their goodwill was in short supply.[8]

Border rebels

The outcome of battle of the Towton in 1461 was a decisive Yorkist victory, though not a complete one. The former king Henry VI, his wife Margaret of Anjou, their young son Edward (styled) Prince of Wales and some Lancastrian adherents escaped to Scotland where James III gave them refuge. James was complying with the Treaty of Lincluden, which his mother, Mary of Guelders, had negotiated with Margaret of Anjou, earlier in 1461. Under the terms of the treaty, James promised the Lancastrians military aid in return for the cession of Berwick to Scotland, and the possibility of a marriage between Edward Prince of Wales and the Princess Margaret the king’s sister.[9] James provided a secure base from which the Lancastrians with Scottish help could continue their struggle for the English throne[10]. Between 1461 and 1464 the Lancastrians, reinforced by Scottish and French troops, mounted some very destructive raids into northern England, reaching as far as Carlisle, which they besieged but could not take.

Edward adopted a carrot and stick approach for dealing with these rebels. The stick comprised a military campaign waged in the north by Richard and John Neville against die-hard Lancastrians and their foreign levies. The carrot was the offer of reconciliation to any dissidents that asked for it, even those who had rebelled violently against him. Simultaneously, Edward intrigued with Scottish malcontents to revoke support for Lancaster. These policies had mixed results. John Neville and his ‘loyal northern retinues’ succeeded in defeating the Lancastrians twice in 1464; first at Hedgeley Moor and again at Hexham. Those Lancastrian lords who did not die in battle were executed immediately afterwards. The defeat of Lancaster was followed by an Anglo-Scottish truce that was to subsist for the next ten years.

There is some doubt about the wisdom of Edward’s policy of conciliation. Professor Ross holds it to be a black mark against his record as a statesman; Michael Hicks argues that it was a rational policy in the circumstances, which, generally speaking, worked despite the odd spectacular failure. SJ Payling is not sure whether Edward should be congratulated for his magnanimity in forgiving some Lancastrians, or scolded for his vindictiveness in not forgiving them all.[11] It is a moot point, however, whether conciliation actually worked. As Keith Dockray points out, the ‘loyal northern retinues’ used by John Neville to defeat the Lancastrians in 1464 were, in point of fact, loyal to the Neville family and not the king. They demonstrated this in 1470 when they followed Warwick to the Lancastrian side during the Neville inspired rebellion of 1469-70, which started in the north. As Edward was to discover, the north was no more Yorkist in 1471 than it had been in 1461.[12]

Border skirmishing 1471-80

Following his readeption in 1471, Edward IV sought to pursue his favoured foreign policy objectives of recovering English feudalities in France and enforcing his claim to the French crown. To do this he needed security on his northern border. His immediate aim, therefore, was to neutralize the duel threat of a foreign war with the Scots and rebellion in the north. He determined to achieve this by maintaining the truce with James III at all costs and being conciliatory towards his rebellious northern subjects, so as to secure their good will and obedience. The man he selected to implement this policy was his youngest brother Richard duke of Gloucester. Although still a teenager, Gloucester’s steadfast loyalty and effective battlefield leadership in the recent rebellion had confirmed him as Edward’s most reliable and able subordinate. Within the space of two years, Gloucester was given a monopoly of the important public offices north of the Trent, including military governorship of the important West March of the border ‘ towards Scotland’. He also acquired Warwick’s political mantle through his inheritance (by marriage) of the lion’s share of the earl’s estates in the north. Having spent his formative teenage years under Warwick’s tutelage at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, Gloucester was well equipped to fill the vacuum left by the destruction of the Nevilles; he knew the north and was known there. It seems from the evidence, that he achieved a remarkable degree of popularity and inspired deep loyalty from northerners.[13] Just as importantly he seems to have established an effective working relationship with the touchy, ambitious and untrustworthy earl of Northumberland, and the equally untrustworthy and ambitious Thomas Lord Stanley. Their working relationship was important in bringing stability to the area.

As the Warden of the West March, Gloucester’s military task was straightforward; he had to defend the West March against Scottish incursions. He could mobilise local levies for service on the border and enforce truces with the Scots. He could punish breaches of the truce summarily if the reivers were English; if they were Scots, he could hand them over to the Scottish Warden. However, he had no military authority over Henry Percy earl of Northumberland who was the Warden of the East and Middles Marches.

The peace treaty between England and Scotland, which was agreed in 1474, was meant to transform the ad hoc truce into a formal peace that would endure until at least 1519. In the shorter term the treaty secured Edward’s northern border against a Scottish incursion, which was a prerequisite for his planned invasion of France. The trouble was that the temporary truce was already under considerable strain from reiving by both sides. In 1473, Northumberland identified Scottish raids from Liddlesdale as a threat to the truce. Similarly, Scottish wardens pointed out that English reivers from Tynedale and Redesdale were also damaging the chances of an enduring peace. The Scottish reception of the English traitor John de Vere earl of Oxford, and the residence of the Scottish rebel Robert Lord Boyd at Alnwick further inflamed the tense situation.

Things seemed to be getting out of hand in 1474 when it was reported from Scotland that the duke of Gloucester was preparing an invasion.[14] Professor AJ Pollard obviously disapproves of Gloucester’s behaviour at this time since he characterises him as being ‘hot-headed and ambitious’, andalmost as much ‘of a handful’ for Edward as his other brother George duke of Clarence. “Now” writes Pollard ”… by his reluctance to implement the terms of the treaty and his own insubordinate acts of piracy (Gloucester) was threatening to undermine all of Edward IV’s efforts in the north.” [15] If the accusation were true, it would have been an appalling breach of the peace treaty and of the trust that existed between the king and the duke. Their personal bond though close, was unlikely to have survived intact such an injurious act of insubordination. After all, Gloucester was merely the instrument of the king’s will. And the king’s will at this time was to have peace with Scotland.

What professor Pollard overlooks, however, is the situation on the Anglo-Scottish border at the time, which might explain if not excuse Gloucester’s hostility towards the Scots. I have already referred to the tension caused by border reiving but what was potentially most dangerous was the intrigue between James III and Louis XI. The Scottish king had ‘for a pension of ten thousand crowns’ offered to ‘keep Edward at home by attacking him’.[16] It is unlikely that Gloucester was aware of James’ plotting; but he would almost certainly have been aware of the build-up of Scottish troops and their increasing violence towards the English, which was encouraged by James’ cavalier attitude to peace. In those circumstances, it is entirely probable that Gloucester was planning a counter-attack inside Scotland. He was the military governor on the spot, and was by training and instinct an aggressive commander. His tactic of aggressive defence was very popular with those who bore the brunt of Scottish depredations. It is hard to see how Gloucester could have possibly intended a serious ‘invasion’ of Scotland since his retinues combined with those of Northumberland and Thomas Lord Stanley were insufficient for such a task: he was an aggressive commander, not a stupid one. But the political reality was that Edward could not permit Gloucester to freelance a policy that might fuel the violence and undermine the crown’s wider foreign policy aims. When told of Gloucester’s belligerence, Edward was quick to admonish his brother, telling him in effect to behave himself and not to antagonise James.

The Treaty of Picquigny (1475) between Edward and Louis XI confirmed Edward’s inability to enforce a foreign policy, which had been the Plantagenet’s raison d’etre since the twelfth century: the recovery of their feudal territories in France and (after 1340) the enforcement of their claim to the French throne.[17] Unfortunately, Edward made peace for a down payment of 75,000 crowns and an annual pension of 50,000 crowns. He returned to England with his army to the chagrin of Gloucester and many other Englishmen.[18] Commynes scoffed that the indolent Edward was “…not cut out to endure the toil necessary from a king of England.” And the French boasted that they had bought off the troublesome English ‘with six hundred pipes of wine and a pension’.[19] Cora Scofield’s judgement is damning: “The great expedition to France was over and not an inch of territory conquered… no words could hide the truth. Edward had sold himself to the king of France.[20] Be that as it may, the treaty with Louis had financial advantages and one significant diplomatic benefit. Louis agreed not to ally himself to James III or interfere with events in Britain. This agreement enabled Edward to turn his mind to that other great plank of Plantagenet foreign policy: English overlordship of the British Isles, which in the late fifteenth century meant conquering Scotland.

In the aftermath of Picquigny, cross-border reiving continued to threaten peace in Britain. James III was simply unable to enforce his royal authority on semi autonomous highland chiefs and border lairds who, in the words of professor Mackie ”…pursued their private vendettas…(and)…defied all authority… and when, as sometimes happened, they made secret bonds among themselves, the power of the crown was in jeopardy.”[21] Worse still, it was James’ estrangement from his own family that most threatened royal authority. His brother Alexander duke of Albany thrived on border skirmishing and bitterly resented royal interference. James’ desire for peace was in part driven by his resentment of Louis XI who not only dilly-dallied about renewing the ‘auld alliance’ but also humiliated James over Scottish territorial ambitions in Guelders. Edward on the other hand, was progressively more irritated by Scottish reiving. The treaty with Louis merely increased his confidence that he could safely to turn his attention to the Scottish problem without interference. It was unlucky that James’ enthusiasm for peace waxed as Edward’s waned.

James’ attempt to strengthen the Anglo-Scottish treaty by a marriage between his sister Princess Margaret and George duke of Clarence foundered on Edward’s indifference (He did, however, allow proposals for a marriage between Princess Margaret and Edward Woodville to proceed.). It was hopeless: unlike similar situations in 1473 and in 1474, the English had no appetite to preserve the peace. The death of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy in 1477 had changed the political dynamic between England, Scotland and France. Edward was now more supportive of his widowed sister, Margaret the dowager duchess, in Burgundy’s dispute with France. As a consequence, Louis resumed his intrigue with the Scots against the English. By 1479 the Treaty of Edinburgh was in tatters. The Princess Margaret was pregnant by her lover, Lord Linton, a development that Edward regarded as a national humiliation. He demanded full restitution of the dowry he had paid to James in anticipation of the royal marriage between Cecily and young James Stuart, the Scottish heir.

a terrible and destructive war

The Crowland chronicler blamed the Scots for the war that now seemed inevitable, for “shamelessly’ breaking a thirty-year truce” for which treachery Edward proclaimed “ a terrible and destructive war against the Scots[22] In the early spring of 1480, Edward paid ‘advances against wages’ to Gloucester and Northumberland so that they could prepare for a possible Scottish attack. At the same time, he sent his formal envoy Alexander Leigh, canon of Windsor north to Edinburgh with instructions to demand (i) that James do homage to Edward for the Scottish crown, (ii) that he surrender his heir to English custody, (iii) that he return the towns of Berwick, Cordingham and Roxburgh to English dominion, and (iv) that the Scots make full restitution for the damage caused by their reiving. Whatever James might have thought about Edward’s other demands, it is obvious that he could never agree to do homage for his throne or to hand his heir over to the English. In truth, Edwards’s embassage was not a genuine diplomatic overture to avert war; it was a declaration of war.

Edward’s war aims seem obvious from his demands; his plan for winning that war is less obvious. Previous English experience suggested that war with the Scots was ‘costly, dangerous and inglorious’ and ‘rarely bought lasting results.’[23] The Scottish war of Independence showed that the English could be defeated in a pitched battle; nevertheless, such battles were rare. The last one between national armies (Nevilles Cross 1346) had been a catastrophic defeat for the Scots in which their king was captured and held prisoner by the English. In a defensive war the Scots relied on their terrain coupled with some impenetrable fortresses to disrupt and wear down the enemy, whose increasingly vulnerable lines of communication could then be attacked. At other times they attacked the English to keep them on the tactical defensive. Some of these attacks involved large local forces; the clashes at Otterburn (1388) and Nesbit moor (1402) being cases in point. The conquest of Scotland required a large, professional army for which the English had not the means; especially whilst fighting the French or facing the threat of fighting the French, or when they were fighting among themselves. Neither could they impose a puppet king on the Scots unless the lairds and nobles accepted him as legitimate and competent, which they rarely were. As Cunningham observes “Edward’s strategy for the war of 1480-82 struggled to shake off the previous disasters of English political and military attempts to subjugate the Scots.”[24]

Edward could ill-afford a repeat of the errors of 1475 when the invasion of France ended in recriminations and confusion. If the Scottish war was not to become bogged down in small-scale military raids and counter-raids, Edward needed a clear and concise plan and a new strategy that would give him a decisive victory. His first decision was a sensible one; he clarified the chain of command in the north. Command of all the English forces in the north was given to the duke of Gloucester; who was appointed Edward’s Lieutenant General with full authority to call to arms the border levies and those of adjacent counties. The earl of Northumberland reverted publicly to Gloucester’s 2IC, whilst Thomas Lord Stanley bought-up the rear. On the 20 June 1480, Gloucester issued Commissions of Array in Northumberland, Cumberland and Yorkshire for levies to serve on the border against the Scots. This was clearly a defensive measure, as the commissions issued would not provide a sufficient force capable of invading Scotland. If the response of the City of York is typical, it was not a rapid mobilisation. Their contingent had not left the city boundary when Gloucester wrote on the 30 August 1480, ordering the men to march north[25].

Within a few days of Gloucester’s letter, however, Archibald Douglas earl of Angus led a spectacular three-day raid into the heart of Northumberland, reaching and torching the coastal town of Bamburgh, about twenty miles from the border. Jean Froissart, writing towards the end of the fourteenth century describes Scottish raiding habits. Although his account was written a century or more before these events, his narrative provides a useful illustration of the nature of medieval border warfare; an experience that had not changed appreciably by the late fifteenth century despite advances in gunpowder technology and the development of handguns. “ The Scots are a bold, hardy people, very experienced in war. At that time they had little love or respect for the English, and the same is true today. When they cross the border they advance sixty or seventy miles in a day and night, which would seem astonishing to anyone ignorant of their customs. The explanation is that in their expeditions into England they all come on horseback, except the irregular who follow on foot. The knights and squires are all mounted on fine, strong horses and the commoners on small ponies. Because they have to travel over the wild hills of Northumberland they bring no baggage carts and so carry no supplies of bread or wine (save what they carry behind their saddle and can pillage from the land). Hence, it is not surprising that they can travel faster than other armies. So the Scots entered Northumberland. They ravaged and burnt it, finding more livestock than they knew what to do with. They were at least three thousand men in armour…”[26] The English marked Scottish progress by the smoke from the burning villages.

On the 7 September the earl Northumberland wrote urgently to his retainer Sir Robert Plumpton that the Scots ‘in great numbers’ had advanced ‘deep into Northumberland’; Sir Robert and his men were ordered to rendezvous with the earl at Topcliffe by 8 o’clock the following Monday.[27] The next day, that is the 8 September, Gloucester wrote equally urgently to the city of York: “…the Scots in great multitude intend this Saturday night to enter into [the] marches of these northern parts…We trusting to God [intend] to resist their malice [and] …desire you to send unto us at Durham on Thursday next, a servant of yours accompanied with such certain number of your city defensibly arrayed, as you intend and may deserve right special thanks from the king’s highness and us.”[28] Leaving aside the obvious confusion about whether the Scots had actually crossed the border, it is clear that it was (despite Gloucester’s intention) a successful Scottish raid and that the concentration of the northern levies was not yet complete. Having been caught-out by the boldness of Angus’ attack, Gloucester’s instinct was to counter-attack and teach the Scots a lesson that would, in professor Kendall’s words, ‘check their ardour’. In effect, this meant a counter-raid of sufficient weight to damage Scottish morale. Frustratingly, we do have any contemporary accounts of this operation[29]: the number of troops involved, their organisation their objective(s) and details of what happened are all unknown. However, we can perhaps make an educated guess based on what the military historian FL Petre called ’inherent military probability’.

In the mid to late fifteenth century English tactical doctrine was still influenced by their experiences in France during the Hundred Years War. We are not here concerned with the development of English infantry tactics in set-piece battles, since Gloucester had not the least intention at this stage of fighting a conventional battle. We must also distinguish between criminal border reiving, which though warlike in nature is irregular, localised and aimed at settling family feuds, cattle rustling and so forth, and the low-level specifically military operations planned by Gloucester. A more appropriate term for this type of operation would be ‘chevauchée’: a ride through enemy territory by swiftly moving, mobile columns of mounted men-at-arms and archers, unencumbered by a logistic tail of non-combatants.[30] A chevauchée could be used as a diversion intended to draw enemy troops away from the point of an intended attack or from a siege, or to destroy a military installation in enemy territory, or to undermine enemy morale by spreading fear and terror among their population.

We can be pretty sure that Gloucester’s objective in 1480 was to undermine Scottish morale by terrorising the civilian population and destroying their crops, livestock, buildings and chattels. It is important to understand that on a mission such as this, the rules of chivalry would not apply, since the people most in harm’s way such as the peasant farmers, labourers and the poor were outside the protection of the chivalric code. It is possible that Gloucester forbade the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians; but if so, it would almost certainly not have been on humanitarian grounds, but because it was bad for military discipline. Nevertheless, in a chevauchée such as this, it was impossible to prevent murder rape and arson altogether, since, to paraphrase Froissart, ‘there was bound to be some bad fellows and evil men of little feeling in Gloucester’s force’[31].

We can make a rough estimate of the number soldiers involved by using the strength of the northern contingent in the kings army in France as a guide. Sean Cunningham estimates that of the 14,000 men in Edward’s army, 3,000 were from the combined retinues of Gloucester, Northumberland, Stanley and Lord Scrope of Bolton; of these, about 500 were men at arms and the remainder were archers.[32] It is reasonable to assume that the borders would not have been denuded of all the men fit for active service, as some were needed to patrol the border, deal with low level Scottish reiving and garrison the castles at places like Norham and Carlisle. Based on these assumptions, my best guestimate is that in the autumn of 1480 Gloucester would have had about 4-4500 men for service on the Scottish border, of which perhaps 2,000 could be available for this operation.

Typically, English medieval armies were organised in three ‘battles’ or ‘divisions’ for set-piece battles and chevauchée type operations. And there is no reason to think that Gloucester did anything different this time. It is possible that each battle advanced on a separate axis with their ‘scourers’ scouting ahead and on the flanks. It is equally possible that they advanced in a single column, with one battle acting as the advance guard for the whole force. The men-at-arms and archers would have been mounted in the Scottish fashion and there may well have been some infantry for the defence of lines of communication and key points and pioneering tasks. The nature of the terrain and season would affect Gloucester choice of target. It would serve no purpose to attack in the wild Cheviot Hill since the population was sparse and the country rough. It would be hard to navigate or to spread panic swiftly and the risk of getting bogged down was great. A destructive attack along the fertile agricultural land of the Scottish east coast between Berwick and Dunbar would be much more effective in dousing Scottish ardour.

 

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland [33]scotland-circa-1480-a-1

(15th Century)

 

An attack along the east coast also had some tactical advantages since the sea offered protection for one flank and made navigation easier as they could advance confidently northwards keeping the sea on their right. Although we do not know what actually happened we can get a feel from the work of HJ Hewitt of how a typical chevauchée was conducted. He is writing about the fourteenth century; but I think the reference is valid since it illustrates standard operating procedures that were unchanged in the 1480’s. This is what Hewitt wrote: “ On reaching a village or town the troops usually have little difficulty in overcoming civilian resistance. Valuables are collected and are loaded into carts or heaped on the horses’ backs; cattle are driven away or killed; the work of destruction begins. Granaries, ricks of hay, corn or straw, barns, cattle–sheds, houses and their contents are fired Wooden bridges are broken, windmills and watermills are burned, or rendered unserviceable News of the army’s approach spreads very quickly and, as clouds of smoke by day and a red

glow by night mark the invaders route (or routes, for a large force may move in columns). The inhabitants, seized by panic, flee and thus facilitate the work of the troops; a deserted town stocked with a winters supply of food and fuel is a suitable place for a halt and some good meals. But the army never lingers long and there are days when the men have little to eat and the horses little to drink. Always there is the danger of ambushes, of homesteads having been fired by their occupants in order to destroy food and shelter, of houses in walled towns being set on fire at night be concealed enemies or drunken soldiers or bridges being broken to delay the invaders advance.”[34] And as if that was not enough, there was the danger of an engagement with the enemy’s army, which may try to encircle the raiders or force them to accept a pitched battle at disadvantage. If their escape route is cut they may be forced to withdraw over remote and rough terrain where a withdrawal might turn into a rout.

For these reasons, Gloucester’s force needed strike hard and swiftly. In the event, the chevauchée seems to have been of relatively short duration; Gloucester had returned to Sheriff Hutton by the 23 October 1480.[35] By the end of the year, Edward’s decision to make war was irrevocable and he resolved to go north to lead the army against the Scots personally, to ‘teach them a punishing lesson’. In view of this, Gloucester’s commission as Lieutenant General was not renewed[36] and preparations began in earnest for what promised to be a hard campaign against a tough enemy. Meanwhile, Gloucester busied himself in the north repairing Carlisle’s walls and strengthening England’s other border defences.

By the New Year, Edward’s strategic priority was to create an effective royal navy. John Howard was appointed Captain of the main fleet, to serve from May to August 1481.[37] His mission was to harry the east coast of Scotland and concurrently to protect the English east coast from the Scottish fleet and the more formidable French fleet.[38] Edward spent a considerable sum of money on the purchase, repair and maintenance of ships, and on patrolling the east coast. Naval supremacy on the North Sea was essential for a successful war, since ships were the surest and quickest method of transporting men, cannons, personal weapons and military stores to Gloucester’s northern army. By February 1481 eleven royal ships had been commissioned to patrol the east cost for six months. In May, Sir Thomas Fulford was commissioned to take command of an independent naval squadron on the west coast; a month later, Thomas Howard led his English flotilla manned by three thousand sailors and marines into the Firth of Forth. There, he cut out and carried off eight of the largest ships from their harbours in Leith, Kinghorn and Pettenween, and destroyed the smaller ones. He also effected an amphibious assault on Blackness where several hundred English marines torched the town along with another large ship. It was an outstanding effort by the navy and a demonstration of the benefits of amphibious warfare. By landing troops in the enemy’s rear worryingly close to Edinburgh, the English opened up the possibility of a war against Scotland on two fronts. It was never more than a possibility however, since the English commanders were unable to take advantage of the situation. Dr Michael Jones implies some criticism of Gloucester for not co-ordinating a land attack to coincide with Howard’s naval assault. Quite how Gloucester was expected to achieve this is a puzzle to me, since co-ordinating amphibious assaults with a complementary land attack can be difficult, even with modern communications (e.g. the Salerno and Anzio landings of WW2). Given that the naval and land elements in 1481 had no means of communicating quickly and regularly with each other; a co-ordinated attack would need a lot of luck to succeed. Nor is it even established that such co-ordination was ever intended in this operation. Frankly this is not the best point, in what is, anyway, a superficial appraisal of Gloucester’s military competence by Dr Jones. [39]

Winter War

Although Edward had signalled his intention to lead the army in person, he was no further north than Nottingham by the autumn. The consequence of his delay was to ‘paralyse the English invasion plans’ by depriving the army of his leadership and the reinforcement of troops that would accompany him[40]. Gloucester and Northumberland were, therefore, mainly reliant on the northern retinues and garrison troops to defend the border. The 3000 men raised by Thomas Lord Stanley were mainly needed for the siege of Berwick and so were not necessarily available for an invasion of Scotland. Even if sufficient troops were available to constitute an invasion force, they could not be deployed until the king arrived to take command. However, the northern commanders did not discover until November that Edward had turned south from Nottingham and would not lead the army that year. Charles Ross has no doubt that Edward’s indecision and his absence from the army was responsible for the English failure to invade Scotland in 1481.[41]

James III, on the other hand, had not been idle; he had assembled a large force in southern Scotland with which he could invade England, or make a thorough nuisance of himself in the border region. Cora Scofield thinks that ‘ on the whole’ the Scots came out of this year’s fighting quite well, with “at least as many victories as the English.” [42]  If the Scottish historian Lesley is to be believed, the Scots “ invaded the Marches of the English and took away many preys of goods and destroyed many towns and led many persons in Scotland.[43] James III even boasted to the Pope that his army had destroyed and ‘put to flight‘ 200,000 Englishmen. Unfortunately for Scottish egos, this was not true. It is true that the Scots had engaged in some destructive chevauchées of their own; however, they did not use their superior numbers to raise the siege of Berwick or to invade England: instead they withdrew meekly. James’ excuse that the withdrawal was at the personal request of the Pope who wanted to broker peace between England and Scotland, is not really credible.[44] Nonetheless, the winter of 1481-82 was a miserable one for the English army engaged in interminable skirmishing with the Scots.

A few passages from Froissart’s fourteenth century chronicle provide further illustrations of campaign life for Englishmen at the sharp end of a medieval winter war with the Scots. [45] In my first selection, the English are ‘advancing to contact’ with the elusive Scots. “ They began to move forward very raggedly over heaths, hills and valleys and through difficult woodland without a trace of level country. Among the mountains and valleys were great marshes and bogs, which were so dangerous to cross that it was surprising that more men were not lost in them. Each man rode steadily forward without waiting for his captain or companion and anyone who got stuck in those bogs would have been lucky to find help. Throughout the day there were many alerts, which made it appear that the foremost were engaging the enemy. Those behind urged their horses over swamps and rocky ground up hill and down dale, with their helmets on and their shields slung, their swords or lances in their hand, without waiting for father, brother or comrade. But when they had galloped a mile or so and reached the point from which the sounds came they found it was a false alarm. The cause was a herd of deer or other animals which abound in that wild country…[fleeing] in panic before the banners and the advancing horsemen

By the end of the day no contact had been made with the enemy. The English, exhausted and lacking the tools to build personal shelters, bivouacked as best they could. “ Mounts and riders were tired out, yet the men had to sleep in full armour, holding their horses by the bridles since they had nothing to tie them to having left their equipment in the carts which could not follow them over such country. For the same reason there were no oats or other fodder to give the horses and they themselves had nothing to eat all day and night except the loaves they had tied behind their saddles and these were all soiled and sodden by horses sweat. They had nothing to drink but [river water] except the commanders who had bought bottles of wine. They had no lights or fires and no means of kindling them except some knights who could light torches….”

In the morning, just before dawn, the English ‘stood to’. “Having spent the night thus miserably, without taking off their armour or unsaddling their horses they hoped for better as the day dawned. But as they were looking round for some prospect of food and shelter and for traces of the Scots, whom they eagerly wanted to fight in order to put an end to their own hardship, it began to rain…it never stopped raining the whole week and consequently their saddles, saddle-clothes and girths became sodden and most of the horses developed sores on their backs. They had nothing to cover them with except their own surcoat and no means of re-shoeing the horses that needed it. They themselves had nothing to keep out the wet and the cold save their tunics and armour. They remained like that for three days (without food), with the Scots on the mountain slope opposite…” From this point onwards, the English are in contact with the enemy “…there were skirmishes every day in which men were killed and prisoners taken. At nightfall the Scots lit great fires and raised such a din blowing their horns and whooping in chorus that it sounded to the English as all the devils in hell had been let loose.”

By the turn of the year (1482), English morale was low and there was unrest in the ranks due to a shortage of food for the men and grain for the horse. Money was also short and Gloucester was only able to alleviate the army’s suffering by purchasing wheat, rye, peas and beans with his own money. In February 1482, he received £10,000 for the army’s wages and Northumberland received the final instalment of a grant of 2,000 marks for the defence of the East March. Notwithstanding the difficulties it is clear that Gloucester and Northumberland managed to contain the worst of Scottish aggression. The Scots had not been able to relieve Berwick or mount a significant ‘invasion’ of English territory. Nonetheless, it was ‘a close-run thing’. The money, the equipment and the reinforcements being allocated to the army during the spring and summer of 1482 was a sure sign of Edward’s desperation that the they should continue to hold the line until he could devise a more cohesive and decisive strategy for vanquishing the Scots. It was, of course, still unclear when (if) the king would come north to take command, since he seemed as yet unready to relinquish his ambition of leading the army in a foreign war.

Things began to look up for the army by the spring. An improvement in the weather coupled with a plentiful re-supply of arms, equipment and provisions and a reinforcement of troops saw an improvement in the army’s morale and its efficiency. The establishment of a chain of fast moving messengers improved communications between London and the border, and all seemed set for a decisive campaign in 1482. Gloucester commenced active operations in May by leading a daring chevauchée into southwest Scotland, torching the strategically important town of Dumfries and many other lesser ones and skilfully withdrawing before a Scottish army could be bought against him.[46] This was not the presage of another year of inconclusive skirmishing since Gloucester knew quite well that to conquer Scotland the English needed to meet and defeat James III and his main army in a pitched battle. Kendall speculates that the Dumfries raid may have been meant to provoke the king of Scots to take the field with his whole army so that he and they could be defeated in a set-piece battle[47]. If so, Gloucester and Northumberland must have been supremely confident of winning such a confrontation. However, they must also have realised that the difficulty would be in engineering such an opportunity. The Scots were canny fighters and they knew they could not match the full weight of English resources in a conventional war. The irregular border warfare of 1480-81 was a good strategy for them since it degraded English strength and kept them on the defensive in the border. However, Gloucester, Northumberland and the other English commanders had weathered the storm and now, in the spring and summer of 1482 they had sufficient forces to invade Scotland in strength whilst besieging Berwick. The trouble was that king Edward who was needed in the north was still far away in the south; unable or unwilling to join the army. A combination of indolence, poor health and civil turmoil in England had cooled Edward’s ardour for active service; he was not the man of 1461 or even 1471. 

A Scottish Clarence

Paul Kendall described Alexander Stuart, duke of Albany as ‘Clarence in a kilt’. He was, in fact, the king of Scots’ brother and, like Clarence, renowned for his instability: being ‘restless, ambitious and unprincipled’.[48] It was Albany who gave Edward a new idea for securing overlordship of Scotland. Albany had fled to France 1479 after he was attainted for treason. He was something of an embarrassment to Louis who was trying to renew the Franco-Scottish alliance against England. While Albany was in France, Edward secretly sounded him out the possibility that he might assume the Scottish throne and swear fealty to Edward as his overlord. Louise was not averse to this since it got rid of the awkward Albany and promised to involve Edward in a Scottish war. Consequently, Albany was allowed to come to England, where he arrived in April 1482. In May, Edward recognised him as the true king of Scots by a proclamation indenting for men to serve the ‘king of Scotland’ on 14 days notice.

In early June, Gloucester was summoned to Fotheringhay to meet Edward and Albany, and to be briefed on Edward’s plan to put a pretender on the Scottish throne. His presence was also required (presumably) so that he could give his opinion of the new plan. Kendall implies that Gloucester may have had misgivings about Albany’s worth but nonetheless ‘ he readily approved’.[49] The Treaty of Fotheringhay was signed on the 11 June 1482. By it, Albany promised to do homage to Edward once he was placed on the Scottish throne, to return Berwick to English domain and to give up certain fortresses in the west. Finally, Edward spoke to his brother about command of the army. It was obvious, even to Edward, that he was unfit to command an invasion force in Scotland; his lascivious nature, his (even then) failing health and the ‘tumult’ in some parts of England meant that he would not mount a warhorse again. If Scotland was to be subdued, then it was Gloucester who must do it, aided by Albany for whatever that was worth. The next day, Gloucester’s commission as Lieutenant General in the North was reinstated; he was now the undisputed commander of all the king’s troops north of the Trent.

A month later, on the 15 July 1482, Gloucester, with Albany at his side left York for the border.[50] He had war treasure of £15,000, sufficient to keep his army of 20,000 in the field for twenty-eight days. It seems obvious that both he and the king expected a short decisive campaign after years of inconclusive raiding. It was of, course, a risky plan because it was so reliant on forcing James to accept battle for his throne, which was something he seemed prepared to do. Unfortunately, events did not go as planed, as we shall see. Gloucester marched swiftly north arriving at Berwick by the second or third week of July at the latest. The town rapidly surrendered but the castle, which was garrisoned by 500 Scots, refused terms. Gloucester, who had no intention of wasting time on a siege left a covering force to contain the garrison and moved swiftly on into Scotland with his main body. His march from the border to Edinburgh was in fact an unopposed chevauchée accomplished with astonishing speed and ruthless efficiency. Towns and villages en route were burned and terror spread throughout the countryside. After years of hard labour skirmishing with the Scots, this was easy work for the English army as it swept on towards the Scottish capital.

Meanwhile, things were looking decidedly bleak for James. A mere 600 men garrisoned in ‘six towers’ in addition to the now useless Berwick garrison, guarded the Scottish border. A general muster of Scottish troops had been called in late July to concentrate at Lauder in the Scottish Middle March to attempt to resist “…the largest and best-led English army seen in Scotland for eighty years’.[51] However, it seemed to most people at the time that if James faced the English in open battle it would almost certainly result in defeat and his capture or death.

The English entered Edinburgh unopposed at the beginning of August. Cora Scofield thought it was amazing that Gloucester should take the Scottish capital for Edward IV ‘without firing a gun or shooting an arrow’.[52] It was, however, also ominous, since English success depended on locating and destroying the king and his army speedily, and neither James nor his army were anywhere to be seen. It is greatly to Gloucester’s credit that the army took control of the city without molesting either the inhabitants or their goods.[53] His first task was to make a proclamation in the market place; he called on James (i) to honour his promises to Edward, (ii) to make amends for violations of the peace and (iii) to restore Albany’s rights, or face the destruction of himself and his kingdom. Thereafter he turned his attention to dealing with a Scottish force, which he believed to be waiting at Haddington. But there was no need of a battle since ‘some Scottish lords’ sued to him for a treaty. It soon became apparent that James III was a prisoner in Edinburgh castle. He had been abducted and taken there by his Stewart half-brothers who were prepared to withstand a siege. They bore James no good will but their dramatic intervention had saved him from defeat and deposition and confounded English hopes of success. Without the person of James in English custody there was no realistic prospect deposing him; nor, was there a legitimate Scottish government of with whom Gloucester could negotiate. It was also clear that the Scots would never accept Albany as either a legitimate or a competent monarch. Gloucester was now placed in an almost impossible situation. Time and money were running out for him; he had only enough money to keep his army in the field until the 11 August. A siege of Edinburgh castle would be costly in men and material, and time consuming. It would also provide an opportunity for loyal royalist forces to re-group and attack the English lines of communication. Albany true to his capricious nature had entered into public negotiations with the Scots for the restoration of his rights. By a process of elimination, therefore, Gloucester was forced to negotiate with James’ displaced and discredited former ministers: Scheves, Argyle and Avondale, who were only interested in getting rid of the English as soon as possible. They bound themselves to restore Albany to his 1479 holdings (it is doubtful they could do that in the absence of James III). The citizens of Edinburgh also bound themselves to refund at their own expense, all of the dowry paid by Edward IV for his daughter Cecily’s marriage to Prince James, if that marriage did not take place. By the 5 August, Gloucester had withdrawn to Berwick, where the castle was under siege   A week later, he discharged the army save for 1700 men needed for the siege.

Although the Scots tried to raise the siege, Gloucester seemed to have overawed them since they tried nothing more dangerous than a little more bargaining. The Scots offered to raze the walls of the castle, if Gloucester did similar to the town walls; alternatively, the English might garrison the town while the Scots garrisoned the castle. Gloucester spurned all these offers out of hand and demanded unconditional surrender of the Scottish garrison, which took place on the 24 August.

Postscript

According to the Crowland Chronicle, king Edward was less than impressed with the outcome of the campaign, particularly in view of the expense incurred; though, he was placated to some extent by the recovery of Berwick. The chronicler himself is in no doubt that Berwick was but a trifling gain for such ‘frivolous’ expenditure by Gloucester.[54] If we ignore for a moment the authors well known prejudice against northerners in general and Gloucester in particular, the point he is making is not wholly spurious. The campaign was not a complete success. The ‘largest and best led English army to invade Scotland in 80 years’ did not secure its primary objective of putting a puppet king on the Scottish throne: why? It is a good question and there are a number of possible answers: the English plan was flawed, Gloucester’s withdrawal threw away the English advantage, there was a fundamental change in circumstances which was not foreseen and which militated against complete success, or the failure was due to a combination of these factors.

Professor Charles Ross, in his biography of Edward IV, clearly blames Gloucester for the unsatisfactory outcome. There is no need for me to jump to Gloucester’s defence since his service record and military renown speak for themselves. Whether or not he was a military genius is an issue about which I have no view. However, I do feel obliged to reply to the professor’s criticism of Gloucester’s conduct of the campaign because it is so silly as to be more suggestive of his ignorance than of any dereliction by the duke. Having described Gloucester’s decision to withdraw to Berwick as ‘strange, professor Ross finds three sound military reasons that might have influenced the duke’s mind: the long lines of communications, the lack of victuals for his troops and the defection of Albany. Nevertheless, he comes to the following judgement: “Yet Gloucester’s precipitate withdrawal from Edinburgh threw away a great advantage: as commander of a powerful army installed in the capital he could surely have dictated far more satisfactory terms to a distracted Scottish government. He might have felt, following Albany’s defection that he lacked instructions on major issues, but he seems to have made no attempt to await further direction from the king in England, with whom a courier system ensured rapid communication. Gloucester’s lack of resolution meant the only practical outcome of an expensive campaign was the recovery of Berwick-Upon-Tweed…and the signing of a short truce to last until 4 November.”[55]

It is a perverse conclusion since it overlooks a number of salient and obvious mitigating factors. First, the English army was only indentured until the 11 August. There was neither the money nor the supplies to keep the English in the field after that date. Second, the abduction of James III by his own subjects and his incarceration in Edinburgh castle made it impossible for the English to capture or to kill him, either of which was a prerequisite to his deposition. Third, in the absence of the person of James III, there was no legitimate ‘Scottish Government’ with whom Gloucester might negotiate a favourable political settlement; he could only talk with James’ discredited former advisors and a deputation representing Edinburgh. Fourth, he might have tried to enforce a settlement by force of arms, except there was not the time. Moreover, An attack by loyal royalist forces was likely in the event of the English laying siege to Edinburgh castle, which was a very tough nut to crack anyway. Fifth, it was not feasible in the time available to secure the person of the queen or other members of the royal family to use as bargaining chips, since that were all safely behind the walls of Stirling castle thirty miles away (another tough nut). Sixth, there was no time to get instructions from the king, four hundred miles to the south, before the army would have to withdraw for reasons already given. Finally, it was obvious that Albany’s defection removed any chance of placing him on the throne in 1482. It was equally obvious that there was no chance of the Scots accepting him as their king. Any attempt to impose him would result in a Scottish civil war over the succession.[56] Far from his decision being irresolute or strange, Gloucester as the man on the spot was simply making the best of difficult situation. Macdougall (from the Scottish perspective) and Cunningham (from the English perspective) both make the points that the re-capture of Berwick was no mean feat since it was a useful base for continuing the war, a course that Gloucester had left open in his negotiations.

Neither should it be thought that Edward’s disappointment with the outcome meant he blamed his brother: far from it. In Parliament, in January 1483, he made an award to Gloucester, which in Cunningham’s view was the ultimate expression of Edward’s policy of endowing nominated regional lords with delegated royal authority.[57] Charles Ross writing about this award had no doubt as to its importance: “…Edward created for his brother a great hereditary lordship comprising the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland together with any parts of south-west Scotland he might afterwards conquer. This remarkable grant had two unique features. It was the first (and also the last) time since the creation of a county palatine in Lancashire in 1351 that any English shire had been made into a palatine; this meant that in practice the king’s writ did not run in the shire and the lord had full control over its affairs. Second, Richard and his heirs were to hold the office of Warden of the West March along with the palatinate. For the first time a major military command under the crown passed out of direct royal control and became instead a hereditary private possession. ” [58] It seems clear to me from this award that Edward and his brother intended to continue the war against Scotland.

In my personal opinion, the failure of the English army to achieve its primary objective was not due to poor execution, but to an unrealistic plan. The plan to subjugate the Scots and place a puppet king on their throne within twenty-eight days was only possible if the English achieved complete tactical surprise. Strategic surprise was never possible, as the Scots knew they were coming and from where: only the timing and the speed of the English attack were unknown to them. In fact, the English army had lost tactical surprise even before it crossed the Tweed. One only has to consider the timings to see what the problem was. The English army left York on the 15 July and arrived outside Berwick sometime between the 20 and 25 July. However, James III was abducted by his half-brothers on the 22 July and incarcerated in Edinburgh castle. Gloucester’s primary objective was therefore unattainable before he set foot in Scotland. The underlying cause of this was undoubtedly the failure to take Berwick in 1481; possession of Berwick then would have provided a useful operating base and jumping off point, and saved the army five or six days marching time in 1482, thereby increasing the chances of surprising James before he could be whisked to safety. Edward’s inability or unwillingness in 1481 to come north and command a national army or to provide sufficient siege resources to ensure the relatively quick capture of Berwick (town and castle) was the reason for this delay. Nor can Gloucester escape some responsibility for this failure of strategic planning; he must have thought it was achievable since he seems to have accepted  the objective and  the time limit. The fact that it might have worked if James had been left to his own devises cannot absolve either Edward or Gloucester from their responsibility in mounting a campaign that was poorly thought out and inadequately financed The simple stratagem of removal the gung-ho James to the safety of Edinburgh castle rendered the English objective unattainable in 1482. The death of Edward IV in 1483, saved Scotland from the threat of invasion and conquest. But it did not end the Anglo-Scottish conflict. Despite James’ desire for peace, Richard III continued a naval campaign. The Scots were finally forced to sue for terms in 1484; but that, as they say, is another story….

[1] Arthur Noel Kincaid (Ed) The History of King Richard the Third (1619) by Sir George Buck (Alan Sutton 1979) p.21; although Buck sometimes gets confused about facts and chronology, his reasoned and evidence based defence of king Richard is still the basis of modern Ricardian theories.

[2] Philippe De Commynes (Michael Jones -Editor) – Memoirs: the reign of Louis XI 1461-83 (Penguin edition 1972) p.339

[3] JD Mackie – A History of Scotland (Pelican Original 1964) p.75: the ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France was the natural result of English ambition and aggression. Although a formal alliance was not signed until 1295, the Scots and French were old friends having already aligned themselves to resist the Angevin kings. However, it is possible that historians over estimate the effectiveness of the ‘auld alliance’. Its terms were not equal, being more onerous for the Scots than for the French. Neither did it protect John Balliol from an English invasion and deposition by Edward I in 1296; nor, James III from an English invasion and near deposition in 1482. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how ineffective the alliance was in times of most need. However, that was not known before the event and the auld alliance was not something Edward could ignore.

[4] The Chronicle of the Union of the Two Noble & Illustrious Houses of Lancaster and York (London 1809) p.555

[5] AJ Pollard – North, South and Richard III, published in ‘Richard III: crown and people (J Petre –Ed) (Richard III Society 1985) pp.350-51. Pollard refers to various local studies that show northern England to have been ‘economically backward’ at this time. Although the six counties occupied about a quarter of England’s total area, they accounted for only 15% of the population (Pollard’s best guess). There was much antipathy between the north and south.

[6] Sean Cunningham – The Yorkists at War, published in Harlaxton Medieval Studies [Hannes Kleineke and Christian Steer-Eds] (Shaun Tyas and Richard III and Yorkist Historical Trust 2013) p.176, note 2. There is evidence of lawless behaviour by English highland clans in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (see Cynthia Neville – Violence, Custom and the Law: the Anglo Scottish Border Lands in the Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh 1998) pp.1-26). There is also extensive evidence of cross-border reiving from the mid-sixteenth century. There is, however, a dearth of official records or anecdotal accounts from the fifteenth century of low-level reiving. Nonetheless, it defies common sense to think that reiving diminished or ceased during the fifteenth century.

[7] Cunningham; ibid

[8] Norman Macdougall – Richard III and James III: contemporary monarchs, parallel mythologies, published in ‘Richard III: loyalty lordship and law’ (PW Hammond – Ed) (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) pp. 148-71 but esp 157-59. Macdougall provides a useful summary of Anglo-Scottish conflict in the 1470’s and 80’s from a Scottish perspective. See also Mackie, p.115 for a pithy assessment of James’ difficulties.

[9] Charles Ross – Edward IV (BCA edition 1975) p.29; Bertram Wolffe –Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition) p.326

[10] Ross (E4) pp.45-49

[11] Ross (E4) p.51; Michael Hicks – The duke of Somerset and Lancastrian loyalism in the north: published in Richard III and his Rivals: magnates and motives in the War of the Roses (London 1991) pp.156-58; SJ Payling – Edward IV and the politics of conciliation in the early 1460’s: published in ‘The Yorkist Age’, Harlaxton Medieval Studies, Vol 23 (Hannes Kleineke and Shaun Tyas –Eds) (Shaun Tyas and the Richard III Historical Trust 2013) pp.81-94; Chris Given-Wilson (Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (Boydell Press 2005): Rosemary Horrox (Ed) Volume 13, pp. 42-53 (PROME). Sadly, it is impossible for me to do these complex arguments justice in this post. The argument turns turn on a detailed analysis of two lists of Lancastrians to be attainted. The first list is (presumably) a draft; the second list is that actually published in the Act of Attainder passed by the 1461 parliament and contained in PROME. There are many differences and inconsistencies between the two lists.

[12] Keith Dockray – Richard III and the Yorkshire Gentry 1471-85, published in Richard III: loyalty, lordship and law (PW Hammond Ed) (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) pp.38-57. Only the personal intervention of Henry Percy (heir to the earl of Northumberland killed at Towton) prevented the northerners from attacking Edward and his small retinue when they landed on the Yorkshire coast in 1471.

[13] Dockray (R3 and the Yorkshire Gentry) p.41

[14] Norman Macdougall – James III: a political study (Edinburgh 1982) pp.128-29

[15] AJ Pollard – Richard III and the Princes in the Tower (Bramley Books) pp.73-74; Cora Scofield – The Life and Reign of Edward IV (Fonthill 2016 revised edition) Vol 2 p.129 citing Edwards instructions to his ambassador in Edinburgh in BL Cotton MS Vespasian CXVI. ff 118-120. The piracy referred to by Pollard was a reference to an action by Gloucester’s ship Mayflower, which captured and plundered the ‘Yellow Carvel’, which was ’James III’s ‘own proper carvel’, off the English coast.

[16] Scofield Vol 2 p.54, note 1; Scofield cites Louis’ instructions to Alexander Monypenny in ‘Legrand’s collection, MS francais 6981 ff pp. 214-217. Legrand dates this document to 1474. There is no doubt it was the same offer James had made in 1473, though then he wanted a pension of sixty thousand crowns (Cal Milanese Papers, 1, pp. 174-175)

[17] PROME Vol 14, pp. 3, 14-24 & 341, Appendix 1; Edward summoned parliament on the 6 October 1472 to vote him a subsidy for the war with France. The debate was lively and interesting with guest speakers from home and abroad, including the duke of Burgundy (Pronay and John Cox – The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-86 (Richard III and Yorkist Historical Trust 1986) p.133). In a speech made on Edward’s behalf, the reasons given for waging ‘war outwards’ were that it averted ‘war inwards’ (civil war) by uniting the factional English nobility in a common cause and “… offered an opportunity not only to recover Normandy and Guyenne but also the crown of France in alliance with the dukes of Burgundy and Brittany.” In view of these reasons, it is difficult to give credence to a later suggestion that Edward was not serious about conquering France.

[18] Cunningham p.183.

[19] Commynes pp.264-66

[20] Cora Scofield – The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth (Fonthill 2016 edition) Vol 1, p155

[21] Mackie p.155; the Scottish nobles resented James’ inclination to make peace with England ‘the auld enemy’ and his attempts to curtail their independence by enforce a centralised royal authority.

[22] Pronay p.147

[23] Cunningham p.177

[24] Cunningham p.178

[25] Robert Davies (Ed) – Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York during the reigns of Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III (London 1843) p.107 & note.

[26] Jean Froissart – Chronicles (Penguin 1968) pp.46-47. Froissart is writing about a Scottish invasion, which took place in 1327. Whilst the technology may have been different in 1480, I doubt their miserable experience would have been much different for those on the sharp end in the winter of 1481-82.

[27] The Plumpton Correspondence (Camden Society 1839) p.40; Davies YMR p.107 note citing the Plumpton Correspondence

[28] YCR p.36; the dissonance between Northumberland’s certainty that the Scots had actually entered England and Gloucester’s belief a day later that they intended to do so ‘next Saturday’, is best explained by the ‘fog of war’.

[29] Ross (E4) p.279, note 2; Ross says ‘the evidence for the counter raid rests upon Edward’s own statements in a cygnet letter to Salisbury and on a report from James III to Louis XI mentioned in a despatch of 19 October 1480 (Benson and Hatcher, ‘Old and New Sarum’, p.199; CSP, Milan 1, P.244). All the main 20th century biographers (Kendall, Scofield and Ross) mention it en passant.

[30] Anthony Goodman –The Wars of the Roses: military activity and English society 1452-97 (Routledge & Kegan 1981) p.162; HJ Hewitt – The Black Prince’s Expeditions (Pen and Sword Edition 2004) pp.46-49, and Lt Col Alfred Burns – The Crecy War (Eyre and Spottiswoode 1955) p.246; I have taken my definition of chevauchée from Professor Goodman. Colonel Burns’ definition is substantially the same, though more precise (literally: ‘procession of mounted men’; troops (all-arms) on the march or on expedition; translated by most English writers as ‘raid’. Mr Hewitt suggests that it was generally taken to mean a specifically military operation carried out on a relatively small scale.

[31] Hewitt, pp.46-47

[32] Cunningham p.183 and note18; he cites the lists of wages from the Tellers Rolls for 1475, NA.E405/59 and E405/60.

[33] John Harding (1378-1464). Hardyng was a squire in the service of the earl of Northumberland. He fought at the battles of Shrewsbury (1403) and Agincourt (1415). Hardyng mapped Scotland over a period of three years on the orders of Henry V. This map was produced as an aid to any English invasion force.

[34] Hewitt, pp.47-48

[35] Davies (YMR) p108 and note; Scofield P.294; Cunningham p.186

[36] Ross (E4) pp. 280-81; Ross (R3) p.45; Scofield pp. 304-05

[37] John Ashdown-Hill – Richard III’s beloved cousin: John Howard and the House of York (The History Press 2015) p.62

[38] Scofield Vol 2 p.303-05; Ms Scofield provides useful details of Edward’s naval and military preparations

[39]  Michael K Jones – Richard III as a soldier, published in Richard III: a medieval kingship (J Gillingham –Ed) (Collins and Brown 1993) pp.99-100.

[40] Ross (E4) p. 282

[41] Ross (E4) pp.282-83

[42] Scofield Vol 2, p.321; Ross (E4) p.282

[43] John Lesley – The History of Scotland from the death of James I in the year 1436 to the year 1561 (Bannatyne Club 1830) p.45

[44] Scofield ibid

[45] Froissart pp.48-52

[46] Davies YMR pp.127-28, 174; York, already committed to providing 120 archers for active service in Scotland later provided an additional 80 horsemen at their own expense. It was good service that Gloucester would not forget when he became king.

[47] Davies YMR ibid; there is the slightest hint if this in Davies (p.127), which I paraphrase: ‘The right high and mighty prince the duke of Gloucester, by the grace of God intends, in his own person, to enter Scotland on Wednesday next and to subdue the king’s great enemy the king of Scots and his adherents’

[48] Kendall p.141; Ross (E4) pp.237-38

[49] Kendall ibid

[50] Davies p.129. Albany was styled ‘Alexander king of the Scots by the gift of the king of England’, a title that was bound to infuriate and motivate the Scots.

[51] Macdougall (J3 and R3) p.163; the advantage of using Macdougal is that he writes from a Scottish perspective

[52] Scofield Vol 2, p.345

[53] Kendal p.143; Pronay (CC) p. 149 The Crowland chroniclers actually seems to deplore Gloucester’s humanity!

[54] Pronay, ibid

[55] Ross (E4) pp. 289-90

[56] Macdougal (J3 and R3) pp. 164-65; Cunningham pp.192-94; Kendal pp141-43

[57] Cunningham p.183; PROME, Vol 14, pp.412-25

[58] Ross (R3) pp.25-26; as professor Ross observes, Edward’s policy of creating powerful independent warlords was dangerous since they might threaten the monarchy in future. He is unsure whether it is a case of Edward losing his grip or of Gloucester exerting undue influence; nonetheless, it seems to have been Edward’s deliberate policy to empower his brother.

 

 

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