The she-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France
Whose tongue more poisons than an adders tooth
How ill beseeming it is in thy sex
To triumph like an amazon trull”
(Henry VI Part 3)
St Albans and its significance
The first battle of St Albans represents a landmark in the dispute between York and Lancaster; not as the first battle of a civil war, since it was not that, or as their biggest or bloodiest battle, since it was not that either. Its importance lay in the fact that it represented the ultimate expression of York’s change of tack from being the king’s champion to being the realm’s champion.
Throughout the 1450’s York had represented himself as the ‘king’s true liegeman’ intent only on rescuing him from the tyranny of his ‘evil’ advisors. Whether or not he was genuine is immaterial. He had to take this approach to avoid imputations of treason and to retain his popularity with the commons who, despite the oppression of the government, did not want to replace the king. Yet, it was an approach that constrained York politically and legally. First, it implied an acceptance of the legitimacy of the king’s absolute ‘royal authority’. In practical terms this meant that whilst York could ask the king to take action against his ‘evil’ counsellors, if he chose not to do so his decision was final. It had to be accepted with good grace; to do otherwise, might be considered treasonable. York was also bound personally by an oath of allegiance and obedience to the king, which he had sworn in 1452 following the Dartford fiasco. The other constraint was that York’s approach was founded on the presumption that he was acting in the king’s best interest. The problem was that the battle came about precisely because the king had failed to take effective action against Somerset and others, who were considered to be traitors by the Yorkists. Furthermore, such was the hostility between the two factions that a compromise was impossible. Having said that, it is doubtful whether making war on the king can be said to be acting in his best interest.
York’s solution to this dilemma can be seen in the letter he wrote to the king just before the battle. In it he emphasises yet again that he and his followers are the kings true liegemen ready to live and die in his service, and (this is the significant bit): “…to do all things as shall like your majesty to command us, if it be to the worship of the crown and the welfare of your noble realm (my emphasis).”  York is putting conditions on his obedience. And he is also making a clear distinction between the institution of ‘the crown’ and the person of the king, and between them both and the rights of the realm (of England). What I think York means is that although ‘royal authority’ is vested personally in the king, he must behave in accordance with the accepted norms of English monarchs as expressed in the coronation oath, which of course binds all our monarchs and was not personal to Henry. York is also introducing the concept of the ‘realm’ of ‘England’ as a political entity distinct from the monarchy. It has its own rights to which the crown is ultimately responsible. This is more than a device to overcome accusations of treason or ‘oath-breaker’; it represents a fundamental tenet of England’s constitution, which we see put most forcibly in Magna Carta. The implication for Henry is obvious. It is not disloyal or disobedient to correct a king who brings the crown into disrepute and acts against the public interest: by force of arms if need be. John Watts puts the matter concisely: “so far had the crown strayed from what was just that only an independent tribunal of freemen (the Yorkists) or God (in battle) could provide for the satisfaction of right. Once the king had agreed to this temporary delegation of prerogative of justice, the Yorkists would return to full and normal obedience”. In fact, that is what happened after the battle.
The difficulty all-along was the government’s refusal to discuss its performance. Their doctrine, which was devised in the wake of Cade’s rebellion, was simple: the government is not answerable to the public. All the king’s subjects owed him a duty of loyalty and obedience. Anybody who failed in that duty was a traitor. Furthermore, the royal prerogative gave the king an absolute right to choose his advisors; he could not be compelled. The government’s response went much further than just refusing to debate its conduct. By declaring Cade a murderer and a thief and York as tendentious, the government was able to attack the integrity of its critic and sidestep the public interest argument.
Even though no battles were fought between 23 May 1455 and the 22 September 1459, the realm was not at peace. The quarrel between the Lancastrian/royalist and Yorkist factions became even more embittered. Oppression, violence and lawlessness continued unabated in the shires and the bulk of the English nobility continued to distrust York’s motives and intention. To this toxic mix must be added the burgeoning influence of Queen Margaret. She was a far more dangerous and implacable enemy to York than a whole regiment of Somerset’s. Yorks attempt to impose good government foundered on two things: his lack of a formal constitutional position and his failure to command the support of the bulk of the English nobility. The second protectorship was tainted by the suspicion that it was inspired by him in order to gain personal control of the king. Nonetheless, It might still have succeeded in steadying the ship-of-state, with careful handling. Unfortunately, York’s mishandling of the Resumption Act caused his downfall. Almost all the Lords were against it; so much so, that the king refused even to read it much less sign it. York’s position was hopeless and his resignation followed swiftly. York was well aware of the danger to him; his power base was narrow and the vengeful Lancastrians were obviously intent on destroying him and his. The ‘she-wolf of France ‘ wasted no time in purging any Yorkist influence from around the king or in the council chamber. She removed the king from London to Coventry. It was not a sensible move since it removed the source of royal authority from the seat of his government; it was inefficient, contributed to the collapse of the English polity and promoted factionalism.
By the autumn of 1456 all Yorkist influence was expunged from the government. The king was in a piteous state. He was completely under the control of the queen who had a much firmer grip on her husband than either Suffolk or Somerset managed. He took little interest in affairs in public or in private. His passiveness was a cause for concern. He was and is generally recognised as a ‘simple’ man: generous, compassionate, forgiving and pious. Nonetheless, He had affectively abandoned his royal responsibilities; whether this was through mental incapacity or apathy we cannot now say. The queen was the antithesis of her husband: miserly, heartless and merciless. Dr Thomas Gascoigne, the Chancellor of Oxford University said this in 1457: “…all the affairs of the realm were conducted according to the queens will by fair means of foul”. Whatever the general opinion of her, she was a useful reference point for those on government unable to get much response from the king. However, the weakness in he position was that without a formal constitutional position, she could no more exercise ‘royal authority’ than York could. Only the crowned and anointed king could authorise policy actions and he was incapable or unwilling to do that. All the time the nature of royal power was unconvincing the issue between York and the Lancastrians persisted. Neither York’s good intentions, nor the queen’s dynamism were a substitute for the king’s ‘royal authority’.
The years 1457 and 1458 the factional struggle continued unabated, with York loosing on points. The queen’s co-ordinated plan to bring York down was briefly interrupted by the king’s genuine but futile attempt to reconcile his warring nobles in a ‘love day’ (24 October 1458). This was followed by the king’s belated award’ of compensation to the sons of those killed at St Albans. The whole episode was a demonstration of York’s weakness and his political isolation. The lords maintained their loyalty to Henry and York had no choice but to submit to these ‘awards’.
The ‘love day’ was followed soon after by preparations for war. The queen’s faction armed themselves against ‘certain misguided and seditious people’. York and the Neville’s were summoned to present themselves at Coventry to explain their actions to the council. Fearing for their safety, the Yorkist lords ignored the summons and began to mobilize their forces. York was at Ludlow, Salisbury was in Yorkshire and Warwick was still in Calais. The Lancastrians were concentrated in their midland heartland. On the 23 September 1459 Lord Arundel and a force of about 9-10,000 soldiers intercepted Salisbury on his way to join York. The Yorkists were outnumbered two to one. The battle at Blore Heath was a hard-fought Yorkist victory; however, it was not decisive. About three weeks later on the 12 October 1459, the King’s army, operating on interior lines was able to catch the Yorkists (now reinforced by Warwick and Calais garrison troops) at a disadvantage at Ludford Bridge, near Ludlow. The Yorkists were outmatched and their force low in morale. In particular, they were loath to bear arms against the king, who had now displayed his banner. A trickle of desertions to the king’s side soon turned into a flood culminating in the loss of Andrew Trollope and his garrison troops. The Yorkist lords had no option but to flee for their lives. York went to Ireland. Warwick, Salisbury and Edward earl of March went to Calais. Somerset, made two attempts to remove Warwick from Calais but he failed abysmally. The scene was now set for a full-blown civil war.
The Dublin meeting, March 1460
York was safe in Ireland. He able to make his plans uninterrupted and he also had Irish support for his actions in England. The cost was the surrender of royal authority in Ireland, albeit short of independence. It was a price he was prepared to pay. The English enclave of Calais was just as important to the Yorkist cause because it provided the means whereby they could recover their position in England. Warwick’s control of the sea around Britain was amply demonstrated by the ease with which he was able to join York in Ireland to discuss the way forward. The content of this discussion and decisions made are important in informing our understanding of York’s intentions and his actions once he returned to England. Even though we do not have a record of what was said, there are some plausible inferences we can draw from the Yorkists’ subsequent actions. It seems obvious that the leaders agreed on the details of their invasion. These arrangements were fairly basic. They would seek more support from the English nobility and then mount a co-ordinated invasion. Warwick would land in Kent where Yorkist support was strong. York would land in the north once the circumstances were right. It was a sound strategy, which prevented the royal army from concentrating against a single threat, whilst allowing the Yorkists to recruit from those areas where their support was strongest. Important as these details are, they also had to consider what was to happen to the government once the invasion was successful. Judging by York’s regal bearing on his return to England, it seems that he expected to succeed to the throne. His provocative entry into London wearing the royal arms of England with his sword held upright before him and his determined march to the throne at Westminster could well have been discussed and agreed in Dublin: or York at least believed it was agreed. This is, of course, speculation but at least it is plausible speculation.
The most difficult problem was what to do with the king, the queen and Prince Edward. Everyone knew that the queen was the power behind the throne but she could not be dealt with like Suffolk or Somerset. It was equally clear to everybody that she would not submit willingly to the diminution of her dynastic right or that of her son. Unless they were dead or in close captivity a civil war was inevitable, and that might involve the French. There were several possibilities open to the Yorkists:
- Remove the king’s advisors and dominate the government.
- Depose the king and disinherit his son Prince Edward. York succeeds to the throne (This is based on the precedent set in 1399)
- Allow Henry to reign for his lifetime with York to succeed him and disinheriting Prince Edward (This was based on the precedent of the Troyes Treaty of 1422, whereby Henry VI inherited the French throne)
- The king dies in battle and York succeeds. Prince Edward is disinherited.
From the Yorkist point of view, option 1 would be the easiest to sell to the English people. They dare not risk saying that their intention was to depose the anointed king and to disinherit his heir. Option 3 was the worst of all worlds. It guaranteed prolonging the conflict with no assurance of any benefit to York, who was ten years older than the king and likely to predecease him anyway. It seems unthinkable that these issues were not discussed in Dublin. In my personal it is a distinct possibility that the deposition of Henry was discussed and Warwick gave York his support; though afterwards he had doubts, as we shall see.
By June 1460, the Yorkists were ready. The Lancastrians, who had been prepared for an invasion since late 1459, were waiting for them. On the 26 June 1460, Warwick, Salisbury and March, with 1500 soldiers from Calais landed at Sandwich in Kent. Within a week, they were at the gates of London, their ranks swollen by recruits. After reassuring the Londoners of their intention, Warwick entered the City at the head of his army. He produced a ‘Manifesto’ of their complaints and demands. The importance of this document is that it is the only evidence we have of Yorkist intentions. It contained a number of clauses based on Cade’s manifestos of a decade earlier. There were accusations of peculation and corruption, the loss of France and misgovernment at home. However, it fudged the issue of succession; an indication perhaps that the Calais lords were not now sure what to do. They did however reaffirm the legitimacy of the king’s royal authority and their personal loyalty to him. It seems that this was a pre-requisite to their entry into London. The natural sympathy Londoner’s felt for York did not translate into support for the king’s deposition. Warwick left London with his army on the 5 July 1460. Within 5 days, he had destroyed the Lancastrian cause at the battle of Northampton. Buckingham, Shrewsbury and Egremont were slain The king was captured in his tent, where yet again, the Yorkists pledged their loyalty to him on their knees. While all this was happening, York himself remained in Ireland.
Warwick was quick to organise the government of the realm. However, things did not look promising with so many dangerous Lancastrians at large: the queen and her son, Somerset, ‘Black hearted’ Clifford, and Exeter. Several commentators at this time have noted the passivity of the king. He was a pale shadow of a monarch, lacking ‘wit and spirit’. Although he had all the trappings of royalty he had none of the substance. The Yorkists’ difficulties were particularly apparent outside London and the Home Counties. However, their lack of vindictiveness, suggests a genuine desire for peace and stability under an authoritative regime.
York’s arrival in England on the 9 September 1460, though not unexpected betrayed a possible dissonance between his agenda and that of his Calais colleagues, including his own son. York is out of touch with reality at this point. Warwick, aware of the widespread sympathy and support for the king (though not for his Lancastrian ministers or his queen), had modified his view. Deposition was not an option anymore. York, however, still clung to his ambition to succeed, and his progress through England towards London was both measured and regal. It was within a few days of his landing, whilst at Chester, that according to Professor McFarlane he renounced his allegiance to the king. If that is true, then his intentions cannot have been a closely guarded secret. Whether Warwick knew of York’s intention is arguable. The pro- Warwick chroniclers Waurin suggests he did not (It would not do for an English hero to be seen as an oath breaker) but that has the smack of propaganda and is implausible. A more likely scenario is one of the following (i) York and Warwick discuss deposition in Dublin and disagree. Warwick, unable to change the duke’s mind leaves; (ii) Warwick encouraged York to be more open about his ambition and agreed to go ahead and prepare the way by organising some ‘ we want York for king’ type receptions. There is good reason to think that York genuinely believed Warwick was drumming-up support for him. If not, it makes nonsense of his ‘royal’ progress, his ostentatious entry into London and his actions at Westminster. If Waurin is right, then York’s actions were (in Johnsons words) examples of ‘extreme stupidity’.
York claims the throne
York’s comment in Westminster Hall, when asked if he wanted to see the king: “I know of no one in the realm who would not more fitly come to me than I to him”, was met by a stunned silence. Nobody moved; nobody said anything. York was perplexed but not dismayed. Symbolically, he took-up lodgings in the queen’s chamber and he made it clear that the throne should never have been denied him. He planned his coronation for the 13 October 1460, just three days away. Although York had armed men to back his claim he had nothing else. There was no public support for the deposition of Henry and the English peerage as a group were dead set against it. On the 11 October, the Londoners complained to Warwick about York’s entrance to London, which had upset everyone. On the 12 October the lords met in council at Blackfriars. The discussion was heated and the conclusion certain; the deposition of king Henry VI was unthinkable. The bishops of Rochester and Ely were sent to York to explain. There had been many oaths and pledges of loyalty already given to the king; Furthermore, the deposition of the anointed king would be unpopular in London. York met the lords’ objections point-by-point and continued with the preparations for his coronation the next day. The lords resumed their meeting early on the 13 October; they sent Thomas Neville to talk sense into York. Their message was blunt. The lords did not support York’s claim to the throne. It must be assumed that the Calais lords acquiesced with that decision, at least for the time being. Reluctantly, York agreed to stop the preparation for his coronation and to be guided by the council.
In view of this, it is presumably with the lord’s agreement that a few days later (16 October 1460) that York presented a written claim to the throne, setting out his grounds and title. To buy time, the lords submitted the claim to the King’s Justices for an opinion. However, the judges declined jurisdiction on the grounds that the royal succession was an issue beyond their competence. It remained a matter for parliament.
Parliament debated the issue from the 22 until the 25 October 1460. They accepted the superiority of York’s title but declined to give it effect. Henry was still king but the rest was uncertain. This constitutional impasse had to be resolved, and on the last day of October a compromise was settled. Unfortunately, it was the worst of all worlds for the king, for York and for the realm. Henry was to retain his throne for his lifetime, when he was to be succeeded by York. Prince Edward the king’s son was disinherited. It was a compromise that guaranteed a civil war. Nobody in their right mind could possibly have believed that Queen Margaret or the Lancastrian lords would accept it. York’s clumsy attempt to get the king to abdicate didn’t work, but is indicative of the pressure on York from his own side.
On this construction of events it is clear that the plan agreed between York and Warwick in Dublin had misfired. The lord’s refusal to co-operate was the stumbling block. Once their opposition became obvious, Warwick backed away; If he hadn’t, the civil war might have started there and then in London. York’s problem was that without Warwick’s support he could not possibly win, and he knew it. Viewed in that light the compromise might have been an effective way to avoid an immediate civil war. The underlying cause of York’s failure was that he had failed to establish any personal failure in the king. Unlike Edward II and Richard II, his predecessors, Henry VI was not a demonstrably bad king. His subjects sympathised with him. Moreover, it seems unlikely that on such an important issue as the crown not too many men were swayed by York’s academic, legal argument. Whilst York’s hereditary succession was a strong point in his favour, it was overmatched in peoples’ minds by the longevity of the Lancastrian dynasty thus far, and also their sentimental attachment to the son of a great English warrior king. They might have come around to York’s way of thinking in time. Unfortunately, he did not give them time. Whereas, in1399, Bolingbroke allowed the lords weeks to acclimatise to the change, York gave them days. All this made little difference to York since he only survived his humiliation by a couple of months. He died in an unnecessary battle on the penultimate day of the year at the hands of his nemesis, Queen Margaret.
Personally, I do not think York planned to take the throne until the situation in 1459 made it plain that he must succeed or perish. The obduracy of the government, particularly the queen made it impossible to achieve political reform without removing the king, the source of royal authority. This was the constitutional weakness in the notion of absolute personal rule. An English monarch could only be removed by committing treason against him.
. ‘The Remembrance of the firste batell of Seint Albanis’: see British Library MS Adds 48031A ff127v— 129 reproduced at pages 191-193 of Margaret Lucille Kekewich and four others (editors) –The Politics of Fifteenth Century England: John Vale’s Book (Allan Sutton Publishing 1995) [John Vales Book]
 Kekewich at page 22: this quote is part of an assessment of Yorkist ideology by John Watts (Polemic and Politics in the 1450’s) published in John Vale’s book.
 Trevor Royle- The Wars of the Roses (Abacus 2010) at page 237; Royle is quoting Dr Thomas Gascoigne the chancellor of Oxford University writing in 1457 (‘Loci e libro veritatum, J E T Rogers (editor) (Oxford 1881) at pages 203-206. See also Griffiths at page 776 who describes Dr Gascoigne as ‘embittered’.
. RA Griffiths -The Reign of King Henry VI (Sutton 1987 edition); see pages 773-785 or a useful analysis of the Lancastrian government between 1456 and 1460, and especially page 776 for an assessment of Queen Margaret.
. Griffiths at pages 823 and 824; it is clear from his detailed analysis that the Acts of Attainder passed on the Yorkist lords were intended to destroy them utterly. They were permanent, with no hope of pardon unless the king so wished. Griffiths concludes that lawyers (very likely) including John Morton drafted the acts.
. P A Johnson – Duke Richard of York 1411-1460 (Oxford 1991 corrected edition) at pages 195 to 200; Griffiths at pages 855 and 856; and Royle at page 251. The Yorkist leaders met at Waterford and then moved to Dublin. There is no record of what they discussed; though, it seems obvious that they were concocting their plan for returning to England. What seems to have been agreed is that they would seek greater support from the English lords and mount a co-ordinated landing in England: Warwick in Kent and York in the north at the appropriate time.
 So called for his oft expressed desire for vengeance for the death of his father at first St Albans
 Griffiths page 864; it should be noted that he was in the hands of strangers; men he had neither selected nor knew. It is not surprising he was downcast.
 Johnson at pages 213 to 216 quotes at length from an undated and anonymous letter to John Tiptof , earl of Worcester that suggests that York’s intention was to depose king Henry VI and have himself crowned on the 13 October 1460.
. See Johnson at pages 210 to 218 for a detailed account of events during October 1460. I have taken the liberty of lifting this account almost verbatim from Johnson.