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The Earliest Roots of the Wars of the Roses: Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster?

 

It may seem bizarre to go back to the reign of Edward II (reigned 1307-27) when talking about the Wars of the Roses, but bear with me.

Edward and his cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, got on together quite well in the early years of Edward’s reign. Gradually, though, a feud between them grew to the point where it became deadly. It arose from Edward’s very close relationship with his particular friend, Piers Gaveston. Lancaster clearly resented Gaveston’s influence – to put it mildly – and was instrumental in Gaveston’s downfall and death.

Immensely powerful, Lancaster was effectively the leader of the opposition to Edward’s kingship, and was at best unhelpful and uncooperative in his dealings with Edward. For example, he was careful not to take part in the Bannockburn campaign, and frequently refused to attend parliaments and councils. There is some evidence to suggest that Lancaster was not in the best of health and this may help explain his tendency to spend much of his time inactive at Pontefract Castle, his stronghold in Yorkshire, instead of taking part in campaigns either with or against the King.

A rising of marcher lords in particular against Edward II and his new favourites the Despensers led to a situation where the rebels withdrew into Yorkshire. Here Lancaster (who had certainly been in their counsels throughout) combined with them, but they were heavily defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Most of the leaders not killed in battle were executed, the most important of those executed being Lancaster himself on 22 March 1322. Lancaster was not allowed to speak in his own defence, nor to have anyone to speak for him. He was the first earl to be executed since Waltheof in 1076.

Naturally, his extensive land holdings were confiscated. His brother Henry was, in 1324, allowed to become Earl of Leicester, but other lands were either kept by Edward II himself or redistributed to others, notably the Despensers.

Incredibly (given that Thomas was neither a particular able man nor a notably pious one) a religious cult of Thomas of Lancaster emerged. Miracles were claimed on his behalf and there was a campaign to have him canonised. It is hard to see this cult as anything but a straightforward political campaign against Edward II and (later) against Edward’s legacy.

After the fall of Edward II, the judgement against Thomas of Lancaster was reversed. (This process may conveniently be called “The Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster”.) Naturally, his lands were restored to his brother and heir, and subsequently passed by inheritance to Blanche of Lancaster and then, after her death, by “the courtesy of England” to her husband, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and uncle to Richard II.

Thomas of Lancaster was not the only one to have a cult attached to him. The equally unsuitable (on the face of it) Edward II was also revered as a saint by many individuals. Once again there was a strong political element to it. Richard II supported this cult because he saw the fate of his great-grandfather as an insult and a threat to his kingship, and to kingship in general. It did not help that during the turmoil of 1386-1388 Richard was threatened with the fate of Edward II by his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester.

So by the 1390s there were two rival cults in active operation. That of Edward II, representing the untrammelled power of the Crown, was openly sponsored by King Richard, who sought to persuade the Pope to canonise his great-grandfather. That of Thomas of Lancaster, representing, in effect, the right to oppose the crown and limit its authority, was sponsored, slightly more quietly, by John of Gaunt and Bolingbroke.

The political importance of the cults is obvious. For example, if Richard could have Edward II canonised, it would imply that Edward’s opponents – and by extension, his own – were wrong in the eyes of God, and indeed downright wicked. Richard’s position would be immensely strengthened by such a development.

Yet there was an even more practical element to this. If Edward II was justified in executing and forfeiting Thomas of Lancaster, did not that imply that the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster should be reversed? After all, making war on king who also happened to be a saint was not something to be passed over.

The reversal of the Judgement was extremely tempting for Richard II and his allies. First of all, it would solve the problem of the “overmighty subject” John of Gaunt, who would, at a stroke, be relieved of much of his property. Not all, but certainly enough to cut him down to size. Secondly it would enrich Richard himself, and certain of his allied nobles, not least Thomas Despenser, Lord Despenser, the King’s cousin by marriage. Thirdly it would emphasise the argument that “Edward II was right” and thus seriously weaken Richard’s own critics.

The problem was that Gaunt was so powerful it was simply not practical politics to denude him of so much of his inheritance.

Thomas Despenser came of age in 1394, and, after taking part in Richard II’s expedition to Ireland, he must almost immediately have begun to draft his claim for the reversal of the sentences passed against his ancestors, Hugh the Younger, and Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester. The implications were far-reaching. The earlier Despensers, at the time of their fall, had been immensely rich and in possession of huge tracts of land, some of which had been gained by dubious means, to say the least.

It is obvious from Thomas Despenser’s petition to Parliament that nothing had been forgotten. He even detailed the considerable herds of animals his forebears had lost. It is most unlikely that he went to to this trouble – for the research must have been considerable, and expensive – without, at the very least, the tacit support of Richard II. Despenser was not only high in the King’s favour but an active courtier, as well as being the son-in-law of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Given that he moved in such circles he must have had reasonable hope of success. He was also allowed to quarter the arms of the de Clare earls of Gloucester with his own – for which he must have had royal permission, if not encouragement.

The implications were far-reaching. Various prominent people were sitting on lands taken (rightly or wrongly) from the Despensers in the late 1320s. The most prominent of all being John of Gaunt himself. If this contributed to Gaunt and his son, Henry Bolingbroke, feeling insecure, it is scarely surprising.

Despenser’s petition was accepted by the Shrewsbury Parliament of January 1398. But almost immediately he was required by the King to swear that he would not proceed against the Duke of Lancaster. We may safely assume that Richard had been “lobbied” by Gaunt, and that this protection was thus secured. Despenser went on to grant quitclaims to the earls of March and Salisbury – presumably after due negotiation.

The issue remained “live” however, and, following their famous meeting on the road that led to their quarrel, Henry Bolingbroke claimed that Thomas Mowbray had warned him that there was an intrigue to reverse the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster. It is at least possible that this was true, and that the lords closest to the King were pushing this policy. It is equally possible tht Bolingbroke was well aware of this without needing to be told.

What does seem to be clear is that the matter was at the least a nagging worry at the back of the minds of Gaunt and Bolingbroke. King Richard was not as reliant on Gaunt as he had once been, and now had a very substantial group of supporters among the peers. The situation was not stable enough for comfort.

As is well known, the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray led to both men being banished from the country. Gaunt himself was now in declining health, and he died in February 1399, with his son still in exile in France. Richard now took the Lancastrian lands into his hands and then (allegedly) extended the term of Bolingbroke’s banishment to life.

The odd thing is that Richard continued to send Henry quite lavish cash sums to maintain himself. (He was not like Somerset in the late 1460s, reduced to near-beggary.) In addition, when the Lancastrian lands were farmed out, it is vitally important to understand that they were not permanently alienated. The grants had the reservation “until Henry, Duke of Lancaster, shall sue for the same.”

While Richard II’s exact intentions are rather opaque – he was like Elizabeth I in that at least – the wording indicates that he recognised his cousin as Duke of Lancaster and that his return to England was envisaged at some stage. Had Henry been forfeited in the normal way, he would not have been given the title Duke of Lancaster, but instead a formula such as “Henry, calling himself Duke of Lancaster” or “Henry, late Duke of Hereford.” I stress this point because it seems to be taken as a given by most commentators that Henry had been (in effect) attainted. He simply was not. Though it might be argued he was in limbo.

So why was Henry so anxious to return and overthrow Richard’s government? On the face of it, the matter was not urgent, nor was he threatened with either immediate impoverishment or the permanent forfeiture of his lands.

One factor may be opportunism. Since Richard had gone to Ireland and thus removed all his most prominent supporters and their military potential from England, Henry had a window during which invasion was (relatively) risk-free. It so happened that Richard’s ally, the Duke of Burgundy, was temporarily away from Paris and his influence thereby eclipsed. Henry may simply have thought such a favourable chance might never appear again.

Or was it rather that he feared Richard’s agenda post Ireland? If Richard had returned victorious, or reasonably so, he would have been in a position to do pretty much what he liked. The active nobility were nearly all in his pocket and he certainly had control of Parliament. It would have been an ideal opportunity to reverse the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster, and Henry, as an exile, would not have been able to do a thing about it. Richard and his supporters, greatly enriched by the booty, would have been just as untouchable as Gaunt himself had been in the 1390s.

(This article was inspired by the author’s reading of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson which includes reference to the rival cults of Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster. The structure built upon it is largely a conjectural theory, but it is not without some factual basis. The Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster was absolutely key to the security of the House of Lancaster and its vast inheritance. It seems certain that in the late 1390s, for good reason or not, they began to fear that it might be reversed. My essential argument is that prompted the urgent imperative to remove King Richard II. Once he was gone, the House of Lancaster was secure from this threat. But the disruption in the right line of succession led eventually to the Wars of the Roses.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plantagenet Ireland and Poynings’ Law

It is fair to say that most medieval English kings had little interest in Ireland except as a source of revenue. (The same was probably true about England and Wales but it seems too cynical to say it, and at least they did live there.)

Prior to the Bruce invasion, Ireland yielded between £5000 and £20,000 a year to the Exchequer. Even the lower figure was a useful sum in medieval terms, bearing in mind that the “qualification” for an earldom at this point was about £666. So in a bad year, Ireland gave the king the equivalent of more than seven earldoms, after expenses.

By the 1350s the net revenue was down to between £1,000 and £2,000, while by the start of Richard II’s reign Ireland was running a deficit. Given the general state of the Exchequer this was a Very Bad Thing and Something Had To Be Done. (1)

Of course, simply pulling out of Ireland and making a saving was unthinkable. Instead various half-hearted measures were tried, and various people lined up to take the place in hand, ranging from Robert de Vere (created Duke of Ireland!) to Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, the King’s uncle. The matter was evidently seen as (relatively) a low priority, and in view of the state of England at this time, this is quite understandable.

Eventually, in 1394, Richard II himself, personally, set out for the Emerald Isle with a well-equipped army 7000-8000 men. By the standards of English military expeditions in Ireland it was extraordinarily successful and well-executed. Not that Richard II gets much credit for it. By January 1395 the various Irish chiefs had begun to submit to Richard and by early Spring the capitulation was complete.

Richard, writing to his Council in England, stated that rebellion arose from past failures of government and that unless mercy was shown his opponent would ally with the “wild Irish”. He therefore proposed to take them under his protection until their offences had been purged or excused. (2)

This conciliatory policy towards the Irish speaks strongly in Richard’s favour. He intended that from now on there should be “liege Irish” as well as “liege English” and he tried to settle some of the many grievances (mainly about land) between the two groups. Of course this was a major task, and probably could never have been completed to everyone’s satisfaction even if Richard had remained in Ireland for ten years. However, it was a settlement of sort.

Unfortunately Richard was forced to cut his visit short due to issues in England, leaving the young Earl of March behind as Lieutenant. March was of course also Earl of Ulster, and in that capacity had land issues of his own., particularly with the O’Neill family. By 1396 March was leading major raids into O’Neill territory, and the short period of peace was under extreme strain. By 1397 Leinster was also in a state very close to war.

In 1398, not long after extending March’s term of office, Richard II decided to replace him with the Duke of Surrey, Thomas Holland. Surrey, Richard’s nephew of the half-blood, was another young and inexperienced man, with the added disadvantage that he had no hereditary lands in Ireland at all. He required, therefore, heavy subsidy from the Exchequer. Before the change could be completed, March had been killed in the fighting, as was his son in 1425.

King Richard now decided on a second personal visit to Ireland. This was a strange decision, given that he had just annexed the lands of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and that Bolingbroke was in France, poised to invade England. However, we have the benefit of hindsight. Richard had no reason to suspect that the French, his supposed allies, would allow any such thing – and but for a temporary shift in power at the French court, they would not have done.

Richard’s second visit to Ireland was less successful. In a parley between Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester and Art Macmurrough – who styled himself King of Leinster – the latter made it clear he was unwilling to submit. Before much more could be done Richard was forced to leave Ireland to confront Bolingbroke, and Ireland was once again left more or less to its own devices.

It is remarkable that any remnant of English lordship survived Henry IV’s reign, given the state of Henry’s Exchequer and the low priority given to Ireland by a king who was fighting on several fronts, including internal battles against his opponents. But the fact is that somehow, it did. Indeed Irish-based ships co-operated with Henry in the re-conquest of Anglesey.

Henry V and Henry VI were also unable (or unwilling) to give great priority to Ireland. Ralph A. Griffiths states “The isolated administration entrenched in Dublin and its ‘pale’ was more often than not subject to the rough dictates of Anglo-Irish magnates like Desmond and Ormond, and for some time past it had been assailed by a Celtic resurgence among the native Irish themselves that was cultural and social as well as military in character.” (3)

The attitude of the Anglo-Irish peers was to remain key, because unless and until the English government was willing and able to finance significant military intervention in Ireland, their power made them the most effective players on the island. Of course, the rivalries between them meant that the Crown was often able to play one family off against another.

In 1437 the author of The Libelle of Englysche Polycye expressed concern about the state of royal government in Ireland, suggesting the country could become a base for French, Scottish and even Spanish enemies, with whom hostile elements in Ireland could form an alliance. This fear of encirclement explains much of English/British policy towards Ireland over the next several hundred years, although in the short term very little was done about it, not least because England simply did not have the resources. (Such resources as were available were being thoroughly over-stretched in France.)

By this time the Irish revenues were failing to maintain the cost of government there, and even its most senior officers struggled to obtain their salaries. In 1441 it was reported that the charges of the Justiciar of Ireland and his underlings exceeded revenue by £1,456. (4)

In December 1447, Richard, Duke of York took on the role of Lieutenant of Ireland, with a salary of 4000 marks for the first year and £2000 in each of the following years of a supposed ten year appointment. York, who was very much at odds with Suffolk and Somerset at home, was effectively ‘promoted’ to a backwater. Those responsible doubtless thought that it would keep him quiet (and busy) for a long time. He was, of course, Earl of Ulster, and therefore had very significant landed interest in the country.

Not until summer 1449 did York actually set out – from Beaumaris. Even then he did so only because the King pressed him to go. He was received ‘ with great honour, and the earls of Ireland went into his house, as did also the Irish adjacent to Meath, and gave him as many beeves for the use of his kitchen as it pleased him to demand.’ (5)

That Richard, Duke of York, was a successful Lieutenant of Ireland is in some ways surprising. He was an aristocrat to his finger tips, and not generally noted for his people skills. If he had strengths they lay in his relative honesty and relative efficiency as an administrator and soldier. York failed miserably to unite the English nobility behind him, and yet he seems to have been well-regarded in Ireland. (In contrast to John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who was positively hated in the same role.)

York quickly summoned a great council at Dublin which ensured the protection of certain hard-pressed castles and towns and also sought to address some of the more extravagant abuses of the Irish government.

His problem was that the money he had been promised largely failed to appear. He received less than half of what he should have in the first two years, and that was in tallies. After December 1449 he received nothing at all. (6)

This helps explain why York eventually threw in his hand and returned to England.

However, after the debacle at Ludford Bridge, York was sufficiently confident of his welcome to return to Ireland (with his second son, Rutland) and was able to use it as a secure base to plot the overthrow of Henry VI’s government.

York encouraged or allowed the Irish Parliament to pass legislation which left the country almost, but not quite independent, Henry VI’s sovereignty being reduced to little more than a cipher. It was even declared that the introduction of English Privy Seal Letters into Ireland was a breach of the country’s liberties. In return the Parliament voted York men and money, and rejected Henry VI’s attempts to remove York from office. The duke was not quite King of Ireland, but he was something very close.

Thereafter Ireland became strongly Yorkist – even into early “Tudor” times. It may be that York’s almost accidental policy of granting autonomy was the answer to the Question. In May 1487, a young boy was crowned at Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral (right) as “Edward VI”. He may actually have been the ill-fated Earl of Warwick by that name but is traditionally named as “Lambert Simnel”, who was taken to work in Henry VII’s kitchen after the battle of Stoke Bridge ended his insurrection the following month. In his identification of the boy (7), Ashdown-Hill uses historical, numismatic and physical evidence cogently, as ever, eliminating the other possibilities.

As a result of “Lambert”‘s coronation, Henry VII’s regime decided to control Ireland more closely. The “Statute of Drogheda” (left) (“An Act that no Parliament be holden in this Land until the Acts be certified into England”) was passed in early or mid-1494 and is described as 10 Hen.7 c4 or 10 Hen.7 c9. It is also known by the name of the newly appointed Lord Deputy at the time: Sir Edward Poynings (1459-1521) and specified that no Irish Parliament could meet until its proposed legislation had been approved by the Lord Deputy, his Privy Council, the English monarch and his Parliament. Ireland was thus legislatively subjugated and its status changed again under the “Crown in Ireland Act” in 1542, becoming a kingdom (“An Act that the King of England, his Heirs and Successors, be Kings of Ireland”) under the same monarch as England, in place of a lordship. Curiously, this was in the same year that Wales was subsumed by the Kingdom of England (Laws in Wales Acts). As the sands of the “Tudor” era ran out, the Earl of Essex was sent to suppress another Ulster rebellion but ignored his orders and returned home to aim for the crown. James VI/I’s subsequent plantations filled the power vacuum left by the O’Neills.

Consequently, the “English Civil War” is also known as the “War of the Three Kingdoms”, each of which had a different religious settlement as Charles I’s reign began. Similarly, legend has it that George I expressed to plant St. James’ Park with turnips and asked an aide the price: “Only three crowns, Sire”. Poynings’ Law is still in force in Northern Ireland, whilst it was fully repealed in the Republic as late as 2007.

Notes

(1) All figures are from Richard II, Nigel Saul, page 273

(2) For more detail see Saul, p 281.

(3) The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 411.

(4) The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 412.

(5) Irish chronicle quoted in The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 421.

(6) The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 421.

(7) The Dublin King, John Ashdown-Hill particularly chapters 1-5.

7 things to know about the struggle between York and Lancaster….

york and lancaster roses

This link provides some interesting reading about the origins of the Wars of the Roses, as most people describe the civil wars between the Houses of York and Lancaster. A lot of the points are from very early on in the proceedings, which makes them all the more interesting to me.

 

Edmund of Langley

 

                                          Edward III tomb – Westminster Abbey

Today marks the anniversary of the death in 1402 of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, an undervalued and almost forgotten prince. Edmund deserves his place in history. Without him the House of York itself would never have existed, and its later members, who everyone finds so interesting, would never have been born.

It is worth remembering that Edmund had little in the way of landed property. Much of his income came from exchequer grants. Now, I am not suggesting he would have been better off as a brewer, or a pig farmer, but by the standards of 14th Century dukes he was virtually a pauper. (His son-in-law, Thomas Despenser, not even an earl until 1397, had a larger landed income.) Even if he had been a political genius, Edmund could never have matched his brother, John of Gaunt, in terms of impact. To be blunt, Gaunt had thousands of swords at his back, and Edmund had not. Indeed, in a world where Lancaster livery was all but ubiquitous, York’s retainers were few and far between.

It has been suggested that Edmund preferred hunting and hawking to politics. I am not sure this would necessarily be a bad thing if true, but the reality is that he was a frequent attender of Councils and witness of Charters, certainly in the second half of Richard II’s reign. His influence may have been quiet, but not necessarily absent altogether.

Nor was he lacking in spirit. At the time of the Merciless Parliament he quarreled with his other brother, Gloucester, then all-powerful, over the fate of Sir Simon Burley. Not only was this done in the Lords’ Chamber, before all, but Edmund actually challenged his brother to mortal combat. That it came to nothing, and that Burley eventually was executed, does not negate Edmund’s courage in bringing matters to such a head.

In his later years, Edmund was high in the favour of Richard II, heaped with honours, and possibly (per Ian Mortimer) selected as Richard’s legal successor. When Richard left for Ireland in 1399, York – not for the first time – was left behind as Keeper of England, and he loyally mustered what men he could to resist the invasion of Henry Bolingbroke. It’s almost certain that he did so with a heavy heart, for like many other nobles, he believed Bolingbroke had been wronged.

Eventually pinned down at Berkeley Castle by Bolingbroke’s much larger force, York had little choice but to negotiate and effectively surrender. From then on – possibly because it was the only realistic path – he was a constant supporter of Bolingbroke up to and beyond his usurpation. Indeed, it has been argued that he was instrumental in establishing Henry as king.

Be that as it may, it appears that he then retired from court and front-line politics. He was not in the best of health and may well have wanted to live out his days in peace. He died on 1st August 1402, and was buried at King’s Langley, his birthplace. (His tomb survives, although moved from its original location.)

He fathered three children, all of whom had fascinating careers in their own way. They were all born to Isabelle of Castile, daughter of King Pedro “the Cruel” or “the Just”, his title depending on which version of history you prefer. After her death in 1392 he married Joanne Holland, the very young daughter of the Earl of Kent. Joanne was Richard II’s niece of the half-blood; by her marriage she became his aunt as well. Joanne outlived Edmund by many years, took three more husbands, but had no children by any of them.

In passing, I might mention that Edmund was the only one of his brothers never to marry an heiress, something which contributed to his relative poverty. His marriage to Isabelle was largely a matter of tying up loose ends for Gaunt, who had of course married her elder sister and claimed Castile on her behalf. There is no evidence that Edmund received any compensation in return.

 

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