Edward IV: The Sun in Splendour

The term “Wars of the Roses” first came into common usage in 1829 with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, which tells of the Swiss involvement in the Burgundian Wars in the wake of the battle of Tewkesbury. Scott had based the name on a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 where, in the Temple Church Gardens, noblemen choose white or red roses to decide which faction—York or Lancaster—they will support. Otherwise, the civil conflicts were mostly referred to as “The Cousins’ Wars”, owing to the fact that almost all of the major protagonists were related to each other in some way. While the white rose was used as a symbol by the Yorkists, the red rose of Lancaster is not thought to have been introduced until after the battle of Bosworth. Neither did the rival factions have much in the way of connection with the cities of Lancaster and York. The Lancastrian lands and offices were mainly in Cheshire, North Wales and Gloucestershire, while those of the Yorkists were evenly spread throughout England and the Welsh Marches.

Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault had thirteen children, among them five sons who reached adulthood. All five entered into arranged marriages with powerful English heiresses, as a result of which the first English dukedoms were created: Lancaster, Gloucester, Clarence, Cornwall and York. All of the descendants of these dukes would at some stage of their careers put in claims for the throne.

The eldest son of Edward III—Edward, the Black Prince—died in June 1376, and the king himself died one year later and was succeeded by his ten-year old grandson, the Black Prince’s son, who became Richard II. Childless, Richard named Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, as his heir presumptive, but Mortimer died in 1398. The throne was usurped the following year by Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, who became Henry IV—a move which saw a by-passing of the normal line of succession, and which would eventually result in the Wars of the Roses.

Henry Bolingbroke established the House of Lancaster, and the English throne remained relatively secure until his death in 1413, when he was succeeded by his son Henry V, arguably the greatest of the English warrior kings and one who enjoyed immense popularity on account of his triumphs over the French during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Problems—political, social and financial—came about as a result of his unexpected demise in 1422, aged just thirty-five, when the throne was inherited by his nine-month old son, Henry VI.

There had been one notable insurrection mounted against Henry V: the Southampton Plot of 1415, led by Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a son of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley. Cambridge had been subsequently apprehended and executed at the start of the campaign which led to the battle at Agincourt. His wife was Anne Mortimer, a descendant of Lionel of Antwerp—Edward III’s second son. Their son was Richard Duke of York, the father of the future Edward IV, whose right to the throne during  the early  years of  Henry VI was, he believed, far stronger than that of any Lancastrian claimant in that he was descended from two of Edward III’s sons—Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley—while Henry was descended from just one, the king’s third son, John of Gaunt. The time was ripe, therefore, to take advantage of Henry’s minority and the fierce and bloody squabbles over his Protectorship.

Edward IV has always been overshadowed by his controversial younger brother, Richard III. Such was his reputation that he is often most remembered for his pursuit of pleasure—the archetypal medieval playboy. There was considerably more to him than this. During the first half of his reign, he was an astute military technician, almost on a par with Henry V. He never lost a battle. Edward was a big man, extremely courageous, and a level-headed strategist. He was a personal, approachable monarch, revered and respected by his subjects. The second half of his reign finds him entirely different. With his Treasury solvent after being stretched to the limit financing the quelling of a decade’s civil unrest, and with England enjoying a peace marred only by the murky intrigues of his brother, Clarence, Edward found himself at liberty to indulge in his fancies. He lived, loved, and spent more extravagantly more than any king before him. Though devoted to his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, he played the field—there were hundreds of women, and at least one male lover. He threw lavish parties which were the talk of Europe, and sadly ate himself into an early grave, dying while still in his prime, and leaving England to face the most chaotic phase in its history thus far, and with its greatest mystery: the Princes in the Tower.