by Richard H. Fay
The fifteenth century English civil war that became known as the “Wars of the Roses” arose out of tension between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. Both dynasties could trace their ancestry back to Edward III. Both vied for influence at the court of the Lancastrian King Henry VI. The growing enmity that existed between these two noble lineages eventually led to a pattern of political manoeuvring, backstabbing, and bloodshed that culminated in a contest for the crown and Edward of York’s seizure of the throne to become Edward IV, first Yorkist King of England.
Born at Rouen on April 28, 1442, Edward was the eldest son of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, “The Rose of Raby”. Dubbed “The Rose of Rouen” due to his fair features and place of birth, Edward sported golden hair and an athletic physique. Growing to over six feet tall, the young Earl of March developed into the conventional medieval image of a military leader, ever ready to enter the fray. Intelligent and literate, Edward could read, write, and speak English, French, and a bit of Latin. He enjoyed certain chivalric romances and histories as well as the more physical aristocratic pursuits of hunting, hawking, jousting, feasting, and wenching. Edward proved time and again to be a valiant warrior and competent commander, personally brave and at the same time capable of understanding the finer points of strategy and tactics. As king, he displayed a direct straightforwardness and lacked much of the devious cunning exhibited by some of his contemporaries.
Young Edward of March became embroiled in the dynastic struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York while still a teen. The family feud erupted into violence for the first time on May 22, 1455, when Yorkist forces under command of the Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick, and Lancastrian forces under command of the Duke of Somerset and King Henry, came to blows on the streets of St. Albans. After a disastrous debacle at Ludford Bridge on October 12, 1459, the Yorkist leaders fled for Calais and Ireland. Edward, Earl of March, was among those declared guilty of high treason by an Act of Attainder passed by Parliament on November 20.
In the summer of 1460, the Earl of March sailed from Calais to Sandwich with the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick and two-thousand men-at-arms. During Edward’s first proper taste of battle at Northampton in July of that year, he and the Duke of Norfolk co-commanded the vanguard that eventually breached the Lancastrian field fortifications, thanks in part to the traitorous actions of the Lancastrian turncoat Lord Grey of Ruthyn. After the Yorkist victory at Northampton, Edward’s father returned to England and made clear his desire to become king, but the assembled lords failed to support his claim.
With the contest between Lancaster and York still undecided, Edward was given his first independent command. He was sent to Wales to quell an uprising led by Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, while his father marched out of London to tackle the northern allies of Henry VI’s Queen Margaret of Anjou. Drawn out of Sandal Castle by the appearance of a Lancastrian army, Richard of York fell in battle outside its walls on December 30, 1460. His severed head, along with those of his younger son Edmund, the Earl of Rutland, and Richard Neville, the Earl of Salisbury, soon adorned spikes atop the city of York’s Micklegate Bar. A paper crown placed on his bloody pate mocked the Duke’s failed bid for the throne. On the site of his father’s death, Edward later erected a simple memorial consisting of a cross enclosed by a picket fence.
Now Duke of York, Edward gathered an army in the Welsh marches to avenge the deaths of his father and younger brother. Having spent his boyhood in Sir Richard Croft’s castle near Wigmore, Edward was well known in the region. He made ready to march toward London to support the Earl of Warwick, but then turned north to face an enemy force led by the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire. A strange sight greeted the anxious Yorkist troops at Mortimer’s Cross that frosty dawn of February 2, 1461. Three rising suns shone in the morning sky. Quick to declare this meteorological phenomenon a positive omen, Edward announced that the Holy Trinity was watching over his army. After his victory at Mortimer’s Cross, Edward added the sunburst to his banner and badge. To make clear that the conflict had entered a more savage phase, Edward ordered the execution of Owen Tudor and nine other captured Lancastrian nobles. Tudor’s severed head went on display on the market cross at Hereford, where a mad woman combed his hair, washed his bloody face, and lit candles around the grisly memorial.
On February 17, the Earl of Warwick suffered his first defeat at the second battle St. Albans, brought about in part by treachery within his ranks. However, London refused to open its gates to Queen Margaret’s looting Lancastrian army, a force the citizens of the capital feared was full of northern savages. Reunited with King Henry, but frustrated by London’s mistrustful citizenry, the queen withdrew her forces toward York. Warwick and what troops he had left then met up with the victorious Edward at either Chipping Norton or Burford on February 22.
Greeted by cheers, Edward and the Earl of Warwick, marched into the capital on February 26. Warwick’s brother, the Chancellor George Neville, asked the people who they wished to be King of England and France. They answered with shouts for Edward. On March 4, 1461, the Duke of York rode from Baynard’s Castle to Westminster, where the Yorkist peers and commons and merchants of London formally proclaimed him King Edward IV.
The new Yorkist king’s official coronation was postponed while he prepared to set out in pursuit of Margaret and Henry. After sending Lord Fauconberg northward at the head of the king’s footmen on the 11th, Edward marched out of the capital on the 13th. He issued orders prohibiting his army from committing robbery, sacrilege, and rape upon penalty of death. He followed the trail of pillaged towns and razed homesteads left behind by Margaret’s northern moss-troopers.
On March 22, Edward received word that his enemies had taken up position behind the River Aire. On March 28, his vanguard tangled with a Lancastrian force holding the wooden span at Ferrybridge. Outflanking the defenders by sending a part of his army across the Aire at Castleford, Edward managed to push his men across the bridge and up the Towton road.
The two armies drew up in battle order on a snowy Palm Sunday, March 29, 1461. At some point during the morning the snow shifted, blowing into the faces of the Lancastrian soldiers. Taking advantage of the favorable wind, Fauconberg ordered his archers forward. The ensuing volley initiated the biggest, bloodiest, and most decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses.
Edward displayed steadfast courage as the battle raged. The young king rode up and down the line and joined in the melee whenever the ranks appeared ready to waver. No quarter was given, for both sides wished to settle the issue once-and-for-all, and the dead piled up between the opposing men-at-arms. At times, the fighting momentarily ceased while the bodies of the slain were pulled aside to make room for continued bloodshed.
After several hours of fierce fighting, the Yorkist line began to give way. However, the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk’s reinforcements tipped the balance in the Yorkist favor, and the exhausted Lancastrian army eventually faltered and broke. Many fleeing soldiers were cut down by Yorkist prickers in an area now known as Bloody Meadow. As was allegedly his habit when victorious, Edward may have given orders to spare the commons but slay the lords. Those Lancastrian nobles that survived the slaughter, along with King Henry, Queen Margaret, and their son Prince Edward, sought sanctuary in Scotland.
Victory at Towton established the Yorkist dynasty, but over the next three years Edward’s rule still faced a series of Lancastrian-inspired rebellions. Many of these uprisings against the Yorkist crown centred on Lancastrian strongholds in Northumberland. Most of Queen Margaret’s moves in the years immediately following the battle revolved around control of various castles, with some rather dubious aid from the Scots. In 1463, Margaret was finally forced to flee to France when Warwick and his brother routed her Scottish allies at Norham. Left behind by his queen, Henry VI held state in the gloomy fortress at Bamburgh. Warwick besieged this stronghold during the summer of 1464, and it became the first English castle to succumb to cannon fire. Captured in Clitherwood twelve months later and abandoned by his queen and allies, the Lancastrian king was sent to the Tower of London. Edward’s throne finally seemed secure. However, Edward next faced threat from an unexpected corner as Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, turned on the man he helped make king.
In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a comparatively lowborn Lancastrian widow. This caused a rift to form between the king and the Earl of Warwick. Edward’s in-laws began to exert a growing influence over his court. Displeased with his own waning influence, in 1469 Warwick orchestrated a rebellion in the north. Edward remained in Nottingham while his Herbert and Woodville allies suffered defeat at Edgecote on July 26, 1469. The king then fell under Warwick’s protection. On March 12, 1470, Edward was able to rout the rebels at the battle of Losecote Field, a moniker that arose from the fact that many men fleeing the battle discarded their livery jackets displaying the incriminating badges of Warwick and Edward’s treacherous brother, the Duke of Clarence. With their treachery made plain, Warwick and Clarence sailed to France and formed an unlikely alliance with Margaret of Anjou. When Warwick returned to England with his new Lancastrian allies, Edward the lost support of the country and fled to the Netherlands. Warwick “The Kingmaker” reinstated the Lancastrian monarch during Henry’s Readeption of 1470-1.
Edward IV spent his time in exile assembling an invasion fleet at Flushing and trying to woo his wayward brother back to the Yorkist cause. On March 14, 1471, Edward returned to the realm he claimed as his own, landing at Ravenspur. The Duke of Clarence promptly deserted Warwick and marched to his brother’s aid. Edward headed for London and entered the capital on April 11. Reinforced by Clarence’s troops, Edward took King Henry out of the capital and led a swelling army to face Warwick at Barnet. Edward suffered an early setback as he clashed with his one-time ally on that misty Easter morn of April 14, 1471. The Yorkist left collapsed, and the center was slowly pushed back, but confusion caused by the obscuring fog eventually doomed Warwick’s army. Warwick’s soldiers mistook the star with streams livery worn by the men of the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford for Edward’s sun with streams and loosed volleys of arrows into the approaching troops. With cries of “treason”, Oxford’s men left the field. Sensing the unease that rattled the Lancastrian ranks, Edward rallied his men and pressed the attack. Under this renewed pressure, Warwick’s army wavered and broke. The earl tried to flee the battlefield, but Yorkist soldiers pulled him from his saddle and despatched him with a knife thrust through an eye. Edward arrived on the scene too late to save Warwick from such an ignoble fate.
On May 4, Edward once more led his troops into battle, this time against Queen Margaret’s army at Tewkesbury. Margaret and her son, Prince Edward, had landed at Weymouth with a small force the same day of Edward’s victory over Warwick at Barnet. Under the leadership of the Duke of Somerset, the Lancastrian force moved toward Wales to try to join forces with Jasper Tudor. Wishing to bring Margaret’s army to battle before it crossed the Severn, Edward gave chase. He caught up with Somerset and Margaret at Tewkesbury. Though his army was slightly outnumbered, the Yorkist king once again triumphed over the Lancastrians. Margaret’s son, Prince Edward, was captured and slain. Some Lancastrian fugitives, including the Duke of Somerset, tried to seek sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey. Dispute surrounds the exact details regarding what happened inside. Edward either granted pardons to those sheltering within the abbey walls, and then reneged on his promise, or he and his men entered the building with swords drawn. Either way, those captives that survived the slaughter were subsequently executed.
With the exception of quickly quelled Kentish and northern revolts, Edward’s triumph at Tewkesbury signaled the end of Lancastrian opposition to his reign. Margaret was captured and brought before Edward on May 12. She remained his prisoner until ransomed by King Louis XI of France. After making his formal entry into London on the 21st, Edward arranged the clandestine murder of poor King Henry VI. Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, entered the Tower that evening. By the next morning, Henry, the potential focus of future Lancastrian resistance to Yorkist rule, was dead.
Following his final victory, Edward IV reigned over a relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous kingdom. Once the Yorkist usurper secured his throne, he showed a ravenous appetite for the opulence of royalty and eventually became rather overweight. As king, he ordered the construction of several grand churches. He was also known as a patron of the arts. A lover of luxury and keenly aware of the political power of a majestic presence, one of Edward’s first acts a few months after his return to the throne was the expenditure of large sums of money on a magnificent new wardrobe. The other crowned heads of Europe all recognized him as legitimate King of England. His brief war with France in 1475 ended when Louis XI agreed to pay Edward an annual subsidy. By 1478 Edward had paid off the debts amassed by his one-time enemies. Unlike many of England’s medieval kings, he died solvent. He introduced several innovations to the machinery of government that the Tudors later adopted and developed. However, his second reign was not without its troubles. Woodville influence over his court caused tension between Edward and the nobility. In 1478, Edward’s in-laws manipulated him into eliminating his disgruntled brother George, the Duke of Clarence. Edward died on April 9, 1483.
Edward of York had a remarkable military career. He personally commanded and fought in five separate battles, and never lost a single one. As a leader of armed men, he often displayed daring and dash. As leader of the Yorkist cause, he exhibited a contradictory mixture of magnanimity and ruthlessness. As king, Edward IV worked to elevate the crown above the nobility and did much to restore a sound government. Unfortunately, his rash marriage bore bitter fruit, sowing the seeds of disaster for his young sons. Edwards’s death in 1483 left a minor as heir. The Duke of Gloucester was named protector of the princes Edward and Richard. Gloucester eventually had his nephews declared bastards and had himself proclaimed King Richard III. His nephews may have been murdered in the Tower, perhaps under Richard’s direct order. Faced with an invasion force led by Henry Tudor, and betrayed by his barons, Richard fell in battle at Bosworth Field. His death marked the end of the Yorkist dynasty and the ascendancy of the Tudors.
The Poleaxe of Edward IV
Being a fierce fighter as well as a skilled commander, Edward was said to be especially proficient with that uniquely knightly pole arm, the poleaxe. A magnificently decorated example currently residing in the Musee de l’Armee in Paris, France, has been ascribed to that most aristocratic of medieval monarchs. The connection to Edward IV is dubious, but this beautiful weapon certainly belonged to some extremely wealthy French, Dutch, or English nobleman of the late fifteenth century. Any consummate warrior and lover of luxury such as Edward of York would certainly have appreciated how the weapon’s combination of fine fighting qualities and rich ornamentation.
Having more reach than a sword, the poleaxe was often the preferred weapon when men of rank fought on foot. Topped by a spike, the axe head was backed by either a hammer or a quadrilateral beak. Mounted on a haft about six feet long and wielded in both hands, the poleaxe could cut, bludgeon, and stab. Even though the example attributed to Edward’s ownership sports fine decorative elements, it still exhibits all the qualities of a functional weapon. A pronged hammer backs a slightly curved axe blade. A wickedly sharp, stout spike thrusts out of the hexagonal central socket. A sturdy rondel acts as a hand-guard.
The lordly embellishments of the Edward IV poleaxe set it apart from simpler period examples. It is profusely decorated with chiselled gilt bronze. The iron components emerge from the throats of stylized beasts. The socket is further decorated with engraved foliage, a knot of flowers, and a cluster of fiery clouds. The rondel takes the form of a full-blown heraldic rose. The assumption that this weapon once belonged to Edward IV arose from the fact that it exhibits the symbols of rose and flame, but such ornamentation was common in the fifteenth century. Still, this imagery does echo the white rose en soliel device Edward used on his banner and badge, so it may just be a weapon once wielded by that accomplished Yorkist warrior.
Arms and Armour from the 9th to the 17th Century, by Paul Martin
Arms and Armour of the Western World, by Bruno Thomas
Battle of Tewkesbury 4th May 1471, by P.W. Hammond, H.G. Shearring, and G. Wheeler
Battles in Britain and Their Political Background:1066-1746, by William Seymour
The Book of the Medieval Knight, by Stephen Turnbull
Campaign 66: Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets, by Christopher Gravett
Campaign 120: Towton 1461: England’s Bloodiest Battle, by Christopher Gravett
Campaign 131: Tewkesbury 1471: The Last Yorkist Victory, by Christopher Gravett
Men-at-Arms 145: The Wars of the Roses, by Terence Wise
The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses, by Philip A. Haigh
Who’s Who in Late Medieval England, by Michael Hicks
(Article originally published in Abandoned Towers, Issue #7, November 2010.)