One of the notable things about the Wars of the Roses, as I may have mentioned before, is the central role in the drama played by powerful women. One of those was the Yorkist matriarch Cecily Neville, wife of Richard of York, mother to Edward IV, George of Clarence and Richard III as well as Anne Neville, Margaret of Burgundy and Elizabeth of York; she also had a further 6 children who did not survive infancy. Cecily lived throughout the wars of the roses- through times of danger to those of triumph, moving between the York HQs at Fotheringhay and Baynard’s Castle in London. She would live to watch her sons tear themselves apart; her son Edward IV making a poorly advised marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, of whom she seems to have strongly disapproved. Another whom she tried hard to dissuade from rebellion – but failed, to see him drowned in a vat of wine, by his brother; and the third usurping the throne and, probably, murdering her grandchildren. She’d live to see Margaret Beaufort’s son take the throne away from her brood. Her surviving will and papers showed how Cecily lived a life of impressive piety; largely literary and ascetic, solitary and private, but not without public display as well – such as the impressive reburial of her husband Richard of York. She has parallels in the depth and breadth of her reading with Margaret but unlike Margaret she left no educational foundations to celebrate her name into eternity. She would not die until 1495, and not before she’d sent the vanquishcer of her children, Henry VII, a very pointed present in the form of an image of the wheel of fortune. Don’t get too comfy she might have been saying, look at me, rags to rags in one generation.
I tell you all this, partly just from interest but also because Cecily’s daughters also played a key part in the violent politics of the time; in particular her daughter Margaret, who was born in 1446. Like her mother, Margaret of York was literate, pious, intelligent and deeply committed to the fortunes of her house, for which she never stopped plotting til her death in 1503. And she was given the means to fight for her house through her marriage, in 1467 to Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy.
Burgundy as you may or many not remember, was the rising star of medieval Europe, a dukedom so substantial that they challenged their feudal overlords, the kings of France and the HRE, in wealth and magnificence. Margaret had an active role at the glittering Burgundian court, particularly cultural; she commissioned manuscripts, encouraged Caxton, and indulged a passion for building and charitable works, encouraging education and strict religious movements. But she also held an active political role – both directly on occasion, especially after the Duke’s death, but also diplomatically.
And so it was that in 1470 when Edward IV was in exile in Flanders, ejected from the throne by Warwick in favour of Henry VI that his sister came to his aid – pleading with her husband Charles to support Edward, and help restore him to the English throne. To start with, Charles was not falling over himself to help – the Lancastrians were of course allied with France and Margaret of Anjou, and Charles, the Bold, was for the moment planning to act like Charles the wittle tiny mousey and avoid provoking French aggression. But later in 1470 Louis of France made his mind up for him by declaring war on Burgundy, and Edward had his support to regain his throne. Margaret met her brother at Hesdin that year before he returned to England, and would then spend considerable time and effort to reconcile Edward with his fickle brother, Clarence.
Edward spent the months in France drumming up support from potential advocates in England, men like the Percy family of Northumberland who had little to gain from a Lancastrian monarchy; and by March 1471 Edward had landed at Ravenspur in the north of England and was gathering men once more to his banner. One of those men, persuaded by his sister’s letters, was Clarence, and the battle was on once more.
The Lancastrians had not been idle in Edward’s absence, working to put roots down into the loam of their potential support. And so it was that the arch Lancastrian, the latest in the long string of Beaufort Dukes of Somerset came a-courting round to Stafford and Margaret’s door. His aim was to canvas for Stafford’s support in the forthcoming clash of the titans, kingmaker vs ex-king, and he came twice, staying 4 days at Woking second time round. Stafford and Margaret, though were hedging, as in hedging their bets, and Stafford was probably still deeply and passionately inclined to show as little interest as possible in anybody with a pulse. Who knows what approach Margaret took? Did she argue for a more energetic switch of sides for the Staffords from their traditional Yorkist home to the green fields of Lancaster? Whatever approach Margaret took, Beaufort went away without a firm commitment.
And meanwhile Edward was marching south towards the all important London, where Warwick hoped enthusiastic crowds and Corporation would rally round Henry VI and kick out the Yorkist pretenders. In fact, London was ever Yorkist in temperament, and did nothing of the sort, and instead opened the city gates with some enthusiasm, and on 11th April 1470 Edward IV entered, and took possession of Henry who was hauled back to the Tower. And there was much rejoicing. Elizabeth Woodville had taken refuge in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, from which she was sprung by her husband and the family reunited.
Stafford meanwhile had decided that he should not make the same mistake twice, and that he must this time show some enthusiasm for one of the candidates, or again see himself passed over or worse. So he was in London a few days after Edward’s arrival, and the Staffords had made a decision – again, what Margaret thought of this from a Beaufort angle is unknown. Stafford however was caught on the hop by a plantagenet in full hunt mode – Edward IV was all for a quick resolution and show down with Warwick, and before you could say pikemen, or even pikelet, Edward was for meeting Warwick’s much larger army now approaching London. 1471 was a year in which Edward showed all the energy that had been lacking the year before when he’d been outmanoeuvred. Stafford was caught with his pants down, since his metal pants were still in Woking, and had to be hurriedly sent for – and Stafford was thus committed as the Yorkist king set off for Barnet.
Warwick was feeling pretty confident as Edward approached; his army was almost certainly far larger, maybe as much as twice as big, but Edward was nothing daunted, and attacked on 14th April. It was a misty, foggy day, and the armies found it difficult to stay in contact – and on this occasion fortune favoured the bold; Warwick’s men started attacking each other instead of Edward’s men which is not a tactic that appears in Sun Tzu, Vegetius or indeed Clausewitz, nor even George Tomkyns Chesney for the field of glory that is the Dorking gap. As Warwick’s men ran in defeat after a vicious battle many bodies lay on the ground in death – and one of them belonged to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick; he would make and break kings no more. As the Crowland chronicler reported:
The same day after noon, the king came riding through the city and offered at St Pauls and so unto Westminster; and after him was brought King Henry, riding in a long blue velvet gown and so to Westminster and thence to the Tower, where he remained prisoner as he had done before
You have to feel a little sorry for Henry do you not? He must have been asking himself if he’d ever emerge again. He might secretly have been asking if he really wanted to…
Margaret had come up to London from Woking on the 17th. She sent a rider to Barnet, because there was no news about her husband. The rider returned with news – it was good and bad. Henry Stafford was alive. Hurrah! Henry Stafford had been badly wounded. Boo! We don’t know exactly what damage had been done; it was bad enough to rule Stafford out of campaigning, and return to Woking to try to recover with Margaret.
For Edward, the work was not over. Because on the same day as he was bringing the Kingmaker down a peg or two, Queen Margaret, the she-wolf of France, was landing at Weymouth in Dorset in the south west. Now true enough, she received on arrival the equivalent of a smack on the cheek with a haddock – news of Barnet had reached camp. But on the other hand she had her son Prince Edward with her, a fine upstanding and suitably violent 18 year old, and he would have helped her recover her chutzpah, a quality of which Margaret was rarely shy herself it must be said. But Prince Edward appears not to have been a chip off the old bloke – unless you believe some of the goss about exactly who the old block was from which he was chipped. The Milanese ambassador in France reported that he
‘already talks of nothing but cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne’
Sir John Fortescue, who as a fellow exile would have known him well, commented that
‘as soon as he became grown up, [he] gave himself over entirely to martial exercises; and, seated on fierce and half-tamed steeds urged on by his spurs, he often delighted in attacking and assaulting the young companions attending him’
We don’t know the attitude of Edward’s princess, Anne Neville, who was 15 by this time; the only description we have of her is as ‘beautiful, amiable, virtuous, and gracious’ which might imply that she would be suggesting maybe a job share for the kingship thing, but who knows. But then also there was the Duke of Somerset, the last Beaufort; and he was hot for it, keen to raise an army and he was sure they’d be able to dispatch the Yorkist pretender – after all they had Jasper with them, and Jasper could raise Wales. Not keen to slink back to France Margaret ordered Jasper to rush to Wales – with the young Henry Tudor, by the way – and raise the tenants of Wales; Meanwhile they’d raise the Lancastrian supporters in the South West, then come north to hook up with Jasper – and not to worry, because they could shelter behind the walls of Gloucester for a while on the way. Off went Jasper, young Henry in tow, and it must have been thoroughly thrilling, like something out of a G A Henty, or Violet Needham or Geoffrey Trease novel…or Mary Renaults or whatshername, you know, Eagle of the Nineth…Rosemary Sutcliffe, that’s the one. Victory or death!!
Edward was no slouch either. Speed he knew, was of the essence, as surely as Harold new it after Stamford Bridge. West across Wessex he came, and he could smell Margaret’s entourage when she reached Bath on 30th April and set off for Gloucester and Jasper, or maybe the bridge to cross into Wales and escape the Plantagenet clutches. But then on 1st May when Margaret of Anjou reached Gloucester, panting ahead of the snapping jaws of the Yorkist hound they found to their horror that the gates were closed against them. In a panic they turned north along the River Severn to find the next crossing, at Tewkesbury – but as the exhausted Lancastrian army straggled into the fields across from the town it was clear that they had been caught – it was now turn and fight or flee for France once more. Margaret chose to fight, and retired with Anne to a religious house to await news. Her son took command of one wing of her army and prepared to fight for his kingdom.
The battle fought at Tewkesbury on 4th May seemed to have been utterly decisive. It was a complete victory for Edward IV. And once more, the hail fellow well met slap me on the back and buy me a doughnut character was entirely absent – Edward knew this had to be finished. Prince Edward was caught, possibly on the battle field making for the Abbey, or begging Clarence to help him. Defiant to the last in front of king Edward, the young prince was executed and the house of Lancaster was empty – the Duke of Somerset being dragged out of the sanctuary of the Abbey and brutally executed. Poor Margaret, once again waiting for good news of a battle, and instead receiving the most disastrous news possible. Still she fled, but was captured near Malvern, by one William Stanley, younger brother of the Earl of Derby Thomas Stanley, a family of great power in the North West.
On 21st may, Edward entered London once more with Margaret as his prize no doubt putting a brave and proud face on it. That very evening, according to tradition, Henry VI finally went to the better place where I suspect he would be much happier. Rumour has it that Edward’s younger brother, the ever-loyal Richard Duke of Gloucester, did the vile deed, ‘thirsty for human blood’. Richard of Gloucester would generally have a problem with negative news print. It might or might not have been Richard. But it is clear that Mr Thirsty for Human Blood was Edward – this time round, he would finish it, and If I’d been brother George I’d have been working my predicting bones nervously and runes and feverishly.
Ok so there’s not been much Margaret this week, so what of her? None of this news can have been good for Margaret. Her clan, the Beauforts, had played the game of war and politics hard, and war and politics had given them a good shoeing, until they were no more. Her son was a fugitive in Wales; true enough, he was with Jasper, a man who Margaret I would guess trusted as much as anyone she’d ever known, but they were both hunted; and with the Beaufort’s gone, Henry her son was the only Lancastrian claimant, and in presenting the next Order of the Garter, Edward IV would joyfully have used Tudor guts for the job. Meanwhile her husband, Stafford was terribly ill.
Margaret was reported to have thought hard about what to do with Jasper and Henry; but quickly made up her mind. With Edward in this mood, there was no future in sticking around to try and earn his pardon; nor would Jasper be able to hold out long in Pembroke castle; no, they must fly for France. Fly – you fools, she wrote
It is likely that the Chronicler who tells us all this, Andre, was taking some poetic licence with the words Margaret was supposed to have written – ‘I would prefer that God keep him from harm rather than see him killed by the bloody sword of a tyrant’. But flight was probably her advice, and a true instinct, and on 2nd June, Jasper and Henry sailed from Tenby into uncertainty.
For Margaret, even more uncertainty would also be the order of the day; in October, Stafford succumbed to his wounds and died. In his will he left his ‘entirely beloved wife’ the majority of the estate, with some bequests to Reginald Bray, and made Margaret the executor.
Margaret was 28, and a widow second time around, and alone once more, her most faithful allies and son abroad or dead. Margert fled from Woking Palace to her mother’s side, always a sensible idea, at her London residence, Le Ryall, there to ponder her next move.