Edward IV – The Yorkist King in the Wars of the Roses

Edward IV, an influential monarch, reigned over England twice during the tumultuous period of the Wars of the Roses. From 1461 to 1470 and again from 1471 until his untimely death in 1483, he held the throne firmly in his grasp.

The Wars of the Roses, a series of civil conflicts spanning from 1455 to 1487, were fought between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions in England. Edward IV played a central role in this power struggle that shook the nation. This article delves into the life and reign of Edward IV, examining his rise to power, his challenges, and the legacy he left behind.

Early Life and Yorkist Claim

Edward IV was born on 28 April 1442 in Rouen, Normandy, as the eldest surviving son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Until his father’s demise, he bore the title Earl of March. His lineage traced back to King Edward III, bestowing upon him a potential claim to the throne. This claim gained strength in 1447 when York became the heir to the childless King Henry VI following the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Though accusations of illegitimacy were politically motivated at the time, they were later refuted by historians. Edward, along with his siblings George, Duke of Clarence, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, shared striking physical resemblances, characterized by their tall stature and fair hair, unlike their shorter, darker father. Richard III, Edward’s youngest brother, bore a strong resemblance to their father.

Early Life and Challenges

Edward spent his formative years amidst a backdrop of economic decline and military setbacks, aggravated by a feeble and corrupt central government. He and his younger brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were born in Rouen, where their father served as the governor of English lands in France until 1445 when he was succeeded by Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset. Edward and Edmund likely received their upbringing at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches, where their father held significant landownership.

In 1447, their father assumed the role of chief governor of Ireland, but he did not take up the position until 1449. Around the same time, a French offensive recaptured Normandy, leaving Calais as the only English possession in Northern France. Despite the responsibility for this defeat, Somerset was appointed King Henry’s chief minister, which intensified the political conflict between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. The Duke of York, together with Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, and Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, took charge of the government after King Henry VI fell into a catatonic stupor in 1453, following the loss of Gascony.

Edward, aged 12, accompanied his father as they entered London for the Great Council in January 1454. The birth of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, in October 1453 provided a viable figurehead for the Lancastrian cause, intensifying the political strife between the two factions. By the age of 17, Edward, now the Earl of March, emerged as a prominent political and military leader.

After their defeat at the Battle of Ludford Bridge in 1459, his father and brother fled to Ireland, while Edward, the Earls of March, Salisbury, and Warwick sought refuge in Calais. Edward’s name appeared alongside his father’s and the Nevilles’ in widely circulated manifestoes, stating that their conflict was solely with King Henry’s advisors.

The Path to the Throne

In 1460, Edward crossed the English Channel with Warwick and Salisbury, marching towards London. At the Battle of Northampton in July, Edward commanded one of the three divisions that secured a victory for the Yorkists and led to the capture of Henry VI. As York entered the Palace of Westminster, he declared himself king, although the lords present remained silent.

The Act of Accord, a compromise, allowed Henry to retain his title while designating York and his descendants as successors to the throne. However, the removal of the legitimate heir sparked significant opposition to the Yorkist regime. In late 1460, Edward received his first independent command and was tasked with suppressing a Lancastrian insurgency in Wales. Meanwhile, his father and brother were killed after their defeat at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December, leaving Edward as the leader of the Yorkist party.

Reign and Accession to the Throne

Described by contemporaries as handsome, affable, and energetic, Edward IV stood tall at 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimetres) and took care to present himself splendidly. His physical presence was deliberately designed to contrast with the frail and ailing King Henry VI, thereby solidifying his position.

On 2 February 1461, Edward achieved a hard-fought victory at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire. Prior to the battle, a meteorological phenomenon called parhelion, also known as “three suns,” occurred, which Edward adopted as his emblem, the “Sun in Splendour.” However, Warwick’s defeat at the Second Battle of St Albans on 17 February resulted in the Lancastrians regaining custody of Henry VI.

Edward and his forces arrived in London, where he hastily ascended the throne and subsequently marched north. The two opposing sides clashed at the Battle of Towton on 29 March, a brutal engagement that unfolded amidst a snowstorm and remains the bloodiest battle fought on English soil. Ultimately, the Yorkists achieved a decisive victory, estimated to have caused casualties ranging from 9,000 to 20,000.

Following the battle, Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI‘s wife, sought refuge in Scotland with their son Edward of Westminster, while Edward IV returned to London for his coronation. Although Henry VI remained at large for over a year, he was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Lancastrian cause could not be eradicated entirely while his son remained alive, as it would have transferred the claim to a young and free Lancastrian heir.

Exile, Restoration, and Legacy

In March 1470, Warwick and Edward’s brother Clarence instigated a revolt, exploiting a personal feud. However, their rebellion was quelled, forcing them to flee to France in May 1470. Taking advantage of the situation, Louis XI of France persuaded Warwick to negotiate with Margaret of Anjou, their long-standing enemy. After Warwick knelt before her in silence for fifteen minutes, Margaret agreed to the alliance.

Backed by French support, Warwick landed in England on 9 September 1470, proclaiming his intention to restore Henry VI to the throne. The Yorkist regime had grown deeply unpopular, and the Lancastrians swiftly gathered an army of over 30,000 troops. When John Neville changed sides, Edward narrowly escaped capture and sought refuge in Bruges, Belgium.

During his exile, Edward sought shelter in Flanders, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, accompanied by a small group of loyal men, including his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and influential figures like Anthony Woodville and William Hastings. Charles the Bold, ruler of the Duchy and husband to Edward’s sister Margaret, offered minimal assistance, which Edward never forgot.

Despite the Lancastrians’ restored rule, internal conflicts persisted due to Henry VI’s incapacity to govern effectively. The coalition that brought Henry back to the throne consisted of bitter adversaries, making it difficult to maintain stability. Warwick and Clarence found themselves isolated within the new regime due to their past actions and the animosity they had generated.

Edward IV - The Yorkist King in the Wars of the Roses
Image: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In March 1471, Edward returned to England, landing near Hull with the support of wealthy Flemish merchants. Initially hesitant to join his cause, the city of York opened its gates when Edward claimed he sought the return of his dukedom. As he marched south, more supporters rallied to his side, including Sir William Parr and Sir James Harrington with a contingent of 600 men.

As Edward reached London unopposed, Henry VI was captured once again, and Warwick met his demise at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April. The Lancastrians suffered another defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May, where sixteen-year-old Edward of Westminster, the Lancastrian heir to the throne, perished. Henry VI‘s death followed shortly thereafter, with historical accounts suggesting that he was likely killed on Edward’s orders.

Despite his triumph, Edward’s reign faced challenges stemming from the ongoing rivalry between his brother Clarence and his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Their respective marriages to the daughters of the Earl and Countess of Warwick—Isabel and Anne Neville—resulted in disputes over land ownership and power. The properties granted by Edward could be taken away, making the brothers dependent on his favour. However, properties acquired through marriage were beyond the king’s control, intensifying the dispute between Clarence and Gloucester.

Edward’s personal life was marked by his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, which sparked conflicts with his chief advisor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Edward and Elizabeth had ten children together, with seven surviving him. However, under the 1484 Titulus Regius, which declared Edward’s marriage invalid, their children were declared illegitimate. This act was later repealed by Henry VII, who married Edward’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, uniting the Yorkist and Tudor dynasties.

Edward IV’s sudden death in April 1483 led to a succession crisis. His minor son, Edward V, ascended to the throne, but Edward IV‘s brother, Richard III, soon seized power, claiming that his nephews were illegitimate.

The events surrounding the disappearance of the young princes, known as the Princes in the Tower, remain shrouded in mystery, with debates continuing regarding who ordered their deaths and why. Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, entered into secret negotiations with Margaret Beaufort, ultimately leading to Henry VII’s ascent to the throne and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.

While Edward IV‘s reign seemed to mark the end of the Lancastrian cause, Yorkist challengers continued to pose a threat well into the 16th century. Pretenders such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck emerged, causing concern for Henry VII and his son, Henry VIII. The Yorkist lineage endured, and their descendants, including Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and Cardinal Reginald Pole, faced persecution. The Wars of the Roses left an indelible mark on English history, shaping the course of the monarchy and setting the stage for the Tudor era.

In conclusion, Edward IV played a pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, solidifying his claim to the throne through military victories and political manoeuvring. His reign brought temporary stability to England, though challenges and rivalries persisted. Despite his sudden death and subsequent turmoil, Edward’s legacy continued to influence the course of English history, leaving a lasting impact on the monarchy and the nation as a whole.

*Feature Image: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons