This edited article about Edward IV originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 726 published on 13 December 1975.
Of all the unsteady crowns that sat upon the heads of England’s kings, perhaps the unsteadiest was the one that Edward the Fourth grabbed.
The Wars of the Roses had still a long way to go when Edward Duke of York had himself crowned King as leader of the Yorkists in the lifetime of the Lancastrian King Henry the Sixth.
On Edward’s side, though, there were a number of qualities that counted in the see-saw for the throne. He was young – in his early twenties – a good soldier and popular with the Londoners, whose support was invaluable during the civil wars. He was, too, for the time being, popular with that brilliant nobleman the Earl of Warwick, called the Kingmaker, whose influence and power made and unmade kings, and when Warwick agreed that Edward should be King that in itself was enough to make Edward the King.
The real King, Henry the Sixth, was by contrast weak, prone to attacks of insanity and currently wandering around in the north of England in disguise in the hope that none of the Yorkists would recognize and seize him. Even with Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, at large and raising armies to fight Edward in the Lancastrian cause, Edward’s enthronement was a triumph for his House of York and the beginning of the ultimate downfall of his enemies of Lancaster.
After his coronation in 1461, Edward had to talk terms with the French King Louis the Eleventh in order to stop France becoming the headquarters of Lancastrians who would make life more difficult for him than it already was. Warwick then suggested that a French wife for Edward would help the French King make up his mind to aid the Yorkists. Edward readily agreed that Warwick should look for an eligible princess in France for him, and the zealous earl set about lining up the candidates.
It was an altogether extraordinary piece of diplomacy for Edward to engage in – for the simple reason that unknown to almost anyone but himself he already had a wife!
All the time that Warwick was negotiating for a bride for his King he was quite unaware that three months previously Edward had married Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of Lord Rivers, in the picturesque Midland village of Grafton Regis. When the truth came out it dropped like a bombshell on the Kingmaker Earl, the French King, and the hearts of half a dozen Continental damsels.
Warwick had been very keen on the alliance with the French King and he was aghast at Edward’s deception over his marriage. The Kingmaker, in fact, was beginning to regret having helped to make the King and accordingly he made his plans to join the Lancastrian cause and replace Edward with the deposed Henry the Sixth.
Soon Warwick was heading for London with an army, watched by the peaceful citizens of Kent, who, accustomed to the tramp of marching feet in these wasteful civil wars, made no attempt to stop him. Edward was not at home when the earl arrived but he was quickly made a prisoner at Olney, in Buckinghamshire.
With his fellow barons taking advantage of Warwick’s full hands by making fresh havoc throughout the land, Warwick had to let Edward out on a lead and take his attention from him. And of course the lead was too long; Warwick lost his grip on his prisoner and in no time Edward was back in London calling Warwick and his ally, George Duke of Clarence (the King’s own brother), rebels and traitors.
Warwick now had to flee to France, where he obtained money and soldiers from King Louis to invade England and restore Henry the Sixth and Queen Margaret of Anjou. But because Warwick had only lately deserted the Yorkist camp, in whose name he had been responsible for a number of Lancastrian deaths, Queen Margaret was not at first altogether happy about having the turncoat earl in her camp. It is said that she kept the repentant Warwick on his knees before her for fifteen minutes while he swore to fight only in her service. Then she consented, and the invasion plans were put into operation. As soon as Warwick landed in England it was Edward’s turn to run to France.
The Kingmaker having restored Henry and declared Edward a usurper, Edward was now the King without a crown. But in this medieval game of chess no success lasted for very long. When Edward returned to England as the invader he came at the head of a mere two thousand men, but gathering forces in a march across the country he was soon strong enough to issue challenges to Warwick to come out and fight. When no answer came Edward coolly marched into the city of Warwick and occupied the Kingmaker’s own castle.
Having made himself comfortable for a time, Edward set out for London and marched into the capital. There he made the bewildered Henry his prisoner and set off for Barnet in Hertfordshire, where Warwick had marched with his army. For Edward’s Yorkist cause Barnet was a decisive battle; for the backsliding Warwick it was a fatal one. When victory was within Edward’s grasp Warwick made to leave the field, but before the King could intervene he was caught by a group of Yorkist soldiers and killed on the spot.
Two more killings remained to be done to secure Edward’s position on the throne. At the Battle of Tewkesbury, where the King won another great victory against the Lancastrians led by Queen Margaret of Anjou, Prince Edward, the teenage son of Henry the Sixth, was killed and a couple of weeks later Edward passed sentence of death on Henry the Sixth in the Tower. At last there was a measure of stability in the bloody land.
With his enemies dealt with, then, and with most of the noble families of England too decimated by the terrible civil wars to be of much further trouble, Edward had a dozen years left to reign. In those years he allowed good living and self-indulgence to spoil his character. He was only forty-one when a fever gripped his weakened constitution and killed him.
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