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Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was England’s supreme Kingmaker

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Thursday, 27 February 2014

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This edited article about the Wars of the Roses first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Battle of Barnet,  picture, image, illustration

The Earl of Warwick is cornered at the Battle of Barnet

During that tangled web of history known as the Wars of the Roses, England boasted two kings at the same time. They were Edward the Fourth of York and Henry the Sixth of Lancaster.

Two more different men no one could imagine. Edward was gay, handsome, fond only of pleasure and amusement. Henry was shy, bookish, pious and gaunt-faced.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, knew both kings well. He liked to think that both were like putty in his hands, to be turned and twisted, throned and dethroned at his will. He was the greatest baron in England, and men called him the Kingmaker.

After the Lancastrians’ bloody victory over the Yorkists at Wakefield, near York, where Edward’s father, the Duke of York, was killed, the position of Henry the Sixth of Lancaster on the throne seemed secure for a time.

The studious Henry had his aggressive wife, Margaret of Anjou, to thank for this. It was she who had triumphed at Wakefield; she who crowned the beheaded Duke of York with a paper crown and set it upon the walls of York.

The future Edward the Fourth, York’s eldest son, was then 19, and known as Edward of March. Looking first upon the pious King Henry, then the frivolous Edward of March, the Earl of Warwick devised a scheme. He decided that if he could make Edward king, he would be able to rule the kingdom himself and have everything his own way.

In London, a great meeting of the people was held at which they were asked if they would have Edward for king. “Yea, yea, King Edward!” they shouted back, and the ambitious Warwick smiled to himself. Edward of March was as good as crowned Edward the Fourth.

First, though, there were many Lancastrians to be crushed in the field, and Warwick and Edward boldly led the Yorkists out to meet them. The two armies came face to face at Towton, near York. Here, young and amiable though he was, Edward showed that he had no mercy in his heart, for he ordered his men to take no prisoners but to kill every one.

On the battlefield, it snowed and soon the snow was red with the blood of the slain and, as it melted, it ran down the furrows in crimson streams. Twenty-eight thousand men were counted dead on the field.

At last, the Lancastrians began to flee. Henry the Sixth escaped to Northumberland with his Queen, but Warwick pursued them. Margaret managed to slip the Yorkists and got away to France, but Henry was captured when a monk betrayed his hiding-place.

Warwick must have observed his royal prisoner with glowing satisfaction. He had two kings now, but since he had set up the new one, he must make the people understand that they must revere the old one no more.

“No-one,” declared Warwick,” is to show the deposed King Henry the Sixth any respect.” So saying, he ordered Henry’s feet to be tied to his stirrups while he was led to the Tower as a prisoner.

Warwick had what he wanted: Edward on the throne and himself virtually ruler of the kingdom. The king gave him gifts of vast lands and all the titles he wanted. His wealth was enormous; thousands of dependants feasted daily in his courtyards and six whole oxen were needed for a single breakfast by his household. When he came to Parliament, he was followed by 600 men in liveries, and he could raise great armies out of his own lands.

But King Edward of the handsome face and pleasant manners began to show himself not as obedient as the Kingmaker had hoped. Edward made Warwick angry by secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful English widow, and angrier still when he began to heap honours on his wife’s relatives.

When Elizabeth’s family began to get extremely powerful at Court, Warwick began to think he could do with a new king. There was Edward’s brother, the Duke of Clarence – would he do? But Clarence was an unstable weakling, and would not get the popular support, even though Warwick had persuaded the Duke to marry his daughter, Isabel Neville.

For the moment, the Kingmaker had to resign himself to fomenting trouble in various parts of the kingdom. In one such foray, the father of Edward’s Queen was beheaded, and Edward, knowing that friends of the Kingmaker were responsible, bristled with rage. Even so, conscious of Warwick’s great power, he hesitated to take the field.

At this point, Warwick could probably have made a new King simply by recalling Henry the Sixth from the Tower and overthrowing Edward. But at this point, too, his heart was not in it. He had fought so long for the Yorkists that he could not bring himself to aid the Lancastrians. Instead, he made up his quarrel with Edward and returned to Court.

It was clear at once that things would not be the same again. Warwick made plain his brooding resentment and Edward felt that he could no longer trust him as a friend. This was no place for a man as the Kingmaker, and Warwick went off to France, taking the Duke of Clarence with him.

At the court of the French king, Warwick met the woman who had long been his bitterest enemy, Margaret, the Queen of Henry the Sixth. The French king, Louis the Eleventh, a skilful diplomat, decided that it was time that these hate-consumed rivals should become friends, and pool their talents to regain the English throne for Henry the Sixth.

At first, Margaret was appalled at the idea. “My heart,” she told Louis, “will bleed until the day of judgement with the wounds that he has inflicted.”

Indeed, it was a hard task for her to meet the smiling Kingmaker. These two had fought so many battles against each other and Warwick had grievously wronged the Queen. But in the end she relented for the sake of her son. Warwick promised to place him on the English throne and to cement the promise, gave the young prince his second daughter in marriage.

With admirable daring, Warwick now returned to England with a small army at his back and marched speedily upon London. Edward the Fourth, clearly not realising his danger, was in the north even while the Kingmaker was entering the capital. The few men whom Edward had left in London were soon persuaded to join in the popular cry of the fickle Londoners: “Long live King Henry!”

And Henry, that unhappy King, was released from the Tower, and dressed in a long, blue velvet gown, his hands twitching nervously, he was led on horseback into the city, where the turncoat populace greeted him with more shouts of acclaim.

Again the Kingmaker had triumphed, and Edward, his capital lost, was obliged to flee to Holland, leaving his dinner half-finished when he heard how successful the Kingmaker had been, and make for the nearest boat.

As Warwick suspected, Edward was not a man to accept such a humiliation for long. In fact, it took the deposed King just six months to gather an army and return to the realm he had so ignominiously fled. Within hours more he was treading that well worn invaders’ path to London and hearing yet again the Londoners’ cry of “Long live King Edward!”

In the capital, Edward found only King Henry the Sixth, and, taking Henry with him, he marched out with his 10,000 men towards St. Albans, where the Kingmaker was waiting for him with his army of 12,000. On the evening of Good Friday, 1471, the two armies met each other, and prepared that night to shatter the peace of Easter with the ultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses.

When morning dawned the countryside was wrapped in thick mist. Warwick relied at first on his cannon but, unable to see Edward’s army, his gunners got their sighting wrong and sent their missiles harmlessly over the enemy.

More havoc and confusion was caused by the mist when Edward ordered his army to attack, for the visibility was so poor that friend could not be told from foe. Arrows were shot like a snowstorm into enemies that none could see, and charges into the enemy ranks ended when it was discovered that the enemy was not there, but somewhere else.

For three hours in the slowly rising mist, axes and swords glinted as the field at Barnet was churned to blood soaked mud. Then the Kingmaker’s men began to fall back. The retreat turned into a panic and the Kingmaker, heavy with armour, found himself being borne along by the great tide of terrified soldiers.

Gasping for breath, he staggered at last out of the melee into a clump of bushes. There some of Edward’s men jumped on him; one opened his visor while another brutally thrust his sword into the gap.

Edward marched back to London in triumph, to be greeted by the shouts of the people and the merry peal of the bells. The body of the dead Kingmaker was brought to London and for three days it was left to lie naked in St. Paul’s, so that everyone might know the great Kingmaker was dead.

The following Friday, Edward the Fourth marched out of London to fight another battle against Queen Margaret, who had reached England only to hear of the defeat and death of Warwick. Her troops were routed, her son was killed and she was taken prisoner. Edward the Fourth was now King indeed.

Again he rode back to London in triumph, and the day after he reached the city another dead body was shown to the people in St. Paul’s – the body of the old king, Henry the Sixth.

Grief, it was said, had killed him, but few believed that he had died a natural death. In those days of bloodshed and cruelty, even the harmless Henry had not been allowed to escape the mass murder that attended the frenzied greed for power.

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