The Road To Conflict



Henry Bolingbroke deposes Richard II and seizes the throne as Henry IV. A Lancasterian King.

21st July 1403 The Battle of Shrewsbury.

This marks the first serious challenge to the new regime - Henry Hotspur, The lord Percy of Northumberland challenged the King over a promise of land that never materialised. Lord Percy (Henry Hotspur) was killed during the battle and buried shortly afterwards, with full honours, by his nephew Thomas Nevill. Rumours soon spread that Lord Percy was still alive, prompting the King to have the body exhumed and put on display under armed guard. Sir Richard Vernon Sir Richard Venables and Sir Henry Boynton with Thomas Percy (now Lord) were publicly hung, drawn and quartered on July 23rd in Shrewsbury. Thomas' head was on put display on the Tower of London walls the others elsewhere. This is the first 'real' battle in which the Archers took control, showing their abilities and prowess with a long bow.


Henry V reasserts the English claim to the throne of France and begins a new phase of the Hundred Years War. A decisive English victory at Agincourt on 25 October leads to a resurgence of English fortunes in France. This culminates in the Treaty of Troyes, by which Henry V marries Katherine, the daughter of the French king, Charles VI. It is agreed that Henry will succeed to the throne of France on the death of Charles.


The unfortunate death of Henry is followed shortly afterwards by the death of Charles VI. All bets are off; Henry’s infant son is proclaimed Henry VI of England and Henry II of France, but Charles’ adult son is now holding court at Bourges as Charles VII.


Joan of Arc notwithstanding, the English and their Burgundian allies continue to keep control over most of northern France. In England a regency council governs the kingdom on behalf of the infant king. However, France now has two kings, since Charles has been crowned king at Rheims.


Collapse of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. English fortunes in France begin to wane


Richard, Duke of York is appointed lieutenant general and governor of France and Normandy for five years.


York’s great rival, John Beaufort, is appointed Captain-General of France and Gascony. To York’s anger, he is also made Duke of Somerset. Between this year and 1449, York is starved of the money he needs to pay his captains and soldiers. He is forced to pay his men’s wages out of his own pocket – with the result that by 1446 the crown owes him over £38,000. In addition, York has loaned the King and his household £26,000 and as a result is forced to borrow from friends and relatives.


In April, Henry marries Margaret of Anjou. He unwisely seeks to break the deadlock in peace talks with France by secretly promising to cede Maine and Anjou to French control within the year. He recalls the English commander in chief in France (the Duke of York) and contrives to keep his machinations secret from his Council for nearly eighteen month.


The only serious opposition to Henry’s scheming is removed with the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The suspicious circumstances of this return to haunt both Henry and his queen in later years. Meanwhile, York does not receive the treatment due to the main creditor of the government. That July, he is appointed Lieutenant of Ireland, with his old job of Lieutenant of France going to John Beaufort’s younger brother Edmund. York sails for Ireland in disgust.


English trickery and double-dealing backfire when Charles VII rejects the terms of the truce and launches an all-out assault on English possessions in Normandy.


Popular outrage at Henry’s policies is vented on the three senior members of his ruling clique: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, and the King’s confessor, William Ayscough of Salisbury.

9 January

Moleyns is murdered in Portsmouth by a mob of soldiers and sailors.

28 January

Suffolk is committed to the Tower of London on the insistence of the Commons. He is accused of treasonable dealings with the French and corrupt practices in both local and central government. He is pardoned by the King, but on attempting to leave the country is intercepted off Dover and summarily executed. Threats of dire reprisals against the commons of Kent help precipitate Jack Cade’s revolt.


The rebel army effectively holds London to ransom. Henry VI retreats to Kenilworth castle. Although the revolt is eventually suppressed, the rebel manifesto, The Complaint of the Commons of Kent, shows the depth of feeling across southern England.


The Duke of York returns to England without asking the King’s permission. His motives for doing so are unclear; some historians hint at a link between his return and Cade’s revolt, but this seems unlikely. A more persuasive reason is the return of the Duke of Somerset from France that August. Some historians point to Somerset’s possible claim to the throne, (the Beaufort’s were the, originally illegitimate descendents of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III). That said, their claim was shaky, since it rested on the legitimising of their line by Henry IV. A more likely cause was the fact that Somerset had presided over the loss of Normandy and despite this seemed to be on the verge of scooping up all the rewards of power in England.


York’s return throws Somerset et al into confusion. York shows the king all due deference and appears to be restored to favour. York publishes a bill offering his services to the king as chief councillor with a mandate to clean up the corruption in the royal household. Unsurprisingly, Henry rejects this in favour of an elected council where all will have an equal voice. This is of no help to York, since at this point only two peers – the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Devon are willing to back his criticism of the court.


For the past eight months York has used constitutional methods of protest, to no avail. Somerset is still in the ascendant at court and is made Captain of the Calais garrison that autumn. In his role as peacemaker, York acts to end (temporarily) the feud between the Bonville family and the Courteneys (the Earls of Devon). This squabble over lands and titles soon takes on the feel of the wider conflict between York and the court party. Bonville’s career had brought him into the orbit of the Beauforts – hence it is probably inevitable that the Courteneys choose to side with the Duke of York.


Feeling that nothing else will force the king to listen to him, York now plans an armed protest, backed up by impassioned letters which are circulated to towns where he knows his support to be good. He is spectacularly unsuccessful and the number of ‘spontaneous’ risings in his favour are few and far between. York does have some sympathy – but only when he is making his complaints through the medium of parliament. Now it’s a case of rebellion against an anointed king and York’s popular support is conspicuous by its absence. Only two lords – the Earl of Devon and Lord Cobham – are to be found in his army.

1 March

Facing the king’s army at Blackheath, it is obvious to York that the majority of the peers have chosen to remain loyal – including family members the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. Despite their army outnumbering York at least three to one (or perhaps because of this), the king’s council opens negotiations. Most of the delegation are York’s relatives. Despite this, the Duke insists he will only disband his army if Somerset is put on trial for his mismanagement of the war in France. The royal delegation agrees and appears to have passed on King Henry’s verbal agreement too. York trusts their word and orders his army to disperse – however he himself is almost immediately placed under house arrest.

10 March

The court party ensures that if York is not to be tried for treason, then he is at least to be severely humiliated. In front of a large congregation in St Paul’s he swears an oath of loyalty to the king – an oath which makes explicitly clear the consequences of further rebellion. A disgruntled Duke of York retires to private life – permanently his enemies hope.


English fortunes enjoy a brief resurgence. A small army under Sir John Talbot recaptures Bordeaux and Queen Margaret is at last pregnant. This, however, proves to be a false dawn.

17 July 1453

Talbot’s army is shattered by artillery as it attempts to storm the fortified French camp near Castillon. Talbot himself is killed and Gascony recaptured by the French. (In retrospect, this can be seen as the final battle of the Hundred Years War).


News of Castillon reaches England and Henry VI suffers a complete mental breakdown. At a distance of over 550 years we cannot be absolutely sure of the nature and cause of this malady, but contemporary accounts suggest a form of catatonic schizophrenia. For two months, Somerset and the court party contrive to keep the king’s condition a secret – however it soon becomes obvious to them that a more lasting solution is necessary.


A Great Council is summoned to discuss the king’s condition. Somerset fears York’s presence on the council, but hopes that the abortive coup of the previous year will be enough to render him persona non grata.


Somerset is disappointed to find that York has not been idle in his search for allies. During this period the longstanding feud between the Neville and Percy families flares up yet again. Since York’s wife, Cecily is a Neville family member; he is seen as a natural ally against the Percies. In addition, disputes over the ownership of certain manors in Glamorganshire had brought Somerset into conflict with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. A bargin is struck; in return for his active help against the Percies, the Nevilles will support York in his attempt to oust Somerset and reform the government. At the same time, general support among the peers moves more in York’s favour. His claim to be a senior council member carries more force now that the king is incapacitated and Somerset is quietly confined to the Tower just before Christmas.


This act has one important and far reaching consequence. With Somerset in prison, leadership of the court party now passes to Queen Margaret. This formidable woman now has a son and heir to the throne, Prince Edward and she knows that his death will once again put York first in line for the kingship. Accordingly, she moves to do all she can to prevent York being appointed regent by the parliament due to assemble that February. She presents a bill to parliament demanding to be allowed to rule in her own right. After some vacillation, the council ignores her and appoints York as Protector and the Earl of Salisbury as Chancellor of England.


York sets out to restore governmental authority – a process which allows him to pass some suitably anti-Percy legislation. Meanwhile, the Percies have found a powerful ally of their own, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter. Exeter lusts after the protectorship himself and accordingly signs a mutual assistance pact with Lord Egremont, younger son of the Earl of Northumberland.


An attempt by Egremont and Exeter to seize the city of York fails, thanks to prompt action by the protector. Despite seeking sanctuary in London, Exeter is imprisoned in Pontefract Castle, where he remains for the next nine months.


Egremont is defeated in a skirmish with Neville forces at Stamford Bridge; both he and his brother Richard Percy are captured. The Nevilles craftily bring a civil action against them for damages. Neither Egremont nor his brother is able to pay the massive fine levied against them (£11,200) and accordingly both are packed off to Newgate debtors’ prison in London, where they remain until their escape two years later. The Duke of York is able to end the year with a nice warm glow – all his major enemies are in prison.

January 1455

Henry VI chooses this month to stage a complete and (from York’s point of view) highly inconvenient recovery. York’s protectorship is at an end and it is not long before the government is back in the hands of the previous clique


Somerset is released from prison.


The Earl of Salisbury resigns as Chancellor in the face of intense pressure from a coalition of Somerset and Percy sympathisers. A little later, York, Salisbury and Warwick leave London without taking formal leave of the king. They disperse back to their estates and begin raising troops.


All three Yorkist leaders are summoned to attend a Great Council in Leicester on 21 May. The stated aim of the council is to “provide for the king’s safety”, a comment which York, Salisbury and Warwick take to be aimed at them. They ignore the summons and continue mustering their forces.

18 May

Somerset is taken completely by surprise. A small Yorkist army is already within 40 miles of London. Hastily he issues orders for the raising of troops.

21 May

Somerset, the king and the royal household depart for St Albans, where they expect to rendezvous with the retinues of absent magnates. There are indications that not all members of the court party relish the idea of a fight. Those such as Northumberland and Clifford may be itching to strike a blow at the Nevilles, but can the same be said for the likes of William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, who may be required to draw sword against his own brothers? Other lords present (for example Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham) are loyal to the king, but their willingness to take up arms for Somerset is uncertain.

22 May

The royal army arrives at St Albans to find the Yorkists already encamped on the outskirts of the town. Negotiations soon prove fruitless; York’s demand that Somerset be handed over is rejected and he issues the order to attack.

The First Battle of St Albans​.

22nd May 1455.

Initially, the Yorkist advantage in numbers is offset by the narrowness of the streets. All roads leading to the market place are barricaded with overturned carts and manned by archers wearing Lord Clifford’s badge of the red wyvrn. Tightly bunched together, the advancing Yorkist men at arms form an easy target and their attack soon falters. Seeing this, the Earl of Warwick leads his men through the back gardens of the houses to emerge behind the royalist lines. Within half an hour all resistance is at an end. Somerset and a few retainers make a desperate last stand outside the Castle Inn and die fighting, whilst the victorious Yorkists take the wounded King Henry into custody. Only three Lancastrian nobles are casualties of the battle – Somerset, Clifford and Northumberland. The fact that it is these three alone may be more than coincidental.​

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