British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Narrative History of England
Part 5: Medieval Britain (cont'd.) by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.



Henry V (1413-22)
The reign of Lancastrian hero Henry V was not a long one. It could have been a glorious one, certainly if we think of him solely as a warrior-king, fearless in leading his troops into battle and winning his military victories against seemingly-impossible odds. His conquest of Normandy and his acquisition of the throne of France made him a legend in his own time. Who can find fault with his dream of ultimately uniting all of Christian Europe against the infidel?

Henry's brief reign, however, did not get off to a good start at home. Two rebellions had to be dealt with: one led by Sir John Oldcastle, of a prominent Welsh border family, who was disgruntled by his excommunication and imprisonment for heresy; the other led by Richard, Earl of Cambridge, husband of Anne Mortimer, sister of Edmund Mortimer the nearest legitimate claimant to the throne by descent from Edward lll, and younger brother of the Duke of York. The first one owed a great deal to the earlier attempts of English monarchs to make their country more independent of Rome; the second to the continuing claims of the heirs of Richard ll to the Crown of England.

The Catholic Church had been steadily increasing its demands upon the English treasury, but it had been meeting with increasing resistance. During the reign of Edward lll, reformer John Wycliffe, had declared that the Bible, and not the Church, was the true guide to faith. The English king could welcome this novel idea as long as it didn't lead to attacks on his own prerogative. After all, it needed a representative of Rome at Canterbury to sanction the accession to power of the English monarch.

There was also the matter of the Papal Schism, with rival popes in Rome and Avignon. This was hardly a situation that created confidence in the Holy Catholic Church. Wycliffe went so far as having the Bible translated into English, making it accessible to all who could read, and not just the classically educated clergy. His ideas were then preached with great zeal by the Lollards, all of who condemned many practices of the established Church. Their demands were premature, for religious dissent also constituted a grave threat to the stability of the realm, and King Henry IV, with the able assistance of ultra-conservative Archbishop Arundel had undertaken stern measures to combat their ideas, including burning Lollards at the stake.

Oldcastle, a boyhood friend of Henry V, after escaping from the Tower of London, was accused of organizing a Lollard rebellion. After years in hiding, he was eventually betrayed, captured and executed and his followers dispersed. The rebellion of Richard, Earl of Cambridge, against the Royal House of Lancaster, also suffered the same fate. Both plots were foiled by the decisive action of the king's supporters and Henry, supported by an effective, disciplined royal council, was thus free to embark on his French adventures.

Contemporary events in France greatly favored the implementation of Henry's claims in that country, especially the incompetence of Charles V's son and heir Charles VI, who also suffered from bouts of insanity. Bitter rivalries tore asunder the French Court, one headed by the king's younger brother, Louis of Orleans and the other by the king's uncle, Philip of Burgundy. The latter had designs on complete control of the government of France, a cause aided by the assassination of Orleans in 1407. The resulting outbreak of civil war paralyzed France for a generation. In the meantime, the King of England took immediate advantage and took his army across the Channel.

Forgetting anything or everything they had learned at Crecy in the previous century, the French army attacked the motley crew that made up the English forces at Agincourt using the same tactics that failed them in the earlier slaughter. The result was an even bigger disaster for the over-confident French with appalling losses among their heavily armed, mounted knights completely unable to maneuver in the marshy lands and cut down by the skill of Henry's mercenary archers, many recruited in Wales.

Following Agincourt, the way was open for Henry to take possession of Normandy. The Dauphin fled Paris, leaving Queen Isabella (during one of her husband fits of insanity) to come to term with the victorious English king. The powerful Duke of Burgundy, whose support had been crucial for Henry, was fatally stabbed by a former supporter of the murdered Orleans while arranging the negotiations, but the English king had no serious rivals in France to thwart his ambition.

By the Treaty of Troyes of 1420, it was declared that on the death of Charles VI his throne should be given to "his only true son," Henry V of England, now married to the Princess Catherine. We can only surmise what the political future of both France and England might have been had Henry not died during one of his French campaigns in 1422, leaving the Duke of Gloucester as regent in England and the Duke of Bedford as regent in France. The heir to the English throne was less than one year old. Queen Catherine, remaining in England, took as her next husband Owen Tudor of Wales, with consequences we shall deal with later.

Henry VI (1422-71)
In a reign lasting almost fifty years, Henry VI lost two kingdoms, his only son and on many occasions, his reason. Perhaps we can blame bad luck for the king's misfortunes, certainly his bad judgement, but Henry was never a ruler in his own person. He had come to the throne as an infant, the country being governed by a regency dominated first by his uncles of the House of Lancaster and later by the Beauforts. In addition to being dominated by the Duke of Suffolk, he was also controlled by his wife Margaret of Anjou. During bouts of mental illness, England was ruled by Richard, Duke of York as protector. In marked contrast to the good order of his father, the complete fiasco of the reign of Henry Vl ultimately led to that sad period in English history known as "The Wars of the Roses."

In France, despite a few desultory successes after the death of Henry V, things went from bad to worse for the English occupiers. Under the inspired leadership of a peasant girl from Domremy, known as Joan of Arc, French resistance was revitalized, Orleans relieved and the Dauphin crowned at Reims as Charles VII. Joan was eventually captured by the ever-treacherous Burgundians and sentenced to death for heresy by a Church court, becoming a national martyr after she had nobly perished in the bonfire at Rouen in 1431.

The fires that burned Joan also ignited the latent forces of French nationalism. After 1435 and the death of the Duke of Bedford, the English armies found themselves virtually leaderless in the face of increasing French strength. During the long years of attrition that followed, they were gradually forced to give up all they had gained under Henry V except the single port of Calais. Agincourt might as well not have happened.

In England, at the same time, despite the avowed saintliness of the king, the monarchy was rapidly losing its prestige. Though he was interested in education, and both Eton College and Kings College, Cambridge were founded during his reign, Henry's employment of ambitious, self-serving courtiers and advisors only hastened the onset of civil war. In particular, the constant feuds of the kings' relatives, descended from Edward lll, created a situation bordering on anarchy. Richard of York, heir to the son of Richard II, the boy whose rights had been passed over by parliament in 1399, led the anti-Lancastrian party. The Wars of the Roses began in 1453, when the birth of a son to King Henry precluded the possibility of a peaceful succession.

Richard of York, whose family had adopted its emblem a white rose as a Yorkist badge, raised the standard of revolt to begin the thirty-year period of civil war that wracked the whole nation. Never really involving more than armed clashes between small bands of noblemen with their private retainers, the bloody conflict nevertheless managed to exterminate most of the English aristocracy as its fortunes swung back and forth between the two sides.

King Henry and Margaret had adopted the red rose as the symbol of the House of Lancaster. They managed to force Richard of York into exile, but when Henry was later captured at the Battle of Northampton, Richard returned to claim the throne for himself. A compromise was then effected that would allow him to reign after Henry's death, but York was killed at Wakefield when Margaret led an army against him in 1460. His son Edward was then supported in his claims by the formidable Earl of Warwick (Warwick the kingmaker). Henry had been recaptured by his "manly queen, used to rule..." but he was driven into exile one year later when Warwick had the Yorkist prince crowned as Edward lV.

There were now two kings ruling England, and thus a battle was necessary to try to settle the matter. It duly took place in 1461 at Towton, the bloodiest engagement of the whole war and a disaster for the House of Lancaster. Henry and Margaret had to flee to Scotland. When his wife left to drum up support in France, Henry stayed behind as fugitive, only to be imprisoned once more. Warwick then switched his allegiance to Margaret and their joint invasion forced King Edward to flee to the Continent. They released the poor, bewildered Henry from the Tower of London to be recognized as king again.

No wonder Henry had fits of insanity. His joy at being restored to the throne was short-lived, for Edward was not finished. He returned to England in 1471, with aid from Charles the Bold of Burgundy and at Barnet in 1471, he defeated and killed Warwick. At the battle of Tewkesbury, he then defeated Queen Margaret and killed her husband's son Edward. Henry found himself back in prison at the Tower where he was executed. Later chroniclers praised his good qualities and Henry VII even sought his canonization, but the former Henry had completely failed as a ruler. His reign had not only seen civil war, but also had to deal with the serious revolt of the middle classes led by Jack Cade, seeking to redress government abuses and the lack of input into the arbitrary decisions of the king and council. Though the rebellion failed, it showed only too clearly that arbitrary decisions by those in power could be strongly protested by those without.

Edward lV (1461-83)
Edward began his reign in 1461 and ruled for eight years before Henry's brief return. His reign is marked by two distinct periods, the first in which he was chiefly engaged in suppressing the opposition to his throne, and the second in which he enjoyed a period of relative peace and security. Both periods were marked also by his extreme licentiousness; it is said that his sexual excesses were the cause of his death (it may have been typhoid), but he was praised highly for his military skills and his charming personality. When Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner of great beauty, but regarded as an unfit bride for a king, even Warwick turned against him. We can understand Warwick's switch to Margaret and to Edward's young brother, the Duke of Clarence, when we learn that he had hoped the king would marry one of his own daughters.

Clarence continued his activities against his brother during the second phase of Edward's reign; his involvement in a plot to depose the king got him banished to the Tower where he mysteriously died (drowned in his bath). Edward had meanwhile set up a council with extensive judicial and military powers to deal with Wales and to govern the Marches. His brother, the Duke of Gloucester headed a council in the north. He levied few subsidies, invested his own considerable fortune in improving trade; freed himself from involvement in France by accepting a pension from the French King; and all in all, remained a popular monarch. He left two sons, Edward and Richard, in the protection of Richard of Gloucester, with the results that have forever blackened their guardian's name in English history.

Richard III (1483-85)
Richard of Gloucester had grown rich and powerful during the reign of his brother Edward IV, who had rewarded his loyalty with many northern estates bordering the city of York. Edward had allowed Richard to govern that part of the country, where he was known as "Lord of the North." The new king was a minor and England was divided over whether Richard should govern as Protector or merely as chief member of a Council. There were also fears that he may use his influence to avenge the death of his brother Clarence at the hands of the Queen's supporters. And Richard was supported by the powerful Duke of Buckingham, who had married into the Woodville family against his will.

Richard's competence and military ability was a threat to the throne and the legitimate heir Edward V. After a series of skirmishes with the forces of the widowed queen, anxious to restore her influence in the north, Richard had the young prince of Wales placed in the Tower. He was never seen again though his uncle kept up the pretence that Edward would be safely guarded until his upcoming coronation. The queen herself took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, but Richard had her brother and father killed.

Edward's coronation was set for June, 1483. Richard planned his coup. First he divided the ruling Council, convincing his own followers of the need to have Lord Hastings executed for treason. (It had been Hastings who had informed him of the late King's death and the ambitions of the Queen's party). He then had his other young nephew Richard join Edward in the Tower. One day after that set for Edward's coronation, Richard was able to pressure the assembled Lords and Commons in Parliament to petition him to assume the kingship. After his immediate acceptance, he then rode to Westminster and was duly crowned as Richard III. His rivals had been defeated and the prospects for a long, stable reign looked promising. Then it all unraveled for the treacherous King.

It is one thing to kill a rival in battle but it is another matter to have your brother's children put to death. By being suspected of this evil deed, Richard condemned himself. Though the new king busied himself granting amnesty and largesse to all and sundry, he could never cleanse himself of the suspicion surrounding the murder of the young princes. He had his own son Edward invested as Prince of Wales, and thus heir to his throne, but revulsion soon set in to destroy what, for all intents and purposes, could have been a well-managed, competent royal administration.

It didn't help Richard much that even before he took the throne he had denounced the Queen "and her blood adherents," impugned the legitimacy of his own brother and his young nephews and stigmatized Henry Tudor's royal blood as bastard. The rebellion against him started with the defection of the Duke of Buckingham whose open support of the Lancastrian claimant overseas, Henry Tudor, transformed a situation which had previously favored Richard.

The king was defeated and killed at Bosworth Field in 1485, a battle that was as momentous for the future of England as had been Hastings in 1066. The battle ended the Wars of the Roses, and for all intents and purposes, the victory of Henry Tudor and his accession to the throne conveniently marks the end of the medieval and the beginning of England's modern period.

Resource Information

Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration


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