Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, April 10, 2006

Dead King Watch: Edward IV



It was the 523rd anniversary of the death of King Edward IV yesterday, not that many people seem to have noticed. Indeed, it is doubtful if many people really took that much notice at the time of his death, for reasons which might become clearer after a brief look at his life.

Edward of York was born on April 28, 1442, at Rouen in France, the eldest son of Richard Mortimer, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Richard's challenge to the ruling family, the Lancastrian King Henry VI, came after he won a battle at St Albans in 1455, a battle that marked the beginning of the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses resulted from the inherently violent and anarchic rule of the nobles in England, many of whom had just returned defeated from fighting the 'Hundred Years War' in France, and many of whom - like Richard - claimed some right to the throne through being descendents of Edward III. As AL Morton notes 'immense lands and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a small group of men all connected with the royal house and all politically ambitious'. When Richard, Edward's father was killed in 1460, at the Battle of Wakefield, the 18 year old Edward inherited his claim.

The Wars of the Roses were, according to Morton, 'not feudal in character, that is, it was not waged by barons who wanted to enlarge their domains and make themselves independent of the central authority, but by rival groups of nobles fighting to gain control of the State machine. This is the main reason for its ferocity. In feudal war one of the main objects was to capture opponents and hold them to ransom and only those who were too poor to pay them were slaughtered. The Wars of the Roses were wars of extermination, every victory being followed by a crop of murders and by the confiscation of the lands of the defeated to the Crown. Hence they were extremely destructive to the participants even though they hardly affected the country as a whole. The numbers engaged were usually so small that the economic life of the time was little disturbed and the mass of people seem to have been generally indifferent as to the result.'

However, there was a slight difference of note between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists - like Edward. As Morton notes, 'supporting the Lancastrians were the wild nobles of the Scottish and Welsh borders, the most backward and feudal elements surviving in the country. The Yorkists drew most of their support from the progressive South, from East Anglia and from London, even if this support was not usually very active.' With the support of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, Edward, already showing great promise as a leader of men, defeated the Lancastrians in a succession of battles. While Henry and his militant queen, Margaret of Anjou, were campaigning in the north, Warwick gained control of the capital.

The Lancastrians in response advanced South with a great army of Northerners, plundering as they went. They reached St Albans but London closed its gates and prepared for siege. Edward now marched to London from Gloucester and entered the city. The Lancastrians retired and were caught in a violent snowstorm at Towton on March 29th, 1461. Edward's mainly Southern forces met them at Towton and decisively defeated them in a battle in the course of which the Lancastrian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, the nineteen year old Edward IV was declared King.

Edward was tall, strong, handsome, affable (even with subjects), and keen to maintain friendly and close links with the merchants of London, Bristol and other trading cities. Indeed, he more of less ignored the 'Lancastrian' House of Parliament - raising money instead through his merchant supporters. As a result he became incredibly rich, compared to previous Kings, and built up trading links overseas. He also tried to curb the power of the great nobles - such as Warwick, who had been a supporter and believed that he could continue to rule through Edward as King. This of course annoyed the likes of Warwick, understandably leading ultimately to the Earl of Warwick leading an dangerous uprising against Edward. This was finally bloodily suppressed ten years later, leaving Warwick dead, and the remaining Lancastrian resistance smashed after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. Henry VI, who was being held prisoner, was murdered in order to completely remove the Lancastrian opposition.

Edward did not face any further rebellions after his restoration, as the Lancastrian line had virtually been extinguished, and the only rival left was Henry Tudor, who was living in exile. Edward declared war on France in 1475, and came to terms with the Treaty of Picquigny which provided him with an immediate payment of 75,000 crowns and a yearly pension thereafter of 50,000 crowns. After this point, Edward seems to have become extremely greedy and corpulent through gorging himself on food - as well as womanising. Edward fell ill at Easter 1483, but lingered on long enough to add some codicils to his will, the most important being his naming of his brother Gloucester as Protector after his death. He died on 9 April 1483 and is buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

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