Edward IV (1442-83) was the first Yorkist king. He was only eighteen when his father died in battle. Two spectacular military victories and Londoners’ sympathy for the Yorkists brought him to the throne just months later. His first five years as king were troubled by Lancastrian uprisings. However, it was his former ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and his own brother, George Duke of Clarence who eventually overthrew Edward in 1470. With help from Charles Duke of Burgundy, he recovered his throne the following year. His second reign was defined by the conflict between his brothers over the Warwick inheritance, plans for his invasion of France in 1475, and the downfall of the Duke of Clarence. He was only forty when he died.
Tudor historians celebrated Edward’s measured rule and glorious military victories, while lamenting his luxurious habits. By the mid-twentieth century his strong governance and efficiency were commonly seen as the foundation of Tudor monarchy. Keith Dockray summed up the modern division in opinions as: ‘Edward IV – playboy or politician?’. Key questions about his judgement focus on his secret marriage(s) and on his promotion of family and friends.
Edward was born in Rouen, to Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville, on 28 April 1442. He was their third child, but eldest surviving son. By 1445 Edward had been given the title Earl of March, perhaps to strengthen negotiations for a planned marriage into the French royal family. His principal companion through childhood seems to have been his brother Edmund and by the early 1450s the two of them were living at Ludlow Castle in a household independent from their parents, an unusual arrangement for a noble family.
In 1459, both boys, now in their mid-teens, were with their father’s forces at Ludford Bridge when some of the Earl of Warwick’s forces switched sides to join Henry VI and the Yorkist lords decided to flee. Edward accompanied the earls of Warwick and Salisbury to Calais. His first experience of military victory was the Battle of Northampton the following summer. On 31 October 1460 he and his father swore an oath of loyalty to Henry VI as part of the settlement that made Richard Duke of York Henry VI’s heir. When his father and brother Edmund took forces north to face men loyal to Margaret of Anjou and Prince Edward, Edward Earl of March was sent to the Welsh marches to head off more Lancastrian loyalists, while Warwick stayed in London.
Richard Duke of York and Edmund were killed at the Battle of Wakefield, but Edward was victorious at Mortimer’s Cross on 2 or 3 February. Before the battle three suns were seen in the sky, parhelia, which Edward opportunistically identified as a good omen for his cause. After the battle he ordered the execution of the captive earl of Pembroke, Owen Tudor. He then marched toward London which had refused entry to the Lancastrian army. Edward was welcomed into the city and Warwick’s brother, George Neville, Archbishop of York stage-managed his acclamation as king on 4 March. This gave Edward the authority he needed to raise more forces to take on the Lancastrians in Yorkshire. On 29 March, Palm Sunday, he was again fortunate with the weather in that driving snow hampered the larger Lancastrian army at Towton. The death toll was so great that contemporaries made dramatic assessments of the total (1% of the adult population of England). It probably was the bloodiest battle on English soil.
Edward was crowned at Westminster on 28 June 1461. His Neville allies were crucial in defeating repeated Lancastrian invasions in the north of England over the next four years. In that time marriage alliances were considered with Castile, Scotland and France but in the autumn of 1464 Edward announced that he had secretly married one of his own subjects. She was Elizabeth Woodville, the widowed daughter of one of his councillors, Lord Rivers. Her mother’s Burgundian connections possibly enhanced her family’s enthusiasm for supporting Edward’s plans for an alliance with Burgundy. Despite Warwick’s opposition, this eventually led to a marriage between Edward’s sister, Margaret, and Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the summer of 1468.
In 1469 Richard Neville Earl of Warwick and George Duke of Clarence cited the evil influence of the queen’s family as the principal reason for their rebellion. Some of the king’s closest advisors were killed in the course of this first rebellion, including the queen’s father, but after a pro-Lancastrian rising forced Warwick to back down, Edward chose to make his peace with both Warwick and Clarence. They presumably recognised that such magnanimity would not be repeated after their 1470 rebellion also failed, prompting their flight to France and alliance with Margaret of Anjou. Edward was unprepared for their reinvasion and fled into exile in the Low Countries. He was fortunate that Louis XI of France was determined to get the new Lancastrian regime to support his hostilities against Burgundy. This effectively forced Charles of Burgundy to aid Edward as his best hope of resisting France.
Edward regained the throne by military victory again – at Barnet and Tewkesbury. His second reign is generally considered more successful and peaceful, despite the tensions between his brothers over the Warwick inheritance and his final falling out with George Duke of Clarence who was executed for treason in 1478. Edward spent much of the early 1470s preparing for an invasion of France which finally took place in 1475. However, without any significant military encounter he came to terms with Louis XI at Picquigny. The treaty signed there guaranteed Edward a large pension and promised his eldest daughter’s marriage to the dauphin. This peace was not widely popular, although the pension meant that Edward did not need to ask parliament for further taxation for seven years – until war broke out with Scotland in 1482.
The Scottish war was determined in part by changing political relations with France and Burgundy. Edward put his only surviving brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, in command of the military operation. Gloucester was successful in entering Edinburgh and retaking Berwick, but plans to overthrow James III and replace him with the Duke of Albany were stymied by Albany’s change of allegiance. Edward died on 9 April 1483, following a short illness. He was buried in the chapel he had built at Windsor.
Edward IV’s collection of books became the foundation of the royal library which can be seen here.
There is a spectacular manuscript celebrating his accession which links his family to many royal lineages and traces them from the Creation and Noah here.
You can find history of parliament blogposts that relate to Edward IV here.