Richard, Duke of York (1411-1460) was one of the most powerful members of the royal family in the mid-fifteenth century and, until Henry VI’s son was born, many considered him the king’s rightful heir. It was for this reason that he was invited to open parliament when Henry VI was too ill and why he was subsequently chosen as Protector of the Realm. However, his poor relationship with the king’s Beaufort kinsmen (and others whom Henry favoured) ultimately led to the Wars of the Roses. After a decade of failed attempts to reform Henry VI’s government, York claimed the throne himself but it was his eldest son, Edward IV, who became the first Yorkist king.
Historians remain divided on questions about his culpability and motives in the Wars of the Roses: was he driven by ambition and self-belief that undermined Henry VI? Did personal animosity towards the Beauforts cloud his judgement? Was he idealistically trying his best to shore up Henry VI’s fragile kingship, only claiming the throne as a last resort? Was he forced into a position of opposition to salvage his political future because the king’s closest advisors sought to exclude him?
Richard was born 22 September 1411. His father, Richard of Conisbrough (later earl of Cambridge), was the youngest son of Edmund of Langley Duke of York and had secretly married Anne Mortimer, a sister of Edmund Earl of March, in 1408. Anne Mortimer died shortly after Richard’s birth, and Cambridge was executed in 1415 for plotting to put Edmund Earl of March on Henry V’s throne. Despite his father’s treason, Richard was permitted to inherit the title of duke of York after his uncle Edward died at Agincourt. The York estates that Richard inherited provided very little income but in January 1425 he also inherited the much more valuable lands (and the claim to the throne) of his maternal uncle, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March.
By this time York was a ward of Ralph Neville Earl of Westmorland and his wife Joan Beaufort (a half-sister to Henry IV) and had marrried their youngest daughter, nine-year-old Cecily In 1430-31 he accompanied Henry VI to France for Henry’s coronation and in 1432 was allowed to take possession of his inheritance. From June 1436 until November 1437 he served as King’s Lieutenant of the English territories in France. At this point York was seen as a politically neutral figure at a time when politics were polarised between Cardinal Beaufort (Joan’s brother) and Humfrey duke of Gloucester (Henry VI’s uncle – it was only some time after Gloucester’s death that York publicly identified with Gloucester’s politics).
In the summer of 1441 York returned to Normandy as King’s Lieutenant, this time taking his wife because he planned to be there for several years. York began his tour of duty with a spectacular victory at Pontoise, but two months later it was retaken with terrible English casualties. Thereafter, York avoided military confrontation, concentrating on effective governance in existing English-held territory. This policy disappointed some in the English government, prompting Cardinal Beaufort to fund an expedition by his nephew, John Beaufort Earl of Somerset to invade northern France. It was an insult to York’s authority, compounded by the decision to raise Beaufort to the status of duke, and it deprived York of reinforcements he wanted. The expedition was a disaster and may have prompted Beaufort’s suicide.
York and his family returned to England in 1445, in part to defend himself against allegations of financial malpractice. York was exonerated of the allegations against him and historians now dispute the earlier assumption that he was out of favour with the king’s ministers at this time. Nonetheless, he was probably disappointed not to be reappointed to his position in France. Instead he was given the post of Lieutenant of Ireland, a logical role given the Mortimer family connections there, and he moved there in 1449. York was warmly received but quickly found the professions of loyalty he received were tenuous and he was running short of money. Meanwhile the current duke of Somerset, Edmund Beaufort, having accepted York’s former post in France, lost control of Normandy. Public discontent in England spiralled into rebellion and the manifesto of the rebels complained that the king’s closest kinsmen, York chief among them, were not given the authority owed to them.
York returned to England in September 1450 and issued letters assuring the king of his own loyalty but also supporting some of the rebels’ calls for reform. York’s continued efforts to replace Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset as the king’s chief councillor led to a humiliating rejection at Dartford in the spring of 1452 followed by a brief house arrest. His fortunes changed dramatically in August 1453 when Henry VI fell into a catatonic stupor. The Chancellor, Cardinal Kemp, and the Duke of Somerset initially tried to keep governing but as Henry failed to rally even when his only son was born that October it became clear that the status quo could not continue. York was summoned to join the royal council. Together with John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, he engineered Somerset’s arrest. On 27 March 1454, York was appointed protector and defender of the realm until the king recovered or the young prince was of age to take over. Much of York’s time was taken up with crushing rebellion in the north of England and at Christmas 1454 Henry VI regained his sanity.
Somerset returned to the king’s side, and when York and his closest allies were excluded from invitations to a Great Council in the spring of 1455, they feared political reprisals. They met the king and Somerset at St Albans with an armed force, and the conflict that ensued, the First Battle of St Albans, is often considered the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. It was less a battle than a series of targeted political assassinations – not only Somerset but also Lord Clifford and the earl of Northumberland were slain (these others were in conflict with Richard’s principal allies the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick).
York took control of government and on 19 November 1454 was reappointed protector. However, he could not command sufficient support from other lords to carry out the reforms he considered necessary and on 25 February 1456 the protectorate ended. By now the figurehead for opposition to York was the queen, Margaret of Anjou, whose status had been significantly raised now that she was the mother of the heir to the throne. An uneasy peace continued for the next few years with attempts at rapprochement that included proposal for a foreign royal marriage for York’s eldest son, Edward; an actual marriage for his daughter, Elizabeth, to John de la Pole,Duke of Suffolk whose mother was the queen’s closest companion; and even a ritual of reconciliation for the families involved at the First Battle of St Albans: a Loveday Procession on 24 March 1458 at which York walked hand in hand with the queen.
Nonetheless, during the winter of 1458 tensions escalated, particularly between the Nevilles and the court party, with accusations and counter accusations and apparent assassination attempts. York and the Nevilles were absent from a Great Council meeting in June 1459, although the reasons and immediate consequences seem impossible to determine with certainty. By early autumn armies had been mustered and on 23 September 1459 the Earl of Salisbury’s army defeated a royal force led by Lord Audley at Blore Heath near Newcastle-under-Lyme. York then met Salisbury at Worcester and apparently committed to support him. They sent letters to the king claiming continued allegiance while demanding reform. The king refused their demands, offering pardons to York and Warwick (but not Salisbury) if they surrendered. York and the Nevilles then gathered their forces outside his stronghold at Ludlow. On 12 October the royal forces arrived and the king’s presence with them prompted many of Warwick’s men to switch sides in the night. Finding themselves now outnumbered, and their plans in opposition hands, York, his eldest sons and the Nevilles decided to split up and flee. In their absence they were tried at a Parliament in Coventry, sentenced to death and their heirs were disinherited.
York and his second son, Edmund Earl of Rutland, made their way to Ireland where they spent most of the next year. He held a parliament which declared that “the land of Ireland is, and at all times has been, corporate of itself”, with its own laws and currency. Meanwhile his elder son, Edward, and the Nevilles had returned to England and gained control over the king at the Battle of Northampton. He returned to England and, on 10 October 1460, in the palace of Westminster he declared his right to the throne was superior to Henry VI’s. The complex discussions that followed resulted in a compromise called the Act of Accord, whereby Richard Duke of York became Henry VI’s heir instead of Henry’s own son, Edward.
However, Margaret of Anjou had spent this time in Scotland negotiating for military support. Other noblemen were mustering armies in the north of England to join her. Consequently, York and Salisbury took their forces northward. Here they were defeated and killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Their heads were staked on Micklegate Bar (York’s wearing a paper crown) and their bodies were buried at Pontefract. In July 1476 his surviving sons removed his body with great ceremonial for reburial at the family mausoleum at Fotheringhay.
Explore York’s home at Ludlow Castle here.