Chapter Two: The Wars of the Roses begin (1457-1461)
So far fate had looked kindly upon the house of York and it's quest for power and reform in England. During the following years however the situation deteriorated considerably until it ended in full blown civil war and a period of civil strife (usually dated from 1460 to 1486) today collectively known as "The Wars of the Roses". It all began in 1458 when Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset managed to escape from the tower. He had been held there in confinement since the take over of York and his allies in 1460. He had however not been put on trial for treason as originally planned. Although Warwick had urged him to "cut of the head of that troublesome man" York did not wish to alienate the moderate Lancastarians from his regime through such an act of cruelty. After a lengthy stay in Burgundy Somerset sought refuge in France where he was warmly greeted.
The most bitter enemy of the house of York was now in the hands of England's most ancient enemy.
As an immediate reaction York published a series of manifestos for broad circulation announcing that "the French pretender Francis" and the "faithless duke of Somerset" where continually plotting the "complete and utter destruction of this realm of England" and to "commit the worst manslaughter, rape and pillaging ever seen in Christendom" in the said realm. Therefore everybody should be ready to resist a possible invasion and not lend any aid to Somerset and any of his friends. York followed up these words by ordering commission of array for several counties on the channel coast. But these war scares where futile, for Francis I was too much occupied with the prospect of buying back the Somme towns ceded to Burgundy under the treaty of Arras 1435, to plan an invasion of England.
The year 1459 witnessed the death of king James III of Scotland at the mere age of 36.
He was succeeded by his 17 year old son John who took the throne as John II. A incompetent, decadent youth, he found it hard to establish his authority against a nobility that was traditionally protective of it's liberties. To bolster his internal position John looked to England and offered York to reaffirm the alliance of 1457 and also proposed that the marriage between Henry of York and his sister Mary, who would turn 16 in 1460, should go ahead.. Eager to bind Scotland tighter to the Yorkist cause the Duke agreed. The date for the marriage between York's heir and Mary was set for the 2nd of March 1460.
On the 25th of February Mary Stewart, escorted by a retinue of over 500, crossed the Anglo-Scottish border. She was then lead to York by the Dukes leading supporter the Earl of Warwick where she entered in splendor on the 1st of March. The marriage took place in York Minster the next day.
York Minster today.
The marriage celebrations continued for a fortnight with a traditional jousting tournament as the affairs climax, at which Henry's younger brother Edmund at the mere age of 17 triumphed over all his competitors.
"The joust of York 1460" as shown in "The Great London Chronicle"
Thus a disastrous year for the house of York began with a happy occasion. But soon the said dynasty experienced their share of misfortune.
On April 8th 1460 queen Marguerite gave birth to a son named George. King Henry had an heir and suddenly Yorks claim to the throne (and the government of the realm) seemed very questionable again. To make matters even worse another problem erupted abroad.
The reoccurence of the first standing armies in Europe since Roman times created great difficulties for most medieval states financing them. England was no exception. During the last 40 years the Calais garrison had mutinied on average every 10 years, due to problems of the government to pay their wages. In 1460 with the Yorkist government still hard pressed for money it happened again. The Calais garrison butchered the royal official in charge of the city, seized the wool stored in the harbor docks and barricaded the city.
This was the situation Somerset had waited for. Supplied with an adequate treasury by Francis he rode to Calais with all haste and offered the garrison to pay their wages and a handsome bonus if they entered his service. All standing armies in Europe until the 18th century being essentially of a mercenary character Somerset did not have to make this offer twice and by May he was well entrenched in Calais. He had been further strengthened by French troops and mercenaries from the Low Countries supplied by the king of France so that his total force amounted to some 7.000 men. With these Somerset planned to invade England and link up with his Lancastarian supporters at home and overthrow the Yorkist regime. Since he lacked a navy of his own Somerset was completely dependent on French aid to ferry his forces across the Channel. The French navy however was tied down fighting Breton pirate activity for the moment although Francis assured the anxious duke that he would bring him to England ere the summer had passed.
This gave the duke of York time to act. As early as the 18th of May he sent letters in the kings name to important lords and towns of the realm to bring "as many men as ye may defensibly array" to London until the 28th of June. After having assembled some 9.000 men he set out for Calais accompanied by the duke of Buckingham and the two Neville brothers Richard, Earl of Warwick and Thomas, Lord Montague. York had wisely secured permission to land his troops on Burgundian territory from duke Philip IV a month earlier, so that his force could disembark without meeting any major opposition. By July 4th the Yorkist army had reached Calais. If prudent Somerset would have kept his forces inside the city thereby forcing York into a prolonged siege. This would have given his Lancastarian allies in England, now virtually emptied of Yorkist troops, time to rise. But displaying the same judgment that had won his father such infamy on his campaign in France he at once sallied forth to meet his enemy in battle.
The battle of Calais, the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, fought on June 5th 1460
The battle of Calais is an event over which we are ill-informed. But from what we know both armies where arrayed in the traditional three battles. The Yorkists outnumbered Somersets host by some 2.000 men. Also it had the advantage of having a considerable amount of great ordinance, brought for the siege of Calais, while the Lancastarians completly lacked this increasingly important novelty of war. The slow but constant battering of Yorks cannons therefore forced Somerset to quickly engage the enemy army in close combat. In the vicious melee that ensued the battle raged inconclusive for two hours until finally the Yourkist right, commanded by Lord Montague, routed the Lancastarian left wing and instead of turning to a blind pursuit, as was often the case with the undisciplined armies of the 15th century, threw their whole wait against Somersets main battle which quickly collapsed. The defeat turned into a rout. Out of the 7.000 soldiers in Somersets pay over 3.000 where killed and 2.000 taken prisoner. Only 2.000 managed to flee into open countryside or the relative safety of Calais. The Yorkist host had suffered losses somewhere between 700 and 900 men. The duke of Somerset was captured and beheaded for treason the very next day. Thus did the great spilling of noble blood begin. This disastrous defeat however did not keep Calais from continuing to defy Yorks authority. In the city the late dukes son and heir Henry Beaufort took over the command of the few remaining forces at his disposal, heartening them by announcing that the king of France would lead a strong host to relieve them ere the winter came.
The siege of Calais begins. It would drag on until 1461
With a possibly long siege to be conducted it was decided that Warwick should return to England taking 5.000 men with him, to quell any possible Lancastarian uprising while his brother Montague and York himself would remain to retake Calais. Historians have often marveled why York after taking with him a considerable amount of ordinance did not try to swiftly storm Calais. But the answer was probably quite obvious. Calais was the only English base left in Europe. The bastion of England across the Channel and gateway for any invasion to France or the Low Countries. Reducing this town to ruins would be greatly damaging to the English cause in the long run. Therefore the Yorkist army and navy built up a complete blockade of the city and waited. The besieged however where not as cautious. Henry Beaufort organized a spirtied resistance. Using a few cannons captured from ships in the harbor as a means of bombarding the Yorkist camp and leading several night raides into the enemies camp he kept the followers of the White Rose on their toes. And indeed on March 12th 1461, only one week before the final surrender of Calais, disaster struck as York was hit by a cannon ball fired from the city walls during his daily inspection of siege works.
In England chaos broke out at once. Who would succeed York as de-facto ruler of England? Warwick viewed himself as the natural choice but his claim was of course challenged by Henry of York, now 4th Duke of York and head of the house of York. Or would king Henry or his more dominant queen take the reigns of state back into their hands, or perhaps even recall Henry Beaufort to become the first man in the state? Violence was in the air anyway since Henry of York at once mustered an army from his native duchy perhaps to oppose the forces Warwick had lead back to England. But a confrontation between the two leading Yorkists was averted by yet another incredible turn of events. On April 18th Henry VI together with his queen and infant son managed to give the minders Warwick had placed on them the slip and fled to France. This left the Yorkist faction in a very embarrassing situation for without their puppet king they had no authority to rule the country and probably rightly feared the vengeance their enemies where already planning. In this situation Warwick and the new duke of York where quick to come to terms and seek the only possible solution to their problem: setting up their own king. Thus after a hastily prepared ceremony Henry of York at the age of 20 on the 23rd of May became Henry VII, by the grace of God king of England and France, Lord of Ireland. Whether he would enjoy this title for long was open to question
Henry of York "that youthful blossom of the White Rose" becomes the first Yorkist king. The fate of his house and of England lies in his hands.