This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in April 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.
The number one way to remind a country how important good leadership is is when your country’s leader does not want to do or is extremely bad at doing their job. This is true for the modern-day, as well as the past. It was especially true for England in the 15th century. Due to complex political structures, a bad kingship can cause a decrease in good living conditions, rebellions, and wars, which ultimately leads to death and destruction. Four kings ruled during the period 1450-1500. Each king caused death and destruction during their rule. However, the way some of this death and destruction was dealt out is more taboo than others, leading to certain kingships being overthrown sooner than others.
The first king who ruled during this fifty-year period was Henry VI. Overall, Henry VI was not a good king. However, this was not entirely his fault. Henry VI “succeeded his father in 1422 aged just nine months” (Horrox 234). To be a good king, one needs experience. A bad king does not have enough experience to know what they are doing. Nor do they care enough to try to either get the experience or ask several people who do have the same or similar experience. At nine months, a child does not even understand the concept of object permanence; let alone how to rule a kingdom. It also did not help that because Henry VI was crowned at such a young age, he had no frame of reference of how a good king should act, or rather, how a king should not act. In his minority, Henry VI could only go off of what his counselors told him. However, as he physically started to approach adulthood, it slowly “dawned on those around the king that he was never going to grow up” (Carpenter 92). Essentially, Henry VI either would not or could not be king. Either way, Henry VI’s lack of emotional maturity at this time caused “a group of grasping courtiers to take hold of his government” (Carpenter 93).
This ultimately led to a series of bad decisions and England was thrown into disarray in 1450, when the country lost Normandy, the duke of Suffolk was impeached, and Jack Cade’s rebellion occurred (Horrox 231). After these disasters, Henry VI’s counsel and court could no longer make it seem as though everything was fine with the king. After this truth was revealed to the public, “the court deepened its alienation from the realm, an alienation…a political opponent sought to exploit” (Harriss 7). It also did not help that in 1453, while the country was still facing these problems, “the recovery was fatally weakened by Henry’s mental collapse” (Horrox 231). Needless to say, one cannot be a good king when one is suffering from a nervous breakdown.
Another reason Henry VI’s kingship was terrible was because he did not like conflict. A good king cannot be afraid of conflict, especially in its early stages before it escalates into something deadly. Henry VI had a tendency to wait. After Richard of York argued that because of his ancestry he should have the throne, Henry VI somewhat agreed, telling York that he had to recognize him as king, but after Henry VI died, York and his descendants could have the throne (Crowland Chronicle 111-113). By trying to avoid conflict, Henry VI only caused more. He seemed to have completely forgotten that he already had an heir. This was a fatal mistake on Henry VI’s part. His proper heir would be killed in the battle of Tewkesbury while fighting for the Lancasters for the throne (Crowland Chronicle 127).
In contrast, Edward IV can be considered a relatively good king. Christine Carpenter even goes as far as to say, “he should be acknowledged as one of the greatest of English kings” (205). When comparing the second half of Edward IV’s reign to the entirety of Henry VI’s reign this is a safe statement to say. Unlike Henry VI, Edward IV was not afraid of conflict. After all, he had usurped Henry VI as king when Henry VI could not do a good job. Another way Edward IV was not afraid to get his hands dirty was when he managed to mend a large feud happening between noble families in the 1470s (Carpenter 216). When dealing with local conflicts Edward IV had the extremely valuable trait of being “prepared to change his mind…when he decided that he was backing the wrong party…once he realized that he was acting…against local wishes” (Carpenter 194).
However, he did make a few errors, especially in his early years, which resulted in fatalities. These fatalities can be easily chalked up to “the inexperience of youth” (Carpenter 92). When Edward IV first took the throne, he was eighteen years old and eighteen-year-olds are not known for their decision-making skills. One such mistake Edward IV made that ended up causing a domino effect into war was his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth Woodville was not considered good queen material. She was the daughter of a knight, thus not high up in the social hierarchy, a widow with children, thus not a virgin, and she was English when most kings at the time married foreign women for political reasons (Laynesmith).
By secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV ended up isolating his kingmaker, Warwick, who had arraigned Edward IV to marry a French princess (Carpenter 170). However, in the Crowland Chronicle Continuations, the author argues that it was not just Edward IV’s marriage that insulted Warwick. It was a combination of the queen “in accordance with the king’s will, arraign[ing] the marriage of [some family members] and many other affairs likewise, against the earl’s will” (115). Either way, Edward IV insulted Warwick and it is generally not a good idea to insult the person who made you king, for they can try to take your crown away, which is exactly what Warwick attempted to do. Warwick failed, but it resulted in several battles and many deaths.
Even so, Edward IV brought stability back to the country, even if it was extremely fragile (Horrox 232). However, this bloodstained stability was smashed to pieces thanks to his brother, Richard III. While both Richard III and Edward IV were usurpers and their crowns were gained by spilling blood, Richard III is widely to be considered an extremely bad king, even though “as king, it cannot be denied Richard did his best” (Carpenter 210). Unlike Edward VI, Richard III did not overthrow a regime that was slowly but surely tearing the country apart. Instead, after his brother’s death, Richard III was made “protector of the kingdom” (Crowland Chronicle 157) and as a result, he took the throne from Edward IV’s heir. Like Edward IV, Richard III killed the person who he usurped the crown from. However, Edward IV’s two heirs were children and killing children, especially the children of a beloved king, is generally frowned upon. Thus, Richard III was not particularly popular from the start of his rule.
It should also be noted, when one is a usurper, the survivors of the previous dynasty and their allies need to be paid off or eliminated. Unfortunately for Richard III, “there was no relying on the loyalty of men who have been bought” (Carpenter 211). This caused a chicken and egg scenario where Richard III had enough resources for those loyal to him, but not enough for those who could be bought. Like Henry VI, Richard III “lacked…the political mastery without which the [kingship] was ultimately impossible” (Carpenter 211).
Following the fates of the kings before him, Richard III was usurped as well. He was killed in the battle of Bosworth and Henry VII took over the throne. Like the kings before him, Henry VII had claimed he was the rightful heir due to his ancestry. However, to further solidify his claim for the crown, Henry VII married Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York as he had promised he would do if he defeated Richard III (Laynesmith 36). Henry VII was also considered a good king. His kingship “rested on a sound financial basis, on putting the nobles firmly in their place and on effective order, secured by wise legislation and the disciplining of nobility” (Carpenter 220-221). In short, Henry VII was the exact opposite of Henry VI.
In the end, good kingship was extremely important during 1450-1500, mostly because there was a huge lack of it. Kings either did not have the mental capabilities needed to rule, the good decision making needed to rule, the charisma, or the slightly better ancestry their rivals had. However, the Wars of the Roses really can be traced back to one person: Henry VI. Because Henry VI was mentally incapable of good kingship, either from general immaturity, mental illness, or perhaps even an undiagnosed mental disability that hindered his capacities, one event lead to another and the end result was a conflict that lasted nearly fifty years and cost many people their wealth, land, and lives.
Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, C.1437-1509. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Harriss, G.L. “The Court of the Landcastrian Kings.” The Landcastrian Court: Proceedings of the 2001 Harlaxton Symposium , edited by J. Stratford, 2003, pp. 1–18.
Horrox, Rosemary. “England: Kingship and the Political Community, 1377-c. 1500.” A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 224–241.
Laynesmith, J. The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1505. 2004.
Pronay, Nicholas, and John Cox, editors. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459-1486. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1986.