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What was the most significant cause of civil strife in England from 1455-61?
At the battle of Towton in 1461 Henry VI was captured and deposed by his cousin Edward, leaving behind a legacy of incessant failures, incompetence and inadequacy. There are numerous causes for this, both long and short term including Henry’s leadership and personality, the role of Margaret of Anjou, the actions of Richard Duke of York as well as the increased power of the nobility and the perversion of the feudal system.
These are all evidently contingent factors of civil strife in England but one in particular stands out as crucial to the outbreak of extensive discord in a nation which had been left stable, united and celebrating military successes in France by Henry V. This remarkable deterioration saw the English monarchy go from being responsible for a great victory at Agincourt and having the thrones of itself and France united, to being a powerless bystander overseeing a nation embroiled in acute dissension in just eighteen years. Only one factor can be called the most significant in relation to the causes behind civil strife, and this was Henry VI himself.
However this does not mean that other factors did not contribute to the breakdown of law and order. The most long-term was the underlying issue of the increase in power of the nobility, and the origin of this can be traced back to the reign of Edward III in the 1300s. Edward was renowned for his military prowess and was able to contain the energies of the nobility – something Henry failed to do – by channelling them into successful campaigns in both France and Scotland. After making much use of his nobles in these military victories he was compelled to make certain concessions in return, as thanks, which gave them increased power and status in the legal system for example. The problem here is that nobles felt that they should retain a certain degree of control over the king and this did not just result in conflicting nobles striving to monopolise their influence but also the disillusionment of regular councillors and ministers.
He also created a new upper class made up of magnates who had the ability to marry into the royal family and would therefore hold the title of the blood royal which again caused regular nobles to find their influence resented. It can be argued that this was where the seeds of discontent were sown amongst the nobility and the Kings council and that their poor handling by Henry, while not creating the issue of over mighty nobles, certainly aggravated the state of affairs and acted as a catalyst for the struggle for influence over the King. The removal of these nobles was one of the demands of Jack Cade’s 1450 rebellion, proof that this was a contentious issue amongst the public. Although this was undeniably a contributing factor to the outbreak of civil strife, the stronger argument is that it was not the creation of these over mighty nobles that caused his downfall, more Henry’s inability to control them.
This only became a problem due to Henry’s weaknesses as a King; he allowed one faction to dominate another and failed to restrain the surging ambitions of the nobility. This failure to intervene in matters that threatened the crown clearly advertises the fact that Henry lacked the political aptitude and personal capacity to avert conflict. John Warren also notes that Henry VI lacked the intelligence, charisma and dynamism necessary to “reconcile his own interest with those of the nobility”. One of the key characteristics of Henry’s error-ridden reign was his continual exclusion of men of the blood royal from his favour and counsel, most notably Richard of York. However, a mere, slight transferral of power amongst the elite of England is not sufficient enough a reason to explain Richards attempt to depose the King.
One of the symptoms of this shift in power from the King was the perversion of the feudal system, or bastard feudalism – a phrase coined by Charles Plummer in the late 1800s. In most of medieval England, society was dependent on the conventional form of this system, which was based on the allocation of land in return for service. The king would give out grants of land to his most important noblemen who were barons and bishops, and each noble would have to promise to loyally follow him and supply him with soldiers in time of war. The nobles then divided their land among lower lords, or knights who also had to become their vassals (servants). In the lowest spot in society sat the peasants who worked on the land itself. They had almost no rights, tiny pieces of property – and no vassals.
So in short, the King was in complete control under the feudal system. He was in possession all the land in the country and who he would lease land to was a completely arbitrary affair. He therefore only allowed those men he could trust to lease land from him. However, before they were given any land they had to swear an oath to remain faithful to the King at all times. In principle, this should have guaranteed a sustainable, simplistic and secure reign for Henry, but under the new distorted version it can be argued that he was ousted from his chief role in the land based hierarchy.
The traditional feudal conventions were replaced with payment in return for military, political, legal or domestic service by the magnates who served the king. Therefore instead of vassals providing military service when required by the lord, they paid a portion of their income into the lord’s treasury. In turn the lord would supplement the owed military service with hired retainers, a sort of private army in full time service to the lord. In times of war especially this enabled nobles to rapidly assemble a vast company of armed retainers which, it is claimed, facilitated threats to Henry’s Kingship.
The reasoning behind this standpoint asserts that the King was isolated from the system and as a result, regional disputes were able to escalate into fully blown armed conflict, therefore infringing upon the Kings authority. There are a number of examples of nobles who affected the peace and effectiveness of the judicial system but as A.J Pollard argued, it was not the use of armed retainers encouraged by bastard feudalism that led to breakdowns in law and order but the recruitment of locals who would fight on behalf of a noble. An example of this would be John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who recruited locals to fight against Lord Grey of Codnor.
This was not a unique situation either, there were further conflicts such as those between the Earl of Devon and Lord Bonville, the Blounts and the Longfords in Derbyshire and between the Percies and Nevilles in the North. These gang warfare style skirmishes therefore, were not a by-product of the bastard feudal system but a completely separate issue. Ultimately it was Henry’s duty to contain these conflicts and ensure that they did not encourage further contravention of the King’s authority.
However, unfortunately for England at the time, they were lumbered with a monarch who was weak, ineffectual and utterly devoid of any prestige or authority. An extract from Warren says that ‘Any argument that the wars came alone as a direct result of bastard feudalism can be dismissed’. This appears too hasty a conclusion as bastard feudalism had a number of effects on the country which contributed, no matter how little, to the outbreak of civil strife. However it does seem that Henry’s own irresolution and negligence allowed the development of minor disagreements and transformed bastard feudalism from a vaguely interesting sideshow into an effective and useful weapon for any prospective troublemakers.
The most notable of these is quite obviously Richard Duke of York and although there can be no uncertainty about the fact he is a main contributor to the conflict, it should be made clear that he is in no way the most significant cause. Like virtually all the other short term causes of civil strife, the impact Richard had can be linked back to the ever-inept Henry VI. Despite this, the foundations of Richards’s insubordination do lie with his background. After the usurpation of Richard II in 1399, royal blood was an incredibly useful commodity and Richard Duke of York certainly was a magnate of the blood royal. He openly claimed he had a greater right to the throne which could reveal his great ambition or possible egotistical nature. On the other hand however, his father was executed for treason after plotting against Henry V but initially there were no indications that Richard would seek to usurp the throne in retaliation.
What then, caused the abrupt turn of events after 1437? The answer, as ever, lies with Henry. After his first year as lieutenant-general in Lancastrian France he was owed substantial amounts of money by the government. After having to delve into his personal finances to fund his activities in France, Richard returned to England in 1445 where he was owed ï¿½38,666 by the crown. To further supplement this horror show of man management, an astoundingly imprudent piece of patronage was to follow. In full awareness of York’s ongoing quarrel with John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Henry awarded the latter the government of Gascony and the title captain-general of the region. York could have only seen this as an emasculation of his authority. He may have also become alarmed at the rate at which a William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, led faction was monopolising patronage and power. As Ralph Griffiths put it, “Henry was enveloped by an impenetrable, self-perpetuating oligarchy” that “isolated him from alternative sources of counsel”.
This led to Edmund Beaufort replacing Richard of York in France and York being reappointed lieutenant of Ireland in 1447. This simultaneously demonstrates yet another personal failing of Henry VI but also provides a satisfactory explanation for York’s insubordination. Warren states that Richard “rightly assumed that this was to get him out of the way” and for a man who became heir presumptive after Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester’s death in 1447 this must have been incredibly infuriating. Despite this, there is still no evidence that Richard sought to depose Henry but it may be the threat to his status of heir presumptive that triggered his return from Ireland in 1450 as Henry was still childless and Suffolk arranged for his son to marry a Beaufort heiress seeing as the Beauforts had royal blood.
Some may argue that his return from Ireland without permission was a sign of treason and subversion which appears a reasonable point of view seeing as the 1450 Cade’s rebellion had failed and Beaufort had lost Normandy yet still remained in the Kings favour. In spite of this however, it appears that York merely wished the recognition of his status as heir apparent and the removal of Somerset. There is clear evidence for the aforementioned wish for recognition at the 1451 parliament where Thomas Yonge proposed it to the Commons on behalf of York. The proposal was rejected however as no magnate backed him.
This failure marks the beginning of York’s real significance as, due to his growing disquiet over his lack of support, he resorted to a show of military strength in 1452 at Dartford in Kent. This event holds genuine significance as it was the first time a noble had taken up arms against Henry VI and could arguably have set in motion a chain of events that led to the war of the roses. Although at first glance York’s conduct looks like a blatant act of sedition, in fairness there was no actual fighting that took place, York professed that he only wanted the removal of Somerset and when taken to London, swore an oath that he still remained loyal to the King.
The next year, Henry suddenly went mad which sparked a devastating chain of events which ultimately would cause the outbreak of civil strife. With the King in a state of total political debility some nobles took the opportunity to settle disputes through violence such as the Percies and the Nevilles in 1453. This is, albeit, not intrinsically a cause of civil strife but the real significance lies with what allowed it to happen. The power vacuum left by Henry undeniably resulted in a struggle between York and Margaret of Anjou for power.
At the time there was no precedent for a female regent so a protectorate was formed with York in the lead role on 27 March 1454 and the uncertainty of York’s tenure was essentially what permitted the power struggle to continue. As he was never made regent, and Henry could recover at any given moment, he had to tread carefully and was not able to take back Calais from Somerset’s supporters or control all the workings of government as that would infringe upon the limits of his authority. By Christmas of that year the inevitable occurred and Henry recovered. York was immediately ousted from his position and the charges he had brought against Somerset were dropped without any deliberation. Now, with both Margaret and Somerset in fierce opposition of him, York sensed accusations of treason were on their way.
The outcome of this was the first case of armed clashes that was a precursor the War of the Roses at St Albans in 1454. While some may argue that this was just a manifestation of York’s dangerous ambition, it was once again Henry’s ostensible obliviousness that left Richard with no choice but to attack to remove the “traitorous” councillors like Somerset. The foundations of a blood feud were laid here as it contained the deaths of Somerset and the Earl of Northumberland whose families were always going to be keen for revenge. So on one hand we have the exacerbated problem of factionalism and on the other Margaret who was convinced that only the destruction of York would safeguard her sons succession to the throne. Although it must be said that York made no attempt to depose or kill the King, and he was made protector almost immediately after Henry’s second breakdown, politics was more than ever about controlling the King whose wife was intent on completely destroying the Yorkists.
The importance of the role of Margaret of Anjou cannot be overstated and from 1456 onwards it became increasingly obvious that she was pulling the strings behind her husband. The peace-loving Henry made one last-ditch attempt at a Yorkist and Beaufort factional reconciliation in a “love-day” in March 1458 where Margaret walked hand in hand with York to St Paul’s cathedral. However this was purely a spectacle and did nothing to resolve two decades of factional confrontations. This was quickly forgotten and a parliament was called at Coventry in 1459 with only Beaufort faction members present. Here at this so-called “Parliament of Devils” an act of attainder was passed against York and his adherents which ‘corrupted their blood’ or in simpler terms, disinherited the bloodlines of all the Yorkist rebels.
This is the one area where Henry was not the most significant cause as he had no control over his queen at the time in his state of mental fragility. Of course if we be pedantic about it then the culpability could lie with Henry for marrying a French woman while at War in France which was an incredibly unpopular decision at the time. Margaret of Anjou had a catalytic effect by heightening tensions through such things as establishing a rival court in the midlands and her overt opposition to York. It was also significant that she led the Lancastrians into the second Battle of St Albans on 17 February 1461 and won.
Andrew Pickering notes that ‘Margaret then marched south, her force ravaging the towns and villages through which they passed’. It seems that she genuinely had the Londoner’s interests at heart and so allowed the Yorkists under Edward, Earl of March to enter the capital on 27 February. She had been successful in battle which naturally has an inspirational effect on some and an antagonising one on others due to her nationality or factional allegiance. This therefore contributed to civil strife and so therefore, is a significant cause. However, her role did not result in a dramatic turn of events and so for that reason, civil strife was only accelerated by Margaret.
Now we reach the most fundamental cause of civil strife. The personality of Henry VI was a conglomeration of staggering ineptitude, inaptitude and inefficaciousness and stands out as the most significant cause, the crux of the matter. John Warren writes that Henry was a man guilty of “tragic and spectacular incompetence” and it’s true that his reign was characterised purely by his poor decision making, his malleability to the wishes of various factions combined with his personal failings such as mismanagement of his nobles and disastrous forays into foreign affairs. While most monarchs would focus on their overseas campaign, Henry marked the end of his minority with a series of religious buildings and projects such as Eton College. Many of his personal failures were prominent from an early age. For example at the age of 16 he granted away the office of constable and steward of Chirk castle at the cost of 1000 marks to the crown and eventually sold it to Henry Beaufort. Henry VI also had to be advised by the court clerk on 11 February 1438 that it was not advisable to grant a pardon to those whose crimes had cost the crown around 2000 marks.
His fascination of royal patronage also manifested itself in his youth and this failure to learn from these mistakes plagued him throughout his kingship, with his favouritism and ill-judged patronage at times contributing to his eventual usurpation. Some examples of this would be in 1441 his granting of the stewardship of the duchy of Cornwall to the Earl of Devon while disregarding the fact that Devon had a pre-existing quarrel with the sitting steward.
The extent of this extravagant and frivolous patronage was made apparent when the Commons passed an act of resumption in 1450 to try and regain crown lands. Henry inserted 186 clauses however that exempted the majority of his various grants. Henry’s long term power and influence was bound to suffer as a result. With a decrease in his lands there was a direct correlation to the number of retainers he lost. With the depletion of his resources saw a diminution in his annual income and to solve this he borrowed from his magnates, putting him further under their influence.
His actions in France such as the previously explored snub of Richard of York in 1443 and his injudicious desire for peace certainly were factors. The secret cession of Maine to Charles VI and repeated losses on the battlefield such as the loss of Normandy publicised the fact that he was a poor leader of men as well as highlighting the huge contrast between his insufficient military tactics and those of his father Henry V who experienced so much success. Some may use the Polydore Virgil quote which describes Henry as a “pure, honest and holy creature” to defend Henry’s weaknesses but that merely corroborates what has been argued against him. The country needed a strong and decisive leader but Henry failed to show any of the necessary qualities of a king and his mental breakdown allowed the York-Anjou conflict to infiltrate factions nationwide, effectively dividing the country in two.
There is no doubt that Henry was faced with tough challenges when he reached the end of his minority, his father’s untimely death meant he had to deal with home and foreign affairs from an early age but if his inheritance could survive the 15 year minority, why could it not be sustained after? Henry completely failed to deal with the issues that were facing him unlike Edward IV and Henry VII who were both able to secure their positions in the years after Henry’s usurpation. The long term, underlying causes can be dismissed as minor, relatively insignificant factors that Henry simply lacked the ability to deal with and his capitulation was guaranteed even before his mental breakdown as his entire personality was the contrary of what was needed. Richard of York and Margaret of Anjou may have exacerbated and accelerated pre-existing problems but it boils down to the fact that Henry was a weak, inept King who allowed his generosity to spiral out of control and failed to recognise the implications of his actions.