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King Henry and the Nobility

Henry was the third king in the line of the House of Lancaster. He acceded to the throne at the age of nine months on the premature death of his father, the warrior king, Henry V. No voice was raised against his accession and one month later he was even proclaimed King of France as well. Throughout his reign the overwhelming majority of the nobility never questioned his right to reign nor wavered in their fealty to him. Many would die in defence of his throne.

During his minority and the rule of his council under a Lord Protector, the main issues centred on France between the war party and the peace party. The two main adversaries were his uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, and his great-uncle, Henry Beaufort Bishop of Winchester, but neither of these ever questioned King Henry's right to reign or the legitimacy of the Lancastrian monarchy.

Discord developed with the rise to power of William de la Pole, the earl (later duke) of Suffolk, and the King's French marriage, which involved the cessation of Anjou and Maine. After Suffolk's murder in 1450 and the rebellion of the Kentish men led by Jack Cade, the Beaufort family became the strongest faction around the throne in the persons of the earls and dukes of Somerset. Opposed to them was Richard, Duke of York, also a descendant of King Edward III.

Richard of York was the son of Richard Earl of Cambridge, himself the second son of the fourth son of Edward III (Edmund of Langley). Cambridge had been executed for treason in 1415 at Southampton on the eve of Henry V's departure for France on the so-called Agincourt campaign. Consequently all his lands and titles had been forfeited. His son Richard was knighted at fourteen along with the four year old boy King Henry VI in 1426, and Henry himself restored the titles and lands of the York and Mortimer inheritance to Richard in 1432. The young duke of York served loyally in France at first and even conducted Margaret of Anjou safely on her journey across the English held territories in France. At home he was entrusted with the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland, but not the powerful political position in government he felt was his due as a prince of the blood royal. He resented both Suffolk and the Beaufort Somersets. York soon became the leading opposition to what may be described as the Court faction, and the fact that the Kentish rebels led by Jack Cade in 1450 favoured Richrd of York, led to suspicion of treasonable contacts with the rebels. York decided that he could only achieve the position he desired and the destruction of the Beauforts by force of arms. During a career of fermenting unrest, seeking pardon, protesting loyalty and renewing oaths of allegiance (which he repeatedly broke), York committed several acts of high treason in attacking the King's camp under the royal standard displayed, even inadvertently wounding the King in the neck. His attempts to control the King by two periods of Protectorate failed. His repeated attempts to destroy Somerset equally failed. He had committed dangerous treason and this drove him finally into open rebellion, aided by his own relations (the Bourchiers) and the Nevilles (arch-enemies of the Percies in Northumberland). Unable to control Henry and the Crown, he claimed it for himself – to the astonishment and distress of the vast majority of the nobility. (He had removed many lords who opposed his ambitions, by killing them in battles like the 1st St. Albans in 1455.)

York claimed his title to the throne through the female line; indeed through two females. His mother, Anne Mortimer, made him the heir to the Mortimers (the last earl dying in 1425). The Mortimer “claim” (which they never pressed) also came through the female line: Philippa, the daughter of Edward III's second son, Lionel of Clarence. The Mortimer earls of March were loyal to the Lancastrian succession. In fact, it had been Mortimer himself who had betrayed Richard of Cambridge's treason to Henry V in 1415 and who had sat on the commission that had then sentenced him to death.

The overwhelming majority of the nobility of England were no supporters of Richard Duke of York, nor did they wish nor intend to remove Henry VI from the throne, regarding him as their true, lawful and anointed sovereign.

Prof. J.R. Lander wrote: Between the first battle of St. Albans in May 1455 and the battle of Towton in March 1461, 37 peers (and possibly 5 more), who were the heads successively of 32 noble families, fought for him [King Henry], and in the end only 3 of these deserted him for the Yorkist side; 15 died for him, 12 on the battlefield and 3 were afterwards executed by their victorious foes.

It is now sufficiently obvious that the greater part of the peerage – at least 49 out of about 60 families – chose to fight for Henry VI or for Richard of York, though it should be said that until October 1460, when York suddenly and unexpectedly put his claim to the throne before an astonished parliament, the nobles (including York's own closest supporters) had not yet come to regard these quarrels as a dynastic issue.

This high involvement of the peerage during the reign of the last Lancastrian forms a marked contrast to their political indifference to Henry VI's successors and dynastic rivals. The nobility showed a definite reluctance to risk their lives and fortunes for Edward, Richard III and Henry VII.

Lords known to have fought for King Henry VI:

1st St. Albans 1455

Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

Edmund Beaufort Duke of Somerset (killed)

Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon

Henry Percy II, Earl of Northumberland (killed)

Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke

James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire

Lord Berners

Thomas Lord Clifford (killed)

Lord Dudley

William Neville, Lord Fauconberg

Lord Sudeley

Lord Roos

John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester

Royal adherents arriving a day late:

John de Vere, Earl of Oxford

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury

Ralph Lord Cromwell

Blore Heath 1459

James Lord Audley (killed)

Lord Dudley

Thomas Lord Stanley 'sat on the fence' six miles away.

Northampton 1460

Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham (killed)

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (killed)

John Viscount Beaumont (killed)

Lord Egremont (killed)

The person of the King seized as a captive from his tent.

Wakefield 1460

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (father slain 1455 at St. Albans)

Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon

Henry Percy III, Earl of Northumberland (father slain 1455 at St. Albans)

John Lord Clifford (father slain 1455 at St. Albans)

Lord Harrington (killed)

Lord Neville Roos of Helmsley

possibly Lords Greystock and Latimer as well.

Mortimer's Cross 1461

Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke

James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire

2nd St. Albans 1461

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset

Henry Percy III, Earl of Northumberland

Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon

John Lord Neville

Lord Roos

possibly also Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter; John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury; Lord Fitzhugh; Lord Grey of Codnor; Lord Greystock; Lord Welles; Lord Willoughby

Towton 1461

Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset

Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon (beheaded after the battle)

Henry Percy III, Earl of Northumberland (killed)

James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire (beheaded after the battle)

William Viscount Beaumont (father slain 1460 at Northampton)

John Lord Clifford (killed)

Lord Dacre of Gillesland

Lord Rougemont-Grey (executed after the battle)

John Lord Neville (killed)

Lord Roos

Anthony Ryvers, Lord Scales (later Edward IV's brother-in-law)

Leo Lord Welles (killed)

Richard Lord Willoughby

Between 1459 and 1461 three peers went over to the Yorkists: John Lord Audley; Lord Berners and William Neville, Lord Fauconberg.

(Taken from J.R. Lander's Appendix in “Politics and Power in England, 1450-1509.)