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Edward IV

St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

Anyone writing about the fifteenth century king Edward IV is in for a difficult time. Little is known about him for sure, and over the years he has been portrayed as both hero and villain. In many ways the most interesting story to tell with Edward IV is the way his story changed over the centuries. Edward tried to symbolise the solidity of his reign by rebuilding St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. In the hands of historians his reign has no solidity at all.

Edward was born in Rouen on 28th April 1442, son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. Richard was to be the main rival to Henry VI for the throne of England. Both men were descendents of Edward III, and the struggle between Henry, Richard, and their families became known as the Wars of the Roses. In 1460 Richard of York was killed in a skirmish near Wakefield, leaving his son Edward as his heir. Edward took up his father's claim to the throne of England, and the following year he led a Yorkist fight back, winning the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in Wales. Edward's army then marched on London. On 4th March 1461 Henry VI was deposed, and Edward proclaimed king. On 29th March a huge battle at Towton was won by the Yorkists. Edward was established as king, but continued to have to fight for his position. Trouble continued in northern England where the castles of Alnwick, Banburgh and Dunstanburgh were won and lost several times by both sides. By 1464 King Edward's forces had won control over northern England, but by this point Edward had lost the support of the powerful Earl of Warwick. This might have been partly due to Edward's decision to marry Elizabeth Wydeville. She was a member of the up and coming Wydeville family, who had upset the established nobility with their unwelcome aspitations to greatness of their own. The fifteenth century historian Polydore Vergil wrote that Edward was led into marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville "by blind affection and not by the rule of reason" (quoted The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir P21). The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney was later to praise Edward for the romance of marrying for love. But at the time Edward's choice of wife seems to have done him no favours.



Wakefield Tower, Tower of London - traditional place of Henry VI's death

The Earl Warwick now began to work against the king. Edward's brother George, Duke of Clarence sided with Warwick, marrying Warwick's daughter Isabella against Edward's orders. The marriage took place in Calais in 1469. The newly married Clarence and his father in law then sailed for England and managed to take King Edward prisoner at the Battle of Edgecoat. Following the battle Warwick had Queen Elizabeth's father Earl Rivers, and her brother John, beheaded. Henry VI, was briefly returned to the throne with the help of Warwick in October 1470. But by this time Henry was a broken man, and Edward was able to escape custody and reclaim the throne in a campaign waged between March and May 1471. The Duke of Clarence realised resistance was hopeless and went over to Edward's side. Warwick fought on, only to be killed at the Battle of Barnet on Easter Sunday 1471. Henry VI was placed in the Tower, while his followers tried to reach safety in Wales. Edward intercepted them at Tewkesbury on 4th of May. In the battle that followed Henry's son Prince Edward was killed, or perhaps executed afterwards. King Edward returned to London on 21st May, and that same evening Henry VI was murdered in the Tower. Edward then ruled until his death on 9th April 1483.

Those are the bare facts of Edward's reign. Onto this framework has been placed narratives which have variously portrayed Edward as a capable savior of England, and a hopeless, debauched failure. The story of how these contradictory accounts came about, as described by J.R. Lander, reveals little about Edward, but much about how history gets written.

The first lengthy writing about Edward IV came from Sir Thomas More and Polydore Vergil, who were both working after Edward's death, during the reign of Henry VII. These accounts drew upon the reminiscences of a wide range of men, who had actually lived through Edward's reign. Both More and Vergil stated that Edward worked hard, restored property, was popular, and helped England find unity. This image of Edward remained the accepted standard for around a hundred years. Then in the eighteenth century a few writers decided they would go back to "original sources" to get a better view of Edward's reign. Ignoring More and Vergil, they concentrated on one of the very few contemporary records, written by a man called Philippe de Commynes, who was not a fan of Edward. His book, Memoire, had been written to reflect the greatness of Louis XI, and to make all his fellow rulers, Edward IV amongst them, look inadequate. Public records show many inaccuracies in Commyne's facts, but a good story could be based on his colourful portrayal of Edward as a ruthless debaucher. In 1723 a book by Rapin called History of England was published using Commynes as a source. As Lander says: "Under the disguise of a more detailed and accurate scholarship it placed greater reliance than ever before on an untrustworthy authority" (Crown and Nobility 1450 - 1509 by J.R. Lander P161). Rapin's book was followed by Hume's History in 1761. This took Rapin's conclusions, removed all the ifs and buts, and gave a new picture of Edward as a greedy, ruthless man at the mercy of his carnal appetites. This then became the accepted picture of Edward.





Traditional location at the Tower of London for the murder of the Duke of Clarence, supposedly in a butt of malmsey wine

J.R. Lander then tries to paint his own portrait of Edward. Although public government records are patchy, and reveal nothing about motivations or opinions, according to Lander they do indicate vigorous efforts to maintain public order during Edward's reign. They reveal relentless journeys undertaken to dispense justice around England. Government records, incomplete as they are, also seem to indicate a level of economic order. This coincides with statements by both More and Vergil who believed that England was richer by the end of Edward's reign. The fact that this was a king who tried to avoid war would support the idea that people had a chance to get on with trading and making money. There were no parliamentary grants required by the Crown between 1475 and 1483, which would indicate a good financial position. Only a war with Scotland in the two years up to 1483 resulted in a call to Parliament for money. As for the charge of ruthlessness, Edward almost certainly ordered the death of Henry VI. Then there is the eventual fate of the Duke of Clarence, who was murdered in the Tower in February 1478, possibly on the orders of Edward. But one historian's ruthless king is another historian's "strong" king. It all depends what story you want to tell. It is possible, for example, to make a case for the outrageous behaviour of Clarence preceding his demise in the Tower. Clarence can appear as nothing less than a psychotic maniac, particularly after the death of his wife Isabella following childbirth in December 1476, and the death of Isabella's child ten days later. In 1477 a plan to marry the widower Clarence to Mary of Burgundy fell apart - Edward had decreed that such a marriage risked upsetting Archduke Maximillian of Hapsburg to whom Mary was already promised. Clarence took this personally. To make himself feel better he arrested his former wife's maid, accused her of poisoning her mistress, and hanged the poor woman, all in one evening. He also found a man from Warwick who he could blame for the death of his son, and hanged him as well. Then there were rumours of a bizarre plot where two men were hired by Clarence to use magic to kill King Edward and his eldest son. The two men involved were executed, and Clarence caused outrage when he stormed into the council chamber at Westminster to denounce Edward's death sentence on the men. Quite why Clarence eventually met his death in the Tower is not known, but there seems evidence to show Clarence as a dangerously unstable man. It is perhaps surprising in those violent times that Clarence lasted as long as he did.

Edward IV has been portrayed as romantic hero, and ruthless failure. In many ways his story reveals less about the life of a fifteenth century king, and more about the way history lives on as a place of continuing doubt and mystery. As historian Fiona Watson has written: "Don't go wandering into the past if you are looking for truth and certainty; it just doesn't exist there any more than it exists in the present" (from Scotland A History).