War of the Roses – Edward of Westminster, the Forgotten Prince
If you took a journey through England’s peaceful countryside you would find it hard to believe it once rang with the clash of swords, screams of dying men and rained lethal showers of arrows. For back in the 15th century a bitter, bloody civil war was fought that pitted royal cousin against royal cousin in a merciless struggle to gain power and survive. Today we call this conflict The War of the Roses, where the Duke of York challenged the Lancastrian King Henry VI for the crown.
For a generation two branches of the ruling Plantagenet family battled each other for the throne. While their husbands fought, their royal wives did what royal wives have done since the dawn of time. They did their duty and produced precious heirs to the throne. Infant sons who would make the fight worthwhile and ensure the survival of their father’s dynasty.
To be a prince in the Middle Ages meant you were born into a life of luxury and power only enjoyed by a tiny percentage of the population. However, along with this privilege came many duties and responsibilities. A royal prince was trained in warfare from an early age and was expected to lead his army into battle.
He also learned statecraft and diplomacy and was expected to run the domestic affairs of the country as well as build alliances with foreign powers. His marriage was an affair of state, not a personal choice made from love. His choice of bride could either strengthen or weaken the country. If the prince was an only child, he was doubly valuable. For if he died, the hopes of his parents died with him. One such only child was Edward of Westminster.
Edward of Westminster was the son of Henry VI and his queen Margaret of Anjou. He was a long-awaited child, born in the Palace of Westminster on 13th October 1453 eight years after his parent’s marriage in 1445. Henry VI was a weak king, He was religious, uninterested in the affairs of the realm and suffered from bouts of mental confusion. He succeeded to the throne as an infant and England was ruled by de facto regents until he gained his majority. Henry VI’s failings as a monarch made it easier for his Yorkist rivals to challenge his rule.
His marriage being barren for so long before the birth of his son led to claims from his opponents that his queen was having an affair or even that she had introduced a child that was not her own into the royal household. At the time of Edward’s birth, Henry VI was experiencing a total breakdown, unable to communicate or even acknowledge his new born son. Several names were bandied around as possible fathers of the new heir, including Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset and James Butler, 5th Earl of Ormond, both loyal supporters of the queen.
Henry VI’s inability to acknowledge his son was a problem. The royal custom was that a prince could not be named as heir to the throne until his father acknowledged him and presented him to the peers of the realm. To break this impasse the infant was taken to Windsor in the hope that the seeing his child would snap the king out of his dazed condition. It did not work. Henry VI’s incapacity lasted from 1453 to 1454 and during this time Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York was named Lord Protector.
It was at this period the deadly enmity between Margaret of Anjou and the Duke of York took root. The queen was an entirely different character to her husband. She was strong minded, arrogant and determined to keep hold of the reins of power to ensure her son became the next King of England. The Duke of York had been the heir presumptive before Edward’s birth, so was not happy to see his chances of taking the crown slip away.
The Yorkists used Margaret of Anjou’s strong character against her. Propaganda was spread through the country demonising her as a ‘she-wolf’ who was trying to thrust her illegitimate offspring onto the English throne in detriment to the true heirs of the House of York. The powerful Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, also incurred her lasting displeasure when he queried the prince’s legitimacy in front of a large audience at Paul’s Cross.
Edward of Lancaster’s claims to be heir to the throne were finally held up by Parliament on 15th March 1454 when he was given the titles of Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. Henry VI regained his senses on Christmas Day and could not remember anything of what had occurred during his illness. When he was told he had a son, he gave thanks and did not question whether he was the child’s father. The king never really recovered and was to suffer setbacks and further mental instability for the rest of his life. Although he was to prove a loving, gentle father to Edward, the child’s upbringing and the moulding of character lay in the hands of his fiery, domineering mother. A woman hated and mistrusted by the people and many of the nobles as a power-hungry French upstart, who did not know her place as a wife and mother.
Prince Edward’s childhood was disrupted by the armed conflict that then erupted between the factions of Lancaster and York. Richard of York was stripped of his position as Lord Protector and lost most of his political power on Henry VI’s recovery. He retreated to the north to build up his army. He moved his forces south and surprised the King’s army at the first battle of St Albans fought on 22nd May 1455. The Yorkists won the day and captured the King, escorting him to London.
Queen Margaret had not been present at the battle but had taken her son to the safety of Greenwich Palace. The pendulum swung back again, and the Yorkist lords regained their power and positions. But the situation soon reversed itself when in 1456 the Lancastrian faction regained control of the king and government. The Duke of York was created Lieutenant of Ireland to get rid of him and curb his influence, but he never left the country as he was expected to.
In answer to this, in 1459 Margaret of Anjou assembled an army in Leicester to attack the Duke of York in his stronghold at Ludlow. She knew that she could not allow York’s ally and kinsman the Earl of Salisbury to join up with him and swell the number of men under his command. She dispatched Lord Audley to intercept Salisbury and present Salisbury to her ‘dead or alive’. The Lancastrians caught up Salisbury’s army at Blore Heath in Staffordshire on 23rd September 1459 but were decisively defeated and Lord Audley killed.
It was unusual for a queen in the fifteenth century to ride at the head of an army. Medieval queens were supposed to embody the womanly virtues of motherhood, duty and deference to her royal husband. Modesty was praised in these royal women; they were not welcome in the male sphere of violence and jostling for power. Being a mother with a weak husband fighting for the survival of herself and her son would not enough to save her reputation.
Another victory at the Battle of Northampton on 10th July 1460, led to Henry VI being captured again by the Yorkists. The Yorkist army was led by Richard, Earl of Warwick and the youthful Edward, Earl of March, the eldest son of the Duke of York, who had gone to Ireland after the battle at Blore Heath to take up his position at Lord Lieutenant. The Lancastrian army was led by the Duke of Buckingham who had marched from London. Margaret was not in the vicinity of this battle, as she was in the north with her son.
What impact would this have had on a young child? English medieval royal families always did live a peripatetic existence, moving from castle to castle around the country, but not in what must have been a tense, hostile atmosphere. By this age Edward of Westminster should have had his own household, spending his time with his tutors and learning the arts of war, rather than being dragged around the country by his mother, knowing his father was in the hands of his sworn enemies.
We talk a lot about them now, but optics were still a thing in the Middle Ages. The Yorkists tried to proclaim they only wanted to separate Henry VI from advisers who did not have the best interests of the realm at heart. At Northampton they were careful not to be seen as being in open rebellion to the king. They tried to open talks with Buckingham in order to get access to Henry VI and gain control. When this failed, they entered battle, where the Duke of Buckingham was killed. After their victory, the Earl of Warwick continued with the Yorkist narrative by pledging his allegiance to the King before taking him back to London.
Once in London Warwick called a session of Parliament, set for 10th October 1460, and Richard of York returned from Ireland. Parliament was called so the people could demonstrate their support for the House of York. However, the Duke of York stunned the house and even his closest ally the Earl of Warwick by claiming the throne for himself. What would the young Edward of Westminster have felt?
By now he was in exile in Scotland with his mother, his father was a captive and another man was attempting to claim his birth-right? Maybe because of his youth, he was not told everything, but he would have picked up the atmosphere from the adults around him and would know enough to feel insecure and fearful of the future.
His mother, Margaret of Anjou, assembled an army of mercenaries and moved down from Scotland, where she had been working to gain the support of Mary of Guelders, the regent for her young son King James III. As she progressed, her ranks were swelled with Lancastrian sympathisers. The Duke of York’s army moved north, and they met at Wakefield. Here the pendulum swung once more back to favour the Lancastrians. Margaret’s army decisively defeated that of York. The Duke of York and his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland were killed. Margaret of Anjou displayed their heads on pikes, along with that of their ally and kinsman Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, on Micklegate Bar in York. This was an act that would come back to haunt the queen and her son.
At this point she may have believed she had crushed her enemy and saved the crown for Edward. But York also had a son called Edward. She may have discounted him as he was only eighteen at the time of the Battle of Wakefield, but he was already a seasoned warrior and eager to avenge the death of his father and brother.
On 3rd February 1461, the young Earl of March took on the Lancastrian army led by Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Wiltshire at Mortimer’s Cross, decisively defeating them. However, Margaret of Anjou was still making her way down the country from the north with a large force which included mercenaries who were in it for the opportunity to loot and pillage the countryside as they went, rather than for any reasons of loyalty to the Lancastrian cause.
Towns such as Grantham, Huntingdon, Royston and Peterborough were sacked, doing nothing to enhance the queen’s already shaky reputation with the English people. What effect being dragged through the country in the wake of this violence had on Prince Edward, we will never know, but it was a world away from the regulated life usually lived by the heir to throne.
Margaret of Anjou met with the Yorkist army led by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick at the 2nd Battle of St Albans on 17th February 1461. Warwick brought Henry VI with him from London, ostensibly as the leader of the army, but during the battle as the Yorkists crumbled he was taken from his tent to the Lancastrian lines. The royal family was reunited. Henry VI was prompted by his wife to knight his young son, the Prince of Wales, an important milestone in the life of a prince in the Middle Ages. Many think propaganda a modern invention, but it was used to great effect in medieval times to swing popular opinion and influence political decisions.
One of the stories spread around was that Edward of Westminster was a cruel and vicious young prince. A tradition from the 2nd Battle of St Albans is that Henry VI was escorted to safety by two Yorkists called William Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriell. After the battle, his mother asked Prince Edward, who was still only seven at this time, what he thought should be done with the two knights and he promptly replied they should be beheaded
The Earl of Warwick withdrew from the battlefield, having suffered many casualties and losing a valuable political pawn in the king. Margaret of Anjou pressed on to London to try and regain this seat of power. However, the Londoners, panicked by the stories they heard of her marauding army, barred the gates and refused to admit her. She was forced to retreat to York with her son and husband and the Earl of March was recognised as England’s rightful monarch by Parliament.
On 29th March 1461, the Yorkists and Lancastrians clashed at the Battle of Towton, the most bitter, bloodiest fight of the War of the Roses. The Yorkist’s routed the Lancastrian army led by the Duke of Somerset with heavy casualties. Towton is believed to have suffered the largest amount of deaths of any battle fought on British soil, with an estimated 20,000 Lancastrians and 8,000 Yorkists killed. After previous battles, it was common practice that the noblemen on the losing side were executed and the common soldiers spared. But after Towton, no quarter was given, and all captives slain.
Margaret left York with Prince Edward and managed to slip over the border into Scotland, where they were to spend the next three years. Her husband Henry VI also fled, but was captured by Edward IV in 1465 and incarcerated in the Tower of London, The queen must have been desperate with worry over her son’s future but remained determined to see him take his rightful place on the throne as Henry VI’s heir. It must have been bitter indeed for her to hear about the coronation and success of England’s new golden boy, King Edward IV. The English people welcomed the tall, charismatic young warrior into their hearts in a way they had never accepted her or feted her husband.
Edward of Westminster was still a child, but he must have been aware of the chaos around him. Did he resent the loss of his position and inheritance? Did he grow to hate the cousin who usurped him?
Margaret of Anjou and her son outstayed their welcome in Scotland and were forced into exile in France, where they were permitted to set up their own court. It was during these years in France when Edward’s bloodthirsty reputation really began to take shape. An ambassador of the Duke of Milan wrote in 1467 that the young prince “already talks of nothing but cutting off heads of making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne”. One of the courtiers in exile, Sir John Fortescue, wrote “the prince, as soon as he became grown up, gave himself over entirely to martial exercises; and, seated on fierce and half-tamed steeds urged on by his spurs, he often delighted in attacking and assaulting the young companions attending him, sometimes with a lance, sometimes with a sword, sometimes with other weapons, in a warlike manner and in accordance with the rules of military discipline.”
The years in France were Edward’s formative, teenage years. Encouraged by a doting mother and with an absent, weak father, he had no strong male influence to curb his excesses. How difficult was it for a young man brought up to believe he was destined to be the King of England, to live as a pensioner of the French crown with few prospects of recovering his birth right? However, trouble was brewing once more over the channel in England.
In an act that was incomprehensible to most of the nobility, Edward IV married in secret. His chosen bride was Elizabeth Woodville. She was a widow with two sons, impoverished and worst of all, a Lancastrian. She brought no large dowry or important political alliances with her, only the baggage of a large, voracious family. The Earl of Warwick was the most put out.
He counted himself as Edward IV’s closest adviser. To find out that the King had kept his marriage secret, while Warwick was negotiating for the hand of Bona of Savoy, the sister-in-law of King Louis XI of France, for Edward was a humiliation. As Edward IV increasingly favoured his new wife’s family, Warwick was pushed out and became rebellious.
He formed an alliance with the king’s bother George, Duke of Clarence, whom he married to his daughter Isabel in Calais without the King’s consent. Warwick fomented trouble while he was in Calais by promoting Robin of Redesdale’s rebellion in Yorkshire. He returned to England with Clarence and after Edward IV’s followers were defeated at the Battle of Edgecote, his brother George Neville managed to capture the king and imprison him in Warwick Castle. In August 1469, Warwick moved Edward IV to Middleham Castle in Yorkshire.
Even though incarcerated in this remote location, the existence of his charismatic, popular cousin made governing the country impossible for Warwick and his allies. He was forced to release the king and an uneasy truce prevailed for some months. However, trouble soon flared up again and Warwick fled to Calais with the Duke of Clarence and his family. When they arrived, they found the gates of Calais were closed to them, so they took the desperate measure of throwing themselves on the mercy of Louis XI, King of France.
What must Edward of Westminster have thought when he was faced with a man he had been taught to regard as one of his greatest foes? His mother hated the Earl of Warwick with every fibre of her being, but now was being asked by the French king to give her cherished only son in marriage to his younger daughter Anne Neville as part of a deal to restore her husband Henry VI to the throne. We will never know what the young prince thought of this arrangement.
Did he view it as a pragmatic way to reclaim his birth right? Or was he resentful at being married to a young girl he regarded as an enemy, and who was not a foreign princess who would bring him a large dowry and political alliances? Tradition has it that Margaret of Anjou kept the mighty Warwick on his knees in front of her for several hours before she would agree to this arrangement. What was going through their heads as the long minutes ticked away?
Prince Edward and Anne Neville were married in Angers Cathedral in December 1470. Already plans were afoot to invade England, depose Edward IV and restore power to the Lancastrians. Anne’s father, the Earl of Warwick, crossed the Channel and made his way to London., forcing Edward IV to flee to Burgundy with his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester and a handful of followers. Warwick liberated Henry VI from the Tower of London and paraded him through the streets of London. Compared to the young, handsome Edward IV, Henry presented as shabby, pathetic figure dressed in a borrowed blue robe to his people.
Margaret of Anjou, anxious for the safety of her son, dallied in France and did not set foot on English soil again until the spring of 1471. The day she landed she was apprised of the terrible news that Warwick had been defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet on the same day, 14th April. Her army was led by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and they marched north towards the River Severn to join forces with Jasper Tudor, who was coming from Wales. Although weary from his victory at Barnet, Edward IV knew he must cut off Margaret’s troops before they could be reinforced by Tudor’s men. He caught up with the Lancastrians at the town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire and forced Margaret to turn and fight.
The Battle of Tewkesbury, fought on 4th May 1471, was destined to be Edward of Westminster’s first and last battle. The part the young prince played in the fight and how he met his end is disputed. Some chroniclers say he was kept to the rear and was killed trying to escape the battlefield. Others that he was taken prisoner by the Duke of Clarence and summarily beheaded, despite appealing to his brother-in-law for mercy.
The version favoured by William Shakespeare, which he derived from Polydore Vergil and Edward Hall, was that the captured prince was taken to Edward IV who asked him why he had rebelled. Edward of Westminster proudly proclaimed, ‘I have come to claim my father’s heritage’. Edward IV then struck him in the face with his gauntlet, which was the signal for the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of Gloucester and William, Lord Hastings to cut him down with their swords. Some said he was killed by Richard of Gloucester, as he had long wanted to make Anne Neville his wife. However, it happened the short life of this unhappy prince was over.
Edward of Westminster was buried in Tewkesbury Abbey and is now largely forgotten by history. Many will never have heard his name. The triumphant Edward IV captured Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI was returned to the Tower of London, to die there mysteriously sometime later. Edward IV’s own first son and heir, also called Edward, had been born in sanctuary while he was in exile.
With the death of Edward of Westminster his dynasty was secured, and the focus of possible future rebellions eliminated. Richard of Gloucester went on to marry Prince Edward’s widow, Anne Neville. We will never know what kind of king Edward of Westminster would have grown up to be. Would he have been as blood thirsty as he has been portrayed? Or would his early difficult experiences have matured him, so he would rule justly? What do you think?
Lancaster and York – Alison Weir
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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