Richard of York was the third Duke of York and one of the most important men in Late Medieval England. A political giant during the reign of his cousin, Henry VI, the Duke’s clashes with Queen Margaret of Anjou and her supporter, Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset led to the Wars of the Roses and two of the Duke of York’s sons, Edward IV and Richard III becoming king.
Richard of York was born in 1411 to Richard of Conisbrough, the fourth earl of Cambridge, and his wife Anne Mortimer; the daughter of Roger Mortimer, the fourth earl of March. He was related to Edward III through both of his parents as Richard Conisbrough was descended from Edward’s fourth son, and his mother Anna Mortimer was connected to Edward’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence. It was through his mother’s side that York would later make his bid for the throne. However, York’s mother died when he was young and his father was executed for attempting to depose Henry V and make York’s uncle, Edmund Mortimer earl of March, king.
Raised by Lancastrian supporters, York was the heir of his uncles Edward, duke of York and Edmund, earl of March, through whom he received the lands and titles of the Mortimer family. He was then married to Cecily Neville in the 1420s. As a young man, he served as the lieutenant of France twice, thus making him the richest landowner in England and influential across the country as his land stretched across England, Wales and Ireland.
September 1450 marked an important transition point for Richard of York. His early return from service in Ireland as a lieutenant prompted a trip to London, where Richard of York called the king’s advisors traitors. He demanded that they be removed, especially the Duke of Somerset. It is unlikely York desired the crown at this stage, and therefore the question of his motivation for this outburst is formed. This may have happened as a result of anger that Somerset, his old rival, was now in charge of the weak Henry VI. Somerset had recently been humiliated and defeated in France after a forced surrender to Caen, and yet was now at the heart of the English government. In York’s eyes, such a catastrophic defeat would have disqualified Somerset from any important office. On the other hand, York may have been attempting to secure his position as heir to the throne, because he was next in the line of succession. Dan Jones has also suggested that this was a genuine attempt by York to rescue England from a ‘dizzying decline’ under ‘Henry’s personal incompetence’. Normandy had been taken over by the French, Henry had been exposed as bankrupt and his advisers were seen as corrupt. York’s actions marked his attempt to replace the Duke of Suffolk as the competent leader who would run the country. His credentials pronounced him as a formidable candidate: York was heir to the throne, the richest and most powerful lord, and possessed a distinguished bloodline and a strong military record.
In 1450, York offered to help Henry remove the ‘corrupt’ officials and advisers around him. This was not actually an appeal to the incompetent Henry, but to his fellow lords and the wider public. However, York failed to gain support in this endeavour. Further attempts to secure his authority in the parliament of November 1450 and into 1451 also failed, although he successfully had Somerset arrested and sent to the tower. Even this small victory was short-lived: the medieval chronicler Harley said that Somerset was ‘charged with the loss of Normandy; his place was spoyled … he was in the towre, but anon he was delyvered by the kynge’. Henry had Somerset released in December, and by New Year he was back in a position of power.
1452 signifies another attempt by York to remove his rival, Somerset. York made it evident that he was not challenging the king himself, only Somerset and those around him. In a speech in Shrewsbury on 3 February, he argued that it ‘…is not my will of my intention to displease my sovereign lord’. Instead, he said:
This speech was the equivalent of a declaration of war against Somerset and consequentially would affect the next several years of English politics. In the short term, York only gained the support of Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon, and Lord Cobham. Somerset had the support of almost all the other lords, who saw no need to cause a crisis, and York was forced to submit and swear an oath of loyalty to Henry. It appeared that his political career was over.
Vintage colour lithograph from 1864 showing the Duke of Somerset (centre) accusing the Duke of York (left) of treasons before an invalid King Henry VI (right).
However, everything changed in 1453. Gascony fell to the French, ending the Plantagenet empire in France, King Henry collapsed, and war between the Neville and Percy families in the North erupted. Even the birth of Henry’s son, Prince Edward could not wake him. Somerset could not maintain control, and could not use the king, because nothing could be passed without the king’s seal of approval. One of the reasons Somerset had previously stayed in power was because he was the closest ally of Queen Margaret. In October 1453, the Queen appointed Somerset as godfather to the new prince, which was her attempt to govern England in the name of her son. A council was called to declare the infant prince as the new heir and simultaneously side-line York, who was not invited. However, this failed because York’s allies insisted he that he attend. When York arrived, his ally Norfolk denounced Somerset as a traitor and had him imprisoned in the tower. Margaret then attempted proclaim herself regent, but this was rejected by the nobles. In a turn of events, it was York who was appointed ‘protector and defender of the realm’ on 27 March 1454.
York ruled sufficiently whilst he was in power. He managed to deal with the fighting in the north and keep the country stable. However, everything changed again when Henry woke up on Christmas Day, 1454: by February 1555, York had been removed from office and Somerset was back in power. At this point, York had an important decision to make. He could either permanently retreat to his lands in the North and hope that the Queen and Somerset didn’t seek revenge, or he could strike first and remain in the South.
For York, it was an easy decision: he raised an army and marched on London. Alongside his allies, Warwick and the Nevilles, he faced Somerset at St Albans. Somerset had brought the king with him to legitimise his actions, yet York and his men quickly captured the town and took possession of Henry. Somerset was killed, alongside the key players, Lords Clifford and Northumberland. Although York was victorious, the situation was not yet resolved: he had attacked the king’s army and killed three important nobles which was a stark change from the peace and stability that he had originally aimed to bring. To create a measure of stability, York professed his loyalty to Henry and asked that he and Warwick be made his advisors. He was reappointed Lord Protector and removed most of Henry’s power, however, this was a tenuous situation as although Henry was weak, he was not incapacitated like he had been previously. Four months later, York was forced to resign as Protector and leave London. Queen Margaret and her allies took power in his place. For the next three years, there was not enough support amongst the lords to challenge York, but by 1459 the Margaret had the support she needed. The royal army marched north, and after a brief standoff at Ludlow Bridge, York fled to Ireland. York and his allies were stripped of their land and titles and were expelled from the nobility.
This was not the end for York: he regrouped his forces and landed in Kent in June 1460 with his allies the Nevilles, Warwick and York’s eldest son, Edward of March. They won the battle of Northampton in July and captured the king. However, York’s allies then submitted to Henry, arguing that they were only against his treasonous advisers and not the king himself. When York returned to England in September, he realised that this precarious situation would not work in the long-term, so he made his way to London under the royal standard and attempted to take the crown. This appalled even his closest allies, who had recently reaffirmed their loyalty to Henry. However, York did have a claim to the throne that was stronger than one might initially think. Henry VI’s grandfather, Henry IV had usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II. Henry IV was the son of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s fourth son, and it was this lineage that provided Henry VI’s claim to the throne. York was descended from Edward III’s third son, and so from a dynastic perspective, he could be seen to have the stronger claim.
This situation was not as easily resolved as York hoped it would be, as Parliament was caught in the middle. They could side with Henry, but York’s army was a threat in the city. Alternatively, they could side with York and risk a long civil war by deposing an anointed king. After two weeks, Parliament decided on a compromise. York would once again become Lord Protector, and after Henry died, York or his descendants would take the crown. However, this dissatisfied most of the parties involved and infuriated Queen Margaret because this decision disinherited her son, Edward.
Warwick kneels to King Henry VI after the King’s capture at the Battle of Northampton: picture by Graham Turner.
York marched north in early December to deal with Margaret, and she and her allies regrouped in Yorkshire. York arrived his castle at Sandal with a vanguard of 6000 troops but was soon surrounded by an army twice the size of his, loyal to the Queen. He was trapped at Sandal and was waiting for reinforcements, but fighting quickly escalated after one of his foraging parties was attacked. At the battle of Wakefield, York and his son Edmund were killed. York’s head was cut off and displayed wearing a paper crown; a mocking of his attempt to become king.
York’s legacy would be the reigns of his sons Edward IV, and Richard III, as well as his grandson Edward V. His granddaughter Elizabeth would marry Henry VII, the first of the Tudors and through her the Yorkist bloodline would continue. However, before this point, York’s actions would cause decades of brutal civil war as the crown was wrestled back and forth between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, who supported Henry. There would be brutal family infighting over the crown, and his son Richard would be the last of the Plantagenet kings. York’s actions would ultimately bring about the end of a dynasty that had ruled since 1154.
Written by Alex Smith
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