Henry VI’s illness came upon him while he was staying at his hunting lodge in Clarendon, near Salisbury. It struck suddenly and overwhelmingly, and although for several weeks the king’s condition remained a secret, when he failed to recover it became impossible to conceal the fact that he was profoundly and shockingly unwell. The men around him had no specific name for his ailment; they could only describe its symptoms. ‘The king … suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy and his wit and reason withdrawn,’ wrote one. To another he was merely ‘sick’. He became completely helpless, removed both from his wits and the world around him to the point of total vacuity. He recognised no one. He could not speak or respond in any way to questions. He could neither feed nor clean himself, since he had no control of his arms or legs and could not even keep his head up. He had no sense of time. No physician could stir him. No medicine could stimulate him. His grandfather Charles VI of France had also suffered numerous bouts of insanity, but, whereas Charles’s madness had led him to scream in pain, smear himself in his own waste and run deranged through the royal palaces, Henry was simply mute and inert: a kingly nothing.
Even when sane, Henry had been a fairly weak and impotent force in government. Now that he was so obviously indisposed, however, Somerset and the rest of his counsellors were presented with a dire problem. When the king was healthy, they possessed an animated if ineffectual puppet through whom government could legitimately be carried out by a small group working as his chosen ministers. But with the king devoid of reason and will, their mandate to rule in his name disappeared. The king had all the will and capacity of a newborn baby, which meant that a situation similar to Henry’s long minority in the 1420s was once again upon the realm. There was a royal person who could be said to reign, but he had no ability whatever to rule. Just as in the 1420s, a communal response was required.
Although the turbulence in England and the dire situation in the meagre rump of English France demanded constant attention, a political reaction to Henry’s illness was nevertheless delayed as long as possible, probably with the dual aim of hoping, rather vainly, that he would recover and waiting for the queen’s pregnancy to reach its term. The second of these came to pass, on 13 October 1453 – the feast day of Edward the Confessor, one of the holiest and most venerated saints in England, with special importance to the royal family. In a chamber at Westminster, Margaret of Anjou was delivered of her first child, a boy. The child was called Edward, a princely name that not only spoke to the auspicious day of his birth but recalled times of greater glory: the days of the baby’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward III. ‘Wherefore the bells rang in every church and Te Deum [was … ] sung,’ wrote one observer. The duke of Somerset stood godfather at Prince Edward’s baptism.
If the birth was cause for great joy, it was also clear that the torpor of the boy’s father could no longer be ignored. It was important to construct a working government, and it was vital that this government should be genuinely inclusive. The king’s mental collapse had coincided with, and may indeed have contributed to, a huge escalation of violence, particularly in the north of England. Long-simmering hostility between the Neville and Percy families, who were rivals for power in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland, had descended into more or less open warfare. On 24 August 1454 Thomas Percy, Lord Egremont and an army of retainers numbering perhaps a thousand ambushed a wedding party celebrating the marriage of Sir Thomas Neville and Maude Stanhope. The immediate cause was a disputed inheritance: the beautiful manor and castle of Wressle, which had once belonged to the Percys, would come into the hands of the Nevilles by way of Sir Thomas’s marriage to the Stanhope heir. But this was one small battle in a much bigger struggle: the Percys sensed, with some justification, that the Nevilles were gradually displacing them as the most powerful family of the north. This, in turn, was a pressing problem for central government. The north of England appeared to be on the brink of civil war, as all pleas and instructions to cease hostilities issued by Somerset’s government had been ignored. Since the feud involved the two most powerful families in the region, there was no authority save the king’s that was able to put a stop to massive and disastrous bloodshed.
As soon as Prince Edward was born, a great council of all the senior lords and churchmen in the realm was summoned to meet as soon as possible. At first, the intention was to exclude York from its membership, but on 24 October a letter was sent, addressed ‘By the king’ to his ‘right trusty and well-beloved cousin’, summoning the duke from his estates to attend the gathering in London. It is not clear who drafted the letter, since it is signed in Henry’s name. However, the messenger who took the letter was told to advise York to put aside ‘the variance betwixt’ him and Somerset, and to ‘come to the said Counsail peaceably and measurably accompanied’, with the aim of securing ‘rest and union betwixt the lords of this land’.
York arrived at Westminster on 12 November, but he did not come in a conciliatory mood. His first action was to have his sometime ally the duke of Norfolk launch a vehement attack on Somerset before the council, once again accusing him of treason in losing France. Norfolk demanded Somerset’s imprisonment and in the confusion and crisis of the moment, browbeaten by his aggressive demands, a majority of the lords assembled consented. The duke was arrested and sent to the Tower to await trial. A few days later the lords once again gathered in council at the Star Chamber, and were individually ‘sworn on a book’ that they would keep their ‘troth and allegiance … to the king’. After several years of failure, York was now finally at the centre of affairs.
He did not occupy his position unchallenged. In January 1454 the queen, having recovered from the birth of Prince Edward, made her own bid for power. Margaret had long been close to Somerset and to the royal household through which so much of government had proceeded, and it seems that her intention was to fight York’s dominance by any means she could. The dumbstruck King Henry had shown no signs of recognising his son – when Margaret and Humphrey duke of Buckingham took the baby to see his father at Windsor Castle, ‘all their labour was in vain, for they departed thence without any answer or countenance saving only that once he looked on the Prince and cast down his sword without any more’. Nevertheless it was clear that, in possession of the baby, Margaret had the opportunity to build a different, rival power base to York’s. In the new year she published ‘a bill of five articles’ in which she demanded ‘to have the whole rule of this land’, as well as the right to appoint all the great officers of state, sheriffs and bishops, and ‘sufficient [livelihood] assigned her for the King and the Prince and herself’.
Margaret’s efforts were bold, but they were not unprecedented. Although female rule was uncommon in the fifteenth century, it was not completely unknown. England’s own history held examples: Queen Isabella had ruled as regent for Edward III between 1327 and 1330, and before her Eleanor of Aquitaine had been granted extensive powers of governance during the reigns of her husband Henry II and her son Richard the Lionheart. Perhaps more pertinently, Margaret had in her early life seen her mother and grandmother taking command of government in Anjou and Naples while Duke René languished in captivity. However, in the crisis of 1453–4, the last desire of the English lords (or, for that matter, the parliamentary commons) was to experiment with a new model of female rule. Margaret’s bill was cordially rejected. As a mollifying measure on 15 March 1454, the five-month-old Edward was created prince of Wales and earl of Chester. This was as far as accommodation with the queen went.
A week later Margaret’s close ally, Cardinal Kemp, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England, died. In desperation the lords sent another delegation to the king, to see if they could coax from him some indication of whom he wished his new archbishop to be. Once again, they reported to the parliament, which took a keen interest in the king’s condition, that they could get ‘no answer nor sign’. The lords left ‘with sorrowful hearts’.8 The crisis of authority had worsened. On 27 March the lords in parliament agreed to elect Richard duke of York as protector of the realm and chief councillor. His rise was complete.
There were many who held grave reservations about York’s suitability for the role of protector. Their fears were not realised. Although he appointed as the new chancellor Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury – patriarch of the Neville family whose feuding with the Percys was tearing apart the north – York’s government attempted in general to be tough, even-handed and non-partisan. He went in person to the north to make a serious attempt to arbitrate between the Nevilles and the Percys. In the course of this he imprisoned his own son-in-law, the violent and feckless Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, in Pontefract Castle, as punishment for involving himself in the northern war and thereby directly disobeying the oath sworn by all the lords to keep and respect ‘royal’ authority during the king’s illness.
York appointed himself captain of Calais and resumed his lieutenancy of Ireland, but these were actions natural and conducive to strong leadership rather than representative of his seizing the spoils of office. Other grants, which were modestly made, were given out on non-partisan lines: the queen, the duke of Buckingham, and Jasper and Edmund Tudor all received lands or offices during York’s protectorship, whereas men supposedly closer to him – such as Salisbury’s eldest son the earl of Warwick (also called Richard Neville) – received nothing. Yet there was one glaring area in which York’s policy of peace and conciliation failed: he could not normalise relations with Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. Throughout 1454, Somerset remained locked away in the Tower. He kept keenly abreast of news from the outside world through a network of undercover agents: ‘spies going in every Lord’s house of this land: some gone as [friars], some as shipmen … and some in other wise; which report unto him all that they can see …’ To have killed Somerset would have been a destructively divisive act. In prison, therefore, he was able to study the situation and bide his time, hoping, as the popular image had it, that Fortune’s wheel would shortly give another turn.
On Christmas Day 1454, more than a year after he had been stricken, Henry VI woke up. His senses flooded back as quickly as they had first rushed out of him. Two days after Christmas he was ordering his almoner to deliver gifts of thanks to the shrine at Canterbury, and on Monday 30 December Queen Margaret took the fourteen-month-old prince to see his father. Henry ‘asked what the prince’s name was, and the Queen told him Edward; and then he held up his hands and thanked God thereof’. He had no memory of anything that had been said or done during his stupor. But he seemed extremely happy to have recovered. When his ministers found that he could once more speak to them ‘as well as he ever did’, they ‘wept for joy’.
The same could not be said for York. Henry’s recovery did not simply end the protectorate: it led directly to the reversal of most of the means York had pursued over the course of the last year. By 26 January 1455 Somerset had been released from prison and by 4 March the charges of treason against him were dropped. York was formally stripped of the protectorate on 9 February. In a sign of the absolute repudiation of York’s primary case against Somerset – that he was treasonably negligent in his dealings with the French – York was stripped of his captaincy of Calais and it was awarded once more to Somerset. York’s ally Richard earl of Salisbury was forced to resign the chancellorship. In mid-March Salisbury’s son, the earl of Warwick, was ordered to release Henry Holland, the scheming and belligerent duke of Exeter, from his entirely deserved place in prison at Pontefract.
As Somerset and his allies raced back into their old positions in government and at the side of the king, York and the Nevilles were forced to abandon court. Despite the protector’s genuinely purposeful actions in trying to maintain government during the royal madness, he now found himself stripped of his posts, authority and dignity as though he had been a usurper. The only possible conclusion York could draw was that with Somerset beside the king, he would forever be treated as an enemy of the crown: denied his proper place in the realm as if he were nothing but a scoundrel and a rebel. York had been bound by the king and a council of the lords to keep his peace with Somerset until June, on pain of a fine of twenty thousand marks. But peace was no longer an option. With the Nevilles, York now went north to follow the only course of action that was left to him: he began to raise an army.
York and the Nevilles – led by the earls of Salisbury and Warwick, father and son – were now thrown together in a friendship of common cause. Between them, they controlled much of northern England, and since the Nevilles existed in a state of war-readiness owing to their struggles with the house of Percy, it did not prove difficult for the allies to raise their retainers to form a small army during the spring of 1455. They had, by their own later admission, ‘great might of men in diverse countries, much harness and great habiliments of war’. It is important to note that for York the purpose of raising an armed force was to remove Somerset and the ‘traitors’ around the king; this to his mind was a very different matter from rebellion – and certainly dynastic rebellion – against Henry VI himself. It is questionable, however, how many of the men who served beneath him would have appreciated the subtle difference. All the same, they were raised with efficient haste in April and May, and the news of York and the Nevilles’ mobilisation, although perhaps not its scale, soon reached the court and council at Westminster.
Somerset at this point panicked and dithered. Notwithstanding the London populace’s general preference for York over him, the obvious course of action ought still have been to raise a royal army, set to defend the capital, and allow a repeat of the Dartford conflict of 1452 to occur. Instead, a decision was taken to move the king’s household and the lords attending the king north. A great council – not quite a parliament, although the summonses went out on a broad scale to England’s lords, along with a selection of hand-picked knights expected to be favourable to Somerset’s regime – was called to meet at Leicester, a town in the heart of the duchy of Lancaster, the king’s private landholding. York and his allies were invited, so it seems that at least one aspect of the Dartford episode was in mind: the government hoped to impose a new settlement upon Somerset and York, and most likely one that would embarrass York in public with an oath of loyalty of the type he had been forced to swear at St Paul’s. This was not something York was prepared to countenance. He may also have thought of the fate of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, who had been summoned to a parliament in Bury St Edmunds in 1447 and had never returned.
There was the distinct possibility of armed confrontation at Leicester. In mid-May, as the king and his supporters prepared to travel north, requests were sent to lords and townsmen along the route, requiring them to send armed men to the king ‘wheresoever we be in all haste possible’. The destination for assembly was the town of St Albans, in Hertfordshire, which lay conveniently along the road between London and Leicester. On the morning of Tuesday 20 May the king and his entourage set out from Westminster along this very route. Ahead of them went messengers with letters to York, Salisbury and Warwick, demanding that they disband their armies immediately and come to the king attended by no more than 160 men each in the Nevilles’ case, and two hundred in the case of York.
By the time the letters reached York and the Nevilles, they had reached Royston, a town a few miles south-west of Cambridge, and less than a day’s ride from St Albans. They replied to the orders to disband with a letter addressed to the chancellor who had replaced Salisbury: Thomas Bourchier, the forty-four-year-old archbishop of Canterbury. ‘We hear that a great rumour and wonder is had of our coming, and of the manner thereof, toward the most noble presence of the king oure most [re]doubted sovereign lord,’ they wrote. It was vital for York and his allies that they should establish themselves as the true defenders of the common good in the face of Somerset’s treacherous government, so they added that ‘we intend not with God’s grace to proceed to any matter or thing, other than with God’s mercy shall be to his pleasure, the honour, prosperity and weal of our said sovereign lord, his said land and people’. More ominously, the Yorkists also promised the chancellor that for the sake of the kingdom they would do whatever ‘accordeth with our duty, to that that may be the surety of [the king’s] most noble person, wherein we will neither spare our bodies nor goods’.
By the time the letter reached Chancellor Bourchier, the king’s party had left Westminster. The men around Henry hardly consisted of a partisan group: the king was attended by men as diverse in their political outlooks as his faithful half-brother Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, the Percy patriarch Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, the independent-minded Humphrey duke of Buckingham, the former Yorkist ally Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon, and the earl of Salisbury’s brother William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. Other great nobles included the earl of Wiltshire and Lords Clifford, Ros, Sudeley, Dudley and Berners. Perhaps in anticipation of confrontation, Queen Margaret was left behind, and only one bishop travelled with the king – although several others probably followed at a safe distance. The party passed out of London and by nightfall on Wednesday 21 May they were lodged in Watford, seven miles south of St Albans. At dawn they rose to continue their journey, planning to arrive in the town in good time to settle and enjoy their midday meal at the splendid abbey. But as morning arrived, so did a messenger, bearing the alarming news that York and his army were close by: they had camped the night in Ware, and not only were they ahead of the king’s party on their way to St Albans, but they were said to have with them around three thousand men. The king’s party numbered closer to two thousand.
The sense that something between an armed showdown and a pitched battle was looming sparked action in the royal party. Conciliatory action was urgently required. Early on the morning of Thursday 22, Somerset was abruptly relieved of his post as constable of England, by which he commanded the king’s military forces. He was immediately replaced in the office by Humphrey duke of Buckingham, who as the most senior duke at the king’s side had the presence to represent the royal interest, but was far less personally obnoxious to York and the Nevilles. Buckingham seems to have believed that he would be able to negotiate a settlement without bloodshed.The party rode on to St Albans, arriving at about 9 a.m. The Yorkists had arrived two hours earlier, and were camped in the Key Field, just to the east of the town centre. There were ‘diverse knightes and squiers unto ther party’, and they were perfectly visible to the king’s party as they came to a halt in the middle of St Albans on St Peter’s Street, below the massive silhouette of the abbey church. The townsmen, realising that their lives and homes were in some peril, manned the defences, which took the form of barricades around the unwalled settlement. They were reinforced by knights loyal to the king, and between 9 and 10 a.m. messengers passed between the two sides as they tried to negotiate a settlement.
The talks with York were conducted by the dukes of Buckingham and Somerset, who claimed that they were speaking directly for the king. It is unlikely that Henry knew very much about what was happening: he had not seen York’s initial petitions and one of the first stages of negotiation involved York’s demand that the letters he had sent should actually be placed under the royal nose. Henry may have recovered from his illness, but his role at St Albans remained passive and symbolic.
York’s principal demands had not changed but only hardened since Dartford. He wanted Somerset and he was prepared to use any means to obtain him. In response to this, Buckingham could do little but stall for time, and await both the bishops who were following behind the royal party and the military reinforcements that had been requested from around the country. He asked York to remove his men to a nearby town for the night, while negotiations could continue through suitable proxies. And he absolutely refused to hand over the duke of Somerset.
Whether or not York was prepared to continue negotiations into a second day will never be known. At around 10 a.m., while talks were continuing, men under the earl of Warwick grew sick of waiting and began an assault against the barricades on the fringes of the town. Within St Albans, the king’s banner was raised over the royal forces. The talking time was over. Fighting had begun.
Defence of the barricades was commanded by Thomas, Lord Clifford, an experienced soldier who had served for some time in the north, battling the Scots in the marches. He was later considered to have manned the barriers to St Albans ‘strongly’, and probably held the line outside the town for about an hour.17 York, however, had the superior numbers, and around 11 a.m. the skirmishing was turning in favour of the attacking forces. Warwick took a flanking party to the thoroughfare known as Holywell Street, which led into St Peter’s Street, where the royal party were massed. They smashed down palisades and the walls of houses and finally broke open an entry point between two inns, known as the Key and the Chequer, through which their men could pour into the town, blowing trumpets and shouting ‘Warwick! Warwick! Warwick!’ at the top of their voices. As soon as they clapped eyes on the king’s forces, ‘they set on them manfully’.
St Albans was soon overrun. Amazingly, it seems that Buckingham and Somerset had failed to prepare for the possibility that the barricades would fall so swiftly, for as the town bell was rung in urgent alarm and fighting spilled from street to street, there was a general scramble for the defenders to pull on their full armour. They were unprepared and overwhelmed, and when one of York’s allies, Sir Robert Ogle, brought several hundred men crashing into the marketplace, blades slashing and arrows fizzing through the late morning air, the short conflict was effectively decided in favour of York’s men. From the puncturing of the barriers the fighting lasted around half an hour. But it was a shocking experience all the same.
In the middle of the mêlée stood the king himself, terror presumably spreading across his pale, round face, for the son of Henry V had managed to reach the age of thirty-three without ever having stood before a siege or in the chaos of a battle. Like the best of his lords, he was imperfectly armoured, and was lucky to survive when a stray arrow bloodied his neck. (‘Forsothe and forsothe,’ the king is said to have remarked, employing his favourite and only oath, ‘ye do foully to smite a king anointed so.’) For his protection, if not the maintenance of his royal dignity, Henry was hustled into a nearby tanner’s cottage to hide while the street fighting played out. As he left, his banner, which in every battle was to be upheld to the death, was easily pulled to the ground, its defenders scattering into the streets.
After only a short stay in his reeking hideaway, Henry was captured and taken away to proper safety in the precincts of the abbey. York’s men had absolutely no interest in doing him physical damage, for it was a crucial component of the duke’s political campaign to argue that he was fighting for and not against the king. But Henry’s companions were not so lucky. York and the Nevilles had come to St Albans to eliminate their enemies, and in the disorder they had created, they were able to achieve their goal. By midday, when hostilities came to a conclusion, the streets groaned with bloodied and injured men. Given the numbers of combatants – probably around five thousand in total – it is slightly surprising that fewer than sixty were killed. But of the dead men there were three of great significance. First was Thomas, Lord Clifford, who had so bravely held the town’s defences while the first hour’s blows were traded. Second was Henry earl of Northumberland, the most senior male in the Percy family and as a result the chief enemy of the Nevilles. And third was the greatest enemy of them all: Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset.
Somerset had fought for the duration of the battle of St Albans. Although he may have been an unlucky commander, he was at least used to seeing military action during his long service in France. Several chronicles of the battle record that after the king had been taken to the abbey, and as fighting was coming to its conclusion on St Peter’s Street, Somerset was pushed back into defending a tavern under the sign of the Castle. At his side was his son Henry Beaufort, nineteen years old and already a courageous warrior. Whereas the earl of Wiltshire had timidly, if pragmatically, fled the scene of the battle disguised as a monk, the Beauforts stood their ground and struggled to the very last. Young Henry Beaufort was wounded so severely in the fighting that he left St Albans dragged on a cart and close to death. His father was not so fortunate. It was he over whom the whole conflict had arisen, and he was a marked man from its outset. Eventually overcome by his enemies, Somerset was dragged from the tavern and hacked to death in the street. With the end of his life arrived the end of the battle. Troops aroused by the bloodshed continued to create havoc in the streets, but this was now an armed rout, rather than a purposeful battle. Safe beneath the high vaulted ceilings of the abbey church, York, Salisbury and Warwick respectfully took Henry VI before the shrine of St Alban himself, then requested that they now be received as his faithful subjects and advisers. The king, who had absolutely no choice in the matter, accepted that the lords had ‘kept him unhurt and there … granted to be ruled by them’. As soon as this was done, York gave the order for all violence outside the abbey to cease. His orders were eventually obeyed. But it was only some time later that anyone dared to gather up the bloodied corpses of Somerset and the rest of the men killed on the streets of St Albans, in a day of violent upheaval that would leave its stain on England for two generations to follow.
Henry was escorted back to London by the Yorkists on Friday 23 May and deposited in his apartments in the palace of Westminster, before moving on to the bishop’s palace. The following day he was paraded before the city of London ‘in great honour … the said duke of York riding on his right side and the earl of Salisbury on the left side and the earl of Warwick with his sword’, and on Sunday 25 May in a ceremony at St Paul’s he sat in state and was handed his crown by the duke of York. All this presented a picture of majesty and kingly authority, but it was even more spurious than it had ever been. For even if he could be presented to the public in stately highness as ‘a king and not as a prisoner’, beside the three lords who had emerged victorious from St Albans, it was quite obvious that now more than at any time before, Henry VI was a royal cipher.
Meanwhile, as York worked to establish for the second time his authority as the chief councillor of the king and the effective governor of England, stories of the battle of St Albans began to spread. They circulated in England and they crossed the Channel: within days the fracas was the talk of diplomats across Europe. On 31 May 1455 the Milanese ambassador, who had left London earlier in the month, wrote a letter from Bruges to the archbishop of Ravenna in which he reported the ‘unpleasant’ news that in England ‘a great part of the nobles have been in conflict’. ‘The Duke of York has done this, with his followers,’ wrote the ambassador, recounting the deaths and injuries that had befallen Somerset and his allies. Yet if the violence was shocking, there was a seasoned pragmatism in the ambassador’s report. York, he wrote, ‘will now take up the government again, and some think that the affairs of the kingdom will now take a turn for the better. If that be the case, we can put up with this inconvenience.’ Three days later the ambassador filed an update confirming his earlier notes. ‘Peace reigns,’ he wrote. ‘The Duke of York has the government, and the people are very pleased at this.’
Even if this was true, it would not last for long.