Edward IV (28 April 1442 – 9 April 1483) was King of England from 4 March 1461 to 3 October 1470, then again from 11 April 1471 until his death in 1483. He was a central figure in the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars in England fought between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions between 1455 and 1487.
Edward inherited the Yorkist claim when his father, Richard, Duke of York, died at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. After defeating Lancastrian armies at Mortimer’s Cross and Towton in early 1461, he deposed King Henry VI and took the throne. His marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464 led to conflict with his chief advisor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the "Kingmaker". In 1470, a revolt led by Warwick and Edward's brother George, Duke of Clarence, briefly re-installed Henry VI.
Edward fled to Flanders, where he gathered support and invaded England in March 1471; after victories at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, he resumed the throne. Shortly afterwards, Henry VI was found dead in the Tower of London. Despite a continuing threat from Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, the last Lancastrian claimant, Edward reigned in relative peace for the next twelve years. When he died suddenly in April 1483, Edward was briefly succeeded by his son Edward V, but his brother Richard III soon seized the throne.
Edward was born on 28 April 1442 at Rouen in Normandy, eldest surviving son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Until his father's death, he was known as the Earl of March. Both his parents were direct descendants of King Edward III, giving Edward a potential claim to the throne. This was strengthened in 1447, when York became heir to the childless King Henry VI on the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
Allegations of illegitimacy were discounted at the time as politically inspired, and by later historians. Edward and his siblings George, Duke of Clarence, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, were physically very similar, all three being tall and blonde, in contrast to their father, the Duke of York, who was short and dark. His youngest brother, who later became King Richard III, closely resembled their father.
Edward grew up amidst a background of economic decline at home, and military defeat abroad, exacerbated by a weak and corrupt central government. Both he and his younger brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were born in Rouen, where their father, the Duke of York, served as governor of English lands in France until 1445, when he was replaced by Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset. Edward and Edmund were probably brought up at Ludlow Castle, in the Welsh Marches, where the Duke of York was the dominant landowner.
In 1447, the Duke of York was made chief governor of Ireland, although he did not take up the post until 1449. Shortly thereafter, a French offensive recaptured Normandy, leaving Calais as the last English possession in Northern France; despite responsibility for this defeat, Somerset was appointed King Henry's chief minister. English politics became dominated by the struggle between the Yorkists and supporters of the House of Lancaster, or Lancastrians, notably the Duke of Somerset, William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and King Henry VI's wife, Margaret of Anjou.
Matters came to a head in August 1453 when King Henry VI collapsed into a catatonic stupor on hearing news of the loss of Gascony, an English possession for over 300 years. The Duke of York took over the government, his chief supporters being Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, and his eldest son, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. In January 1454, 12-year-old Edward rode beside his father when he entered London to attend the Great Council.
However, the birth of King Henry VI's son, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, in October 1453 created a viable Lancastrian figurehead, and the 1450s was dominated by political conflict between the two factions. By the age of 17, the Earl of March was a political and military leader in his own right; after their defeat at the Battle of Ludford Bridge in 1459, his father and brother Edmund fled to Ireland, while the Earls of March, Salisbury and Warwick made their way to Calais. Edward's name appears alongside those of his father, Warwick and Salisbury in widely circulated manifestoes declaring their quarrel was only with Henry's evil counsellors.
In 1460, Edward crossed the English Channel with Warwick and Salisbury, and marched into London. At Northampton in July, he commanded one of three divisions in a Yorkist victory that led to the capture of Henry VI. York crossed from Ireland to England; on entering the Palace of Westminster, he declared himself king, a claim greeted by the assembled lords in silence. The Act of Accord agreed a compromise, whereby Henry remained king, but York and his descendants were designated his successors.
The implications of removing the legally accepted heir to the throne created substantial opposition to the Yorkist administration; in late 1460, Edward was given his first independent command and sent to deal with a Lancastrian insurgency in Wales. Warwick remained in London, while York, Salisbury, and Edmund marched north to suppress another in Yorkshire; all three were killed following defeat at Wakefield on 30 December, leaving Edward as the new head of the Yorkist party.
At this stage of Edward's career, contemporaries like Philippe de Commines described him as handsome, affable, and energetic. Unusually tall for the period at 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimetres), he was an impressive sight in armour, and took care to wear splendid clothes. This was done deliberately to contrast him with King Henry VI, whose physical and mental frailties undermined his position.
On 2 February 1461, Edward won a hard-fought victory at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in Herefordshire. The battle was preceded by a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion, or three suns, which he took as his emblem, the "Sun in splendour". However, this was offset by Warwick's defeat at the Second Battle of St Albans on 17 February, the Lancastrians regaining custody of Henry VI. The two met in London, where Edward was hastily appointed king, before marching north, where the two sides met at the Battle of Towton. Fought on 29 March in the middle of a snowstorm, it was the bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil, and ended in a decisive Yorkist victory.
Estimates of the dead range from 9,000 to 20,000; figures are uncertain, as most of the mass graves were emptied or moved over the centuries, while corpses were generally stripped of clothing or armour before burial. Nevertheless, casualties among the Lancastrian nobility were enormous and explain the enduring bitterness among those who survived. Since 1996, excavations have uncovered over 50 skeletons from the battle; an analysis of their injuries shows the brutality of the contest, including extensive post-mortem mutilations.
Margaret fled to Scotland with Edward of Westminster, while the new king returned to London for his 28 June 1461 coronation. Henry VI remained at large for over a year, but was caught and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There was little point in killing him while his son remained alive since this would have transferred the Lancastrian claim from a frail captive to one who was young and free.
Most of the nobility had either remained loyal to Henry or stayed neutral, forcing Edward to rely heavily on the Nevilles. Consolidating the regime initially took precedence, but John Neville's victory at the 1464 Battle of Hexham seemed to end the Lancastrian threat. This exposed internal divisions, particularly over foreign policy, which in this period largely focused on the relationship between England, France and the Duchy of Burgundy, with two of the parties manoeuvring to form an alliance against the third. Although Edward preferred Burgundy as a partner, he allowed Warwick to negotiate a treaty with Louis XI of France, which included a suggested marriage between Edward and Anne of France or Bona of Savoy, respectively daughter and sister-in-law of the French king.
In October 1464, Warwick was enraged to discover that on 1 May, Edward had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with two sons, whose Lancastrian husband, John Grey of Groby, died at the Second Battle of St Albans. If nothing else, it was a clear demonstration he was not in control of the king, despite suggestions to the contrary. Edward's motives have been widely discussed by contemporaries and historians alike. Although Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, came from the upper nobility, her father, Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, was a middle-ranking provincial baron. The Privy Council told Edward with unusual frankness that "she was no wife for a prince such as himself, for she was not the daughter of a duke or earl."
The marriage was certainly unwise and unusual, although not unheard of; Henry VI's mother, Catherine of Valois, married her chamberlain, Owen Tudor. By all accounts, Elizabeth possessed considerable charm of person and intellect, while Edward was used to getting what he wanted. Historians generally accept the marriage was an impulsive decision, but differ on whether it was also a "calculated political move". One view is the low status of the Woodvilles was part of the attraction, since unlike the Nevilles, they were reliant on Edward and thus more likely to remain loyal. Others argue if this was his purpose, there were far better options available; all agree it had significant political implications that impacted the rest of Edward's reign.
One reason for this was that twelve of the new queen's siblings survived into adulthood, creating a large pool of competitors for offices and estates, as well as in the matrimony market. Resentment built when her sisters made a series of advantageous unions, including that of Catherine Woodville to Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; Anne Woodville to William, heir to Henry Bourchier, 1st Earl of Essex; and Eleanor Woodville with Anthony, heir to Edmund Grey, 1st Earl of Kent.
In 1467, Edward dismissed his Lord Chancellor, Warwick's brother George Neville, Archbishop of York. Warwick responded by building an alliance with Edward's disaffected younger brother and heir, the Duke of Clarence, who held estates adjacent to the Neville heartland in the north. Concerned by this, Edward blocked a proposed marriage between Clarence and Warwick's eldest daughter Isabel. In early July, Clarence defied his brother by travelling to Calais, where he married Isabel in a ceremony conducted by George Neville and overseen by Warwick. The three men issued a 'remonstrance', listing alleged abuses by the Woodvilles and other advisors close to Edward and then returned to London, where they assembled an army to remove these 'evil councillors' and establish good government.
With Edward still in the north, the royal army was defeated by a Neville force at Edgecote Moor on 24 July 1469. After the battle, Edward was held in Middleham Castle; on 12 August, his father-in-law Richard Woodville and Richard's younger son, John Woodville, were executed at Kenilworth. However, it soon became clear there was little support for Warwick or Clarence; Edward was released in September and resumed the throne. Outwardly, the situation remained unchanged, but tensions persisted and Edward did nothing to reduce the Nevilles' sense of vulnerability. The Percys, traditional rivals of the Neville family in the North, fought for Lancaster at Towton; their titles and estates were confiscated and given to Warwick's brother John Neville. In early 1470, Edward reinstated Henry Percy as Earl of Northumberland; John was compensated with the title Marquess of Montagu, but this was a significant demotion for a key supporter.
In March 1470, Warwick and Clarence exploited a private feud to initiate a full-scale revolt; when it was defeated, the two fled to France in May 1470. Seeing an opportunity, Louis XI persuaded Warwick to negotiate with his long-time enemy, Margaret of Anjou; she eventually agreed, first making him kneel before her in silence for fifteen minutes. With French support, Warwick landed in England on 9 September 1470 and announced his intention to restore Henry. By now, the Yorkist regime was deeply unpopular and the Lancastrians rapidly assembled an army of over 30,000; when John Neville switched sides, Edward narrowly escaped capture and was forced to seek refuge in Bruges.
Edward took refuge in Flanders, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, accompanied by a few hundred men, including his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Anthony Woodville and William Hastings. The Duchy was ruled by Charles the Bold, husband of his sister Margaret; he provided minimal help, something Edward never forgot.
The restored Lancastrian regime faced the same issue that dominated Henry's previous reign. Mental and physical frailties made him incapable of ruling and resulted in an internal struggle for control, made worse because the coalition that put him back on the throne consisted of bitter enemies. Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset, held Warwick responsible for his father's death in 1455, while he had executed his elder brother in 1464; Warwick and Clarence quickly found themselves isolated by the new regime.
Backed by wealthy Flemish merchants, in March 1471 Edward landed near Hull, close to his estates in Yorkshire. Supporters were initially reluctant to commit; the key northern city of York opened its gates only when he claimed to be seeking the return of his dukedom, like Henry IV seventy years earlier. The first significant contingent to join was a group of 600 men under William Parr and James Harrington. Parr fought against the Yorkists at Edgecote in 1469 and his defection confirmed Clarence's decision to switch sides; as they marched south, more recruits came in, including 3,000 at Leicester.
Edward entered London unopposed and took Henry prisoner; Warwick was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April, while a second Lancastrian army was destroyed at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May. Sixteen-year-old Edward of Westminster, the heir to the throne, died on the battlefield, with surviving leaders like Somerset executed shortly afterwards. This was followed by Henry's death a few days later; a contemporary chronicle claimed this was due to "melancholy," but it is generally assumed he was killed on Edward's orders.
Although the Lancastrian cause seemed at an end, the regime was destabilised by an ongoing quarrel between Clarence and his brother Gloucester. The two were married to Isabel Neville and Anne Neville, respectively, the daughters of the Earl and Countess of Warwick and heirs to their mother's considerable inheritance. Many of the estates held by the brothers had been granted by Edward, who could also remove them, making them dependent on his favour. This was not the case with property acquired through marriage and explains the importance of this dispute.
The last significant rebellion ended in February 1474 with the surrender of John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, who survived to command the Lancastrian army at Bosworth in 1485. Clarence was widely suspected of involvement, a factor in his eventual execution in the Tower on 18 February 1478; claims he was "drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine" appears to have been a joke by Edward, referring to his favourite drink.
In 1475, Edward allied with Burgundy and declared war on France. However, with Duke Charles focused on besieging Neuss, Louis opened negotiations. Soon after Edward landed at Calais, the two signed the Treaty of Picquigny. Edward received an immediate payment of 75,000 crowns, plus a yearly pension of 50,000 crowns, thus allowing him to recoup the costs of his army.
In 1482, Edward backed an attempt to usurp the Scottish throne by Alexander Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, brother of James III of Scotland. Gloucester invaded Scotland and took the town of Edinburgh, but not the far more formidable castle, where James was being held by his own nobles. Albany switched sides and without siege equipment, the English army was forced to withdraw, with little to show for an expensive campaign, apart from the capture of Berwick Castle.
Edward's health began to fail, and he became subject to an increasing number of ailments; his physicians attributed this in part to a habitual use of emetics, which allowed him to gorge himself at meals, then return after vomiting to start again. He fell fatally ill at Easter 1483, but survived long enough to add codicils to his will, the most important naming his brother as Protector after his death. He died on 9 April 1483 and was buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. His twelve-year-old son, Edward V, was never crowned, Gloucester becoming King Richard III in July.
The cause of Edward's death is uncertain; allegations of poison were common in an era when lack of medical knowledge meant death often had no obvious explanation. Other suggestions include pneumonia or malaria, although both were well-known and easy to describe. One contemporary attributed it to apoplexy brought on by excess, which fits with what is known of his physical habits. Another theory is that Edward died of syphilis.
While the War of the Roses has been documented by numerous historians, Edward as an individual is less well known; 19th century historians like William Stubbs generally dismissed him as a bloodthirsty nonentity. The most comprehensive modern biography was written by Charles Ross in 1974, who concluded the peace and stability of his later reign was squandered in short-term aggrandisement. He further suggests that Edward "remains the only king in English history since 1066 in active possession of his throne who failed to secure the safe succession of his son. His lack of political foresight is largely to blame for the unhappy aftermath of his early death."
Commentators observe a marked difference between Edward's first period as king, and the second. The failure of attempts to reconcile former enemies like Somerset meant he was noticeably more ruthless after 1471, including the execution of his brother Clarence. In his youth, Edward was a capable and charismatic military commander, who led from the front, but as he grew older, the energy noted by contemporaries became less apparent.
One effect of this was that Parliament became increasingly reluctant to approve taxes for wars which Edward failed to prosecute, then used the funds instead to finance his household expenditures. Under his rule, ownership of the Duchy of Lancaster was transferred to the Crown, where it remains today. In 1478, his staff prepared the so-called 'Black Book', a comprehensive review of government finances, still in use a century later. He invested heavily in business ventures with the City of London, which he used as an additional source of funding.
Although the economy recovered from the depression of 1450 to 1470, Edward's spending habitually exceeded income; on his death in 1483, the Crown had less than £1,200 in cash. His close relationship with the London branch of the Medici Bank ended in its bankruptcy; in 1517, the Medicis were still seeking repayment of Edward's debts.
Economics was closely linked to foreign policy; Edward's reign was dominated by the three-sided diplomatic contest between England, France, and Burgundy, with two of the three seeking to ally against the third. As Flemish merchants were the largest buyers of English wool, Edward was generally pro-Burgundian, although Duke Charles' reluctance to support him in 1471 impacted their relationship. The death of Charles in 1477 led to the 1482 Treaty of Arras; Flanders, along with the lands known as the Burgundian Netherlands, became part of the Holy Roman Empire, and France acquired the rest. Edward and his successors lost much of their leverage as a result.
Edward's court was described by a visitor from Europe as "the most splendid ... in all Christendom". He spent large amounts on expensive status symbols to show off his power and wealth as king of England, while his collecting habits show an eye for style and an interest in scholarship, particularly history. He acquired fine clothes, jewels, and furnishings, as well as a collection of beautifully illuminated historical and literary manuscripts, many made specially for him by craftsmen in Bruges.
These included books for both entertainment and instruction, whose contents reveal his interests. They focus on the lives of great rulers, including Julius Caesar, historical chronicles, and instructional and religious works. In 1476, William Caxton established the first English printing press in the outbuildings of Westminster Abbey; on 18 November 1477, he produced Sayengis of the Philosophres, translated into English for Edward by Anthony Woodville.
It is not known where or how Edward's library was stored, but it is recorded that he transferred volumes from the Great Wardrobe to Eltham Palace and that he had a yeoman "to kepe the king's bookes". More than forty of his books survive intact from the 15th century, which suggests they were carefully stored, and are now included in the Royal Collection of manuscripts, held by the British Library.
Edward spent large sums on Eltham Palace, including the still-extant Great Hall, the site of a feast for 2,000 people in December 1482, shortly before his death in April. He also began a major upgrade of St George's Chapel, Windsor, where he was buried in 1483; later completed by Henry VII, it was badly damaged during the First English Civil War, and little of the original work remains.
Edward had ten children by Elizabeth Woodville, seven of whom survived him; they were declared illegitimate under the 1484 Titulus Regius, an act repealed by Henry VII, who married Edward's eldest daughter, Elizabeth.
Edward had numerous mistresses, including Lady Eleanor Talbot and Elizabeth Lucy, possibly daughter of Thomas Waite (or Wayte), of Southampton. The most famous was Jane Shore, later compelled by Richard III to perform public penance at Paul's Cross; Thomas More claimed this backfired, since "albeit she were out of al array save her kyrtle only: yet went she so fair & lovely … that her great shame wan her much praise."
Edward had several acknowledged illegitimate children;
There are claims for many others, including Mary, second wife of Henry Harman of Ellam, and Isabel Mylbery (born circa 1470), who married John Tuchet, son of John Tuchet, 6th Baron Audley. However, the evidence for these is circumstantial.
Edward IV's eldest son, also named Edward, was made Prince of Wales when he was seven months old and given his own household at the age of three. Based in Ludlow Castle, he was supervised by his uncle, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, who also acted as his regent for the Council of Wales and the Marches. The historical consensus is he and his brother Richard were killed, probably between July and September 1483; debate on who gave the orders, and why, continues, although their uncle Richard III was the beneficiary.
By mid-August, Elizabeth Woodville was certain of the deaths of her sons; after her initial grief turned to fury, she opened secret talks with Margaret Beaufort. She promised her support in return for Henry's agreement to marry her eldest daughter Elizabeth. In December 1483, Henry swore an oath to do so, which he duly carried out after his coronation in October 1485.
Prior to his succession, Richard III declared his nephews illegitimate, on the grounds his brother's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid. The Titulus Regius argued that since Edward had agreed to marry Lady Eleanor Talbot, his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was void. Both Eleanor and Edward were dead, but Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, further claimed to have actually carried out the ceremony. Once secure on the throne Henry VII annulled the Titulus and arrested Stillington, since his marriage to Elizabeth's daughter added legitimacy to his claim; Stillington died in prison in 1491.
Despite this apparent resolution, the Yorkist cause continued well into the 16th century. The most famous are the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, but Yorkist challengers remained a concern for Henry VII and his son. In 1541, Henry VIII executed Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, daughter of the Duke of Clarence, while a number of attempts were made on the life of her son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, who died in 1558.
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