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date: 26 June 2022

Yorkistsfree

(act. c. 1450–1471)

Yorkistsfree

(act. c. 1450–1471)
  • A. J. Pollard

Yorkists (act. c. 1450–1471), were a group of lords and their followers who supported Richard, duke of York (1411–1460), and subsequently his son Edward, earl of March, later Edward IV (1442–1483), first in opposition to Henry VI and then on the throne of England.

York and Neville

Duke Richard was a cousin of Henry VI and between 1447 and 1453 next in line to the throne. Despite his status and wealth he never enjoyed particular favour and prominence at court. His exclusion led him in the 1450s to use ever more extreme means to force himself upon the feckless and feeble Henry VI as his principal councillor. Ultimately, in 1460, he claimed the throne himself by superior hereditary right through his descent from Edward III. Acknowledged as heir to the throne by parliament in October 1460, York was killed in battle at Wakefield on 30 December following, before he could make good his right. It was left to his eldest son and heir to achieve his father's ambition in March 1461. Traditionally the Yorkists have been identified by the badge of the white rose. However, although one of the devices used by Edward IV, it only became the dominant symbol for the dynasty after 1485. Richard of York's preferred badge was the falcon and fetlock. His son often used the sun in splendour, commemorating the parhelia that appeared on the eve of his victory at Mortimer's Cross on 2 February 1461; and in their portraits and effigies his household servants usually bore a collar of suns and roses.

Early twentieth-century historians like Josiah Wedgwood tended to liken the Yorkists, and their opponents the Lancastrians, to modern political parties. More recent historiography, heavily influenced by Lewis Namier, has often equated them with eighteenth-century connections. There are indeed similarities, especially in the manner in which the Yorkists were a shifting alliance of aristocratic affinities, but fifteenth-century political circumstances do not readily translate to a more modern parliamentary context, and the dynastic element in Duke Richard's programme made them more than a mere party, or faction.

The Yorkists were never a coherent or static group. Their core was drawn from the duke's own senior servants, councillors, and retainers active either in his domestic administration in England and the marches of Wales, or in his service in France and Ireland in the 1440s. A significant number of these, especially veterans of the wars in France, died before the crisis of 1460–61 that saw the change of dynasty. Sir William Oldhall, Sir Edmund Mulso [see under Mulso family], and Sir Andrew Ogard had all been Duke Richard's councillors when he was lieutenant of Normandy or had commanded retinues in his service there. They were active on his behalf in England in the early 1450s, and Oldhall in particular faced charges of treason and periods of imprisonment as a result. These men, none of whom had male heirs, subsequently gave way to estate servants, many of them drawn from the southern marches of Wales, where they defended York's interests in the later part of the decade. Prominent among them were Sir William Herbert and Sir Walter Devereux [see under Devereux, Walter first Baron Ferrers of Charthey]. Behind them was a body of local retainers and administrators, for instance Sir William Burley, Sir Richard Croft, and Sir John Donne, who, however, were less visible politically in the 1450s. It was a significant affinity, the largest in the realm with roots in many parts of England and Wales and, because of the status of its head as heir presumptive to the throne between 1447 and 1453, politically the most important. During the 1450s, especially in the short periods when Richard held power (1454–5, 1455–6), men like Sir Walter Blount in 1454 also attached themselves to the duke.

On its own, however, the ducal affinity was not powerful enough to dominate the political scene in the 1450s. The Yorkists only became a force that could not be ignored when the duke allied himself with the equally powerful junior Neville family connection in 1453, which was led by the father and son, Richard Neville, fifth earl of Salisbury, and Richard Neville, sixteenth earl of Warwick. York's marriage to Cecily Neville made Salisbury his brother-in-law, though it is likely that the political crisis rather than family ties brought them together. The Nevilles brought their own kinsmen, Salisbury's brothers and other sons, into York's following, including a more reluctant William Neville, Baron Fauconberg, and also their retainers in the north and midlands, including John Scrope, fifth Baron Scrope of Bolton, Sir Robert Ogle, Sir Thomas Parr [see under Parr family], Sir Thomas Harrington [see under Harrington family], Sir Walter Wrottesley, Sir Baldwin Mountford [see under Mountford family], and members of the Conyers family. The wider Neville support secured victory at the first battle of St Albans in 1455 and political domination for the following year.

Sympathizers and recruits

Other noble families were sympathetic but less open in their support: Henry Bourchier, Baron Berners, who married a sister of Duke Richard, and John (VI) Mowbray, third duke of Norfolk, worked with York in government (as did their servants, for example John Green and John Howard), but were reluctant to associate with him when he was out of favour. Their caution was understandable in the late 1450s, when the majority of peers remained steadfastly loyal to Henry VI and seem to have regarded York as a troublemaker. With the exception of George Neville, bishop of Exeter and the earl of Warwick's brother, the clergy remained neutral, using their good offices to mediate between rivals rather than to espouse the cause of particular court factions. Among their number Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Beauchamp, bishop of Salisbury, and William Grey, bishop of Ely, perhaps because of their family connections with either York or Neville, may have been more sympathetic.

Queen Margaret's intervention in government after 1456 resulted in the recruitment of more friends to York. Earlier in the decade, in a feud that disrupted the west country, Duke Richard had backed Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon, against William Bonville, Baron Bonville. But after the earl's death in 1458, his heir found favour with the queen, whereupon Bonville promptly defected to York. Alice Chaucer, the widow of William, duke of Suffolk, who had been disgraced in 1450, acted less dramatically that same year when she negotiated the marriage of her son, John de la Pole, the new earl, to York's daughter, possibly in pique at the queen's rejection of his marriage to Margaret Beaufort. Though still under age, John fought for York at both the second battle of St Albans and Towton (17 February and 29 March 1461).

But despite such accessions, although the Yorkists were ready to use force to seize power they were never until 1459 in a strong enough position to hold it, and remained a minority opposition to those dominant at court. Until the end of the twentieth century historians were reluctant to attribute more than political ambition and naked self-interest to them. However, York, and subsequently Warwick, articulated a reformist ideology, eventually appealing directly to popular support and claiming that direct action was justified in ridding the king of his evil ministers in order to institute government for the common good rather than private benefit. This claim to the right to reform in the name of the common weal was roundly condemned in parliament after the rout of the Yorkists at Ludford in October 1459. The subsequent condemnation of York, the Nevilles, and their principal adherents for treason and the confiscation of their lands hastened a final showdown. While York fled to Ireland, Salisbury, Warwick, and York's eldest son, Edward, took shelter in Calais. From there in July 1460 they invaded England, defeated their enemies at Northampton, and seized the person of the king and control of government in his name. The situation was transformed when York laid claim to the throne in September 1460; a claim recognized but not initially implemented when by the October accord he was made heir to the throne. His claim to rule thus ceased to depend on a dubious appeal to the public good and popular approval, but shifted to the superior basis of a hereditary title to the throne. A deepening political crisis had finally become a full-blown dynastic conflict.

In and after 1459 prominent men, hitherto hostile or only surreptitiously friendly, began openly to espouse York's cause. Sir John Wenlock, as an old soldier already suspected of sympathizing with York, declared for him even before the rout of Ludford in 1459, as did Sir Thomas Vaughan of Monmouth; John Dynham, Baron Dynham, helped the earls escape from that rout to Calais; Sir Humphrey Stafford of Southwick in Dorset went over to the Yorkist earls when he was driven by winter storms to take shelter in Calais; many local gentry threw in their lot when the earls landed in Kent in the summer of 1460, including Sir Thomas Kyriell, Sir John Fogge, Sir John Scott [see under Scott family], Sir Robert Poynings, and Sir Thomas Dymoke [see under Dymoke family]. Edward Neville, first Baron Bergavenny, now openly supported his kinsmen for the first time. Archbishop Bourchier and bishops Grey and Beauchamp blessed their cause, as did John Lowe of Rochester. Edmund Grey, fourth Baron Grey of Ruthin, determined the outcome of the battle of Northampton by his change of sides. Others declared for York after the victory: John Sutton, first Baron Dudley, Thomas Stanley, second Baron Stanley, Sir Thomas Burgh, and Sir Thomas Charlton, who in the previous autumn had played a role in the condemnation of the Yorkists, were among them.

Dynastic victory

Although the Yorkists still did not represent a majority of the political nation, let alone of the greater peerage, there was a discernible increase in their ranks between 1459 and 1460. There were many possible reasons for this. Some may have been convinced by the lords' reformist platform, others might have been won over by the earl of Warwick's presentation of himself as England's new champion; some might have felt that the lords had been unfairly victimized by a tyrannical government (a view promulgated after 1461), and others, especially in Kent in 1460, might have followed rather than led a swell of popular support that potentially threatened another Cade's revolt. Grey probably acted to secure his property at Ampthill, over which he was in dispute with the duke of Exeter, while others simply judged that they were joining the winning side (as surely did the arch-trimmer, Thomas Stanley). One thing is clear, this surge had little to do with the duke of York himself, who was cut off in Dublin: all he could do was to persuade Thomas Fitzgerald, seventh earl of Kildare, and others in the lordship of Ireland to back him. After the forging of the October accord men may well have reasoned with the clergy, given a lead perhaps by Bishop William Wayneflete of Winchester, that God had now disposed and that they should accept the new order, or agreed with Sir Thomas Charlton, controller of the royal household, that their overriding loyalty lay to the person of the king. York, as heir to the throne, acquired a new veneer of legitimacy. It was at this moment that the duke of Norfolk openly declared for him. The house of York was in the ascendant.

This enhanced group put Edward IV on the throne and triumphed at Towton. Not all survived the wars. Besides York himself, the earl of Salisbury and his son Thomas lost their lives, as did Sir Robert Poynings. Two noted victims were William, Lord Bonville, and Sir Thomas Kyriell, summarily executed after the second battle of St Albans. As old Lancastrian servants, perhaps personally trusted by the king, they were detailed, with Sir Thomas Charlton, to guard him during the battle. Despite the king's own intervention, they met their deaths probably because they were deemed to have been particularly disloyal. Charlton was pardoned.

The survivors prospered; some rose to great power and wealth. The new regime was founded on the twin pillars of those committed personally to the house of York and those who were followers of the earl of Warwick, now the greatest magnate in England. Of the old Yorkists Henry Bourchier, created earl of Essex, William Herbert, created Baron Herbert, Walter Devereux, created Baron Devereux, Walter Blount, soon to be promoted to Baron Mountjoy, and above all William Hastings, the son of a Yorkist administrator who none the less emerged specifically as Edward IV's man only after the death of Richard of York, were the principal players. Many others, such as Donne, Croft, Richard Harliston, John Pilkington [see under Pilkington family], and the Vaughan family of Brecknockshire, who had served the duke diligently, prospered only modestly as yeomen, esquires, and knights of the new royal household. But Edward IV also favoured recent recruits, especially Humphrey Stafford (eventually earl of Devon), John Howard, the duke of Norfolk's right-hand man (raised to a barony), and, after he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, her kinsmen, especially her father and brother, Richard Woodville, first Earl Rivers, and Anthony Woodville, Baron Scales. To this group, known to historians as the new Yorkists, was added John Tiptoft, first earl of Worcester, who had been out of the realm in 1459–61.

Crisis, recovery, and collapse

The Yorkist regime in the 1460s was at first the old NevilleYork alliance in office. Thus the surviving Nevilles, especially the earl of Warwick and his brothers George (promoted to the archbishopric of York in 1465) and John Neville, Lord Montagu, were at the heart of government. Their followers prospered too. At first there was harmony and a seamless merging of service; Blount served Warwick as well as the crown; John Parr [see under Parr, Sir William], the younger son of Sir Thomas, joined the royal household. Sir Thomas Colt, who had served both York and Neville before 1460, continued to serve both thereafter. But when eventually, after 1467, Edward IV and Warwick fell out and the alliance disintegrated, primary loyalties were revealed. There were one or two dramatic changes of allegiance: in 1470 Sir William Parr (heir of Sir Thomas) abandoned Neville, whereas Wenlock ultimately stuck with Warwick. But no change of allegiance was so dramatic as the alliance forged between Warwick and the king's discontented brother, George, duke of Clarence, between 1467 and 1471.

The Nevilles were destroyed by Edward IV in 1471. Thenceforward all but a tiny remnant of Englishmen were Yorkists, just as earlier in the century all had been Lancastrians. The phrase, and the group, became all but meaningless for twelve years. However, the events of 1483 after the death of Edward IV divided those at the centre of the regime between supporters and opponents of Richard III. After 1485, while those who had gravitated to Henry Tudor once more enjoyed the fruits of office, the remnants of Richard III's following were maintained in opposition to Henry VII by his sister Margaret, duchess of Burgundy. They were the last surviving Yorkists, whose cause was not finally extinguished until the death of the last de la Pole on the field of Pavia in 1525.

As a group, therefore, the Yorkists were constantly evolving and changing, expanding and contracting, over the second half of the fifteenth century. At its core lay those who were members of the ducal house itself or its long-standing retainers and servants. One may question whether the Nevilles and those who followed them, especially the earl of Warwick, were ever truly Yorkist. They might, perhaps, be better styled Nevillites, aspiring arbiters between the rival royal houses. Unable to win the throne in 1461 without their support, the Yorkists could retain it after 1471 only by breaking them. Men and women were Yorkist for any number of different reasons ranging from naked ambition, through political calculation to deep-seated loyalty to the house and its cause. The true Yorkists served the house through thick and thin. William Herbert was reported in 1458 to have assured the duke that he was 'no monis mon but only yours'; and he died proving it for Edward IV at Edgcote in 1469. The same words could as easily be attributed to William Hastings, who laid down his life for the second Yorkist king, Edward V, in 1483. However, the devotion of men such as these was not enough to establish the house of York on the throne of England for long. This house divided against itself fell after a mere quarter of a century.

Sources

  • Oxford DNB
  • P. A. Johnson, Duke Richard of York, 1411–1460 (1988)
  • C. Ross, Edward IV (1974)
  • R. A. Griffiths, The reign of King Henry VI: the exercise of royal authority, 1422–1461 (1981)
  • J. Watts, Henry VI and the politics of kingship (1996)
  • M. Hicks, Warwick the kingmaker (1998)
  • A. J. Pollard, Warwick the kingmaker: politics, power and fame (2007)