15th Century England

At the end of the 14th century, England recently noted the rise of Henry IV through conquest against Richard II. Henry’s reign, where we begin today in the 15th century, began by addressing the people of England in his coronation speech, one of the first times since the Normand conquest. His father had been John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, so one of his other first acts was to make the Dukedom of Lancaster a royal title. Henry was the youngest from his father’s first marriage. His elder sisters were: Philipa, Queen Consort of Portugal, and Elizabeth, Duchess of Exeter. From his father’s second marriage, he was the elder brother of Catherine, Queen consort of Castile. His father’s third marriage was to his long time mistress, Kathyrn Swynford, who had three children: John, Thomas, and Joan. Henry was close to them who held the family name Beaufort, but also barred from the line of succession (Richard II legitimized the ones born before John’s marriage to Kathryn after they married). His siblings would prove formidable allies and foes, and their bloodlines will define history throughout. 

Domestically, Henry worked closely with parliament, but frequently argued with them over matters of the Church, as Henry felt he owed the Church for his throne. He spent much of his reign fighting rebellions in Wales and among the English. Rumors Richard still lived haunted his reign, even after the disposed king died of starvation and had his body displayed, rumors still spread. Towards the end of his life, Scotland would even fiend a pretender to hang over the English king’s head. In the foreign aspect, he hosted the Emperor of the Byzantine and sent him aid against the Ottoman’s. In 1406, he captured the future James I, and he would remain a prisoner for years before returning home. Around this time, he grows ill, and by 1413 he passes away. Like many kings, he was buried at Canterbury and placed adjacent to the Shrine of St. Thomas Beckett. His wife Joan of Navarre joined him there when she died in 1437.  

His heir was his eldest of his six children, Henry V. Henry was tall for the time (about 6’3”), and he focused the beginning of his reign on forgetting/forgiving the past. He had Richard II reinterred in Westminister, worked to give families back their inheritance, and even brought Richard’s heir, Edmund Mortimer, into his fold as a favorite. He sought to rule a united kingdom, and for the most part he succeeded. The biggest threat to this peace was the Southampton plot, where men conspired to overthrow Henry in favor of Mortimer (despite Mortimer remaining fiercely loyal to Henry and knowing nothing of it). Henry also promoted the use of the English language in government affairs, and was the first king to do so since the Norman rule over 350 years prior. Domestic affairs were settled, and Henry decided to unite them in a common cause. No one knows truly why England returned to war with France, but it is known they used the claim England strove to hold over France from Edward III. It is speculated he believed asserting this claim was his royal duty. He believed in this so much that when King Sigismund of Hungary made a trip to England to convince him to abandon this path, he convinced the foreign king to sign a treaty recognizing his claim. The French worried so much that they used their alliance with Genoese to help patrol the English channel. At least until they were chased away. 

His fighting was ruthless, and he refused to take prisoners during the Battle of Agincourt to prepare for the next wave without the risk of the prisoners rebelling. After this victory, England believed they had a chance to regain their land in France, and Henry could almost feel the crown on his head. Then from 1417-1419, Henry ravaged the French countryside until his army was outside of Paris, and he had commandeered most of France’s allies. In 1420, Henry and King Charles VI signed the Treaty of Troyes, making him heir to Charles, and married his daughter Catherine of Valois. They had their only child, Henry, in December 1421. He died in 1422 of dysentery, leaving behind a foreign wife and an infant child to succeed him. 

Henry VI is the youngest English King to date, and the third king from the House of Lancaster. A few months after his father’s death, his grandfather died, making him the titular King of France. Instead of a regent, the nobles elected a regency council that included his uncles (John, Duke of Bedford; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester) as prominent members, and excluded Catherine as much as possible. Which was fine for her, as it left fewer eyes on her, and she fell in love with one of her grooms: Owen Tudor. It is not confirmed whether they married or not, but if they did, it was believed to be around 1427/28, and had at least two children: Edmund and Jasper. Due to an earlier act of Parliament, any man who married Catherine lost all their lands for marry without the kings’ permission, as they would have done, as that permission had to come from the Regency, so there is no proof of their marriage. Henry would grow up relatively close to his siblings and even gave them earldoms when he ascended power. 

Henry would take that power when he turned 16 in 1437, as the country began to struggle. His father’s previous victories in France had been pushed back after the arrival of Joan of Arc. He had been losing land there since the beginning of his reign, and soon they could not participate. Henry had opted for peace despite the Dukes of Gloucester and York wanting to fight. An unordinary occurrence struck them called the Great Bullion Famine, which was building since the Balck Death. It’s kinda like an early version of a recession. Basically, Europe began to run out of precious metals, like silver and gold (part of the Portuguese push for exploration and why they began so much wealthier than other countries). This led to the Great Slump, which was an economic trouble for England, and a series of rebellions orchestrated by a man named Jack Cade. This all would build up into conflict soon, but in the meantime, Henry focused on his reign and trying to do his best. Marriage became a huge topic, and after a few rejections, they found a match: Margaret of Anjou. She was the niece of King Charles VII, and the marriage accompanied the Treaty of Tours in 1444. Margaret was only 15 when she married the now 23-year-old Henry, but she was intelligent, fierce, and quickly had his ear. In 1446, she convinced him to keep his part of the treaty, and it was fully announced, including the secret part where England conceded Maine to France. It was extremely unpopular, and the unrest growing increased. 

Margaret convinced Henry to be fierce on those who were disloyal. The Duke of Gloucester for defying his King was kept from court circles and sent to Ireland. This left Richard, Duke of York, as the largest power in England, other than the crown. To balance this, Edmund Beaufort was raised to Duke of Somerset and William de la Pole to Duke of Suffolk and sent Richard to Ireland. These were the first men not belonging to the English royal house to be granted the title of Duke. This grew into him giving more lands to his favorites and a basic breakdown of law and order. It grew to the point where he had to send the Duke of Suffolk into exile to protect him– the duke’s body was found on the beach of Dover. In 1451, the Duchy of Aquitaine was lost to the French, and that seemed to be the final straw for the Duke of York.

He was persuaded to return to England and resume his place on the council, and his journey raised a small army fed up with bad government. Henry also raised a small force, and they met in a stand still. The first conflict between Lancaster and York. Richard presented a list of demands that included the removal of the Duke of Somerset. Henry agreed, but Margaret fought and achieved bring him back afterwards; when she became pregnant, it appeared Henry’s reign was secure. That was until the Batttle of Castillon. Castillon was a defining ending battle of the Hundred Years War, and with its loss came the loss of Borbeaux. Henry’s mind broke at this, and he became completely unresponsive to everything around him, including the birth of his son Edward. It is estimated his maternal grandfather, Charles VI, passed on the mental illness. During this period, Richard found a powerful and rich ally in Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (later known as the King maker). They worked to have Richard named Protector of the Realm during this period, and shut Margaret out of government. He had two focuses: fixing government spending, discrediting Henry. He had the Duke of Somerset imprisoned and had rumors spread Somerset fathered Prince Edward. This is what Henry “awoke” to in 1454. The nobles who had been empowered during the period doubled down for the support of Richard. This clash of Lancaster versus York turned into the War of Roses in 1455. 

Henry created the Coucil of Wales and the Marches for his son, and sponsored The Love Day to try and unite the factions, but nothing was working. In 1460, Yorkiest stopped fighting to give Richard control over the government, and decided that with his stronger claim he should be King. Henry was captured that year during the Battle of Northampton, and Richard was killed alongside his second son during the Battle of Wakefield. Margaret’s forces then rescued Henry, and likely believed their troubles over, but Richard had sons. Three sons remained: Edward, George, and Richard. Henry did not come out of imprisonment unscathed and was having another mental breakdown, and Edward took up his father’s cause. The Battle of Townsend forced Henry and Margaret to flee to Scotland to avoid capture. Margaret planned their return while Edward made himself comfortable as Edward IV. Before long, Henry marched to return to England and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was kept alive to stop his claim from transferring to his son.  

Edward heavily relied on Warwick, so his focus during the beginning of his reign was building other allies. It was generally believed he would marry Anne of France until he surprised everyone by announcing he married the Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville, in secret. A love match and a way to show Warwick he did not control the young king. This was unpopular, as it brought the low family she came from into the royal family. Elizabeth was one of 13 causing the Woodvilles overran English court, and her sisters began marrying powerful nobles. In 1467, Edward dismissed Warwick’s brother, George Neville, and Warwick decided he had enough of Edward’s independence. He started plotting with Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence. Edward denied a marriage proposal between George and Warwick’s daughter Isabel, but they sailed to Calais to marry anyways. They returned with a list of demands and caught Edward off guard, which led to his capture. During this period, George and Elizabeth’s father Richard Woodville and her brother John Woodville. Soon their insufficient support was clear though, and Edward soon resumed his throne. Outwardly, everything seemed fine, but inside the King was raging. He took lands from the Neville’s and granted their original Lancastrian owners, Henry Percy (now Earl of Northumberland), who was an enemy to Warwick. The pair attempted to revolt again, but were forced to flee to France, where King Louis XI persuaded him to meet with Margaret of Anjou. She forced him to sit in silence for 15 minutes on bended knee, before she allowed him to negotiate with her, and soon he was sailing back for England. The Yorks were unpopular by this time, and Edward was chased from the throne, and Henry VI was placed back on it. Edward fled to Flanders before finding refuge with his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Elizabeth Woodville found sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her three eldest daughter and gave birth to their heir, Edward (the royal couple would have 8 children live past infancy). Clarence realized his misstep and returned to his brother. Warwick soon overstepped though and convinced Henry to attack Burgundy. This prompted Charles to fund Edward’s return. The Battle of Barnet witnessed the death of Warwick and his brother Montagu. The Battle of Tewkesbury marked the death of Edward of Winchester, Henry’s son and heir. Edward took London and reimprisoned Henry. It seemed the only thing left from the War of Roses was to determine Warwick’s inheritance between his daughters, who were both now married to Edward’s brothers (Richard, Duke of Gloucester married Isabel’s younger sister Anne). Edward was left to reign freely, but it seems not having a battle didn’t sit well with him. He almost invaded France again, tried to help usurp James III, and finally had the Duke of Clarence killed for treason after he sought rebelling again. Soon he became ill, and by 1483 he died. In his will, he named his brother Richard Lord Protector over his heir, Edward V. 

Now what happens next is extremely debated. All we do know is Richard took Edward and his younger brother (also named Richard) into the Tower of London for their protection. After the summer of 1483, those boys were never seen again and are now referred to as the Princes of the Tower. Richard during this period has all Edward IV’s children with Elizabeth Wood illegitimate due to a prior marriage to a woman named Eleanor Butler, and had himself crowned Richard III. He began his reign with relative ease, but soon the Buckingham Rebellion, where the Duke of Buckingham attempted to place Edward V on the throne, but since he was presumed dead, he needed another option. There was one Lancaster left who had enough royal blood, though the line was muddy. 

For this, we should rewind a tiny bit. If you remember, Catherine of Valois had two sons with Owen Tudor; Edmund and Jasper. Edmund was the Earl of Richmond, and Jasper the Earl of Pembroke.  They seemed to have stayed out of the War of Roses mainly, and often put down rebellions elsewhere, like Wales. It was there Edmund died, leaving behind a pregnant 13-year-old daughter, Margaret Beaufort, daughter of John, Duke of Somerset, and great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt and Kathryn Sywnford. Margaret’s delivery was difficult, but she gave birth to Henry Tudor. Jasper took over care of them, which led to Maragret remarrying Humphrey Stafford, second son of the Duke of Buckingham. They enjoyed a lengthy harmonious marriage, but Henry remained in Wales under the protection of Jasper at Pembroke Castle. Jasper was forced to go into exile though when Edward IV came to the throne, and his Earldom (as well as the guardianship of Margaret and Henry) were given to Yorkist William Herbert. That remained until Henry VI was restored, and so was Jasper. When Edward IV returned, Henry chose to flee with other Lancasters to Brittany. He stayed there under the Duke of Brittany for 14 years, and where he is when Buckingham has a brilliant idea (though it is unknown if he came up with it alone). 

Henry Tudor staked his claim to the throne of England and promised to marry the eldest daughter of Edward: Elizabeth of York. Buckingham built support for Henry in Wales, where his grandfather was from. Henry rallied support in Brittany and then plead his case to the regent of Charles VII, Anne of France. She agreed to help him, and by 1485 Henry was sailing for England. Henry met Richard III on the Battlefield of Bosworth and became the last English King to win by right of conquest. He claimed his reign started the day before the battle where Richard died, making any of his supporters traitors, and the Tudor Dynasty was created. 

Henry VII had an upwards battle after Bosworth, his blood claims were weak, and his claim through conquest would only hold if he could maintain his hold on the crown. He confiscated lands and rewarded his followers, but interestingly let Richard’s heir, John de la Pole, keep his title as Earl of Lincoln. He also gave the daughter of Edward’s brother George a title of her own. She became known as Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, despite having a claim and a father executed for treason. He made sure not to summon Parliament until after his coronation in October of that year to define himself as sole ruler; also to this effect, he waited to fulfill his promise of marriage to Elizabeth of York, who had a stronger claim than he did as Edward’s eldest child after her brother’s disappearance. Their wedding would take place two months later, and Elizabeth would be coronated as his consort after repealing the act that had illegitimized her and her siblings. Lancaster and York had been united, the War of Roses was over. 

Henry set to work on bringing peace and security to the realm. He brought overzealous nobles to heel by passing laws restricting their households and the use of livery. He used the Court of Start Chamber to deal with smaller legal cases, allowing more threatening cases to be heard sooner, and Justices of the Peace on a national scale.  He enriched the crown by investing in alum trading with the Ottomans, and worked on a trade agreement with the Burgundy. He taxed heavily but wisely, and while the people didn’t particularly like him, they respected the stability he offered. Through this, he filled the royal coffers to levels they had not seen in years. During his first 15 years on the throne, he had six children, but only four survived infancy: Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary. Thins were not simple though, and Henry struggled to maintain his throne. Many nobles were upset he dared claim the throne, let alone restrict their power. Some were still supporters of York, and disliked having a Lancaster on the throne despite having a York wife. He had been preparing for rebellions since he left the field at Bosworth, so it was not surprising. His biggest rival was the younger brother of the Countess of Salisbury: Edward, Earl of Warwick. Warwick was around 10 when Henry took the throne, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London before the new King reached the city of London. It did not stop people from using the boy as a figurehead for rebellions. When that did not work, his enemies switched tactics and used imposters. First, we see Lamert Simnel arose from Ireland pretending to be the lost Edward V, led by the Earl of Lincoln and Irish Earl of Kildare. This broke into the Battle of Stoke, where Lincoln died and the rebellion was defeated. Surprisingly, Kildare was pardoned, and Simnel spent the rest of his life in the royal kitchens. Next came Perkin Warbeck, and he had more success, but not enough. In 1490, he pretended to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the other Prince of the Tower. He won the support of Edward IV’s sister, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, who funded his cause. He attempted to invade Ireland in 1491 and England in 1495, but when he failed, he fled to Scotland. There he wed Catherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntly. Upon his return to England in 1497, he was defeated and captured alongside his bride. He was executed, but she was held prisoner and placed in the Queen’s household where she soon earned royal favor. Henry soon sought to establish his reign on a more international scale, and began looking for brides for his eldest son, Arthur. He was determined to unite with the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, ruled by Ferdinand II and Isabella I. The is though, at this point, England has been at war for centuries. The Tudors were known and in someways they had more claim to England than Henry, so they did not want to send their daughter into an unknown future. To help secure the treaty and hand of Catherine of Aragon for his son, he executed the last threat to his reign. Edward, Earl of Warbeck, was executed in 1499. Catherine was sailing to England by 1501. 

This is where we will leave England and the Tudors, who are arguably the most notorious English royals of all time. Love or hate them, their short domination changed the course of history for England in the next century. When we return to the 16th century, we will learn more about Henry and his family’s fates, and how their decisions affected not only England, but also their allies and enemies.