On April 9, 1483, one of England’s most successful Kings, Edward IV, died at the early age of 40. His early death was disastrous to those he loved. Chief among those who suffered was his son and heir Edward V. Edward IV’s reputation has suffered for the events that occurred after his death, as if he caused them beyond the grave. This bizarre position is well in keeping with a modernist way of thinking, whereby the one directly responsible for a disaster is somehow not culpable because some innocent party was guilty of placing temptation in his way. Edward IV cannot be blamed for dying young. Nor was it the fault of Edward IV that his heir was a schoolboy of 12, under the influence of the adults who supervised him and powerless in himself.
Edward IV is criticized for favoring his wife’s kin and for allowing them to influence his children, but that argument assumes too much. It assumes that he was unduly under the spell of Elizabeth Woodville and that it was she, and not he, who made the decisions favoring her family. It assumes that the Woodvilles were so unpopular that showing them any favor was an insult to everyone else. It assumes that they were so unworthy that giving them any favor at all was only at the detriment of someone more deserving. It assumes that the influence of the Woodvilles over the young Princes was his strategy and not what would be considered a normal state of affairs for two children who hadn’t reached puberty. It assumes to read Edward’s mind and project what he intended for his heir once he reached the age of 14 ( since provisions for young Edward’s life had been placed up to that age). It assumes that no one in the Woodville family was qualified or responsible enough to oversee the welfare of his children. (The fact that Anthony Woodville was one of the most cultured and learned men of his time should have nothing to do with it? The fact that the Queen was their mother had nothing to do with it?) It assumes that the Woodvilles were so powerful that any influence they had over the King’s children was a threat to the country (an assumption that falls flat when one considers that the Woodville party was effectively crushed on April 30, 1483).
In his book Edward IV, which was published under the Reputations series in 2004, Michael Hicks presents six grounds for holding Edward IV responsible totally or in party for Richard’s usurpation and the collapse of his dynasty: 1) that he failed to contract a valid marriage; 2) that he failed to create a commitment to his heir and dynasty; 3) that he left factional divisions behind; 4) that he created parties with vested interests for setting Edward V aside; 5) that he destroyed Clarence, the “natural” Lord Protector; and 6) that he didn’t leave clear guidance on who was to rule. Hicks goes on to discuss each of these grounds.
Edward IV Made Enemies for His Sons
For myself, I can only agree with the fourth. When Edward IV married his second son Richard to the heiress of John Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, in 1478, when the couple was respectively 4 1/2 and 6 years old, the Howards might have viewed the marriage of their Mowbray cousin with little relish. However, they probably consoled themselves with the knowledge that the girl, like most people of the Middle Ages, would have been married eventually anyway, and, thus, by marriage, remove the dukedom from their hands. However, when the little girl died in 1481 and the little widower through parents’ wishes and Parliament’s blessing, still retained the titles and properties of his bride, the Howards must have seen this as an insult, a slap in the face for their years of service to York. William Herbert the Younger, who was made to exchange his earldom of Pembroke for that of Huntingdon for the benefit of Edward’s heir, obviously felt slighted by this. With their noses thus out of joint, the Howards and Herbert became allies of Richard of Gloucester as he marched towards the throne following Edward IV’s death. It is believed that Edward IV thought little of the younger Herbert, although he had had confidence in William’s father, but the perceived insult to the Howards was more dangerous. John Howard became Richard III’s strongest supporter after the Duke of Buckingham, and, when the Duke fell, Howard became Richard’s vanguard. That John Howard began courting Richard of Gloucester almost immediately after he arrived in London with King Edward V on May 4, 1483 is undeniable, as it is clearly seen in his gift of a massive gold goblet to Richard on May 15. It is not recorded whether John Howard made a similar gift to the King. Further, on June 5, Richard’s wife Anne gave Howard’s wife a box of wafers, thus advancing a “mutual-admiration society” that would bear fruit for both parties upon Richard’s usurpation. So, I can agree that Edward IV’s enriching his family at the expense of loyal servants created enemies for his sons and gave Richard allies for his advancement to the throne.
Blame the Forsworn
As for Edward IV’s marriage, I refer to “The Alleged Precontract.” As for Edward IV’s failure to create a commitment to his heir and dynasty, I disagree heartily. In June and July 1471, Edward IV made his son Prince of Wales and had the lords spiritual and temporal swear an oath to recognize his son as his successor. How seriously these lords took their oaths was not something Edward could guarantee. He drew up a list of persons whom he made administrators of his son’s affairs. This list included both of his living brothers, as well as many others, thus making them responsible for his son’s welfare. In November 1477, the Prince of Wales, age 7, hosted a banquet at Westminster Palace. One by one, the lords under his principality had to swear homage. One wonders what else Edward IV was expected to do. He could command his lords to honor his son and heir, but he couldn’t see into their souls at the time, nor could he control their behavior after his death. He was King, not God. Besides, of all of those who swore to his son on various occasions, before and after his death, how many were actually false to their oaths? Richard of Gloucester, the Howards, William Herbert, Northumberland, Stillington? There were more people who took their oaths seriously and who stood by them than those who didn’t. Then, there were those numerous, lesser people who didn’t take an oath at all but who honored Edward IV’s wishes that his son succeed him. Some of those became Richard’s opposition. If no one had been committed to Edward V, Richard III would have remained King and there would not have been a Henry VII. It is obvious that Edward IV created commitment to his son, since only a subset of those who swore to honor Edward V as his father’s successor were forsworn. I might add that those who forswore their oaths had their own motives for doing so which had nothing to do with the strength of Edward IV’s effort to create that commitment.
Clarence as Protector?
As for Edward IV’s execution of George of Clarence, the “natural” Protector, it seems laughable in light of Clarence’s career during Edward’s lifetime. “False, fleeting, perjured Clarence” careened between loyalty and treason, caused family strife with one brother through greed and betrayed another through jealousy. Are we supposed to think that he would have behaved better as Protector of Edward V? The only advantage I can see in Clarence’s surviving Edward IV might be that both brothers — George and Richard — might have eliminated each other competing for the office and so would have done England, and/or Edward V, a favor thereby.
Expecting Too Much
It is also silly to think that Edward IV should have left clear guidance on who was to rule. He might have articulated his wishes before he died. Since we have no record and no 1483 will, we just don’t know what Edward wanted. Furthermore, the articulated wishes of the dead are unenforceable on the living, especially if the living have their own agenda. Once again, Edward was King, not God.
As for the criticism that Edward IV left factional divisions behind, such a situation is the norm, not the exception. In the matter of politics, there will always be a difference of opinion. We can only look at the politics today to see that. The intensity of feelings on all sides is as unique as the individuals holding opinions, so how were things different in Edward’s day? He could orchestrate death-bed reconciliations as More’s History suggests, but he couldn’t orchestrate the sincerity of those reconciliations, or the actions of individuals after his death.
Judge Edward IV Rightly, as He Deserves
If Edward IV is judged as he should be judged, by the actions he took during his lifetime, it would be difficult to describe the government during his second reign as anything other than successful. To blame Edward for Richard’s inability to resist temptation is faulty ethics anyway, but typical of our times, where people are regarded as passive receptors of stimuli and not as independent agents responsible for their own actions. Therefore, we can blame the victim of theft and vandalism for failing to adequately secure his possessions, or the victim of rape for dressing too provocatively. Thus, we punish the innocent for the evil that is done to them. With this kind of stupidity passing for justice, should we be surprised that society finds more thieves, rapists, vandals and murderers in our midst? People in Edward’s time, and in times not too distant from our own, knew better, which is why the Ricardian movement flourishes now. When people think with their feelings and not with their reason, and then reject contemporary records for not justifying those feelings, what else can we expect? Consider me old-school, then, for failing to excuse Richard’s theft and murder by blaming the dead guy for what happened after his death.