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Yorkists, Lancastrians, or Did It Really Matter After 1471?

It is human nature to want to categorize our world.  When one is discussing late 15-century politics, it is tempting to put people into boxes labeled “Yorkist” and “Lancastrian.”  And it is likewise human nature to defy categorization.

To Ricardians who think nothing of Richard’s betrayal of the King of his own party, things are simplistic.  Everyone who opposed Richard must be Lancastrian.  They want to resurrect the politics of the past, as if the politics of 1483 were the politics of 1469, but a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then.

Edward IV’s Second Reign

In the spring of 1471, the Lancastrian cause was served a crushing blow when Prince Edward was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury and Henry VI was assassinated shortly after.  Minors such as Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, and the disfranchised Henry Tudor, disputed heir to the earldom of Richmond, could claim to be the heirs of Lancaster, but neither was prepared to challenge Edward IV.

Edward had the Duke under his control, but Jasper Tudor took his nephew Henry under his wing and fled the country, only to find themselves under the control of Francis, Duke of Brittany.

It could be that Jasper was more worried about his own safety than Henry’s.  He and Edward had a history of hostilities, whereas Henry was only 14 and had been a ward of York under the protection of the Yorkist Herbert family.  Edward had hoped, it seems, to make a good Yorkist of him.

The remaining Lancastrian supporters had choices:  They could flee as Jasper did; continue a lonely fight against Edward’s predominance, as the Earl of Oxford did; or make their peace with the House of York, as most did.

John Morton and Thomas Stanley, who had sided with Henry VI and Warwick during the events of 1470, became good servants of Edward IV.  Henry Tudor’s mother Margaret Beaufort had participated in the christening of Edward’s and Elizabeth’s youngest child, and she was negotiating Henry’s reinstatement as Earl of Richmond and safe return to England.  The intransigent Earl of Oxford was a prisoner in Hammes garrison in France under the watch of James Blount, the scion of a Yorkist family.

As Edward’s second reign unfolded, the stage was set for a smooth continuation of the dynasty he founded.  There is no evidence of any form of Lancastrian conspiracy.  The use of the partisan term “Lancastrian” was passé long before the end of his reign, and certainly by 1483.  The impetus for regime change is generally dissatisfaction with the current system, but Edward’s second reign was relatively free of turmoil, and was peaceful and prosperous.  Edward had been willing to pardon those who had been his enemies and enlist them in his service.  He was a man who inspired loyalty just as he inspired fear and awe.  His rule during his second reign was unchallenged and he was unchallengeable.

Richard III’s Usurpation

When Edward IV died, he was succeeded by someone who had played no part in the conflict called the Wars of the Roses.  The hatreds of the past could be buried in Edward V’s youth and innocence.  If Thomas More’s account holds any credibility at all, he quotes John Morton, who said he had served the father and was prepared to serve the son.

When Richard III deposed Edward V, committing an act of usurpation against a member of his own party, what then do we call the people who opposed him?  I once sarcastically asked a Ricardian whether he had any problem with my calling Edward V a Yorkist.

Richard’s usurpation looked so easy that Ricardians think Edward V had no supporters, but it was only easy because Edward was a child and because most people trusted Richard to do the right thing until it was too late.  But, even if Ricardians have no trouble with Richard’s forswearing his oath to Edward V, they shouldn’t assume that the oath meant nothing to everyone else.  Most people who are sincere expect others to be sincere too.  To reference Anthony Pollard, nine out of 10 people would have done the right thing, but Richard “lacked moral courage to face fatefully and with fortitude the uncertainties and risks of the future in 1483.”

There were Yorkists, such as John Dynham, the captain of the Calais garrison, who questioned Richard about his oath to Edward V but who supported Richard all the same, maybe because he was the anointed King, but there were others who couldn’t live with that.  If a Yorkist betrays his own party and King and kills and arrests those who were one time his fellows in arms, do you still call him a Yorkist?  What then do you call those Yorkists who turned against Richard?

The July conspiracy against Richard was two-fold: to help the Princes escape the Tower and to send their sisters abroad to seek help against Richard.  Some time after the plot was thwarted, Richard’s Yorkist enemies turned their support from Edward V to Henry Tudor.  This occurred around the time that the Duke of Buckingham denounced Richard and joined his opposition and rumors began to surface that the Princes had been murdered.  As Buckingham had been Richard’s confidante, he might have been the one who passed the news along.

When Buckingham’s Rebellion failed, 400 people, many of whom had served Edward IV and his government, joined Henry Tudor in exile.  Henry cemented their allegiance by swearing on Christmas Day 1483 to marry Elizabeth of York, heir of Edward IV following the deaths of her brothers.  Thus did Henry become, Christine Carpenter writes, “not a Lancastrian claimant but the Yorkist household’s second-best substitute” for Edward IV’s dead sons.

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