THE REIGN OF EDWARD IV
by James Weaver
Born: April 28, 1442
Acceded to the throne: March 4, 1461
Married: May 1, 1464; four children
Died: October 2, 1515
The oldest son of Richard, Duke of York, Edward was eighteen when his father claimed the English throne from Henry VI and was subsequently slain at Wakefield in December of 1460. Edward vowed to continue the struggle; he was proclaimed king in March of 1461 and left the same week to inflict a devastating defeat on the main Lancastrian army at Towton, south of York. Henry was captured four years later and placed in the Tower of London, where he lived out the last eight years of his life.
In 1464 Edward made a decision that nearly undid him: he married Elizabeth Woodville, a choice which alienated one of his chief supporters, Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick. By 1467, Warwick was in contact with the Lancastrians. An uprising in 1469, led by Warwick’s cousin, resulted in the defeat of a royalist force near Banbury, where Edward nearly fell into Warwick’s hands.
It was rumored that Edward’s brother George, the duke of Clarence, had planned to throw in his lot with the rebels, but those rumors were never proven. Despite his recent marriage to Warwick’s daughter, George gave his full support to his brother. Whether George’s wife’s death in a horse-riding accident had anything to do with this is open for debate, but seems to be the deciding factor in George’s decision to remain loyal.
After the defeat of Warwick’s army in March of 1470, Warwick and his compatriots were captured and executed.
Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s wife, led an ill-equipped invasion with her son Edward, the Prince of Wales in 1472. Forewarned by spies, king Edward’s forces utterly destroyed those of Margaret mere hours after their landing at Weymouth. The prince of Wales was killed, the queen captured. With the prince dead, there was no advantage in keeping Henry alive, and he was killed in the Tower three weeks later. This victory finally solidified Edward’s reign.
In 1474 Edward underwent a spiritual rebirth following the death of his wife in childbirth. Previously a self-indulgent, corpulent man who drank heavily, the death of his queen, whom he loved dearly, caused him to withdraw almost completely from the public eye for nearly eight months. When he emerged he was a changed man. He foreswore drink and overindulgence in food and other vices, and dedicated himself fully to building England’s power and influence. He took sole responsibility for raising and educating his only son and heir, the future Edward V, something almost unheard-of in that day and age.
In 1476, when France’s King Louis XI demanded the release of Margaret of Anjou, Edward led a massive invasion of France and laid claim to the French throne, with Burgundy and Brittany in support. After battles at Rouen, Gisors, and La Rochelle (all English victories), Edward and Louis came to terms. France would pay England a yearly tribute, England would gain the County of Poitou and the Duchy of Gascogne, and the County of Anjou would be partitioned between Brittany and England.
The regaining of some of the territories lost during the disastrous reign of Henry VI gained Edward immense popularity at home, and the French tributes boosted the drained treasury. Even better (to Yorkist eyes) was the successful campaign against the Scots in 1482 led by the duke of Clarence, which resulted in the recovery of Berwick, which had been surrendered to the Scots by the Lancastrians.
More important than the territorial gains were the increased efficiency of the government, the reassertion of monarchical power, and major donations to the church and various universities.
Edward faced his next challenge in 1489, when his brother Richard mounted a coup. Richard, growing increasingly bitter with his minimal role in the running of the kingdom and the growing closeness between Edward and George (who may have been a traitor and was probably viewed as one by Richard), sought help wherever he could find it.
Help came in the form of Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond. Henry, the latest in a long line of Lancastrian supporters, sought to take advantage of the split between his enemies, and raised an army for Richard which won a major victory at Tewkesbury in March of 1490. But squabbling between Richard and Henry soon led to increasing royalist victories, and Henry was killed during the Battle of Oxford in August, a resounding victory for the royalists (led by the king’s son and heir, the 19 year-old Edward). Richard escaped and fled to France, where he lived out the rest of his years in Paris. He died in 1511, a broken, bitter man.
Under Edward’s reign Ireland, long a Yorkist bastion, drew even closer to England. Further victories against the Scots in 1496 and 1502 gained England more territory in the north.
The souring of relations between England and Burgundy was Edward’s only true failure as a monarch. Despite the fact that his sister Margaret had married Charles of Burgundy in 1468, the failure of Edward to guarantee Burgundy any territories during the war with France in 1476 resulted in Burgundy gradually becoming more belligerent towards England. Many feared a reversal of sorts, wherein Burgundy would begin to fall into France’s camp. Indeed, Mary, the daughter of Margaret and Charles, instigated a dialogue with the court of Charles VIII, monarch of France, in 1489, a dialogue that would lead to Burgundy’s eventual unification of its northern and southern territories, securing its place as a major player in Europe and the larger world.
Edward IV died in his sleep on the morning of October 2, 1515, at the age of 73. He left his heir, Edward V, a kingdom with a sizable and solid presence in Poitou and Gascogne, a wealthy treasury, a modern army and growing navy, and peace across the British Isles with the exception of Scotland, where trouble continued to simmer.