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  • Edward IV - Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James

    edward pic 1 Edward IV (Courtesy of Ripon Cathedral)

    Perhaps no English king fought harder for the throne than King Edward IV, personified by Shakespeare as ‘this Sun of York’; an allusion to the three suns which are said to have risen in splendour prior to the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, near Hereford, fought on 2 or 3 February 1461, a perceived supernatural display seen by Edward as a favourable omen, presaging victory. Courtier, Philippe de Commines, recalled Edward as ‘the handsomest prince my eyes ever beheld’. Tudor historian Sir Thomas More described him as ‘princely to behold, of body mighty’. In true Plantagenet mould, he stood six foot three inches tall. Naturally charismatic, with abundant charm and bonhomie, Edward approached every man (and woman) ‘of high and low degree’ with great familiarity. Down to earth, easy-going and with an eye for the ladies, his enjoyment of the trappings of luxury has sometimes been portrayed as a weakness, but might more generously be extolled as a virtue; a necessary display of status and achievement in an age which demanded it.

    Edward was a usurper, his kingship was won on the battlefield, the result of a conflict caused by upheavals at the end of the Hundred Years War. As such he could be seen as an opportunist. In my book, Edward IV, Glorious Son of York, I explore the background to this takeover and chart the difficulties Edward faced consolidating his rule. It was a bloody business. The period between June 1469 and May 1471 has been described as one of great instability ‘without parallel in English history since 1066’. Governance changed hands three times, the crown twice, and major battles for the throne were fought.

    edward pic 2 Elizabeth Woodville, whom Edward IV married in sercet, putting love above the interests of the state

    Edward was a fighter, but not just for the sake of it. He considered his greatest martial achievement to have been the bloodless campaign and settlement with the French King Louis XI during his second reign, rather than any of the epic battles for which he is better known. Even so, he had the knack of seizing the initiative and winning battles, but they came at great cost: his victory at Towton near York, fought in a snow blizzard, has been characterised as England’s most brutal battle, its outcome described as akin to a national disaster in terms of casualties inflicted; the Battle of Barnet, fought in dense fog ten years later on the outskirts of London, another of Edward’s victories, gained the dubious accolade of being the fiercest battle fought in Europe for a hundred years.

    Like the visibility at Towton and Barnet, much that occurred in Edward’s day remains opaque: marriage carried out in secret, remorseless propaganda, malicious slanders and proxy wars. These years have been described as among the darkest of our annals, and not just for lack of primary source material. Motivations and rivalries that existed within a closely inter-married nobility were of paramount importance in shaping what occurred. The main players included Edward’s father, Richard duke of York, described as England’s most illustrious failure of the Middle Ages; the period’s great facilitator of political change, Richard Neville earl of Warwick, known as the ‘kingmaker’; the ill-starred Henry VI who Edward deposed (twice); Henry VI’s steadfastly loyal Queen, Margaret of Anjou, a woman maligned as the ‘she-wolf’ of France, but who bravely defended her husband’s and her son’s rights with all the means she could muster; Edward’s seductive wife, Elizabeth Woodville, an upwardly-mobile commoner who Edward married in secret, putting love above the interests of the state. There were also Edward’s ambitious brothers, George duke of Clarence and Richard duke of Gloucester. Richard famously seized the throne once, yet Edward did it twice, becoming the only English king to both win and regain his crown through force of arms.

    9781445646213

    Jeffrey James' new book Edward IV Glorious Son of York is available for purchase now.

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