Wednesday, 9 April 2014

9 April 1483: The Death of Edward IV

Above: Edward IV, king of England (1442-1483).

On this day in history, 9 April 1483, King Edward IV of England died. He had been king of England for twenty-two years, barring a six month period when his predecessor, Henry VI, briefly resumed his kingship. The first Yorkist king of England, Edward's first reign (1461-70) was marred by violence and continuing political and dynastic tensions as a result of Edward's unpopular marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, his fallout with the 'Kingmaker' earl of Warwick, and the continuing threat from the Lancastrians. But his second period of kingship, 1471-83, was comparatively more successful and can be termed a period of peace as the threat from the Lancastrians fell away following the death of Henry, the defeat of his controversial queen Margaret of Anjou and the death of their prince Edward of Westminster in battle.

Edward had been born in 1442 in Rouen, France; the second child of the third Duke of York, Richard Plantagenet, and his resourceful wife Cecily Neville. Edward was the eldest of four sons who survived to adulthood. The fifteenth century was a turbulent and violent period as English dynastic politics became increasingly uncertain and faction-driven as a result of the Lancastrian king Henry VI's ineptitude. The loss of English possessions in France, so hard-won by his much-famed father Henry V, were viewed with consternation and outrage in England, and the nobles, led by York, became increasingly vocal in their demands for the king's unpopular advisers, including the earl of Suffolk and later the duke of Somerset, whom they blamed for England's mounting crises, to be removed from power.

Above: Edward IV's coat of arms.

Edward was a handsome and energetic young man, famed for his good looks and personality. He was 6'4 and as a result was England's tallest king. In the 1450s, he came to play an increasingly important role in his family's dynastic conflict with the Lancastrians. His father, the duke of York, asserted his claim to the English throne in 1460, but he died at the Battle of Wakefield later that year. As a result, his claim passed to his teenage son, Edward. Edward's position in the mounting conflicts therefore became increasingly pivotal. In alliance with his kinsman the Earl of Warwick, Edward defeated the Lancastrians in several battles, including the bloodiest battle fought on English soil, Towton, in March 1461. Edward, at the age of nineteen, became king shortly afterwards.

Above: Edward's queen, Elizabeth Woodville.

However, Edward's reign did not begin particularly well due to the development of conflict with his former erstwhile ally, the Earl of Warwick. Following Edward's accession to the throne, the Earl had negotiated with the French king for Edward to marry his daughter, Anne of France, in an alliance that would enhance England's prestige and allow it to play a major role in European politics. However, Edward disrupted these plans by marrying the commoner Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian widow in her late twenties. This misalliance outraged the earl and caused some consternation at court. It is possible that the king's mother, the formidable Cecily Neville, disapproved of the match. Most historians believe that the King was infatuated with Elizabeth, whose beauty was legendary, although there were, unsurprisingly, rumours that she had ensnared him by use of the black arts.

The new marriage caused hostility amongst the nobility, who resented the Woodville's lowborn origins. Worst of all, Elizabeth had numerous siblings, who were quickly married off to the most powerful nobles in attempts to bolster their power and enhance their prestige. This further alienated the earl of Warwick, who had hoped to marry his two daughters and heiresses Isabel and Anne to nobles. Warwick eventually turned against the king, acting in alliance with Edward's younger brother George duke of Clarence, who had come to resent his brother's policies. Warwick eventually captured the king following the Yorkist defeat at the Battle of Edgecote Moor in July 1469, but because he did not attain the support he had hoped for, the earl was forced to release Edward in September. The king sought reconciliation with his brother and Warwick, rather than executing or imprisoning them as traitors. Warwick, however, sailed to France and allied himself with his former enemy Margaret of Anjou, acting together with the support of the French king. The alliance was cemented by the marriage of Warwick's second daughter, Anne, to Margaret's son, the Lancastrian heir Edward of Westminster.

Above: Richard III, younger brother of Edward IV.

Following Edward's defeat in 1470, the Lancastrian king Henry VI, who had briefly fell into insanity in the late 1450s, was restored to the throne. Edward, however, managed to attain support from the duke of Burgundy, who was married to his younger sister Margaret. Edward returned to England and obtained the support of his people as he steadily moved through the country unopposed. His brother George returned to his side, having been alienated by his unfavourable fortunes following Henry's readeption. The Yorkist king entered London unchallenged, taking Henry VI prisoner. Warwick was defeated at the battle of Barnet in 1471, and the Lancastrian prince was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury that same year. Henry VI was almost certainly murdered at the Tower of London in May 1471, and his shamed and humiliated wife Margaret was forced to seek sanctuary in France. No longer were the Lancastrians, in the persons of Henry and Margaret, a threat to the victorious Yorkist dynasty.

Edward's second half of his reign, comprising twelve years, were peaceful. He faced no more rebellions and sired ten children by his wife Elizabeth, whom he enjoyed a loving and affectionate relationship with, although like many men in this age he took mistresses, including the beautiful Jane (or Elizabeth) Shore. Edward became increasingly gluttonous, however, and his weight expanded during the later years of his reign. Dynastic tragedy did occur, for George was executed in 1478 on grounds of treason. On 9 April 1483, less than three weeks before his forty-first birthday, he died. He had named his younger brother Richard (whom he seems to have trusted more than the disgraced George) as Lord Protector during the reign of his successor Edward V, who was a minor. There is uncertainty surrounding the exact cause of Edward's death, although both pneumonia and typhoid have been suggested.

Edward was an extremely popular and successful king. He outshone his predecessor, the saintly if ineffectual Henry VI, and appeared similar to the glorious Henry V. Later, similarities would be drawn between the first Yorkist king and his grandson Henry VIII. He was a spectacular military commander - he was never defeated in battle. His reign saw the restoration of law and order in England that had been notably absent in the conflict-riven reign of his predecessor. Edward managed his finances well and ensured stability in his household. His court was praised as "the most splendid in all Christendom", as the reports of contemporary ambassadors attest. He was interested in fashion and architecture, and knew how to project images of himself as a godly monarch. He was also interested in literature and education - more than forty of his books survive today. To all intents and purposes, Edward enjoyed a successful and prosperous reign. The Yorkist dynasty would, however, be marred by the haunting disappearance of his two sons Edward and Richard. To this day, no-one knows for certain what happened to those two little boys.

Above: the Princes in the Tower. What happened to Edward IV's sons?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. ...slight anomaly: 'He was a spectacular military commander - he was never defeated in battle.' - 'Warwick eventually captured the king following the Yorkist defeat at the Battle of Edgecote Moor in July 1469.'

  3. Good article. In para 2 you have Henry V when you mean Henry VI ...
    "The fifteenth century was a turbulent and violent period as English dynastic politics became increasingly uncertain and faction-driven as a result of the Lancastrian king Henry V's ineptitude."

  4. Please reconsider your background, type colour & font. Hard to read. Maybe ask others with less acute vision than you to review. I do understand the roses, but maybe make them fade into the background more & white type is never a wise decision.

  5. Slight correction. I believe you intended to say Henry the VI not Henry V's ineptitude early in your write-up.