son of Richard, 3rd duke of York, and Lady Cicely Neville
born on 28 April 1442 at Rouen, France
crowned king of England on 28 June 1461
married to Elizabeth Woodville on 1 May 1464
died on 9 April 1483
Edward IV was the first Yorkist king, and, after Henry V, the most successful 15th century king of England. After his father and younger brother Edmund were killed at Wakefield in 1460, Edward took up the standard of the Yorkist cause with a vengeance. He confronted the addled and inefficient legacy of Henry VI, and – by the time of his death – had set England’s society and economy on a more prosperous path.
Edward was the eldest son of the most powerful noble in England (and, in terms of strict primogeniture, the rightful king of England), Richard, 3rd duke of York, and his wife, the celebrated ‘Rose of Raby’, Lady Cicely Neville. Both Richard and Cicely were direct descendants of Edward III (he was the grandson of Edward’s son Edmund of Langley; she was the granddaughter of Edward’s son John of Gaunt, younger brother of Edmund.) Edmund had been duke of York, thus Richard’s inheritance of the title, and John of Gaunt had been duke of Lancaster. It was his son, Henry, who deposed Richard II in 1399, thus ending the direct line of the Plantagenet succession.
The Lancastrian dynasty thus began with Henry IV, and continued through his son Henry V, and grandson Henry VI, who became king of England when he was barely a year old in 1422. As you can see, the descendants of Edmund of Langley, older brother of John of Gaunt, had a stronger claim to the throne of England. But it was John of Gaunt’s son who executed a king and seized the throne and, for 62 years, the Lancastrians ruled England.
The Yorks were content merely to bask in their wealth and privilege as the highest nobles in the land. However, the situation became untenable when Henry VI, always an incompetent king, descended into madness and the chaos of his rule became unbearable. Edward’s father was determined to provide England with the strong leadership it needed, and so – after repeated attempts to act as protector of the realm – he finally decided to force his cousin from power.
York was defeated and killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460, and Edward – titled earl of March from birth – inherited his father’s titles of duke of York, earl of Ulster and earl of Cambridge. But he yearned to add an even greater title – king of England. Enraged by his father’s death, he joined with his cousin Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and invaded London. He and Warwick were successful and, on 4 March 1461, Edward was declared king of England. Three weeks later he decisively defeated the Lancastrians at Towton, perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. Henry VI and his queen fled to Scotland, and sought assistance from its king, James III, and the French monarchy.
Edward was joyously welcomed to the throne, for Henry VI had been a completely inept king. Pious and learned, he had nevertheless completely failed to lead his country, preferring to let his court squabble and occasionally descending into madness. Unfortunately for him, his ineptitude followed upon his father’s charismatic and inspirational reign, and Henry VI appeared all the more pathetic in comparison. Edward, by contrast, was young, handsome, and had already proved himself to be a successful soldier. And, as discussed above, he possessed the noblest blood in the land through both parents. With his coronation on 28 June 1461, the Yorkist rule of England began.
Edward was quite intelligent, and he recognized that the squabbling factions of English nobility had to be silenced. He set about winning the support of most nobles; he was charming and personable, and quite fond of flirting with noble wives, and felt confident he could maintain his hold on the throne, even though Henry VI was still alive. Edward confiscated most of the lands Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou had given to Lancastrian sympathizers, and gave control of crown lands to appointed officials. He also encouraged foreign trade, and other commercial ventures; within a matter of years, he had erased the royal debt and made the crown solvent. Edward’s trick to remaining popular was to not play favorites, with the exception of his cousin, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick. Warwick’s support had been essential in gaining Edward the throne, and he was rewarded appropriately. He became the new king’s chief advisor and closes friend, negotiating domestic and foreign policy. As Chamberlain of England, he was the most powerful man in England next to the king, and he also amassed considerable lands.
After a while, Edward felt secure enough as king to rid England of its remaining Lancastrian strongholds. He entrusted Warwick and his father to do so, and they were quite successful. After the battle of Hexham in May 1464, the last bit of Lancastrian resistance was crushed. And so Neville returned to London where he began to exercise his true passion – foreign policy.
But in this he was thwarted by Edward IV’s lust.
The new king was attractive, and very fond of the ladies. As long as he was a bachelor, his sexual behavior could be excused. But Edward had an unsavory trick – he often promised marriage to lure more highly-born women into his bed. Such promises were recognized as legal pre-contracts in medieval England, and there is substantial proof that Edward made such a contract with Lady Eleanor Butler soon after becoming king. Butler, however, did not press the issue – but it was never resolved. In any case, Warwick favored an alliance with France while Edward favored an alliance with France’s traditional enemy, Burgundy (he later married his sister Margaret to the duke of Burgundy.) Edward, however, was content to let Warwick negotiate a marriage with the French princess, Bona of Savoy. The king was essentially ambivalent about the matter, but most assumed it was because of his family ties with Burgundy. However, there was a more serious reason – all the while Edward allowed Warwick to act as his emissary and negotiate the marriage, he was already married!
Warwick was humiliated; the king had deliberately lied to him, and played him for a fool. Most of the other English nobles were equally outraged. For Edward had not married a European princess, as befit his new station in life (and remember, a king’s marriage was not merely a personal matter – it was very important in terms of foreign policy.) Instead, the king had married Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of a mere knight – and a Lancastrian knight at that!
Elizabeth was also the widow of a Lancastrian knight, and had two sons from that marriage. They supposedly married on 1 May 1464, in a forest near her home; Edward was on a hunting trip, and became enamored of Elizabeth when she approached him to plead for restitution of her late husband’s lands. He attempted to seduce her, and promised marriage – and Elizabeth held him to the promise. Nonetheless, they managed to keep the matter secret for about four months, which was really quite remarkable. When the news leaked, Warwick lost his prestige – and the opportunity to gain lands and honors in France.
Worse, however, was the subsequent rise in Woodville power and influence. Edward had married into a family of Lancastrian sympathizers, all of whom had fought in support of Henry VI, and it was a large family as well. Like most newcomers to wealth and prestige, the Woodvilles were greedy and grasping – and managed to alienate virtually all of England’s old nobility in their mad dash for power. Naturally, Warwick saw them as rivals for the king’s influence, as did most other nobles. And the Woodvilles responded in kind. Elizabeth was completely devoted to the interests of her family and, like most husbands, Edward was devoted to his wife. Despite the secrecy of their marriage, when the news was announced, he publicly acknowledged her and held a grand coronation.
It was in Edward’s nature to be a facilitator and, for a long while, he tried to reconcile the growing factions in his court. But it was an impossible task. Warwick continued to work with the king, but Edward’s refusal to follow Warwick’s diplomatic advice in France, and his refusal to allow Warwick’s daughter to marry Edward’s brother George, chafed at the earl. Around 1468, Warwick withdrew to his estates in the north of England. It was at this time that Edward finally married his sister to the duke of Burgundy, thus invalidating all of Warwick’s work with Louis XI of France. Warwick turned his attention to the oldest of Edward’s two brothers, George, duke of Clarence. He had wanted to marry George to his own daughter, Isabel, but the king had refused – at that time, Edward and Elizabeth had only daughters, and it was completely possible that George might succeed his brother as king. Edward was suspicious of Warwick’s attempt to marry George into the Neville family. His suspicions were doubtless encouraged by the Woodvilles.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Edward IV" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/edward-iv/, January 12, 2022