Edward IV: The Theatre of Monarchy: Hannes Kleineke Examines the Career of the First Yorkist King

Article excerpt

Between the giant figures of Henry V, the conqueror of France, and Henry VIII, the nemesis of the catholic church in England, King Edward IV (1461-83) is often lost sight of. In a dramatic reign of 23 years he reestablished the authority of the English Crown both at home and abroad and laid the foundations on which the heavily centralised state of the Tudor kings and queens was built. Yet, at his premature death at the age of barely 41, his foreign policy lay in ruins, his treasury was empty, and within months his dynasty's seemingly secure grip on the once-more-disputed throne of England began to slip. Historians continue to be divided in their assessment of Edward's achievement. While some point to his undeniable political and constitutional achievements, others focus on the flaws in the King's character to explain the apparent failure of his policies.

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When Edward IV came to the throne the English monarchy was in crisis. The 39 years of the reign of his immediate predecessor, King Henry VI, had seen disaster on the foreign stage, where the territories conquered by Henry V were lost to the French, as well as at home in England, with a general breakdown of law and order. For English commerce, a general economic downturn was exacerbated by the impact of the loss of the King's French possessions and their markets. A vigorous monarch might have successfully addressed the resultant political crisis, but during the 1450s Henry VI, never the most effective of rulers, was twice completely incapacitated for lengthy periods by a debilitating illness. The final decade of his reign consequently saw not only the nobility but also sections of the commons increasingly discontented with his rule. Contemporary political discourse, which accepted that kings ruled by the grace of God, required any opposition to an anointed monarch to be focused on the king's ministers and advisers, and it is a mark of the extent to which Henry VI's personal authority (and by implication the authority of his office) had declined that blame for the disasters of his reign was being attached to him personally, to the degree of seeing him removed from the throne. In 1460 Edward's father, Richard, duke of York, failed in a bid to supplant Henry VI and was killed in battle, but just a few months later 18-year-old Edward was acclaimed as King in London.

The first decade of Edward IV's reign saw him preoccupied with defeating residual opposition from those who remained loyal to the deposed King, and left him with only limited room to develop his own policies. Yet from 1471, when Edward was secure on his throne after overcoming an unholy alliance of the remaining Henrician loyalists with some of his own disaffected former allies, which had temporarily restored Henry VI to the throne, he had the necessary freedom to make his own mark.

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Domestic Government

An important concern was the enforcement of law and order in the English regions. The question of how to convert the abstract authority which the Crown conveyed to its officers into something akin to the very real power commanded by local landowners and nobles in their shires was one which confronted successive kings throughout the middle ages. The traditional answer to this question had been attempts to harness the local leadership to the Crown's cause by appointing its members and their retainers to office. The problem which this approach in turn generated was that it took a vigorous king to keep the magnates and gentry in check when they for their part offended, and even an active monarch could not be everywhere at once. It had been one of the consequences of Henry VI's incapacity that aristocratic feuding had become endemic. Edward IV did not in the first place abandon this traditional approach to local government. He did, however, set about impressing his personal authority throughout his realm: he went on frequent judicial progresses through the regions, personally assumed the judgment seat of the principal court of King's bench at Westminster, and asserted the authority of his Crown as vested in his justices in the shires by sending out with them royal servants wearing his livery and badges. …