Magazine article History Today

Percies, Nevilles, and the Wars of the Roses

Magazine article History Today

Percies, Nevilles, and the Wars of the Roses

Article excerpt

Anthony Pollard explains how the rivalry of two great Northern families contributed to civil war in fifteenth-century England.

Of all the feuds that beset England in the mid-fifteenth century that between the Percy and Neville families in northern England is the most infamous. A contemporary identified it as |the beginning of the greatest sorrows in England' and many historians since have perceived it as the critical element in converting factionalism at court into civil war in the kingdom at large. And indeed a direct link between events in Yorkshire in 1453 and 1454, the first battle of St Albans in 1455, and the battles of 1459-61 can be demonstrated. The Wars of the Roses, as they unfolded, were both a contest between the houses of Lancaster and York and a feud between the families of Percy and Neville. But in several respects the character and scale of the feud in the north has been misinterpreted and its real political significance misunderstood.

It has been widely assumed that the Percies were the more important of the two families in the fifteenth century, |strutting the northern shires like kings'. The ultimate source of the misconception, that the north knew no prince but a Percy, lies in Lord Hunsden's much misquoted remark to William Cecil, made in the immediate aftermath of the Rising of the Northern Earls in 1569, that at that particular moment of rebellion, |Northumberland knows no prince but a Percy'. Other testimonies to Percy importance, such as the remarks made by Thomas Peeris in the early sixteenth century, or by John Hardyng in 1463, can be shown to be the flattery or special pleading of loyal servants. The actual situation of the Percy family for all but a few years of the fifteenth century was anything but regal. The only Percy to have ruled the north like a prince was the first earl who died in disgrace in 1408. By artful and single-minded political manoeuvring he made himself the principal power in the north in the reign of Richard II and then, by his timely support for Henry IV in 1399, its master. For a brief while his family, including his brother Thomas, Earl of Worcester and son, Hotspur, were indispensable. But the Percies overreached themselves and rebellion in 1403 and 1405 led to disaster. Condemned for treason in 1405, and his estates forfeited, the earl fled to Scotland. His grandson and heir was restored by Henry V in 1416, but was never able to recover all the family estates or to secure the power and authority enjoyed by the first earl.

Indeed, only once more in the fifteenth century was an earl of Northumberland able to hold sway in the north; in the exceptional circumstances of the eighteen months of civil war between October 1459 and March 1461. But the defeat and death of the third earl at Towton led to attainder and forfeiture for a second time in the century and the fourth earl, though restored by Edward IV in 1471, was kept on tight rein by successive kings until his murder during a tax riot in 1489. The earls of Northumberland in the sixteenth century looked back wistfully to an imagined age when they ruled the north, but in reality they had only ruled it in the later part of the lifetime of the first earl at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It was not the power of the family, but its survival in the male line despite all that had happened to it that was remarkable.

The true princes of the north in the fifteenth century were not the Percies but the Nevilles, or to be more precise, the Nevilles of Middleham. The founder of the family's fortunes was Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, who died in 1425. Unlike the first earl of Northumberland, he was the retainer of the house of Lancaster, but, more importantly his second countess was Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and half-sister of Henry IV.

Unswervingly loyal to the first three Lancastrians, Neville was instrumental in holding the north secure for Henry [V during the Percy rebellions and was the principal beneficiary of their fall. …

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