The Yorkist Kings & Foreign Policy

By Lewis, Jonathan | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Yorkist Kings & Foreign Policy


Lewis, Jonathan, History Review


The Yorkists have suffered from a lack of attention at A Level due, in part, to the fame of their illustrious successors, the Tudors. Traditionally textbooks have looked at them merely to unravel their role in the Wars of the Roses or to discuss the infamy of Richard III. Little has been made of the influence that Edward IV and Richard III had on the establishment of that Lancastrian and Yorkist hybrid, the House of Tudor, and even less attention has been paid to the role that foreign policy played in the downfall of the Yorkists and the rise of Henry Tudor. This is perhaps most obviously demonstrated in regard to the Yorkist kings' alienation of France in 1470 and 1485, when Edward lost his throne and Richard his life, both to a pretender supported by a French King anxious to quash any threat from England. This article will demonstrate that one of the main reasons for Henry VII's success at Bosworth was the foreign policy of Edward IV and his brother Richard III during the period 1461 -- 1485.

Background

The Yorkist Kings inherited a dual legacy in foreign policy -- both successful, due to the aggressive Henry V, and disappointing, since Henry VI was weak and did not share his father's love of battle. Not only were the Yorkist kings the latest in a line of monarchs who, according to the recognised expert on their period, Charles Ross, `appeared to the French Kings as potential conquerors of their realm, especially when aided by Burgundy', but they had to appeal to a population disheartened by Henry VI's weakness in foreign affairs and also to the powerful merchants of London. In addition, Edward IV had to deal with probably the shrewdest king in Europe, Louis XI of France. All of these factors combined to create a situation made all the more volatile by Edward's choice of wife and his subsequent relationship with the megalomaniac Earl of Warwick.

Edward IV 1461-1470

Edward IV was concerned with foreign affairs almost immediately after his coronation on 28th June 1461. As Ross argues, `the aged Charles VII of France had shown some favour to the Lancastrian cause' with his actions towards Jersey in May 1461, when the French established themselves on the island. This seems to indicate aggressive intentions against Edward, especially when combined with Charles's friendliness towards associates of the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou such as Pierre de Breze. Edward, like his brother in 1483, was vulnerable to foreign intervention immediately after his usurpation.

The early years of Edward's reign were made more difficult by relationships with Scotland. For the Scots offered a refuge to Henry VI and Margaret; and, in league with Louis XI, they were involved in the almost farcical attempted invasion of England by Margaret in October 1462. Furthermore, the Scots invaded the North in June 1463, only to be beaten back by Warwick and Lord Montagu. It is fair to assume that such events made Edward IV ever more aware that a major threat to his newly formed dynasty came from foreign support for claimants to the throne.

By late 1463 events became more favourable to the Yorkists, as the Scots came to terms and a truce was signed in October between England, France and Burgundy. Although this point is sometimes overlooked, it is important as it gave Edward time to consolidate his control over the nobility and lessen the threat of a Lancastrian rebellion. (This was a luxury that, later, Richard III never achieved in his short reign and serves to highlight the importance of foreign policy when internal events were not stabilised and the monarch's rule not fully established.)

By the mid-1460s Edward IV was more secure on the throne, partially due to the signing of a 15-year truce with Scotland and discussions of a French marriage alliance with Louis. However, it is well documented that Edward decided against such a marriage and, as Ross states, `made the first major blunder of his political career' by marrying Elizabeth Woodville in April 1464. …

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