Henry IV, as Plantagenet historian Thomas B. Costain put it, was "a sick king and a dull reign". Indeed, his usurpation of the throne from Richard II proved to be the highlight of his career. Suffering from what some think may have been leprosy, he spent his years on the throne fretting about someone else doing the same thing he had done and shoving him off it. There was rebellion in Wales, rebellion by the mighty Percy family of Northumberland who had assisted Henry to his regal seat, and his heir, also Henry, did the equivalent of modern royals falling out of nightclubs, seemed disinterested in government, and quarreled with his father incessantly.
Prince Hal (as immortalized by Shakespeare) did a complete turnaround once his father was dead, morphing into the mighty warrior king and hero of Agincourt who chevauchee'd his way through France and got its insane king, Charles VI, to declare Henry V as the next French king by virtue of his marriage to the youngest daughter of the House of Valois, Catherine (sister of the child queen Isabella who had married Richard II and who had defiantly refused to wed the heir of her husband's alleged murderer). Henry's grand conquest went for naught when he died at the age of thirty-three, leaving his nine month old son, also (tiresomely) Henry, as the next King of England, with the governing and conquering left to a regency council that failed at both.
In the feudal system, where rank was bestowed by accident of birth, merit was not a necessity but simply a happy bonus. More often, power was handed to the merely competent, whose weaknesses were tempered by the advice of wise council.
It's difficult not to feel sorry for Henry VI, who was born facing so many difficulties and with so little capacity to cope with them. Henry was deeply pious and devout, excessively sensitive, and fundamentally naive. Any man who could establish a political position near him might have total control of the government, for Henry would usually acquiesce to anything demanded of him. In addition to lacking guile, he lacked intelligence. He was essentially a simple man, ill equipped to deal with the complications of international or domestic politics.
To add to this disastrous combination, he inherited mental instability from his maternal grandfather of France. Though perhaps not a certifiable madman (Grandpa used to have fits where he thought he was made of glass and would shatter), he was still subject to periodic bouts of catatonia. It was an added factor which made him unfit to govern.
The real problem in England in the mid 15th century was that the two most powerful men in the land were miscast in their roles. Henry VI was dwarfed by the obligations of the throne, while by contrast, no duchy was large enough to contain Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York.
Ironically, if the royal family tree had been able to flourish unchecked, it might have yielded good fruit. Though the laws of inheritance had never been formalized, by all precedents, the Duke of York was the rightful king. His mother, Anne Mortimer, was a granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp, second son of Edward III.
The reigning Henry VI, being descended from King Edward's third son, John of Gaunt, had a clearly inferior claim. York was the rightful king both by birth and by aptitude.
But the political status quo was difficult to challenge, for the crown held great reverence, as suited the people's perception of their king as God's chosen representative. The man sitting on the throne was perceived to be there by God's will, and the dictates of God were more important than those of birth. Very strict, unwritten rules had to be followed to not only unseat a monarch, but to disrupt the direct line of primogeniture, and its difficulty can be seen in the fact that it had only been successfully achieved once, by Henry VIs grandfather, Henry IV.
York was not a power-mad magnate. He had no overt designs on the throne. This was not to say that he was content to remain quietly in his lands and have no say in politics, and indeed, the Wars of the Roses largely resumed as a result of the conspiracies to exclude York from a role in the government. But for York to expect this was not self-serving or unreasonable, for he was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, and deserved to be recognized as such.
He was not without political expertise, but too often failed to make the necessary masterstroke to ensure his victories. The York question was the chief problem facing the courtiers who attached themselves to Henry VI. He was clearly a dangerous upstart with the potential to shake up the existing power structure in England, and would best be handled by being shunted out of the way.
Thus, in 1436, the king's council sent him overseas to serve as Regent of France, in hopes of salvaging the crumbling situation in the English possessions on the Continent. It was a thankless task, made more so by the king's reluctance to send any financial support. Repeated complaints to the king for reimbursement yielded no results. Furious, York refused to take a second term of office when his appointment expired.
As the balance of power shifted on the fields of France (largely thanks to Joan of Arc, whom the English burned as a heretic after she was captured by their Burgundian allies), so did the balance of power shift in the English court. A vocal party supporting an end to the war had emerged, led by the crafty Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the king's half-uncle via John of Gaunt's liaison with Catherine Swynford. Joining the Cardinal was William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, the Steward of the King's Household.
Opposing these two was the faction of the king's full uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest brother of Henry V. For years, the Cardinal and the Duke grappled in the council chamber, but Beaufort was too devious for his opponent to match. In 1441, he abruptly arranged to have Humphrey's wife Eleanor arrested and tried for witchcraft (it seems that she was actually engaged in attempts to divine her husband's future, a practice which seem to have aided her little).
Eleanor was exiled, and Humphrey's reputation was shattered. The peace party gained influence over the easily led king, and negotiations began for a treaty with France. Suffolk‘s plan was to arrange a marriage alliance between the king and a French noblewoman, which would engender a truce and halt the French advances into English territory.
The bride he hit upon was the young and fiery Margaret of Anjou, the French king's niece. She was the daughter of René of Anjou, who was in theory King of Naples, Sicily, Jerusalem, and Hungary, though his presence as a hanger-on in the French court belied his vast territorial claims. In the Treaty of Tours the two nations settled upon a two-year truce with the possibility of an eventual peace, and the English gained a bride for their king. It was only after negotiations were well underway that René made it clear that he had no real dowry to give with his daughter. Queens were supposed to arrive bearing thousands of crowns or at least some territory for her new husband, so Suffolk's acceptance of Margaret astounded and angered everyone, more so when after the period of truce the French resumed hostilities. The new queen had brought England nothing.
Margaret, though only fifteen, was shrewd enough to quickly size up the English political situation. She soon gathered around her a cadre of allies, the top men being Suffolk and the Cardinal's nephew Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset (son of John Beaufort, Gaunt's eldest by Catherine Swynford). Margaret and Somerset seemed unusually close and whispers began that they were having an affair behind the unsuspecting Henry's back. Convinced that the Duke of York was a threat, she did all she could to alienate him from the easily led king. Within months of her arrival, the teenage Queen Margaret was the real power in England.
The nobility was livid. Discontent was about to reach a bursting point. A woman and her lackeys were dominating Henry VI, and governmental corruption could be seen on all levels, all across the land. Gloucester, in exile with his wife and given the thankless task of Regent of France, and Somerset, who had the military command after the deaths of the king's more martial uncles (John, Duke of Bedford and Thomas, Duke of Clarence), were losing ground. Meanwhile, Suffolk gave himself, with the queen's approval, the lucrative posts of Lord Chamberlain of England, Captain of Calais, Warden of the Cinque Ports and Chief Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Suffolk, betrayed by Parliament, hated by the people, with no friends left except the still loyal queen, was suddenly politically isolated and made the scapegoat. In 1449 he was brought to trial on various charges of treason and corruption. His sentence was exile. The Earl was attacked by a mob when he went home to collect his belongings for his departure, narrowly escaping through a back exit. It was to do him little good. On his voyage to France he was waylaid, captured, put in a small boat, and decapitated after several blows to the neck from a rusty sword. His body was left to rot on the shore near Dover.
Suffolk was a martyr for the inept king and the grasping queen. Though he embodied their selfish, secluded form of government, he was not the source of it, and his death would resolve little. It would take greater men to put England under firm guidance again.
Many believed it was a task only Richard, Duke of York, could undertake. He was now in Dublin, having been appointed Lieutenant of Ireland in a bid to keep him out of governmental affairs.
In 1450 the volatile citizenry of Kent moved to march on London, led by Jack Cade, who had assembled a list of demands for government reform. Henry moved to meet these rebels, ordering them to disperse. His army consisted of 20,000 men to 5,000 rebels, a sure rout for Jack Cade's Rebellion.
With his usual bungling, however, Henry split his army into two, with one battalion to remain around him as an escort. The rebels stood firm against the onslaught, and the royal army fled. The terrified king retreated to Greenwich while the triumphant Cade led his men on to London.
The expected ransacking and chaos followed, reaching a climax when the dissidents surrounded the Tower of London and insisted that the royal Treasurer, Lord Say, be released to them. Their demands were met, and Say was executed after a mock trial. His head was placed on a pike and carried around the city. Eventually the government of London organized to repel the invaders, and after a heated battle on London Bridge, the rebels were pushed out of the gate, dispersing into the countryside. Many were captured and executed at the infamous "Harvest of Heads".
Meanwhile, the French had taken all of Normandy save for the port of Calais, and were advancing into the old English stronghold of Aquitaine. The loss of Normandy had largely been the result of the ineptitude of Somerset's command.
York had had quite enough of this. He began to consolidate support. In 1452 he went so far as to bring a large armed presence to the walls of London, where he was met by a similar force led by the king. The two stared each other down for a time; York not wishing to assault his sovereign, Henry not wishing to enrage so powerful a vassal. Eventually the two met for a parley, where York demanded the dismissal of Somerset. When Margaret learned the news, she rushed to her husband's side, refusing to accept any potential compromise.
In August 1453, Henry, never particularly lucid at the best of times, finally fell prey to the family insanity. His sickness took the form of withdrawal from the surrounding world. He had neither physical nor mental capacity, incapable of speech, movement, or any other acknowledgement of the surrounding world. Doctors were summoned to assist with the finest barbarities that medieval medicine could manage, but nothing changed Henry's condition. In desperation the queen sent for exorcists, but the king's inner demons proved too stubborn even for that.
A month after the king succumbed to his madness, after seven years of marriage Margaret gave birth to a long-awaited heir, Edward of Lancaster, a child his father could not acknowledge. She was forced to contend with with the cares of government, motherhood, Yorkist unrest, and the need to keep the king's condition hidden from York. Eventually, the secret came out and a regent had to be nominated. York was the natural choice, and in March he was given the title Protector of the Realm.
It was not to last, however. On Christmas Day the king abruptly returned to his senses. He was bewildered to learn he had a sixteen-month-old son and marveled that Edward must have been brought by the Holy Ghost, forever casting aspersions on the boy's legitimacy. It was rumored Edward was Somerset's son, not Henry's.
York was forced to retire his position. Wishing to eliminate her rival once and for all, Margaret manipulated Henry into calling a council of nobles, summoning York and his affiliates to pay homage to the King. York believed this invitation was a setup for arrest and exile, and decided the time had come to take up arms. Thus, the first military confrontation of the Wars of the Roses came into being.
York once again marched onto London, with strong allies. These took the form of the Nevilles, Richard, Earl of Salisbury, and his son, Richard, Earl of Warwick. Salisbury was York's brother-in-law, half-brother of his wife Cecily Neville, and thus bound to by ties of kinship.
More importantly, for family loyalty could be cheap in this era, the Nevilles were alienated from the king, just as York was. Through good fortune in inheritance and marriage to a great heiress (Anne de Beauchamp), Warwick had become the largest landowner in England, and was possessed of charisma and flair, with a military dash that appealed to the common people.
Although he was reconciled to an armed conflict, York had no intention of pushing his superior claim to the throne. His primary goal was to protect Henry from the corrupting influence of the queen and Somerset, and he wrote up a proclamation to this effect. He sent this to the king, but Somerset intercepted it before Henry could read it.
As the royal army approached that of York's, some might have seen the confrontation as simply a retread of the Duke's abortive campaign of 1452. If they were expecting the tensions to fizzle out as they had then, they were soon to be proven wrong.