Richard Plantagenet, third duke of York, 1411-1460

Childhood and Claim to the Throne
Early Career
Conflict with the Court
The First Protectorate
The Wars of the Roses

Richard Plantagenet, third duke of York (1411-1460), was a controversial figure who played a major part in the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, although his motives for opposing the Court party are unclear. His death in 1460 came just after he had been acknowledged as heir to the throne, and cleared the way for his rather more able son Edward, earl of March, to seize the throne as Edward IV.

Childhood and Claim to the Throne

York was descended from Edward III through both parents. His father, Richard, fourth earl of Cambridge, was the son of Edmund of Langley, first duke of York, the fourth son of Edward III. On this side his potential claim to the throne was thus worse than that of the Lancastrian kings, who were descended from John of Gaunt, the third son.

His mother, Anne Mortimer, was the great-granddaughter of Edward's second son, Lionel, duke of Clarence. Clarence's claim to the throne descended to the Mortimer family, and was technically better than that of the Lancastrians. Although others attempted to take advantage of the Mortimer claim, the direct Mortimer heirs were generally blameless.

Richard was born in 1411. His mother died in the following year, while his father was executed in 1415 after it was discovered that he was plotting to overthrow Henry V. It was claimed that he had intended to put Edmund (V) Mortimer, earl of March, on the throne. The infant Richard became a Royal ward, but he wasn't punished for his father's crimes. He was allowed to inherit his father's estates, and when his uncle Edward, duke of York, became the most senior English casualty at Agincourt, Richard was acknowledged as his heir.

In 1425 the last member of the direct Mortimer line, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, died. Richard of York inherited both the Mortimer claim to the throne and the vast estates of the earls of March. When combined with his own family estates this made York the wealthiest member of the Peerage, and gave him an impressive power-base in the Welsh borders.

Early in the reign of Henry VI York's the rights over York's wardship and marriage were sold to Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland (common practise at the time). In the mid 1420s York, still only a child, was married to Westmorland's daughter Cecily Neville, tying him into the powerful Neville family. Cecily was one of Westmorland's daughters with his second wife, Joan Beaufort. While the Westmorland title went to Ralph's oldest son by his first wife, much of the wealth went to his oldest son by Joan, Richard Neville, the future earl of Salisbury. This marriage would thus serve to give the Yorkist cause some of their most powerful allies.

Early Career

As would be expected for a young man of his rank, York spent much of his time at court. He was knighted by Henry VI in 1426, and accompanied the king to his coronation in France in 1430. On 12 Marcy 1432 he was allowed to take control of his inheritance, although at this stage large parts of the duchy of York were held by two dowager Duchesses. The two duchesses were dead within two years, and York was finally one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom.

In 1433 York was admitted to the Order of the Garter, and on 8 May 1436 he was appointed lieutenant of France, succeeding Henry V's brother John, duke of Bedford, who had died in the previous year. York's army didn't reach France until June, too late to stop the French from liberating Paris, but he did play a part in stopping any further advances. Actual command of the English army in France was delegated to John, Lord Talbot, who was able to save Rouen and with it Normandy. York seems to have focused on the political situation in Normandy, while Talbot and then the earl of Salisbury commanded the armies. His first spell in charge in France was fairly short. In the spring of 1437, with most of his troops due to return home, York asked to be allowed to follow them. He was ordered to remain in Normandy until his successor, Henry de Beauchamp, fourteenth earl of Warwick, arrived in November 1437. 

Warwick died in April 1439. Henry VI took some time to decide who to appoint, with several rival claimants for the post. Eventually York was chosen and was appointed on 2 July 1440. It then took York another year to actually reach France, arriving in June 1441. One he was there he did act more rapidly, moving to help Talbot lift the French siege of Pontoise. That appears to have been his main military activity during this second period in France, and most of his efforts were diplomatic.

This period also saw the start of the long feud with the earls of Somerset. In 1442 John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, was given command of an army that was to invade Brittany. The attack began in the summer of 1443 and was a costly failure. It drew funds and men away from Normandy, and also doomed York's attempts to gain more support in France. Fortunately for York the truce of Tours was agreed in May 1444, which ended the fighting, at least for the moment, greatly reducing his costs. York returned to England in September 1445, where he had to face a parliamentary investigation into his finances in Normandy.

Once again the court delayed appointing a new Lieutenant of France, and when the decision was finally made the post went to Edmund Beaufort, earl of Somerset (John Beaufort having died in 1444). In 1447 York was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland, a post that is often seen as an attempt to send him into exile. However the terms of his appointment were generous, he was allowed to appoint a deputy and return to England, and in the gap between his appointment and his departure to Ireland he was closely involved with the court.

In June 1449 York finally left for Ireland, where he was a major landowner. He was in Ireland for fourteen months and appears to have been an effective lieutenant. He campaigned in Wicklow, received the submission of most Irish leaders and established a popularity that would allow him to flee to Ireland after the humiliation at Ludford Bridge in 1459.

Conflict with the Court

Up until 1450 York appears to have been a loyal support of Henry VI and the court, but this changed in September 1450. The previous year had seen a disastrous collapse of the English position in Normandy. In 1449 Somerset had surrendered Rouen, in 1450 he surrendered Caen, and by the end of the year most of Normandy had been lost. Somerset should have returned to England in the deepest disgrace, but instead he remained in favour at court. York also saw Somerset's government debts being paid promptly, while his own remained unpaid for years (York's own income was around ten times higher than Somerset's, so this may have been an acknowledgment that Somerset simply couldn't afford to go unpaid).

We don't really know what motivated York to take up his opposition to the court party. The traditional historical view was that York was motivated by his dynastic interests and a desire to become King. As heir assumptive he could be forgive for seeing the loss of Normandy as the loss of part of his future kingdom. More recently historians have looked for personal feuds or anger over the high level of money he was owed. The fall of William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, Henry's chief minister, and his effective replacement by Somerset may have angered York, who as the heir presumptive and wealthiest member of the aristocracy could have legitimately expected to play a major role at court. He could also have been motivated by a genuine anger at Somerset's rather blatant failings in Normandy and Henry's failure to punish him for them.

In the summer of 1450 Kent rose in rebellion, under the leadership of Jack Cade. The revolt was partly inspired by the disasters in France, and partly by more traditional grievances. Cade also called himself Jack Mortimer, and this association led Henry's government to take seriously rumours of some connection between York and the revolt. At one point the rebels seized London, but they were forced out by the garrison of the Tower of London, and by mid July the worst of the revolt was over. The sense of crisis that it had generated took longer to fade, and the rumours associating York with the revolt may have played a major role in York's decision to leave Ireland.

York returned to England in September 1450. He sent a series of open letters to the King. In the first he proclaimed his loyalty to Henry VI. In the second he announced that he intended to seek justice against those who had accused him of being behind Cade's Rebellion or other disloyalties. In the third he claimed that justice was not being done and offered to help bring the guilty to justice, in particular the 'traitors' close to the king who many blamed for the collapse in Normandy and the disorder that followed. This was a direct attack on the court party, and on Somerset as effective leader of that party. York met with the King, and professed his loyalty, but there was no interest in his offer of help in 'restoring justice'. Henry responded with a proclamation of his own, rejecting the rule of a single courtier and instead preferring a council in which each peer had an equal voice. York had very little support amongst the senior aristocracy, and thus would have left him effectively powerless.

His last hope in 1450-51 was that Parliament was due to meet in November. York's chamberlain Sir William Oldhall was elected speaker. Somerset was imprisoned, but was then released during the Christmas recess. York's problem was that Parliament only had authority while it was sitting, while Henry had power whenever he chose to use it. When Parliament returned at the start of 1451 Thomas Young, a friend of Oldhall, presented a bill that called on Henry to recognise York as his heir. This met with an angry response - Young was jailed and parliament was dissolved. York's return to England had been a failure - his only real chance of success had been if Henry VI had sided with him, and when that didn't happen York had no constitutional way of gaining a permanent advantage.

Despite his failure at Parliament York continued to try and present himself as the agent of law and order. During 1451 the feud between Thomas Courtenay, twelfth earl of Devon and Lord Bonville of Chewton, erupted into violence. In September 1451 Courtenay and his ally Lord Cobham raised an army and besieged Bonville in Taunton Castle. Henry's government acted slowly, giving York the chance to raise a small army, march to Taunton, force Courtenay to lift the siege and Bonville to surrender the castle and the two men to make peace. This had two purposes - first it demonstrated that York was capable of acting as an important agent of Royal justice, and second it saved his ally Courtenay from the inevitable serious punishment if an actual Royal army had been needed to end the feud.

This success may have encouraged York's next move, which was to attempt an armed coup against the court party. He hoped to organises a series of revolts in his favour in towns across England, and then to lead an army to London where he would overthrow the court, 'rescue' Henry from evil advisors (a standard claim for medieval rebels), and establish himself as the chief minister.

This plan ended in total failure. There was very little popular support for York and only a few of his own towns rose for him. Even worse was the lack of support amongst the peerage - only Courtenay and Cobham accompanied York's army as it marched towards London in February 1452. He was denied entry to London. He then moved into Kent hoping to find some support amongst Cade's men, but the county remained quiet. At the same time Henry was able to raise a much more powerful army, containing most of the peers. Perhaps the most significant of them were the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick, soon to be York's main supporters, but not yet ready to rebel against their legitimate King. The two sides faced each other at Dartford, and it soon became clear to York that his expedition was a failure. His only hope of survival was to come to terms with Henry.

There are two versions of York's submission. In one York is said to have believed that the King had agreed to arrest Somerset and investigate his activities in France. Only when York entered the Royal tent did he realise that Somerset was still in favour. Given Henry's strong position it seems unlikely that he would have agreed to turn on his key advisor, and the alternative version, in which York simply agreed to submit without any agreement over Somerset, seems more likely.

York was very lightly treated after what was in effect a failed revolt. He had to swear an oath of submission in front of a great assembly at St Paul's, and some of his tenants and supporters were later tried for their role in the revolt. On 10 March York was released and allowed to return to his estates, where he remained in obscurity for the next eighteen months.

York's fate was now out of his hands. In October 1452 John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, recaptured Bordeaux, the first good news from France in many years. Early in 1453 Queen Margaret became pregnant. Henry's position was apparently more secure than it had been for years, but this respite would be short-lived. On 17 July 1453 Talbot was defeated and killed at Castillon, the last battle of the Hundred Years War. Gascony was lost, and the once-vast English empire in France was now reduced to Calais. This news reached court in August 1453, and triggered Henry VI's first mental breakdown.

The First Protectorate

Henry's breakdown took the form of total immobility, with an inability to communicate. He was effectively removed from the political scene with no idea of if or when he might recover. His breakdown took place at the Royal hunting lodge at Clarendon, and for the next two months the King was kept there while the government continued to operate as if all was well. Somerset and the court party knew that it would be almost impossible to deny York the position as head of the Royal council or even Protector of the Realm, but events soon forced their hands.

The most critical threat to Somerset's rule came in the north, where a feud between the Neville and Percy families broke out into open fighting. On 24 August 1453 on Heworth Moor an army led by Thomas Percy, Lord Egremont, attacked a Neville wedding party (the bride would eventually inherit lands that had been lost by the Percies after the first earl of Northumberland and his son Hotspur had rebelled against Henry IV, and this marriage would have brought former Percy lands into Neville hands).

Fortunately the Nevilles were well armed and were able to fight off the attack, but in the aftermath conflict broke out across the north of England. The two estates were intertwined across the north, so there was plenty of opportunity for local raiding. The Council seemed unable to act. In mid-October both sides raised their full armies and came close to blows between Topcliffe and Sandhutton in North Yorkshire. This crisis forced the Royal Council to invite York to join their discussions. The same month saw the birth of Prince Edward (on 13 October), but sadly even the presence of his new son had no impact on Henry. York was no longer heir to the throne, but he was soon the most important man on the council. He was also able to form a firm alliance with the Nevilles, who were angered that the council had failed to punish the Percies for their attack on the wedding party.  They agreed to support York against Somerset, in return for his support against the Percies. Late in 1453 Somerset was confined to the Tower and the charges against him revived yet again.

In February 1454 Parliament met. Queen Margaret attempted to get herself appointed regent for her husband, with sweeping powers. The council found her even less palatable than York. On 25 March they sent a mission to Henry to try and get some sort of answer from the king. When this failed they were left with little choice other than to appoint York as Protector and Defender of the Realm (27 March).

Soon after York's appointment the crisis in the north deepened. Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, the grandson of Henry IV's sister, wanted to be protector. He allied with the Percies, and on 14 May they seized York, marking the start of a short-lived revolt. York reacted quickly. Five days later he was approaching York. The rebels fled, but their actions may have been premature. For once York had moved too quickly, and for the rest of May he was virtually besieged in York. Finally in June reinforcements arrived and he was able to restore order across much of the north. Exeter fled to London, and attempted to find sanctuary, but was arrested and imprisoned at Pontefract. Egremont evaded capture until 31 October or 1 November, when he was defeated and captured by the Nevilles at Stamford Bridge.

York has generally been judged positively for his rule during the First Protectorate. He attempted to rule through a fairly broadly based council. He could be said to have taken sides in the north, but the Percies had put themselves in a very vulnerable position and it is hard to imagine any strong government acting much differently. 

At Christmas 1454 Henry VI abruptly recovered his sanity and the balance of power shifted. On 4 February 1455 Somerset was released. On 9 February 1455 York's term as Protector officially ended. In March Salisbury resigned as Chancellor. The balance of power on the council turned against York when Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, ended a long period of political neutrality and threw his weight behind the court faction.

The Wars of the Roses

After Henry's recovery York and his allies had good reasons to fear that they would soon come under attack. In the spring of 1455 York, Salisbury and Warwick abruptly left court without officially taking their leave of the court. Their suspicions were probably valid. Somerset decided to hold a great council at Leicester on 21 May to 'provide for the King's safety'. York and his supporters saw this as a direct attack on them, and it is possible that they would have been arrested at the council. The summons went out in mid-April, and the Yorkists responded by raising an army which they then led south towards London.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

Somerset and the court party were caught entirely by surprise. They hadn't expected an open revolt, and were forced to try and raise an army quickly. On 21 May they left London and moved towards St. Albans, where they hoped to wait for reinforcements. York and his allies moved too fast for the Court. An exchange of letters between the two sides revealed that the Yorkists were fairly close by, but it was only on the morning of 22 May that they realised that their enemies were already camped outside St. Albans. The Royal army moved into the town and prepared a defensive position while negotiations went on. Eventually these failed, and the Yorkists attacked.

The first battle of St. Albans (22 May 1455) was the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, but it was a small-scale affair. The Lancastrians had a strong position in St. Albans, but they were outnumbered. Eventually the Yorkists managed to breach their defences and get into the central market place. Henry VI was wounded and forced to take refuge in a tanner's cottage before reaching the relative safety of the Abbey. Northumberland and Lord Clifford were killed in the fighting. Somerset was trapped in the Castle Inn and killed while making a final sortie.

In the aftermath of this victory York still acknowledged Henry as his king and assured him of his loyalty. Henry had little choice other than to officially pardon York, and on the day after the battle York and Henry returned to London.

York gained surprisingly little long term benefit from his victory at St. Albans. When Parliament met in November he was appointed Protector for a second time, but this Second Protectorate was very short-lived. Henry may have suffered from a second illness, but if so he recovered much more quickly and on 25 February 1456 he came into Parliament and formally ended the Protectorate. By the summer of 1456 Queen Margaret had convinced Henry to leave London, and York's power slowly declined. Even so Henry was still determined to maintain the peace, as were a number of important peers. After prolonged negotations the two sides came together at the 'Loveday' of 24 March 1458. York, Salisbury and Warwick agreed to found a chantry to pray for the souls of the dead at St. Albans while their heirs made peace with the Yorkists. York marched into St. Pauls arm in arm with Queen Margaret.

The Loveday agreement had very little impact. One of the few of York's appointments to have been kept was that of earl of Warwick as Captain of Calais, where his acknowledged military experience was invaluable. During 1458 Queen Margaret had made sure that Warwick was under-paid, and in response he conducted a campaign of piracy against neutral shipping to pay his men. In October 1458 Warwick was summoned to London to answer charges of piracy, but the meeting descended into a brawl. Warwick managed to escape to his barge, and then to Calais, from where he claimed that the Queen had attempted to have him murdered. In contrast she demanded his arrest for starting the brawl. Warwick's brazen behaviour convinced many of the previously neutral nobles to side with the court, and during the first part of 1459 the court began to prepare for war.

In June 1459 a Great Council was called at Coventry, but with the Yorkists excluded. Queen Margaret used the council to lay charges against the Yorkists, who responded by planning their own meeting. In September Warwick left Calais with part of the garrison and sailed for England. York went to the Welsh borders and Salisbury to the north. Despite the best efforts of several Lancastrian armies the Yorkists were able to unite their forces, but they were still outnumbered. After a short campaign the Yorkists retreated to Ludlow, with the Lancastrians following from the south. The Yorkist army took up a strong defensive position at Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459), but that night the strongest part of the Calais garrison changed sides. Apparently they had been promised that they would not have to fight the King in person, but the Royal Standard was flying over the Lancastrian army. On the night of 12-13 October the Yorkist leaders, realised that they had lost, fled from Ludlow.

York, along with his second son Edmund, earl of Rutland, escaped to Ireland. Salisbury, Warwick and York's first son, Edward, earl of March, eventually reached Calais. The Lancastrians were secure in England, but they were unable to do much about Ireland or Calais. They were even unable to prevent Warwick from sailing to Ireland and back to meet with York.

In June 1460 the Yorkists at Calais landed in Kent. After passing through London they caught up with the Lancastrians at Northampton (10 July 1460), and inflicted a crushing defeat on them. Henry VI was captured, and the Yorkists appeared to have won control of the government. The only problem was that York himself was still in Ireland.

We don't know why it took York so long to join his supporters in England. He finally landed near Chester on around 9 September, and made his way towards London. This time he was determined to claim the throne for himself. On 10 October York marched into the Parliament chamber and placed his hand on the King's chair, clearly expected to be acclaimed as king. Instead he was met by an embarrassed silence. It was clear that there was little support for any attempt to depose Henry VI. Eventually York's allies convinced him to back down, and on 31 October the Act of Accord was agreed. Henry VI was to remain on the throne, but Prince Edward was dispossessed and Richard of York became heir to the throne.

York would have very little time to enjoy his triumph. The removal of Prince Edward gave the Lancastrians a clear cause, less controversial than attempts to support a clearly incompetent monarch. Revolts broke out around the country, most seriously in the north, where Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland and Henry Beaufort, third duke of Somerset combined their forces and gained control of most of the area. Wales also rose against the Yorkists.

The Yorkists decided to split their forces. Edward, earl of March, went west to raise a force in the Marches. Warwick stayed in London to guard Henry VI. York and Salisbury went north to deal with the main threat. For once York appears to have moved too quickly. He struggled to reach the safety of his castle at Sandal, but may have been badly short of supplies, and was clearly outnumbered by the Lancastrians. After celebrating a muted Christmas at Sandal, York decided to act. On 30 December 1460 he decided to attack a nearby Lancastrian force (battle of Wakefield). York appears to have fallen into a trap. His army was outnumbered and surrounded. Richard, duke of York, was killed in the fighting, as was the earl of Salisbury. Edmund Plantagenet, earl of Rutland, was killed after the battle. Their heads were then placed over the gate of York, and York was given a mocking paper crown. 

Despite this disaster the Yorkist cause wasn't dead. Warwick suffered a second defeat, at St. Albans (17 February 1461), where his army was destroyed and he lost Henry VI, but on the Welsh borders the young Edward of March was proving to be rather more capable. He defeated the Welsh Lancastrians at Mortimer's Cross (2 February 1461) then moved to London. He was able to beat the Lancastrians into the city, where he was proclaimed king as Edward IV. On 29 March 1461 he won the battle of Towton, firmly establishing him on the throne only three months after his father had died in battle.


York is a rather difficult figure to judge. He clearly had some diplomatic and political ability, and was fairly successful in France and popular in Ireland. He had a legitimate cause for anger after the collapse of the English position in Normandy, but his real motives for his decision to turn against the court in 1450 are unclear. He was operating in a very difficult environment, under a weak monarch who normally displayed little or no interest in the workings of his government. This was a world in which accusations and rumour could result in the downfall of even the most powerful, as William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk found in 1450 or Humphrey, duke of Gloucester before him. York may simply have felt that inactivity was more dangerous than action once his name was associated with the Cade rebellion.

Throughout his career there are moments when he acted very slowly, perhaps most notably when he took two months to return to England in 1460, while on other occasions he moved too fast (again 1460 provides two examples, first with his botched claim to the throne and then with his decision to attack the Lancastrians at Wakefield). His reputation is poor, and he is often seen as the classic 'over-mighty subject', whose personal ambition triggered the Wars of the Roses, but this may be a little unfair - if he had demonstrated a little better judgement in 1460 then he may well have survived to become an alternative 'Richard III', and the founder of a dynasty rather than as an unsuccessful disturber of the peace.

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: Wars of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 January 2014), Richard Plantagenet, third duke of York, 1411-1460 ,

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