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History of Wakefield Battles 1886 - Chapter 1


The Rise of Feudalism and the Troubles of Succession.

The Britons, who had lived in peace under Roman protection, were in a wretched plight when that was withdrawn, the Picts and Scots, Danish and German pirates harassing our forefathers both by land and sea, so that a Saxon Heptarchy secured a deliverance from incessant war and pillage, only the little kings quarrelled, and so we find the Danes, and then the Saxons ruling the country, till Earl Godwin, leading a revolt against Edward the Confessor (who favoured Norman friends with whom he had lived when abroad), asked the aid of his old friend William, Duke of Normandy and his father-in-law, and the King appointed him heir to the throne. When Edward was dead and buried in the Abbey at Westminster he had erected, and Godwin's son Harold ruled, the Norman Duke appeared at Hastings to claim the crown as his legacy, and the issue was in his favour.

The Domesday Book is a register of lands held by his vassals, and throws light on the Feudal system, which was the basis of his Government,-a system that was adapted to the times and had its merits, though repugnant to Nineteenth Century notions.

William the Conqueror was succeeded by William Rufus, his third son, and he by his youngest brother, Henry I., whose daughter married Henry V. of Germany, and, being left a widow in six months, she wedded Geoffrey Plantaganet (aged 16), at the instance of his father; but Stephen (the third son of Adela, the Conqueror's daughter) claimed the crown, and proved the stronger. He left the throne to the grandson of Henry I., who, uniting in himself the claims of the Norman and Saxon lines, as ascended the throne with the general approval of the nation. His was a prosperous reign of 34 years, but his last days were troubled by the opposition of his wife and sons. His eldest son Richard spent much of his time in the Crusades, and adopted his brother John as his heir, when his eldest brother Geoffrey had left a son, Arthur, who soon made his claims known. John reigned 18 years, and his eldest son was Henry III., whose long reign was marred by contention with the Barons. His eldest son, Edward I., reigned five years, and conquered Wales. Edward II, was the only son, and succeeded him. He was weak and quite incapacitated for his position. His wife was the cause of his downfall, and of his tragic death in Berkeley Castle. The chief design of his eldest son, Edward III., was to conquer France. He was the father of the Black Prince, and the institutor of the Order of the Garter.

The Black Prince left one legitimate son, who succeeded to the throne as Richard II. in 1377. Edward III. had six sons besides the Black Prince, and from two of these arose afterwards the Houses of York and Lancaster. One of his daughters, Maud, married Henry, Duke of Saxony, and thus became the ancestor of the family now holding the British crown. Richard lost his head in Pontefract Castle, (This is the popular account, but some authors say that he died in Scotland.) having been overthrown by Henry, Duke of Lancaster (son of the great John of Gaunt), on account of his despotism, and the victor reigned in his stead.

The Parliament of 1385 declared that Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, should be successor in case of no issue to the King, as he was the lineal descendant of the third son of Edward III., by his mother Phillipa. Henry V., as son of Henry IV., however, became monarch, although Roger's son, Edward, created a rebellion in his favour.

We now approach the quarrel in which we are specially concerned.

Richard, Earl of Cambridge, the youngest son of Edmund, Duke of York, uncle of Richard II. and Henry IV., married a sister of the Earl of March, and thus the claims derived from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the third son of Edward III., passed into the family of Edmund, Duke of York, fifth son of Edward III., according to the law of primogeniture, which was not then acknowledged.

Henry V. left one son, afterwards Henry VI., whose mother Catherine married Owen Tudor, a gentleman of Wales, and thus arose the line of the Tudors. The successor to Henry V. was but nine months old, and after a regency he came to power in 1431. In 1444 he married the beautiful and high spirited Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou and Maine.

The young king gave early indication of a weak intellect, but had the support of the Duke of Gloucester and his uncle Cardinal Beaufort, when ambition stirred the heart of Richard, Duke of York, a descendant through his mother of Edward III., she being a great grand-daughter of the king. The loss of French provinces by concession caused discontent, and the axe fell upon the neck of the Duke of Suffolk (a great supporter of the reigning monarch), he having advised the cession of Anjou and Maine. Henry tried to punish the murderers of Suffolk, but was defeated by Jack Cade and the rebels of Kent, with whom the feeble King was unable to cope.

The Duke of York seized the opportunity to rally forces with a view of obtaining the throne. The King (who had a son) favoured Somerset, who was blamed for the loss of Normandy, and had failed in his attempt to recover Guienne. At this critical time, Henry's weak mind became insane, and so the reins of government were thrown into the hands of the Pretender, by popular consent, as Protector, till Henry recovered, and then his relative thought he would try to get by force the Kingship he had now to relinquish. So began the war of the Roses - so called because the ensign of the House of York was a white rose, and that of the House of Lancaster a red one. Both the King and his rival descended from Edward, third son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the latter from his fourth son, Edward, Duke of York. Into the merits of the conflict I need not enter. Even if the Duke of York could show a more valid title to the crown, we could not justify the bloody civil war that followed, in the rash attempt of the rival which proved successful, though that rival fell at Wakefield; but his fall led to the rise of his son (the fair and brave Earl of March), a youth of 19, to the pinnacle of glory denied to his father.

The country was in a state of turmoil. Loss of possessions and prestige angered the people, and the two rival Houses fomented conspiracies against each other.

The Duke of York grew in popular favour by means of his sagacity and prowess, coupled with his clever plots; as the King was unfortunate in everything he laid his hand to. Failure is said to be worse than a crime, in the code of worldly wisdom, and certainly the Fates fought against the King. It is a French proverb, "Whom the gods mean to destroy - they first make demented" - a kind sort of preparation, and the holder of the sceptre had proved his inability to manage men and State affairs.

The Duke of York became a "suspect" of the Court, and to get rid of him was the question. Following a biblical example he was sent to Ireland to quell a disturbance, in the hope that he might fall at the hands of the Fenians of that day; but he conquered. Then it was said he was preparing in the Emerald Isle to invade England;-any story is better than none when you want to end a troublesome existence-and the King sent orders to the sheriffs of Wales, Shropshire, and Cheshire, to oppose the landing of an hostile force. "Truth is stronger than fiction," but fiction is often more truthful than history. I should not like to vouch for all the statements I pen, because no two histories agree.

Partizanship and bigotry have coloured all the old annals, as may be seen by a comparison of them. Nevertheless, most authors of eminence - and I have avoided no trouble to test their accuracy - agree that the suspected Duke sent to the occupant of the throne a message, complaining of the designs against him, and the King was wary enough to return a polite answer; still the decree was not annulled, and the Duke, having fulfilled his mission in Ireland as a subjugator, returned to London. Here he rejoined his political conclave - the Earl of Salisbury, his son (Earl of Warwick), John Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Devonshire, and the Earl of Cobham. It was agreed that the Pretender should retire into Wales, the stronghold of the family of March, there awaiting advice from the metropolis, in the end "kindly" counselling the Court to get rid of the Duke of Somerset as the Jonah in the State ship. This was done. From his Welsh castle the Duke of York sent a letter to his Majesty, replete with loyal and fraternal compliments and assurances, apprising him of the "fact" that the nation was discontented and miserable on account of the misrule which allowed traitors to work their fell designs with impunity, and that if there was not a change of Government his diadem would be in imminent peril, and the country be involved in all the horrors of civil war. Such was the purport of the epistle, the writer graciously tendering his services to accomplish the end suggested.

When a certain King, in Old Testament times, approached the Jewish monarch, he perceived a covert aim under the ambush of diplomacy and chicanery, and the Duke's subtlety did not hide the trail of the serpent. The letter read queerly from a man already in the "bad book". The Ministers advised a courteous reply and promised reforms, that traitors should be brought to the block (in particular the impeached Somerset), and the help of the Duke of York would be gratefully accepted. So they played their cards. But the Duke was not to be baulked. Having received no orders to be Head Constable of England, as he had been in Ireland, he set himself in office, and marched towards London, reckoning without his host-or hostess; for the sagacious and brave Queen, alive to his sly strategy, had been preparing for the stern arbitrement of war, and the rebel soon discovered that the Sovereign was on the road to meet him - not with a kiss, but a blow. I say "rebel", because the Lancastrian family had held the crown for near 50 years by the decree of Parliament and the will of the people. The usurper avoided battle and pushed on to London, where he hoped for welcome, yet met with closed gates and hearts, because was not the King after him with a bigger army? Pitching at Blackheath, the Royalists were soon in the neighbourhood, but not wishing a fight, the King sent a messenger for an explanation of this armed advance. The old lie did service again; - it was to enforce reform. The King obeyed, and Somerset was arrested. Disconcerted, the trickster disbanded his troops and appeared at Court, when he encountered his enemy, Somerset, and pretty recriminations ensued. In the end the Yorkist was arrested, but released on renewing the oath of allegiance; - as if the tongue could bind the conscience of a traitor! What trouble would have been saved if the King had sent the enemy to the gallows! But he once more relapsed into imbecility, and the Duke and his friends the Nevilles, getting into the council, sent Somerset to the Tower, while the rival was once more the Royal Master. When the Monarch recovered the dictator retired, and the favourite was restored to office. Then came the battle of St. Alban's, between the royalists and the rebel army, when Somerset was slain, and the wounded and defeated King fell into the power of his enemy. His ailment returned, and Parliament again voted the Duke to the vacant supremacy. When he recovered they sent the deputy ruler once more to his castle at Wigmore. Foreign trouble turning men's minds in another direction, there was a sham reconciliation, and then another outbreak. Warwick, the "king maker," having a grievance, was the prime mover in it. Warwick called around him at Calais the veterans who had fought in Normandy and Guienne, and the friends of the king were invited to meet his Majesty at Leicester. On the 23rd September, 1459, the Earl of Salisbury marched from his Middleham Castle, in this county, to join the insurgents on the borders of Wales, while Lord Audsley with about 10,000 men, sought to intercept his progress at Blore Heath, in Staffordshire. Audsley, seduced into a deep glen, was routed and 2,000 slain. The victor joined the rebels at London, when Warwick soon appeared with his army, under Sir John Blount and Sir Andrew Trollop. The Royalist force numbered 60,000, and advanced to within half a mile of the Yorkists' camp on October 10th, when the King again dallied with danger and offered pardon to those who sought to dethrone him. York refused to submit, and on the 13th his batteries opened fire. During the night, Trollop led the Calais auxiliaries to the King's camp, being himself a staunch Royalist, and deceived as to Warwick's design. The confederates, thrown into confusion, retreated to Wales, and thence to Ireland and France.

Warwick afterwards landed in Kent, and was joined by Lord Cobham, the Pope's legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a great number of knights and gentry, proclamations having been scattered throughout the country against the misrule of the King and his council. The insurrectionary force entered London on July 2nd, 40,000 strong, and five bishops from Convocation were persuaded to join their ranks to interview the King at Coventry for the sake of "law" and "order". Henry advanced to Northampton, and refusing an audience, the legatee set up the Papal banner in the Yorkist camp. Lord Grey, of Ruthlyn, left the King and introduced the enemy into the heart of the Royalist camp. Three hundred knights and gentlemen on the King's side were slain, and he was in his enemy's hand, his mother escaping to Scotland.

The crafty Warwick, bareheaded, led the King a captive to the capital, still pretending that the blow was not against his Majesty, but against courtly corruption. A Parliament was summoned for the redress of grievances, and the Duke of York, landing with 5,000 horseguards, went to the House of Lords and advanced to the throne, as if he expected to be invited to become its occupant; but the peers could not turn traitors and when he threw off the mask, the astonishment of the public was great. The gentle King's answer was - "My father was King; his father was King also. I have worn the crown 40 years from my cradle; you have all sworn fealty to me as your sovereign, and you have done the same to my father; how then can my right be disputed?" The peers, irresolute, were for a compromise, and offered the crown to York on the death of the King. But the King's wife was made of sterner stuff than he, and refusing to assent to the disinheriting of the heir, set up a standard of her own at York in defence of the Royal line. The Earl of Northumberland, Lords Dacre, Clifford, and Neville, were soon in arms. The Queen was most fascinating, and promised great things as the reward of service, even the estates of the men who dared to barter away the crown as a marketable bauble. Thirty thousand men were thus allured to her standard, including the Earls of Somerset and Devon. The Duke of York (who, after being attainted of high treason by Parliament, had agreed to the King enjoying the throne in peace for the remainder of his life), left London with a force of 5,000 men, his son, the Earl of March, being ordered to refresh his army in Wales, and then to join his father. After an admonitory attack at Worksop on December 21st, the infatuated Duke pushed on for Sandal Castle, and Wakefield became a scene of military occupation. As he drew near the town he heard of the Queen's superior force, and decided to entrench himself till his son arrived.

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