Edward IV: the first Yorkist king

Ludlow Castle in Shropshire was Edward's childhood home. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View

Jeffrey James, author of book Edward IV: Glorious Son of York, introduces the charismatic older brother of King Richard III, a key figure in the Wars of the Roses.

Few English monarchs fought harder for kingship than King Edward IV, personified by Shakespeare as “this Sun of York”. The allusion is to the three suns that are said to have risen in splendour prior to the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, near Hereford, fought on 2 or 3 February 1461 – a perceived supernatural display seen by Edward as a favourable omen, presaging victory.

Courtier Philippe de Commines recalled Edward as “the handsomest prince my eyes ever beheld”. Tudor historian Sir Thomas More described him as “princely to behold, of body mighty”. Naturally charismatic, with abundant charm and bonhomie, Edward approached every man (and woman) ‘of high and low degree’ with great familiarity. Down to earth, easy-going and with an eye for the ladies, his enjoyment of the trappings of luxury has sometimes been portrayed as a weakness, but might more generously be extolled as a virtue; a necessary display of status and achievement in an age which demanded it.

Edward IV, described by Tudor historian Sir Thomas More as ‘princely to behold [and] of body mighty’. Credit: Ripon Cathedral
King Edward IV, described by Tudor historian Sir Thomas More as “princely to behold [and] of body mighty”. Credit: Ripon Cathedral

The second half of the 15th-century was a dangerous time for noblemen and royals. The period between June 1469 and May 1471 has been described as one of great instability “without parallel in English history since 1066”. Governance changed hands three times, the crown twice, and major battles for the throne were fought.

Though unwarlike in comparison to warrior kings like King Richard I or King Henry V, Edward had the knack of seizing the initiative and winning battles. His victory at Towton near York in 1461 has been characterised as England’s most brutal battle; its outcome described as akin to a national disaster in terms of casualties inflicted. The Battle of Barnet, fought 10 years later on the outskirts of London, another of Edward’s victories, gained the dubious accolade of being the fiercest battle fought in Europe for a hundred years.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville, whom Edward IV married in secret, putting love above the interests of the state

Much that occurred in Edward’s day remains opaque: marriage carried out in secret, remorseless propaganda, malicious slanders and proxy wars. These years have been described as among the darkest of our annals, and not just for lack of primary source material. Motivations and rivalries that existed within a closely inter-married nobility were of paramount importance in shaping what occurred.

The main players included Edward’s father, Richard, Duke of York, described as England’s most illustrious failure of the Middle Ages; the period’s great facilitator of political change, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the ‘kingmaker’; the ill-starred King Henry VI who Edward deposed (twice); Henry VI’s steadfastly loyal queen, Margaret of Anjou, a woman maligned as the ‘she-wolf’ of France, but who bravely defended her husband’s and her son’s rights with all the means she could muster; and Edward’s seductive wife, Elizabeth Woodville, an upwardly-mobile commoner whom Edward married in secret, putting love above the interests of the state.

There were also Edward’s ambitious brothers, George, Duke of Clarence (allegedly executed by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine), and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (thanks to Shakespeare’s inaccurate portrayal of him, defamed as an arch-villain). Richard famously seized the throne once, yet Edward did it twice, becoming the only English king to both win and regain his crown through force of arms.

Edward IV: Glorious Son of Yorkby Jeffrey James, is published by Amberley Publishing (£20). 

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