The Wars of the Roses were the most devastating dynastic wars that England has ever seen. Fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster, they featured some of the most cleverly engineered battles in history. Advisers to The King sometimes played roles as great as the Kings themselves. One of the greatest military tacticians of the time was Richard Neville – The Kingmaker.
Richard Neville was born on the 22nd of November, 1428, the first son of Richard, Earl of Salisbury, and his wife Alice Montacute (sometimes spelled Montagu). The Nevilles were a prominent family in the Middle Ages, and, along with the Percys, had fought on England’s side in the wars against Scotland in the 14th century.
Through his paternal grandmother, Joan Beaufort, Richard was descended from King Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, and his third wife, Katherine Swynford. Though John and Katherine’s children had been legitimised by King Richard II, they were forbidden from ever inheriting the throne, and Richard had no claim of his own. However, in his lifetime he brought two different Kings to power, earning him the title of ‘Kingmaker’.
Not much is known about Richard’s childhood. When he was six years old, he was betrothed to Anne Beauchamp, the daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. The marriage not only brought him the title of Earl of Warwick, which he held by right of his wife, but also a sizeable inheritance, making Richard Neville one of the wealthiest English noblemen at the time. With his wife, he has two daughters, Isabel and Anne. In the future, both would play an important role in Warwick’s dynastic ambitions.
By 1453, it was evident that King Henry VI was in no state to rule a country. Warwick’s uncle, by marriage, was The Duke of York, a claimant to the English throne, so naturally both he and his father supported York when he launched a rebellion against The King. At the Battle of St Albans in 1455, the Yorkist side won, and Warwick was appointed Captain of Calais.
A succession of battles were fought between the two sides before, in 1460, King Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, sent her forces to attack The Duke of York. The result was the Battle of Wakefield, during which The Duke of York, his son Edmund, and Warwick’s father, The Earl of Salisbury, were all slain.
The York cause was now championed by The Duke of York’s 19 year-old son – Edward, Earl of March. Warwick served as adviser to the young Edward, and provided him with the military tactics and forces needed to win against the Lancastrians. In 1461, with Warwick’s help, Edward walked into the city of London unchallenged, and had himself proclaimed King. He achieved a decisive victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton, and was crowned King only weeks later.
For the first few years of the new King Edward’s reign, Warwick all but ruled England himself. He was The King’s most trusted aide, and was popular among the people.
Things started to go wrong when Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian widow whose husband had been killed during the Battle of St Albans. Warwick, who at that time had been attempting to secure a French Princess as a wife for The King, was greatly offended, and the once strong ties between him and Edward weakened considerably.
Warwick began to detest the new Queen Elizabeth and her family, all of whom had been appointed to high posts. His sentiments were shared by George, Duke of Clarence, The King’s younger brother. Warwick had previously tried to arrange a marriage between George and his elder daughter Isabel, but on the advice of The Queen, The King had refused to sanction the wedding. However, Warwick went ahead with his plan anyway, and George and Isabel were married in Calais, without Edward’s permission permission.
The very same year, The Duke of Clarence, backed by Warwick, openly revolted against The King. Edward’s forces were defeated, and he was taken captive and imprisoned at Warwick Castle. For some time, Warwick effectively ruled England in Edward’s name, but during a counter-rebellion, The King escaped and was restored to the throne.
Despite what could be considered treason, King Edward pardoned both his brother and his advisor. But Warwick was not content, and initiated a rebellion in Lincolnshire, which was promptly crushed by The King’s forces. Terrified of Edward’s wrath, he fled to his stronghold in Calais, along with his family. On the ship, Isabel gave birth to a stillborn child, who was buried at sea.
In Calais, Warwick struck up an alliance with the former Lancastrian Queen Margaret, who had been exiled to her native France. Together, they concocted a plan that would involve seizing power from King Edward and his wife, and restoring it to King Henry VI, who was a prisoner in The Tower of London. To strengthen the alliance further, Warwick’s younger daughter Anne was betrothed to Edward of Westminster, the only child of King Henry and Queen Margaret.
In 1470, Warwick invaded England. King Edward sailed to Burgundy, where he sought protection, while Elizabeth, his Queen, fled into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. There, she would give birth to their son, Edward, one of the infamous ‘Princes in the Tower’. King Henry was reinstated, and Warwick ruled on behalf of the old King, now merely a ghost of his former self.
With Henry VI back on the throne, it was expected that he would be succeeded by his son Edward. George, Duke of Clarence, now stood to gain more by fighting on the side of his brother, and, just as he had previously deserted Edward, he deserted Warwick in favour of the Yorkist ruler.
Now supported by his brother and The Duke of Burgundy, Edward returned to England in 1471. On April 14th, he met Warwick’s forces at Barnet, where a thick mist lay over the battlefield, obscuring the troops’s visibility. A fierce battle ensued, during which Warwick’s brother John was killed by the enemy. To show his solidarity with the cavalry, Warwick got off his horse, and fought on foot. But when The King’s army charged at Warwick, he turned and ran towards his horse. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was hacked to death on the battlefield.
Afterwards, Warwick’s body was taken to St Paul’s Cathedral, where it was put on display to dispel any rumours of his survival, before being buried at Bisham Priory in Berkshire. During the reign of Henry VIII, both the Priory and Warwick’s tomb were destroyed.
A few weeks later, Edward of Westminster was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and the Lancastrian cause ended for good. Anne Neville, now a young widow, did what was perhaps the most politically advantageous thing possible – she married Richard, Duke of Gloucester, The King’s youngest brother. In 1483, after George, Duke of Clarence had been executed for treason and King Edward was dead, Richard would take the crown for himself, and Anne would become his Queen. Then, at long last, a child of Richard Neville would sit on the throne of England.
Thanks to the likes of Philippa Greogry’s ‘The White Queen’ and the BBC’s ‘The Hollow Crown’, there has been a revival of interest in the Plantagenet dynasty, and in the Cousins’ War in particular. Warwick Castle, the seat of Richard Neville’s power in the North, is still standing, and even features an exhibition about The Kingmaker, tickets to which can be purchased here. As a result, today, over 500 years after death, Warwick the Kingmaker is more popular than ever.