Game of Thrones! There’s a title of resonance! George R R Martin’s sprawling fantasy, read by millions and watched by millions more in the television adaptation, became the starting point for Dr. Cheryl Butler’s presentation to the Titchfield History Society on September 21st. She, of course, wanted to talk about the real life saga, said to have inspired George Martin, the 15th century civil war known as the War of the Roses.
Dr Butler took as her starting point the large family of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault and explained how the rivalries of succeeding generations became increasingly vicious until almost all of the protagonists were dead.
Matters were stable enough until Edward III’s grandson, Richard II, came to the throne. Richard had a tendency to become tyrannical and arbitrary and in a largely bloodless coup he was deposed and replaced by his more competent cousin Henry IV, duke of Lancaster, in 1399.
Henry’s reign was blotted by plots and rebellions, often involving his cousin, Edward, duke of York, a serial plotter who managed to escape serious punishment. This was the beginning of the rivalry between the rich and powerful House of Lancaster and the somewhat junior House of York.
On the death of Henry IV in 1413 the crown passed to his eldest son Henry, who as Henry V, embarked on a serious campaign to invade France and reclaim the Plantagenet’s ancient patrimony on France. Thus in the summer of 1415, the invading force mustered in southern Hampshire, intending to depart from Southampton.
There was one unexpected problem. Richard, earl of Cambridge and younger brother of the duke of York took it into his head to plot a coup against Henry V and replace him with his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March. Mortimer could claim descent from Edward III in a senior line to the Lancastrians. John of Gaunt, Henry V’s grandfather, was Edward III’s fourth son; Mortimer could claim descent from the second son.
On July 31st Edmund Mortimer lost his nerve and betrayed his co-conspirators. Henry V was in no mood for clemency and the three leading conspirators were tried and executed. Richard earl of Cambridge had his head chopped off on Southampton Green (where the Primark building now stands) and was buried in the chapel of St Julien adjacent to God’s House hospital.
The invasion went ahead and is celebrated by the improbable victory at Agincourt on 25 October 1415. Henry went on in subsequent years to establish supremacy in France, which included a marriage to the French king’s daughter and a promise the Henry would become king of France after the death of Charles VI. In a twist of fate no one could have imagined Henry V died of dysentery a few months before the French king and the crown became disputed.
In another unlikely twist of fate Richard earl of Cambridge left a 4 year old orphan son in August 1415. His uncle, Edward, duke of York died childless at the battle of Agincourt a few months later. Young Richard, still a minor, thus became heir to York. Further, in 1425, his uncle Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, died in Ireland, also childless, and Richard, through his mother, inherited the great wealth of the earls of March. When Richard came into his estates in 1432 he was a very wealthy man.
Moreover, he had married into the rising and ambitious Nevill family.
None of this would have been of any great consequence but for Henry VI coming to adulthood as a weak and incompetent king. Policy and favours were often determined by saying yes to the last person he spoke to, and once he married Margaret of Anjou, who was a strong character, factions began to emerge at court. On the one side the Beaufort, Percy and Clifford families and on the other the York and the Nevill families. Richard duke of York became a magnet for those dissatisfied with Henry VI’s inept rule. There are of course more complex reasons why the country fell into civil war in 1455 and in the great sweep of this ‘Game of Thrones’ story Dr Butler was unable to go into this level of detail. Suffice to note that the eldest son of Richard duke of York deposed Henry VI in 1461, was himself deposed in 1470 by his cousin and former ally, Richard Nevill, earl of Warwick, known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker. Edward IV made a daring comeback in 1471 and regained the throne, this time decisively defeating the Lancastrians.
The country enjoyed some stability until 1483, when Edward IV, a man of voracious appetite, died suddenly in April 1483 at the age of 42. Although he had two young sons, Edward’s younger brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester, seized his opportunity and became Richard III.
Richard’s reign was brief. Hostile interest coalesced around ‘the last man standing, Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne was tissue paper thin, but nevertheless could trace lineage to John of Gaunt on his mother’s side and Henry V’s widow on his father’s side.
The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 was decisive and the Tudor dynasty held the throne until the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.
Dr. Butler set herself a considerable task in trying to cover two centuries of English history in 60 minutes but met the challenge effectively. The Plantagenet dynasty had ruled England since 1154, but after 300 years destroyed itself in a family quarrel. There is a lesson here!