Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, was almost certainly a more rightful claimant to the throne of England than his cousin, King Henry VI. York was the descendant of King Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp, while Henry VI was the great-grandson of King Edward’s third surviving son, John of Gaunt.
The Duke of York was well aware of his superior lineage. When Henry VI became mentally ill, York became king in all but name. When Henry VI had no heir after a decade of marriage, it seemed as though York, or York’s eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, would reign after Henry died. York was content to be loyal to the king under these circumstances. Henry VI had been anointed the king before God and that meant something to the people; regardless of bloodlines Henry VI was the true king in the hearts and minds of his subjects. York must trust to time to put him or his son on the throne of the mad, childless Henry VI.
But then King Henry’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, gave birth to a healthy little boy, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Now the 3rd Duke of York was no longer heir. York didn’t like that, not one little bit. There were immediate rumors that Edward of Westminster was a bastard, the whelp of Margaret’s ally and accused lover, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, (dead more than two years before Edward’s conception), or her accused lover Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, or her accused lover, Beaufort’s eldest son, Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset, or even her accused lover, James Butler, 5th Earl of Ormond. It was AMAZING how many lovers the queen was accused of having had once she had given birth to a healthy son!
Although it is usually said that Margaret ‘provoked’ Richard of York in some way into rebelling against his sovereign, but historical evidence for this is sorely lacking. For years she had made very sure to be nothing but pleasant to the duke. She even remained civil to York when everyone was convinced he was behind the brutal murder of her friend, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, his rival for influence. She was a foreign queen, barely out of her teens, and she couldn’t make someone as powerful as York her open enemy.
Queen Margaret DID get stroppy, however, when the rumors of her son’s paternity and other political maneuverings of York made it clear he was a threat to her son’s future. Women, silly creatures that we are, DO get a bit testy when are children are threatened. With the fate of her child at stake, she used political know-how and alliances to move York further from the throne and curtail his power. For this, she is often blamed for ‘starting’ the Wars of the Roses, even though it is YORK who moved the fight to the battlefield when he couldn’t best the queen’s political acumen.
The first major battle of York’s rebellion was at the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455. The Duke of York and his allies, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who would become known as the “Kingmaker”, and Richard Neville, jure uxoris 5th Earl of Salisbury. York and the Neville’s defeated the king’s army, commanded by Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Earl of Somerset, capturing King Henry and killing Somerset, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford. The king’s half-brother, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, barely escaped with his life.
With the king in his grasp, York forced Queen Margaret to reinstate him as King Henry’s Lord Protector, the de facto ruler of England. York promised the other nobles that he wasn’t after the crown, only Henry’s “evil councilors”, but the queen and several members of the peerage suspected that the throne was York’s ultimate goal. Edward of Westminster was only a toddler, and Queen Margaret had a strong hankering to see her son grow into adulthood and become king, so she started to plot with other nobles who had lost family members at St Albans.
On 12 October 1459 the Yorkists were defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, in part because the Yorkist troops refused to fight any army headed by the king himself. Six hundred Yorkist soldiers led by Andrew Trollope defected to the Lancastrians rather than rebel against Henry VI. York and the Nevilles, in one of the most cowardly moves in history, told their troops they’d be right back, but instead scarpered off to the safety of Wales. Moreover, “York had abandoned not only his troops but also his wife Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, his two younger sons George and Richard and his youngest daughter Margaret.” The Lancastrian troops sacked the city, as medieval troops were want to do, but York’s wife and children were unharmed.
King Henry pardoned the abandoned troops en masse and the Lancastrians were back on top. York and his second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, kept running all the way to Ireland, while York’s eldest son and his Neville allies escaped to France.
In France, the Yorkists regrouped. They organized and invaded England to attack the royalists, taking King Henry hostage once more at the Battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460. York tried to get himself crowned, but didn’t have enough support among the peerage. Nonetheless, with the king again in their hands, the Yorkists forced Henry and Queen Margaret to accept the Act of Accord on 25 October 1460, which named York as Henry’s heir rather than Edward of Westminster.
Queen Margaret wasn’t going to stand for this, of course. She took her son and fled to Scotland, where the Queen and Regent, Mary of Guelders, provided financial aid in exchange for the much-disputed town and castle of Berwick upon Tweed. From the north, Margaret rallied troops in King Henry’s name and prepared to march south to free her husband.
Before the Lancastrians could head south, the Lord Protector came to them in West Yorkshire. On 30 December 1460 the armies clashed in the Battle of Wakefield, a significant victory for King Henry’s armies and the death of the Duke of York.
No one is entirely certain how the duke was killed – in battle or by execution after capture. A popular and almost certainly mythical account was that Queen Margaret asked her son what should be done with the duke and his son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, and it was at the behest of the bloodthirsty seven year old prince that the noble York and his young son were slaughtered. The more likely scenario is that Edmund of Rutland “attempted to escape over Wakefield Bridge, but was overtaken and killed, possibly by Lord Clifford in revenge for his father’s death at St Albans.” York’s ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury’s second son, Sir Thomas Neville, were also killed in the fighting, and Salisbury’s son-in-law, William, Lord Harington, was executed afterwards.
The queen reportedly demanded that the “heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury were displayed over Micklegate Bar, the south-western gate through the York city walls, the Duke wearing a paper crown and a sign saying “Let York overlook the town of York”.” However, it is unclear whether or not this was done upon the queen’s orders; the duke and his rebellion was very unpopular in the north and the Battle of St Albans had left him with many enemies who would have wanted to disgrace him.
That his father’s head had been stuck to a pike enraged York’s eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, who stormed into England like the wrath of the gods. Eventually he would displace King Henry at the Battle of Towton in March 1461, becoming King Edward IV, one of the last Plantagenet rulers of Britain.