By Tyler Parsons
The Wars of the Roses were a period of dynastic conflict that gripped England from 1455 to 1487. Their causes were multifaceted. The political difficulties associated with a long regency- Henry VI having come to throne aged nine months- and the continued stresses of the war effort in France were a major contributors.
If Henry had emerged into adulthood as a vigorous and decisive king, able to stamp his authority on his nobles and salvage the war in France, this could have been remedied. Unfortunately, the opposite was the case. Henry revealed himself to be a meek and weak-willed king. The favourites he heavily relied on, such as William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, quickly gained a reputation for corruption and avarice. An already strained exchequer was further undermined by his generosity to friends and ballooning household, whilst his careless granting of offices contributed to feuds amongst the nobility, and his diplomatic naivety in his dealings with Charles VII repeatedly jeopardised his holdings in France. The King’s underlying mental state, which starkly revealed itself with a descent into catatonia following final defeat in France in 1453, provided a further difficulty.
This confluence of factors probably made some form of civil war or domestic trouble inevitable, but the Wars of the Roses as we know them were shaped by another issue- the dynastic crisis stemming from the anaemic state of the House of Lancaster. The founder of the dynasty, Henry IV, had four sons, but Henry VI was his only legitimate grandchild.
The death of the last of Henry’s uncles, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1447 brought Richard, Duke of York, to prominence. From thenceforth, York stood as the senior royal Duke and was heir-presumptive until the birth of Henry’s son Edward of Westminster in 1453. Indeed, by the reckoning of some, York had a superior claim to the throne than the King- the Lancastrians descended from Edward III’s third son John of Gaunt, but York paired his male-line descent from Edward’s fourth son Edmund of Langley with female-line descent from his second son, Lionel of Antwerp.
To be sure, York already had some grievances with Henry’s regime by 1447. His time as Lieutenant-General in Normandy had been undermined by the diversion of resources to a disastrous expedition by John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and he had been recalled in 1445, to be replaced by John’s brother and successor Edmund. Edmund’s tenure would eventually see Normandy collapse in the face of a French attack in 1449-50. York’s recall had been accompanied by spurious accusations of maladministration and financial irregularities, the latter particular galling considering the vast amounts of his own money York had spent to shore up England’s hold on Normandy. Ultimately, he would be shunted off to serve as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, where he had some territorial interests by virtue of his Mortimer ancestors. Possibly his removal resulted from his likely opposition to Henry’s peace policy- which by that point included an undertaking to surrender Maine as a part of the King’s marriage treaty with Margaret of Anjou.
But it was only after 1447 that York grew into his position as leader of the opposition. Attempts in the early 1450s to dislodge Somerset from the King’s confidence and claim his rightful place as foremost peer in the realm were frustrated, and earned him the enmity of Henry’s influential queen Margaret of Anjou. He was briefly called upon to govern the realm during Henry’s incapacity in 1454-55, but was pushed back into the outer on the King’s recovery. The realm would slip into civil war in the succeeding years, with York resorting to force and eventually advancing his own claim to the throne. Whilst he would not live to realise this claim, his son would ultimately ascend as King Edward IV in 1461.
York need not have risen to such prominence. Henry VI had three uncles, any of whom could have left male issue. The existence of such a hypothetical cousin of Henry has immediate effects, mainly by pushing York down the pecking order and providing a candidate for the Protectorship in the case of the King’s mental incapacity. With the Lancastrian succession secured, it seems unlikely that it will cross anyone’s mind to revive York’s dormant claim.
To determine what role a cousin would have in Henry’s regime, and whether they would have a salutary effect on the realm’s stability, we have to examine the careers of Henry’s uncles in greater detail…
Thomas, Duke of Clarence (1387-1421)
Thomas played no role in the reign of his nephew, because he was killed in the Battle of Bauge in March 1421, prior to the death of Henry V. There are two very important factors at play with a potential son of Clarence.
Firstly, he would be by far the oldest hypothetical cousin for Henry VI- Clarence had wed Margaret Holland in 1410, and any son would have to have been conceived by Clarence’s death. By contrast, neither of Clarence’s brothers married until well into the 1420s.
A son born early in this union would be in his mid-20s by the time his uncle John, Duke of Bedford, died in 1435. He could easily be tapped to replace Bedford as Henry’s premier commander in France- York did so at a similar age. Here the second important factor comes into play. This Young Clarence would be the younger half-brother of the Beaufort siblings. Whilst John and Thomas will spend much of his youth imprisoned- they having been captured at Bauge and not ransomed until 1438 and 1427 respectively- Edmund could be a major figure in his half-brother’s life.
Assuming Young Clarence’s relations with the Beauforts are amicable and he is given command in France in 1435, English efforts might be more unified. The long term effects of this greater harmony may be limited, given financial difficulties and Henry’s willingness to make unwise concessions in pursuit of peace, but it might eke out a few more years for Henry’s French holdings. Though this would, admittedly, be dependent on Young Clarence’s competence.
Given this familial connection, it seems unlikely that Clarence would be the focus of opposition to Beaufort influence at court. In any case, butterflies are in full effect here- if things are less dire than they were historically, Suffolk may avoid his murder and remain Henry’s chief advisor, and John Beaufort’s disastrous expedition and subsequent death may also be avoided. Both eventualities would affect the prominence and influence of Edmund Beaufort. The forces of opposition will also be different, given York’s different career path and decreased prominence. The heir being firmly behind Henry’s regime would also blunt opposition forces somewhat.
If Henry still collapses into catatonia, which is no guarantee without a series of French disasters and the murder of friends such as Suffolk, Young Clarence seems an uncontroversial candidate to step into the Lord Protectorship. He would pose far less of a threat to the status quo than York did, making him much more amenable to the court party. Consequently, he also seems unlikely to take steps to correct some of the issues gripping the realm, given his half-brothers had benefited from Henry’s generosity.
By contrast, if born towards the end of his father’s life, Young Clarence would be close in age to the King. Potentially, he could be raised alongside Henry, and enjoy a similar status as Henry’s childhood friend Henry Beauchamp, Duke of Warwick. Being significantly younger also might provide for deference towards his Beaufort half-brothers, making him even more unlikely to be the locus of opposition towards them.
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447)
Humphrey was a difficult figure in Henry’s reign. Throughout the King’s minority he feuded with his uncle Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester- a feud that only accelerated after the death of his brother John, Duke of Bedford, in 1435 removed a mediating influence.
In 1441 he was disgraced when his wife Eleanor Cobham was found guilty of treasonable necromancy, having used astrology to predict the King’s death. She was imprisoned and forcibly divorced from her husband, whilst Humphrey was thoroughly marginalised. In February 1447, on the eve of a parliament in which he was expected to protest the surrender of Maine to the French, he was arrested and subsequently died. This was the result of a stroke, but rumours persisted that he had been murdered at the instigation of his nephew’s chief minister Suffolk.
Humphrey was married twice. His first marriage was to Jacqueline of Hainault in early 1423, and Humphrey subsequently fought to assert her rights to certain titles in the Low Countries. The marriage, however, was of dubious legality- the annulment of Jacqueline’s marriage to her preceding husband, John IV of Brabant, was not widely recognised. Consequently, Humphrey’s own marriage to Jacqueline was dissolved in 1428, after their efforts in the Low Countries had proved fruitless.
It seems any son of this marriage would face severe questions over their legitimacy, which might endanger their succession. Additionally, this would have major foreign policy implications- with a son, Gloucester will affirm his marriage to Jacqueline and continue to pursue her claims in the Low Countries. Given her rights were contested by her cousin, Duke Philip of Burgundy- then still an English ally against France- this would have major diplomatic consequences. But, at this stage we’re leaning more towards an alternate end to the Hundred Years War, and our focus is meant to be on the domestic build-up to the Wars of the Roses, so let’s move on to Humphrey’s second wife.
The match with Eleanor Cobham was also somewhat unorthodox, given she had been Humphrey’s mistress prior to the wedding. If Cobham is still unwisely speculating about the succession and forecasting the king’s death- something she has even more motivation to do now, given she has a son with a credible chance of sitting on the throne- her child will also bear the stigma of her trial. Perhaps there will also be a major chip in his shoulder if he sees his mother’s downfall as a hatchet job orchestrated by Gloucester’s enemies.
A major factor for a son of Gloucester and Cobham going forward will be their precise age. If born at the very beginning of their marriage, in the later 1420s, he’ll be an adult by the time of his father’s downfall. Would he go down with his father? A teenage son is unlikely to conveniently expire whilst in custody, but Humphrey’s bastard son Arthur was slated for execution historically, only to receive a last-minute reprieve. Killing a legitimate cousin is a rather drastic step, though, and would increase public outrage.
Perhaps marginalisation is more likely, and in this case our subject is likely to drift in to leadership of the opposition to his cousin, and become vaguely analogous to York. Given his youth, he’s probably more reliant on his allies, and, contrary to York, there is also no credible way he can advance the idea his claim on the throne is superior to the King’s. Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450, which historically revered the memory of Duke Humphrey whilst advocating on behalf of York, is also likely to champion Young Gloucester here. This would result in severe scrutiny being levied at Gloucester from Henry’s regime, and any foolhardiness could be fatal.
A younger son of Gloucester who is still a child at the time of his father’s downfall poses less of a problem. His wardship can be assigned to someone suitably loyal, and he can be stashed out of the way for a few years. Such a child could cause trouble down the line, but might be too young to claim the Protectorship in 1453-54. York could still come to lead the opposition here, but will be operating without the boost (and perhaps the ambition) provided by being heir presumptive.
John, Duke of Bedford (1389-1435)
In contrast to his younger brother Gloucester, Bedford was impeccably loyal. He dedicated his life to preserving Henry V’s French conquests, serving as viceroy until his death in 1435. Throughout his life he was a force for stability, repeatedly intervening in England to try and make peace between his rancorous brother and the Cardinal.
Also unlike Gloucester, a son of Bedford will be unquestionably legitimate- both Bedford’s marriages were completely above board. The first was to Anne of Burgundy, sister of England’s key ally Duke Philip the Good. Anne’s death in 1432, and Bedford’s inconsiderate remarriage to Jacquetta of Luxemburg, saw Burgundy begin to drift away from England. This would be formalised in 1435, with Burgundy officially reconciling with France in the Treaty of Arras.
Initially, a son of John, Duke of Bedford, seems the most likely hypothetical cousin to provide stability to Henry’s reign. He would neither be a close associate of the Beauforts or tainted in the King’s eyes by a treacherous father.Theoretically, he could chart a moderate course, gently encouraging greater circumspection and financial moderation in his cousin. Henry might even be more willing to part with the unpopular Suffolk if he has a trusted cousin to rely upon.
However, there will be one major source of friction with King Henry. Young Bedford will have certain attachments to English territory in France, both sentimental and economic. His father dedicated his life to the war in France, and a son born early in the marriage to Anne of Burgundy could conceivably have spent the first decade or more of his life there. Watching it all slip away under Henry’s inert leadership would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Bedford had also accumulated extensive properties for himself in Normandy, Maine, and Anjou. His son will have a significant financial stake in continued English rule in France, and will suffer financially as English control is gradually chipped away. Voicing his discontent too loudly might earn the King’s distrust and see Young Bedford become associated with the figures of opposition.
Alternately, Young Bedford could push to take up his father’s position in France- and this would be logical for Henry’s regime, given his interests there, but his age might be an issue. Even if born right at the outset of Bedford’s marriage to Anne, he could probably only seek command in the mid- to late-1440s. He would be competing with Edmund Beaufort for the position, and that may not be a competition he can win.
In any case, by that stage Henry has already become set on the policy of peace, the marriage to Margaret of Anjou has occurred (complete with Henry’s agreement to hand over Maine), and Normandy’s defences have become dilapidated for want of care. Perhaps a Young Bedford serving as Lieutenant-General in Normandy wouldn’t needlessly antagonise Charles VII, as Somerset did, but the situation may already be unsalvageable.
Young Bedford also has personal interests in Aquitaine- his bastard sister, Mary, was married to Pierre de Montferrand, Lord of Lesparre. Historically Aquitaine hosted the last major campaign of the Hundred Years War. John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, managed to recover Bordeaux, but his initially promising campaign ended in his death at the crushing defeat of Castillon in July 1453. Montferrand was executed the following year for refusing to swear loyalty to Charles VII after this final defeat.
Given this personal connection, Young Bedford might push to be involved in Aquitaine. But there are other considerations- Somerset may fear being unseated if a royal Duke wins military glories, especially given his own failures in Normandy. Anxiety over the state of the succession, and the potential disaster of Young Bedford being killed or captured, might also play a role. Nevertheless, if pleas for command in France are denied, that could spark disillusionment and see Young Bedford drift into opposition.
In cases such as these, where you’re inventing an AH personage, a lot depends on the individual’s personality. This is largely a matter of author fiat- your hypothetical cousin for Henry could be anything from a diplomatic and military genius to a complete incompetent who’s even more rapacious than Henry’s OTL favourites.
Nevertheless, certain suppositions can be drawn, at least on the balance of probabilities. A son of Thomas, Duke of Clarence, will likely be close to his Beaufort half-brothers and unlikely to lead opposition to them. A son of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is likely to take up his father’s mantle as an agitator against Henry’s councillors, and could suffer fatally for it. A son of John, Duke of Bedford will not possess any similaringraineddistaste for Henry’s regime, but his substantial French properties will make the King’s peace policy and meek surrender of territory unwelcome.
This has been a pretty basic analysis, one that merely involves plopping one new figure into Henry’s reign. With sufficient imagination, an author could provide Henry with a gaggle of cousins, plotting out entirely new factions and rivalries at court, and an unrecognisable period of civil war. Such an endeavour would be immensely fascinating, but is significantly beyond the scope of this article.