Exploring Alternate Wars of the Roses: A Year of Four Kings

By Tyler Parsons


Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham as drawn by William Sherlock

England has never had four monarchs in a single year. Well, arguably 1066, if you squint hard enough and are inclined to count Edgar the Atheling. The only other time it has come close is 1483.


Edward IV died in April. His 12 year-old son and successor, Edward V, was swiftly set aside in favour of his uncle Richard III and then disappeared into the Tower. Richard was crowned in July, but just three months later faced a serious revolt that threatened to unseat him.


The forces arranged against Richard were diverse. Men of Edward IV’s household who had lost out in Richard's usurpation or despaired at the fate of Edward V and his brother, such as John Cheyne, Giles Daubeney, William Norreys, and Thomas St Leger, provided much of its impetus. The Woodvilles, whose grasp on power disappeared with Edward V, were also involved. Elizabeth Woodville’s remaining son, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, and several of her brothers were active participants, as were more distant Woodville connections such as John Guildford and Richard Haute.


However, it went beyond these associates of Edward IV and his family. Reginald Bray, a longstanding servant of Margaret Beaufort, seems to have played an instrumental role, and the Lancastrian Edward Courtenay, claimant to the attainted Earldom of Devon, was also drawn in. The most enigmatic participant, however, and the one from whom the rebellion takes its name, was Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.


Buckingham had been central to Richard’s rise to the throne. He had worked with Richard to seize custody of Edward V and arrest his guardian Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and played a leading role at Richard's coronation. In return, he had been richly rewarded. Richard had granted him an effectively vice-regal position in Wales and the Marches, supervisory powers over Shropshire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, and Somerset, and promised him that a long-simmering inheritance dispute would be resolved in his favour. His motives in turning against Richard have been subject to much discussion.


Some have him turning against Richard in revulsion at the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Others have him being responsible for the Princes’ murder, in order to move himself closer to the throne. Others still suggest Buckingham was so vain, short-sighted, and prone to intrigue, that others easily took advantage of his fecklessness.


Perhaps the most reasonable suggestion is that Buckingham took stock of the rising tide of discontent, and thought the King to whom he was so closely allied was doomed- his choice to join the rebels, then, was motivated by self-preservation. It is noteworthy, here, to mention that Buckingham was a latecomer to the rebellion that bore his name, and by no means its instigator- the moniker of ‘Buckingham’s Rebellion’ is a retroactive one. It arose largely out of a subsequent parliament presided over by Richard, which endeavoured to paint the unrest as stemming from a single perfidious aristocrat and not widespread popular discontent.


Even if we accept that Buckingham’s primary motivation was a desire to join the winning team, though, it seems reasonable to suppose that Buckingham’s own claim to the throne- as a descendant of Edward III’s youngest son Thomas, Duke of Gloucester- was at least in the back of his mind. It should be emphasised, however, that he did nothing decisive to advance his own claim to the throne in 1483. Indeed, the opposite was true- when it became clear that the Princes in the Tower were dead the rebels, Buckingham among them, wrote to the exiled Henry Tudor in Brittany, urging him to claim the throne.


This, again, has been a cause of much discussion. The closest thing to a consensus is that someone was acting in bad faith- with either Buckingham only feigning support for Henry in the hopes he could seize the throne in his own name during the confusion, or Buckingham being recruited into the revolt under the false pretences that it would aim to make him King.


John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk. Shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

In any case, the rebellion that followed was a disaster. Kent rose too early, and was swiftly suppressed by Richard’s staunch supporter John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk and his son also stamped out the embers of revolt in East Anglia and Sussex, and held London for the King. The rebellion in the Southwest fizzled out before Richard could even confront it with the army he had assembled in Leicester and begun marching south.


Buckingham’s role was particularly ignominious. Having raised an army in Wales, he likely hoped to rally noble support in the midlands, such as Gilbert Talbot and Henry Tudor’s stepfather Thomas, Lord Stanley. These hopes were to be disappointed, and Buckingham’s status as an unpopular and hard dealing landlord hampered his recruiting efforts. Atrocious rain further demoralised his troops, and led to large scale desertions. The rain also inhibited his attempts to cross the Severn, which were further frustrated by own distant cousin Humphrey Stafford of Grafton, who held the river’s crossing points for Richard. As his army disintegrated Buckingham fled into hiding, but was betrayed and handed over to the King, to be executed on the 2nd of November.


Meanwhile Henry Tudor, the putative figurehead of this rebellion, only left Brittany at the end of October. He had in the meantime secured some support in money and material from Duke Francis II, but his departure was repeatedly delayed by storms. When he reached England men loyal to Richard failed in their attempts to lure him to shore, and he turned around and returned to Brittany. He would spend the better part of two more years on the continent before his successful invasion in August 1485.


Despite this rather undignified end, one could make the argument that, in the long run, the rebellion did result in Richard’s deposition. Many of the participants, attainted by Richard, joined Tudor in exile and played a pivotal role in his victory at Bosworth- John Cheyne was famously unhorsed during Richard's last, desperate, charge at Tudor during that battle. The betrayal of so much of the southern Yorkist establishment also led Richard to rely heavily on men drawn from his northern affinity, which was transplanted across the south in a manner that fostered further discontent. Richard would never really solve the problem of relying on such a narrow support base, and this contributed to his downfall at Bosworth.


Nevertheless, it’s easy to see the Rebellion going better. Had Kent not risen early Richard would have faced simultaneous revolts in east and west. Had the Severn not swelled, Buckingham could have connected with the rebels to his south in the West Country, and they could have marched towards London or against Richard in Leicester. Maybe you could weight the scales further, perhaps give Richard a crisis of confidence by bringing forward the death of his fragile son Edward of Middleham by a few months (from OTL’s April 1484).


Perhaps the rebels would have been victorious, and Richard deposed. England would have its fourth King in 1483. But who would be the fourth King?


King Buckingham?


Given the rebellion was already well underway by the time he was drawn in, it doesn’t seem likely Buckingham could redirect it into supporting his claim to the throne. This is especially true given his lack of allies amongst the nobility. Long excluded from any meaningful of exercise of power by Edward IV, he cannot have had much to do with Edward’s household men. He does possess Woodville connections, by virtue of his wife Catherine Woodville, but for the prime movers among the Woodvilles- Elizabeth and her surviving son, Dorset- having Elizabeth of York as Queen to Henry Tudor seems preferable to a King Buckingham. This would be especially true if Buckingham’s universally assumed (but not particularly proven) contempt for the Woodvilles as lowborn parvenus actually existed. Those incited into the revolt by Margaret Tudor’s servant Reginald Bray also have no reason to support him.


Catherine Woodville, Duchess of Buckingham

Additionally, his OTL performance doesn’t exactly inspire confidence- even if he had held together his army and crossed the Severn, it’s entirely possible he would’ve been trounced by Richard and still ended up dead. Enthusiasm for him in his heartland territory doesn’t seem especially high- there is no devoted base of support from which to springboard a Stafford campaign for Kingship. Any attempt to claim the throne will thus have to overcome two severe problems- the very slender prospects of noble support and a not especially secure personal powerbase.


His best option appears to be biding his time and trying to pull off another betrayal after Henry Tudor has arrived in the country and perhaps already ousted Richard. However, being so faithless and untrustworthy that you’ve been involved in two usurpations in six months isn’t exactly a great foundation for Kingship.


King Tudor?


The more likely option, I think, is that we get a King Henry Tudor a few years early. Had he not been buffeted by storms whilst trying to cross the Channel, and made landfall relatively early, he could serve as rallying point for the disparate elements in the Southwest.


With luck, Buckingham can force the Severn and rendezvous with him, and perhaps Gilbert Talbot will rise for Tudor- as he did in 1485. Henry’s cautious and opportunistic step-father Lord Stanley seems unlikely to commit to either side prematurely, but if the rebels look likely to prevail perhaps he is tempted. If the rising in the east had gone better- perhaps the Howards suffer some mishap or illness- and London is threatened then perhaps Richard will be obliged to dash in that direction. Without the royal army bearing down on them, and their own claimant present, the rebels in the west will not disintegrate hopelessly, and instead get the opportunity to coalesce and build up momentum.


Ultimately it would all come down to a decisive battle, but Henry’s odds certainly aren’t any worse than those he faced IOTL…

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