Edward IV: Warrior King

Edward IV was the most effective general of the Wars of the Roses. His prowess in warfare enabled him to become king of England, and later to recover his position in spite of remarkable odds. He did experience major setbacks at several points in his life, but he eventually died in his bed, still undefeated in battle. This post will provide a brief overview of Edward’s military career, before moving on to explain the reasons for his success. I will also consider, however, why he failed to achieve more.

Edward (Wavrin)
A contemporary image of Edward (British Library Royal MS 15 E IV)

The Wars of the Roses began during the reign of Henry VI, the third Lancastrian king. The origins of the conflict are complex, but it eventually developed into a dynastic struggle. Edward IV’s father, Richard, Duke of York, became the leader of opposition to the Lancastrian regime – although for many years he put himself forward as a reformer, not an alternative as king. But Duke Richard did possess a strong claim to the throne, and he finally challenged King Henry’s right to rule.

Edward himself first came to prominence as a warrior in 1460, when he was still only eighteen, during the most intensive phase of the Wars of the Roses. He might well have taken part in a hard-fought skirmish at Newnham Bridge, near Calais (where Edward and other Yorkist leaders had temporarily taken refuge) and he was certainly involved in the Yorkist success at the Battle of Northampton. In late December the Duke of York was killed at Wakefield, but early in the following year Edward avenged his father at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross: his first victory as an independent commander. Shortly afterwards, he was acclaimed as king in London, and the Battle of Towton confirmed his title.

Lancastrian resistance continued, although for much of his ‘first’ reign Edward delegated active command to others (notably the Herberts and the Nevilles). However, Edward was forced to take the field again at the end of the 1460s, when the Earl of Warwick rose in rebellion, and Henry VI was eventually restored to the throne. Edward was forced into exile in Burgundy, but when he returned to England he waged a brutal and rapid campaign. He won victories at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, and most of the enemy leaders were killed. Henry VI was put to death in the Tower, and Edward’s position as king was never seriously challenged again.

A romantic depiction of the Battle of Tewkesbury (Ghent University Library MS 236)

This was not quite the end of Edward’s military career, as he invaded France in 1475. But there were no battles or sieges, and he quickly came to terms with the French. There was also war with the Scots, in the early 1480s, although the king himself did not take an active part. In 1483, when the diplomatic situation in Europe had turned against him, it appears that Edward contemplated a further campaign in France, but his sudden death meant that his plans were cut short. He was still only forty years old.

Edward, then, had a dramatic life, and much of his story would have seemed unthinkable when he was still a boy. Nevertheless, as the eldest son of the Duke of York, and destined to become one of the leading men of the realm, Edward’s career was always likely to include battles and campaigns. We can therefore be certain that he would have received military training from a young age, and that we can find part of the explanation for his later accomplishments here.

By his early teens, Edward would have begun to wear armour, as well as training with weapons, and this would obviously have strengthened his body, as well as providing specific skills. Various contemporary writers, such as Philippe de Commines, attested to Edward’s towering physique (as well as his good looks); this is supported by the evidence from his exhumation in the eighteenth century, when his skeleton was measured and found to be six feet three inches in length. By his mid-thirties Edward had started to put on weight, but in his younger years he must have cut a very impressive figure.

In addition to formal training, the other active pursuits of the nobility would also have been important. Chief among these was hunting, which many contemporary authorities saw as preparation for war. John Hardyng, for instance, advocated hunting because it would encourage tactical thinking – as well as hardening a youth to the psychological effects of killing and shedding blood. Edward grew up mainly at Ludlow, but he would also have spent time at nearby Wigmore Castle (which was used as a hunting lodge during the fifteenth century). The name Wigmore is derived from the Welsh Guig Mawr – Great Forest – and game would have been plentiful in the surrounding area.

Wigmore Castle (Humphrey Bolton)

During real warfare, Edward was a fighting general who led from the front. One contemporary source, the Arrivall, provides a vivid description of Edward on the field. At the Battle of Barnet, for example, he attacked his enemies ‘manly, vigorously and valiantly … in the midst and strongest of their battle, where he, with great violence, beat and bore down afore him all that stood in his way’. We also have an account of Edward’s prowess at the Battle of Towton, in a letter written shortly afterwards by Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury. At a critical moment, apparently, Edward threw himself into the thick of the action. It is easy to imagine that his personal courage would have inspired those around him.

Edward also possessed the ability to inspire others before battle was joined. Perhaps the best example of Edward’s charisma occurred before the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, when a parhelion appeared: an illusion of three suns in the sky. Today, we understand that a parhelion is caused by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals, although medieval people saw such phenomena as evidence of divine power in the world. The Yorkist soldiers were terrified, but Edward (as portrayed in the English Chronicle) responded with aplomb:

Be of good comfort [he said], and dreadeth not; this is a good sign, for these three suns betoken the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have a good heart, and in the name Almighty God, go we against our enemies.

After the battle the parhelion was widely interpreted as an omen of Edward’s victory, and he began to be presented as an almost messianic figure. Edward himself marked the significance of the moment by adopting a sun badge as his personal emblem. The appearance of the parhelion was also featured in a colourful roll, which combined Edward’s genealogy with episodes from his life. He was originally depicted here in shining armour, which would have made him immediately stand out (although the costly silver paint has now oxidised to black).

Mortimer's Cross.png
Edward before the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (BL Harley MS 7353)

When he was involved in the Wars of the Roses, Edward also exhibited reserves of energy and determination that were not always apparent during times of peace. This was most obvious in 1471, when he was relentless in the pursuit of his enemies (although speed of movement was important in most of Edward’s campaigns). In the lead-up to the Battle of Tewkesbury, for instance, Edward needed to prevent the Lancastrians from crossing the Severn – as this would have enabled them to join up with allies in Wales. This involved a gruelling march across the Cotswolds, in hot and dry conditions which sorely tested Edward and his men.

As a military commander, therefore, Edward could offer courage, charisma and drive, and these qualities provided the foundation for his success. But he also possessed another important attribute at key moments in his career: fortune. There were several instances when he benefitted from the effects of the weather. At Mortimer’s Cross, of course, his own decisive action was vital, but there were other times when even the wind seemed to be on his side. In the spring of 1471, for instance, the prevailing conditions enabled Edward to return safely to England – as well as scattering an enemy fleet that had been assembled to intercept him.

Perhaps, at least in private, Edward was conscious of his good luck. His personal motto was ‘comfort and joy’, and during his ‘second’ reign he enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. He indulged himself in pleasures of various kinds – including rich food and wine – and often to excess. Yet it must also be stressed that Edward was a complex man, with many facets to his personality. During a crisis, he could be ruthless in the pursuit of his objectives, but on other occasions he preferred to be merciful and encourage peace. Nevertheless, even if Edward was a reluctant soldier, he did eventually decide to invade France in 1475 – although it is quite possible that he felt under pressure to do so.

After landing at Calais, Edward advanced into France proper, but he quickly ran into difficulties. It was a key issue that he had expected to fight alongside his Burgundian allies (who had encouraged him to attack the French), but Duke Charles ‘the Bold’ did little to assist the English. Moreover, the Burgundians denied Edward access to the bases he had been promised, as the French adopted scorched earth tactics to deny the English supplies. When Louis XI offered to discuss terms to end the conflict, Edward felt obliged to listen to the French king’s proposals.

The two kings met at Picquigny. By the terms of the resulting treaty Louis agreed to pay Edward a lump sum, plus an annual pension, in return for the English going home. Edward’s decision to withdraw was controversial, and dissenting voices were raised. Louis de Bretelles, a Gascon in the retinue of Earl Rivers, was particularly scathing; he claimed the shame of the treaty had outweighed all the honour Edward had won by his victories. Others voted with their feet; some of his troops went to serve as mercenaries in the Burgundian army. But Edward himself appears to have seen the treaty as a bloodless triumph. It was celebrated on the decoration of his private stall at St George’s chapel – and this is significant because it is not something that many others would have seen.

For the next few years the pension (which the English referred to as tribute) formed a substantial part of Edward’s income. However, the deaths of Duke Charles in 1477, and his heir Mary in 1482, neutralised Burgundy as an effective threat to France, and the balance of power shifted. French forces took control of much of Burgundy, and Louis repudiated the Treaty of Picquigny. With hindsight, it is easy to argue that Edward was out-manoeuvred by Louis XI, but even the ‘Spider King’ cannot have predicted the opportunities that came his way; nor could he have anticipated the curious behaviour of Charles the Bold in 1475, which had made the English position difficult.

As a battlefield leader, Edward’s record stands comparison with England’s other medieval warrior kings. It has surely affected his reputation, however, that all of his battles were fought against his own people – and not against foreign foes. By making peace with France, he made a pragmatic decision that was soundly based (at least in the short term), but it undoubtedly disillusioned those who expected him to emulate Henry V. And yet, perhaps there were others in England, whose voices remain unheard, who were grateful that Edward was a different kind of man.

You can read more about Edward in my first book, Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses

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David Santiuste

David Santiuste is a historian of late medieval Britain. His interests include Anglo-Scottish relations, pilgrimage, and the Wars of the Roses. His most recent book is The Hammer of the Scots: Edward I and the Scottish Wars of Independence.