Many people with even a moderate interest in history will likely have heard of Richard, 3rd Duke of York (1411-1460) and his claim to the throne which made him a rival of the Lancastrian King Henry VI (the sixth)- even if only from Shakespeare’s ‘history’ plays in which this claim is recounted at some length by Richard himself.
As Historians go, most simply take it for granted that Richard and his sons the subsequent Yorkist Kings Edward IV and Richard III had the ‘best’ and ‘strongest’ claim to the throne- or at least one that trumped that of the ‘usurping’ Lancastrians. Either way, the superiority of the Yorkist claim is generally stated as an undisputed fact by many Medievalists. This is a view that I too shared until fairly recently- and which likely a lot of other History students do- but not anymore. In this post I will be examining this subject in more detail- and try not to be too boring in the process!
The key questions that are to be addressed when looking at this claim are thus
1- What was the nature and origin of Richard’s claim?
2- Was is truly the strongest and best?
To address the first question it is necessary to go back to long before Richard’s birth in 1411 and to the reign of Richard II. Most know the story of how Richard was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who later became Henry IV (the fourth). This is where Richard’s claim comes in for it is stated that whilst Henry ‘forced’ the childless Richard to name appoint as the heir before his deposition, the true and ‘rightful’ heir of the blood was the child Edmund Mortimer. To examine the ‘rightness’ of Mortimer’s claim it is necessary to go back even further to Edward III (the third) and his family line.
Richard II was of course the Grandson of Edward by his firstborn son Edward the Black Prince who predeased him by one year. Mortimer was descendant of Edward’s second son, Lionel Duke of Clarence, though his only child Phillipa. Henry Bolingbroke however was the son of Edward’s third son, John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster. Seems pretty straightforward and clear whose the rightful claim was, right? That because Richard of York was descended from the eldest son he must have had a better claim than the house of Lancaster, and in light of King Richard’s choice of successor it seems all the clearer.
However, things are not quite so straightforward as they seem even in this regard. Historian Michael Bennett in his book ‘Richard II and the Revolution of 1399’ (Sutton, 2006) accounts for one of the main difficulties with the succession in the reign of Richard II. Richard of course had no children of his own, so his closest legitimate relatives in the royal line were his Uncles and their sons and descendants- his cousins.
Richard seems to have been well aware of his Cousin Henry’s ambitions where the throne was concerned- but also knew that another one of his cousins Roger Mortimer (the father of Edmund) had a claim. It appears that Richard used the succession as something of weapon or at least as a political tool which by which he could gain the upper hand. In the 1480s Roger Mortimer was nominated as his heir, it is suggested perhaps partly to ‘foil the ambition of John of Gaunt’ but later in that same decade he ‘encouraged Bolingbroke’s expectations. Gaunt’s solid support for Richard from 1389 onwards may reflect some understanding that Richard… would nominate Gaunt or Bolingbroke as his heir’. After Roger Mortimer’s death in Ireland in 1397 there seems to have been little expectation that his young son Edmund would be appointed as heir- in this same decade Richard appears to have been showing favour to Edmund of Langley Duke of York and his sons and there is even suggestion that he might have considered them as possible heirs.
It is this issue of Richard’s apparent inconstancy and even capriciousness where the succession was concerned that raises questions over the absolute nature of the Mortimer claim. Next, there is the question of the strength of Richard’s claim. As stated before, he was descended from Phillipa, the daughter of the second son of Edward III but through his mother, Anne Mortimer, the sister of Edmund. Towards the end of his long reign Edward III excluded females from the succession, but when King Richard favoured Roger Mortimer as his heir, he included Phillipa’s heirs again, and there were of course other precedents in the past for female succession, such as the Eleventh century Queen Matilda.
The matter of female succession in important to any analysis of Richard of York’s claim considering that some who wish to discredit Henry Tudor’s claim cite his descent from Edward III in the female line. Yet these often seem to ignore the fact that Richard of York’s claim was derived through not one, but two female ancestors- Phillipa the aforementioned daughter of Lionel, and his mother Anne Mortimer, the sister of Edmund who died childless in 1425. Also, in the last case succession in the female line there had been no hiers in the male line left- which was not the case in 15th century England.
As Michael Hicks has demonstrated Richard of York’s claim stood as but one amongst server in the 1440s and 50s. The Lancastrians were certainly aware of his decent, and the potential threat his rival claim posed, but it does not seem to have become prominent until the late 1440s at least. Even at this time, Henry was favouring his Beaufort relatives, and others who were direct descendants of the House of Lancaster. The Lancastrian Kings themselves also had one major advantage- their descent was in the direct and unbroken male line from Edward III and was not dependant on female (as in the case of Richard) or illegitimate ancestors (as for the Beauforts).
Alongside York as possible heirs to the throne there stood at least four other viable claims
- John Duke of Exeter who was Nephew of Henry IV by birth and so the Cousin of Henry VI, and his son Henry.
- John Beaufort Duke of Somerset, and his brother Edmund – also direct descendants in the male line of Edward III, but through John of Gaunt’s illegitimate Beaufort sons- the offspring of his mistress Katherine Swynford. Although there were declared legitimate in the reign of Richard II they were barred from the succession by their half-brother Henry IV.
- Margaret Beaufort the daughter of Duke John
- Humphrey Stafford Duke of Buckingham, the heir to the youngest legitimate son of Edward III Thomas of Woodstock but, like York in the female line.
The above show that York was far from the only viable claimant to the throne, though his claim did arguably trump some of the others, the complicated rules and customs governing succession did not necessarily mean that his claim was the ‘best’. Certainly there were no rules specifically excluding heirs in the female line from the succession, and the matter of Edward III’s exclusion of these seems to have been accepted or disregarded depending on political expediency.
However, the number of claimants in the Lancastrian line, and Henry VI’s attempts to strengthen their hold on power through political marriages may have put York at a disadvantage dynastically.
In some respects, it was circumstances which caused York’s claim to become prominent. The ineffectuality of King Henry, and inability or lack of success of the government in running the country for him, the unpopularity of King Henry’s ‘wicked counsellors’, and York’s own popularity as a viable alternative to these gave his claim prominence. These circumstances, coupled with the force used by York to further his ends, and a number of unsuccessful armed risings against the King lead to York finally claiming the throne in his own right in 1460. This has been argued to be a last resort, after all hopes of reconciliation by peaceful means had been exhausted. After Richard’s death, his son Edward secured the Yorkist claim by Conquest and defeat of his enemies in battle. During the reign of the Yorkist kings is perhaps unsurprising that the legitimacy and superiority and validity of the Yorkist claim came to be an accepted as an absolute fact, in spite of its weaknesses in reality.
Bennett, Michael, Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (Stroud, 2006).
Hicks, Michael, The Wars of the Roses (London, 2010).
Family Tree taken from http://richardiiicasebook.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/lancaster-and-york-family-tree.html, Accessed 20th May 2012.