Edward IV has a reputation for being the best-looking King of England, twice restoring peace. His tall, fair and handsome looks certainly contrasted with his predecessor, Henry VI. But was he really successful?
The fact that Edward had to restore himself to the throne suggests that in his first reign mistakes were made: he allowed Henry VI to continue living, therefore giving the Lancastrians a figurehead and someone to whom the throne could be returned, and he did not satisfy the hunger for control that his over-mighty subject Warwick ‘the King Maker’ had. By marrying the notoriously beautiful Elizabeth Woodville, Edward was refusing (as a man of only eighteen) to act in a way that was expected of a king. You could put this down to his young age, and with Elizabeth being a good amount older than him she could have taken advantage of this, however the king’s reputation for being a lover of ladies continued through to the end of his second reign.
Raymond’s History of England, published in 1785, says that:
Edward, instead of directing his attention to the affairs of government, and the tranquility of his subjects, now gave himself up to the indulgence of every sensual gratification.
This is not rare for a king, however this reputation is a stark contrast to that of Henry VI.
Although Edward took advantage of the situation that the country was in in the 1450s, the unrest also didn’t do him any favours when he began ruling England, as ‘the whole kingdom was in one general state of commotion’. Of course, the ‘quarrel between the two Roses’ dominated this period and gives it its name that is so well known today, but Edward seemed to maintain peace and order in his second reign, even creating enough surplus for his son to inherit a fortune. So why didn’t his son inherit, and why was his heir never crowned?
It is important to remember that, despite the title of Raymond’s book being A New, Universal and Impartial History of England, the telling of history is always influenced by the author’s own views and the historiographical trends of the time at which they are writing. Raymond’s History is largely critical of Edward’s first reign, underlining the injustices (for example the repeated favours ‘heaped on the queen’s family and some few persons whom the king considered as his favourites’) that caused the common people to fight with the Duke of Clarence and Warwick, who were ‘determined to engage in open rebellion’.
Despite this, at the start of his reign, ‘Edward seemed to possess the general affections of the people’ and he was ‘greatly celebrated for his gallantry and condescension towards the ladies’. Therefore there seems to be a point at which public opinion appeared to change and in 1468 ‘the spirit of the faction (Lancastrians) now threatened the kingdom with all the horrors of civil discord. The common people, as well as the nobles, were disgusted with Edward for his injudicious and partial conduct, and commotions took place in several parts of the kingdom’.
It seems that although Edward had won the crown in 1461 he still faced considerable opposition, and consequently any mistakes or decisions he made would be held under a microscope and scrutinized unforgivingly. Of course, this isn’t surprising considering the number of deaths and divisions created by the enmities of the early 1450s. Edward had shown many Lancastrians mercy in his first reign, aiming to win them over to his side and end Lancastrian opposition, but he simply failed and as long as there was another possible king, certain factions would want him off the throne.
Warwick and Clarence were able to rebel against Edward as they had the previously anointed king (Henry VI) who many believed had a God-given right to the throne of England. Edward did not make this mistake again, killing Henry VI in the tower, therefore removing the Lancastrian threat. However he didn’t deal with the other cause of the usurpation: an over mighty subject, or in this case, two. In his second reign Edward continued to build contempt amongst nobles and the Queen’s extensive family suffocated all areas of the marriage market as they spread their influence far and wide. Through this badly thought-out patronage, Edward enabled his brother – Richard III, the final York king – to gain the throne after his own death due to his already extensive power.
Edward did manage to rule peacefully in his second reign but ultimately failed to gain the throne for his heir. Or did he? If we look just a few years later, to Henry VII – son of highly religious and loyal follower of Henry VI, Margaret Beaufort – the York line is far from lost. Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, is ruling at Henry VII’s side. Henry VIII was the grandson of Edward IV. The marriage of Edward’s daughter to Henry Tudor was a great success for the Yorkist line; despite the missing Princes in the Tower and the death of Richard III and Edward IV, York blood continued to rule the kingdom even with a Tudor king.
Edward’s reign began in difficult circumstances and seemed to end in better ones, but was he really a good king? From the point of view of George Frederick Raymond in his History of England, written 300 years after his reign, the portrait of Edward VI is rather unflattering. He calls Edward ‘indolent’, ‘ungenerous’, of ‘vindictive disposition’ and ‘an object of universal contempt’. However he managed to retain the throne, despite a broiling political situation, for a good number of years, suggesting that he did do something right. It is overlooked in the book that Edward managed to maintain peace with France, Burgundy and Brittany, and the court and finances of the country were in a strong position while under his leadership. Raymond’s History of England summarises King Edward with this:
Edward possessed some amiable qualities which would have made him appear amiable as a man, but at the same time he had others which rendered him detestable both as a man and a monarch.