By Amy Licence
Amberley Publishing, 2016
When the tall, athletic Edward of York seized the English throne in 1461, he could have chosen any bride he wanted. With his dazzling looks and royal descent, the nineteen-year-old quickly got a reputation for womanizing, with few able to resist his charm and promises. For three years he had a succession of mistresses, mostly among the married women and widows of his court, while foreign princesses were lined up to be considered as his queen. Then he fell in love.
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Edward IV is a king who has been damned with faint praise. He has largely escaped the school syllabus, the popular documentary, the tourist pilgrimage. It is difficult to find his face on the china mugs and bookmarks that fill the shelves in properties owned by English Heritage or the National Trust. Many people cannot place Edward’s reign in time, or tie it to a specific historical event; instead his name elicits puzzled questions and his achievements have been largely forgotten. He has attracted little attention in comparison with the historical behemoths of his great-great-grandfather, the Calais-conquering Edward III, or his grandson, the intermittently uxorious Henry VIII.
It is no surprise that the lens of history tends to illuminate the more colourful characters or that acts of chance can propel certain long-dead individuals into the public consciousness. We only need look at the way the discovery of Richard III’s bones in 2012 sparked a renewed interest in his life and reign, culminating in the televised reburial which attracted viewers from around the world. Yet prior to the Leicester excavations, Richard’s face was already instantly recognisable. What is more remarkable is the place Richard occupies in popular culture for his two-year reign, beside the twenty-two years in which his now unremembered brother was King of England. Edward was no less colourful, no less dynamic or engaging, no less controversial. Edward too usurped a throne and murdered a king in the Tower of London. More than this: he came back from exile and conquered England, twice. His victories at the battles of Mortimer’s Cross, Towton, Barnet and Tewkesbury demonstrate a military genius on a par with the achievements of Crécy or Agincourt.
Yet for some reason Edward did not inspire those who created ‘history’. Not in the sense of historiography, or the processes of recording, in the centuries that followed his death. He has been overlooked by the cultural ‘greats’ who formed the reputation of his brother: Shakespeare did not name a play after him, David Garrick did not play him, Hogarth did not paint him. Such plays, performances and paintings are the stepping stones by which kings become icons. Edward has become the ghost of a king: a historical filler before Richard III assumed the throne, a bit-player in Shakespeare’s trilogy about Henry VI, the father of the Princes in the Tower, the husband of the White Queen. Edward has become one of our many ‘missing kings’ on whom the spotlight has failed to shine. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.
Yet Edward’s contemporaries thought well of him. He was a popular king for many reasons, both on personal and political levels, as well as for his feats of military prowess and his deeply cultured and magnificent court. In the 1470s, Edward’s once sworn enemy John Fortescue wrote that Edward ‘hath done more for us than ever did king of England, or might have done before him. The harms that hath fallen in getting of his realm be now by him turned into the good and profit of us all. We shall now more enjoy our goods, and live under justice, which we have not done of long time, God knoweth.’ However, Edward’s reputation suffered in later centuries. Four hundred years after Fortescue, the Victorian historian Bishop William Stubbs commented that ‘Edward IV was not perhaps quite so bad a man or so bad a king as his enemies have represented’ but condemned him as ‘vicious beyond anything that England had seen since the days of John.’ To him, Edward was a man ‘guilty of an unparalleled list of judicial and extra-judicial cruelties which those of the next reign (Richard III) supplemented but do not surpass.’ Somewhere between the paragon of peace and the vicious villain lies the real Edward. Or rather it might be a number of real Edwards, as in life he was just as inconsistent, evolving and variable as any multifaceted human being whose persona straddles both public and private realms.
There is much material for the historian to explore when it comes to Edward’s reign, much more than his secret marriage and his military prowess. His court witnessed a cultural flowering in comparison with the austerity and turmoil of that under Henry VI. Edward’s was a consciously modelled Arthurian court: that of a charismatic leader flanked by loyal knights, which introduced ‘a new paradigm of militant chivalric rule.’ And as Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur reflected, those loyalties were torn asunder by rivalry, ambition and treason. As a function of this magnificence, Edward understood the importance of appearances, consciously crafting his own performance under the Burgundian influence in what can be seen as an act of early Renaissance self-fashioning. Yet as well as looking forward, this theatricality looked backwards to the troubled golden persona of Richard II, from whose Mortimer heirs Edward’s claim derived. Unlike Richard though, Edward survived attacks upon his kingship, threats to his life and imposed exile. His reign also witnessed cultural changes with the proliferation of educational and conduct manuals inspired by Italian humanist concepts, creating a royal household devoted to reverence and service, a court whose lines were redrawn to become a well-regulated body that could paradoxically embrace both thrift and majesty. Yet this new court was determined by conduct as much as birth. Edward might be imposing, but he was also warm and accessible; newcomers were made welcome and men of culture and ability could be advanced, as well as the old nobility. As might be anticipated, this created problems. Yet the answer to those problems was Edward himself, in his dynamic rule by personality; a larger than life, lusty and powerful man – something of a medieval superhero – winning astonishing victories against the odds, with wisdom and charisma.
At Edward’s side was Elizabeth Woodville, an unlikely queen, whom he had chosen in spite of tradition, in spite of advice, perhaps even in spite of himself. Her beauty was legendary, but on almost every other level she was an unacceptable choice for an English queen. She was a widow, a mother, five years the king’s elder, born and married into Lancastrian families, the daughter of a mere knight and she came with a large retinue of relatives. Her father was a man whom Edward had, until recently, held in contempt. However, it is less remarkable that Edward married her than that he actually admitted it four months later. He might have denied the ceremony, invalidated it retrospectively or bought her silence, as rumour suggests he had done with previous lovers. But Elizabeth was different. She may have begun her reign as unsuitable and unpopular, but she was in fact the perfect embodiment of the beautiful, submissive, fertile queen – an ideal portrayed in manuscripts and illustrations of the era. Edward broke with centuries of tradition when he saw her worth and overlooked her shortcomings.