It’s July 3rd, 1450.
On a midsummer’s day in London, England, a mob of angry peasants swarm across London Bridge and charge toward the city gates. At the front of the mob is the leader of this rebellion, a man named Jack Cade. Cade emits a guttural roar as he pounds his fists and kicks against the city’s wooden defenses.
Behind the city walls, the King’s soldiers try desperately to keep the peasants at bay. But they cannot repel the onslaught. The gates groan and creak under the pressure, until eventually – the gates crash open, and the rebels storm inside.
They march through the city bound for the Tower of London, where the King’s Royal Treasurer, Lord Saye, is imprisoned. Cade and his rebels blame Lord Saye, and other corrupt officials, for the country’s current financial woes. And today, they are determined to make Saye pay.
Inside the Tower, the rebels overpower the guards, pry Lord Saye from his cell and drag him out into the light of day where Jack Cade and the rest of the mob are waiting. Cade conducts a brief mock trial, finding Lord Saye guilty of corruption. The Treasurer is forced to his knees. An executioner steps forward, raises his sword, and... cuts off Lord Saye’s head.
Jack Cade’s rebellion, as this event will come to be known, came after months of growing resentment among many common people toward England’s King – Henry VI. These commoners came to believe Henry was a weak and ineffective monarch; a feckless leader too easily manipulated by his inner circle of corrupt advisors.
The commoners demanded Henry punish his advisors for leading the country down a path of ruin. And King Henry listened. He banished his closest counselor, the Duke of Suffolk, and locked his Royal Treasurer, Lord Saye, in the Tower of London. But that wasn’t enough for the angry peasants. They murdered the Duke of Suffolk as he sailed into exile, throwing his corpse into the English Channel. And then they stormed the Tower of London and put Lord Saye to death.
But in a matter of days, Jack Cade’s Rebellion will be suppressed by the King’s army. Still, the events of this uprising make one thing perfectly clear: the Kingdom of England is teetering on the brink, and so is its monarch.
Soon, a power struggle will ensue between competing nobles, all aware that whoever holds sway over Henry, controls all of England. This struggle will descend into a series of bloody conflicts, known as the War of the Roses; and the first phase of this tumultuous period will culminate when King Henry VI is forced from the throne on March 4th, 1461.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is March 4th: The Ouster of King Henry VI.
Act One: Warring Dukes
It’s September 7th, 1450, two months after Jack Cade’s rebellion.
A ship plows through the rough waters of the Irish Sea. Standing at the prow, with one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, is one of the most powerful men in the realm. Richard, Duke of York, is returning to England to launch a bid for power.
Richard is the cousin of England’s King, Henry VI. For the past year he has served in Ireland as the King’s lieutenant, but following the recent turmoil in London, Richard spied an opportunity. With Henry’s closest advisors dead, murdered at the hands of the rebels, Richard intends to take their place and assert his authority over the kingdom.
The king has repeatedly shown himself to be a weak and incompetent ruler. He has presided over disastrous military defeats in France; he failed to protect London from Jack Cade’s rebel army; and when the rebels demanded he give up his closest advisors for execution, the King acquiesced.
In Richard’s opinion, Henry is not suitable to rule the Kingdom – at least, not by himself. Richard believes that it’s in the best interests of the country for him to govern as the hand behind the throne.
So after his fleet lands in Wales, the Duke of York marches to London. He strides into Westminster Hall, where parliament is meeting. There, Richard kneels before King Henry and volunteers his services as Lord Protector of the Realm. But Henry informs his cousin that he has already appointed somebody else to govern the country on his behalf. The man is seated to Henry’s right.
Edmund, Duke of Somerset.
Richard is astonished. Edmund is a nobleman who recently commanded the English army against France. But after suffering a series of calamitous defeats, Edmund fled the battlefield. To Richard’s mind, Edmund is not only a useless military leader, he’s a coward and a traitor, completely unfit to run the country.
But Edmund has a powerful ally: Henry’s wife, Queen Margaret. Unlike her husband, Margaret is strong-minded and shrewd. She recognizes Richard, the Duke of York’s ambition, and she fears it.
Margaret has not yet produced a son. So, therefore, Richard is currently next in line to the throne. As Henry’s cousin, he has a legitimate claim, and if Richard does become King, Margaret would be stripped of her power and status. And that's something the Queen simply will not allow.
This is more than a struggle for dominance over the crown; it’s a competition between rival bloodlines, determining who rules England not just today, but for the next thousand years.
Although they’re cousins, King Henry VI and Richard, Duke of York, belong to rival noble families: the House of Lancaster, and the House of York. Because Henry and Margaret are childless, Henry is the last surviving heir to the House of Lancaster. If he is ousted from power, the Lancastrian dynasty is finished.
For now, Richard, Duke of York, has been outmaneuvered. With her ally Edmund in charge, Margaret seems to have everything under control. And in the spring of 1453, she makes a significant stride toward further securing her power and influence: she falls pregnant. And if she gives birth to a boy, Margaret’s status as mother of heir to the throne will be unassailable.
But just as fortune starts to smile on the House of Lancaster, a piece of disastrous news will arrive from France.
It’s August 1453.
Henry and his advisors are hunting on the royal estate in Wiltshire when a messenger arrives with important news.
For over a century, England has been fighting to preserve its territories in France. But during King Henry’s reign, a string of military defeats have left the once mighty Plantagenet Empire reduced to just one French region: Gascony.
As the messenger arrives, his face is grave. He announces that the English have just been routed at the Battle of Castillon. Gascony has fallen, and England’s 300-year-old dominion over France is over.
It's a shameful indictment of Henry’s reign. His own father, Henry V, was a military hero and a great victor of the French wars. Now everything his father fought for has been lost on Henry’s watch. It’s more than the King can bear. He sinks to his knees in shock and slips into a catatonic stupor.
His attendants try to revive him – but it’s no use. For the next 16 months, Henry will be unable to move or speak. With Henry incapacitated, a power vacuum will form at the heart of the monarchy. And soon, one man will step forward from the shadows to fill that vacuum: Richard, Duke of York.
Act Two: The Bloody Crown
It’s December 1454, sixteen months after Henry fell into a catatonic state.
Queen Margaret paces around the King’s bed-chamber, her face full of concern.
Not long after Henry fell into a stupor, Margaret gave birth to his son. To shore up her power, Margaret needed parliament to officially acknowledge the baby prince as heir to the throne. This would sideline the current heir, Richard, Duke of York, and leave Margaret in full control.
So Edmund, the Duke of Somerset, requested the lords of parliament acknowledge the king’s son as the heir. But Richard’s allies refused. Moments later, Richard burst in the chamber and had Edmund arrested on charges of treason.
Without the King to protect him, Edmund was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard was proclaimed Lord Protector of the Realm, and Queen Margaret had no choice but to accept Richard’s authority or suffer the consequences.
On Christmas Day, 1454, King Henry finally comes to. When the King learns of what’s happened during his incapacitation, he strips Richard of all his power. At the Queen’s behest, Henry releases Edmund from the Tower of London and reinstates him as his right-hand.
Enraged, Richard returns to his castle in the north of England. There, he raises an army of 3,000 men, and marches on London, intent on killing Edmund and gaining control of the King. Edmund leads his own army of 2,000 men north to meet Richard.
The first battle of the War of the Roses is about to begin. And on May 22nd, 1455, the two sides clash in the town of St Albans.
Edmund’s army is smaller, but he does have one important advantage: King Henry. Edmund has not brought Henry along for his military prowess. Henry doesn’t know the first thing about warfare. But Edmund knows that whoever has the King by his side has the moral high ground to claim to be fighting for the good of the country.
But on the battlefield, Richard aims to deprive Edmund of his advantage. Soon, Richard’s ally, the Earl of Warwick, leads the charge across the barricades. Before long, the bodies pile up in the narrow streets of St Albans, and the air is filled with the agonizing screams of the wounded and dying. After several hours of ferocious combat, Richard’s men capture Edmund. They force him to his knees and – with a single stroke of a longsword – remove him of his head.
Shortly after killing Edmund, Richard’s soldiers capture King Henry. Richard does not intend to kill the King. Instead, he kneels before the monarch and pledges allegiance to the crown. In return, he asks that the King reappoint him as Lord Protector. With little choice, Henry agrees.
Richard resumes his role, effectively ruling the country over Henry. Queen Margaret isn’t happy, but there is not much she can do. For a moment, it seems that Richard's grip on power might hold... but trouble is brewing.
The Battle of St. Albans stokes the flames of the longstanding feud between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. As Lord Protector, Richard tries to unite the divided nation under his leadership. But without the divine authority of kingship, he cannot force parliament to bend to his will. Deprived of the full support of parliament, he struggles to govern the country. And eventually, in October 1459, a brooding and frustrated Richard is forced again to retreat to his castle at Ludlow.
Queen Margaret seizes this opportunity. Under the King’s royal banner, she sends an army north to Ludlow to destroy Richard once and for all. She almost succeeds. The King’s army forces Richard to flee England altogether and retreat to his estate in Ireland.
With Richard out of the picture, the Lancastrians soon gain control of parliament. Then, in November 1459, Queen Margaret persuades them to strip Richard of his titles and lands. Without a legitimate claim, neither Richard nor his ancestors have any right to the throne. By doing this, Margaret has backed Richard into a corner. If he wants power, he will have to take it.
Act Three: Coronation
It’s September 9th, 1460, a year after the Duke of York fled to Ireland.
Fluttering above the ranks of a large deployment of soldiers, a bright crimson banner bears the Coat of Arms of England – a symbol reserved for the army of the king. But King Henry is not leading the troops. Rather the man riding at the vanguard is Richard, Duke of York. Today, Richard marches into London to take the crown for himself.
Three months ago, Richard’s ally – the Earl of Warwick – led an army of Yorkist troops against the King’s forces in the Battle of Northampton. The Yorkists were victorious, and Henry was captured. Queen Margaret managed to escape north to Scotland.
After reaching London, Richard marches into parliament as if he’s already king. Richard’s advisors have urged him not to depose Henry, for fear of inciting a popular rebellion, so Richard only requests that the lords in parliament agree that Richard’s descendants will inherit the throne after Henry’s death. Reluctantly, the lords agree.
With his royal lineage assured, Richard sets out to subdue Margaret. He rides north to capture the Queen and force her to submit. But once again, Richard has underestimated his foe.
Margaret has assembled a massive force of her own, far outnumbering the Yorkists. And on December 30th, Richard and his troops clash with the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Wakefield, in the north of England. This time, Richard is captured and he's executed. His head will be displayed on a spike outside the gates of York.
But the Yorkists’ claim to the throne does not disappear with the death of Richard. Instead, it passes down to his 18-year-old son.
It’s March 4th, 1861 in London.
A tall, handsome young man stands before a crowd of nobles in Westminster Abbey. Today, Edward, son of the Duke of York, is about to be proclaimed King of England.
The current King, the sickly and reclusive Henry VI, was captured by the Yorkists almost a year ago. He was subsequently re-captured by his Lancastrian allies. But Henry’s authority has been fatally undermined.
In Westminster Abbey, the Earl of Warwick steps forward and declares Edward IV the rightful King of England. But to solidify his grip on the crown, Edward must first defeat the Lancastrian army.
And so, in late March, Edward rides out to avenge his father’s death and topple King Henry’s reign once and for all. The two armies meet on a snowy, frozen field at the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. The contest rages for hours until finally, Edward hears a welcome sound. His men chanting, “York! York! York!” as the Lancaster troops flee the field. They are defeated. Edward is victorious. And the House of York is ascendant… for the time being.
The War of the Roses does not end with the rise of King Edward IV, the decades-long conflict between the two noble dynasties will enter a new, more bloody chapter, one that began with the ouster of King Henry VI on March 4th, 1462.
Next on History Daily. March 7th, 1827. In North-West England, a wealthy teenage heiress named Ellen Turner is kidnapped and forced into marriage with an ambitious conman.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.