Percies, Nevilles and the Wars of the Roses
Anthony Pollard explains how the rivalry of two great Northern families contributed to civil war in fifteenth-century England.
Of all the feuds that beset England in the mid-fifteenth century that between the Percy and Neville families in northern England is the most infamous. A contemporary identified it as 'the beginning of the greatest sorrows in England' and many historians since have perceived it as the critical element in converting factionalism at court into civil war in the kingdom at large. And indeed a direct link between events in Yorkshire in 1453 and 1454, the first battle of St Albans in 1455, and the battles of 1459-61 can be demonstrated. The Wars of the Roses, as they unfolded, were both a contest between the houses of Lancaster and York and a feud between the families of Percy and Neville. But in several respects the character and scale of the feud in the north has been misinterpreted and its real political significance misunderstood.
It has been widely assumed that the Percies were the more important of the two families in the fifteenth century, 'strutting the northern shires like kings'. The ultimate source of the misconception, that the north knew no prince but a Percy, lies in Lord Hunsden's much misquoted remark to William Cecil, made in the immediate aftermath of the Rising of the Northern Earls in 1569, that at that particular moment of rebellion, 'Northumberland knows no prince but a Percy'. Other testimonies to Percy importance, such as the remarks made by Thomas Peeris in the early sixteenth century, or by John Hardyng in 1463, can be shown to be the flattery or special pleading of loyal servants. The actual situation of the Percy family for all but a few years of the fifteenth century was anything but regal. The only Percy to have ruled the north like a prince was the first earl who died in disgrace in 1408. By artful and single-minded political manoeuvring he made him- self the principal power in the north in the reign of Richard II and then, by his timely support for Henry IV in 1399, its master. For a brief while his family, including his brother Thomas, Earl of Worcester and son, Hotspur, were indispensable. But the Percies overreached themselves and rebellion in 1403 and 1405 led to disaster. Condemned for treason in 1405, and his estates forfeited, the earl fled to Scotland. His grandson and heir was restored by Henry V in 1416, but was never able to recover all the family estates or to secure the power and authority enjoyed by the first earl.
Indeed, only once more in the fifteenth century was an earl of Northumberland able to hold sway in the north; in the exceptional circumstances of the eighteen months of civil war between October 1459 and March 1461. But the defeat and death of the third earl at Towton led to attainder and forfeiture for a second time in the century and the fourth earl, though restored by Edward IV in 1471, was kept on tight rein by successive kings until his murder during a tax riot in 1489. The earls of Northumberland in the sixteenth century looked back wistfully to an imagined age when they ruled the north, but in reality they had only ruled it in the later part of the lifetime of the first earl at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It was not the power of the family, but its survival in the male line despite all that had happened to it that was remarkable.
The true princes of the north in the fifteenth century were not the Percies but the Nevilles, or to be more precise, the Nevilles of Middleham. The founder of the family's fortunes was Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, who died in 1425. Unlike the first earl of Northumberland, he was the retainer of the house of Lancaster, but, more importantly his second countess was Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and half-sister of Henry IV.
Unswervingly loyal to the first three Lancastrians, Neville was instrumental in holding the north secure for Henry IV during the Percy rebellions and was the principal beneficiary of their fall. Westmorland, anxious to promote the career of Richard, his eldest son by Joan Beaufort, whom he married to the heiress of the earldom of Salisbury, divided his own inheritance, granting the greater part based on his Yorkshire lordships of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton to Richard. After his father's death, Richard, having successfully with- stood the challenge of the disinherited 2nd Earl of Westmorland, relentlessly extended and consolidated the grip of his branch of the family on the north. Two brothers succeeded to the northern baronies of Latimer and Fauconberg; a third became Bishop of Durham'. He himself was granted the lands of the earldom of Richmond in the north. By 1450, when his son inherited the earldom of Warwick and the lordship of Barnard Castle, he and his family controlled a fifty mile swathe of land in north-eastern England from coast to Pennine ridge and Wensleydale to the Tyne. Added to this were principal royal offices such as the Wardenship of the West March and most of the Duchy of Lancaster stewardships in the north. Not surprisingly, most of the lesser peer- age of the region, including Lords Dacre, Greystoke, Fitzhugh and Srope of Bolton attached themselves to the earl. Richard, now Earl of Salisbury, was continuously adding to and expanding his power with the connivance of a pliant king. He acquired the promise of Richmond in heredity and the office of Warden of the West March for the lives of both himself and his eldest son, as well as the reversion of the remaining steward- ships of the duchy of Lancaster in Yorkshire. Moreover, while Northumberland had great difficulty in securing payment as Warden of the East March, Salisbury enjoyed continued preference at the exchequer. The foundation of this royal favour was his Beaufort blood and his attachment to the ruling faction. The Suffolk of the north, Salisbury was both court politician and overmighty subject.
Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, struggling to rehabilitate his family and to recover full control of his inheritance, was no match for Neville. He dominated Northumberland, where he was the principal landowner and he, or his son, always held the wardenship of the east march. But in both Cumbria and Yorkshire, where he also held estates, he had to accept second place to Salisbury and his family. That the Percies resented the dominance enjoyed by the Nevilles of Middleham in mid-fifteenth century cannot be doubted. Neville had after all, directly benefited from Percy disgrace. But it is not true that mutual hostility between the two families had become a way of life. Indeed there is significant evidence to suggest that until the end of 1452 the two earls worked harmoniously together in defending the border against the Scots, served on royal commissions, co-operated in sponsoring the election of MPs to Parliament, and even agreed to act together as witnesses in the legal transactions of local gentry. The Percies were anxious not to lose out further to the Nevilles.
Such anxiety probably explains the Earl of Northumberland's heavy expenditure on retaining and his jealous protection of his spheres of influence in Cumbria and Yorkshire. In Cumbria, indeed, the Percies gained some compensation. In November 1447 Sir Thomas Percy, the earl's second son, was created Lord Egremont and granted the full barony in face of Neville claims to a share. And in 1452, a brother, William, was promoted Bishop of Carlisle. But until 1453, despite the suggestion that Salisbury as Warden of the March was blamed for the capture of Sir Henry Percy, the earl's eldest son, by the Scots, the tension between the two families remained under control and the Percies offered no threat to continuing Neville domination.
Underlying tension flared suddenly into open conflict in the summer of 1453 because of the marriage between Salisbury's second son, Sir Thomas Neville, and Maud Stanhope, niece and joint-heiress of Lord Cromwell, under the terms of which the manor and castle of Wressle was to pass permanently to a member of the Neville family. Wressle, an ancient Percy manor, once held by Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, who had built a magnificent residence there, had been granted to Lord Cromwell. It was one of the properties the Earl of Northumberland had still failed to recover. The prospect of the permanent loss of this small but highly desirable manor to a member of the Neville family seems to have been the final provocation. For the first time, Neville aggrandisement was being made directly at the expense of the Percies. It seems especially to have incensed the impatient younger sons of the Earl of Northumberland, uncertain about their future in a Neville-dominated world. The loss seems to have been felt particularly by the new Lord Egremont, who as yet had neither bride, nor land to match his status and may well have been promised Wressle on its recovery by his father. The outbreak of violence between the Nevilles and the Percies was not, therefore, the culmination of long developing rivalry, but a sudden explosion of pent-up resentment by the younger generation of Percies frustrated by the apparently never-ending expansion of Neville might in the north.
What actually happened in Yorkshire and Cumbria, where violence between the two families also flared up for the first time in 1453, has been exaggerated by historians who have been over-impressed by the melodramatic accounts of contemporaries, by the colourful language of the king's council impotently seeking to control the conflict and by the partisan character of the indictments subsequently made by the victorious Nevilles against the Percies. Violence erupted almost immediately after the king issued on May 1st, 1453, his licence to allow the marriage between Sir Thomas Neville and Maud Stanhope. Egremont began to recruit men and to distribute illegal liveries. He refused several royal commands to submit and so Sir John Neville, another of Salisbury's sons, took matters into his own hands by raiding the Percy manor of Topcliffe. Yorkshire quickly fell into disorder as tit-for-tat attacks on property and retainers ensued, one being the forcible seizure from Gargrave church of Laurence Catterall, a Neville retainer, by Sir Richard Percy.
The culmination of this riotous summer was the attempted ambush in August by Egremont and his brother, Sir Richard Percy, of the Neville wedding party as it passed through Heworth on its way to Sheriff Hutton. By the end of the summer matters had come to such a pitch that both earls were openly drawn into the conflict. They called out their own retainers and on October 20th, faced each other in battle array at Sand Hutton, four miles north of Topcliffe. A fight, however, was avoided by the mediation of the Archbishop of York and both parties were persuaded to suspend hostilities for the winter.
By the summer of 1454 the nature of the conflict was transformed by the intervention of other parties. What in 1453 had begun as a typical aristocratic resort to violence over property and had quickly escalated into a conflict over local domination, became caught up in the factionalism at court and led directly to rebellion in 1455. Matters developed so rapidly because of the collapse of the king's mental health in August 1453 and the consequent confusion and disarray at court. In a series of complex manoeuvres over the winter of 1453-54, the Nevilles ultimately came to back Richard, Duke of York, in his bid to be made Protector of the Realm. There were several reasons for this unlikely alignment. York was Salisbury's brother-in-law, married to his youngest sister Cecily. There is reason to suppose that Salisbury, who was several years older than the duke, had been his mentor when the duke had first entered the political world. But there were more practical and immediate reasons than this. Salisbury himself needed as much as ever to remain close to the fount of royal favour. At the end of 1452 the king had created his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and endowed him at his expense. The alternative to York was Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, also his kinsman. But Somerset was in dispute with Salisbury's son, the Earl of Warwick, over parts of the Beauchamp inheritance.
The more predictable Beaufort alliance between the Nevilles and Somerset to exclude York and the Percies, both with traditions of disloyalty towards the House of Lancaster, seems to have been precluded by this quarrel. Relationships were made more complex by the ambitions of Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, an enemy of Lord Cromwell and rival of the Duke of York, who made common cause with the Percies. Thus, because of the tortuous nature of factionalism at a royal court in total disarray the Nevilles came to back the Duke of York rather than the' Duke of Somerset. Indeed it was their backing which effectively secured the protectorate for York in March 1454. There- by they secured their immediate objective of retaining royal favour, but only at the longer term risk of losing it should the king recover in the near future.
The Nevilles gained the instant advantage they sought from the alliance with York. The duke' immediately put the authority of the crown behind them. This was made easier by the open rebellion of the Duke of Exeter in Yorkshire, assisted by Egremont, against his authority as protector. In May, York marched north, accompanied by the Earl of Salisbury, the new Chancellor of England, to crush their enemies. A commission of oyer and terminer sat in York in July, which roundly condemned the Percies for their violence of the previous summer. But little was achieved in restoring order to the county. Late in October 1454, however, Lord Egremont and his brother, Sir Richard Percy, with their followers were engaged by Sir Thomas and Sir John Neville at Stamfort Bridge. The Percy brothers were captured, tried and condemned for trespass, and, as intended, being unable to pay the huge fines placed on them, were committed to Newgate prison as debtors. But the success gained by the Nevilles in the summer of 1454, dependent as it was on the continued incapacity of Henry VI and York's position as protector, was transitory.
At Christmas 1454 the king recovered his senses. York and Salisbury were now exposed to their enemies and could no longer command the court; Somerset and Exeter were restored, and, what is more, for the first time the Earl of Northumberland secured for himself a position of special favour. In March 3.455 York and the Nevilles absented themselves and immediately planned rebellion in order to seize power back. On May 22nd, they attacked the king and his court at St Albans. At the end of the
day the Duke of Somerset and Earl of Northumberland lay dead, and the king and the government were once more in Yorkist hands.
It is important to put what went on in Yorkshire in 145W and 1454 in perspective. The violence there did not amount to a private war. This grossly exaggerates the nature and scale of the disorder. Neither Heworth nor Stamford Bridge was a battle. It is not actually clear that blows were struck at Heworth, and Stamford Bridge was a skirmish between two armed gangs, More significant perhaps was the battle that did not take place at Topcliffe in October 1453. Until 1455, in fact, both earls kept their distance; it was their sons who were openly involved. Secondly, although successive royal proclamations and indictments made much of the great 'troubles and vexations' and 'slaughters and murders', there were very few recorded deaths and no Percy or Neville blood was spilled. Indeed, it is the case that in both 1453 and 1454 many of the disorders had no connection with the quarrels between the two magnate families. Sir John Salvin of North Duffield's attack on Margaret Clervaux at nearby Sandholme in Howden in September 1453 arose out of an unrelated dispute over property; the ransacking of Sir John Salvin of Newbiggin's house in Eskdale by Sir Thomas Neville of Brancepeth the following March similarly has no discernible connection with the main conflict. Much lawlessness followed in the wake of the 'great discord' because of the general collapse of royal authority. Even so the scale of disorder pales into insignificance compared with the anarchy which plagued Yorkshire during the winter of 1459-61, as the Percies and their adherents went about the systematic destruction of the 'estates of the Nevilles and their followers.
What happened in the north in 1453 and 1454 was not the culmination of a long feud between Neville and Percy. The disorders were in fact the prelude to a blood feud which did not begin until the Earl of Northumberland was killed in St Albans on May 22, 1455, and arguably did not end until the Earl of Warwick met his death at Barnet sixteen years later. To the blood of the second earl at St Albans was added that of Egremont at Northampton in July 1460. Revenge was wreaked on Sir Thomas Neville and Salisbury himself after Wakefield in December 1460. Those deaths were paid back at Towton in 1461 and Hedgeley Moor in 1464 when the 3rd Earl of Northumberland and Sir Ralph Percy were killed; and finally at Barnet, both Warwick and his brother John were killed in arms against Edward IV whom the fourth earl had tacitly supported. Blood pursued blood, but only after 1455.
The great feud between Neville and Percy was inextricably bound up with the Wars of the Roses. It began as a challenge, born out of the frustration of the younger generation of the Percy family, to the apparently never- ending expansion of Neville power in northern England. It quickly became entangled in the crisis enveloping the whole reign for several reasons. There can be little doubt that the inept kingship of Henry VI had much to do with it. He in the first place allowed the territorial and family aggrandisement of his ambitious kinsman, the Earl of Salisbury. It is likely, however, that had the king remained mentally fit, the earl, with continued royal backing, would have seen off the desperate challenge of the younger Percies in 1453 was his mental collapse in 1453, not his general ineptitude that allowed the quarrel to run out of control.
But there was more to it than the collapse of personal kingship. The crown itself was weak in the north. North of Wensleydale it held very little land, even including the Duchy of Lancaster, and therefore had only a limited direct presence. There remained in northern England, too, a number of seigneurial franchises that severely limited the direct administration of the king's law. In northern Yorkshire, for instance, the bailiffs of Langbaurgh and of the wapentakes of Richmondshire, all appointees of the Earl of Salisbury, carried out the duties and exercised the powers of the king's sheriff. Since the crown also needed to provide for the defence of the border with Scotland, it had little choice but to rule through the local magnates to whom it ceded' a large degree of autonomy. And these magnates, both the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Northumberland, were empowered to retain, ostensibly for the defence of the border, on a scale not allowed elsewhere in the realm. Moreover, since they tended to be unchallenged in their own particular zones of influence, whether a county or district focused on a lord- ship, both families enjoyed the sup- port of not only large, but also loyal retinues which maintained a continuity over several generations. Thus both Neville and Percy, but particularly Neville, had the means at their disposal, should they so wish, to disregard or even challenge royal authority. As an individual king, Henry VI compounded the problem, but the crown itself was undermighty in the north. That is why a conflict between Neville and Percy, which the crown was unable to control, threatened the dynasty itself.
To make matters worse both the Earls of Salisbury and Northumberland suffered in mid-fifteenth century from falling rents and income from land. The agrarian crisis of the late 1430s had bitten more deeply in northern England than further south. It led to a permanent fall in rents of some 10 to 15 per cent in the following decade. Thus in the early 1450s both earls were facing financial losses. It was easier for the Earl of Salisbury, with his royal favour, to recoup these from office and prompt satisfaction at the exchequer. For the Earl of Northumberland, spending proportionally more of his income on fees to retainers and having greater difficulty in securing payment of the wages of his garrison at Berwick, denial of such favour had become more critical by 1453. The alienation of Wressle to the Nevilles thus also had real material significance to the Percies. But equally, the retention of favour, by all means available to them, became an absolute necessity for the Nevilles.
Circumstances in the north, therefore, which gave the Nevilles and Percies both independent power and a pressing need for royal favour, conspired to intensify their rivalry for local domination. Who was in and who was out mattered a great deal to the earls, their sons, and their retainers. At first it drove the Percies to violence and disorder; after the realignment of factions during 1454, it drove the Nevilles to rebellion and treason. What made the initial quarrel between Neville and Percy so significant an element in the origins of the Wars of the Roses was not its scale, but its close link with developments at court, as exemplified in the events of 1454. Theirs was not the only aristocratic quarrel, and the north was not the only region in which the house of Lancaster came to grief. But out of this quarrel, which coincided with Henry VI's mental collapse, arose the fateful and unlikely alliance between Neville and York, the decisive conjunction of opposition to the regime which ultimately had the power to bring it down.
In 1454, for ill-considered short-term gain, the Nevilles foolishly put at risk their fundamental advantage of royal favour. Having lost it early in 1455 they were prepared to stop at nothing, including the overthrow of a dynasty to which they owed every- thing, to recover it. Their ruthless pursuit of power led directly to the usurpation of Edward IV, renewed royal favour and the restoration of unchallenged dominance of the north under Warwick the Kingmaker in the 1460s. On the field of Towton seven years later the Neville decision to support York in 1454 was finally vindicated.
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