Edward IV was born on April 28, 1442, to Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Through his father, Edward descended from two of King Edward III’s sons: Lionel and Edmund. At the time of his birth, the Lancastrian King Henry VI ruled England. Henry’s grandfather, Henry IV, had overthrown his cousin, Richard II, in September 1399. In turn, his accession established the house of Lancaster as England’s new ruling dynasty.
By the 1450s, the Lancastrian government had become corrupt and ineffective. Henry VI had proven to be a weak and inefficient ruler. As a result, discontent grew against the king and his incompetent advisors. In response, Edward’s father, Richard, attempted to introduce reforms. Since Richard wanted to gain power at court, he came into conflict with Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. The queen actively sought to curb his ambition and prevent him from gaining influence.
The War of the Roses
During August 1453, the English were losing the Hundred Years’ War. Henry VI’s father, Henry V, had initially achieved great success against France after invading in 1415. However, upon his death in August 1422, the English gradually lost their advantage. Now, Charles VII of France and his troops had reclaimed all English held lands, except for the small port of Calais. In response to this news, a shocked Henry became catatonic.
With the king unresponsive, the Lancastrian government experienced a crisis. As a result, a temporary regent was needed to rule in Henry VI’s place. Seeing a golden opportunity, Richard attempted to become Protector of the Realm. Despite Margaret’s objections, the duke succeeded. As Protector, Richard sidelined the queen and imprisoned Henry’s most inept advisor, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
In October 1453, Margaret finally gave birth to an heir, Prince Edward. During January 1455, Henry VI regained his senses. Due to these developments, Richard lost both his position as Protector and his place in the succession. After having his reforms scrapped and being excluded from the government, Richard prepared his Yorkist followers for battle. The subsequent Battle of St. Albans began the civil war known as the War of the Roses.
Duke of York
By 1460, the Yorkists and Lancastrians had been in conflict for five years. Although Richard had captured Henry VI in July, the duke later died fighting in December. As Richard’s eldest son, 18-year-old Edward became the new Duke of York. Following his father’s death, Edward returned from exile in France to lead the Yorkists. The duke later marched with his supporters to London. Although London had prevented the Lancastrian army from entering, it willingly opened its gates to the Yorkists.
King of England
Despite Henry VI still being alive, Londoners elected to crown Edward as their new king. On July 28, 1461, the duke succeeded to the throne as the first Yorkist king, Edward IV. The young king quickly proved to be a capable leader and an adept warrior. However, the real power behind the throne lay with Edward’s cousin, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick. Before Edward became duke, Warwick staunchly supported Richard. After his death, the earl transferred his loyalty to his cousin.
During the early years of Edward IV’s reign, Warwick crushed Lancastrian resistance and engaged in diplomacy. Although Warwick attempted to guide the king, Edward began to assert his independence. While the earl engaged in talks for Edward to marry a French princess, the king had other plans. On May 1, 1464, Edward married in secret to Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth was a young widow of no significant rank. When Warwick discovered the king’s marriage, he felt humiliated.
At court, Edward IV began favoring the Woodvilles over his Neville relatives. As the Woodvilles gained influence, Warwick gradually lost his power. The breaking point between the two occurred in 1467. As the earl negotiated a peace treaty with France, Edward allied with France’s enemy, Burgundy. In response, Warwick seized his cousin in July 1469.
Edward IV eventually regained his freedom in October 1469. In response, Warwick fled to France and allied with the exiled Lancastrians. With Queen Margaret and King Louis XI of France’s backing, the earl invaded England in September 1470. Caught off guard, the king fled. Warwick subsequently re-installed Henry VI as king. However, the Lancastrian Restoration proved short-lived.
In March 1471, Edward IV returned to England with an army. After capturing London, the king killed Warwick during the Battle of Barnet on April 14. Soon after, Margaret and her son Edward arrived in England. The exiled queen gathered her remaining supporters and prepared for battle. On May 4, the Yorkists and Lancastrians clashed at the Battle of Tewkesbury.
Tewkesbury would be a decisive victory for the Yorkists. As a result, the Lancastrians suffered heavy losses. After routing their army, the Yorkists killed Prince Edward and later Henry VI. Upon their deaths, the direct Lancastrian line became extinct. Edward later imprisoned a devastated Margaret before ransoming her to Louis XI.
After crushing the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury, Edward IV secured his throne for the remainder of his reign. In turn, the king could focus on invading France. After allying with the duke of Burgundy, Edward obtained a grant from parliament in 1474. The following year, the king invaded France with an enormous army. Despite their agreement, the duke failed to prepare for Edward’s arrival, and his support never materialized.
Seeing an opportunity to appease the English, Louis XI made an agreement with Edward IV. Per the Treaty of Picquigny, Louis promised to pay Edward 75,000 gold crowns along with an annuity of 50,000 per year. In return, the English would leave France. Although the king didn’t achieve his goals, the treaty allowed Edward to be financially independent from parliament. After 1475, the king focused on reviving trade and increasing royal revenue in England. Through his efforts, Edward left behind a financial system that would continue to be used by his successors.
During the last decade of his reign, Edward IV became a more suspicious ruler. In February 1478, the king had his brother, George, executed after he sought to overthrow Edward. George had conspired against the king in the past with Warwick but had been pardoned. However, Edward had finally run out of patience with his brother. In turn, George would allegedly be drowned in a barrel of wine.
In 1482, Louis XI decided to stop honoring the Treaty of Picquigny. The French king did this to make peace with his rebellious nobility. In response, Edward IV began seriously considering invading France again. Before the king could plan an invasion though, he became ill. Edward would not recover from his illness and died on April 9, 1483.
Edward IV proved to a capable leader. During his reign, he overthrew the inept Henry VI and temporarily restored stability to England. As king, Edward made peace with France and created economic prosperity. Despite his success, it wouldn’t continue after his death. The Yorkists would only rule England for another two years until Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor (2010 ed.). London: Arcturus.
Cheetham, A. (2000). The Wars of the Roses. London: Cassell.
Myers, A. R. (2020, April 24). Edward IV. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-IV-king-of-England