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London and the Wars of the Roses

Saintly Henry VI

The dragging feuds of the Wars of the Roses left London relatively unscathed. Merchants, as a caste, tended to be too busy with their own business affairs to worry overmuch about the coups, battles and blood-lettings of their leaders. Yet the reign of Henry

VI – who suffered from catatonic schizophrenia and whose rule brought the collapse of England’s aspirations to rule parts of France, economic depression, and the widespread collapse of law and order – was disastrous enough to jolt the merchants of London out of their stolid passivity.

The city grew so unhappy with the Lancastrian King Henry that London citizens chose to support his rival, Edward of York – a decision that helped Edward to the throne and helped him decide on what he was to call a policy of “grace” towards the merchants.

The city grew so unhappy with the Lancastrian King Henry that London citizens chose to support his rival, Edward of York – a decision that helped Edward to the throne and helped him decide on what he was to call a policy of “grace” towards the merchants.

Londoners’ suspicions of the Lancastrian King crystallised when, in 1456, there were riots in London, led by mercers’ apprentices, against the London Lombards. Londoners resented the fact that King Henry VI had chosen Italians, rather than English merchants, from whom to borrow money. The rioters were savagely punished by King Henry’s choice of investigator, the Duke of Exeter. Exeter had a reputation for violence. The rack at the Tower of London, where he was Constable, was called “the Duke of Exeter’s daughter”. Exeter’s decision to send the apprentices to the gallows did nothing to endear King Henry to the merchants.

Four years later, in July 1460, London let in a Yorkist army, lent its leaders £1000, and, while the army went north to fight, allowed one leader, the Earl of Salisbury, to stay with his men and blockade King Henry’s Lancastrian garrison in the Tower of London. The Tower garrison was commanded by Lord Scales, a brutal veteran of the wars in France. For the first time in history, he turned the Tower’s guns on the very citizens they were supposed to be defending. As well as guns, Scales used the weapon intended to be used against enemy ships that might need to be driven away if they appeared on the Thames. Called “wildfire,” it was the period’s napalm. It clung to targets and burned if water was thrown on it. Women and children in the streets were maimed by it.

Map of medieval London

Outraged by this Lancastrian savagery, Londoners rushed to help the Yorkist rebels. Heavy cannon were mounted opposite the Tower, on the Thames’ south bank, and fired so that part of the fortress’s outer walls came down. Mercer John Harowe was among the fighters besieging the Tower from St Katherine’s in the east – so no food could get in. Every alderman contributed £5, then £10, then another £10, to pay boatmen for their blockade of the Tower and navvies working on fortifications. When, on July 19, the Tower garrison surrendered, Lord Scales tried to escape down the Thames in a river boat, but was recognized and lynched by a mob of boatmen. Covered in stab wounds, his body was thrown naked into the churchyard of St Mary Overy. It was a sign that Londoners’ sympathies now lay firmly with the Yorkists.

For the moment, the Yorkist side, helped by its London supporters, was in the ascendancy. But, by 1461, the war was going the Lancastrians’ way again – until, that is, the people of London got their revenge.

Mad King Henry’s fierce French wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, had raised an army which had destroyed the Yorkist leader (Edward’s father) in the North Country. She and that army then marched south towards London to deal with Edward – himself marching towards London from Wales at the head of another army – and Edward’s ally, the Earl of Warwick, who was in the south at the head of another Yorkist army.

Yorkist brothers: Richard III and his elder brother Edward IV

The Queen’s northern army caused devastation, looting whatever towns it came near; Londoners were terrified of the “faithless Northerners, people prompt to rob”, whose speech sounded like “the hounds of Hell barking”. The Prior of Croyland Abbey described them as an “execrable and abominable army” sweeping like a whirlwind from north “like so many locusts”. By the time the Queen and her army turned up at the gates of London, having defeated Warwick, demanding to be let into the City, Londoners were thoroughly rattled. The sheriffs – one was John Lambert – summoned Londoners to take up arms and defend the City. The gates were closed and guarded. Shops were shut. Owners stayed home and mulled over the rumour that the Queen had granted the Northerners leave to spoil and rob London because she didn’t have the money to pay them. When the Mayor told Londoners to stay in their homes as the Lancastrian army marched in, the terrified townspeople started rioting. They took the keys of the gates to stop the troops entering.

The Queen decided to retreat with her hungry army rather than anger London any further – a disastrous decision for the Lancastrians.

Shortly afterwards, Edward’s Yorkist army reached London. He had no trouble gaining entry to the City. He rode in with Warwick and his Yorkist troops and got a rapturous welcome. On March 4, 1461, he was acclaimed as a rival, Yorkist, king – Edward IV – at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The Milanese observer Camulio wrote: “London is entirely inclined to side with the new king and Warwick, and as it is very rich and the most wealthy city in Christendom, this enormously increases the chances of the side it favours.”

Sheriff John Lambert was present at the ceremonies. He was also one of those funding the new royal household. City aldermen gave Edward IV £150, and the Mayor and aldermen also lent £4,000 for the military campaign that still needed to be fought against the Lancastrians. Edward was to come regularly to the City for loans.

London’s only other real brush with the war came a decade after that, in 1471. The decisive battle of Barnet took place just north of the City, in modern suburbia. Here the Earl of Warwick – who had changed sides, betrayed Edward IV, and briefly put the Lancastrian King Henry VI back on the throne – was killed. A few days later, the Lancastrian fleet, denied access to London, laid siege to the City. Its bombardment continued for several days until the Lancastrians withdrew to Kingston. Their allies – a rabble of pirates led by Lord Fauconberg’s son, the Bastard of Fauconberg, and an army of Kentishmen led by the Mayor of Canterbury, were executed. Their heads ended up on London Bridge, looking towards Kent. The episode gave Londoners a big fright, and encouraged them to greet the returning King Edward and his 30,000 men with extra enthusiasm.

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