Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York
Born: September 21, 1411
Died: December 30, 1460
Wakefield, Yorkshire, England (Age 49)
York in History
Richard Plantagenet was an important figure in fifteenth-century England because of the fact that he was descended from Edward III through both his parents. His father was the son of Edmund of Langley, Edward III's forth surviving son, and his mother was the great-granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III's second surviving son. If the succession could pass through the female, Richard was technically the rightful King of England after the death of his uncle, Edmund Mortimer, in 1425. The Lancastrians (Henry IV, V, and VI) based their claim on their descent from John of Gaunt, Edward III's third surviving son. Despite his illustrious ancestry, Richard's life did not begin in any ideal manner. His mother died before he reached his second birthday and, more significantly, his father was attainted of treason and executed for his participation in the Southampton Plot against King Henry V. By the time Richard was three, he was an orphan. Luckily, Henry V was in the process of returning those who were enemies of his father into allies and, when Richard's uncle Edward died at Agincourt in late 1415, he was recognized as Duke of York. When his uncle Edmund died in 1425, Richard also inherited the vast Mortimer estates (although he did not receive his full inheritance until he came of age in 1431). Possessing both the Yorkist and Mortimer estates made Richard one of the richest men in England, all by the time he was in his early twenties. The new Duke of York began his political career as a loyal subject of the Lancastrian regime (which, since Henry V's death in 1422, had been led by the infant King Henry VI). His first military command came in France after the death of the king's uncle John, Duke of Bedford, who had been regent of France since the young king's ascension, in 1435. Unfortunately, York was handed a situation that was deteriorating rapidly. All the lands that Henry V had conquered were gradually being regained by the French under the leadership of King Charles VII. Despite the efforts of capable military leaders such as John Talbot and the Earl of Warwick and Salisbury, the Hundred Years War was beginning to go much better for the French. By 1447, York returned to England somewhat disgraced and took much of the blame for the English losses. York was looked at scornfully by the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset, two of Henry VI's primary advisers at the time, and, as somewhat of an exile, was given the position of lieutenant of Ireland (an appointment that had resulted in the death of several of his ancestors). Somerset himself replaced York as lieutenant of France and would, by 1453, lose all English possessions in the land, with the exception of Calais. York performed his duties in Ireland admirably and was able to capture several rebel leaders. When York returned to England in 1450, he would be a man with a mission and meant to punish Somerset, a man who had made him look so foolish over the war in France.
The next five years saw the beginning of much political turmoil in Henry VI's reign. York's main objective at this point was not to attain the throne for himself, but to remove the evil counsellers that constantly surrounded King Henry, primarilly Somerset. Throughout this five year period, York's fortunes rose and fell, as did Somerset's. York achieved a huge victory in 1453 after the remaining French territories had been lost, causing a mental breakdown in the king (inherited from his maternal grandfather, the French King Charles VI). At this point, York was designated as protector of the realm, despite the objections of Henry VI's wife, Queen Margaret (who had just given birth to Prince Edward). Over the next year, York showed himself to be a highly competent leader and was responsible for subduing the hostile situation in England's north between the two leading northern families, the Nevilles and the Percies. Soon after, York would form an important alliance with the leading Nevilles (the Earl of Salisbury and son the Earl of Warwick, the future "Kingmaker"). In addition, Somerset was promptly thrown in prison for the duration of York's protectorate. York's power was severely weakened after the king regained his senses in late 1454. Somerset was immediately released from the tower and York stripped of his protectorate. This deeply angered York, who preceded to rally an army to do battle against his enemy Somerset. With his allies the Nevilles, York was able to achieve a major victory over the Lancastrian forces at St. Albans. Somerset was killed during the battle, as well as the Earl of Northumberland, the leader of the Percy family (which greatly pleased the Nevilles). This battle is looked at by most historians to be the first battle in the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster. After the Lancastrian defeat, York made sure to show he was still loyal to King Henry and that he had only rebelled to remove Somerset from office. Despite York's victory at St. Albans, he continued to face problems from Queen Margaret, and, by 1459, the two sides were at war again. The Yorkists were handed a defeat at Ludlow and were forced to flee to Ireland. There, York raised a large army and sent his eldest son Edward and the Nevilles ahead to England (still claiming loyalty to Henry VI) where they won a victory against the royal army at Northampton. Shortly after, York himself returned to England and captured Henry VI in London. The king was then forced to name York as the heir to the throne, disinheriting his own son Edward. Queen Margaret would not hear of this and threw the utmost defiance at York. It is believed that it is at this point that York openly proclaimed that he was the rightful King of England (through his descent from Lionel) and that he meant to depose the king and take what was rightfully his. Unfortunately, York was too hasty in his actions and was defeated by a large Lancastrian force (led by Queen Margaret) at Wakefield. York, as well as his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed in the battle. To more salt on the wounds, York's severed head was displayed on a pike wearing a paper crown. Several months later, York's eldest son Edward would become King of England. Although the Yorkists ultimately succeeded against the Lancastrians and two of York's sons would sit on England's throne, it was simply not meant to be for York and his life ended just as it had begun: pitifully. Although he achieved a name for himself during his lifetime through his immense wealth and political savvy, York will most be remembered as the man who acted too quickly and lost his life fighting for a cause that would benefit his sons, but not himself.
York in Shakespeare
Appears in: Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3
The impressions that one gets of York when reading Shakespeare's Henry VI plays are mixed to say the very least. He first appears in 1 Henry VI in the fictitious courtyard scene where the Yorkist and Lancastrian scenes are formed. York, Warwick and several others pick white roses to symbolize their Yorkist allegiance, while Suffolk and Somerset pick red roses to symbolize their Lancastrian allegiance. In the following scene, York is informed by his dying uncle Edmund Mortimer that he is the rightful King of England through his descent of Lionel, Duke of Clarence. After defending himself against his father's execution for treason, he convinces Henry VI to award him with his rightful inheritance (ie, the Duchy of York and the Mortimer lands). Throughout the rest of the play he remains loyal to King Henry but reveals secretly that he eventually plans to assert his claim to the throne. The quarrel between he and Somerset results in the defeat and death of Lord Talbot, the hero of the play and their feud extends into 2 Henry VI. In this play, York allies himself with Cardinal Beaufort, Queen Margaret and Suffolk in order to plot the murder of the king's uncle Gloucester. Shortly before the murder, York is sent to Ireland in an attempt to subdue the rebellions there. Before his departure, York reveals that he has incited the riot that is occurring in London under the leadership of Jack Cade and that he will return from Ireland with an armed force. Cade's rebellion is subdued but York does return with an armed force and is backed by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick. York claims he only wants to see Somerset removed from his office and imprisoned. Henry VI agrees to this but Queen Margaret is completely against it. Therefore, a battle breaks out between the two sides at St. Albans that ends in a Yorkist victory. The beginning of 3 Henry VI shows the aftermath of the battle and York openly asserts his claim to the throne. In the end, Henry VI agrees to make York his heir and the rebels depart in peace. Once again, Queen Margaret will not accept the situation (or her son's disinheritance) and wages war on York. The two sides do battle at Wakefield, the Lancastrians win and York is taken prisoner. He is continuously mocked by the queen and is ultimately stabbed to death by her and Lord Clifford (whose father York had killed at St. Albans). York's head is severed and displayed on the walls of York wearing a paper crown.
There are several historical inaccuracies in the character of York in Shakespeare's works. Firstly, the courtyard scene where York and the other lords pick red and white roses, as well as, the meeting with Edmund Mortimer are completely fictitious. Also, the Duchy of York was never held back from York for any other reason than the fact that he was still a minor when he inherited it. His father's execution for treason never played a factor. Furthermore, it seems absurd to assume that York had intentions of seizing the throne as early as the 1430s, or even after the Battle of St. Albans. In reality, York did not openly assert his claim to the throne until 1460, the year of his death. Finally, the presence of York's sons at St. Albans seems far fetched. Although Edward, who was thirteen at the time quite possibly may have played some sort of role, York's youngest son, the future Richard III, was only two years old and was most certainly not at the battle. In addition to these facts, we see that it is not Richard, but Edmund, Earl of Rutland, that is portrayed as York's youngest son and is treacherously murdered by Clifford. In the end, one sympathizes with York for his downfall, but, in some ways, cannot help but look at him as a man who overstepped his boundaries and was brought down as a result of his own ambitions.
Watts, John. ‘Richard of York, third duke of York (1411–1460)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23503, accessed 8 Dec 2009]