Richard Duke of York was a claimant to the English throne, as a great-grandson of King Edward III through his father, and a great-great-great-grandson of the same king through his mother. His conflicts with King Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, and other members of Henry’s court, as well as his attempts to gain power, were a leading factor in the political upheaval of mid-15th century England, and helped precipitate the Wars of the Roses.
How therefore, had a claimant to the English throne once been in a position to potentially consider becoming king of Ireland?
Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland
Ireland had a strong connection to the House of York through the 15th century, offering shelter and support during the Wars of the Roses and into the Tudor era. The continued affection was primarily due to Richard, Duke of York, who served briefly as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland with some success.
York was appointed to the post after losing his position in France at the end of 1446. He did not leave England until 22 June 1449, when he sailed from Beaumaris.
York arrived in Howth on 6 July and was ‘received with great honour, and the Earls of Ireland went into his house, as did also the Irish adjacent to Meath, and gave him as many beefs for the use of his kitchen as it pleased him to demand’.
York had the authority to use the incomes of Ireland without accounting to the crown. He was promised payments from the Exchequer to aide his efforts too, though the money would, as was usual, never arrive. York would end up funding the government of Ireland himself, as he had in France.
The warm welcome York received owed little to his English heritage and everything to his Irish pedigree. York was the heir to the Mortimer family, who had a long history in Ireland.
He was also descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, second son of Edward III through the Mortimer line. Lionel married Elizabeth de Burgh, heiress to the Earl of Ulster who could trace her lineage back to William de Burgh in the 12th century.
York took oaths of allegiance to Henry VI in Dublin, then visited the Mortimer seat at Trim Castle. When he entered Ulster, York did so under the black dragon banner of the earls of Ulster. It was a propaganda move that sought to portray York not as an English nobleman coming to impose himself on Ireland, but as a returning Irish lord.
After revisiting Dublin, York took an army south into Wicklow and quickly restored order. He was proving, as he had in France, to be a capable and popular governor.
The Irish Parliament
York opened his first parliament in Ireland on 18 October 1449. He aimed to tackle the lawlessness across Ireland head-on. One practice that it was complained had become widespread was the convening of ‘cuddies’. Feuding factions retained large numbers of men who they could not afford to pay or feed.
These groups would move through the countryside, stealing crops and food, demanding protection money from farmers as they threw rowdy all-night parties on their land. In response, parliament made it legal for any sworn subject of the King of England to kill anyone caught stealing or breaking into their property by day or night.
A few days after parliament opened, York’s third son was born in Dublin Castle and named George. James Butler, Earl of Ormond was one of the baby’s godfathers and joined York’s council to demonstrate his alignment with the duke.
The birth of George, later Duke of Clarence, further cemented the bond between Ireland and the House of York. However, by the time York summoned his second parliament in early 1450, things were already beginning to go wrong.
He had received no money from England and those Irish lords who had welcomed York were already beginning to turn away from him. York returned to England in the summer of 1450 as Cade’s Rebellion threatened security there, but the links he had built would prove invaluable.
Exiled in Ireland
By 1459, York was in open and armed opposition to the government of Henry VI. He had failed in his attempt to impose himself on the king at Dartford in 1452, been victorious at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455 but been pushed out of government again in 1456.
When a royal army arrived at his stronghold of Ludlow in October 1459, York, his two oldest sons, along with his wife’s brother and nephew, all fled. York and his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland rushed west to the Welsh coast and sailed to Ireland. The others headed south and reached Calais.
York was disinherited and declared a traitor by parliament in England, but when he opened a session of the Irish parliament in February 1460, it was firmly under his control. The body insisted that to York ‘such reverence, obedience and fear ought to be given as to our sovereign lord, whose estate is thereby honoured, feared and obeyed.’
They added that ‘if any person imagine, compass, excite or provoke his destruction or death or to that intent confederate or assent with Irish enemies he shall be and stand attainted of high treason’. The Irish enthusiastically welcomed York back and were keen to break away from being perceived as the ‘English nation in Ireland’.
A Crown for York?
York would return to England before the end of 1460 and lay claim to the throne of England. The Act of Accord would make him and his children heirs to Henry VI, dispossessing the Lancastrian Prince of Wales and triggering a fresh round of conflict in the Wars of the Roses.
The time that York spent in exile, deprived of all his lands, titles and prospects in England, raises the intriguing possibility that he may have considered remaining in Ireland.
He was well received by the Irish nobility and protected. It had been clear for years that he was not welcome in England. Now he had nothing left to lose. In Ireland, York had a warm welcome, loyalty, respect, and a strong heritage.
When William Overey arrived with papers from England for York’s arrest, he was tried and executed for treason for having ‘imagined, compassed and incited rebellion and disobedience’. The Irish were treating York like their ruler.
They wanted rid of English control and saw York as an ally in their desire for independence, a proven leader in need of a home who just might drive out the English crown and become the next High King of Ireland.