Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, was one of the most significant figures of the 15th century. A man with close royal links, he was a giant of English politics who helped plunge his country into the bloody Wars of the Roses.
He was an able administrator and a charismatic commander with several powerful friends; yet his power, lineage, ambition and fame also ensured he gained some mighty enemies, holding deep-felt enmity that, ultimately, proved resolvable only by the sword.
Here are ten facts about Richard, Duke of York.
1. He had royal blood
Richard had multiple connections to the English warrior-king Edward III. He was the king’s great-grandson through his father Richard, Earl of Cambridge; meanwhile through Anne de Mortimer, his mother, Richard was the great-great-great-grandson of the same king.
2. He served in France during the tail-end of the Hundred Years War
In May 1436 Richard became the commander of the English forces in France at a time when England’s power in the continent was waning – the glory days of Agincourt and Verneuil seemed a distant memory.
Although his posting was dominated by administrative tasks, he did take the field on several occasions and gained some success. His highlight was briefly lifting the Siege of Pontoise in 1441.
During his commands (1436-37 & 1441-45), Richard maintained England’s control over Normandy and stabilised English losses on the continent.
3. Richard had a famous rivalry with Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset
It began when he was replaced by Somerset as commander of the English forces in France in 1445 – York had expected Henry VI’s council to reappoint him.
York deemed Somerset responsible for the military failures that soon followed in France, particularly Somerset’s decision to surrender Maine to France.
4. He was sent to Ireland…
Somerset’s surrendering of Maine proved too much for York, as soon after this event Henry VI’s council appointed him Lieutenant of Ireland, far away from the ongoing struggle for France. The role made him chief authority on the Emerald Isle, but it also removed him from the political theatre of the Hundred Years War.
York gained a lot of support among prominent Irish nobles during his time on the island – support he was sure to count on in the coming years.
5. …but he did not stay there for long
On 7 September 1450, as unrest in England brewed and English control of Normandy collapsed, York landed on Anglesey and started gathering supporters to overthrow Henry VI’s unpopular, disaster-ridden government – spearheaded by Somerset.
Over the next two years, he made two bids for power to destroy Somerset. Both attempts proved unsuccessful.
6. Henry’s mental breakdown offered York opportunity
On 17 July 1453 the final, decisive clash of the Hundred Years War occurred at Castillon, Gascony. The French forces gained a decisive victory and eradicated English authority in the region (Calais remained the only bastion in English hands).
News of the disaster soon reached the ill Henry VI in England and it appears this contributed heavily to a severe mental breakdown he suffered in August that year.
As it became clear the king would not recover quickly, the council appointed York ‘Protector of the Realm’ – effectively regent of the kingdom.
7. He resoundingly defeated the royal Lancastrian army at St Albans
Following Henry’s recovery at Christmas 1454, his subsequent removal of York as Lord Protector and the restoration of Somerset to royal favour, hostilities erupted between the Crown (the Lancastrians) and York’s supporters (the Yorkists). The first clash occurred on 22 May 1455 at St Albans.
The battle was a resounding victory for York and his followers. The decisive moment occurred when Richard Neville, Duke of Warwick outflanked the Lancastrians and forced them to flee.
The battle’s death toll was low, but it did include some notable commanders on the Lancastrian side, including Somerset. The Yorkists also captured Henry VI and York resumed his position as Lord Protector.
8. He was killed at the Battle of Wakefield
Five years later in late 1460, Lancastrian loyalists began to gather in the north to oppose York – who was then a de facto ruler of the country.
York marched with an army to face this new threat, arriving at his stronghold of Sandal Castle in late December 1460 with a significantly smaller army than his Lancastrian counterparts.
Little is known about the ensuing battle at Wakefield, but the Duke was successfully enticed out from the safety of Sandal Castle and ambushed. In the subsequent skirmish his forces were massacred, and both the Duke and his second eldest son, Edmund Plantagenet were killed.
9. York’s defeat helps us remember the colours of the rainbow
The mnemonic ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’ refers to York’s bizarre sortie from Sandal Castle and his subsequent death at Wakefield.
10. Two of his sons went on to be kings of England
These were York’s eldest surviving son, Edward (Edward IV) and also his youngest: Richard.
Although York was king in all but name during his time as Protector, he never acquired the title of king himself.