Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, was born into wealth and privilege. Grandson of 2 kings and 1st cousin to 2 kings, his life story is full of ambition, glory and war, duty and service – and a hint of treason. All the ingredients needed for a rollicking good novel; with also the possibility of a strange love story.
Edward was born, probably at King’s Langley, in about 1373. A birthday of 1375 has also been suggested, but 1373 seems most likely. The fact he has Norwich after his name has suggested he could have been born there, but there is a theory that it is a derivation of “d’Everwick”, meaning “of York”.
Edward’s father was Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York and 5th son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. His mother was Isabella of Castile, daughter of Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile, and his mistress – and later, wife – Maria de Padilla. Although the couple had 3 children, their marriage doesn’t appear to have been a happy one and there were rumours of scandal surrounding Isabella, with a question mark raised over the paternity of her youngest son, Richard of Conisbrough. Edward also had a sister, Constance, who was close in age to him and born around 1374.
Edward was born into a time of great change in the English monarchy. His grandmother, Philippa, had died in 1369 and his grandfather, Edward III, king since 1327, was slipping into senility, allowing his mistress, Alice Perrers, and her cohorts too much control of his affairs. In 1376 Edward’s eldest son and heir – and England’s hero of the time – Edward, the Black Prince, died after years of debilitating illness. The prince’s death broke the old king, who died the following year, leaving his 10-year-old grandson Richard of Bordeaux, son of the Black Prince, as king.
The government – and the country – was largely in the hands of Edward and Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. John was the 4th son of Edward III and married to Edward of Norwich’s aunt, Constance of Castile. It was a time of uncertainty; many feared John would usurp the crown for himself, but he stayed loyal to his nephew and Richard was crowned as King Richard II.
At only 4 years old Edward of Norwich attended the coronation, receiving his knighthood as part of the celebrations. Edward would be a loyal supporter of Richard II and received numerous royal grants, including the title of Earl of Rutland in February 1390. He was also given the title Earl of Cork when he accompanied Richard on his Irish campaign in 1394/5, leading several successful missions.
In the 1390s Edward emerged as a leading member of Richard’s circle of intimates. A man of considerable ability, Richard named him “the most able,wise and powerful man that he could think of”¹ and is even said to have considered leaving his crown to Edward. After the death of Richard’s queen, Anne of Bohemia, in 1394, Edward was one of the 3 feoffees of her estate, allowing him control of considerable patronage.
Richard practically showered Edward with lucrative positions, including: admiral of the North & West (1391), Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports (1396), Constable of the Tower of London (1397) and Constable of England (1398). He was also involved in the king’s diplomacy in France and the Holy Roman Empire, undertaking diplomatic missions to both.
Richard even took personal interest in Edward’s marriage prospects. In 1381 Edward had been betrothed to Beatriz of Portugal as part of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance against Castile. However, when the Portuguese made peace with Castile, Beatriz was married to Juan I of Castile instead.
Richard II suggested the sister-in-law of Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan and also considered 3 relatives of Charles VI of France before suggesting Jeanne de Valois, younger sister of Richard’s proposed bride, Isabelle de Valois. Edward was addressed as ‘the king’s brother’ in recognition of their proposed marriages to sisters, even long after Edward’s planned marriage had fallen through.
By October 1398 Edward was married. His bride was a very curious choice for England’s most eligible bachelor. At 25 and likely to inherit his father’s dukedom in the not-too-distant future, Edward must surely have had the choice of every heiress in the kingdom of marriageable age. And yet his bride was twice widowed, 20 years his senior and with no dowry or inheritance to speak of.
Philippa was the 3rd daughter of John Mohun, 2nd Baron Mohun and a founding member of the Order of the Garter, and his wife Joan Burghersh. She had first been married to Walter Fitzwalter, 3rd Baron Fitzwalter, who died in 1386 and secondly to Sir john Golafre who died in 1396. Having no male heirs, Philippa’s mother had sold the reversion of the Mohun estates to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, leaving her daughters with no landed inheritance.
The fact this was hardly a glittering match for such an illustrious magnate greatly suggests that it was a love match. And, as with Philippa’s previous 2 marriages, the union was to remain childless; Edward would eventually name his young nephew as his heir.
While Edward was finalising the domestic arrangements for his new bride, England was falling into turmoil. Richard II had imprisoned one uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, in Calais and was distrustful of another uncle, John of Gaunt.
In the 2nd half of the 1380s Gloucester and the Lords Appellants had been the focus of opposition against Richard’s personal rule and had attempted to curb the king’s excesses, forcing restrictions to his rule. John of Gaunt had restored order following his return from campaigning in Spain, but in 1397 Gloucester was murdered whilst imprisoned in Calais, most likely on Richard’s orders. It was said Edward had played a leading role in the arrest of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick and he certainly benefited from the aftermath, receiving a significant share of the forfeitures that followed.
In September 1397 he was made Duke of Aumale and given the post of Constable of England – formerly held by Gloucester. As Constable, Edward would preside over Richard’s legal reforms, extending the court of chivalry to include treason and other offences which touched the king’s dignity.
Of the other 2 ringleaders of the Lords Appellant, Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel was beheaded and Thomas de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick was stripped of his titles and imprisoned on the Isle of Man. Two of the younger members of the Lords Appellants, Thomas of Mowbray, earl of Nottingham and Henry Bolingbroke earl of Derby, had initially escaped any severe retribution. However, in 1398 Richard found a pretext to exile them both from the country.
Bolingbroke was the son of the most powerful man in the kingdom – John of Gaunt – he was also cousin to both Richard II and Edward of Norwich. On Gaunt’s death in 1399, instead of passing his inheritance onto Bolingbroke, Richard appropriated it for the crown, putting some of the lands into Edward’s care – and extending his cousin’s exile to life.
Later that year Richard set off on campaign to Ireland, taking with him his cousin Edward and Bolingbroke’s 13-year-old son, Henry of Monmouth. We don’t know how Edward had reacted to his cousin Henry’s disinheritance, but it can’t have been an easy time for him, caught in the middle of his warring cousins, and he may have felt uneasy with the sudden change in Henry’s circumstances at the hands of the king. He later claimed that he had not drawn any of the revenues from the Lancastrian lands which had been put in his custody.
Whilst Richard was in Ireland Henry of Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, announcing that he had returned only to claim his inheritance. While Richard headed back to England to face him, Henry was progressing through the country, gaining support. Edward advised Richard to send John Montague, Earl of Salisbury, into north Wales while Richard gathered his forces. Montague raised 4,000 men, but his force had disintegrated by the time the king arrived. On arriving in south Wales, Richard had immediately pressed northwards, leaving Edward and his main force behind him.
There seems to be some confusion as to Edward’s actions. He was reputedly attacked as he made his way through Wales, but by which side is unclear. He was said to be part of the delegation sent – by Bolingbroke – to Richard at Flint, wearing Bolingbroke’s livery.
Jean Creton, in his Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard II, says Edward ‘said nothing to the king, but kept at as great a distance as he could from him’². Creton stated there was no man alive that Richard had loved better and depicted Edward as a Judas deliberately betraying his king in 1399.
However, the transition of power from Richard II to Henry IV was far from plain sailing for Edward. Henry and Edward were 1st cousins, but Edward was one of the key personalities of Richard’s tyrannical reign, and a focus for revenge. According to the chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, Edward came close to being lynched as tempers ran hot during Henry’s 1st parliament. Edward was accused of urging Gloucester’s murder, a claim he was forced to vehemently deny. Henry resisted calls for the death penalty for Richard’s adherents, and settled instead for punishment by the confiscation of all titles and rewards granted since 1397.
Edward was one of the greatest losers; he lost the constableships of England and the Tower of London and his manor of Burstwick was granted to the earl of Northumberland. He was no longer Duke of Aumale and back to being, simply, earl of Rutland. However, when parliament finished, Henry confirmed Edward’s custody of the Channel Islands and his lordship of the Isle of Wight, suggesting the new king had confidence in his cousin’s loyalty, even if parliament didn’t.
By the end of 1399 Edward had become embroiled in the Epiphany Rising, the plot to murder Henry IV and his sons during a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. Edward is said to have been a conspirator, but it was he who betrayed the plot to the king, and he was rewarded with the restoration of the lordship of Oakham in Rutland. The plot’s failure meant death for Richard II; Richard had been held at Pontefract Castle since his deposition, but the uncovering of the plot meant he was too dangerous to keep alive. He died around 14th February 1400, probably from starvation.
Edward served the Lancastrian dynasty in much the same way he had Richard II. In October 1400 he was appointed Keeper of North Wales and July 1401 he was dispatched to France as Henry’s lieutenant in Aquitaine, in response to an appeal from the archbishop of Bordeaux who described Edward as ‘the man closest to the king after the king’s sons’.
Whilst in Bordeaux Edward succeeded as the Duke of York, following his father’s death on 1st August 1402. In May of the following year Edward gave up his office to return to England and by the autumn he was campaigning in Wales. In October he was appointed the king’s lieutenant in south Wales for 1 year, but by November the appointment had been extended to 3 years.
Still owed money from his time in Aquitaine, and with Henry unable to meet the costs of the war in Wales, Edward was left in serious financial straits. His men were on the verge of mutiny. However, Edward was one of those rare commanders, who knew how to inspire men and command loyalty. Forced to mortgage his properties to release funds, he made a promise to his troops that, on his honour, he would receive none of his own revenues until they were paid.
The Duke of York’s duty in Wales stood him in good stead in February 1405 after his sister, Constance, implicated him in a plot against the crown. York was imprisoned in Pevensey Castle for 17 weeks. But it was the Prince of Wales who came to his defence in parliament. Henry of Monmouth described Edward as “a loyal and valiant knight”. Speaking of clashes against Owen Glendower, in 1407 Prince Henry said “If it had not been for the duke’s good advice and counsel he and others would have been in great peril and desolation.”
As far as the Prince of Wales was concerned, York “had laboured and served in such a way as to support and embolden all the other members of the company, as if he had been the poorest gentleman in the realm wishing to serve him in order to win honour and renown”.³
The Duke of York was an authority on hunting, translating the work Gaston Phebus, Count of Foix, Livre du Chasse” into English and adding several chapters himself. He dedicated the work, Master of Game to the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V. The book gives us a glimpse of the Duke of York’s personality and shows us why his men and peers thought so much of him:
“I ask of every person who reads this little treatise, or comes to hear of it, whatever their estate or condition, that in plain and simple language they will add to it anything they find useful and remove all that seems superfluous … so that this work may always grow through the advice and counsel of all hunters, and with this in mind, I tried to set out, as simply and clearly as I knew, what I understood of this craft, for the use and remembrance of all.”³
Edward and Prince Henry were particularly close. Edward was something of a mentor to the young Prince of Wales, as well as being his hunting master.
However, when Henry IV and the Prince of Wales quarreled over foreign policy, Edward sided with the king. In 1412 he accompanied the king’s 2nd son, Thomas, on campaign in France, to aid the Armagnacs against the Burgundians. Following the king’s death in 1413 he was preparing to defend Aquitaine in the June, and by August he was in Paris, negotiating a possible marriage between the new king, Henry V and Catherine of Valois.
Edward was back in England by October 1413, but was constantly involved in the diplomacy between England and France that led to Henry’s invasion of the country in 1415. In August 1415 Edward’s brother, Richard of Conisbrough, earl of Cambridge was executed for his involvement in the Southampton Plot to replace Henry V with his Mortimer cousin. For once, the Duke of York was above suspicion.
Shortly after the executions the fleet set sail for France and landed there on 13th August 1415. Almost immediately the army besieged Harfleur, finally taking the small town on 22nd September, but at great cost. During the siege dysentery had spread through the army, decimating Henry’s forces and leaving him with barely 6,000 men to continue the campaign.
As a result, Henry decided to make a run for Calais and safety, hoping to find a crossing of the River Somme whilst avoiding the French army amassing near Rouen. Edward, Duke of York, led the vanguard, taking part in several skirmishes from the harassing French troops and marching his men at an incredible pace. His men were starving and desperately ill – with more succumbing to dysentery every day.
Until they reached Agincourt.
According to historian Michael Jones, the Duke of York used his extensive hunting expertise to formulate the battle plan that would give Henry V the great victory that is still remembered today.
His battle plan depended on a contingent of English archers being able to provoke the French into attacking down an enclosed valley, channelling them into the path of massed volley fire from a 2nd contingent of archers. The knights and men-at-arms would then enclose the survivors and destroy the remainder of the French army.
York was in the thick of the fighting, 90 men were killed defending his banner – the majority of the English casualties on the day. York fought valiantly but was killed as his helmet was smashed into his skull. His men protected their fallen leader’s body, preventing the French from breaking through the thin English line.
The London Chronicler wrote:
The Duke of York was slain,For his king he would not retreat, even by a foot, til his bascinet into his brain was brent [impaled].³
Edward Duke of York had led an illustrious and often controversial career. He had served 3 kings. He had written the first book on hunting in the English language. He could quote Chaucer, was a generous lord and a great military leader. The Chronicler of Godstow regarded him as a “second Solomon”. However, his reputation suffered damage during the Tudor era, when he was accused of being fat and dissolute – it was said he’d died at Agincourt after being suffocated in his armour because he was too heavy to rise after a fall.
The reverence with which Henry treated Edward after his death proves the lie of the later propaganda. Edward’s will was honoured; his nephew Richard inherited his lands and title, gifts to his men were fulfilled, such as Sir John Popham who received armour, a horse and a life rent from one of the Duke’s manors.
Edward asked to be buried in the church at Fotheringhay, where he had recently founded a college of priests. He was laid to rest beneath the choir steps, the grave marked by a marble slab with his figure upon it, engraved in brass. A larger memorial was added in Elizabethan times.
Edward’s wife Philippa survived him by 16 years, spending her widowhood at Carisbrooke Castle as the Lady of the Isle of Wight. She died 17th July 1431 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Edward’s nephew Richard, 3rd Duke of York, would go on to challenge Henry VI for the throne, dying at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. His son Edward would take up the mantle and succeed as Edward IV in March 1461, just 3 months after his father’s death.
Footnotes: ¹ Given-Wilson quoted in Oxford Database of National Biography; ² Jean Creton Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard II quoted in Oxford Database of National Biography; ³ 24 Hours at Agincourt by Michael Jones.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; 24 Hours at Agincourt by Michael Jones; Agincourt: My Family, the Battle and the Fight for France by Ranulph Fiennes Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.com; britannica.com; upenn.edu.