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Painting depicting Warwick the Kingmaker

The Puppetmaster of Power: The life of Warwick the Kingmaker

Image: Public Domain

The man who put the teenage Edward IV on the throne was one of England’s most powerful barons, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. But the man who became known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ saw his star ascendancy fall after playing a dangerous game of double-dealing and manipulation.

Warwick’s poker game

The decades of bloodshed during the Wars of the Roses (1455 - 1487) engulfed the most powerful families including the Nevilles based in the Midlands and the North. Initially, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick supported Henry VI of the House of Lancaster until the king’s erratic behaviour and mental instability cast doubts in Warwick’s mind about his future as a strong monarch.

Richard Duke of York of the House of York believed he had a stronger claim to the throne and challenged Henry. As events led to a series of battles, Warwick waited on the sidelines to see who was to be victorious.

Battle of Towton : Warwick’s plan for power

In one of the bloodiest battles in English history at Towton in March 1461, 28,000 men perished as Henry’s forces were decimated and he fled to Scotland with his wife, Margaret of Anjou. 18-year-old Edward became Edward IV, the 12th Plantagenet King of England. The astute teenage king required Warwick’s expertise to eradicate rebellion in the North where the powerful Sir Ralph Percy supported the deposed Henry VI.

Warwick soon became ensconced as a mentor and sage to Edward, acting as his trusty right-hand man. But as Edward’s reign proved prosperous for the country, he needed to find himself a politically influential marriage that could boost foreign alliances. Warwick set about the task.

England’s two rulers

With Edward’s blessing, Warwick met King Louis XI of France to arrange the king’s marriage to the French princess Bona of Savoy. Warwick envisaged the marriage as the answer to avert war with France. Warwick was shocked when Edward declared at Reading Abbey, he had already chosen a bride, Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with children. Worse than marrying a commoner in Warwick’s eyes was the fact that Lady Elizabeth’s father, Sir Richard Woodville, had fought against Edward at Towton. Warwick felt humiliated by Edward’s actions and an affront to his status.

The great betrayal

Unable to forgive the young Edward, Warwick switched his allegiance and joined forces with the enemy in the form of Margaret of Anjou in France, the estranged wife of the deposed Henry. Warwick then married his daughter, Anne Neville, to Margaret’s son and royal heir Prince Edward. The Earl of Warwick’s support, in alliance with the French, tilted the balance of power back to the Lancastrians. Due this infamous double-dealing betrayal he was dubbed the ‘Kingmaker’

On 14th July 1469, Warwick arrived in Kent with his son-in-law and King Edward’s younger brother, Clarence, and headed north with an army. Warwick maintained he was on Edward’s side. In reality, Warwick was behind the rebellion faction and was challenging the king’s army in Nottingham. Warwick annihilated Edward’s army and took him as prisoner.

Anarchy and killing spree

After imprisoning Edward, the now bent on revenge Warwick carried out a killing spree wiping as many Woodvilles as possible, including Edward’s father-in-law, Lord Rivers. But Warwick’s actions created a power vacuum, revealing his flaws when it came to the necessary politics to run a country. He was forced into a climbdown. Edward was released and despite forgiving Warwick and his brother, realised that his onetime mentor, the man who made him king, was dangerous.

Turncoat third time

Rather than live his life out under the shadow of Edward’s ire, Warwick chose to make an alliance with Margaret of Anjou while her husband was still imprisoned. Seeing himself as kingmaker again for Henry VI, Warwick arrived on the Devonshire coast with an army. King Edward took flight to Flanders while his pregnant wife, Elizabeth Woodville, sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

Edward IV headed south to London with thousands of soldiers. His army sped towards Lambeth Palace where he reunited with his wife and their new baby boy. Edward retook his throne and set off north to hunt Warwick down.

Warwick and Edward: The last showdown

On 14th April 1471, Warwick and Edward went into battle one last time. The Battle of Barnet was as blood swept as Towton 10 years earlier. Warwick’s 15,000 men outnumbered Edward’s by 3,000, but the heavy fog made fighting conditions atrocious and in the confusion Warwick’s army attacked itself. Warwick fled the battlefield and was eventually hunted down and hacked to death by Edward’s men.

Edward had Warwick’s body taken to London and stripped naked except for a loin cloth and put on display at the old St Paul’s Cathedral. The message was simple and brutal…no more forgiveness from a king who once saw the virtue of building bridges with the enemy.