Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Character of Edward IV

I don't feel like writing about anything deep today, so I thought I'd write something about the character of King Edward IV. An interesting topic, in my opinion.

I find Edward hard to pigeon-hole, as he was certainly a complex and multi-layered individual. So let's examine a few aspects.

Edward as warrior. Arguably, he was one of England's greatest warrior kings. Certainly he never lost a battle, although this may be partly because, as Alianore Audley remarked, he always knew when to run away. Seriously though, folks, that is not a bad quality in a general. It takes intelligence and a certain humility to judge when a withdrawal makes sense. Richard III might have benefited from a similar view of life at Bosworth,as indeed might Lee at Gettysburg, to name two obvious examples of commanders who might have been better advised to fight another day.

Of course, Edward was never tested against a foreign enemy, and on the one occasion he met the French army he chose to make peace. But see above. I suspect Edward made peace because he judged a battle was likely to be lost. He was no mug.

There is a view in some circles that a man can only be judged a great general if he has battered foreigners. This would rule out both Edward and Oliver Cromwell (unless you count the Irish)and leave (probably) Marlborough as the greatest English general of all time. I am not convinced - I think Edward is up there. He fought a whole lot of battles and never lost once. That has to be down to more than luck. He's certainly entitled to be spoken of in the same breath as the above-mentioned Cromwell and Marborough plus Fairfax, Edward I and Henry V (spit). And, to be very blunt, his track record exceeds Richard III's as the sun does the moon.

Edward as politician. We need to remind ourselves that he came to the throne at 18. What were you like at 18?* It's probably true to say 'lacking in mature judgement'. Edward was probably too lenient in his dealings with certain individuals early in his reign - I'm looking at you, Henry Somerset - but this was surely a benign fault. Better to be overly merciful than a blood-stained tyrant. He learned and became somewhat less forgiving of opponents in later life. By 1471, if you had showed yourself to be an implacable opponent, he was likely to have your head. However, he could still be accommodating to former Lancastrians (Morton for example) and many of his attempts at conciliation bore fruit. People like the Woodvilles/Wydevilles and Lord Audley are good examples of former enemies Edward converted to faithful supporters.

*If 18 or below please ignore this question.

Edward could be ruthless when he needed to be, particularly in the second part of his reign. Executing your own brother is pretty ruthless by any standards. He was also rather careless of the rules of inheritance, and grabbed lands for his family by quite blatant abuse of his power as king. This did not come back to haunt him, but it was undoubtedly a factor in creating the aristocratic discontent that smoothed Richard III's path to to the throne.

It's a neat question whether Edward could have handled Warwick and the Nevilles better. They were family, and they had more or less put him on the throne. His quarrel with them could easily have led to his deposition and death. On the other hand, if he had cut them much more slack he could easily have ended up as nothing more than Warwick's puppet. The conflict had to be resolved somehow, and there were undoubtedly faults on both sides. A greater king might have found a way to conciliate the Nevilles while retaining his own authority, but it would have been a big ask.

His foreign policy fell to pieces in the latter days of his reign. This was largely due to his failure to support Burgundy in its hour of crisis (because of the fat French pension he was receiving) but when considering this you should bear in mind that Burgundy had proved a somewhat inadequate ally (to put it mildly) while Louis XI - a truly brilliant mind and a great ruler - had built France into a power that England was simply not equipped to defeat in either war or diplomacy. An alternative foreign policy, based on aggression towards France, might well have led to even worse disasters.

Edward as a person  My impression of Richard, Duke of York, is that (however arrogant and pig-headed he may have been) he was genuinely interested in good government and reform. My impression of his eldest son is that he didn't give a rat's about such things and was much more interested in having a good time while acquiring as much land and money for himself as possible.

Edward undoubtedly liked women, though I think some of his exploits may have been exaggerated. In particular, he had a liking for handsome widows somewhat older than himself. His decision to marry Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville/Whatever may be romantic in some eyes, but politically it was a crowning folly, irrespective of whether or not he was previously married to Eleanor Talbot/Butler/Botiller. To be blunt, it was irresponsible and almost cost him his throne. It alienated key members of his family (including, almost certainly, his own mother) and ultimately led to the downfall of the House of York.


jezza klaxon said...

Hmmm. Very interesting. But didn't he leave the country's coffers nicely full too, as well as enlarging his own lands? I think you're right about him not caring for good governance but perhaps he was just naturally good at getting things, or perhaps he was one of those sorts of men to whom things came easily? And how much of this land-grabbing can be explained as a reaction to Henry VI's spendthrift example, do you think? Either way, a thought provoking post and I am glad you are back.

Brian said...

Hi Jezza

I am pretty sure - without dipping into sources - that Edward's full treasury is a myth. The tale that the Woodvilles stole it has been exploded, and Richard III was certainly not rolling in cash. Margaret of York's dowry was never fully paid, much to her embarassment.
I think Edward's land grabbing policy *is* understandable in many ways, because he had his family to provide for. (Again, contrary to myth, the actual Woodvilles received little.) However it was a huge political risk. The nobility was very averse to kings doing this - see Richard II for example. Edward got away with it in the short term because he was so powerful and feared, and there was no effective alternative king.

sweet_caroline1 said...

Brian, thanks for another great post. EIV's hoarding of the Mowbray inheritance was greedy, but I think it was also a move to weaken the nobility and prevent future challenges to the monarchy.
There's absolutely no doubt that RIII was able to use his brother's avarice to his temporary advantage by winning the support of John Howard. But many Ricardians who get their information solely from novels aren't aware that RIII wasn't above unlawfully grabbing land, too. He bullied the Countess of Oxford into giving him her property. Then her son returned ten years later with an even deeper grudge and helped HVII kick his butt at Bosworth.

Brian said...

Yes Richard grabbed land too, as a subject, he was effectively maximising the value of forfeited lands granted him by the King.

A deep-seated problem in medieval England was the lack of available land to give to cadet members of the royal house. This was at the root of many of Richard II's problems with his uncles (especially Gloucester) and Edward IV's difficulties with his brothers (especially Clarence.) These royal dukes found themselves in a difficult position. They were expected to live in the style of dukes - which was very grand indeed - on an inadequate income. So they tended to be land-hungry and often supported foreign wars (in the hope of gaining French land.)

John Foelster said...

Hmmm... I'm gonna play Devil's Advocate on Edward's military prowess. (Mostly because I have a modern Yankee Democrat's hatred for Lee and Jackson and don't like to see Lee mentioned as a "Great General".)

I may not be a military man but I've played way more than my fair share of strategic and tactical war games and I say, with some amount of confidence, that I can judge good versus bad generalship.

Good generalship comes down to a few things:

1) Come prepared - It behooves you to have an army that is actually properly equipped and trained. Professionalism makes a big difference.

2) Try and maneuver yourself into a decent position.

3) Make effective use of combined arms.

4) Pounce on anybody who refuses to pay attention to rules 1)-3).

In my experience most generals make their reputations off of the idiocy of their opponents rather than the brilliance of their generalship. Lee and Jackson are definitely examples of this.

So thinking I sat down and made a little analysis of the generals listed by Brian over the weekend to see for myself who ought to be singled out with the big boys of military history. Obviously I know the War of the Roses fairly well, but American historiography has a pretty noticeable blind spot when it comes to British military and diplomatic history between about 1620 and 1780. (I'll leave you to guess why.) My old alma mater the University of Richmond has one undergraduate history course that generally covers the period and it does so from the perspective of the French court. I'm pretty sure the same situation pertained when I was at school.

So I did a survey and here's what I came up with in general:

Edward I: Lucky but well prepared and used combined arms well.

Henry V: Good preparation and use of combined arms, but benefited from French overconfidence.

Edward IV: Good at maneuver but otherwise just lucky.

Fairfax: VERY good at preparation and maneuver, but benefited immensely from Rupert's fecklessness.

Cromwell: When fighting his own battles, he clearly benefited from inheriting Fairfax's army, but was also very good at #4.

Marlborough: Really IS the greatest English general in history, and should not be mentioned in the same breath as his above mentioned forerunners.

I'll detail my findings below.

John Foelster said...

Longshanks has an excellent reputation as a battlefield commander based on what are really only two battles that he was in actual command of.

His major campaigns in Wales and Scotland were all fought by subordinates, he fought no pitched battles in France, so really his only major commands were in a wing of the Royal army at Lewes and the overall command of Evesham and Falkirk.

Edward's command routed his opposite number at Lewes but pretty well blew the battle for his father by not rounding on Montfort's flank and chasing down the fleeing column instead. (Not unlike Oxford at Barnet. I wonder how much control either actually had though.)

At Evesham and Falkirk he won going away, but did so with vastly superior numbers in both cases.

Falkirk was a combined arms masterpiece, but Edward more or less lucked out in that Wallace offered battle at all, which was a terrible mistake.

Wallace gets way more credit than he deserves. His victory at Stirling Bridge clearly owed nothing to his preparation or tactics and everything to Warenne's baffling decision to keep on attacking via the stupid bridge!

Edward's French campaigns seem to have been a total failure.

Longshanks was obviously a master of preparation and training and he instituted a tradition of using archers, men-at-arms and knights in effective harmony, and he was clearly (mostly) good at picking effective subordinates, but I don't think he can fairly be described as a great general.

John Foelster said...

For Henry V everything we know about his ability as a tactical general comes from one battle, Agincourt.

Agincourt was a very well planned battle, naturally, but Henry probably won only because French fought him on the ground he prepared.

If they had just kept him pinned down he would have been forced to surrender. It probably came down to the French having too many senior officers and too much confidence, like the Optimates at Pharsalus.

It's not as though the French were ill equipped or tactically boneheaded, with Scottish help they were able to embarrass and kill Thomas of Clarence at Bauge.

I have a feeling that had Henry lived longer he'd have ended up, in the long run, with much the same results as Henry VI achieved.

John Foelster said...

Edward IV probably doesn't deserve as much credit as he gets as a general.

He fought a lot of battles and won them all, but the thing is that most of them were pretty sloppy and some of them were battles that he was only nominally in command of.

Here's a list for you:

Mortimer's Cross - This was a clear victory, but we know almost nothing about it except for the sun dog.

Towton - As far as I can tell Fauconberg and Warwick were in actual command. Edward's contribution was to personally rally wavering troops.

The battle was probably won by the weather and Fauconberg's decision to provoke an extended missile exchange with the wind at the Yorkist army's back, and by Norfolk's showing up on the flank at the last minute.

Edgecote is a loss that Edward somehow gets a pass on because he was not actually in command. I find this hard to accept. He was not far from Pembroke and Devon's columns and if he had moved a bit faster it is possible that he might have defeated the two armies in detail, as he subsequently effectively did at Losecote and on a much larger scale at Barnet/Tewkesbury. Sure he was suckered out of London with insufficient forces but this displays a failure of military intelligence on his part. He probably ought to have seen Warwick's move coming and been better prepared for it.

Losecote was pretty much not won by Edward so much as it was lost by Willoughby de Eresby in that he failed to meet up with Warwick and brought in an army that was totally not up to the task at hand. It simply disintegrated on first contact with Edward's forces.

That leaves Barnet and Tewkesbury and Edward won both with a fair anount of help from his foes.

At Barnet he gets points for spotting and acting on the friendly fire incident between Oxford and Montagu, but Warwick's army might well have disintegrated without his help at that point. Strategically, his withholding of his reserves to that moment probably saved the battle, although if he had swung the reserves out around Montagu's flank it's equally possible he could have rolled up Warwick's line before Oxford could reform his column. It's very hard to say.

At Tewkesbury, he appears to have been more or less handed the victory by Somerset and Wenlock's disastrous lack of coordination.

Although Edward fought as many if not more pitched battles than a lot of the folks we're looking at here, the comparative lack of finesse and ad hoc nature of them makes me a bit dubious about putting him in the first echelon.

John Foelster said...


Fairfax gets enormous credit for the organization and training of the New Model Army, but I'm not sure he was as good at ferreting out weaknesses in opposing formations as Cromwell, and like Edward I, he had a habit of outnumbering his opponents.

Marston Moor wasn't really his command per se, but his initiative crossing the lines to get Cromwell to hit Goring's tired cavalry. I would hasten to add that Cromwell was probably only able to do so because of Byron's foolishness in engaging Cromwell's cavalry with his own in front of his supporting infantry and artillery.

Not a smart way of doing things as a defender.

Shame about Boye, too.

At Naseby, Fairfax brilliantly wiped out an army half his size. Which was attacking his fixed position. And it was Cromwell's idea to withdraw and lure the Royalists out.

That leaves the sieges of Oxford and Colchester, neither of which were particularly unorthodox as sieges go.

So Fairfax also seems a bit overrated, insofar as I can tell.

John Foelster said...


OK, you have Gainsborough, where Cromwell's reserve cavalry saves the day by attacking the rear of Cavendish's victorious cavalry. So that shows good hustle there, Ollie.

At Marston Moor, as I've noted above Cromwell's success was due in no small part to Byron's boneheadedness.

Cromwell was at 2nd Newbury but had little overall effect on the battle.

Preston is probably Cromwell's most successful battle, given that he appears to have been outnumbered and won very handily anyway, but this was mostly because he was able to defeat and destroy one part of Hamilton's army at a time, which was Hamilton's stupid fault.

At Dunbar, Cromwell exploited the fact that Leslie exposed his right flank and rolled him up. Good exploitation of an enemy's mistake, but it's still an enemy's mistake.

That leaves Worcester, where Cromwell assaulted the town as it was defended by a less experienced army half the size of his own force. Not really all that much of a foregone conclusion. It would have taken a screwup of Agincourt or Nicopolis scale proportions to lose at Worcester.

John Foelster said...

That leaves Marlborough Man, about whom I knew the least going in and I was the most impressed with coming out.

Churchill fought at Sedgemoor against Monmouth's revolt, but was not in overall command and the battle was a very sad one-sided affair.

The victory at Walcourt some years later was not Marlborough's sole command. Based on my reading it was not won by the Allies so much as it was lost by the French insomuch as they attacked in a disorganized and piecemeal fashion with inferior numbers.

That leaves Marlborough's Captain-Generalcy during the War of the Spanish Succession. First his strategic sense in disengaging himself from the low countries to make a junction with Eugen to prevent the fall of Vienna really impressed me, especially since he was acting on his own initiative over the objections of his Dutch allies.

Schallenburg was a fine victory in the Caesarian tradition where Marlborough's forces (barely) won a race to a key strategic position, captured that position and forced the surrender of the defenders. Having his quartermaster set up a false siege camp to lull the defenders into a false sense of security as the assault was prepared really appealed to me. It is worth noting though that it was Baden who spotted the critical weakness that the Franco-Bavarian force had opened up on their left flank and that he apparently pressed home the attack without consulting the Duke.

Blenheim was a battle Marlborough and Eugen had no business winning. The French were dug in behind a swampy creek with Danube on their right flank, and they outnumbered the Allies, but Marlborough attacked anyway.

As far as I can tell it came down to superior command integration, better training, and good fortune in that the French bottled up a large part of their forces in the town of Blenheim itself.

I'm all the more impressed by the inter-command coordination given that Marlborough's army was made up of several different nationalities. This never seems to have been a problem for him.

The French Army was wiped out.

John Foelster said...

More Marlborough:

Ramilles was a masterpiece worthy of Caesar or Hannibal. Marlborough's only advantages were artillery superiority and better interior lines of communication, and he played his French opponent like a flute.

He drew his opponent's forces away from the main engagement on his low lying left flank into the more defensible high ground of the center and right. Then he disengaged a large part of the center and flung it into his left and shattered the enemy formations. Another French field army is wiped out.

That leaves Malplaquet, where Marlborough unfortunately failed. He won the battle, but the French Army got away and suffered fewer casualties.

I'm sorry but Marlborough is clearly heads and shoulders above the rest of the competition as England's greatest general.

You can mention Edward IV in the same breath as Longshanks and Henry "Scarface" V, but Marlborough just flat out belongs in a class by himself, probably in the same league as Napoleon, Caesar and Hannibal.

John Foelster said...

While I'm rambling on about elite generals, here are my picks for the best American generals:

1) Benedict Arnold. Nobody else has a better field record for innovation on the spot.
2) Nathaniel Greene. The REAL American Fabius.
3) Winfield Scott. Set the standard for invading foreign countries.
4) William Sherman. Best Civil War record, that and I don't like Atlanta much. Understood the necessary tactics from the start.
5) George Thomas. Pulled off the only Civil War battle of annihilation.
6) James Longstreet. If only Lee had listened to him... Actually scratch that, thank goodness Lee was too dumb to listen. Excellent postwar Republican politician too.

John Foelster said...

Most Overrated American Generals:

1) George Washington. Yup, the divine George's main attributes were height and an unwillingness to give up. That and he didn't pull a Cromwell/Napoleon/Stalin. His only really impressive battle plan was Germantown and his army (and the roads of Montgomery County) were not up to the task of a coordinated simultaneous assault. It wouldn't have mattered and Howe's army would have been destroyed just like Burgoyne's if Henry Knox hadn't convinced Washington to stop everything and besiege a large house.

2) Robert E. Lee. When Grant makes an assault that kills a lot of his own men but also kills a lot of Lee's men and forces Lee to retreat, he's a drunken butcher. When Lee makes an assault that kills a staggering number of his own men and only barely more of Hooker's men and Hooker retreats even though he doesn't need to, Lee's a genius. Lee is the poster boy for generals who look good because their opponents are idiots, and he's worshiped as a god among Southerners and a lot of Northern conservatives because it looked like it would be possible for him to win the South its "freedom" and defeat the "tyrant" Lincoln.

3) Stonewall Jackson. Look at the pictures and read the quotes, the man was certifiably insane. He made his reputation beating up the hapless Banks and the still more useless Fremont, but his supposed mastery of rapid maneuver disappeared when it was his job to outflank McClellan during the Seven Days. Same with Pope and especially Burnside. The fact that he died before his aggression got him into serious trouble like Hood has inflated his reputation.

4) Douglas MacArthur. Incredibly brave when it came to sending other people to die, craven if there was a possibility that he might be captured, arrogant, overconfident, hasty to take credit for other people's successes, always certain that his failures were someone else's... If this raving lunatic hadn't received his long overdue pink slip from Truman he would probably have tried to nuke China. Also, he was a Republican long after this stopped being a good thing.

5) Nathan Bedford Forrest. Terrorist. End of story.

6) Frank Wisner. Not technically a general, per se, but the head of the CIA's "dirty tricks" department from its creation to his diagnosis as a manic depressive in 1958. He was therefore responsible for all of America's proxy wars during that period, including the overthrow of the Iranian government, the idiotic overthrow of the Guatemalan government, and the equipment and deployment by paradrop of fascist associated partisan groups into China, Tibet, and the Soviet Union. Let me repeat that, a mentally unstable individual worked with resistance groups formally associated with the Nazis, equipped them as guerrilla units, and air dropped them into the sovereign territory of the Soviet Union. (His friend Kim Philby gave the Soviets all the drop zones in advance.) There are people in the US who actually admire the guy. Rating him as anything higher than a menace to life on Earth is idiocy.

John Foelster said...

An underrated general:

1) Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a lot of things, stupid wasn't one of them. His Western campaigns were well executed, although Lee did give him a lot of trouble. By 1864 in Virginia, though the war had stopped being a war of maneuver of the kind we had throughout history up to that point and became one of frontage and position. It wasn't about great armies moving back and forth over the countryside but armies stuck in a place, inching forward, pounding away at one another. (There's a reason why there are no great generals in my list after the American Civil War, after that point great generalship was no longer a factor the way it had been. (Bad generalship still thrives.))

Some generals that deserve everything bad that is said about them:

1) George McClellan. There's an equestrian statue of George McClellan on the northern side of Philadelphia's city hall. Legend has it, that should the city ever be threatened, it will run away.

2) Braxton Bragg. Politically appointed morons were not just for the Union army.

3) Lloyd Fredendall. When your unwillingness to listen to your subordinates, idiosyncratic mode of speech, incomprehensible order codes, cowardice and just general dickishness make people think that subbing in George Patton is a good idea, we can pretty well agree that you're worthless.

Top 3 generals of all time (worldwide):

1. Genghis Khan
2. Temur (Tamerlane)
3. Subetai

I go with Harold Lamb on this, not even a contest.

Pembroke said...

I think you are forgetting that England did not have a regular army and Edward IV was invaluable for motivating his troops. None of the soldiers at that time would face any serious consequences for abandoning the battlefield or even changing sides. That was a main reason for sparing commoners after the battle. Otherwise who would fight in the next battle? That was the main mistake of Margaret d'Anjou - she forgot that her troops DID NOT have to fight for her. And that's why Londoners were so quick to welcome Edward IV not only once but twice.