Edward IV and the origins of the Middle Classes of England?

A footnote in the Chronicles of the White Rose of York makes the suggestion that Edward IV was responsible for the origins of the English Middle Classes. 

It is to this marriage, in a great measure, that the rise of the Middle-class in the Country owes its origin. Fearful of the jealousy of the powerful Landed Aristocracy, which in the recent events had made and unmade Kings, Edward sought by concessions to the smaller gentry and wealthy citizens to raise a barrier round the throne. By displacing the Nobles who had hitherto supported his pretensions and eventually placed him on the throne by the Father, brothers, sisters’ husbands, and uncles of the Queen, “he threw the ancient nobility into the background, and brought forward a new set of individuals to take from them their power, influence, honours and emoluments.”

Source: Footnote of page 16 of the Chronicles of the White Rose of York.

Why would King Edward IV be jealous of the Landed Aristocracy or wary of them?

The majority of Landed Aristocrats were Lancastrian in their political affiliations. This meant that though the Yorkists had defeated the forces raised in King Henry VI’s name, they still had to contend with a Barony that was not fully behind Edward as king. Whilst many would comply with his rule, there was potential for legislative delays and opposition. Furthermore, the Yorkist faction themselves had ‘overmighty’ individual lords, notably the Earl of Warwick, who could influence court and government. This may be supportive but the risk was that such lords could become problematic. This had happened in the minority of Henry VI into his majority rule so the consequences of unruly senior magnates was fresh in the memory of Edward and his closest advisors. Yorkist propaganda had called for an end to corruption, and those corrupt men had often been powerful nobles with lots of power.

What are the benefits to the monarch of using the gentry and wealthy citizens as a ‘barrier round the throne’?

In simple terms, the commons of London had been supportive of the Yorkist Lords in 1459-61. They resented the opulence of some of the landed Aristocracy, so there was political gain to be had from working with these groups. Including the gentry and wealthier merchants expanded the reach of the crown, reducing its reliance upon a small number of wealthy men. This prevented the King being reliant upon a handful of people if there was an urgent need for finance to be raised. Henry VI’s Council had found itself reliant upon loans from Cardinal Beaufort, by embracing the gentry and merchant classes Edward could raise funds from a broader base. Outside of London it too could mean a broader appeal than his predecessor had in his reign. It could be as straightforward as promoting men based on qualifications, experience, and merit, rather than because of their parents. However, these interactions hardly place a barrier round the throne. That requires advancement into Government, as MP’s, Barons, or as officials within the treasury, mint, or Royal Households. These roles needed some changes simply because of the physical impact of the Wars. Men had died, been wounded, attainted, or were too closely allied to the previous regime to be considered suitable. Replacements were needed and whilst some positions could be used to reward his ennobled followers, so too could they be used to reward other groups who had been loyal, or to whom he felt an affinity: such as the family of his wife, Elizabeth Woodville.

What advancements were given to the Woodville Family?

There is a degree of controversy surrounding the rise of the Woodville Family. The marriage between the King and Elizabeth Woodville was not one of social equals. For her family to be promoted was viewed by some with disdain. The picture is not quite as simple as the family suddenly appearing from nowhere to receive Royal favour though, indeed, the first promotions of the Woodville Family took place decades earlier.

Richard Woodville. Squire to King Henry V at Agincourt. Promoted to Constable of the Tower of London, 1425.

Richard Woodville [the second], son of the above. Knighted by King Henry VI at Leicester in 1426. Married Jacquetta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford c1437. Knight Banneret 1441/1442. Created Baron Rivers 1448. Knight of the Garter 1450. Senschenal of Gascony, 1450. Lieutenant of Calais, 1454-55. Warden of the Cinque Ports, 1459. Created Earl Rivers, 1466. Lord Treasurer, 1466. Constable of England, 1467.

Anne Woodville, son of Richard [the second] married first William Bourchier, Viscount Bourchier, and second George Grey, 2nd Earl of Kent.

Anthony Woodville, son of above. Lord Scales through marriage. Inherited title Earl Rivers.

Mary Woodville (1443–1481), married William Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke.

Jacquetta Woodville (1444–1509), married John le Strange, 8th Baron Strange of Knockin.

John Woodville, executed along with his father, Richard, in 1469. Knight of the Bath, 1465. Married the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

Lionel Woodville, son of Richard [the second]. Bishop of Salisbury.

Martha Woodville (d. c. 1500), married Sir John Bromley of Baddington.

Eleanor Woodville (1452–1512), married Sir Anthony Grey, son of Edmund Grey, 1st Earl of Kent.

Richard Woodville [the third}. Knight of the Bath, 1465.

Margaret Woodville (1454–1490), married Thomas FitzAlan, 17th Earl of Arundel.

Edward Woodville, son of Richard [the second] Knight of the Bath, 1475. Diplomat. Keeper of the town and castle at Portchester. Knight Banneret, 1482. Knight of the Garter, 1488.

Catherine Woodville, son of Richard [the second]. married first Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, second Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, she married third Sir Richard Wingfield.

Thomas Grey, son of Elizabeth Woodville from her first marriage. Created Marquess of Dorset, 1475. Married Anne Holland, then Cecily Bonnville, both wealthy women.

Richard Grey, son of Elizabeth Woodville from her first marriage. Knighted 1475. Knight of the Garter.

Were such advancements any different to those offered previously?

That the Woodville family benefitted from the marriage of Elizabeth to King Edward IV is quite clear. It is also clear that the rise of the family had begun prior to the marriage and continued into the Tudor era. The elevation began through conventional means, Richard Woodville working his way from being a squire to Constable of the Tower of London. The families involvement at this level then provided the second Richard with the opportunity to be part of the household of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. In a sense it is the opportunity that this presented which is the major mismatch. Richard’s marriage to the Dowager Duchess of Bedford was an enormous difference. As Duchess of Bedford Jacquetta had been married to the then heir to the throne, the Regent of France, making her one of the most significant women in England at the time. Indeed, even as Dowager Duchess she was only really outranked by Queen Margaret and the King’s Mother, Catherine of Valois. Richard on the other hand was a knight of the household. A minor rank in the grander scheme of things. He was promoted after that marriage but much of his rise seems to have been due to competency. The rise was incredible but not rapid and it was a natural progression from Knight to Banneret to Baron happening alongside increasingly important roles. By the time Edward IV ousted Henry VI from the throne Richard Woodville had held senior positions: the Lieutenancy of Calais and Wardenship of the Cinque Ports were reserved for trusted and capable men.

So the elevation of Richard Woodville from Baron to Earl in 1466 is perhaps not surprising, nor his roles as Treasurer and Constable, as these are two of the limited number of positions that are more senior than those that Richard had held in Henry VI’s reign.

However, when Elizabeth married Edward, Richard’s low status was cited by some of the King’s Council as one of the reasons why the marriage should be annulled. Capability mattered little to those at the top of the nobility, status was hugely important. And despite Jacquetta being a Duchess, his low birth could not be ignored by the nobles when it came to the King’s bride, or the appointments that followed.

The King’s choice of an English bride was unprecedented in post Norman Conquest England. And his bride brought with her little political value within England. The Woodville Family and Jacquetta simply did not have a hold over any branch of the nobility, or economic interests that were of great significance to the nation. So when the family begin to be promoted, it raises questions about the King’s judgement.

Had Elizabeth been from a small family there may have been scope for the promotion of siblings without creating any divisions. The Woodville Family was large though and even more so when Elizabeth’s children from her first marriage were included.

Never before had so many people from one family been elevated to the peerage, found marriages with people far wealthier than themselves, or been incorporated into the highest circles of court in such a short period of time. It rankled with the established elite. A typical marriage union would be at the same level of society, perhaps a small step up or down. For the children of Earl Rivers and the Duchess of Bedford this could legitimately have seen their children being married to the children of nobles. But with the exception of Anthony as the heir to the Earldom, the expectation would be to marry 2nd or 3rd children of other Earls. For a marriage contract to be made between a Woodville with no lands to his name to the Duchess of Norfolk is as far from the norm as could be imagined. And it was not the only example, with the likes of Anne Holland, Cecily Bonnville, the Dukes of Buckingham and Bedford all being used as Woodville marriage partners.

The inclusion of the Dukes shows that whilst the elevation of the Woodville family was unprecedented, their value was not lost on the nobility. Marriage to a Woodville could gain the ear of the King or Queen, buy favour, enhance opportunities for Patronage. All very valuable things.

Did Edward reward people from the lower levels of the nobility and gentry more than senior nobles?

In a word, yes. But there are reasons why.

Normally speaking the Kingdom of England would have a reasonable number of Royal Dukes, men who had been born as Princes, or who were the brothers or sons of a usurper King. This had not been the case in England since the death of King Henry V. With Henry VI being just 9 months old when he became King, there were just his two Uncles as Royal Dukes. There was no prospect of the King having any brothers and it would be years before he could marry and have children of his own. Given those heirs and other children would then need to come of age themselves, there was a likely period of at least 30 years in which England had an incredibly small Royal family.

It meant that other Dukes became more significant, men such as the Dukes of York, Exeter, and Somerset, from the extended Royal Family, were now potential heirs should the King die prior to producing an heir. Henry’s council moved o add a royal family of sorts around the young king, it included Lancastrians such as the Duke of Somerset, and saw the ennobling of the King’s half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor.

When civil war broke out, it resulted in an already depleted nobility becoming even smaller. England had around 60 noble families. Most took part in the fighting between 1459-61. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that no more than half a dozen nobles did not fight. Of these one, the earl of Worcester, was out of the country and most of the others were too elderly to take to the field. [The Earl of Oxford is one notable exception, he did not take to the field of battle. It did not stop him being executed though].

Those early years of the conflict saw a great number of nobles killed. Whilst most nobles had heirs, not all ofthese heirs were of age. And some were sons of lords whom were attainted. It leaves a tiny number of nobles who are Yorkist, Alive, Loyal, and Capable. So, Edward had scope to grant favour in land, titles, patronage and official roles to men who had previously been at a lower level of societal structure.

When Edward became King the Order of the Garter was in need of new members. From 1459-61 a combination of death on the battlefield, from old age, resignations from the Order and the degrading of Jasper Tudor meant that there were 13 new members of the Order elected before the end of 1463. Of these only two held senior titles, the Earl of Worcester and the Duke of Clarence, who was only 11 years old when elected. This isn’t really a case of senior nobles being overlooked, very few were. There was simply a lack of senior nobles who were suitable. Even after the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth there was a relative lack of nobles in comparison to previous periods in English history. The elections of members of the Woodville fraternity are therefore a little more understandable, particularly given the roles that they played.

What is odd is that the King had a number of nobles who had been loyal but received little in the way of patronage, chivalric recognition, land grants from the vast estates that the crown obtained via attainting Lancastrians. Men such as the earls of Arundel and Suffolk were left in receipt of very little to show for their roles. And this told when the rebellions and readeption took place, the lack of recognition led to a lack of effort to support Edward.

What is quite telling is the change in patronage and granting of honours after Edward reclaimed the throne. Whereas he favoured those who he had witnessed fighting, youth, family in the first reign, the second began with recognition of the most senior nobles. men such as the Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Arundel suddenly found themselves in favour. Had Edward deliberately changed from a policy of favouring a ‘middle class’ to one of favouring the established senior nobles?

Leave a Reply