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Birth and ancestry

The future King Edward IV was born on April 28, 1442 at Rouen in Normandy, eldest surviving son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Until his father’s death, he was known as the Earl of March. In previous entries I’ve outlined Edward’s descent several ways from King Edward III. However, his mother was also a direct descendant of King Edward III.

Cecily Neville was the youngest of the 22 children of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, in this case born to his second wife Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland. Her paternal grandparents were John Neville, 3rd Baron Neville de Raby, and Maud Percy, daughter of Henry de Percy, 2nd Baron Percy.

Her maternal grandparents were John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, and his third wife Katherine Swynford. John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of King Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault.

She was the aunt of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, one of the leading peers and military commanders of his generation, a grand-aunt of Queen Consort Anne Neville, who married her son Richard III, and a great-great-grand-aunt of Queen Consort Catherine Parr, sixth wife of her great-grandson, King Henry VIII.

Cecily Neville increased her son Edward’s already strong claim to the throne. This claim was strengthened in 1447, when Richard Plantagenet 3rd Duke York became heir to the childless King Henry VI on the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Allegations of illegitimacy were discounted at the time as politically inspired, and by later historians. Edward and his siblings George, Duke of Clarence, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, were physically very similar, all three being tall and blonde, in contrast to the Duke of York, who was short and dark. His youngest brother, who later became King Richard III, closely resembled their father.

Early life

Edward grew up amidst a background of economic decline at home, and military defeat abroad, exacerbated by a weak and corrupt central government.

Both he and his younger brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were born in Rouen, where their father, the Richard, 3rd Duke of York, served as governor of English lands in France until 1445, when he was replaced by Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset. Edward and Edmund were probably brought up at Ludlow Castle, in the Welsh Marches, where the Duke of York was the dominant landowner.

English politics became dominated by the struggle between the Yorkists and supporters of the House of Lancaster, or Lancastrians, notably the Duke of Somerset, William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and King Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou.

However, the birth of King Henry VI’s son, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, in October 1453 created a viable Lancastrian figurehead, and the 1450s was dominated by political conflict between the two factions.

By the age of 17, Edward, the Earl of March was a political and military leader in his own right; after their defeat at the Battle of Ludford Bridge in 1459, his father and brother Edmund fled to Ireland, while the Earls of March, Salisbury and Warwick made their way to Calais. Edward’s name appears alongside those of his father, Warwick and Salisbury in widely circulated manifestoes declaring their quarrel was only with Henry’s evil counsellors.

In 1460, Edward crossed the English Channel with Warwick and Salisbury, and marched into London. At Northampton in July, he commanded one of three divisions in a Yorkist victory that led to the capture of Henry VI.

The Duke of York crossed from Ireland to England; on entering the Palace of Westminster, he declared himself king, a claim greeted by the assembled lords in silence. The Act of Accord agreed a compromise, whereby Henry VI remained king, but York and his descendants were designated his successors.

The implications of removing the legally accepted heir to the throne created substantial opposition to the Yorkist administration; in late 1460, Edward was given his first independent command and sent to deal with a Lancastrian insurgency in Wales.

Warwick remained in London, while York, Salisbury, and Edmund marched north to suppress another in Yorkshire; all three were killed following defeat at Wakefield on December 30 leaving Edward as the new head of the Yorkist party.

On February 2,1461, Edward won a hard-fought victory at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire. The battle was preceded by a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion, or three suns, which he took as his emblem, the “Sun in splendour”.

However, this was offset by Warwick’s defeat at the Second Battle of St Albans on February 17, the Lancastrians regaining custody of Henry VI. The two met in London, where Edward was hastily crowned King Edward IV of England before marching north, where the two sides met at the Battle of Towton.

The battle was fought on March 29 in the middle of a snowstorm, it was the bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil, and ended in a decisive Yorkist victory.

Queen Margaret fled to Scotland with her son Edward of Westminster, while the new king Edward IV returned to London for his coronation. King Henry VI remained at large for over a year, but was caught and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There was little point in killing him while his son remained alive, since this would have transferred the Lancastrian claim from a frail captive King to a Prince who was young and free.