Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The flamboyant Edward IV shares with his luckless rival Henry VI the dubious distinction of being the only king of England to reign twice. In 1461 and 1471, thanks to Warwick the Kingmaker, the two men played box and cox in what turned out to be a humiliating royal timeshare. But after Edward had defeated Warwick and disposed of Henry, he ruled for a dozen prosperous and largely undisturbed years, during which he achieved another distinction. He was the first king for more than a century and a half who did not die in debt — in fact, he actually left his successor a little money in the kitty.

Edward was England’s first and last businessman monarch. Clapping folk around the shoulders and cracking dirty jokes, he was also an unashamed wheeler-dealer. He set up his own trading business, making handsome profits on exporting wool and tin to Italy, while importing Mediterranean cargoes like wine, paper, sugar and oranges. He ran the Crown lands with the keen eye of a bailiff, and when it came to PR with the merchant community he was a master of corporate hospitality.

One day in 1482 Edward invited the Lord Mayor of London, the aldermen and ‘a certain number of such head commoners as the mayor would assign’ to join him in the royal forest at Waltham in Essex. There, in today’s golf-course country, they were treated to a morning of sport, then conveyed ‘to a strong and pleasant lodge made of green boughs and other pleasant things. Within which lodge were laid certain tables, whereat at once the said mayor and his company were set and served right plenteously with all manner of dainties… and especially of venison, both of red deer and of fallow.’ After lunch the King took his guests hunting again, and a few days later sent their wives ‘two harts and six bucks with a tun of Gascon Wine’.

It could be said that Edward IV invented the seductive flummery of the modern honours list when he made six London aldermen Knights of the Bath. Like the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Bath, which referred to the ritual cleansing that a squire underwent when he became a knight, was primarily a military honour. Now the King extended the bait to rich civilians that he wanted to keep on side: a moneylender would kneel down as Bill Bloggs, the sword would touch his shoulder, and he arose Sir William.

Edward understood that everyone had his price — himself included. In 1475 he had taken an army across the Channel where he met up with the French King at Picquigny near Amiens — and promptly did a deal to take his army home again. For a down payment of 75,000 crowns and a pension of 50,000 a year, he cheerfully sold off his birthright — England’s claim to the French territories for which so many of his ancestors had fought so bloodily over the years.

The Treaty of Picquigny brought peace and prosperity to England, but not much honour. Edward’s reign was too undramatic for Shakespeare to write a play about — one reason, perhaps, why Edward is sometimes called England’s ‘forgotten king’. But the beautiful St George’s Chapel at Windsor, designed to outshine the chapel that his rival Henry VI had built at Eton College in the valley below, remains his memorial. And the Royal Book reveals a sumptuous court — along with a diverting little insight into how comfortably this fleshly monarch lived. After he had risen every morning, a yeoman was deputed to leap on to his bed and roll up and down so as to level out the lumps in the litter of bracken and straw that made up the royal mattress.

In 1483, Edward IV retired to his mattress unexpectedly, having caught a chill while fishing. He died some days later, aged only forty. Had this cynical yet able man lived just a few years longer, his elder son Edward, only twelve at the time of his death, might have been able to build on his legacy. As it was, young Edward and his younger brother soon found themselves inside the Tower of London, courtesy of their considerate uncle Richard.

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