The Death of Edward IV

April 9, 2018

 

For a man who had always been in the best of health for most of his life, Edward's death at forty-one came as somewhat of a shock and no one was sure what was actually the cause. He had always been so strong and ruthless so when he died so suddenly, everyone reacted with mild disbelief. Over indulgence in food and wine leading to a stroke was considered and it was true, he did have a tendency to overindulge just as his future grandson, Henry VIII would do at around this age. Melancholia over losing more French territories was another consideration offered but that excuse had already been used before when trying to explain Henry VI’s death. Malaria was another option from when Edward was in France in 1475. Some said pneumonia, some even said appendicitis. But in the end, no one really knew. By all accounts, he was overweight and increasingly self-indulgent and probably took little exercise, which could explain his unfitness and lethargy. But can you die so suddenly from a lack of exercise? I certainly hope not, for my own sake.

 

Edward’s reign began in a bloodbath. He was in the Welsh marshlands when his father died at Wakefield but instead of mourning, he was energized enough to cross into Herefordshire to fight the Lancastrian army in revenge for his father’s death. His triumph sent him floating on a cloud of confidence only eclipsed on 4th March when he was crowned King of England, fifteen days after a final battle at St Albans. But if he thought he’d put any question of who was going to be the king to rest, he was to find that instead of stopping the Lancastrians in their tracks, it made them even angrier. By then, after decades of fighting, everyone was just so accustomed to warfare, danger and cruelty; the only logical thing for them to do was to fight.

 

Even at the age of nineteen, Edward had remarkable military knowhow and an outstanding physique. His height is estimated at 6 feet 3 or 4 inches (1.93 m) making him one of the tallest among English, Scottish and British monarchs to date. In war, nothing daunted him or wearied him and as things worsened, the better he became. But for all of his wonderful qualities, what he lacked was any serious enthusiasm for ruling. And that strength was the single thing that England desperately needed.

 

But even after his defeat of Henry VI, his right to the throne was never a given. Rumours about his mother, Duchess Cecily, and her goings-on in the bedroom sprang up around his legitimacy. It was suggested that Edward’s father was actually an archer called Blaybourne. In Rouen Cathedral's register, an entry in 1441 records that the clergy were paid for a sermon for the safety of Richard Duke of York, Edward's father, before leaving for Pontoise (near Paris). This would confirm that Richard would have been on campaign in Pontoise from July 14 to August 21, 1441, while Cecily was in Rouen. Since Edward was born on 28th April, doing the math, July is when he should have been conceived, though that’s only my opinion. Certainly Edward’s baptism at Rouen was very low-key but then again the Duke of York didn’t deny paternity and in Medieval terms that meant Edward was legitimate.

 

Cecily Neville, mother of both Edward IV and Richard III, could have been the basis for the 'illegitimate' story herself. When she found out about Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, in 1464, "Proud Cis" flew into a rage. One of the things she is reported to have then said was that she was of a good mind to declare he was illegitimate and so have him kicked off the throne for his foolishness.

 

The rumour floated to the surface again at a time when George, Duke of Clarence took a shine to the crown and its not difficult to see that George might have used gossip for his own ends (supposition again). When Richard needed a public justification for his claim to the throne in 1483 the rumour was aired again. And as we all know mud sticks and there’s no smoke without fire. I’m sure if I think I can come up with a few more clichés.

 

Ultimately, the fact that someone passed off the child of their lover as legitimate makes no difference whatsoever to the events of the Wars of the Roses or the monarchy thereafter but what it does do is add another fascinating layer to a story that already has many complex twists and turns. Who needs soap operas when we’ve got the Plantagenets?

 

But nontheless, life took a strange turn for Edward. Around Easter 1483, Edward began feeling unwell and his condition quickly worsened as he complained of an increasing number of strange ailments ranging from pain in his abdomen to suspected poisoning. But it was obvious something was terribly wrong. Through all of this, his brother Richard was very supportive and concerned. The best doctors were called and nothing was too good for his brother the king. But still Edward’s condition deteriorated. Edward lingered long enough to add some codicils to his will: the most important was his naming of his loyal brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester as the Protector of the realm until his son, Edward, came of age.

 

The one thing that was missing from Edward’s reign was an easy succession, and as with his ascension to the throne, his death led to a blood bath. At his death, the rift between his brother Richard and the Woodvilles was still flaring up and once again, battle lines were drawn and rival camps began building up their strength.  

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