The Yorkist Kings and Foreign Policy

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By Jonathan Lewis | Published in History Review 2000

The Yorkists have suffered from a lack of attention at A Level due, in part, to the fame of their illustrious successors, the Tudors. Traditionally textbooks have looked at them merely to unravel their role in the Wars of the Roses or to discuss the infamy of Richard III. Little has been made of the influence that Edward IV and Richard III had on the establishment of that Lancastrian and Yorkist hybrid, the House of  Tudor, and even less attention has been paid to the role that foreign policy played in the downfall of the Yorkists and the rise of Henry Tudor. This is perhaps most obviously demonstrated in regard to the Yorkist kings’ alienation of France in 1470 and 1485, when Edward lost his throne and Richard his life, both to a pretender supported by a French King anxious to quash any threat from England. This article will demonstrate that one of the main reasons for Henry VII’s success at Bosworth was the foreign policy of Edward IV and his brother Richard III during the period 1461-1485.


The Yorkist Kings inherited a dual legacy in foreign policy – both successful, due to the aggressive Henry V, and disappointing, since Henry VI was weak and did not share his father’s love of battle. Not only were the Yorkist kings the latest in a line of monarchs who, according to the recognised expert on their period, Charles Ross, ‘appeared to the French Kings as potential conquerors of their realm, especially when aided by Burgundy’, but they had to appeal to a population disheartened by Henry VI’s weakness in foreign affairs and also to the powerful merchants of London. In addition, Edward IV had to deal with probably the shrewdest king in Europe, Louis XI of France. All of these factors combined to create a situation made all the more volatile by Edward’s choice of wife and his subsequent relationship with the megalomaniac Earl of Warwick.

Edward IV 1461-1470

Edward IV was concerned with foreign affairs almost immediately after his coronation on 28th June 1461. As Ross argues, ‘the aged Charles VII of France had shown some favour to the Lancastrian cause’ with his actions towards Jersey in May 1461, when the French established themselves on the island. This seems to indicate aggressive intentions against Edward, especially when combined with Charles’s friendliness towards associates of the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou such as Pierre de Breze. Edward, like his brother in 1483, was vulnerable to foreign intervention immediately after his usurpation.

The early years of Edward’s reign were made more difficult by relationships with Scotland. For the Scots offered a refuge to Henry VI and Margaret; and, in league with Louis XI, they were involved in the almost farcical attempted invasion of England by Margaret in October 1462. Furthermore, the Scots invaded the North in June 1463, only to be beaten back by Warwick and Lord Montagu. It is fair to assume that such events made Edward IV ever more aware that a major threat to his newly formed dynasty came from foreign support for claimants to the throne.

By late 1463 events became more favourable to the Yorkists, as the Scots came to terms and a truce was signed in October between England, France and Burgundy. Although this point is sometimes overlooked, it is important as it gave Edward time to consolidate his control over the nobility and lessen the threat of a Lancastrian rebellion. (This was a luxury that, later, Richard III never achieved in his short reign  and serves to highlight the importance of foreign policy when internal events were not stabilised and the monarch’s rule not fully established.)

By the mid-1460s Edward IV was more secure on the throne, partially due to the signing of a 15-year truce with Scotland and discussions of a French marriage alliance with Louis. However, it is well documented that Edward decided against such a marriage and, as Ross states, ‘made the first major blunder of his political career’ by marrying Elizabeth Woodville in April 1464. Much has been made of Warwick’s antipathy towards the Woodvilles; but in general historians have exaggerated their personal following, and in fact their influence at court was not as significant as their legacy suggests. Indeed Edward continued to grant Warwick land, stewardships and profits from the mines during the 1460s. Although most commentators agree that the pro-Burgundian line in foreign policy upset Warwick, ultimately it was Warwick’s ‘profoundly unreasonable personality’ that led to his part in Henry VI’s brief return to the throne. Attention has focused on Warwick’s role as ‘kingmaker’ during Henry VI’s Readeption in October 1470. However, without the assistance of Louis XI and the role played by foreign policy, it is unlikely that Warwick’s name would be so infamous today.

Edward’s foreign policy can be blamed for Louis’s intervention as, in May 1468, the English king had declared war on France, and he had also completed the diplomatic encirclement of Louis with the treaty of alliance with Aragon. Ross states that by May 1470 Louis XI ’had endured twenty months of the most acute anxiety and strain – the nightmare vision of an active combination of England, Burgundy and Brittany’. It was this feeling that led him to make the unholy alliance with Margaret and Warwick. Whatever the intrigues and events of 1470-71, it is only relevant to this article to note that without Louis XI’s assistance financially, diplomatically and militarily, Edward would have likely remained King in 1470.

Similarly it is to foreign policy and Warwick’s declaration of war against Burgundy that Edward’s restoration can be traced. Although there were other reasons for Henry VI’s unpopularity, Warwick’s inability to keep England neutral, rather than blindly follow France’s lead, forced Charles of Burgundy to assist Edward with money (£20,000) and ships, and gave a focus of discontent to those opposing the Warwick and Lancastrian alliance. Whilst most of the reasons for Edward’s return to the throne can be traced to his actions when in England, the crucial role played by foreign policy was to place him in Yorkshire with a chance to retake his crown. Many factors actually enabled Edward to reclaim the throne, but the support of Charles of Burgundy was vital in giving him the impetus to mount a serious challenge.

Edward IV 1471-1483

By 1471 Edward IV had returned to the throne of England with a determination to continue his claim to the French throne. He was furious at the actions of Louis in bringing about the end of his first reign. The official address to parliament in 1472, on the King’s behalf, showed that Edward saw Louis as ‘the principal ground, root, and provoker of the King’s let and trouble’ and the man who wanted by ‘subtle and crafty means’ to disrupt Yorkist rule. It is therefore possible to contend that it was the way Louis XI had blatantly interfered in the affairs of England, and the threat of it happening again, that caused Edward to seek revenge in the 1470s.

It was not until 1475, however, that Edward launched the campaign that gave him his valued pension from the Treaty of Picquigny. The events of 1475 represent perhaps the pinnacle of Edward’s success against the machiavellian Louis XI. Edward gained not only an immediate payment of 75,000 crowns but also an annual pension of 50,000 crowns and very beneficial trade agreements for the cloth trade of Devon and Bristol. Yet even this ’pinnacle’ can be criticised as missing the glory of conquest that monarchs such as Henry V had been able to achieve against France. Certainly England did not gain any French land by the treaty.

Nevertheless Edward enjoyed relative foreign policy harmony until 1477 when Charles of Burgundy died, leaving his daughter as heir. Louis, forever looking for an opportunity to weaken France’s traditional enemies Burgundy and Brittany, invaded Picardy, Artois and the Duchy of Burgundy. Although Edward IV had always opposed a French-Burgundian alliance, some historians have argued that after 1475 and the Treaty of Picquigny he was constrained by his desire to retain his pension from Louis and the economic benefits of a marriage alliance with the dauphin. However, Lander makes the valid point that Edward was aware that the situation in the Netherlands was complex both in terms of legal and political areas and that any intervention would have probably involved England in a long and costly war. This was something Edward, allegedly ever conscious of financial matters, would not have wanted. The Croyland Chronicler adds an additional dimension to this argument when he states ’for collecting vessels of gold and silver … and for building castles, colleges and other distinguished places… not one of his predecessors was at all able to equal his remarkable achievements’. He was the first English King in centuries who actually died solvent. Maybe Edward was concerned with finances abroad so that he could continue to develop the splendour of the crown at home.

Fortunately for Edward the marriage of Mary, Charles of Burgundy’s daughter, to Maximilian, son of the Hapsburg Emperor, Frederick III, in August 1477 made his support a valuable commodity for both France and Burgundy. Edward was still very interested in a successful marriage alliance of his daughter Elizabeth to the dauphin. However, it is more than likely that the cunning Louis XI used the ongoing discussions about marriage as a delaying tactic to win him time with his intrigues with Burgundy. Louis was determined to take advantage of the power vacuum left by Charles’s death and put an end to the threat on France’s borders from an independent Burgundy. Obviously Edward feared this would drastically weaken England’s position, but he was wary of upsetting Louis too much in case he lost his annual pension. By 1480 Edward was starting to accept that Louis was not going to give him the profitable marriage he craved, so he began to move closer to England’s traditional allies against France  – Brittany and Burgundy.

Edward signed a treaty with Burgundy in 1480 that represented the end of patience with the French on the marriage issue and demonstrated his increasing demand for financial gain in the form of an annual pension when engaging in any foreign policy arrangement. Sadly for Edward, however, the first consequence of this treaty was the loss of the French pension instalment due at Michaelmas 1480. Then Louis seemed likely to encourage Scottish activity against Edward’s territory in the North of England. All of these elements continued to accentuate the tradition of suspicion and distrust present in France against England and vice versa.

It is probable, as Ross believes, that Edward’s new pro-Burgundy posture was responsible for the trouble on the Scotland-England border in 1480. The Scots government began to embark on policies that breached the truce signed in 1474 and there was a series of raids across to the English side of the border that seemed to benefit nobody apart from the manipulative Louis XI. Edward, despite a fear that any escalation north of the border might weaken his position on the Continent, nevertheless decided on war with Scotland. This conflict persuaded Edward not to aid Maximilian in his planned invasion of France in the early 1480s, and thus it constituted one reason why Maximilian signed the Treaty of Arras in 1482, which signalled the failure of England’s anti-French foreign policy.

Relationships between Louis XI and Edward had become so strained that Louis made defence preparations for an invasion by England in November 1480. It was the historic fear of England and the English kings’ insistence on seeing themselves as the rightful monarchs of France, coupled with the anti-French policies adopted by Edward after 1480, that help explain why France supported the first realistic challenger to the Yorkist dynasty, Henry Tudor

Edward was ultimately isolated in European affairs due to a combination of the death of Mary of Burgundy in a horsing accident and Maximilian’s need to consolidate his losses by the Treaty of Arras in 1482. By this treaty Margaret of Austria was to marry the dauphin, while France gained Artois and the county of Burgundy. Edward IV not only lost his chance of a French marriage but in addition his cherished pension was stopped by Louis. Louis had outfoxed Edward for the final time, but the legacy of their dealings was an England that France felt demanded and sought revenge.

Contemporaries such as Polydore Virgil certainly spotted this desire for revenge in Edward and it is likely that he was planning an invasion of France again in his final few months alive. This perception in France of continued and escalating English aggression towards her  was one that it was crucial for Richard III to change if he was hold on to his throne. With the benefit of hindsight, we can perhaps see that Richard III’s biggest mistake was not to reassure France of England’s peaceful intentions, especially since his claim to the throne was more tenuous than Edward’s. But Richard had learned little from the recent history of his own dynasty.

Richard III 1483-85

Richard’s actions in 1483 not only gained him the throne of England but heightened the importance of Yorkist foreign policy. Although the exact nature of the Princes’ deaths will never be known, most respected historians see the hand of their uncle playing the vital role in their murder. It seems extremely unlikely that they would have been killed without Richard’s blessing, and certainly he was seen as the culprit by contemporaries and thus his already small power-base –  which rested on a fragile balance of domestic acceptance and foreign non-intervention  – was further weakened. Domestically he was forced to rely on trusted Northerners to quash any internal unrest that erupted, such as the Buckingham Rebellion of 1483, but foreign policy was even more complex due in part to the man whom the 1483 rebellion highlighted as Richard’s most likely rival, Henry Tudor.

Under Edward IV, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was, in Ross’s words, ‘an obscure and penniless exile in Brittany’, but with Richard’s usurpation came a new-found significance to Henry’s rather weak claim to the throne of England. For if Richard could make good his own dubious right to the crown, then Henry also had a feasible claim. Henry moved to prominence with the failed Buckingham Rebellion, as his name became well known in England, and he became the figurehead around whom the opponents of Richard could rally when the time was right. Foreign policy was now vital because, as in 1470-71, European countries could once more influence English affairs by supporting, or threatening to support, a claimant to the throne when a new monarch had not had time to develop his power base. Richard was well aware of this possible threat, for (in Mancini’s words) he sent an emissary to Brittany in 1483 to enquire if ‘there be any intended enterprise out of land upon any part of this realm’.

The first external problem Richard had to face was the problem of Scotland. Despite James III’s enthusiasm for peace with England, Richard supported the pretender to the Scottish throne, Albany.  Unfortunately for Richard, however, Albany’s attempt at invasion resulted in abrupt failure and further antagonised the Scottish King. James then sent a contingent of Scots to France to fight alongside Henry Tudor under the command of Alexander Bruce of Earlshall. It is probable that Richard’s policies towards Scotland were influential in pushing James to improve his relationship with the new king of France, Charles VIII, who succeeded the old fox Louis XI in August 1483. Richard’s actions must surely have heightened French suspicion of the new King. Clearly Richard was not the type of King to avoid bloodshed in domestic or foreign affairs.

Yet it is important not to see Richard as a northern barbarian blundering his way throughout the intrigues of foreign policy. Whilst he made a number of serious mistakes, he did have the intelligence to note that the alliance proposed by Queen Isabella of Castile early in 1483 would have offended the French deeply. Sadly for Richard, this understanding attitude towards French susceptibilities was not made obvious to Charles VIII during the crucial period in 1485 when Henry was in France looking for assistance

Richard turned his attention towards Brittany in an attempt to resolve the vital problem of a rival claimant to the throne of England. Henry Tudor was the most dangerous threat to Yorkist rule and, as he was in exile in Brittany, Richard tried to cultivate a situation where he could control and, if possible, eliminate the threat, as his brother Edward had eventually done with Henry VI. England’s relationship with Brittany was clouded by piracy on both sides but Richard tried hard to stop Henry producing a repeat of the 1483 rebellion. According to Polydore Virgil, Richard was so concerned about Henry that ‘he was vexed, wrested and tormented in mind with fear perpetually’, a quotation clearly supporting the view put forward by Mancini.

After various attempts at inducement, Richard seemed to get the breakthrough he sought: the treasurer of Brittany took control during one of Duke Francis’s mental breakdowns and moved against Henry. Fortunately for the Tudor dynasty, the extensive network of spies got word to Henry just in time and he fled to the court of Charles VIII in October 1484. Richard’s most dangerous rival to the throne was now in the hands of the one man who had the power and influence to decide the fate of the English.

Quite why Charles VIII supported Henry Tudor with 40,000 livres, and possibly 4,000 troops, for an invasion of England, remains debatable. Perhaps the best answer is that he was heavily influenced by a lifetime of deceit and hostility between the two countries. Throughout the reigns of the Yorkist Kings there had been constant threats of invasion. Ross makes the point that in 1484-85 there were numerous rumours in France that Richard was going to mount an invasion, just as his brother was planning before he died. In addition, the French saw Richard’s friendship with Brittany as a typical action to destabilise France, not as a legitimate move to capture Henry Tudor. These factors combined to make Charles VIII think that any move to weaken Richard would be wise for France. Hence, with his invaluable support, Henry landed in Milford Haven in a quest for the throne that would eventually lead him to Bosworth and a famous victory.


The conclusion has to be that foreign policy was a crucial factor in the downfall of the Yorkist Kings and a very significant influence on the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. It would be foolish to perceive foreign policy as the only factor putting Henry VII on the throne, but it was arguably the most important one in getting Henry Tudor to the shores of Britain with a chance of success. The events of 1485 are well documented and have little to do with Richard’s relationships with foreign countries, but they would not have had the chance to materialise without the assistance of France at the exact dates in question. This is clear with the failed attempt of invasion in 1483 and the changing face of European diplomacy after the treaty of peace signed between France and Brittany on 9th August 1485. This failure in foreign policy cannot solely be traced to Richard III, but was partly the legacy which Edward IV left to his murderous brother in a form of a European poisoned chalice.

  • 1460 Edward IV gains the throne from Henry VI
  • 1464 Edward marries Elizabeth Woodville
  • 1470 The Readeption of Henry VI
  • 1471 Edward IV's recovery of the throne
  • 1475 The Treaty of Picquigny
  • 1477 Charles the Bold dies
  • 1482 The Treaty of Arras
  • 1483 Edward IV and Louis XI die (independently!)
  • 1485 The Battle of Bosworth and Henry VII's coronoation

Jonathan Lewis teaches history at Oakland Park Grammar School in Maidstone

Further reading: 

  • S.B. Chrimes, Henry VII (1977)
  • C.S.L. Davies, Peace, Print and Protestantism 1450-1558 (1982)
  • J.R. Lander, Government and Community, England 1450-1558 (1982)
  • R. Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain 1471-1714 (1985)
  • C. Ross, Edward IV (1975)
  • C. Ross, Richard III (1981)
  • J.A.F. Thomson, The Transformation of Medieval England 1370-1529 (1983)
  • J. Warren The Wars of the Roses (1995)
  • B.P. Wolffe Henry VI (1981)

    Historical dictionary: Roses, Wars of the

  • The Yorkist Kings and Foreign Policy | History Today

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