Richard, Duke of York was the patriarch of the Yorkist monarchy that ruled England for just quarter of a century. Before his oldest son became King Edward IV and his youngest became King Richard III, the Duke of York was at odds with the government of his second cousin, once removed, King Henry VI for most of the 1450’s. York has, for a long time, been remembered as a one-dimensional figure, the ruthlessly ambitious and thrusting foil to the perennially disinterested Henry VI, a man who wanted the crown his cousin twirled absently on his finger so badly that he set a country on fire to try and get it. A large part of the reason that York was able to arrive at the point in 1460 at which he was appointed legal heir to Henry VI was his Mortimer heritage.
When Edward, 2nd Duke of York was killed at Agincourt he had no children to succeed him. Instead, the most senior title in the land outside the Lancastrian royal family passed to Edward’s nephew, Richard, whose own father, Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge had been executed by Henry V for his involvement in the Cambridge Plot just before the king left for the campaign in France that culminated at Agincourt. Richard, now 3rd Duke of York, was a month away from his fourth birthday when his uncle died. He was already an orphan, his mother having died shortly after his birth, so the duchy entered a long period under the control of others while Richard was a minor.
This only served to postpone the very real problems facing the duchy. Edward had left behind him a mountain of debt. Two dowers had to be supported, with Edward’s widow Philippa Mohun living until 1431 and his step-mother Joan Holland surviving until 1434. The duchy lands were worth a total of around £1,000 per annum but in 1433, there were still two knights and seven esquires still alive who could claim more than £240 of that in annuities given by Edward. When York came into his majority in 1433, he was given two years to pay of his uncle’s debts, resolve the drains on the duchy income and complete the family mausoleum at Fotheringhay that his uncle had started. After almost twenty years in the care of others and longer in a state of effective bankruptcy, he couldn’t hope to achieve that from the income of the York lands alone.
What saved Richard and facilitated his career as both a national and international figure was his inheritance from his other uncle, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March. Edmund was the brother of Richard’s mother, Anne Mortimer and he also died without issue in 1425. The vast and wealthy Mortimer inheritance passed to his nephew, Richard, 3rd Duke of York. It was this inheritance that saved York’s financial bacon and kept the duchy’s head above water.
In The Estates of the Higher Nobility in England in the Fourteenth Century, G.A Holmes describes the Mortimer family’s career in that period as ‘the most striking case in the fourteenth century of prolonged acquisition of property’ and the palace coup against Roger Mortimer in 1330 as ‘the natural reaction of the magnates to a monstrously successful adventurer’. It didn’t stop the family’s voracious growth, though, as Roger’s descendants found a path back into favour and flourished, albeit that they tended to be short-lived, until the advent of the Lancastrian kings caused them, with a claim arguably better than that of Lancaster, to be eyed with a deep-seated dread and suspicion.
It is a great shame that little of York’s records have survived, most probably a casualty of the ransacking of the town and castle of Ludlow after York’s flight in 1459. This leaves us with little financial evidence, but T.B. Pugh has detailed two of York’s valors, or tax returns, from a decade apart, though the later document is damaged and incomplete. The first valor dates from 1443, whilst York was serving as Lieutenant-General in France. The income declared in this valor between Michaelmas 1442 and Michaelmas 1443 for York’s Welsh and Marcher properties alone was around £4,300. That huge figure, equivalent to more than £2,000,000 today, is also net. It does not include £945 13s 10d spent on annuities, wages and fees or the £370 6s spent on repairs to land and properties, which means that his gross income was somewhere more in the region of £5,600. The accounts also show £3,692 in unpaid arrears still owed to the duke. If he had been able to recover this amount too, his gross income would have been about £9,000, equivalent to more than £4,000,000 today from Welsh and Marcher lands alone.
The amount still being spent on repairs is probably significant, since York’s Mortimer inheritance had been managed by others between 1425 and 1433, perhaps not too carefully, and the region was still recovering from the rebellion led by Owain Glyndwr at the beginning of the century. It is possible that the lands passed to York had escaped the worst of the attentions of the Welsh, since Sir Edmund Mortimer had been captured by Glyndwr and Henry IV had refused to ransom him (pointing perhaps to the threat perceived by the Lancastrian king by the Mortimer family) and Edmund had ended up marrying Catrin, Glyndwr’s daughter, and joining the revolt.
The second valor, which is incomplete, dates from 1453 and shows a drastic reduction in York’s income from the same lands. His net income had more than halved, from £4,300 to £1958 18s 6½d. In 1447, York had granted a charter to the people of Ceri, reducing a debt they owed him in return for a fixed payment of 600 marks at a rate of 100 marks per year. He also granted the people of his lordship of Cydewain the abolition of their serfdom in return for a payment of 1,000 marks, which they were wealthy enough to find immediately without resorting to instalments. In 1444, York’s wife, Duchess Cecily, was in London spending £608 with merchants there on luxury goods that included state robes of red velvet lined with ermine and decorated with gold and pearls. The money she spent was the equivalent of an annual baronial income, yet within a few years York was selling charters and between 1448 and 1452 he sold sixteen manors and mortgaged two Welsh lordships, an unprecedented divesting of property from the traditionally acquisitive Mortimer portfolio. In 1453, he pawned his finest jewel to Sir John Fastolf at exorbitant terms.
Pugh points to a straightening in York’s finances that ultimately led him into rebellion, but this interpretation ignores York’s continuing ability to raise and maintain large forces of men and to live without any real signal of being short of cash. The need for quick cash may indicate a short-term cash flow problem, but it is unlikely York was by any standards poor. Nor was York alone in experiencing a dip in income in Wales and the Marches. Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham’s income from his Marcher lands at Brecon, Hay and Huntington fell from £1,014 in 1448 to £515 for the whole three-year period between 1453 and 1455. William Herbert’s ability to raise a good level of income, achieving £488 in profit each year between 1465 and 1468, may hint at the real reason. The Marches were hard, lawless territories where those with power exercised virtual autonomy and were men every bit as hard as the land they controlled with an iron grip. York and Buckingham were absentee Marcher lords and the relaxed grip they exercised probably allowed the region to wriggle free from the control they had previously been under. Combined with an increasing distance from the revolt led by OwainGlyndwr, this probably allowed the Marches a greater degree offreedom that led to falling incomes for absentee lords.
York’s appointment to France in 1435 may well have been calculated to deny him the time he needed to get to grips with his immense inheritance after reaching his majority in 1433 and his second period in France followed by an appointment to Ireland demonstrate a desire to keep him out of England that may be explained by the suspicion his Mortimer blood had him held in. This was increased as he became heir to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester’s mantle as the people’s champion and Henry VI was increasingly exposed as an incompetent monarch. There is much to demonstrate that during the 1430’s and 1440’s, York’s service was exemplary and that during the 1450’s he offered something more like loyal opposition than rebellion. He had plenty of opportunities to take the throne, during Henry’s first illness, at the First Battle of St Albans and during the Second Protectorate amongst others, yet he gave no signal of wishing to do so until 1460, after he had been attainted, stripped of everything he owned and left with no option. Backed into a corner, this wounded Marcher lord came out fighting.
When Richard did claim the throne in 1460, he did so not as Duke of York, heir to Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund. He claimed it as heir to Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s second son, through the line of his Mortimer mother. The legacy of Richard, Duke of York’ connections to the Welsh and Marcher heritage of his Mortimer mother are still plain to see today. Climb Mortimer’s Tower at Ludlow Castle, walk through Mortimer’s Forest, visit Cleobury Mortimer or examine the stained-glass window and misericords at St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow. York is found on the bottom row of the stained-glass window showing the Marcher lords, alongside his son Edward IV, grandson Edward V and great-grandson Prince Arthur Tudor. The Mortimer inheritance bailed out the flailing Duchy of York and eventually brought it the crown.
There were plenty of rumours relating to the legitimacy of Richard’s father, Richard of Conisburgh, and it is possible that in the end, York saw himself more as a Mortimer than a York. A Marcher lord rather than a royal duke. Certainly, the Mortimer name was what made his sons kings.
- Richard duke of York as portrayed in Talbot Shrewsbury book.
- The arms of Richard duke of York, the Mortimer arms can be seen quartered with those of Ulster at the bottom left.