The fifteenth century was littered with Edwards. It had always been a popular royal name and the London associations with Edward the Confessor, whose tomb was located within Westminster Abbey, made it a favourite choice for royal mothers giving birth there. It was also traditional to name sons after their fathers or after the King. The succession of the Yorkist Edward IV provided an obvious precedent, but the majority of key players in the Wars of the Roses shared a common ancestor in Edward III. Confusingly though, a relatively short period of time witnessed the arrival of four young men, all of whom were high up the line of succession. Their shared name indicates their proximity to the English throne and the dangers of being born royal.
The first was the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Theirs was a mismatched alliance, with the King’s ascetic character more suited to a life of retired piety while his teenaged Queen was passionate, driven and brave. After nine years of childlessness, she eventually gave birth to a son during her husband’s first mental breakdown. Born at Westminster in October 1452 and traditionally named after the Confessor, the little boy finally provided the Lancastrian line with an heir that should have silenced the opposition of powerful Yorkists. Henry was unable to recognise the boy though, and could not acknowledge him until his recovery the following year. Unsurprisingly rumours circulated regarding his paternity, which gossip reputed to the Queen’s favourite, Edmund Beaufort.
Young Edward’s life was one of constant turmoil and uncertainty. Invested early as Prince of Wales, there is little evidence to suggest he was the unsympathetic bloodthirsty figure of popular fiction. He did witness the deposition of his father and was at his mother’s side during her campaigns to restore the family to power. At the age of seventeen, he was married to Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick, who had turned against his former allies in the York dynasty. They spent most of their brief married life in France before Warwick succeeded in replacing Henry VI on the throne. Hoping to join his father-in-law on the battlefield and secure his inheritance, Edward returned to England to find the Earl had been killed in battle. The teenager bravely chose to lead his armies against the Yorkists in spite of this but was defeated and killed at Tewkesbury in 1471.
The three sons of York who defeated Edward of Westminster on that day were all to father a boy named Edward. Three years after taking the throne, Edward IV had conducted a secret marriage to the beautiful widow Elizabeth Wydeville, who had gone on to bear him three daughters. During Warwick’s turbulent readeption of Henry VI in 1470, Edward had fled to Burgundy, leaving his wife and their girls in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. There, barely a month later, Elizabeth went into labour and delivered a son, whom she named after his father. It must have been a difficult and traumatic event but fortunately, mother and baby survived. When the King was restored again in 1471, after Tewkesbury, he was reunited with his family and met his baby boy for the first time. This infant son, arriving amidst such adversity, would go on to become the elder of the Princes in the Tower, disappearing in the summer of 1483 as he awaited his own coronation.
The fate of Edward V still invites speculation. Some assert that the bones found at the foot of a staircase in the Tower in 1674, now in an urn in Westminster Abbey, represent their final resting place. Others though, continue to hope that one or both boys escaped and may have resurfaced later as pretenders to the throne, in particular the Perkin Warbeck who challenged Henry VII. However, his removal from the line of succession placed another young Edward firmly in line to the throne. This was his cousin, son of the new King, Richard III.
In 1472, Richard had married Anne Neville, a widow since the death of Edward of Lancaster at Tewkesbury. A son, their only surviving child, had been born to them around 1473, making him ten when his father became King. He had spent his first decade living quietly at his parents’ Yorkshire seat of Middleham Castle, and little surviving documentation remains to imply the nature of his life or the state of his health. He did not attend his parents’ coronation but soon afterwards, was invested as Prince of Wales in a gorgeous ceremony in York, as first in line to the throne. Sadly though, he was not to enjoy his position for long and in early April the following year, his parents received the sad news of his early demise. It was another Yorkist cousin, a final Edward, who would outlive them all.
The second son of York, George, Duke of Clarence, had also been eager to produce a male heir. He had married Warwick’s elder daughter Isabel against the King’s wishes in 1469 but the couple’s first child was lost at birth and the second had proved to be a girl. Finally, in February 1475, Isabel delivered a boy, on whom they bestowed the regal name. Three years later, though, the family’s fortunes had been overturned and young Edward was orphaned following the death of his mother in childbed and the execution of his father for treason. Little Edward was given the title Earl of Warwick, which had been forfeited by his rebellious grandfather and made a ward of Thomas Grey, his brother’s step-son. When the King died and Richard III took the throne, Edward was knighted and lived in the household of his aunt, Queen Anne Neville.
Following the battle of Bosworth and death of Richard III, this son of York’s fortunes never fully recovered. Edward of Warwick was the last of the surviving direct heirs, having seen the disappearance and death of his namesake cousins. At the age of eight, he was technically barred from inheriting his father’s titles because of Clarence’s attainder as a traitor but this could have been overturned by an act of Parliament. Some sources suggest he was “feeble-minded” although this is so widely open to interpretation as to be completely unhelpful. As a potential figurehead for discontentment with the Tudor regime, the boy was confined to the Tower. He would spend the rest of his life in prison there.
Edward of Warwick was conveniently out of sight and may have remained there for much longer, until the appearance of the pretender Perkin Warbeck. Then in his mid-twenties, the pair were was drawn into a plot to escape from the Tower, which may have been genuine, or else encouraged by their gaolers as the entrapment needed to convict them. He was beheaded in November 1499 along with Warbeck. His story concludes the sad fate of the four Edwards, promising young men who occupied a central place in the history of the period but through politics, misadventure and premature death, never fulfilled the destiny that their birth promised.
Photo credits: BBC/Company Pictures & ALL3MEDIA/Giles Keyte/Ed Miller