Why did fighting break out in 1455?

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Was Henry VI's failure to blame for the fighting?

Henry had always been uninvolved in government and incapable of leadership, so although this could've been a factor, why 1455 and not before? Henry's continuing failure as king is a vital part of the explanation for the fighting in 1455 because it was this factor that led to all other developments. For example, one of the king's most important duties was to unite the nobility and prevents quarrels escalating into civil war. Clearly Henry did not stop Somerset and York's rivalry turning to conflict. However, Henry's failure did not make conflict certain or even probable. After all, he'd been a failure before 1450 but this hadn't led to nobles fighting a battle. Even after 1450 it was five yeards before the rivarly between York and Somerset led to battle. 

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The impact of public opinion

Cade's rebellion in 1450 shows that commons were politically aware and had developed their own clear explanation for England's problems. They believed that problems were rooted in the power of corrupt and treacherous courtiers. Although Suffolk was dead, their former allies were still in the royal household and so there was general fear that little had changed. People wanted a new beginning, and expectation had built up in 1450 that York would provide this new beginning by opposing the royal household, now led by Somerset. York had little choice but to take this role. To turn it down would have placed him as another traitor in the eyes of the commons. Therefore public opinion gave him support and therefore manoeuvred him into becoming the voice of opposition against Somerset. This opposition ultimately led to the first battle of St. Albans in 1455. 

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The rivalry between York and Somerset

Very important factor. There are two things to consider:

1) Why did their rivarly begin? 2) Why couldn't they work together?

Once Somerset was in power, he opposed York because York seemed to be stirring up disunity and because he refused to give up opposition. However, the reasons behind York's hatred of Somerset are less clear. Historians have suggested that York was driven to become the King's leading councillor by:

1) Traditional historians in the past: the desire to depose Henry and become King 

2) Financial needs, stemming from the government's failure to pay his debts when he was in command in France

3) However new research shows: A strong sense of duty and destiny 

4) York did not trust Somerset's miltary abilities after his failure in France

5) York feared his oppositon as heir apparent was in jeopardy if he was excluded from power. 

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The impact of Henry's illness, 1453-54

Government continued but violence was flaring. Somerset could not control it, so as a result, a great council of nobles was summoned (including York). York continued his attack on Somerset when the council met. The Duke of Norfolk, on York's behalf, demanded Somerset be taken to the tower and put on trial for treason. No one opposed York, probably because confidence in Somerset's leadership had faded after the defeat in France. Somerset was imprisoned but not put on trial. York was now clearly the central figure in government thanks to Henry's illness. Even now, however, fighting was not about to break out as York no longer had a reason to fight, Somerset was not able to and the nobles didn't want to. 

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Noble feuds and their impact

During 1453, the absence of a king led nobles to quarrel over land. The opposing families used force to settle their arguments, since there wasn't a King to adjudicate. The powerful Neville family was at the centre of two important feuds. 

1) Early in 1453 Warwick and Somerset were rival claimants to inherit lands in Glarmorgan. Warwick held them but Somerset ordered him to hand them over. Warwick refused.

2) The Nevilles were in dispute with the Percys.

  • The Percys were frustrated with the increasing wealth and dominance of the Nevilles. 
  • Also the Nevilles failed at a military expedition in Scotland which caused a Percy son to be captured and ransomed. 
  • The land at Wressle in Yorkshire had once belonged to the Percys but was now held by Lord Cromwell, whose daughter had married Thomas Neville. 

3) Exeter and Cromwell were in dispute. Exeter seized the estate of Ampthill in Bedfordshire from Lord Cromwell. This led to an armed brawl between the men's retainers. 

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Noble feuds and their impact (2)

Due to the noble feuds, the nobles discussed how best to resotre order. A group of nobles, led by Nevilles and Cromwell, argued that York would provide the most effective leadership. This led to York becoming protector while the King was ill. He dealt effectively with a rebellion led by Exeter and the Percys. They planned to assasinate York, but with Neville support, York had Exeter and Egremont (the second son of the Percys) imprisoned. 

The feuds themselves did not lead directly to the battle of St. Albans but they did help the two sides merge. Yorks' period as Protector and the development of noble feuds played a large part in York's gaining Neville support and others (Exeter, the Percys) backing Somerset.

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The disaster of Henry's recovery

Henry's recovery was a disaster, leading to conflict within six months. Somerset was released from the Tower and re-emerged at the centre of government, supported by Exeter and the Percys who were eager to end the influence of York and the Nevilles. Now that the King had recovered, York's protectorate ended and Salisbury resigned as Chancellor. Both York and Somerset were anxious about what the other might do and both in the end decided to get to their retaliation first. Somerset took political action. He called a great council at Leicester on 21st of May 1455 but did not invite the Nevilles or York. They interpreted this as the first move in having them accused of treason and so decided that the only way to save themselves was by force. York gathered an army with the Nevilles and marched to intercept Henry and Somerset on their way to Leicester. Both met at St.Albans on the morning of 22nd May. 

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Conclusion: Why did fighting break out in 1455?

No one had planned to start this conflict until the Yorkists began collecting their army just days before the battle. Somerset and the court party had the battle forced upon them. Henry's failure, York's support for the public's belief in the guilty "evil councillors", and the rivalry between York and Somerset iniitially created the possibility of violence. Henry's illness and the latest defeat in France, made York look a better prospect than Somerset for leading an effective government. For the first time since 1450, York now looked an attractive ally for anyone who needed powerful support in a noble feud, especiallly the Neville-Percy clash. At the same time, a handful of York's opponents, notably Exeter, resented his new eminence. Then came Henry's recovery. Suddenly Somerset was back, but fearing what York might do. York was an outsider again, fearful of Somerset's revenge. Their mutual fear drove them to take action, to get their retaliation in first. The majority still wanted peace but the Percys, Exeter and the Nevilles encouragd the fighting. It was the fear of what each other might do that triggered the battle of St.Albans.  

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