Edward IV: The Life of a Man Who Was King Twice

Discover the life of Edward IV, a key figure of the Wars of the Roses and a twice-crowned King of England.

Dec 12, 2023By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

king edward iv life


Since the Norman invasion in 1066 when William of Normandy was crowned King William I of England, there have been 36 different Kings of England — and only two of them have been crowned twice: Edward IV and Henry VI. Both of these kings lived through the most turbulent years of the civil conflict known as the Wars of the Roses — and both fought on opposing sides. Henry VI was the Lancastrian king, while Edward IV represented the Yorkists. However, Edward’s life was more than just civil war. Read on to find out how this king’s character was shaped, and what legacy he left behind.


Edward IV’s Early Life and Family History

King Edward IV, c. 1540, via Wikimedia Commons


Edward was born in Rouen in France, on April 28th, 1442 as the eldest surviving son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York and Cecily Neville. His parents were both of royal stock, and directly descended from the English king, Edward III. His father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York, was descended from Edmund of Langley (the fourth-oldest son of Edward III), while his mother was descended from John of Gaunt, the third-oldest son of Edward III.


John of Gaunt was the Duke of Lancaster, while Edmund of Langley was the Duke of York; this is where things get interesting in regard to the Wars of the Roses, which can be traced back to the Lancastrian and Yorkist claims to the throne from both John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley — because Henry VI was a direct descendant of John of Gaunt, making him (albeit distantly) related to Edward IV.


Edward was brought up in France for the first three years of life as his father was serving as Governor in Rouen (this was also still during the later years of the Hundred Years’ War), and it was not until 1445 that Richard and his family moved back to the British Isles. It is often supposed that the young Edward grew up at Ludlow Castle, in the Welsh Marches. He was known as the Earl of March until he was eventually crowned.

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The Loss of France and the Rise of Edward IV

King Henry VI, c. 1540, via Wikimedia Commons


Richard, Edward’s father, once more found himself on the move when he was made Governor of Ireland in 1447. However, just two years later, the French recaptured Normandy, leaving the northern coastal city of Calais as the last remaining English stronghold in France. Henry Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset (who had replaced Richard, 3rd Duke of York in France) was at fault for this loss, but despite this, the English king, Henry VI, appointed Somerset as his chief minister.


The whole debacle really went up in flames in August 1453, when, after learning of the loss of Gascony (which had been controlled by the English for over 300 years), Henry VI had what would be termed today as a nervous breakdown. Because he was in no fit state to rule the country, Edward’s father, Richard, took over the government. Two of his main supporters were Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, and his eldest son, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who would be better known as Warwick the Kingmaker.


Another spanner was thrown into the works just prior to this, though: Henry VI’s son, Edward of Westminster, had been born in October 1453. There was now a legitimate Lancastrian figurehead that supporters could rally around — he was the king’s son and thus the Prince of Wales after all.


But Edward, Earl of March, was not prepared to give in so easily. Following a Yorkist defeat at the Battle of Ludford Bridge in 1459, Edward’s father and brother Edmund fled to Ireland — Edward instead marched onwards, and made his way to Calais with Warwick and Salisbury.


Richard, Duke of York, by Talbot Master, 1444-45, Talbot Shrewsbury Book, via HistoryHit.com


The following year, Edward, Warwick, and Salisbury crossed the English Channel and marched into London. At the Battle of Northampton on 10th July 1460, the Yorkists won a key victory, and Edward himself had led one of the factions which ultimately led to the capture of Henry VI.


The Duke of York returned from Ireland, and declared himself King. The Act of Accord was written, which declared that Henry VI remained king, but York and his descendants were designated as his successors. Naturally, this created a large amount of opposition to the Yorkist faction.


Richard’s tenure would not last for long, though: himself, Salisbury, and Edmund had marched north to crush a rebellion at Wakefield, Yorkshire, which not only ended in defeat for the Yorkists, but resulted in the death of York, Salisbury and Edmund. But because of what the Act of Accord had stated, Edward IV was now the legitimate heir to the throne of England.


King Edward IV and the Turbulent 1460s

Margaret of Anjou, by Robert Davy, 18th century, via Queen’s College Cambridge


Out of sight, out of mind was Edward’s mantra for Henry VI, and he had him duly imprisoned in early March 1461 — of course, this did not go down well with Lancastrian supporters, who raised a considerable force (thanks to Margaret of Anjou — Henry VI’s wife at Towton, a small village in Yorkshire.


The Battle of Towton would go down in history as the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil — it is estimated around 25,000 Yorkist and Lancastrian soldiers lost their lives on the battlefield on 29th March 1461. However, Edward’s Yorkist army emerged as the victors, as there was extremely heavy snow on the day, and his archers used this to their advantage, outdistancing their opponents because of the heavy winds, and Edward eventually claimed the throne for himself while Henry VI fled.


Edward’s first reign would last for nine years — but this was not a time of peace in England. Margaret of Anjou, while defying the Act of Accord, was still insistent that her husband and son should be reinstated to the throne in Edward’s place.


Warwick the Kingmaker

Elizabeth Woodville, via Westminster Abbey Library.


Margret of Anjou had been exiled to Scotland following the Battle of Towton but had shortly afterward moved to France. During this time, she had become acquainted with the French king, Louis XI, also known as “the Universal Spider,” due to his extensive networks of communication throughout his kingdom.


Along with Louis, she hatched a plot to overthrow Edward — with another unlikely supporter who had come to her aid: Warwick, the Kingmaker. This is where Warwick really gets his nickname from — despite the fact that he had helped to put Edward on the throne in the first place, he now switched allegiance and went against him — but why?


The main reason behind the end of the friendship between Edward IV and Warwick was because of who Edward had decided to marry. He married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, who was a widow of John Grey, a staunch Lancastrian, rather than a bride of Warwick’s choosing.


Warwick also turned Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence against him (Clarence was Warwick’s son-in-law), by promising him that he would be next in line to the throne after Edward of Westminster, should he choose to support the Lancastrians against his brother. But Neville was not just about helping others — he had his own reasons for wanting to restore Henry VI to the throne: he had married his daughter, Anne Neville, to Edward of Westminster in 1470.


Henry VI: The (Brief) Return of the King

Henry VI on throne, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, 1444, via Wikimedia Commons


In early 1470, Warwick fled England for France and prepared to set sail back to England with Margaret of Anjou to restore Henry VI back to the throne. Following a battle in October 1470, Henry VI was restored as King of England, while Edward was forced to flee into hiding. Because of Henry VI’s limited mental capacity, Warwick ruled in his stead.


Despite Henry’s restoration to the throne amid the joy of the Lancastrians, their celebrations were short-lived. Henry (or rather Warwick) had unwisely provoked a war with Burgundy, so Charles the Bold (Duke of Burgundy) supported Edward and his restoration to the throne. More civil war was about to break out in England.


Edward IV’s Restoration, Second Reign, and Death

Charles I “the Bold,” Duke of Burgundy, by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1460, via Wikimedia Commons


The Battle of Barnet (April 14 th 1471) was one of the key turning points of the Wars of
the Roses and was a huge factor in Edward’s restoration. Thanks to the support of
Charles the Bold (pictured above), and two of his brothers (George, Duke of
Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester), Edward’s Yorkist forces won a decisive
victory that spring day.

Arguably the most significant element of Barnet was not just that it was a Yorkist
victory: Richard Neville, 16 th Earl of Warwick, Warwick the Kingmaker himself — was
dead. The man who had first put Edward on the throne in 1462, before restoring
Henry VI a year earlier, was finally gone.

The Battle of Tewkesbury was Edward IV’s next moment of glory — and it came less
than a month after victory at Barnet, on May 4, 1471. Not only was this another
major victory for the Yorkists and another step towards restoring Edward IV to the
throne but another one of Henry VI’s significant supporters was killed: the
seventeen-year-old Edward of Westminster, Henry VI’s son and heir. There was only
one threat left: Henry himself.

It did not take Edward long to deal with Henry — mere weeks later, on May 21 st ,
1471, Henry VI died. Whether he was murdered on Edward IV’s orders (which
seems like it could be more than coincidental), or whether he died of causes
associated with his various illnesses throughout his life, nobody ever found out. The
important thing was now, for Edward, nothing stood between him and the Crown.

With Edward restored to the throne, did this mean that the Wars of the Roses were
now over? Was the civil war that had ravaged England since 1455 finally coming to
an end? Not at all.

Edward, as much as he would have struggled without the support of Clarence, did
not like to see faithlessness go unpunished. Some sources suggest that he had his
own brother drowned (allegedly in a vat of wine) on February 18 th , 1478. This was

because Edward viewed Clarence’s support of Warwick years earlier as treason —
his brother had turned his back on his king (and kin) to support Warwick.

Edward’s latter reign was generally much more peaceful than his earlier reign during
the 1460s. Despite the existential threats from Scotland and France on the northern
and southern borders of his kingdom, respectively, he faced very little internal
opposition to his position in the 1470s, and it almost seemed as if England had
begun to heal from its war wounds.

Edward was one of the few fifteenth-century monarchs to die of natural causes — it
was believed that typhoid killed him eventually, on April 9, 1483. One notable feature
of Edward’s latter reign was that he gained a large amount of weight. Similar to a
king who would rule less than 30 years after his death (King Henry VIII), Edward had
been an athletic figure in his younger years, enjoying sports such as hunting.
However, age and a more sedentary lifestyle caught up with him in his later years,
and, combined with a poor diet, led him to gain weight rapidly. He later died in his
bed — remarkable for a warring king.


The Legacy of King Edward IV

Richard III, 16th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Upon his death, Edward left behind seven surviving legitimate children. His eldest surviving son was King Edward V of England, who alongside his brother Richard, under the “protection” of their uncle Richard (Edward’s younger brother) disappeared mysteriously in the Tower of London never to be seen again — they came to be known as the “Princes in the Tower.” As a result, the throne passed to Edward’s brother, Richard — who was crowned as King Richard III of England, and became (fairly or not) one of English history’s biggest villains. Edward IV is one of the most influential kings in English history, and one of only two (alongside Henry VI) to have reigned twice.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.