Checked content

Edward IV of England

Background Information

SOS Children offer a complete download of this selection for schools for use on schools intranets. Click here to find out about child sponsorship.

Edward IV
King of England (first time; more...)
Reign 4 March 1461 – 31 October 1470
Coronation 28 June 1461
Predecessor Henry VI
Successor Henry VI
King of England (second time)
Reign 11 April 1471 – 9 April 1483
Predecessor Henry VI
Successor Edward V
Consort Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth of York
Mary of York
Cecily of York
Edward V
Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York
Anne of York, Countess of Surrey
Catherine of York
Bridget of York
House House of York
Father Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York
Mother Cecily Neville
Burial St George's Chapel, Windsor

Edward IV (28 April 1442 – 9 April 1483) was King of England from 4 March 1461 until 2 October 1470, and again from 11 April 1471 until his death. He was the first Yorkist King of England. The first half of his rule was characterised by violence, but he overcame the remaining Lancastrian threat at Tewkesbury to reign in peace until his sudden death.


Accession to the throne

Edward of York was born at Rouen in France, the second son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York (who had a strong genealogical claim to the throne of England) and Cecily Neville. He was the eldest of the four sons who survived to adulthood. The Duke of York's assertion of his claim to the crown in 1460 was the key escalation of the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. When his father was killed at the Battle of Wakefield, Edward inherited his claim.

With the support of his cousin, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick ("The Kingmaker"), Edward defeated the Lancastrians in a succession of battles. And whilst Henry VI and his militaristic queen, Margaret of Anjou, were campaigning in the north of England, Warwick gained control of the capital and had Edward declared king in London in 1461. Edward strengthened his claim with a decisive victory at the Battle of Towton in the same year, in the course of which the Lancastrian army was virtually wiped out. Even at the age of nineteen, he had remarkable military acumen and a notable physique. His height is estimated at 6'4", making him the tallest British monarch to date.


Warwick, believing that he could continue to rule through Edward, pressed him to enter into a marital alliance with a major European power. Edward then alienated Warwick by secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian sympathiser.

Elizabeth's mother was the wealthy Duchess of Bedford, aunt by her first marriage to Henry VI, but her father, Richard Woodville, was a new-minted baron. The royal marriage made the unmarried among her twelve siblings desirable matrimonial catches.

Although they posed no immediate threat to Warwick's own power, Warwick resented the influence this group had over the King and, with the aid of Edward's disaffected younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, the Earl led an army against Edward.

The main part of the king's army (without Edward) was defeated at the Battle of Edgecote Moor in 1469, and Edward was subsequently captured at Olney. Warwick then attempted to rule in Edward's name, but the nobility, many of whom owed their preferments to the king, were restive and with the emergence of a counter-rebellion Warwick was forced to release Edward. At this point Edward did not seek to destroy either Warwick or Clarence but instead sought reconciliation with them.

In 1470, Warwick and Clarence rebelled again. This time they were defeated and forced to flee to France. There, they made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, and Warwick agreed to restore Henry VI in return for French support in an invasion, which took place in late 1470. This time, Edward was forced to flee when he learned Warwick's brother, John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu, had also switched to the Lancastrian side, making his military position untenable.


Henry VI was briefly restored to the throne in 1470, in an act known as the Readeption of Henry VI, and Edward took refuge in Burgundy, accompanied by his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The rulers of Burgundy were his brother-in-law Charles, Duke of Burgundy and his sister Margaret of York. Despite the fact that Charles was initially unwilling to help Edward, the French declared war on Burgundy and so Charles decided to give his aid to Edward, and from there he raised an army to win back his kingdom.

When he returned to England with a relatively small force he avoided capture by stating his claim, just as Henry Bolingbroke had done seventy years earlier, that he merely desired to reclaim his dukedom. The city of York closed its gates to him, but as he marched southwards he began to gather support, and Clarence (who had realised that his fortunes would be better off as brother to a king than under Henry VI) reunited with him. Edward entered London unopposed, where he took Henry VI prisoner. Edward and his brothers then defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet and with Warwick dead, he eliminated the remaining Lancastrian resistance at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. The Lancastrian heir, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, was killed either on the battlefield or shortly afterwards. A few days later, on the night that Edward re-entered London, Henry VI died. One contemporary chronicle claimed that his death was due to "melancholy," but it is widely suspected that Edward ordered Henry's murder in order to completely remove the Lancastrian opposition.

Edward's two younger brothers, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III of England) were married to Isabella Neville and Anne Neville. They were both daughters of Warwick by Anne Beauchamp and rival heirs to the considerable inheritance of their still-living mother. Clarence and Gloucester were at loggerheads for much of the rest of his reign. Clarence was eventually found guilty of plotting against Edward and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was "privately executed" (Shakespearean tradition states he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine) on 18 February 1478.

Later reign and death

Edward did not face any further rebellions after his restoration, as the Lancastrian line had virtually been extinguished, and the only rival left was Henry Tudor, who was living in exile.

In 1475, Edward declared war on France and came to terms with the Treaty of Picquigny which provided him with an immediate payment of 75,000 crowns and a yearly pension thereafter of 50,000 crowns. He also backed an attempt by Alexander Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, brother of the Scottish king James III to take the Scottish throne in 1482, and despite the fact that when Gloucester invaded he was able to capture Edinburgh and James III, Albany reneged on his agreement with Edward, and Gloucester decided to withdraw from his position of strength in Edinburgh. However, Gloucester did recover Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Edward's health began to fail and he became subject to an increasing number of ailments. Edward fell fatally ill at Easter 1483, but lingered on long enough to add some codicils to his will, the most important being his naming of his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Protector after his death. He died on 9 April 1483 and is buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was succeeded by his twelve-year-old son, Edward V of England.

It is not known what actually caused Edward's death. Pneumonia and typhoid have both been conjectured, as well as poison. Some attributed his death to an unhealthy lifestyle, as he had become stout and inactive in the years before his death.


An extremely capable and daring military commander, Edward destroyed the House of Lancaster in a series of spectacular military victories; he was never defeated on the field of battle. Despite his occasional (if serious) political setbacks — usually at the hands of his great Machiavellian rival, Louis XI — Edward was a popular and very able king. Whilst he lacked foresight and was at times cursed by bad judgement, he possessed an uncanny understanding of his most useful subjects, and the vast majority of those who served him remained unwaveringly loyal until his death.

Domestically, Edward's reign saw the restoration of law and order in England (indeed, his royal motto was modus et ordo, or method and order). The latter days of Henry VI's government had been marked by a general breakdown in law and order, as well as a sizable increase in both piracy and banditry. Interestingly, Edward was also a shrewd and successful businessman and merchant, heavily investing in several corporations within the City of London.

Ultimately, despite his military and administrative genius, Edward's dynasty survived him by little more than two years. Edward also holds the tragic accolade of being one of the few male members of his dynasty to die of natural causes. Both Edward's father and brother were killed at the Battle of Wakefield, whilst his grandfather and another brother were executed for treason. Edward's two sons were imprisoned and disappeared (presumed killed) within a year of Edward's death. The king's youngest brother, Richard, was famously killed in battle against Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field.



Edward IV had ten legitimate children by Elizabeth Woodville, though only seven survived him: They were declared illegitimate by Parliament in 1483, clearing the way for Richard III to become King

  • Elizabeth, queen consort to Henry VII of England (11 February 1466 – 11 February 1503).
  • Mary (11 August 1467 – 23 May 1482).
  • Cecily of York (20 March 1469 – 24 August 1507), married first John Welles, 1st Viscount Welles and second, Thomas Kymbe.
  • Edward (4 November 1470 – 1483?), succeeded as King of England.
  • Margaret (10 April 1472 – 11 December 1472)
  • Richard (17 August 1473 – 1483?).
  • Anne (2 November 1475 – 23 November 1511), married Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.
  • George (March 1477 – March 1479).
  • Catherine (14 August 1479 – 15 November 1527), married William Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon.
  • Bridget (10 November 1480 – 1517), became a nun.

Edward had numerous mistresses, the best known of whom was Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane Shore.

He reportedly had several illegitimate children:

  • By Lady Eleanor Talbot:
    • Edward de Wigmore (d. 1468). Reportedly died as an infant along with his mother.
  • By Elizabeth Lucy or Elizabeth Waite.
    • Elizabeth Plantagenet. Born circa 1464, married Sir Thomas Lumley in 1477.
    • Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle (1460s/1470s – 3 March 1542).
  • By unknown mother. Recent speculations suggests them as children by Lucy or Waite.
    • Grace Plantagenet. She is known to have been present at the funeral of her stepmother Elizabeth Woodville in 1492.
    • Mary Plantagenet, married Henry Harman of Ellam, son of Thomas and Elizabeth Harman and widower of Agness.
    • A daughter said to have been the first wife of John Tuchet, 6th Baron Audley.

Perkin Warbeck, an impostor claimant to the English throne, who claimed to be Edward's son Richard of Shrewsbury, reportedly resembled Edward. There is unconfirmed speculation that Warbeck could have been another of Edward's illegitimate sons.


Edward IV's eldest son was invested with the title of Prince of Wales at the age of seven months. At the age of three, he was sent by his father to Ludlow Castle as nominal head of the Council of Wales and the Marches, a body that had originally been set up to help the future Edward V of England in his duties as Prince of Wales. The prince was accompanied to Ludlow by his mother and by his uncle, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, who carried out many of the administrative duties associated with the presidency of the Council. The king visited his son occasionally at Ludlow, though, as far as is known, he never ventured into Wales itself. It is clear that he intended this experience of government to prepare his son for the throne.

Although his son was quickly barred from the throne and replaced by Richard of Gloucester, Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York, later became the Queen consort of Henry VII of England. (Elizabeth's son was Henry VIII of England.) The grounds for Titulus Regius, passed to justify the accession of Richard III, were that Edward had been contracted to marry another woman prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Lady Eleanor Butler (a young widow, daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury) and Edward were alleged to have been precontracted; both parties were dead by this time, but a clergyman (named only by Philippe de Commines as Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells), claimed to have carried out the ceremony. The declaration was repealed shortly after Henry VII assumed the throne, because it illegimitized Elizabeth of York, who was to be his queen.

The final fate of Edward IV's legitimate sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, is unknown. Speculation on the subject has given rise to the " Princes in the Tower" mystery.

Was Edward illegitimate?

Evidence of Edward's illegitimacy remains subjective and disputed amongst modern historians. Despite the concerns of some scholars, it is generally accepted that the issue began as a propaganda exercise by adherents of one or other of his younger brothers.

Edward IV c.1520, posthumous portrait from original c. 1470-75

In his time, it was noted that Edward IV showed little resemblance to his father, especially in terms of his (then) exceptional height of 6 feet 4 inches when compared to the other members of the House of York, who were not well known for their height (though Edward's younger brother George was also tall and fair, and said to bear a marked resemblance to him). Questions about his paternity were raised during Edward's own reign, for example by Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick in 1469, and repeated by George shortly before his execution in 1478, but with no evidence; it must be noted that in propaganda wars, such as these, many statements were used that perhaps had no basis in truth (for example, Henry VI's heir, Edward of Westminster, was purported to have been a bastard of Margaret of Anjou and the Duke of Somerset). It was suggested that the real father may have been an archer called Blaybourne.

Prior to his succession, on 22 June 1483, Richard III declared that Edward was illegitimate, and three days later the matter was addressed by parliament. In Titulus Regius (the text of which is believed to come word-for-word from the petition presented by Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham to the assembly which met on June 25 1483, to decide on the future of the monarchy), Richard III is described as "the undoubted son and heir" of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York and "born in this land" — an oblique reference to his brother's birth at Rouen and baptism in circumstances which could have been considered questionable. Dominic Mancini says that Cecily Neville, mother of both Edward IV and Richard III, was herself the basis for the story: when she found out about Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, in 1464, "Proud Cis" flew into a rage. Mancini reported that the Duchess, in her anger, offered to declare him a bastard. However, this is not supported in contemporary sources, but is most likely reflective of contemporary opinion. According to Polydore Vergil, Duchess Cecily, "being falsely accused of adultery, complained afterwards in sundry places to right many noble men, whereof some yet live, of that great injury which her son Richard had done her." If she had indeed complained — as would befit a high-ranking lady of renowned piety, as she had been regarded — these petitions may have had some effect: the allegations were dropped and never again pursued. Richard III's claim to the throne is generally believed to be based upon his claim that Edward IV's children were illegitimate.

The matter is also raised in William Shakespeare's Richard III, in the following lines from Act 3 Scene 5:

Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that unsatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France
And, by just computation of the time,
Found that the issue was not his begot

It should be remembered that Shakespeare's drama is a work of fiction.

In a 2004 television documentary, it was noted that, from 14 July to 21 August 1441 (the approximate time of conception for Edward, who was born in April 1442), Edward's father was on campaign at Pontoise, several days march from Rouen (where Cecily of York was based). This was taken to suggest that the Duke of York could not have been available to conceive Edward. Furthermore, the christening celebration of Edmund, Earl of Rutland, the second son of Richard and Cecily, was a lavish and expensive affair, while the christening of the couple's firstborn son Edward was a low key and private affair in a small chapel in Rouen. This could be interpreted as indicating that the couple had more to celebrate together at the birth of Edmund. For more details about this theory, see the TV programme Britain's Real Monarch.

A counter-arguments to this theory is that the Duke could have returned to Rouen from Pontoise, or Edward could have been premature. It has also been pointed out that:

  1. Edward IV could claim the Crown from Henry VI by right of conquest, whether he was a legitimate child or not.
  2. Edward IV could claim senior line, as Richard, Duke of York never contested his paternity. Under English common law a child born to a married woman is presumed to be her husband's, although the husband may contest the presumption.

In fiction

Edward IV features as a character in:

  • The plays Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III, by William Shakespeare. In the 1955 film Richard III, Richard directly hastens Edward's death, by informing the already ailing king that one of his brothers, George, Duke of Clarence is dead (Edward had revoked the order for Clarence's exceution, but Richard has had Clarence secretly murdered).
  • The plays King Edward IV, Part 1 and King Edward IV, Part 2, by Thomas Heywood, a contemporary of Shakespeare's.
  • The Rose of York: Love & War by Sandra Worth (noted for its meticulous research by the Richard III Society)
  • The Innocent, The Exiled and The Beloved (released as The Uncrowned Queen) by Australian novelist, Posie Graeme-Evans
  • The Raven and the Rose, by Virginia Henley (a fictional illegitimate child of Edward IV is the main character)
  • The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman (a historical fiction novel about the life of Richard III)
  • We Speak No Treason, by Rosemary Hawley Jarman (a historical fiction novel about Richard III as Duke of Gloucester)
  • The Founding, Volume 1 of The Morland Dynasty, a series of historical novels by author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
  • Sovereign, by C. J. Sansom (Fictional account set in 1541 England. Edward IV is actually the son of a Kentish archer.)
  • The Reluctant Queen, by Jean Plaidy (a historical fiction novel from the point of view of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III)
  • The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory (a historical fiction novel from the point of view of Edward's wife, Elizabeth Woodville)
Retrieved from ""