Chapter 1: Early Years
When Thomas was born in 1443, England was heading towards political crisis. The king, Henry VI, had inherited the throne as a baby, on the death of his father Henry V. Henry V would prove a hard man to live up to for every subsequent king – he had brought the divided realm of France to such a pass that its king and nobles agreed that he, Henry, would inherit the crown of that kingdom on the death of his father-in-law, Charles VII. But Henry V did not live long enough to see that glorious day, and instead, it was the baby Henry VI who became king of both countries (in name, at least). But Henry VI was a very different man from his father, and once the conciliar government that ran the country during his youth stepped back in 1437, leaving sixteen-year-old Henry in charge, an already difficult situation in both England, and occupied France, deteriorated.
Henry VI simply did not have the personal characteristics required to be an effective mediaeval king. He was indecisive, of a humble turn of mind, intensely religious, and, it appears, utterly without the driven nature of his kingly forebears. The English polity was not set up for government other than by a strong monarch, who sought advice from his nobles, but ultimately decided policy. Henry relied heavily on his chief minister William De la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. At the outset, there was general acceptance that Suffolk was making the best of a bad job, guiding the king, and undertaking much of the grunt work, but as time passed, resentment grew – Suffolk was no doubt feathering his own nest, although not necessarily to a greater degree than any other noble of the time would have done.
The real issue was the conduct of war in France. England did not have the financial resources, nor the leadership, to retain Henry V’s conquests. Suffolk, either from financial hard-headedness, or in deference to Henry’s preferences, tried to implement a peace policy. This was anathema to a noble class trained for war, but little else – however incompetent some of them proved to be at actually waging it.
The nobles began to split into factions, largely related to their opinions on how the war in France should be prosecuted, as well as the usual jockeying for influence that broke out whenever the central authority was weak. On one side was Richard, Duke of York, widely considered to be Henry VI’s legitimate heir until the king had sons of his own (although York’s son-in-law, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, had a very good claim as well, and there were other possibilities). York was supported by his brother-in-law, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury’s son, Richard, Earl of Warwick. On the other side, the chief protagonist was the Duke of Somerset, supported by most of the nobility, not for his own sake, as he had shown no sign of particular military or political competence, but for Henry’s. Warwick and Somerset loathed each other with a visceral hatred – born of their rivalry for the great Beauchamp inheritance to which their wives were rival heiresses.
The power vacuum at the centre of government encouraged lawlessness – East Anglia, as one of the richest areas in the country, was badly affected by it, and the Paston Letters give an indication of how a proxy war was maintained by local magnates wishing to increase their power. In particular, John Mowbray, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, vied with the Duke of Suffolk. Amongst Norfolk’s affinity was his cousin, John Howard. The Howards were a gentry family who had built up wealth and lands in Norfolk and Suffolk over the preceding hundred years, and, presumably as a result of their growing influence, Sir John’s father scored a huge marital coup, with a marriage to Lady Margaret de Mowbray, sister of John de Mowbray, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. This was a splendid match for the Howards, linking them to the royal family, and the greater nobility – but the price was support for their Mowbray cousins.
The country slid into the long period known as the Wars of the Roses. During its thirty or so year extent, there were only some seventeen battles, but they became increasingly bloody, as victors sought revenge for the death of family members.
Thomas was too young for involvement in the first battle – a skirmish at St Albans in 1455. Most of the nobles continued to support Henry, however little they admired him. As late as 1460, John Mowbray, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was one of the few nobles, other than the aforementioned Salisbury and Warwick, to be firmly in the Yorkist camp, but he, together with John Howard, was at the Battle of Wakefield, where the Duke of York was killed. Despite this Lancastrian victory, the real leader of the Lancastrian party, Queen Marguerite, was unable to enter London, and in a stunning reversal of fortune, York’s son, Edward of March, prevailed at the bloody Battle of Towton. Norfolk played an important part in the battle, with John Howard in his ranks. Norfolk was killed, to be succeeded by his son, another John Mowbray, now 4th Duke of Norfolk. John Howard was knighted on the field and the future for the Howards looked rosy.