For those who have only heard the term “kingmaker” recently and in connection with Nick Clegg, the name may suggest a divine and benevolent power. Yet to those who know its medieval origins, it carries a hidden curse: that of Richard Neville, 16th earl of Warwick and foremost commander of the wars of the roses. Warwick tried to turn political stalemate to his personal advantage, and then, forced into breaking promise after promise, met a decidedly sticky end.
He earned his nickname for his part in making and breaking (and making again) the two dynasties that squabbled for control of England between about 1450 and 1485: the houses of Lancaster and York. Both of these had some claim to the throne, and when Warwick rose to prominence, the Lancastrians were ruling. They didn’t have the support of parliament, and their leader was possibly the most incompetent king ever to have ruled England: the hapless Henry VI, who owes his fame to the fact that he squandered the nation’s resources on grandiose projects while his soldiers suffered bitter defeat in the final days of the hundred years war.
The rebellious Warwick supported a pretender to the throne: his young cousin, Edward, earl of March. March’s father, the duke of York, had won what we might call a democratic mandate, in the form of support from parliament in 1460, but he had been murdered by his Lancastrian enemies only a few months later. Warwick hatched a plan to make good Edward’s inherited “mandate” while promoting his own interests at the same time. He cut a deal with the young earl, which led to an alliance of talent and manpower that toppled the Lancastrians in 1461. With the former Henry VI incarcerated in the Tower and most of his supporters dead, only his runaway queen, Margaret of Anjou, and their infant son, Edward of Westminster, had any right to dispute the claim of Edward IV to be king of England.
But the power Warwick had wanted for himself remained out of reach. The new king was simply too happy to rule without the assistance of his opportunistic cousin, since he believed his victory to have owed more to God and his own prowess than to the help of others. He even claimed there had been a miracle at one of his battles, where three suns had appeared on the horizon (an optical illusion known as a “parhelion”).
A disenchanted Warwick tried to replace Edward with a member of his own faction: the king’s younger brother, George, duke of Clarence. When this ploy failed, he shed all pretence of loyalty to York and decided that his interests were best served by bringing back the Lancastrians: he made overtures to the runaway Queen Margaret towards the end of 1470. To spectators this was a most unlikely of alliances, since the two parties were sworn enemies, both dripping with the blood of their respective friends and relations. But in the interests of power politics, then as much as now, even a pact with the devil was preferable to lonely obscurity.
With news of some notable defections to Warwick’s cause, King Edward wisely thought it best to flee to the Netherlands, where he lay low while the old Henry VI was reinstated by Warwick and Queen Margaret. But only a few months later, he won the support of the duke of Burgundy, who agreed to offer him troops with which to launch a counter-invasion: the perfect means of destabilising a rival kingdom. Landing in his native Yorkshire, Edward marched south, gathering a formidable army to challenge the rule of the Lancastrians. At Barnet the two armies met in thick fog on easter day, 1471. Here Warwick met his death in battle and the Lancastrian cause was all but totally defeated.
The lessons to be drawn from Warwick’s career need little commentary. Clegg should be very careful about whom he backs and be realistic about the sort of power he is likely to wield once the new government comes into office. Having made up his mind, there can be no going back: switching between parties will be just as detestable now as it was to moralistic chroniclers back in the depths of the middle ages. If he chooses to flirt with the blue-eyed young earl, but ultimately decides to pin the red rose of Lancaster to his breast, he may yet share a fate with his resourceful but doomed predecessor.