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…