Edward IV was perhaps the most successful king during the Wars of the Roses. And he didn’t even live to see it end.
The grandfather of Henry VIII, this super-tall and super-strong leader is considered one of the last warrior kings in British history. On behalf of the House of York, he took the throne for himself through conflict. On behalf of his own desires, he did things which made prudes at court blush (or were they red with anger?). From secret marriages to bloody battles, there was no shortage of dramatics in the surprisingly not-that-long reign the first Yorkist king. Saddle up your horse for these 42 manly facts about Edward IV of England.
41. Oh, The Heights You’ll Reach
At 6 feet and 4.5 inches tall, Edward was huge by the standards of his day. Even centuries later, he is still the tallest king in British history. Today’s royal family has some growing up to do…
40. Young Adulthood is Tough on Everyone
Edward was the first Yorkist king of England, but he was not the first Yorkist Plantagenet to try. His father, Richard, Duke of York, was a claimant to the throne and relative to the Lancastrian King Henry VI of England. By the time young Edward was 18 years old, his dad had gotten fed up with Henry’s mismanagement of the government and rebelled against him. Just as Edward entered adulthood, his country entered the Wars of the Roses, which would last for decades.
39. Passing on the Torch
On 30 December 1460, Edward’s father Richard was killed fighting the Lancastrians at the Battle of Wakefield. Although this first Yorkist leader would never become king himself, the war kept going, and his efforts paved a path to the throne for his eldest surviving son, Edward.
38. I Did It for You, Dad
Edward IV finally got to avenge his father’s death at the Battle of Towton in 1461, but he almost didn’t make it—during the battle, the future king had his life saved by a Welsh knight named Sir David Ap Matthew. As a reward for Matthew’s bravery, the new Yorkist king made him the Standard Bearer of England and gave him use of the name “Towton” on his own humble family coat of arms.
37. Sown on Foreign Soil
The future king of England wasn’t born in England. In fact, Edward was born in Rouen, France (or Normandy, to be precise) as the second son to Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville.
36. I’m a Survivor
Edward’s parents had many kids, of which Edward was only the third-born child and second-oldest son. Unfortunately, only four sons and three daughters survived into adulthood. His older brother Henry of York died soon after birth, so while Edward wasn’t the first-born son, for all of his life he was at least the eldest.
35. We Match in More Ways Than One
Both of Edward’s parents had claims to the throne via Edward III of England. Nothing like a circular family tree to close an inheritance loophole.
34. Keep Your Future Enemies Close
Edward’s mother, Cecily Neville, was actually the aunt of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who became known as the “Kingmaker” for his role in the Wars of the Roses. He would also have a serious fallout with Edward that almost cost the Yorkist king his throne. This made Edward cousins with the infamous kingmaker and future ex-BFF.
33. Pops Stays with Me
After seizing the throne from Henry VI, Edward imprisoned the mentally frail ex-ruler rather than execute him outright. Henry’s son and heir, Edward of Westminster, was still at large. It’s a bad strategy to make a free man king when you could keep the current one in your control—especially when the one in your custody is as incapable as Henry VI.
32. Catch These Hands, Kid
In some retellings of Prince Edward of Westminster’s death, King Edward IV slapped the teenager prince with a gauntleted hand before executing him via sword. The boy had been defensive about his own father’s inheritance, which angered the usually affable king. While no real historical sources can back this up, the story was shared in many texts and even made its way into Shakespeare’s retelling.
31. The Girl is a Survivor
Edward’s son wouldn’t be on the throne for long (becoming one-half of the ill-fated Princes in the Tower…), but at least he had one kid stay crowned. It was his firstborn daughter, Elizabeth of York, who would carry Edward’s bloodline in the royal family—albeit, as a consort and not in a queen in her own right.
Just two years after Edward’s death, the final Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, took the throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. As part of consolidating support from the alienated Yorkists, Henry married the oldest surviving York heir—Elizabeth—and brought the Wars of the Roses to its close.
30. The Prettiest Pit Stop in England
According to legend, Elizabeth Woodville caught King Edward’s eye on the side of the road, of all places. Woodville stood under an oak tree with her sons, perhaps putting herself directly in Edward’s path, to petition for the restored land of her late husband. Edward’s was struck by Woodville’s legendary beauty and begged that she be his mistress.
29. The Cutting Edge of Courtship
According to some lore, Edward was scarily persistent that Elizabeth Woodville should be his mistress. Not one to be bullied, the widow pulled out a dagger and put it against her own throat to ward off his advances. Somehow, this led to a mutual respect, romance, and a wedding ring to boot.
28. Everyone Loves Edward
The first threat to Edward’s reign came from home: his friend Warwick and his own little brother George, the Duke of Clarence, had become disillusioned with his rule and rebelled against their king in 1469. The pair even managed to capture Edward. Unfortunately, Edward was a popular enough king. The nobles resisted the coup and Warwick couldn’t hold onto power on his own. He has no choice but to release Edward. Good thing Edward was still loved by the people who mattered.
27. Let’s Call that an Oopsie
Edward was a gregarious king and that was reflected in the second chances he gave his enemies. After their 1469 rebellion, he was well within his grounds to impoverish or outright execute his younger brother George and the Earl of Warwick. Instead, Edward embraced them in forgiveness. At least, he did this time…
26. Misplaced Second Chances
Less than one year after Edward’s forgiveness, the Earl of Warwick and the king’s brother George rebelled against him again. Even worse, they aligned with the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou. With this force, Edward’s enemies successfully pushed him off the throne in 1470 and returned Henry VI to power.
25. One Bros Has Got Me (for Now)
During Henry VI’s return to the throne, Edward hid out in Flanders with his other, less traitorous brother Richard (the future King Richard III, who would have his own problems with Edward’s children down the line…).
24. My Little Men
Don’t mess with this super tall king (or at least, don’t mess with him twice). The brief retaking of the throne by Henry VI was interrupted when Edward returned with support from Burgundy in 1471. Although he only brought a small force, he soon gathered support and the strike back proved successful.
23. The Comeback King
In 1471, Edward retook the throne from Henry VI (who had retaken it from Edward). Edward also managed to strike down two major enemies in one campaign. After landing in England, he managed to kill his once-ally the Earl of Warwick, who was slain while trying to get to his horse.
Shortly after, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, Edward’s party managed to also kill the only son of Henry VI, Prince Edward, AKA the last main-line Lancastrian heir. The circumstances of this death are less clear, but Edward effectively eliminated the most potent threats to his reign in a single comeback.
22. I Can Be Second-Best at Home
During the second reign of Henry VI, Edward and his brother George managed to secretly reconcile with behind Warwick’s back. Of course, this was only after Edward made his brother the new Earl of Warwick, now that the ol’ Kingmaker was in the ground.
21. Two Is Company. Five is a Crowd.
Despite his love match with Elizabeth Woodville, Edward was fairly open about his adultery. He once proudly (and publicly) declared his enjoyment of three mistresses, whom he successively called “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” of England. Classy, Edward, real classy.
20. Pay It Forward
Jane Shore was the most famous of Edward’s mistresses (in truth, her first name was Elizabeth, but “Jane” got attached to her in the 17th century after her actual name was forgotten by history for a time). Their affair began in late 1476 after his return from war in France and it lasted for almost seven years until the king’s death in 1483. It’s said Shore didn’t use her position as chief mistress to enrich herself, but rather spread the wealth to those who had been thrown out of the king’s good graces.
19. Younger Model, Old Tricks
After Edward’s death, his chief mistress Elizabeth “Jane” Shore pursued two other high-profile relationships, including an affair with Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset…the stepson of Edward himself via Elizabeth Woodville.
Unfortunately for Shore, Grey was an enemy of Richard III. The new king accused Shore of carrying messages for Grey and her other lover, William Hastings, in a conspiracy against the new regime. For her “crimes,” Shore was forced to walk in penance to Paul’s Cross in nothing but a thin nightdress. Being a king’s chief mistress offered little protection after said king was dead.
18. He’s Already Taken
Edward’s lusty adventures put his kids in posthumous danger. Richard III used Edward’s relationship with a lady named Eleanor Butler in order to invalidate the king’s children via Elizabeth Woodville (and therefore pave the inheritance path for Richard).
According to the little brother, Edward had made a legal precontract of marriage to Butler. If this was true, his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville would be invalid and their children would be actually be born out of wedlock on a technicality, and thus were not actually in line for the throne. Although Butler was long dead at this point and couldn’t verify it, this version of events was accepted, and Richard legitimized his claim as king.
17. Thank You, Next!
Edward appeared to have a “strategy” when it came to the ladies: bed them with promises of marriage, and then exit. According to Thomas More (a Tudor-biased biographer), Edward’s longstanding mistress, Elizabeth Lucy, was already pregnant and waiting for her marriage to Edward when the king turned around and eloped with Elizabeth Woodville. For what it’s worth, Lucy (in this version) denies any official engagement was made—it was only (broken) promises.
16. The More the Merrier (for Some)
In addition to the ten kids by his queen, Edward fathered about five illegitimate children across various mothers. You can’t say the king neglected his reproductive duty!
15. Lovechild Letters
Historians of English letter-writing are happy that Edward couldn’t keep it in his pants. Edward’s only acknowledged illegitimate son, Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle, was a favorite of the king’s grandson, Henry VIII. However, Arthur is also known for his collection of “Lisle Letters,” a record of correspondence from his post in Calais from 1533 to 1540. Studied for centuries, these transcripts are an invaluable window into daily life in the times of Henry VIII. Thank goodness for adultery and letter-writing love children.
14. Hit the Shields and the Books
On top of being a renowned jock, Edward is the first known English king to have a personal and permanent library. He collected illuminated manuscripts about historical and literary figures, including Julius Cesar. Although we don’t know where the library actually stood, more than 40 books still survive—a sign which means he took royally good care of his collection.
13. Mark My Words
Edward’s official motto was “modus et ordo” for “method and order.” Considering the previous reign of Henry VI was marked by absentee rulership and general chaos, this was a shrewd PR move.
12. One of These Babies Is Not Like the Others?
The question of Edward’s paternity haunted his reign. It was rumored that—unlike his little brothers—Edward was not the biological child of their father, Richard of York. People cited Edward’s great height (which Richard of York did not possess) and how his mother, Cecily Neville, allegedly flew into a rage when Edward eloped with Elizabeth Woodville and threatened to have him declared illegitimate.
The counterarguments: (1) Edward’s brother George and sister Margaret were also said to be very tall and (2) the story about Cecily Neville’s rage has no contemporary sources. For what it’s worth, Richard of York had a positive relationship with his so-called son, as evidenced by their surviving letters, and had little reason to suspect the medieval equivalent of the milkman.
11. More Than Bros?
In 2018, one historian came forth with “clear contemporary evidence” that Edward had an affair with a male courtier named Henry Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset. Beaufort was close to the king and apparently shared similar good looks to his cousin, Eleanor Talbot, aka the king’s old mistress. The historian assumes, we guess, that Edward had a specific type.
10. Gentlemen First
According to one historical theory, Edward and Henry Beaufort’s romance was apparently broken up by Lancastrian forces who led an attack on the duke. It’s said their closeness attracted negative attention, for better or worse, from the enemy—and put a target on Beaufort’s back.
9. Peace Out, Bro
Like Henry VI, Edward’s cause of death is unknown. Unlike Henry VI’s, it was more likely natural. Falling ill in 1483, Edward was at least strong enough to amend his will, where he left his surviving brother, Richard, as the guardian of his son and heir, the future Edward V, who was only 12 years old at the time. Although his death was probably related to pneumonia or typhoid fever, poison has been offered by those who seek a more scandalous version of events.
He died on 9 April 1483, aged just 40.
8. The Plot Thickens
Like his grandson, Henry VIII, our Edward became very stout and inactive in the last years of his life. Also, like Henry VIII, this was a contrast to the tall and athletic image of his youth.
7. May-December “Foe”-mance
Edward was close to his Woodville in-laws and bestowed his favor on them upon his marriage to their daughter. This put the Woodvilles at odds with Warwick and the other Neville cousins. For one, the king undid much of the diplomatic work that Warwick completed with Burgundy, France, and Brittany. To cap it all off, Edward even married off Warwick’s 65-year-old aunt Katherine, Duchess of Norfolk, to his wife’s 19-year-old brother John—a union that would be remembered as “the diabolical marriage.” Believe it or not, despite the years that Katherine had on John, she would actually out-live him. As it turns out, crossing the Kingmaker wasn’t always a wise thing to do, and John would pay the price for it.
6. Group Work is Tough
After Edward was settled on the throne, his ally, Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick, made plans to align them with France. Warwick put a lot of work into securing Edward a marriage to either the King of France’s daughter, Anne, or his sister-in-law, Bona of Savoy. Unfortunately for Warwick, Edward had been secretly married for months to Elizabeth Woodville—a knight’s widow with Lancastrian ties. This faux-pas would destroy the relationship between Edward and the Kingmaker beyond repair. I mean, if I were Warwick, I would have at least appreciated the heads-up before doing all that work!
5. Enemies Widows Make Good Bedmates
Why did Edward marry Elizabeth Woodville? He was a king, while she was a Lancastrian knight’s widow and mother of two sons. She was common-born to boot and her hand did nothing to secure England or the House of York. Was it love? Lust? One historian pulled a “why not have both?” and suggested it was not just a “love match,” but also a “cold and calculated political move” against other nobles. By aligning with a former Lancastrian ally (and a commoner at that), Edward showed his capacity to forgive…and also cut off courtiers from pushing their interests (and brides) on him to undermine his royal agency.
4. Head Case
It’s strongly believed that Edward was behind the secret execution of the feeble Lancastrian King Henry VI. Of course, the “official” cause of death was listed as “melancholy.” Later analysis of the late Henry’s skull suggests his death was more like “blunt blow to the skull.” Hey, I’m sure I’d feel melancholic after that!
3. Fool Me Twice, Shame on You
It was three strikes, you’re out for Edward’s brother, George. Six years after his second rebellion against Edward, the twice-forgiven George was arrested and found guilty of plotting against his oldest brother. Again. This time, an Oxford astronomer confessed (albeit under torture) that George had used the black arts to “imagine” the king’s death. After a few more warnings, George was arrested for treason.
2. Lost in the Sauce for Good
Edward had his brother George “privately” executed for treason. It’s rumored George was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Did privacy make it any less painful?
1. No Safe Haven
Decades before his grandson Henry VIII was out upsetting the Catholic Church, his grandfather Edward IV made a holy faux-pas after the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward famously yanked Lancastrian survivors out of religious sanctuary and executed them in flagrant disregard for typical Church protocol for asylum-seekers.
To be fair, the abbey in which Lancastrians sought refuge was not an “official” abbey. Nevertheless, the king did attend prayers there and buried the late Prince Edward of Westminster in honor at the church…two days before pulling survivors out of the abbey for show trials and summary executions.
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