We're having that sort of year. Heavy showers and sunshine, sometimes both at once, which produce one of the most beautiful weather effects we have on earth - the rainbow. And every time I see a rainbow, the phrase in the title of this post "Richard Of York Gained Battles In Vain" pops into my head. It's how I was taught to remember the colours of the spectrum - Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet - and it's apparently the most common mnemonic used here in Britain (with the exception of Yorkshire, where I've heard it injures local pride... what method do they use in Yorkshire? Can anyone enlighten us?).
But who was Richard of York, and which battles did he gain in vain? For the past 40 years or so, I've had a vague idea of some wimpy northern nobleman swinging a sword angrily at his enemies but still not getting what he wanted - so before I get thrown off the History Girls blog, I thought it was about time I found out more!
|Richard Plantagenet... please can I be king of England?
'Richard of York' refers to Richard Plantagenet, the 3rd Duke of York and great grandson of King Edward III. Richard was the second most powerful nobleman in England after the troubled king Henry VI, with a strong claim to the throne. He tried to take over when it became obvious that Henry's bouts of insanity made the young king incapable of ruling England, but Henry's wife Margaret of Anjou would not hear of it. So Richard had to be content with an agreement that he would be crowned king if Henry died before he did.
|Richard of York's coat of arms
Richard's 'vain' battles probably refer to the many battles he fought in France and Ireland as leader of the opposition, where he gained much support for his claim to the throne. But all his efforts came to nothing on 30th December 1460 at the Battle of Wakefield, a major battle in the Wars of the Roses fought between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The Lancaster forces (supporting Margaret of Anjou and her small son Edward Prince of Wales) won, and Richard Duke of York was killed only a few weeks after securing his historic agreement.
The sense of futility he must have felt is expressed in this popular folk song (which I remember learning with all the actions when I used to be a morris dancer.. good for warming up the knees!)
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.
As far as I'm aware, there is no real proof that the Duke of York in the rhyme is our Richard of York from the rainbow mnemonic, but he's certainly one of the more popular candidates. He was quite old at the time of his final battle (49 - a good age in those days, and older than King Henry), fairly grand (second in line to the throne), the Battle of Wakefield was fought near a castle on a hill (Sandal Castle), and Richard commanded 8,000 men and was apparently awaiting reinforcements when he died.
|the red rose of Lancaster vs. the white rose of York
Now I understand a bit better why my mother, who grew up in Lancashire and wore a red rose on her college blazer and whose middle name is Margaret, taught me the 'Richard of York Gained Battles in Vain" rainbow mnemonic with a sly smile on her face!
|Margaret of Anjou... Don't worry, Henry dear, I'll look after England.
How do you remember the colours of the rainbow? And what's the history behind your favourite method?
Katherine Roberts writes legend and fantasy for young readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter.
Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk where young readers can win signed copies of "Grail of Stars" and Pendragon Legacy bookmarks in this summer's competition (closing date 31st July).