When he ascended the throne, Edward was poorer than a church mouse. Not only did he inherit his father’s debts, but also took upon himself the debts of Henry VI. At the close of Henry’s reign the Crown’s indebtedness amounted to nearly four hundred thousand pounds. Some of those debts had been outstanding for years. Matters had reached the point where no one was prepared to invest in the government, even at exorbitant rates of interest. To put this figure in some perspective, Henry’s income at that time amounted to little more than thirty-three thousand pounds. It had been eroded by his well known practice of alienating Crown lands, wardships and other sources of revenue to reward those often little deserving of reward. He could never have recovered.
Edward had no choice but to assume his rival’s obligations because he was canny enough to realize that if a man should decide the only way he would get his money back was if Henry was restored to power, then clearly it was in his interest to support Henry.
Furthermore, in those early years Edward had expensive campaigns to fight against the erstwhile king and queen. And he wanted a splendid court to show visiting dignitaries that England under him was growing in prosperity and power. But where was the money for all this to come from? Parliament provided some ‘for the defense of the realm’ not all of which was used for the purpose intended, but we won’t go there.
Very early in his reign Edward, who was nothing if not innovative, decided to become a merchant. While in Calais with Warwick, and in London, too, he would have met the Celys, the Canynges, the Cooks and other fabulously wealthy merchants who lived like princes – well, earls anyway – and likely influenced him to try his hand.
At first he exported wool and woolfells, which, being of the finest quality, were much in demand for making into cloth, particularly in Flanders. Although wool was in its heyday, cloth manufacturing was burgeoning, and soon he was exporting English cloth, dyed and undyed, as well as tin, lead, pewter vessels, wheat, rye and beans and lambskins. Imports included treacle – yes, treacle – paper, oil, woad, alum, wax, complete harnesses, wine and wormseed, even a popinjay, among a variety of other products.
To give some idea how busy he was , in February 1470, just as he was dealing with Warwick’s second rebellion, 25 ships entered or left the port of London alone, carrying goods belonging to the king. His loss of the throne caused only a brief interruption in his mercantile endeavors. He was soon back in business.
Nor was he alone in dabbling his august fingers in the vulgar business of trade. What was good enough for the king was good enough for the Duchess of York, the Earl of Warwick and his brother George, the Earl of Essex, Lords Hastings, Howard, Duras, Fauconberg and Mountjoy.
It paid off. He was the first King of England to die solvent since Henry II.