Post-classical history

The First Period

Wounds Opened

The opening battle of the Wars of the Roses was the First Battle of St Albans which took place on 22nd May 1455 within the town of St Albans. King Henry VI personally led his army. His commanders were Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Henry's army numbered around 2,500 whilst Richard, Duke of York led a force around 3,000 strong. With the duke were the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick.

King Henry took a position in the market place. Wearing full armour and standing beneath the royal standard, he made himself easy to mark. Hostilities began in the mid morning and initially the king's forces held back the attacking Yorkists. The Earl of Warwick then instructed his archers to concentrate their fire on those protecting the king and bodies soon began to pile up in the market place. King Henry himself was struck in the neck by an arrow and ushered into a nearby building for treatment.

Foot soldiers moved in to complete the work of the archers, focussing their attack on the leaders of Henry's Lancastrian forces. Somerset fell fighting in the streets, as did Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Thomas de Clifford was another notable casualty because his death was to prove the opening of the kind of wound that was to fester rather than heal over this period. His son swore that his father's death would not go unavenged. Around a hundred of the king's men fell, mostly men of note. Ordinary soldiers were generally spared.

Henry was quickly surrounded by the Yorkist leaders who immediately fell to their knees and professed their allegiance to him. Comforted, he spent the night at St Albans Abbey, though he was reportedly devastated at the news of the death of Somerset. The battle was swift and casualties few, though distinguished. The consequences of St Albans were far reaching. Henry was still king but was firmly under York's control.

Possibly as a result of the stress of his injuries and the losses suffered, Henry slipped into another period of catatonia. York was reinstalled as Protector. Warwick, significantly, was appointed Captain of Calais. Although it was common at the time to appoint a deputy to oversee the role, Warwick decided to move to Calais himself. Once more, York was even handed in his running of the government.

Meanwhile, the queen began to gather about her those whose hatred of York made them keen allies. Amongst those gravitating toward her were Henry Beaufort, Somerset's son and successor as Duke of Somerset, Henry Percy the new Earl of Northumberland, the king's half-brother Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, and the son of Thomas de Clifford. Although Henry's court was living beyond its income, Margaret viewed York's reduction of her household and expenditure as aggressive. She came to view him as a threat not only to her husband but to her young son. Queen Margaret believed York wanted the throne.

On 25th February 1456 Henry appeared before Parliament to receive York's resignation of his position. The king was restored once more, though none knew for how long. With Somerset gone, Henry appeared keen to keep York close, retaining him on the Council. York had proved himself a steady hand upon the tiller and Henry's recovery was an unknown quantity to all, including Henry, in terms of its extent and duration. Warwick was confirmed as Captain of Calais, perhaps not least because it kept him out of the country.

Although the first period of conflict appears brief, it established that armed rising against the king was no longer inconceivable. Indeed, such a coup had been successful. As dangerous as this precedent was, the queen's concern that it should not happen again was just as divisive. Even with Somerset gone, two sides still remained and animosity still smouldered.

This first period drew to a close with a Love Day celebrated in London on the Feast Day of the Annunciation, 24th March 1458. To demonstrate the healed wounds, King Henry processed wearing his crown followed by York and the queen holding hands. Behind them were Salisbury and Somerset side by side. The line continued, with rivals pushed together and obliged to smile as though all was well. No doubt King Henry believed that it was. His condition left him with little interest in politics and he spent much of his time sleeping or in prayer. The procession was not one of healed wounds. It was a bandage covering festering sores and the bandage was about to fall off.

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