An uneasy peace was endured for four years after St Albans but by 1459, tensions were no longer bearable and both Queen Margaret and the Duke of York began openly arming themselves and gathering their forces in readiness for conflict. York established a base at Ludlow. The castle was strong, highly defensible and lay in Yorkist territory. The royal forces began to gather around Coventry.
The first engagement took place at the Battle of Blore Heath on 23rd September 1459 near Market Drayton in Staffordshire. The Earl of Salisbury had gathered his northern forces from the Neville lands and was marching to meet York at Ludlow with around 5,000 men. Hearing of the movement, the queen despatched Lord Audley with 10,000 men to intercept Salisbury. The move was sound - the Yorkist forces were dispersed and isolated. Warwick had only just landed on the south coast with his Calais garrison. The royal force outnumbered Salisbury 2:1.
When it became clear that the way was blocked, Salisbury's army took a defensive position between a wood and their supply wagons with a brook between them and the enemy. Although shallow, the banks of the brook were steep and the approach required Audley's forces to move uphill, a tiring task. When Audley sent in the first charge, Salisbury's experienced archers sent a hail of arrows down upon them. Men at arms then waded in to finish off the rest. A second charge was launched with the same result. Lord Audley led the third charge and died attempting to reach Salisbury's position. It is said that the brook ran red for three days after the slaughter.
Salisbury continued on to Ludlow and was joined there a few days later by his son Warwick. York was already there with his eldest sons Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland. Their force now numbered perhaps 20-25,000 men. News arrived though that the royal army was approaching and was twice the size of the Yorkist force. Most of the nobility outside the clique gathered at Ludlow remained loyal to their king. Significantly, even frighteningly, the army was being led by King Henry himself under the royal standard. This changed the game altogether.
The Yorkists sent letters to the king protesting their loyalty to him. Henry sent back a promise of pardons for any who would abandon York's cause now. Salisbury was excluded from the pardon for his part in the slaughter at Blore Heath. As evening approached on 11th October 1459, York's army dug trenches and earth walls around their position at Ludgate Meadows just outside the town. The royal standard visible in the near distance was to prove too much.
To the mediaeval mind, taking the field of battle against the enemies of your liege lord in some dispute was part and parcel of life. To take up arms against God's anointed king was a whole different matter. Aside from treason, it was considered a mortal sin. Dying in battle was one thing, but risking your soul was not something a mediaeval man or woman could ever do. So, in leading the army personally, Henry VI decided the battle before it began.
The leader of the Calais force brought by Warwick was Sir Andrew Trollope. A noted soldier, he had served with Henry V in France and although obliged to Warwick, appeared to have no intention of taking the field against his former leader's son, the anointed king. The Calais garrison scaled the earthworks and fled into the night and the king's waiting pardon.
An emergency council of war was held within Ludlow Castle and the leaders took possibly the only sensible route open to them. York and his son Edmund fled to Ireland whilst his other son Edward accompanied Salisbury and Warwick to the south coast and made for the security of Calais. York's wife Cecily and his other children, including his younger sons George and Richard, were left inside Ludlow Castle. Possibly attempting to save the town, Cecily is said to have met the king's army the next morning standing at the market cross with her two sons. Richard must have been terrified at 7 years old and no doubt the incident left its mark.
If Cecily intended to save the town, she did not. The royal army fell upon Ludlow like a conquered French town. They drank, robbed and raped until they were sated, looting the castle of anything of value too. Cecily and her children were placed into the care of her sister, Humphrey Stafford's wife, the Duchess of Buckingham.
June 1460 saw the beginning of a year of conflict that escalated to terrifying proportions. Salisbury, Warwick and March landed on the south coast and set about besieging the Tower of London. Warwick marched his forces north to meet the royal army that was leaving Coventry to support London. The two armies met at the Battle of Northampton on 10th July with the royal army holding a defensive position. The battle turned upon the defection of Lord Grey who switched to Warwick's side and attacked the king's army leading to a decisive Yorkist victory. King Henry was captured. Amongst the royalist casualties was Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.
With Henry firmly under the control of his faction, the Duke of York returned to England and London, this time making no secret of his desire to claim the throne for himself. Having frequently pledged his allegiance to Henry, this breach of honour was not well received. He failed to secure enough support and Henry refused to abdicate. Stalemate ensued with none amongst the political establishment willing to provide a decision, thereby upsetting either the king or his mightiest subject. Finally, on 8th November the Act of Accord provided that Richard, Duke of York should be heir to King Henry and that York and his heirs would rule upon Henry's death.
The queen would not stomach an arrangement that disinherited her son. The battle for the throne was begun in earnest. In December, York set out with his son Edmund and the Earl of Salisbury to meet the threat of a large Lancastrian force assembling at York. With around 8,000 men, York was horrified to find about 18,000 mustered against him under the leadership of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford. York fell back to Sandal Castle to await reinforcements from his eldest son Edward.
For reasons that are not known for certain, York led his army out of the security of the castle to engage the larger Lancastrian force before support arrived. It is possible that he was taunted into battle. If so, his pride was to be his undoing. York fell during the fighting. His son Edmund was captured in the rout as was Salisbury. Both were beheaded. It is said that Lord Clifford personally killed the seventeen year old Edmund as he pleaded for mercy, fulfilling his pledge to avenge his father. York's corpse was unceremoniously sat upon an anthill with a paper crown on his head and taunted. He too was then beheaded. All three heads were set upon spikes on Micklegate Bar at the entrance to York. Wounds opened at St Albans now bled freely.
When Edward heard of the defeat and death of his father, brother and uncle, he headed east toward London to join Warwick. En route he received word of a Lancastrian force crossing Wales and moved to meet them. Edward's 11,000 men outnumbered the 8,000 led by Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire. Edward won the battle of Mortimer's Cross on 2nd February 1461, routing the Lancastrians. The most notable casualty of this engagement was the 60 year old Welshman Owen Tudor, father of Edmund and Jasper and grandfather of the future King Henry VII.
On 17th February, Warwick was at St Albans awaiting Edward's victorious army. Denying him the luxury of time, the Lancastrians led by the Duke of Somerset attacked. Although the forces were about even, each numbering around 25,000 men, Warwick fled when the Second Battle of St Albans did not go his way. He left the captive King Henry sat under a tree in his hurry to escape.
Edward proclaimed himself King Edward IV on 4th March 1461 and set about crushing the Lancastrians. On 28th March the Battle of Ferrybridge saw Yorkist forces rally having been almost defeated by the Lancastrians but this was a prelude to the culmination of the open warfare of this period. Many of the nobility and gentry had been wiped out by the wars. The past two years had seen battle after battle, no one side winning successive victories. The omens may have been poor for King Edward as he met the Lancastrian army in the final, cataclysmic struggle of this period.
The Battle of Towton on 29th March 1461 is remembered as the bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil. 36,000 Yorkist men faced 40,000 Lancastrians in the driving snow. Yorkist archers used the wind to their advantage, increasing their range beyond that of their enemy. In response, the Lancastrians charged. The larger Lancastrian force had the upper hand until John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk arrived to reinforce the Yorkists. By the end of the day Edward was victorious. Henry, Margaret and their son fled to Scotland. The scale of the battle was unprecedented and an estimate 28,000 Englishmen lay dead, killed by Englishmen. Amongst them were Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Sir Andrew Trollope of the Calais garrison.
Edward returned to London and was finally crowned King Edward IV at Westminster on 28th June 1461. He had defeated the Lancastrian king and placed the House of York upon the throne, completing his father's work. Towton marked the end of the second period of the Wars of the Roses and ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity. Yet Edward had failed to secure the old king and he could not yet feel safe.