Post-classical history




After the ‘Parliament of Devils’ the City of London was understandably apprehensive, full of rumours about the ‘lords of Calais’, by which was meant Salisbury, Warwick and York’s son March. It was obvious that such men would not be content to stay in exile as outlaws and that soon they were going to return to England. Bloodshed was inevitable. While the Londoners as a whole tended to sympathize with the exiled Duke of York and his followers, they were uncomfortably aware that there was a strong royal garrison in the Tower which was commanded by a famous veteran of the French wars, the staunchly Lancastrian Lord Scales. Should the Yorkists try to enter the City, there was bound to be fighting.

All three lords were formidable. Richard Nevill, the old Earl of Salisbury – born in 1400, he was nearly sixty – may be a shadowy figure, but as warden of the West March of Scotland for many years he had clearly seen plenty of fighting and was an experienced soldier. A younger son of the first Earl of Westmorland, he had married the heiress of the last Montagu Earl of Salisbury, acquiring his own earldom through his wife. Like most Nevills he was a ruthless predator and an unforgiving enemy.

His son Warwick, born in 1428 and also called Richard Nevill, was one of the most colourful personalities in English history. He too had made his fortune by marriage, his wife Anne Beauchamp being the Duke of Warwick’s heiress. No less rapacious than his father, he was constantly trying to add to already vast estates. Arrogant even by fifteenth-century standards, at the same time he possessed the common touch and knew how to make himself popular. He was hero-worshipped on the south coast for ridding the Channel of French privateers, yet he was going to prove a disappointing commander on land – excitable to the point of hysteria, and losing control of himself and of his troops. Nonetheless, until his final defeat he would always be considered a very dangerous opponent.

The young Earl of March, the Duke of York’s son and heir, would soon show himself to be the most dangerous of them all. Edward Plantagenet had been born in 1442 at Rouen when his father was Lieutenant-General of France, his mother being Cecily Nevill; she was Salisbury’s sister and a famous beauty who in her youth had been known as ‘The Rose of Raby’ (though some called her ‘Proud Cis’). Her eldest surviving son had grown to be a very tall and strikingly handsome young man, fair-haired and ruddy-faced, whose brains and well-attested charm matched his bodily strength. This was the future Edward IV, still only seventeen.

There was also York himself, at Dublin. The Anglo-Irish lords were his enthusiastic supporters; not only did he refrain from meddling with their parliament but unlike most Englishmen he obviously had a knack of getting on with the Irish. A small, spare man, apparently he looked very like his youngest son, the future Richard III, with sharp features and brown hair. If haughty, he was honourable and genuinely public-spirited. However, isolated in Ireland, he brooded over his wrongs until privately he decided on a solution that was more extreme than anything envisaged by the Nevills. As for his military gifts, despite years of campaigning in France he was a poor soldier, as indecisive as he was rash; his flight from Ludlow had been a disgrace while his rashness would eventually destroy him. Even so, in 1459 the Duke seemed quite as menacing as any of the lords of Calais.

The Yorkists held two very important cards. One was that the Earl of Warwick was Captain of Calais, an impregnable military base and ideal for launching an invasion. The other, less emphasized by historians, was their command of the sea. They had the ships and they knew how to use them – on at least one voyage Warwick took over the steering himself.

The little ships of the period – cogs, carracks or carvels of only a few hundred tons at most – may not perhaps seem very impressive to modern eyes, but it should never be forgotten that Columbus discovered America in a carvel. Generally three-masted by now, they were part lateen-rigged – a lateen sail being triangular, on a long yard set at an angle of 45 degrees to the mast – which enabled them to sail much closer to the wind. A ship’s master not only possessed compass, astrolabe, cross-staff and lead-and-line, but could obtain ‘rutters’ (sailing manuals) with detailed instructions for navigating the coasts of England, Ireland and France.

In January 1460 the lords of Calais sent a small force under a reliable lieutenant, John Dynham, to raid the important port of Sandwich on the Kentish coast. The purpose of the raid was twofold: to disperse a fleet that King Henry’s ministers had been assembling for an attack on Calais, and also to see if the port would make a suitable invasion point. Landing before dawn with 800 men, Dynham routed the Lancastrian garrison with ease, returning to Calais with the entire enemy fleet in tow and some distinguished prisoners. In addition, the Yorkists clearly acquired useful agents who were ready to help with a larger landing at some future date.

At the beginning of March the Earl of Warwick sailed from Calais, all the way round the south coast of England and then up the Irish Channel to Dublin, for a discussion with the Duke of York. The Earl was so confident that he took his mother back with him to Calais in May. (Lady Salisbury had had the privilege of being the only woman to be attainted at the Parliament of Devils.) Reinstated as Admiral of England, the Duke of Exeter tried to intercept the Earl on his return voyage, but the Duke’s crews, already mutinous from lack of pay and victuals, refused to engage Warwick. The Earl’s recent and extremely effective operations against French pirates had earned him a reputation in the Channel ports of being the finest fighting seaman of his day.

Early in June 1460 another Yorkist raiding force from Calais seized Sandwich for a second time, establishing a bridgehead under Lord Fauconberg, Salisbury’s redoubtable brother. The three earls joined him there on 26 June, bringing about 2,000 men with them, and marched into Canterbury the same evening. Next day, gathering recruits as they went, they advanced on London.

The City of London was a thoroughly uneasy place in 1460. These were very bad times indeed for business. Because of the civil war, during the years 1459–62 exports of wool to Calais and of broadcloth to Flanders would drop to a mere third of what they had been in the 1440s, while because of the loss of Gascony, imports of wine were down to little more than 4,000 tuns compared to 11,000 ten years before.

Even so, it is evident that John Lambert was continuing to flourish, however difficult the economic climate may have been for others in London. During the first half of 1460 he became alderman for the ward of Faringdon Within, elected in a process firmly controlled by the other aldermen who retained the right of final selection. A candidate for an aldermanry had to show that he owned goods worth £1,000, a fortune. There were twenty-four of these aldermen, the richest men in the City, from whose ranks came the Mayor and sheriffs. Ex officio members of the Court of Common Council, they formed a small, exclusive and highly privileged oligarchy which virtually ran London, administering its day-to-day government. The Court of Aldermen and Court of Common Council supervised almost every aspect of London life. They regulated trade and the markets and traffic along the Thames, looked after the hospitals and poor relief, maintained roads, bridges, prisons and fortifications, organized street cleaning and the water supply, and levied taxes. They were also responsible for the defence of London in times of war.1

John had now been accepted as a member of the City’s ruling aristocracy. Even in the street he wore a blood-red hood to mark him out from other mortals, while Amy was addressed as ‘Lady Lambert’ as though she were the wife of a knight. Responsible to the Mayor alone, John remained in office at his own pleasure; there was no fixed term. If the general watch (the City’s defence force) had to be assembled, he would personally lead the citizens of his ward, flying a pennon that bore his own coat of arms – two lambs heads. He enjoyed pleasant little privileges such as free water, and could enrol his apprentices free. And he was assured of a prominent place at all official functions, at every thanksgiving in St Paul’s or banquet in the Guildhall.

In addition, Mr Alderman Lambert (as he was now addressed) was chosen to be one of the two sheriffs of the City of London for 1460–61.2 He was elected on Midsummer Day by the liverymen of the great City companies, riding robed in solemn procession to the Guildhall escorted by his fellow mercers, also mounted and robed, together with drummers and minstrels. The sheriffs, who held office for a year, were assisted by under-sheriffs, by sixteen serjeants (each with his own yeoman), and by a host of clerks, stewards and porters. The position of sheriff was one of very considerable dignity and importance. A handsome post, carved and gilded, stood opposite the door of each sheriff’s house, for posting proclamations.

The sheriffs’ duties included enforcing orders made by the Mayor’s court, debt collection, and extracting fines for trying to evade the Customs. At the sheriffs’ court they sentenced men to imprisonment in Ludgate, to stand in the pillory, to sit in the stocks inside the wooden cage at the Tun in Cornhill, to be whipped at the cart’s tail for petty larceny or be dragged through the streets on a muddy hurdle; a short-weight baker would make the journey with a loaf tied around his neck. They saw to the serving of writs, summoned jurors, ran Ludgate gaol, and supervised the execution of those condemned to death – whether by hanging, beheading, drowning or burning, or in cases of treason by hanging, drawing and quartering. They also had a military role, mustering the citizenry under arms when necessary and posting guards. Every well-to-do Londoner owned a ‘jack and sallet’ (leather jerkin and steel helmet), while many possessed a full suit of plate armour, besides bills and bows, swords and daggers.

Such important positions were open only to men of substance. Although he would not be sworn in and take office as sheriff until Michaelmas, plainly Mr Alderman Lambert was already a big man in the City, a well-known figure in London life, who was constantly in and out of the Guildhall. Yet, as will be seen, it was an uncomfortable time in which to be prominent.

The lords of Calais reached London on 2 July. Their army had by now grown to many thousand men and included several peers, among whom was the Duke of Norfolk. After negotiating with ‘twelve worshipful and discreet aldermen’, they were allowed to enter the City. (Mr Lambert may well have been one of the negotiators since as sheriff elect he was a leading alderman.) They immediately went to St Paul’s to give thanks and then billeted their troops near Smithfield. Two days later Warwick and March took their troops north, though not before the City had lent them £1,000. (Mr Lambert is likely to have been among the subscribers.) Basically, their plan of campaign was very simple: it was to find and defeat the royal army, and get possession of King Henry – to whom they publicly and repeatedly protested their allegiance.

Salisbury remained in London with 2,000 men, blockading the Tower, whose garrison included several peers loyal to Henry. The garrison commander, ‘the good old lord Scales’, was a brutal veteran of the wars in France, accustomed to cowing opponents by savagery. Convinced that the King’s army would crush Warwick and March, and expecting to be relieved at any moment, he meant to show Salisbury that he would never surrender. For the first time in history, the Tower turned its guns on London. ‘They that were within the Tower cast wildfire into the City, and shot in small guns, and burned and hurt men and women and children in the streets’, a chronicler records. ‘Wildfire’ was the period’s napalm, clinging to its target and burning more fiercely if water was thrown on it. Understandably, most Londoners were only too eager to help Lord Salisbury with the siege.

‘And then they skirmished together, and much harm was done daily’, records a chronicler. This was one occasion when townsmen were fully involved in the Wars of the Roses. The common council supplied bombards (heavy cannon), taken from a royal depot; they were mounted opposite the Tower, on the south bank of the Thames, and fired to such effect that part of the Tower’s curtain walls came crashing down. The sheriffs and armed citizens helped Lord Cobham blockade it from the City. Another group, led by John Lambert’s fellow mercer John Harowe, joined Sir John Wenlock in investing it from St Katherine’s at the east. ‘And the Tower was besieged by land and by water, that no victual might come to them that were within’, says a chronicle. Every alderman donated five pounds to pay the men helping Wenlock to stop provisions reaching the Tower. Three days later they each added another ten pounds, partly to pay the boatmen who were preventing anyone from getting in or out, and partly to pay the navvies working on fortifications. On 12 July all the aldermen gave a further ten pounds.

Scales and the noblemen inside sent an angry letter to the common council, asking why the King’s subjects were making war on them. The council replied that it was the garrison which had started making war, that men, women and children had been killed, maimed or wounded by their gunfire.

Then news reached London that on 10 July Warwick, March and Lord Fauconberg had routed the King’s army at Northampton. (Among the casualties was Margaret Beaufort’s father-in-law, the Duke of Buckingham, cut down by an axe as he stood outside the royal tent.) Henry VI was brought back to London, a prisoner, but treated with all the respect due to a king of England. On 19 July ‘they that were in the Tower of London, for lack of victuals yielded’. Lord Scales tried to escape down the Thames in a wherry but was recognized by a woman and lynched by a mob of boatmen – covered in stab wounds, his body was thrown naked into the churchyard of St Mary Overy. All London thanked God for the victory at Northampton.

As it was, on Michaelmas Eve (28 September) John was sworn in at the Guildhall as a sheriff, putting a great gold chain of office around his neck. The other sheriff was Richard Flemyng and the Mayor was Richard Lee. The year ahead was going to be one of the most stormy in the City’s history but, in accordance with hallowed tradition, the Mayor gave a sumptuous banquet in the Guildhall. The Venetian visitor cited before attended a similar meal thirty years later. He says there were at least a thousand guests while the dinner lasted for four hours. He adds:

a no less magnificent banquet is given when two other officers named sheriffs are appointed . . . I observed the infinite profusion of victuals, and of plate which was for the most part gilt; and amongst other things I noticed how punctiliously they sat in their order, and the extraordinary silence of everyone.

Those present at the sheriffs’ banquet must have been very worried men since they knew that the Duke of York was on his way to London. On 10 October, less than a fortnight later, he arrived in the City after a leisurely journey from Dublin. Ominously, he came in unmistakeably regal pomp and splendour, with a sword borne before him like a king.

To his supporters’ consternation, alarming even Warwick and Salisbury, instead of demanding merely that the wrongs done him be redressed, York publicly claimed the throne by right of descent – ‘for though right for a time rest and be put to silence, yet it rotteth not nor shall not perish,’ he declared. At Westminster he deliberately sat on the throne in the presence of the House of Lords, as though he were King of England.

However, the country was not yet ready to change its sovereign. No doubt Henry VI had more than demonstrated his inadequacy, and with hindsight it may seem surprising that the magnates did not turn against him sooner. But the majority felt a certain reverence for that divinity which ‘doth hedge a king’ and they remembered the oaths they had sworn to him.

After the Duke of York had made his formal claim to the throne, the Earl of Warwick warned him bluntly ‘how the lords and the people were ill content against him because he thus wished to strip the king of his crown’. Henry told the assembled peers, ‘My father was king; his father was also king; I have worn the crown for forty years, from my cradle. You have all sworn fealty to me as your sovereign, and your fathers did the like to my fathers. How then can my right be disputed?’

A compromise was reached, the Act of Accord, by which Henry would keep the crown but agreed to recognize York as his heir – disinheriting his own son. In the meantime, the Duke was to rule England as protector of the realm.

* * *

In spite of the Act of Accord, the Queen could be relied on to fight for her son. All too many people were shocked by the disinheritance of the Prince of Wales and a Lancastrian army quickly assembled in Wales, with another in Yorkshire. Sending his own son March to deal with their Welsh opponents, and leaving Warwick in command at London, accompanied by Salisbury the Duke of York went north with 6,000 followers.

On the last day of 1460 the Duke and Salisbury rode out from Sandal Castle to give battle. After spending Christmas at Sandal, on the south bank of the River Calder near Wakefield, they had suddenly found themselves besieged by a large Lancastrian force led by the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter, and also Sir Andrew Trollope, who had betrayed them at Ludlow. Since most of their troops were away foraging, York and Salisbury were heavily outnumbered. Sandal was impregnable; had they stayed inside, they could easily have held out until reinforcements reached it. No one knows why they decided to fight, but Waurin tells us they were tricked by the wily Trollope, who sent in a stream of feigned deserters carrying messages that he was going to change sides and come over to them.

When they emerged, the Yorkists were cut to pieces. Over 2,000 of them fell compared to only 200 Lancastrians. The Duke was killed, together with his second son, the Earl of Rutland. Old Salisbury was captured that evening and taken to Pontefract, to be dragged out by a mob and beheaded by the Duke of Exeter’s bastard half-brother on the following day. The heads of the two fallen leaders were stuck up over the gates of York, the Duke’s decorated with a paper crown in derision. Among other Yorkist casualties was ‘John Harowe of London, captain of the foot’ – as his friend and fellow mercer William Caxton recorded in the Chronicles of England twenty years later. John Harowe had taken a leading part in the siege of the Tower during the previous summer. He would have been well known to Mr Sheriff Lambert.


Micklegate Bar, on which were stuck the heads of the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury in January 1461.

The Tudor chronicles include some very unpleasant stories about the Battle of Wakefield. One is of the Duke of York crowned with bulrushes by captors and made to stand on a molehill before being beheaded, after which his head was brought on a lance to the gloating Queen. Another is of the sixteen-year-old Earl of Rutland begging for mercy from Lord Clifford who, as he stabbed him with a dagger, shouted, ‘By God’s blood, thy father slew mine, and so will I do thee and all thy kin.’ While such tales are without foundation, they almost certainly preserve rumours that were circulating in the City at the time – Londoners were prepared to believe anything of the Queen’s supporters.

Plundering their way southwards, a Lancastrian host of northerners and Scots carved a swath of devastation thirty miles wide as they marched, sacking the towns of Grantham, Stamford and Northampton. Because they were unpaid, the northerners insisted that they had a right to loot once they had crossed the River Trent, if Abbot Whethamstede is to be believed; he says that not even beggars were safe. The angry Abbot composed a vituperative poem about these men of the north – ‘Gens Boreae, gens perfidiae, gens prompta rapinae.’ ‘Northern people, faithless people, people prompt to rob.’3 No less eloquent, the Prior of Croyland described ‘an execrable and abominable army’ sweeping onwards as a whirlwind from the north, ‘like so many locusts’.

Even at the best of times Londoners did not care for northerners, who spoke a barely comprehensible version of English – Whethamstede says that when they talked, they sounded like the Hound of Hell barking. (It must be remembered that English only became a truly national language after the introduction of the English Bible during the next century.) The Londoners feared the Scots still more. The news of the approach of the Queen’s army filled them with dread. No doubt they took comfort in having the Earl of Warwick to defend the City. His troops were equipped with all sorts of impressive weaponry – wildfire, mantraps, nets, caltraps (steel starfish), and guns that fired giant arrows. Unfortunately, the Earl’s military skills were overrated while the gadgets would prove useless.

The Lancastrians had much better commanders than Warwick and their leadership was going to be decisive. They included the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter, the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Clifford and Lord Welles – Margaret Beaufort’s stepfather. Somerset seems to have been in overall command. The Queen rode with them, though not into battle. On 16 February Exeter drove in a Yorkist outpost at Dunstable and before dawn the following morning – Shrove Tuesday – the Lancastrians attacked the Yorkists who had occupied St Albans. There was long and confused fighting during which Warwick obviously lost control of his troops; according to one source Somerset led several thousand men-at-arms in a charge shortly after midday which went far towards deciding the outcome. Finally the Yorkists fled, the Earl of Warwick among them. They left behind King Henry who, so the Dauphin heard in France, had spent the entire battle laughing and singing to himself.

Henry VI was reunited with his wife and son in Lord Clifford’s tent. The royal family then installed themselves in the Abbey as Abbot Whethamstede’s guests. Despite the Abbot’s entreaties, their presence saved neither his abbey nor the town from being plundered by the northerners. Two days later Queen Margaret arranged for Lord Bonvile and two other captured Yorkists to be tried and condemned to death by her seven-year-old son, mother and child watching the executions.

‘On an Ash Wednesday we lived in mickle dread’, wrote an anonymous Yorkist poet, conveying the mood in the City when the news of Warwick’s defeat arrived. Everyone feared that, having sacked St Albans only twenty miles away, the Lancastrians were going to sack the capital too. Wearing full armour, John Lambert and his fellow sheriff summoned the Londoners to take up arms and defend the City. London was in uproar. John would have been worried about his wife Amy and his daughter Jane, not to mention his house and his shop.

Carlo Gigli, an Italian merchant’s agent in London, reported to his employer that the capital’s gates had been closed and were guarded; all the shops were shut, their owners staying at home. Some days later he wrote of alarming rumours: 60,000 Irish Yorkists were said to be on their way to London, together with 40,000 Welshmen. The Mayor and aldermen were negotiating with the royal army, prepared to admit the King and Queen and the court into the City, but not their troops. ‘People have quietened down, and I see no weapons except on the mayor and the sheriffs, who are mounting guard with a large force’, observed Gigli. (It must be remembered that, after the Mayor, the two men most responsible for London’s defence were the sheriffs.)

Londoners ‘dreaded the menace and malice of the queen and the duke of Somerset and others,’ says one chronicler, ‘for as much as the queen with her council had granted and given leave to the Northmen for to spoil and rob the said City.’ It was widely believed that she had done so because she was unable to pay them properly. The aldermen, among them Mr Sheriff Lambert, had everything to fear. Not only would they lose all the considerable sums of money which they had lent to the Yorkists since the previous July, including a loan of a thousand pounds to Warwick less than a week before, but some of their heads might well end up on Tower Bridge. Three great ladies were sent as envoys to the Queen with a message that the gates would be opened if there was a strict guarantee that there would be no looting. The Mayor also attempted to send out ‘bread and victual’ together with money, but a mob led by Sir John Wenlock’s cook ambushed the carts as they were going through Newgate, sharing the food among themselves. As for the cash, ‘I trow the purse stole the money’, explains Gregory.

After receiving assurances that the Lancastrian army would behave itself, the Mayor issued a proclamation ordering Londoners to stay in their homes when it marched in. Terrified, the Londoners began to riot. On the advice of Dr Morton (clearly regarded by the Yorkists as a dangerouseminence grise), the Queen sent small bodies of men to the gates of the City and Westminster, where they asked to be let in. They met with a refusal, whereupon fighting broke out, many of the Queen’s troops being ‘slain for their cursed language’. After this, ‘the commons for the salvation of the City took the keys of the gates where they should have entered, and manly kept and defended it from their enemies, until the coming of Edward, the noble earl of March.’

Anxious not to alienate her husband’s capital, the Queen reluctantly decided that it would be wiser to go back to the north. She ‘deemed that the Northern men would have been too cruel, if they had come to London’, is what Gregory heard – meaning that she knew she could not control her famished troops. King Henry had little say in the matter; Pope Pius II described him as ‘utterly devoid of wit or spirit, [a man] who left everything in his wife’s hands’. Yet Dr Morton may well have helped her to reach a decision; weknow from Gregory that the doctor had been giving her advice on dealing with the Londoners. And to return to York, the northern capital, made strategic sense. The Lancastrian army was running short of food, demoralized by foraging in a severe winter. Once back across the Trent, it would be able to find all the food needed and could wait in comfort for a campaign in the spring. Even so, William Worcester was convinced that had the Lancastrians occupied the City, the Londoners would have submitted. In his view, their failure to do so ‘was the ruin of King Henry and his queen’.

The Earls of March and Warwick rode into London at the head of their troops on 27 February, receiving a rapturous welcome. The City had not faced such danger for centuries. Gregory is almost lyrical in recalling how people thanked God and said, ‘Let us walk in a new wine yard, and let us make us a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the earl of March.’ No one can have been more thankful than Mr Sheriff Lambert.

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