Post-classical history

FORTUNE, 1461–71




In January 1461 Edward, Earl of March set out for London with an army that he had been raising in the Welsh Marches. Having learnt of his father’s death and that the Lancastrians were marching on the capital, he thought it high time to rejoin Warwick. Then news came that the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire had landed in Wales, bringing a force of Frenchmen, Bretons and Irishmen, and were recruiting Welsh Lancastrians. He turned back to confront this fresh danger. Suddenly an old friend, his kinsman William Hastings, arrived with every man he could persuade to come with him, servant, retainer or neighbour.

Aged about thirty, Mr Hastings was squire of Burton Hastings in Warwickshire and of Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire – the latter in the dull, flat country popularly known as East Leicestershire Forest. He had been sheriff for both counties in 1455, the year in which his father Sir Leonard had died, and was somebody of no little standing in the Midlands.1 A substantial landowner and of ancient lineage (he could trace his ancestry back to the Conqueror’s reign and to a steward of King Henry I), he even had some royal blood in his veins.

William’s immediate forebears had been men of action. His maternal grandfather, Lord Camoys, had commanded the left wing at Agincourt where his father had fought in the retinue of the then Earl of March. Afterwards Leonard Hastings had spent many years in France, defending the doomed Anglo-French regime and working closely with the Duke of York, who referred to him in documents as his ‘beloved counsellor’.

William’s mother Alice Camoys was very well related indeed, her own Mortimer mother having been Edward III’s granddaughter. In consequence William Hastings was the late Duke Richard’s second cousin.

The Mortimer link dated from well before the marriage of William’s parents. Not only had Sir Leonard Hastings served at Agincourt under Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, but (according to the seventeenth-century historian William Dugdale) Leonard’s eldest brother Ralph had been beheaded in 1410 for ‘having taken part with Owen Glendour, as tis like’. Part of the Welsh leader’s programme had been to replace the Lancastrian Henry IV on the throne with Lord March. No one can have been more aware of the Yorkist claim than Mr William Hastings.

Hastings had three brothers – Ralph, Richard and Thomas. The first two were going to share in his rise to fame and fortune. Of his three sisters, Anne, the eldest, had made a good marriage to Sir Thomas Ferrers of Tamworth Castle, a younger son of Lord Ferrers of Groby. The couple had two sons who would one day fight at their uncle’s side.2

Like his father Sir Leonard before him, Mr Hastings was a household man of the Duke of York, besides being ‘retained’. In a deed dated 23 April 1456 at Fotheringay Castle, the Duke, addressing William as his ‘beloved servant’, granted him an annuity of £10 ‘to the end that he should serve him above all others, and attend to him at all times, his allegiance to the king excepted’. He was not just a ‘well-wisher’ but a professional bureaucrat employed by the Duke.

Undoubtedly William had received the instruction of a young man of his class, in horsemanship, hunting and handling his weapons, in an elaborate etiquette and in the formal code of chivalry, besides acquiring a smattering of Latin and French. Possibly he took a species of business course, either at Oxford or Cambridge, or at an Inn of Court in London. There was no question of reading for a degree or for the bar. Instead, he would have paid for tuition from one of the many unofficial masters who specialized in teaching formal letter-writing and the art of drafting documents, together with basic civil law – useful, not to say invaluable, preparation for a life that might largely be spent in administration.3

As a gentleman bureaucrat, William spent part of his youth in estate management, negotiating leases – such as that in 1457 for a watermill at Ravenstone to Thomas Barnwell for eighteen years at a rent of 13s 4d – and fighting legal battles. If so, he may not have been too efficient. There is evidence that the Duke of York’s estates were badly managed and that the richest man in England was not getting a proper return from his lands. However, judging from Hastings’ later career, in all probability his job had more to do with organizing the Duke’s ‘affinity’. In normal times there was nothing sinister or warlike about this sort of bastard feudalism. Its purpose was not to create private armies but to provide the machinery for keeping law and order in the countryside.4

Clearly the Duke of York was well disposed towards his kinsman Mr Hastings. William’s election as sheriff in 1455 was almost certainly due to the influence of the Duke, who in the following year appointed him ranger of the chase of Wyre in Shropshire. Soon afterwards, York extricated him from a potentially ruinous affair which might have ended in his imprisonment.

Robert Pierpoint from Holbeck-Wodehouse in Nottinghamshire had been murdered in a quarrel over a disputed manor by Thomas Hastings and Henry Ferrers, who were forcibly interrogated by Robert’s brother Henry Pierpoint. William, who was obviously deeply involved, asked the Duke to arbitrate. Together with Thomas Hastings, Ferrers and Henry Pierpoint, he was bound over to keep the peace by York, and in October 1458 ordered to pay £40 in instalments over two years ‘in recompense to all manner of offences and trespasses . . . done to the said Henry Pierpoint, his uncle and brothers’. (An unlucky family, the Pierpoints were no strangers to violence; early in 1457 Henry’s father had been killed in an affray with the Plumptons of Yorkshire on Papplewick Moor.) William was lucky to emerge so cheaply from this unsavoury business.

We know from his later career that Mr Hastings was a first-rate soldier, brave, resourceful and totally dependable – ‘a good knight’ is what Sir Thomas More calls him. It looks as though the Duke of York made him a gentleman-in-waiting to his eldest son, the Earl of March (the future Edward IV), when the boy was still very young and he himself had not yet come into his inheritance. Afterwards King Edward wrote that William had never ceased to serve him ‘from his early manhood’, while in 1483 Domenico Mancini heard in London how ‘Hastings had been from an early age a loyal companion of Edward’.

* * *

Nevertheless, William’s first campaign, during the autumn of 1459, had ended in disaster at Ludlow. Apparently accompanied by his brothers Ralph and Thomas, he joined the main body of the Duke of York’s troops on the Welsh border. Here they would have waited for the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick to bring reinforcements. It is more than likely that William had been on the retreat before King Henry’s far larger army, by way of Worcester and Tewkesbury, and then back across the Severn to Ludlow. Here, it will be remembered, York and the Nevills had fled secretly at midnight, leaving their bewildered troops without leaders.

All Mr Hastings could do was throw himself on the mercy of King Henry – or, rather, on the mercy of Queen Margaret. As yet he was politically insignificant, and during the Parliament of Devils had escaped the dreaded penalty of attainder. He was granted his life but forfeited his lands, although he was soon allowed to redeem them. On 23 February 1460, with Ralph and Thomas he received a royal pardon for all treasons, rebellions, felonies and so on committed before 4 January. (Richard Hastings had not applied for such a pardon, indicating that he had not ridden to Ludlow with his brothers.) William did not join York in Dublin nor March in Calais, staying quietly at home in the Midlands. Nor did he go to meet the earls in London in the summer or the autumn.

So far, therefore, William Hastings had had no real experience of war apart, no doubt, from hearing his father reminisce proudly about the famous old campaigns in France – Sir Leonard must have been eloquent about Henry V and Agincourt. Yet like all Englishmen of his class and time, William would have been trained in all the period’s martial arts. Men of his rank learned how to use a heavy lance which could knock an opponent out of the saddle, but since they nearly always fought on foot their two indispensable weapons were the mace and the poleaxe.

Using every financial resource available to him, together with the contacts made during his year as sheriff, William assembled and equipped the force that would prove so useful to the Earl of March. Even though the majority of all save the poorest fifteenth-century Englishmen generally possessed arms and armour of a sort, deficiencies had to be made good, and horses provided. Later the Earl of March himself commented on how much it must have cost Hastings.

Those who could afford it wore plate armour, popularly known as ‘harness’. A man of William’s rank owned at least one suit of ‘Dutch’ plate, since German armourers were the best in Europe. It went to the wars with him on a pack-horse, together with a set of thick felt underclothes to reduce bruising. Neither heavy nor constricting, a fifteenth-century suit weighed less than the equipment of a First World War infantryman, while its weight was distributed all over the body. However, although plate was arrow-proof, it could be ripped open by poleaxes or smashed in by maces (causing bruises that turned gangrenous), and in defeat an armoured ‘man-at-arms’ had little hope of escaping on foot. Some gentlemen preferred to fight in brigandines; not unlike modern flak jackets, these were quilted coats strengthened by metal plates, often velvet-covered, and worn with sallets – light helmets resembling steel sou’westers. Both harness and brigandines were so hot that normally those wearing them could only fight for a few hours, but it was a different matter in cold winter weather.

The billmen who formed the bulk of the foot soldiers used a weapon combining billhook and half-pike. Besides their bows, archers often carried long-handed leaden ‘mauls’ or mallets, while mounted archers had light lances. Their arrows had a fighting range of over 150 yards, with a plate-armour-piercing range of about sixty. For protection, billmen and archers wore sallets and ‘jacks’ – soft leather jackets stuffed with tow or made from layers of deerskin.

Hastings’ force probably joined Lord March at Shrewsbury early in January 1461 – he campaigned at too fast a pace for Hastings to have caught up with him afterwards.5 Later William’s services against ‘Jasperem Pembrochie’ and ‘Jacobum Wiltes’ were commended (see p. 132), and the only time the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire are known to have been on campaign together was on this occasion. With them were Pembroke’s father Owen Tudor (Margaret Beaufort’s father-in-law) and two veterans of the French wars, Sir John and Sir William Scudamore, though apart from foreign mercenaries most of their troops must have come from the local Welsh gentry. The Yorkists included that redoubtable Welsh magnate, Sir William Herbert.

The Welsh Lancastrians’ weakness lay in their commanders. Jasper Tudor was brave enough but never managed to win a battle during the whole of his long career. The Earl of Wiltshire (the handsome treasurer) was primarily interested in his own survival as he had shown at St Albans in 1455. By contrast, March was already a superb leader.

The two armies faced each other at Mortimer’s Cross, between Hereford and Leominster, in a wide meadow by the River Lugg. Professor Ross suggests that the combatants should be numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. It was the morning of Candlemas Day (2 February) 1461 – the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, a day when everyone at Mass held a candle during the Gospel reading. Suddenly, at about 10 a.m., three separate suns were seen shining in the sky and then merging into one. The Yorkists were aghast, but

The noble Earl Edward them comforted and said ‘Beeth of good comfort, and dreadeth not. This is a good sign, for these three suns betoken the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have a good heart, and in the name of Almighty God go we against our enemies.’

No account of the engagement has survived but clearly the Yorkists went with a will against their enemies. (Some old locals say that on the battle’s anniversary the faint sound of horses’ hooves and of men shouting can still be heard at Mortimer’s Cross.) The Lancastrians broke and fled. There was a merciless pursuit, one of March’s specialities. The victors revenged themselves for Wakefield, continuing the murderous pattern of reprisals begun at St Albans in 1455.

Several of the enemy commanders were captured and executed immediately, though Jasper Tudor and Wiltshire – as was his wont – ‘stole away privily disguised and fled out of the country’. The former’s father was not so lucky, as Gregory records in a famous passage: ‘Owen Tudor was y-take and brought into Haverfordwest, and he was beheaded in the market place, and his head set upon the highest grice of the market cross, and a mad woman combed his hair and washed away the blood off his face, and she got candles and set about him burning more than a hundred.’ (Since it was Candlemas Day, the churches were full of discarded candles.)

This Owen Tudor was father unto the earl of Pembroke, and had wedded Queen Katherine, King Harry VI’s mother, weening and trusting all away that he should not be headed till he saw the axe and the block, and when that he was in his doublet he trusted on pardon and grace till the collar of his red velvet doublet was ripped off. Then he said ‘That head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Katherine’s lap’, and put his heart and mind wholly unto God, and full meekly took his death.

Owen could not grasp that he was dying precisely because he was King Henry’s stepfather. Sir John Throckmorton and nine other Lancastrian gentlemen died with him.

Although he won many more victories, Edward of March never forgot Mortimer’s Cross. It was his first successful battle – Warwick had been in command at Northampton – while the three suns were surely a sign of God’s favour, comparable to that cross of light which the Roman Emperor Constantine had seen in the sky before his victory at the Milvian Bridge. Henceforward Edward used a golden sunburst (or ‘sun-in-splendour’) as his principal badge, placing it on the livery of his men-at-arms and archers.

We know from William Hastings’ later career that he had a talent for raising troops. The number and quality of those whom he brought to Mortimer’s Cross may well have tipped the odds in favour of the Yorkists. Afterwards Edward referred to ‘a plentiful multitude’ (multitudine copiosa), and implied that they were expensively equipped. It was the start of William’s rise to fame and fortune.

However, a fortnight later all England was talking of the Lancastrian victory at the second Battle of St Albans. Gregory says that Edward was badly shaken (‘full sore a-feared’) by the news, following on that of Wakefield. Warwick met the Earl at Chipping Norton, reassuring him with accounts of ‘the love and favour that the commons had unto him’, and urging him to take the crown. Men continued to flock to his standard.

On Thursday, 27 February the two earls entered London, cheered by the crowds. With his good looks and magnificent bearing, Edward of March was well suited to be a popular idol. He went to his father’s former town house, Baynard’s Castle, while Warwick lodged at the Harbour. On Sunday, 1 March the Bishop of Salisbury (Warwick’s brother, George Nevill) told a crowd of thousands in St George’s Fields that the Earl of March should replace Henry VI as king.

On 4 March he was acclaimed in St Paul’s Cathedral as ‘King Edward IV of England and France, Lord of Ireland’, after which he was enthroned – though not crowned – in Westminster Hall. Then he went in procession to the Abbey where Te Deum was sung. As one of the City fathers, Mr Sheriff Lambert was present at these ceremonies. ‘From what we have heard since, he was chosen, so they say, on all sides as the new king by the princes and people at London,’ reported the papal legate Coppini. ‘London . . . is entirely inclined to side with the new king and Warwick, and as it is very rich and the most wealthy city of Christendom, this enormously increases the chances of the side that it favours,’ was the opinion of a well-informed Milanese observer, Prospero di Camulio.

The same observer commented that one reason why King Edward postponed his coronation was that he wanted ‘the vengeance due for the slaughter of his father and of so many knights and lords who have been slain of late’. On 6 March Edward issued a lengthy proclamation. Its tone may be gathered from this extract, complaining that in Henry VI’s time ‘not plenty, peace, justice, good governance, policy and virtuous conversation, but unrest, inward war and trouble, unrightwiseness, shedding and effusion of innocent blood, abusion of the laws, partiality, riot, extortion, murder, rape and vicious living, have been the guiders and leaders of the noble realm of England’. Among twenty-two persons whom the proclamation specifically excluded from pardon was ‘John Morton, late parson of Bloxworth in the shire of Dorset, clerk’.

John Lambert was among those who had the privilege of funding a new royal household, the City aldermen giving almost £150. Hastings became Lord Chamberlain, responsible for running many of its departments. In addition, the Mayor and aldermen lent £4,000 for the forthcoming campaign against the Lancastrians, since Edward was desperately short of ready cash.

It was far from certain that Mr Lambert and his fellow aldermen would ever see their money again. As another Londoner, the draper Robert Fabyan, observed, Edward and the Earl of Warwick had come to the City with ‘a great power of men but few of name’. (Hastings was still too obscure to be noticed.) Even Coppini, biased in favour of the Yorkists, commented that Queen Margaret was very clever. Some of his English friends thought that by remaining on the defensive she ought to be able to win people back after they had grown tired of all the senseless bloodshed – ‘who, when they perceive that they are not on the road to peace, will easily be induced to change sides’.

As he rode north William Hastings was well aware that not only his new office of chamberlain but his life itself depended on the outcome of the battle that was about to take place.

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