Post-classical history

24

LORD OXFORD LOSES A BATTLE –
BARNET, 1471

WILLIAM HASTINGS • LORD OXFORD

A member of Edward’s household (probably Nicholas Harpisfield, clerk to the Signet) has left an account of the ensuing campaign, ‘by a servant of the king’s, that presently saw in effect a great part of his exploits, and the residue knew by true relation of them that were present at every time’. This is The Historie of the Arrivall of King Edward IV in England and the Finall Recouerye of his Kingdomes from Henry VI. AD MCCCCLXXI.1 Although, naturally enough, biased in favour of the Yorkists, it is the testimony of an eyewitness – of someone who was actually there.

Apparently its author was on board when on the evening of 12 March 1471 King Edward’s fleet dropped anchor off the Norfolk coast near Cromer. Two knights were sent ashore to spy out the land. When they reported to Edward that his friend the Duke of Norfolk was away in London and that ‘those parts were right sore beset . . . especially by the earl of Oxford’, he was so discouraged that he sailed north, into ‘great storms, winds and tempests upon the sea’, which scattered his little armada and drove it ‘in great torment’ into the Humber estuary.2 Eventually his flagship, the Antony, reached Ravenspur, a port at the mouth of the Humber which has long since disappeared, where he decided to land, together with Lord Hastings and 500 picked men. The Duke of Gloucester disembarked with 300 further along the coast, while Lord Rivers did so with another 200 at Paull, fourteen miles up the Humber.

Edward spent the first night of his return ‘lodged at a poor village two miles from his landing, with a few with him’. It was a dismal start to his campaign of reconquest and already there was much to discourage him. His first son, born in November, was still in sanctuary with the Queen at Westminster, in a capital that was occupied by his enemies. Everything depended on finding sufficient supporters who were prepared to fight for him, and so far there was very little sign of them. ‘As for the folks of the country, there came but right few to him.’ Weary of civil war, England did not welcome the prospect of yet another change of regime accompanied by more bloodshed. In Yorkshire the Percies dared not help him.

Undeterred, he marched towards York. He announced that he was coming merely to claim the Duchy of York and not the kingdom, ordering his men to shout ‘King Henry!’ as they went. Hull refused to let him inside its walls, and York did so only with the utmost reluctance. He continued marching southward, neatly avoiding a confrontation with the Marquess Montagu and his Nevill retainers. He began to pick up recruits, 600 men joining him at Nottingham. His ‘scourers’ (scouts) informed him that the Duke of Exeter and Lord Oxford were at Newark in some strength, but they fled when he advanced to attack them.

‘At Leicester came to the king [Edward] right a fair fellowship of folks to the number of 3000 men well able for the wars, such as were verily to be trusted,’ says the Arrivall, adding that they could be depended on to fight for him whatever should befall. They had been recruited by ‘the Lord Hastings . . . the King’s Chamberlain . . . stirred by his messages sent unto them, and by his servants, friends and lovers, such as were in the country’. (Among the foremost was the alchemist Lord Grey of Codnor, who brought a noticeably large contingent.) William must have ridden down to his ‘country’ – the Midlands – in order to collect them, after writing scores of eloquent letters. He was repeating the miracle he had worked during the Mortimer’s Cross campaign on a bigger scale.

By now Edward had a formidable army, growing every day. On 29 March he invested Coventry, which was occupied by the Earl of Warwick with ‘six or seven thousand men’. The Earl refused to come out and give battle; he was waiting for Clarence to reinforce him – the Duke was bringing 4,000 troops which he had collected in the West Country. Nor would he accept Edward’s offer of peace. According to the Arrivall Lord Oxford and others, motivated by hatred of Edward, persuaded Warwick to refuse.

Throughout the campaign Edward used his well-attested charm to win over the other side, and on none more effectively than Clarence. The brothers met outside Banbury on about 3 April, and were formerly reconciled. The Arrivall gives much of the credit to ‘My Lord of Hastings, the King’s Chamberlain’. Together, they advanced on London.

The bewildered aldermen did not know whom to support, but they assembled a force of armed Londoners. According to Fabyan, Archbishop Nevill tried to arouse sympathy for King Henry by making him process through the City streets; his shabby, feeble-witted appearance only alienated support. Finally the aldermen decided that Edward would probably win. In any case, they were anxious about all those enormous loans which he had not yet repaid, while, if one may believe the drily amused Commynes, the ‘wives of rich citizens with whom he had been closely and secretly acquainted, won over their husbands and relations to his cause’. They dispersed their troops, by ordering them to go home and have their dinner. Then, during the night, Yorkist agents seized the Tower – ‘whereby he had a plain entry into the City,’ observes the Arrivall.

Edward marched in on the morning of 12 April, being reunited with his queen who presented their son to him, ‘to his heart’s singular comfort and gladness’. Over 2,000 Yorkists poured out to greet him from the sanctuaries where they had been hiding, among them being nearly 400 esquires and gentlemen who were valuable men-at-arms. All the time more and more armed supporters were joining his army, such as Ralph Hastings.

The Earl of Warwick had been brilliantly outmanoeuvred, losing both his king and the capital to Edward. Even so, the Earl still possessed a much bigger army. Leaving Coventry, he advanced towards London, intent on winning a decisive victory before Queen Margaret reached England.

On the evening of Holy Saturday, 13 April, King Edward rode out to confront the Lancastrians, bringing the wretched King Henry with him. According to the Arrivall he had about 9,000 men and Warwick ‘30,000’, though 15,000 is a much more likely figure for the Earl’s army. Both sides were accompanied by artillery trains, cannon mounted on carts, while the Yorkist ranks included 300 Flemish handgunners who carried primitive matchlock arquebuses.

The Earl’s ‘afore-riders’ (scouts) had penetrated the outskirts of London during the afternoon but had been speedily driven off after a skirmish in Haringay Park. The bulk of Warwick’s army was approaching Barnet. Now a London suburb, in those days this was a market town called ‘Chipping Barnet’, eleven miles up the Great North Road. On the far side, about a mile from the town, the Lancastrians halted, waiting for the Yorkists along a ridge defended by a hedge – ‘under an hedge-side’. King Edward made his men take up a position opposite the hedge, much nearer than he would had they been able to see properly, ‘for it was right dark’. (Among his men-at-arms was Sir Henry Stafford.)

Edward gave his men strict orders to make as little noise as possible, and would not let his gunners fire at the enemy. Throughout the night Warwick’s artillery pounded away, but ‘always overshot the king’s host, and hurted them nothing, and the cause was the king’s host lay much nearer them than they deemed’. Defensive tactics of this sort have not been unknown during the twentieth century.

Hastings commanded the Yorkist left, King Edward the centre, and the eighteen-year-old Duke of Gloucester the right. Opposite, Marquess Montagu led the Lancastrian centre, with Warwick in reserve behind him, Oxford the right, and Exeter the left. The fratricidal nature of the Wars was never more in evidence. Montagu and Warwick were the first cousins of the King and Gloucester, Exeter was the King’s brother-in-law, while Hastings, Oxford and the Nevills were all brothers-in-law.

Regardless of a blanket of mist, King Edward ordered his men to attack at between four and five o’clock the next morning, Easter Sunday. There was a brief cannonade and then ‘they joined and came to hand strokes’. The mist concealed the fact that the two opposing sides were not properly aligned. On the Lancastrian right Oxford outflanked Hastings while on the Yorkist right Gloucester outflanked Exeter. In consequence the battle soon swung round like a rugby scrum, pivoting at right angles. Taken from the side as well as from the front, Hastings’ men broke, many of them fleeing to Barnet and to London – where it was believed that Lancaster had been victorious. Later, Robert Fabyan, a Lancastrian supporter as a loyal apprentice of Sir Thomas Cook, recorded proudly how ‘the said earl of Oxford and his company quit them so manfully that he bare over that part of the field’.

Meanwhile the Yorkists had carried out precisely the same manoeuvre on their own right, overwhelming the Duke of Exeter, who was knocked unconscious, stripped of his armour and clothing, and left for dead on the field. (After the battle servants smuggled the Duke into sanctuary at Westminster, summoning a doctor.) In the centre the struggle remained in the balance for some time. Waurin was told – obviously by men who had taken part – that Edward fought magnificently, as did ‘le seigneur de Hastingues’. The Marquess Montagu also distinguished himself according to Waurin, ‘slicing off heads and limbs from everyone whom he encountered’.

Ironically, Oxford’s success lost the battle for Lancaster. ‘But it happened so’, Dr Warkworth tells us,

that the earl of Oxford’s men had upon them their lord’s livery, both before and behind, which was a star with streams, which [was] much like King Edward’s livery, the sun with streams; and the mist was so thick that a man might not perfectly judge one thing from another; so the earl of Warwick’s men shot and fought against the earl of Oxford’s men, thinking and supposing that they had been King Edward’s men; and anon the earl of Oxford and his men cried ‘treason! treason!’ and fled away from the field with 800 men.

Montagu was beaten to the ground and killed. In earlier battles Warwick had stayed on his horse, so that he could make an early escape if things went badly. However, on this occasion he had been persuaded by Montagu to dismount and send away his horse. He managed to find a new mount but was trapped in a wood ‘where there was no way forth’, according to Warkworth, ‘and one of King Edward’s men had espied him, and one came upon him and killed him and despoiled him.’ It was not only the great who died. ‘The slaughter was very heavy,’ Commynes reports. ‘When he left Flanders, King Edward made up his mind that he was not going to keep his old custom of shouting “Spare the commons and kill the gentles” as he had during earlier battles, because he had developed a deep hatred for ordinary English people on account of the earl of Warwick being so popular with them.’ The battle had lasted about three hours.

King Edward rode back to London, where he was received as a conquering hero. He had the banners of Warwick and Montagu hung up at St Paul’s in thanksgiving and their bodies displayed on the cathedral pavement for four days, naked in their coffins, so that no one could be in doubt that they were dead. The Arrivall explains grimly that this was to prevent ‘new murmurs, insurrections and rebellions amongst indisposed people’ of the sort who had supported Warwick, ‘by means of the false, feigned fables and slanders that by his subtlety and malicious moving were wont to be seditiously sown and blown about the land’. It was a fitting epitaph.

Fleeing, Lord Oxford abandoned his own men when he discovered that the chaplain meant to betray him. He joined a party of northern fugitives and made for Scotland with them. A breathless letter which he wrote from some hiding place immediately after the battle has survived. It is to his wife Margaret, whom he addresses as ‘Right, reverend and worshipful lady’.

‘I am in great heaviness at the making of this letter but, thanked be to God, I am escaped myself.’ He warns her about the chaplain, and asks her to reward the messenger because he himself has been unable to do so.

Also ye shall send me in all haste all the ready money that ye can make, and as many of my men as can come well horsed, and that they come in divers parcels. Also that my horse be sent, with my steel saddles, and bid the yeoman of the horse cover them with leather. Also ye shall send to my mother and let her wit of this letter and pray her of her blessing, and bid her send me my casket by this token – that she hath the key thereof but it is broken. And ye shall send to the prior of Thetford and bid him send me the sum of gold that he said I should have . . . Also, ye shall deliver the bringer of this letter an horse, saddle and bridle.

And ye shall be of good cheer and take no thought, for I shall bring my purpose about now by the grace of God, whom have you in keeping.3

The Earl’s refusal to despair of Henry VI’s cause is explained by a letter that his retainer John Paston sent to his mother, Margaret Paston, a fortnight later, after escaping from the battle with an arrow through his right arm – beneath the elbow. (He must have fought under Oxford with the Lancastrian right wing and may have been wounded by his own side.) Although in hiding, he reassures his mother it will not be long before ‘my wrongs and other men’s shall be redressed, for the world was never so like to be ours as it is now’. In the meantime, however, Mr Paston has run out of money and begs her

send me some in as hasty wise as is possible; for by my troth my leechcraft and physic, and rewards to them that have kept and conducted me to London hath cost me since Easter Day [the day of Barnet] more than £5, and now I have neither meat, drink, clothes, leechcraft nor money but upon borrowing; and I have assayed my friends so far, that they begin to fail now in my greatest need . . .

However, he ends his letter on a note of cheerful optimism.

I thank God I am whole of my sickness, and trust to be clean whole of all my hurts within a sennight at the furthest, by which time I trust to have other tidings; and those tidings once had, I trust not to be long out of Norfolk with God’s grace.

Clearly Lord Oxford and John Paston were convinced that Queen Margaret and a new Lancastrian army should be able to restore the situation. As John’s brother wrote from London to their mother:

the world, I assure you, is right queasy, as ye shall know within this month; the people here feareth it sore. God hath showed Himself marvellously like Him that made all, and can undo again when Him list; and I can think that by all likelihood shall show himself as marvellous again, and that in short time.

The Yorkists were far from convinced that they had won. According to the Arrivall, they thought their opponents’ cause ‘never the feebler but rather the stronger’ for Warwick’s defeat at Barnet. Many Lancastrians who refused to fight for him had no reservations about joining an army led by the Duke of Somerset.

* * *

Yet, despite the hopes of Lord Oxford and his retainers, God had abandoned their party. In mourning for her brothers Warwick and Montagu, Lady Oxford would not see her husband again for fourteen years. However, John Paston would survive unscathed. As for the Earl, he would succeed in reaching Scotland.

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