Post-classical history




After the Duke of York’s protectorate ended in February 1455 and the Duke of Somerset was released, the court party persuaded King Henry to call a great council of the realm, to meet at Leicester at the end of May. Probably Somerset intended that York should be censured during the council, perhaps summoned to be tried by his peers – or, at the very least, be forced to swear a humiliating oath of submission of the sort he had sworn after Dartford in 1452. The council was going to be at Leicester since Somerset was so much disliked in London. A chronicle known as ‘Davies’ (after its editor) says that the ‘commons of this land hated this duke Edmund [of Somerset] and loved the duke of York, because he loved the commons . . .’

However, unlike the Londoners, at this date the magnates as a whole were steadfast in their loyalty to Henry VI. He was their crowned and anointed king to whom they had sworn fealty. They could be relied on to support him, just as they had after York’s abortive rising three years earlier.

Should the council meet at Leicester there was every reason, therefore, to suppose that the Duke of York would suffer – and no doubt the Nevills too.

John de Vere, twelfth Earl of Oxford, was a typical establishment magnate of this sort. The de Veres were among the most illustrious families in England. ‘No King in Christendom hath such a subject as Oxford,’ Chief Justice Crewe told the House of Lords in 1623. ‘He came in with the Conqueror, Earl of Guynes, shortly after the Conquest made Great Chamberlain, above five hundred years ago by Henry I, the Conqueror’s son, brother to Rufus . . . no other Kingdom can produce such a peer in one and the selfsame name and person.’ Even in 1455 the family was already deeply respected for its antiquity. It was also rich and influential, owning broad acres. If the de Veres had any ambition at all, it was to recover the great chamberlainship of England, a ceremonial office of immense prestige which it had lost during the previous century. The Earl’s attitude towards the Lancastrian monarchy and towards any sort of involvement in politics cannot fail to have been strongly conditioned by hereditary memories. His own family had suffered disastrously from playing too prominent a role in public life at the end of the previous century. Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford, had become the bosom friend and favourite of Richard II, who heaped honours upon that unpleasant young man, making him Marquess of Dublin and then Duke of Ireland. Eventually Robert’s behaviour outraged the opposition to King Richard known as the ‘lords appellant’; in 1387 they proclaimed throughout the land that the Duke was guilty of treason. His response had been to march on London with a private army of several thousand men. However, when confronted by military leaders who included the future Henry IV – founder of the House of Lancaster – his troops deserted him and he had to escape abroad. He was attainted, forfeiting all his titles and property. When he died in exile in 1392 his uncle, Aubrey de Vere (Earl John’s grandfather), was re-created Earl of Oxford and recovered the estates. But the attainder remained unreversed, breaking the continuity of an earldom bestowed by Henry I, while the cherished office of Great Chamberlain had not been restored to the family.

The present Lord Oxford was unshakeable in his loyalty to his crowned and anointed king. Anyone as old as the Earl could remember the magnificent if terrifying figure of Henry V, who had instilled a veneration for the House of Lancaster in the vast majority of Englishmen. At the same time, like most of his fellow peers, Oxford was reluctant to become involved in the dangerous quarrel between York and Somerset. Even so, he can never have suspected that their quarrel was soon going to end in murder and ultimately in full-scale civil war.

He was an amiable, pleasant-mannered man who could laugh at himself, judging from his letters to the Pastons. Although he sometimes visited London – where he had a town house in the street called London Wall – going generally on board a ship from Colchester rather than travel by road, his principal interests lay in East Anglia. He was genuinely public-spirited, more than once expressing concern for ‘the public weal of all the shire’. He had five sons, the eldest, Sir Aubrey de Vere, being by all accounts a most attractive personality. His second son, John de Vere – who was only eight in 1455 – is one of the heroes of this book.

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One chronicler claims that the Duke of York and his Nevill allies believed that Somerset ceaselessly ‘provoked the king to their final destruction’. If this was the case, in order to survive they had at all costs to regain power, which meant obtaining control of the King’s person, and eliminating Somerset. An armed coup was the obvious solution. In view of Somerset’s notorious incompetence as a soldier, a small force was thought quite sufficient to ambush the royal party en route for Leicester, while it is far from inconceivable that murder featured in the Yorkist plan. What made the scheme so attractive to the Nevills was the presence in the party of the head of the Percies, the Earl of Northumberland, which would give them a chance of striking a decisive blow in their bitter feud. This was the origin of the first Battle of St Albans – the first in the Wars of the Roses.

On 21 May the King and Somerset set out from Westminster for St Albans where they were to be met by various magnates who would bring troops. (Lord Oxford was to be among them.) The Yorkists were waiting, ‘having gathered privily a power of people and kept them covertly in villages about the town of St Albans’. Shortly after leaving Westminster, Henry received letters from York, Salisbury and Warwick, complaining that they had not been summoned to the council at Leicester because of ‘the great defame and blasphemy thrown against us’, and that they had had to assemble armed men to protect themselves. Nonetheless, the royal party – no more than 2,000 men at most, since it consisted only of the accompanying peers’ households – continued on its way, quite unaware that it was walking straight into a trap.

When news came early on the morning of 22 May that Yorkist troops were in the vicinity, King Henry replaced Somerset as constable – commander of his little army – with the Duke of Buckingham, who was the brother-in-law of both York and Salisbury. The royal party reached St Albans at about 9 a.m. on 22 May. The Duke of York ‘and with him, come in company, the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, with divers knights and squires’, had been waiting since 7 a.m. in Key Field south-east of the broad St Peter’s Street – the town’s only large street. York had been well served by his spies and knew that the magnates whom the king was expecting would not arrive until the next day.

The Duke sprang the trap once the King and his party had marched into St Peter’s Street. He and his men barred the street at both ends, then he sent a herald to demand that Henry hand over Somerset, ‘the man disloyal to his country who ruined Normandy, whose negligence lost Gascony and who reduced the entire realm of England to a state of misery’. The King’s answer (no doubt dictated by Somerset) was to tell the Yorkists to ‘void the field’ or ‘I shall destroy them, every mother’s son and they [shall] be hanged, drawn and quartered that may be taken afterward.’

The royal troops prepared to defend the town centre, erecting barricades across St Peter’s Street. The King set up his banner in the street, halfway between the Abbey and the parish church, opposite the Castle Inn (on the site of the National Westminster Bank). Even so, Henry and the Duke of Buckingham, with many of their followers, thought that York was bluffing and did not bother to put on armour.

The aged Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstede, was watching, apparently from the comparative safety of the Abbey gatehouse. (It is still there, having survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries.) The old man, who was horrified by what he saw, has left an eyewitness account.1

The Yorkists attacked the barricades between 11 a.m. and noon, but were beaten back. Then at the south-eastern end the Earl of Warwick with 600 northern ‘marchmen’ burst into Holywell Street, which led into St Peter’s Street, breaking in opposite the Abbey gatehouse through the back gardens between two inns, the Keys and the Chequers. As they came on, the Earl’s marchmen blew trumpets, shouting ‘A Warwick! A Warwick! A Warwick!’ Then at the northern end York’s troops ‘brake down violently houses and pales on the east side of the town, and entered into St Peter’s Street, slaying all those that withstood them’.

Someone rang the curfew bell in the clock tower in the marketplace at the end of the street. (It too is still there.) Royalists who had not done so already now tried to put on their armour. There was a savage mêlée, first arrow fire, then hand-to-hand fighting. ‘I saw a man fall with his brains beaten out, another with a broken arm, a third with his throat cut and a fourth with a stab wound in his chest, while the whole street was strewn with corpses’, writes Abbot Whethamstede. The King himself was wounded by an arrow in the neck; deserted, he took refuge in a tanner’s cottage. The royal banner was left standing forlornly against a wall by its bearer. His men either fled into the surrounding fields or else begged for mercy.

The Duke of Somerset, who had once had a fantastic dream that he should die under a castle, retreated inside the Castle Inn. When it was surrounded and the Yorkists began to batter at the doors, he came out fighting. He killed four of his opponents before being cut down with a poleaxe beneath the sign of the castle.

Among the ‘lords of name’ slain in the court party besides Somerset were Northumberland and Clifford, together with many courtiers, about seventy being killed in all. Buckingham’s son, Lord Stafford (Margaret Beaufort’s brother-in-law), had an arrow wound in the hand from which he later died, while Somerset’s son, Lord Dorset, was so badly hurt that he had to be taken home in a cart, as was the Queen’s chamberlain – ‘and other divers knights and squires sore hurt’.2


A nobleman and his retinue. From the Book of St Alban’s, 1496.

Some royalists took refuge in the Abbey, including the Duke of Buckingham, who had been hit in the face by an arrow. He was joined by the standard-bearer, the Earl of Wiltshire, who was the Lord Treasurer and the most handsome man in the kingdom. As Gregory records, Wiltshire ‘fought mainly with the heels, for he was frightened of losing his beauty’; prudently, he had taken off his armour and hidden it in a ditch, donning a monk’s habit.

The Abbot says that as soon as the Yorkists knew they had won, they ran through the streets and started looting – ‘Damnabilis detestabilisque depraedatio.’ He tells how the victorious troops, especially the northerners, broke into houses, stealing gold and silver plate, money and wine. At one moment the monks thought that they were about to sack the Abbey.

York and the two earls went to Henry VI’s refuge in the tanner’s cottage. Here they knelt before the wounded king, protesting their loyalty and insisting that they had never intended to do him any harm. Henry said he forgave them, asking that they stop the fighting. Then they escorted him to the Abbey where he spent the night. Next morning they took the King back to London where he was lodged in the Bishop’s palace next to St Paul’s. After this he had to suffer the further humiliation of attending a Mass of thanksgiving at the cathedral.

An anonymous contemporary notes that on the day after the battle the Duke of Norfolk arrived at ‘Seynt Albons’ with 6,000 men. He adds, ‘And the earl of Oxenford also.’

No doubt the Earl received a very full account of what had happened from the Abbot and saw the damage done to the town, together with the corpses of the lords in the Abbey where they were awaiting burial. Judging from his subsequent record as a diehard Lancastrian, Oxford must have been deeply shocked. It was altogether too much of a coincidence that the only peers killed in the battle were Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford; the first being the enemy of York and the last two enemies of the Nevills. Murder had been done. Others, pillars of society, impeccably loyal to the Crown, men of Oxford’s own rank and entitled to reverential respect in that hierarchical age, lay badly wounded. Scandalously, those of the King’s party who survived had been robbed, ‘despoiled of horse and harness’. In modern terms it was the behaviour of gangsters.

Most shamefully of all, King Henry had been wounded and insulted, his banner treated with contempt. To a fifteenth-century man with a conservative cast of mind such as Lord Oxford, that was sacrilege.

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