The Yorkist lords disappeared into the night, leaving their men and their banners at the mercy of their enemies. Whether by accident or design, they broke into two groups. York was accompanied by his second son Edmund – they immediately fled by sea to Ireland – but Edward joined the Nevilles. Edward’s party acquired a ship with the help of Lady Dinham, and it appears they may also have tried to reach Ireland. However:
when they had gone to sea, my Lord of Warwick asked the captain and the others whether they knew the way westward, and they answered they did not, they did not know these waters for they had never been there. The whole noble company then became fearful, but the Earl of Warwick, seeing his father and all the others were afraid, said to comfort them that if it pleased God and St George, he would lead them to a safe haven. And indeed, he took off his pourpoint [tunic], went over to the rudder and had the sails hoisted. The wind took them to Guernsey, where they waited for the wind, until by the grace of God they reached Calais.1
The exiles were greeted by Lord Fauconberg: Warwick had left Calais in his care. Yorkist control of Calais, where Edward and the Nevilles arrived on 2 November, would prove crucial. Warwick’s prowess at sea would ensure the Yorkists possessed a secure base from which they could plot their return.
Back in England, a Parliament was held at Coventry: the so-called ‘Parliament of Devils’. The Yorkist leaders, including Edward, were declared traitors. Execution was not possible but the Yorkists were attainted, meaning their blood was deemed corrupt. Consequently, their descendants would not be permitted to inherit their lands and titles. The Yorkist lords were now legally ‘dead’, although the Lancastrian government continued to pursue them. Steps were also taken to deny the Yorkists a refuge: the young Duke of Somerset, supported by Andrew Trollope, was charged with the task of bringing Calais to heel. As we have seen, Somerset was a determined and aggressive man who passionately desired to avenge his father. He also possessed great charisma, and knew how to win and keep men’s loyalty.2 Somerset would prove a formidable adversary. Fortunately for the Yorkist lords, however, by the time Somerset was able to put to sea they were already safely ensconced at Calais. When Somerset approached Calais he was greeted by artillery fire from the Rysbank tower. Yet, refusing to admit defeat, Somerset moved down the coast and put ashore at Guines. He promised to pay the garrison their long overdue wages and was admitted to the fortress.
From his new base at Guines, Somerset did his best to harass the Yorkist garrison at Calais – ‘full manly he made sorties’, according to ‘Gregory’ – but without further support his mission could not succeed. Some of his supplies and men had already fallen into the Yorkists’ hands, weakening his position considerably. In December a fleet was assembled at Sandwich to go to Somerset’s aid.3 Lord Rivers and Sir Gervase Clifton were in command. But there was much sympathy for Warwick within the coastal towns and he was kept well informed of the Lancastrian plans. On 15 January 1460, in the early hours of the morning, a Yorkist fleet descended on the port. Lord Rivers, his wife and son were all taken captive. More importantly, Warwick’s men captured most of the Lancastrian fleet. Edward did not take any part in this daring exploit, but the surviving sources do suggest a growing prominence. William Paston recorded that Lord Rivers and his son Anthony were brought to Calais by the light of ‘eight score torches’.4 Then, according to Paston, Edward joined the other Yorkist lords in ‘rating’ [berating] the Woodvilles for their perceived pretensions. Perhaps this episode does not reflect especially well on Edward – and, as we shall see, there is a certain irony given the events that were to come! – but evidently ‘my Lord of March’ was now considered a person of substance whose activities were worth reporting.
By March 1460 the Yorkists were growing in confidence. It must have seemed clear that the Lancastrian government did not possess the necessary resources, or even the will, to displace them. Indeed, at this time Warwick felt secure enough to sail to Ireland, in order to consult the Duke of York, by now well established at Dublin. At Guines, however, the Duke of Somerset experienced immense frustration. A further Lancastrian expedition under the new Lord Audley was driven ashore by bad weather near Calais and Audley taken captive. Somerset’s position was now precarious, but he remained a tenacious opponent. Although Somerset was almost crippled by lack of funds and supplies, Warwick’s absence from Calais offered Somerset a glimmer of hope. On 23 April, St George’s Day, Lancastrian forces attacked Newnham Bridge, the gateway to Calais itself.5 The date is significant – doubtless Somerset wished to inspire his men by appealing to England’s patron saint – and this was a determined assault. But the Lancastrians were repulsed with heavy loss. Unfortunately, the details of this engagement are obscure, but is it possible that Edward was involved in the fighting? Assuming that Somerset attacked in strength, the Yorkist lords still at Calais would surely have gone out to meet him.6Perhaps it was here that Edward first drew blood from an enemy. Shortly afterwards Warwick returned to Calais, despite the attentions of a fleet under the Duke of Exeter, who declined to engage. Warwick brought news of his talks with York, and the result had been profound. Edward was soon to be released from exile at Calais: the Yorkist lords would return to England.
In hard fighting, Lord Fauconberg and Sir John Wenlock won a bridgehead at Sandwich. On 26 June, Edward and Warwick took ship at Calais; with them were Salisbury, Lord Audley (who had defected to the Yorkists) and 1,500 soldiers. The Yorkists had also gained a useful ally in the person of Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni. Coppini had been sent by the Pope to preach a crusade in England, but he had now espoused the Yorkist cause. The weather was kind and the Yorkists ‘arrived graciously at Sandwich’.7Propaganda had been disseminated in advance, which meant that a large number of Kentishmen rapidly answered their call to arms. At Canterbury, the three ‘captains’ who had been ordered to hold the city – John Fogge, John Scott and Robert Horne – decided instead to join the Yorkists.8 The Yorkist army reached London on 2 July. After some debate they were greeted by the mayor and the Archbishop of Canterbury, although the City Fathers tactfully suggested to the Yorkist earls that their stay in London should be brief. Doubtless they were worried about the prospect of conflict in London itself, because there was still a Lancastrian garrison in the Tower, under the command of the veteran Lord Scales. However, it is also likely that the Yorkist leaders wished to confront King Henry as soon as possible, before he had time to gather substantial forces. They were themselves desperately short of money and supplies, but in two days of whirlwind activity the Yorkist earls raised loans from within the city and organised everything necessary for the campaign to come, including horses and baggage. By 4 July the Yorkist army was ready to march and their vanguard led the way. A force under the Earl of Salisbury was detailed to keep watch on the activities of the Lancastrian garrison in the Tower, but the rest of the army followed the day after.
The Lancastrian court was at Coventry, as was common during this period, but on hearing of the Yorkist advance, King Henry and his supporters – who had already been raising troops – moved to Northampton.9 Initially, Henry may have lodged at Delapré Abbey, south of the town, although his army would have camped in the open. Henry was accompanied by a number of peers – the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and Lords Beaumont, Egremont, and Grey of Ruthin – although there had been no time to raise a truly formidable force. But the Lancastrians were confident they were capable of making a stand. By 10 July, when the large Yorkist army arrived on the scene, the Lancastrians had taken up a fortified position with their rear protected by the River Nene. They ‘ordained there a strong and mighty field […] armed and arrayed with guns’. Banks and ditches would have been dug to the front and the Lancastrians would have been well supplied with artillery from their arsenal at Kenilworth. Although the Yorkists outnumbered the Lancastrians, the army must have looked on their enemy’s strong position with trepidation.
The Yorkists’ propaganda had always stressed that their argument was with Henry’s courtiers, not with Henry himself. Therefore they needed to give the impression of wanting to present their case. Henry had now joined his army in the field. A delegation headed by Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury, approached the Lancastrian camp, offering the Archbishop of Canterbury and Coppini as mediators. Perhaps Henry, even now, would have granted the Yorkist lords an audience but his noble supporters were in no mood to parley. The Duke of Buckingham was particularly belligerent. He has traditionally been regarded as a moderate influence, but by now he had lost all patience with the Yorkists. Buckingham angrily denounced the bishop’s delegation as ‘men of war’ – because they came with an armed guard – and curtly cut off their protestations to the contrary. ‘Forsooth,’ said the duke, ‘the Earl of Warwick shall not come to the King’s presence; if he comes he shall die.’ Yet remarkably, Warwick sent another herald, and it was not until this emissary was refused access to the King that the charade of negotiation finally came to an end. One last Yorkist messenger announced that ‘at two hours after noon he [Warwick] would speak with him or else die in the field’.
Conflict was now certain. Realistically, had it ever been in doubt? As was customary, the Yorkists ordained three ‘battles’, although quite what this meant in practice is not always clear. It is often assumed that armies during the Wars of the Roses were crudely split into three large units, probably because the sources rarely tell us more. It has been plausibly suggested that further organisation may have been provided, albeit in a rather haphazard way, by grouping the men according to lordships or localities.10 Yet evidence does exist to suggest that medieval battle plans – and dispositions – could be much more complex.11 For example, the surviving battle plans drawn up by the Marshal Boucicaut and by Duke John ‘the Fearless’ of Burgundy clearly demonstrate that tactical considerations were taken very seriously. It was also considered how an army should be organised when not made up of seasoned warriors.12 But on this occasion tactical factors were not crucial, although dispositions will be discussed more thoroughly below, when the sources allow this. The Battle of Northampton was partly to be decided by a factor sometimes neglected by historians, but which played a part in almost all of the battles and campaigns of the Wars of the Roses: namely, the weather. The Yorkists would also profit from an act of treachery. But what of Edward’s own role in the battle? It is contested in the sources. Most chroniclers agree that ‘little Fauconberg’ was accorded the honour of leading the vanguard, consisting of the men of Kent. According to Wavrin, Warwick and Edward then jointly ‘directed’ the rest of the army, although Whethamstede tells us that Edward led one of the three ‘battles’. At Northampton, the army probably looked to Warwick for overall direction, although it is clear that Edward held a position of responsibility. Perhaps Edward had already ‘won his spurs’ in the skirmish at Newnham Bridge, but now there was more at stake. What is certain is that here, for the first time, Edward would have stood under his own banner with a group of men looking to him for leadership.
According to Whethamstede, Warwick, Edward and Fauconberg made a simultaneous assault on the Lancastrian position, presumably hoping to win the day through sheer force of numbers. The assault took place in driving rain, which must have made the going difficult, and at around 400 yards the Yorkists would have come within range of the Lancastrians’ artillery. This was a critical moment: the Yorkists might suffer heavy casualties and panic would surely ensue … Yet, inexplicably, the Lancastrian guns did not fire. According to the English Chronicle, ‘the ordnance of the King’s guns availed not’, because they ‘lay deep in the water, and so were quenched, and might not be shot’. The Yorkists’ relief would have been countered by Lancastrian alarm. Worse was to come. There must have been archers in the Lancastrian camp but they made little impact and the Yorkists quickly arrived at the Lancastrians’ fortifications. Lord Grey of Ruthin was in command of the Lancastrian ‘vaward’, which would have been expected to offer fierce resistance. But in a quite extraordinary move, Grey changed sides and went over to the Yorkists:
the attacking squadrons came to the ditch before the royalist rampart and wanted to climb over it, which they could not do quickly because of the height [but] Lord Grey and his men met them and, seizing them by the hand, hauled them into the embattled field.13
The Yorkists now poured into the Lancastrian camp. According to Wavrin, Edward’s own troops were the first inside. With their fortifications now useless, most Lancastrian soldiers seem to have thrown down their arms or taken flight. The Lancastrian nobles made a stand around King Henry’s tent but, assailed from all sides, they stood little chance. Buckingham, Shrewsbury, Beaumont and Egremont were all killed. King Henry himself was captured by an archer, Henry Mountfort. The Yorkist victory was complete.
Clearly Grey’s treachery was crucial: how can his actions be explained? The Yorkist English Chronicle argues that Grey was responsible for the ‘saving of many a man’s life’, but later commentators have been less kind. In the words of H.T. Evans, ‘in the sordid annals of even these sterile wars there is no deed of shame so foul’.14 Yet Grey’s motives remain shrouded in mystery. According to Wavrin, Grey’s treachery had been arranged in advance, but if this is true it seems curious that Grey did not receive any immediate benefits from his ‘foul’ deed. Much later he became Earl of Kent, although for now survival was his only reward. Perhaps, as R.I. Jack has suggested, Grey’s actions simply represent ‘an inspired gamble’ in the heat of the moment.15 But it is also a puzzle why Lord Grey was entrusted with the ‘vaward’ in the first place. He was not an especially important magnate, and, unlike Fauconberg on the other side, he did not have a military reputation. This is particularly significant bearing in mind that the other nobles present do not seem to have been adequately prepared for battle; another leader, such as Buckingham, or the warlike Egremont, would surely have offered more defiance.
The battle lasted barely half an hour. Some royalist troops appear to have drowned in the river Nene while trying to escape, but losses on both sides were slight. As at St Albans the Yorkists’ aim was to isolate and eliminate the Lancastrian leaders. Indeed, according to the English Chronicle, orders were given to spare the King and the commons, but to show no mercy to the lords and gentry. Probably neither Edward nor Warwick were heavily involved in the fighting; once it became clear the battle was won, and their chief rivals could not escape, doubtless their main concern was to ensure that the person of Henry VI was secured. This too was quickly achieved. Edward, as a soldier, was to face much greater challenges. Even so, his experience here may have strongly influenced his later conduct as both a strategist and a tactician. During the course of the French wars it had become received wisdom that defensive tactics would invariably prevail on the battlefield. Jean de Bueil, reflecting on his experience of fighting the English, counselled that ‘a formation on foot should never march forward, but should always hold steady and await its enemies …’16 It is often suggested that the defensive approach adopted by York, at Ludford, and by Buckingham, at Northampton, was a legacy of their experience in France. For younger men such as Edward, however, the events at Northampton must have discredited the tactic of the entrenched encampment. If they did look to the Hundred Years’ War for models, they would find them in the careers of men such as John Talbot, whose success depended on audacity and speed, not on dogged defence.
Following the battle the captive Henry was treated, ostensibly at least, with the deference due to a king; both Edward and Warwick kneeled before him, acknowledged him as their sovereign, and Henry was led with ceremony into Northampton. Although it was later alleged that Coppini had threatened to excommunicate the Lancastrians if they did not submit, the bodies of the dead Lancastrian lords were treated with respect. Buckingham, for instance, received honourable burial at the Grey Friars’ Church; other victims were buried at St John’s Hospital. On 14 July the Yorkists headed back to London, where the Earl of Salisbury, ably assisted by Sir John Wenlock, was now besieging the Tower. With the approach of the Yorkist army, Lancastrian resistance in the Tower quickly came to an end. Scales surrendered the Tower on 19 July. Some of the defenders would later be executed, but Lord Scales negotiated safe passage for himself and Lord Hungerford. But the Tower garrison had fired cannon into the city, which had enraged the citizens. Scales tried to reach sanctuary at Westminster but was recognised by a woman, taken captive by a party of Thames boatmen, and brutally put to death. Perhaps surprisingly, the Yorkist leaders are said to have much regretted these events, although of course there were many connections that could, under different circumstances, have brought together those who we today refer to as ‘Yorkist’ or ‘Lancastrian’. Indeed, Lord Scales’ death is said to have caused Edward particular grief; he was Edward’s godfather.17
Edward and the Nevilles were now masters of the kingdom, but in the absence of the Duke of York it was not possible to pursue any of their long-term objectives. York landed at Chester on 8 September, however, and from here he made leisurely but regal progress, his sword borne upright before him like a king. For the last ten years, all of York’s public statements had stressed that he was a loyal subject of Henry VI; his opposition was for the good of the ‘common weal’ and was not aimed at King Henry himself. But now York would propose a more radical solution to England’s problems. He reached London on 15 October and upon arriving at Westminster Palace – where a Parliament had been hastily assembled – he immediately made his intentions clear. York placed his hand on the throne and looked for acclamation. But he was met with stunned silence. The Archbishop of Canterbury made a clumsy attempt at a greeting, asking York if he wished to see the King. York’s reply was proud and haughty: ‘I know of no one in the realm who would not more fitly come to me than I to him.’18 Then he stormed out of the room, leaving consternation in his wake.
According to Wavrin, York’s actions took Edward and the Nevilles by surprise, and they were appalled. Warwick went to remonstrate with the duke:
and so [Warwick] entered the duke’s chamber and found him leaning on a dresser. When the duke saw him he came forward and they greeted each other and there was some strong language between them, for the earl told the duke that the lords and the people disapproved of his intention to depose the King. While they were talking [Edmund] Earl of Rutland entered, the brother of the Earl of March, and he said to Warwick: ‘Dear cousin, do not be angry, for you know that it belongs to my father, and he shall have it.’ To this, the Earl of March, who was present, responded and said to the Earl of Rutland, ‘Brother, offend nobody, for all shall be well.’ After these words, when the Earl of Warwick had heard the duke’s wishes, he left in anger without taking leave of anybody, except the Earl of March, whom he asked very kindly to come the next day to London, where a council meeting would be held. March said he would not fail to be there.19
This is a fascinating passage. It provides evidence of a rapport between Warwick and Edward, which had presumably developed in exile, but also evidence of Edward’s growing influence, which was to a certain extent independent of York or Warwick. Wavrin’s account has not been generally regarded as reliable, however.20 Were Edward and Warwick really surprised or appalled by York’s actions? It seems extremely unlikely.21 Nevertheless, it may be that Warwick, ever the politician, quickly realised that the lords were still reluctant to depose Henry VI. Edward, a much more subtle and sensitive man than his father, would surely have reached the same conclusion. Perhaps, then, the cause of the arguments reported by Wavrin was not that Duke Richard had sought the throne, but that he had (literally) shown his hand too soon.
In truth there were flaws and inconsistencies in the claims of both York and Lancaster. The lords, who were mindful of the oaths they had sworn to Henry but also of the power that York now held, eventually offered a curious compromise. York reluctantly agreed to the terms of the ‘Act of Accord’, which was similar to the Treaty of Troyes, whereby Henry would remain king for the rest of his life, but thereafter the crown would pass to York and his descendants. Henry, of course, had little choice but to acquiesce, although his queen was still at large and would scarcely have been expected to honour such an agreement. Margaret and her adherents were scattered – the Queen had herself fled to Wales in precarious circumstances – but she quickly took steps to gather her supporters.22 By early December York was preparing for war. The Yorkists split their existing forces, although of course they expected to raise fresh troops for the struggle to come. York went north, Warwick was to remain in London, and Edward was sent to the Marches; it was to be his first independent command.
Edward reached the Marches in time for the seasonal festivities, and spent Christmas at Shrewsbury.23 Shrewsbury was the traditional mustering point for English armies that were about to campaign in Wales, and we may assume that Edward was expected to bring order to the principality. Edward’s intended opponents – if they would stand against him – would have been retainers and allies of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, King Henry’s half-brother.24 During the late 1450s Pembroke, helped by his personal connections to the Lancastrian court, had become immensely powerful throughout Wales. He had consolidated his position during the Yorkists’ exile, and, although he now had fled to Brittany, his influence endured. One of Edward’s main aims would have been to take the northern Welsh fortresses of Harlech and Denbigh.25 These castles, along with the Tudor strongholds of Pembroke and Tenby in the south, were now crucial to Lancastrian communications and provided a possible gateway for invasion forces. Like Henry V before him, it appears to have been envisaged that Edward should gain his first experience of leading an army in Wales; it was now conceivable, of course, that Edward would shortly become Wales’s prince.
Edward was accompanied from London by a number of lords and gentry, such as Lords Audley and FitzWalter and Humphrey Stafford. If they were not with him already, he was shortly to be joined by Lord Grey of Wilton and Sir Walter Devereux, among others. The ‘odious’ Croft brothers also joined Edward; presumably they now treated him with more respect! But the most significant of his supporters was surely Sir William Herbert of Raglan, who was accompanied by his younger brother Richard. As we have seen, Herbert had declined to support the Duke of York during the Ludford Bridge campaign, but he was now firmly committed to the Yorkist cause. Moreover, Herbert was a veteran – he had served in France with the formidable Matthew Gough – and evidently the support he offered Edward at this time was vital. Herbert was an able, ambitious, and thoroughly ruthless man, and he was to become a pillar of the Yorkist regime. Important military and administrative tasks would be delegated to his charge, and Edward’s patronage would allow him to become the most powerful man in Wales.26
Edward was accompanied by the nucleus of an effective and cohesive force, but recruitment in the Marches allowed him quickly to increase his numbers. Most of the men who joined him came from Herefordshire. Edward might have known many of them from his time at Ludlow. Crucially, Edward was able to call on the services of seasoned warriors, many of whom had seen service in France. William Worcester recorded the presence of several veterans in Edward’s army during this campaign.27 They included, for example, Henry ap Griffith, John Mylewater and Philip Vaughan of Hay. Worcester also gives the names of sons who were following in their fathers’ traditions, such as James Ash, whose father Hopkin, ‘a handsome man’, was ‘of war’. At this early stage in the Wars of the Roses there must also have been many unnamed veterans of lower status who would have answered Edward’s call; some of the unfortunate men from the mass grave at Towton appear to have been experienced soldiers. One of these, whose remains were recorded as ‘Towton 16’, has excited particular comment.28 He was a tall and robust man, probably in his late forties. Abnormal developments in the elbow are consistent with sustained practice of archery. At some stage in his career he had sustained a horrific blade wound to his jaw that would have left him permanently disfigured. But the wound was well healed: testimony to the skills of a medieval surgeon. Based in the Welsh Marches, Edward would have been able to recruit skilled bowmen like Towton 16, and the experience of veteran archers would have been extremely valuable. Strength and a good eye could perhaps be taken for granted, but these men would also have understood how bowmen should be deployed on the battlefield. Command was invariably held by aristocrats, but experience was always highly valued.
Edward must have looked forward to the coming campaign with confidence, but early in the New Year a messenger brought him shattering news. Although Margaret of Anjou was currently in Scotland,29 northern Lancastrian supporters – notably the Earl of Northumberland – had quickly raised an army. They were reinforced by the Duke of Somerset, who had now returned to England,30 and the Duke of Exeter, who had led their retinues on a lightning march from the West Country. On 30 December, at Wakefield in Yorkshire, Edward’s father had engaged the Lancastrian forces and been utterly defeated.31 York himself had been killed on the field. Edward’s brother, Edmund, with whom he had spent his boyhood and to whom he seems to have been close, had also been slain.32Warwick’s brother, Thomas, was another fatality. Edward’s uncle, the Earl of Salisbury, had been captured and executed after the battle. The heads of the fallen were displayed on the gates of York at Micklegate Bar; the head of the duke himself was mockingly adorned with a paper crown. The Wars of the Roses would now enter an especially vicious phase: prisoners could rarely expect mercy and the mutilation of the dead would become commonplace.
Edward made a rapid and instinctive response to the disaster at Wakefield. Edward was moving into England – although to what immediate purpose is unclear – but he then received news of a Lancastrian landing in Pembrokeshire, in West Wales. The Earl of Pembroke had returned, and he was joined by the Earl of Wiltshire. According to the Short English Chronicle, the two earls arrived by sea with ‘Frenchmen and Bretons, and Irishmen’.33 We may assume that Pembroke brought the Bretons and Frenchmen. Wiltshire, who had briefly fled to exile in Flanders, had returned via Ireland, where he held extensive estates as Earl of Ormond. Wiltshire’s contingent would therefore have included Irish gallowglass(from the Irish plural galloglaigh or ‘foreign soldiers’) – heavily armed professional soldiers – and less well equipped light infantry or kerns.34 It is not clear when the Lancastrians landed or when Edward received warning, but we can assume that news of the Lancastrians’ movements was brought to Edward by the Yorkist retainer, John Dwnn. Based at Kidwelly, the Dwnns were well placed to track and monitor Lancastrian movements, much to Pembroke’s chagrin. If the news did come from the Dwnns, evidently the intelligence they brought to Edward was crucial: Pembroke was later to attribute his defeat to the actions of ‘March, Herbert and the Dwnns’.35
Presumably the Dwnns encountered messengers from Pembroke who were seeking support. Pembroke and Wiltshire quickly began to raise troops from the surrounding area. Chief among the men who answered Pembroke’s call were the Scudamore brothers, Sir John and Sir William, who, like many of those in Edward’s army, had experience of war in France. Sir John, described by Worcester as ‘the most valiant’ of the family, is said to have brought thirty men, some of whom may also have been veterans. Why men chose one side over the other, was, as ever, often determined by local factors: Ralph Griffiths has suggested this campaign was greatly concerned with ‘the waging of old feuds and the settling of old scores’.36 The last decade had seen much conflict between Welshmen who could now be regarded as ‘Yorkist’ or ‘Lancastrian’, but some of these enmities had deeper roots. How significant was it, for example, that the Scudamores were grandsons of Owain Glyndwr, whereas the Herberts were grandsons of his enemy Dafydd ap Llewelyn?37 Of course family honour mattered in England too – the significance of ‘feudlike’ behaviour may have been underestimated – but in Wales kinship links were always crucial. Family histories – and family hatreds – were kept alive by the bards, which meant that minor squabbles could receive an epic treatment that transcended their often petty origins.38
Edward and his advisors cannot have predicted Pembroke’s movements with certainty. Ultimately, of course, Pembroke would have aimed to join the main Lancastrian force, but several options remained open to him. If Edward was aware the Lancastrians were making for Llandovery (which they did) – a move into mid Wales – this could have suggested a further destination in the English Midlands: perhaps Pembroke was intending to make for Coventry, which would undoubtedly have opened its gates to a Lancastrian army at this time. There, the Lancastrians would have been able to rest securely, before joining Margaret’s army for a final push towards London. But there was another plausible route, with disturbing implications for the Yorkists near Shrewsbury. Although Pembroke’s ‘country’ was in the south, he was also influential in the north, where his supporters still held the important castle of Denbigh, as we have seen. Pembroke could have planned to join with Lancastrian sympathisers in north Wales and the north-west of England, before then joining Margaret (like everyone he must have been surprised by the speed of events in Yorkshire). With harsh winter conditions precluding a journey through the mountainous heart of Wales, the best way would have been to move east and then north, following the Severn valley. This would have meant that the Mortimers’ heartland – Ludlow and the surrounding area –would lie in the Lancastrians’ path.
Throughout the Wars of the Roses Lancastrian armies gained a reputation for cruelty and violence that was carried out away from the field of battle; this must have affected Edward’s thinking. The previous year, following the Yorkist leaders’ flight at the Rout of Ludford, the Lancastrian army had moved on to Ludlow and sacked the town:
When they had drunken enough of wine that was in taverns and other places, they full ungodly smote out the heads of the pipes and hog’s heads of wine, [so] that men went wet-shod in wine, and then they robbed the town, and bore away bedding, clothes and other stuff, and defouled many women.39
The presence of foreign troops in the Lancastrian army would have heightened fears of ill discipline. Indeed, the Kern had gained a reputation for terror throughout Europe. In the Hundred Years’ War kerns are said to have returned from raids with heads, and even dead babies, as trophies.40 The later invasion of England by the Earl of Lincoln, in 1487, shows the Irish were quite capable of discipline, but on this occasion enmities between local men could have ensured that the Lancastrian leaders would fail to keep the Irish troops in check. Potentially, therefore, Edward faced two serious problems, if he was to continue his advance into England. First, he risked being trapped between enemy armies. Second, he would be asking men to follow him in the knowledge that their homes and families could be at risk.
Pembroke’s army had therefore to be confronted for reasons of both strategy and morale. It made sense to meet them in the area of Mortimer’s Cross, a crossroads to the south of Ludlow, where he could intercept the Lancastrians wherever they were headed. Many of his men could be dispersed back to their homes, but they could easily be called upon when needed. Furthermore, Edward would be able to fight on ground he knew well, where he might even have hunted as a youth. Doubtless he retired to Ludlow, or perhaps to Wigmore, in order to wait in comfort for his prey.
On 2 February, the eve of battle, Edward would have risen in the knowledge that his enemies were close at hand. Probably Edward was now at Wigmore or Croft Castle. He would have expected to spend the day making preparations, waiting for the reports of scouts. But his plans were interrupted by an extraordinary event. Let the author of the English Chronicle take up the story:
And the Monday before the day of battle, that is to say on the feast of the Purification of Our Blessed Lady, about ten o’ clock before noon, were seen three suns in the firmament shining clear, whereof the people had great marvel, and thereof were aghast. The noble Earl Edward them comforted, and said ‘Be 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.’41
The phenomenon described by the chronicler has been explained by modern science. The additional two ‘suns’ are called parhelia or sun dogs:they come into being, on cold days, when the sun is low in the sky. Light is refracted through ice crystals, creating the illusion of three suns. Parhelia are beautiful and they may still provoke wonder, but in a modern person they would not cause the sense of terror recounted in the chronicle. The medieval understanding of such events therefore needs to be explained. It is easy to poke fun at medieval people’s ignorance of the natural world, but educated people did provide rational explanations for the cause and effect of natural wonders. In short, they were seen as examples of divine providence, evidence of God’s presence in the world. They were regarded as signs of God’s favour and of impending change. The great Roger Bacon, for instance, considered parhelia to be signs of particular significance.42
The Illustrated Life of Edward IV presents Edward, at the moment the parhelia appear, appealing to God for guidance, just like Paul at Damascus: ‘Lord, what will you have me do?’43 Coppini had described Edward as ‘prudent and magnanimous’,44 but we should remember that Edward was still only eighteen years old. The loss of his father and brother must have shaken him to the core. For Edward, then, this was a moment of great personal significance. He afterwards adopted the ‘rose-en-soleil’ as his badge, and he would use this as a personal emblem for the rest of his life.45 However, the passage quoted above also provides evidence of Edward’s precocious abilities as a leader. Medieval battles were chaotic and confusing. Tactics were important, as was military training, but willpower and motivation became increasingly important as the battle progressed. Although he would be able to inspire those around him by ‘feats of arms’, if the commander was to be in the thick of the action it was therefore crucial for him to communicate a clear sense of motivation before battle was joined. This is not controversial, but how could this be achieved? Evidently it required a commander to convey a message that would appeal to contemporary mores.46 On this occasion Edward convincingly presented the parhelia as a sign from God that his cause was good and just. On the day of the battle, he and his men would fight as one.
From Llandovery the Lancastrians moved on to Brecon, and from there they followed the north bank of the Wye, via Hay and Weobley (the alternative route, which would have brought them directly to Mortimer’s Cross, via the 1,250-foot pass at Forest Inn, must have seemed forbidding in the depths of winter). This meant, assuming that Edward was based somewhere near Wigmore, that the road to Hereford, and thence to England, was still open. It might have been tempting to evade the Yorkists and to push on. But Pembroke must have been aware that the Yorkists were familiar with the local area and they were fresh. Pembroke would have been concerned that the Yorkists could fall on them at any time. He therefore decided to engage the Yorkists, even though he must have known his polyglot force did not hold any significant advantages. On the morning of 3 February the Lancastrians approached Mortimer’s Cross from the south, in the certain knowledge that they would meet the Yorkists on the way.
Almost certainly the Yorkists had the choice of ground, and they would have wanted to find a position that would allow them to make use of their advantage in archers. Local historian Geoffrey Hodges has identified a plausible site that would have suited them well. This is just to the south of the crossroads itself, and Hodges’ case is supported by place-name evidence.47 Here, Edward’s army would have been able to take up a position with well protected flanks. The River Lugg would have been to their left, and to the right there is a bank with steep wooded slopes. Yorkist archers would certainly have been deployed on the flanks, although perhaps also, initially, to the front.48 In truth we know little for certain about either side’s dispositions, although Edward himself would have taken position in the centre, under his personal standard. This was Edward’s first experience of overall command, but he had now seen battle at first hand on more than one occasion; at Northampton he had taken a leading role. He knew what he was about to see, and what was expected of him. Edward also took the field in the knowledge that he was surrounded by men he had known since childhood, and this must have been a great comfort. There would have been comfort, too, in the fact that his men seemed in good heart. Even if he still nursed doubts and fears behind the mask of command, he had successfully used the omen of the parhelia to inspire his men and to stiffen their resolve. Perhaps the Croft brothers, watching this young giant leading his troops with confidence onto the field, thought wryly of the times they had bullied him at Ludlow.
If the Yorkists adopted ‘traditional’ English tactics, relying heavily on their archers, then the onus was on the Lancastrians to attack. According to the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton, whose work may preserve earlier oral traditions, Wiltshire and his Irishmen formed the Lancastrians’ van. Wiltshire and his personal retinue would have been ‘harnessed’ and armed in the same manner as their peers. The gallowglass, although they must have looked archaic to English eyes, with two-handed axes and conical helmets, would also have been heavily armoured. However, the Irish light infantry would have been less well equipped. Few, if any, would have worn armour. Although some would have been armed with broadswords, others might have carried only ‘darts’ (javelins) andskeins.49 Of course, Drayton cannot be regarded as a reliable guide to events, but his poem, which suggests the Irish fought with great courage, does evoke their experience at Stoke which is better documented:
The Earl of Ormond […] came in the vanguard with his Irishmen,
With darts and skains [skeins]; those of the British blood,
With shafts and gleaves [glaives], them seconding again,
And as they fall still make their places good,
That it amazed the Marchers to behold
Men so ill-armed, upon their bows so bold.50
Yet if the Irish showed immense bravery under fire, their leader could not match their courage. His father had been a noted war captain in France, serving under both Bedford and Talbot, but the Earl of Wiltshire gained a reputation for cowardice. Discussing the first Battle of St Albans ‘Gregory’ disparagingly refers to him fighting ‘manly with the heels, because he was afraid of losing [his] beauty’,51 Wiltshire did not redeem himself at Mortimer’s Cross. He fled once again, leaving his men to their fate.52
An ‘arrow storm’ would have taken a terrible toll on the Lancastrians, but even on occasions when English archery was at its most deadly – for example at Agincourt or Halidon Hill – the two armies invariably came ‘to hands’. We must assume that the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross eventually ended in a mêlee, with the soldiers on both sides – including the archers –fighting with hand weapons. Edward himself, perhaps wielding the poleaxe that would have allowed him to make use of his great height and strength, would have been a conspicuous target. He would therefore have been in the thick of the action. He would have been surrounded by picked men, determined to protect their lord and his banner, but they could not have sheltered him from every danger. Did Edward know the relief – then exhilaration – that followed when he survived death by a hair’s breadth?
It was, of course, during the chaos of the mêleethat morale, as well as skills and numbers, would be crucial. In this, as in every other aspect, the Yorkists held the advantage. Eventually, the Lancastrian line must have wavered; then it would have broken as men fled in all directions, discarding weapons and equipment as they ran.53 Probably the Yorkist lords took to horse in order to pursue their fleeing enemies. Some did escape, most notably Pembroke, whose elusive qualities were more generously regarded than Wiltshire’s. However, a number of the Lancastrian leaders seem to have made a desperate last stand, before they were forced to surrender. The prisoners included Henry Scudamore (Sir John’s son) and Pembroke’s famous father, Owen Tudor. According to theEnglish Chronicle, 4,000 of the Lancastrians lay dead.54 The field belonged to the Yorkists.
Edward’s victory was almost complete, but not quite. Surely Edward had Wakefield in mind when he now resolved how to deal with his prisoners. Perhaps the Lancastrian prisoners still expected to be treated according to the laws of chivalric combat, but Edward would show no mercy. After the Yorkist army had rested – possibly Edward retired to Wigmore for the evening – the most notable of the prisoners, including Owen Tudor, were taken to Hereford, where they were to be beheaded. The old Welshman was evidently shocked at his treatment, but eventually resolved to meet his death with stoicism. This was a quality the chronicler ‘Gregory’ particularly admired. Tudor was
trusting always that he should not be headed [sic]till he saw the axe and the block; and [even] when he was in his doublet, he trusted on pardon and grace till the collar of his red doublet was ripped off. [But] 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.55
For Owen Tudor, who had married a queen while still a mere squire, fortune’s wheel had turned full circle. The Yorkists’ left Tudor’s head in Hereford, ‘on the highest grice [step] of the market cross’, as a grim symbol of their victory.
Edward remained in the area for over two weeks, and his actions at this time have led to some debate. The main Lancastrian army was now moving south at a furious pace. Why did Edward not hurry to support Warwick? Evans has argued that Edward was expecting, and perhaps even hoping, that Warwick would be defeated.56 However, this is implausible. Evans’s argument is based on the assumption that Warwick had been opposed in principle to Henry Vl’s deposition, but, as we have seen, this is doubtful. It is more likely that Edward decided to wait on events and was expecting to receive news, and instructions, from Warwick. On 12 February Warwick despatched a commission of array to Edward, which empowered him to raise more troops, but there is no indication that Warwick exhorted Edward to come to his aid at once.57
Possibly Warwick had underestimated the speed of the Lancastrian advance. The Lancastrian army, now joined by Queen Margaret herself, had swept south, leaving a trail of plundered towns in its wake. Warwick, perhaps responding to the fears of terrified Londoners, moved northwards to St Albans in order to bar the Lancastrians’ way. Here, on 17 February, Warwick’s army met the Lancastrians, but was heavily defeated.58 The Lancastrians regained custody of King Henry. Warwick’s younger brother, John, recently created Lord Montagu, was captured.59 The earl himself was forced to flee. In Wavrin’s account and the English Chronicle, which may preserve Warwick’s own justifications, the Yorkist defeat is attributed to the treachery of an obscure Kentish esquire called Lovelace. However, the author of ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’, who appears to have been present at the battle in some capacity, implies Warwick’s own preparations were to blame, and that he was comprehensively out-manoeuvred by the Lancastrians. Warwick may have been let down by his scouts, but it can also be argued that his cautious, defensive tactics played into the hands of the Lancastrian commanders, whose own tactics relied, as they did at Wakefield, on speed, aggression and surprise. It is strange, however, that the Lancastrians did not take immediate advantage of their victory and failed to march on London. Instead, Margaret sought to negotiate entry with the City Fathers, who stalled by sending a delegation of noble ladies. This delay would have far-reaching consequences, as the historian Charles Ross makes clear: ‘control of the capital, with its departments of state, its financial power, and its symbolic prestige, was again denied to the Queen’s party’.60 Margaret’s loss was to be Edward’s gain.
Edward could have known of Warwick’s defeat by 19 February. Now, at last, he moved with decision. Warwick would have taken pains to reassure Edward that all was not lost but Edward’s new sense of purpose was surely self-inspired. Edward no longer bowed to Warwick’s authority. The defeats suffered by his father and Warwick must have made Edward realise that his destiny lay in his own hands. His victory at Mortimer’s Cross – which appeared divinely ordained – would have given him new belief in his own powers. It is also striking that Edward retained the confidence of his men, even after Warwick’s defeat had made their prospects uncertain. Edward met Warwick, who had managed to extricate at least some of his army from the disaster at St Albans, in the Cotswolds. From here, the Yorkists now moved at speed: not to engage Margaret, but to get to London. Edward and Warwick were approaching London by 26 February. By now the Lancastrians had grown impatient and there had been minor skirmishes in the outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, because there was still no indication that the Lancastrians were preparing a serious assault, this only served to harden opinion against Margaret’s forces. London opened its gates to the Yorkist army. On hearing this news, the Lancastrians withdrew north.
In London, the Yorkist lords quickly came to a momentous decision. If there had been any genuine doubts whether Henry could legitimately be deposed, these were now set aside.61 It was argued that Henry, by choosing to rejoin his wife, had broken his oath. As Margaret’s army was responsible for York’s death it therefore followed that Henry had breached the Act of Accord. Edward, now heir under the terms of the agreement, was, of course, next in line to the throne. Edward’s own claim to the throne was explained during his first Parliament, in November 1461, and presumably the same arguments were put forward at this time. Edward’s legitimate descent from Lionel of Clarence was stressed, and it was argued that Henry – deemed a usurper, like all the Lancastrian kings –had presided over chaos. Henry’s deposition would be to the ‘universal comfort and consolation’ of all Englishmen, because it would allow Edward, their ‘rightwise and natural liege and sovereign lord’, to take the throne in his stead.
But it was important, of course, to ensure that protocol was seen to be observed, and to convey that Edward’s accession had popular support. To this end, there were a number of carefully orchestrated ceremonies, starting on 1 March. First, George Neville (now Bishop of Exeter) addressed a crowd – allegedly 3,000–4,000 strong – at St George’s Fields. When the crowd (perhaps with some prompting) called for Edward to be king, their ‘captains’ took this news to Edward at Baynard’s Castle, the York family’s London residence. On the next day Edward’s title was formally proclaimed throughout the city. The following day (3 March) a ‘great council’, including the Nevilles, John Duke of Norfolk, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Herbert, Devereux, and ‘many others’ unnamed, was hastily convened to ‘agree and conclude’ that Edward should take the throne. On 4 March Edward heard Mass at St Paul’s, before proceeding to the Great Hall at Westminster Palace. Here, Edward took the oath, and wore the robes of state for the first time. Taking his seat on the marble chair called the ‘King’s Bench’, he was acclaimed once again by those present and formally ‘took possession of the realm of England’.
Doubtless the Nevilles took a hand in the stage-management of these ceremonies, and Warwick has traditionally received the credit for Edward’s accession to the throne. Certainly, contemporary foreign observers did believe Warwick was fully in control of events, and they would continue to do so for many years to come.62 However, modern historians have been more sceptical of Warwick’s influence: did Edward really need a ‘kingmaker’?63 Of course, Edward’s Mortimer claim was not enough – his title ultimately depended on military power – but much of the army at his back was his own. These soldiers had followed him from the Marches, many of them at their own cost,64 and now they trusted to a bond forged in battle. Edward, not Warwick, had won the hard-fought victory that saved the Yorkist cause. People cannot have failed to compare Edward’s victory at Mortimer’s Cross to Warwick’s miserable failure at St Albans, even though the latter’s popularity with the commons appears to have remained intact.
However, the choice people had to make was not between Edward and Warwick, but between Edward and Henry VI. Edward’s good looks, noble bearing, and affable manner – and also his newly-proven military prowess – provided a sharp contrast to the monkish King Henry. Evidently the verses recorded for posterity in ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’ are propagandist, but they may genuinely reflect the dominant feeling of optimism in London at this time:
Let us walk in a new vineyard, and let us make a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March.65
Yet Henry, for all his faults, had been the anointed king, and how could Edward’s throne be secure when the main Lancastrian army –including much of the English aristocracy – remained undefeated? At his inauguration Edward held the sceptre of state but he did not wear the crown. This conveyed a clear message: Edward would seek divine sanction for his claim in a colossal trial by combat. It was to be the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.