Post-classical history

III

The Hollow Crown
1455–1471

I spoke quietly to his Majesty about English affairs …

He remarked with a sigh that it is impossible to fight against Fortune.

SFORZA DE BETTINI OF FLORENCE,

Milanese ambassador to the court of Louis XI1

10 : Princess Most Excellent

In 1456 Coventry was one of the richest and most densely populated cities in England: beyond London, only Bristol and Norwich could claim to be bigger or more prosperous. Coventry’s busy cloth market was the beating heart of a proud and bustling community, living both within and beyond the recently renovated city walls, surrounded by a ditch and accessed on three sides by ornate, ancient gates. The river Sherbourne wound its way by the southern wall, and three of England’s busiest roads passed within twenty miles of the city. Coventry boasted all the features of a thriving urban centre: elegant churches and a grammar school; inns for revellers and travellers under the signs of the Swan and the Bear; a magnificent guildhall built on the remains of a castle ruined nearly three hundred years earlier; two hospitals and a hermitage; townhouses belonging to local dignitaries and merchants; and four religious houses, one of which was the cloistered college of the vicars choral, whose voices marked the liturgical rhythm of the day. In the south-east of the city proper was a rare expanse of open space: the vineyard which had once belonged to the castle. Densely populated suburbs spread out from the walls, houses dotted between pockets of marshland regularly flooded by the region’s several waterways. This was a vibrant centre of trade and power, well connected to the realm beyond.1 It was a place fit for a king – and more importantly, for a queen.

On 14 September 1456, Margaret of Anjou entered Coventry in high splendour. She came with her young son Prince Edward, who was a month short of his third birthday. Henry VI – husband, father and still in his deeply unremarkable way king of England – had come to the city several days before the rest of his family. He was not an impressive sight. Sickness had left him feebler than ever: still blandly pious and easily swayed by whoever had command of him, he was now also physically weak and quick to tire. Henry was only thirty-four years old, but more than a decade of criticism and disappointment had left him miserably reduced. He had begun planning his tomb in Westminster Abbey, and at times acted as though he were ready to crawl into it. Pope Pius II, watching England from afar, would later describe Henry in this phase of his life as ‘a man more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit or spirit, who left everything in his wife’s hands’.2

It was therefore Margaret’s arrival in Coventry, and not Henry’s, that was marked with the greatest pageantry and display. The city was famous for its mystery plays, and the citizens put all of their dramatic expertise into celebrating the arrival of a woman who, since the serious decline in her husband’s health, was becoming one of the most formidable political actors in England. As she processed into the town she was greeted in verse (albeit somewhat pedestrian in its composition) by figures arrayed as Isaiah and Jeremiah, St Edward, St John and Alexander the Great, and players dressed as the seven cardinal virtues and the Nine Worthies. She was hailed as a ‘princess most excellent, born of blood royal’ and ‘Empress, queen, princess excellent, in one person all three’. (The actor playing Joshua, king of the Israelites, called her ‘the highest lady that I can imagine’.) Her son Edward was accorded similarly high praise: St Edward the Confessor called his young namesake ‘my ghostly child, whom I love principally’, while St John gave thanks that ‘the virtuous voice of prince Edward shall daily well increase’. The figure of Alexander the Great, one of the greatest soldier-kings in history, offered Henry the unlikely title of ‘noblest prince that is born, whom fortune hath famed … sovereign lord Harry, emperor & king’. This was very much a token gesture among a pageant that celebrated the queen’s majesty above all. It drew to an end with the sight of St Margaret taking to the stage to slay a dragon with ‘a miracle’.3 Evidently satisfied with what she had seen, Margaret would remain in Coventry with the king, prince and royal court for much of the next year, and return frequently for the rest of the decade. Although England’s bureaucratic machinery remained in Westminster, the realm would henceforth be ruled, effectively, from the midlands.

Since the battle of St Albans, Margaret’s power had increased steadily. At twenty-six, she was now a mature and experienced public figure, confident, capable, and connected to a large circle of supporters and allies. Most importantly, she had possession of Edward, the heir to the crown, and it was through her own queenly influence and her importance as keeper of the little prince that she set about establishing herself as an alternative hub of power to Richard duke of York.

Women were not often able to exercise outright political control in the fifteenth century. Contemporary political thought held them to be weak, hysterical and physically incapable of carrying out the fundamental duties of kingship – not least riding into battle, swinging an axe, ready to make war upon their enemies. Female rule was considered unnatural, and attempts by women to seize power unilaterally were rare and usually futile. But that was not how Margaret saw it. Growing up in Anjou, she had witnessed her mother and grandmother taking charge of her father’s territories during his long periods of imprisonment, ruling in the name of a man and wielding ‘his’ authority, but in reality acting on their own. Why should she not do the same in England, either through her husband or her son?

York’s policy following his victory at St Albans had been to establish a second protectorate, similar to that which had existed during the king’s illness. He secured reappointment as protector on 15 November 1455 and for four months did his best to exercise royal authority in the cause of unity among the lords and good governance. But whereas during York’s first protectorate the king had been obviously and totally incapacitated, during the second protectorate he was attempting to exercise royal power without any such urgent mandate.

He was obliged to reward his Neville allies handsomely for their help in ridding the realm of Somerset. Richard earl of Warwick was awarded the captaincy of Calais and a slew of grants in Wales, where Somerset had held land and titles. The Bourchier family was also well rewarded, but few other families benefited, which gave the impression that the second protectorate was a narrow clique rather than the national enterprise York seems genuinely to have imagined he could create. Politics had become far more strained and factious in the aftermath of the violence York had provoked, and although he enjoyed a few successes – restoring order to the south-west by stamping out the worst excesses committed between the Courtenay and Bonville families – this was not enough to convince the realm that Yorkist government in Henry VI’s name was the solution to its problems.

York ran into severe difficulty in early 1456, when parliament demanded another full-blooded act of resumption, by which lands granted away from the Crown would be swept back into royal possession in order to bolster the king’s finances. Since York had a mandate to try to bring some order and stability to royal government, he stood behind the policy and did his best to convince his fellow lords to do the same. But here again he found that the base of his support was extremely narrow. There was a distinct apathy towards his protectorate – and certainly he did not possess enough enthusiastic support throughout the realm to encourage men who had been personally enriched by grants from the Crown suddenly to give them up with no prospect of recompense. The Act was rejected by a large number of England’s lords and York felt he had no choice but to resign the protectorship on 25 February 1456. He tried to remain involved in government throughout the summer, organising military defences when the king of the Scots raided the northern border and trying to deal with pockets of disorder in Wales. But his authority was almost visibly ebbing away. In public he was scorned: a display of five dogs’ severed heads was erected on Fleet Street in London in September, with each dead mouth holding a satirical poem against York, ‘that man that all men hate’. By the autumn it was clear that his rule was over. His allies and supporters began to be dismissed from their offices, and were replaced by men loyal to Queen Margaret. 4

From late 1456, then, the queen tried to impose herself on the affairs of state. A correspondent watching events in London during the end of York’s second protectorate wrote to the East Anglian knight Sir John Fastolf that ‘the Queen is a great and strong-laboured [i.e. much petitioned] woman, for she spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion to her power’.5 A chronicler writing later went further, noting that ‘the governance of the Realm stood most by the Queen and her Council’. And a third writer, a partisan of York, reckoned that the queen ‘ruled the realm as her liked, gathering riches innumerable’.6 It was rumoured that she was attempting to persuade her husband to abdicate, resigning the crown to his young son, who would become, by implication, a puppet strung even more tightly to her fingers.

In part Margaret’s motivation in opposing York was sheer personal enmity. The queen had been deeply offended by the duke’s actions in 1455. Whatever the constitutional niceties of York’s argument, Margaret could not ignore the fact that the duke had raised an army, left two peers – one of them her friend Somerset – bleeding to death in the streets of St Albans, and taken the king as an effective captive back to London. York, for his part, resented the queen moving towards the centre of power. A woman, and aFrenchwoman at that, supplanting the natural role of a duke of the royal blood was completely unacceptable. Added to this was the fact that this particular woman appeared to hate him with every fibre of her being, and was committed to undermining his attempts at government. It was no surprise that relations between the two camps were strained.

During 1457 Margaret built up her territorial power in the midlands, staffed her son’s council with loyal household men and, where she could, advanced trusted allies both through offices and other means, such as marriages. Thus in April 1457 Henry’s half-brother Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, was appointed as constable of Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, Welsh offices that had recently been in the hands of York himself. Meanwhile, Jasper’s elder brother Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, was a focus for the queen’s interests in south Wales, where he busied himself with a private war against two of the duke of York’s retainers, Sir William Herbert and Sir Walter Devereux.

Edmund Tudor had been granted a handsome elevation through his marriage in the autumn of 1455 to Margaret Beaufort, the twelve-year-old niece of the late duke of Somerset and daughter of the disgraced soldier John Beaufort, the duke who had died, possibly by suicide, when Margaret was one year old. Margaret was the richest heiress in England, and her hand brought with it immense wealth and power. By the summer of 1456 Margaret was pregnant. But Edmund Tudor would never see his child. He died of plague on 1 November 1456 following a short imprisonment by York’s retainers in Carmarthen Castle. Just under three months later, on 28 January 1457, in Pembroke Castle, the thirteen-year-old Margaret was traumatically delivered of a son, named Henry Tudor. Even in an age where girls became wives and mothers early in life, this was a young age at which to bear a child. Margaret was probably physically and mentally traumatised by the birth: certainly this was the last child she would ever bear.

Queen Margaret, meanwhile, did not only favour those close to the royal camp. York and his allies were excluded from the king’s council and kept firmly away from court, but they were not totally isolated following the failure of the second protectorate. The duke’s commission as lieutenant of Ireland was renewed for ten years, and he was financially rewarded for the properties and offices he lost to men like the Tudors. In the summer of 1457, when there was a fear that the French were planning an attack on the English coastline, York and his friends were appointed to muster infantry and archers to defend the realm. York’s daughter Elizabeth was married to John de la Pole, the fifteen-year-old duke of Suffolk, only son of the murdered William de la Pole. Likewise, the Neville family received cautious royal patronage. The earl of Salisbury was employed as chief steward in some northern parts of the king’s duchy of Lancaster, and he was included in defences against Scotland. Salisbury’s son Warwick was allowed to continue as captain of Calais with control of the large garrison there – a critical post given the delicate situation in France. So if there was tension as a result of Margaret’s displacement of York, there was also a hope for cautious reconciliation – this perhaps emanating from the king, whose only apparent wish in government was a pious but simple-minded desire for rapprochement. This came to a head on 25 March 1458 in London, when the Crown held a curious procession known as a Love Day.

*

The deaths incurred on the royalist side at St Albans were not easily forgotten. Both Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, and Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, had left sons and heirs who harboured a rancorous determination to avenge their families’ losses. Henry Beaufort, the third duke of Somerset, was twenty years old in 1456 and lucky to be alive at all, having been grievously wounded fighting shoulder to shoulder with his father at St Albans. Henry Percy the younger, who became the third earl of Northumberland, was thirty-six, and with his younger brother Thomas, Lord Egremont, bore a fierce resentment against the Neville family. These young men and their friends were widely known to carry a ‘grudge and wrath’ against the Yorkists – a situation scarcely promising for the future stability of the kingdom.7 Henry, or those around him, decided that, rather than allow blood feud and personal vendetta to spill into further murderous violence, the two sides should be brought quite literally hand in hand to make peace and foster friendship under the royal blessing.

The court had moved from Coventry back to the south-east in the autumn of 1457, and a great council was summoned to London early in the new year. By the end of January the city’s largest lodging houses were packed with lords and their large bands of armed retainers. The duke of York brought four hundred men and stayed in his own city residence, Baynard’s Castle. Salisbury came with five hundred, and his son Warwick arrived from Calais with six hundred followers, all dressed in ‘red jackets, embroidered with a ragged staff’, Warwick’s personal emblem.8 Their rival magnates came arrayed even more forcefully: Henry duke of Somerset came to London in the company of the duke of Exeter and eight hundred men, and he was followed by the Percys – Northumberland, Egremont, Sir Ralph Percy – and John, Lord Clifford, whose father, Thomas, had also been killed fighting on the king’s side at St Albans. These northerners brought a massive force of fifteen hundred men. By early March, when the king and queen came up to Westminster to open council proceedings, London resembled a war zone. The city authorities kept an overnight watch, banned the public carrying of weapons and put men-at-arms on patrol in the streets to try to hold the peace, while thousands of royal archers could be seen posted both inside and outside the city, guarding the whole Thames corridor from Southwark down to Hounslow.

The air fairly crackled with violent intent, but mercifully the great council opened in peace, and after long discussions a deal was brokered between the Yorkists and their young opponents. York and Warwick agreed to give substantial sums of money in compensation to the bereaved families, as well as paying for St Albans Abbey to sing masses for the souls of the dead, a process supposed to hasten a spirit’s journey through Purgatory. The Neville and the Percy families both agreed to undertake four-thousand-mark bonds to keep the peace for ten years. This having been formally agreed, on 25 March – known generally as Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation – the reconciled lords went out in public to show off their newfound mutual affection.

They processed along the militarised streets of London in rather astonishing fashion, each aggrieved lord walking arm in arm with the person towards whom he held the sharpest hatred. At the head of the parade went the fresh-faced Somerset, linked at the elbow with old Salisbury. Behind them came Exeter, walking in harmonious and brotherly tandem with the earl of Warwick. And at the back marched the oddest couple of them all: the regal person of Queen Margaret accompanied by her bitterest foe, Richard duke of York. Between them all, holding no one’s arm, came the faintly ridiculous figure of King Henry VI, master of the Love Day and supposed reconciler of his fractured realm. The party walked with all pomp towards the giddying spire of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was crammed with ‘the greatest multitude of people that day that was ever seen’, and a service gave thanks to God for the peace that had descended on England. The peace was further celebrated with a series of jousts and tournaments at the Tower of London and in the queen’s castle at Greenwich. But if the Love Day was meant to strike observers as two sets of lords now joined together in friendship, a perceptive watcher could have noted that the divisions between the realm’s noblemen, written in blood at St Albans, had in fact been sharpened and polarised by a reconciliation in which they were forced to relive events before being lined up and marched before the watching populace as if in opposing teams.

Government in 1458 continued to bump along in financially constrained failure. Queen Margaret took the king and prince back to Coventry following the Love Day, and most of the lords who had filled London with armed men returned to their estates. But the city remained racked with riotous disorder, as did the south-west, Wales and the marches, and northern East Anglia. As the country seethed, the queen and the Yorkists continued to vie for power. In the autumn Margaret began to dismiss adherents of York and the Nevilles from their official posts, and bolstered her command by taking control of the royal revenues and official appointments.

One official position she could do nothing about, however, was that of Richard earl of Warwick as captain of Calais. Throughout the political turmoil of the late 1450s Warwick had held on to the post, which gave him command of the town’s garrison, a powerful standing force of royal soldiers. He had significant military resources, whose loyalty to him made him difficult to remove. This became a serious problem as Warwick turned his office to ends that were increasingly embarrassing and awkward for the government on the other side of the Channel. The Calais garrison was perpetually broke and payments to its men forever in arrears. To address this issue, and also to help cultivate his own buccaneering image, Warwick had begun to use Calais as a base for what amounted to piracy. Merchant ships from the Low Countries and Italy were attacked by rogue vessels launched at Calais, as was a fleet of ships carrying salt belonging to the Hanseatic League – the guild of trading cities along the coast of the North and Baltic Seas. Goods were plundered and sailors were bloodily slain. A similar fate befell a fleet of twenty-eight Spanish sails, which was ambushed by ships connected with Warwick in the summer of 1458. The seamen ‘bickered’, to use one chronicler’s understated phrase. Actually, a massive naval battle was fought, in which the sea foamed red as more than two hundred Spaniards and eighty men of Calais lost their lives, with three hundred more wounded ‘right sore’.9

Warwick was summoned to Westminster in early 1459, to attend a council called to discuss matters that included further rumours of a planned French attack on the south coast of England. He came only reluctantly, aware that there was a strong feeling that he should be removed as soon as possible from his captaincy. His reticence was soon justified. While he was at court, a brawl broke out between his men and several of the king’s household, ‘insomuch that they would have slain the earl’. Whether or not this was a manufactured quarrel designed to do away with Warwick, it certainly seemed that way to him. When a further rumour reached him that he was to be imprisoned in the Tower, Warwick fled London on his barge and returned to Calais, undismissed but deeply troubled that he had narrowly escaped assassination. Relations between the Yorkists and the court were rapidly deteriorating.

From the late spring of 1459 both sides began to prepare once more for armed conflict. Margaret did so through her son’s authority. In May the court decamped again to Coventry, and letters were sent around the nearby counties requesting a military levy to come to the royal side: those who would not comply were threatened with prosecution. All around the midlands and the north-west men were privately recruited to the royal retinue and given little badges of allegiance in the form of Prince Edward’s livery: a swan with a crown around its neck. A great council was scheduled for June. Suspecting the worst, York and the Nevilles refused to attend, as did a number of their sympathisers, including Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury. For their non-attendance the Yorkists were openly denounced by Queen Margaret. It seemed highly likely that the next step would be for the Crown to declare them traitors and to have them attainted: their families ruined forever by an act of parliament that stripped them of their lands and titles and reduced them to nothing. In York’s case, this would have meant removing his status as a member of the extended royal family and future claimant to the crown. It was the final provocation.

On 20 September Warwick returned from Calais, gathering several hundred men about him as he rode via Warwick Castle for a rendezvous with York and Salisbury at York’s base of Ludlow in the Welsh borders. Salisbury had already recruited an army: he had perhaps five thousand men behind him as he set out to ride south from the family seat at Middleham in Yorkshire. The chronicles of the time make it clear that Salisbury had raised his men not for show but for the fight, ‘dreading the malices of his enemies and especially of the queen and her company the which hated him deadly’.10 He was not mistaken. News of his army’s movement reached Coventry, and the court despatched James Tuchet, Lord Audley, to attempt an interception and seize the rogue earl.

Audley was an elderly man. At sixty-one, he had not seen action in the field since his last involvement in the French wars some twenty-eight years earlier. All the same, he was a powerful lord in the west midlands, who was able to raise large numbers of men from his lands in Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire, and deploy them along the route on which the earl of Salisbury was marching. In a matter of days he assembled a force numbering somewhere between eight and twelve thousand, at the heart of which was a bristling cavalry: knights aboard powerful horses, both men and beasts heavily protected by clanking plate armour, helmets and breastplates that glinted dangerously when they caught the light. Audley’s large cavalry contingent was clearly intended to impress Salisbury and suggest to the Yorkists that facing down the Crown and its loyal servants in a military show of strength would be no idle task.

On the morning of 23 September, Audley marched his men along the road that ran between Newcastle-under-Lyme and Market Drayton in Shropshire. Scouts soon encountered the first signs of Salisbury’s army. To block Salisbury’s path Audley drew his men up in battle formation at Blore Heath, a large open patch of sloping ground bounded by a light wood and a small stream now known as Hempmill Brook. It was behind this stream that Audley’s forces stood, their front perhaps a mile long and partially defended by a thick band of hedgerow.11 Salisbury’s men were ranged opposite them on the slope, their front only around two-thirds as long, but their lines well defended. Behind them was a deep trench, and in the front line Salisbury’s archers stood protected by deadly sharpened stakes hammered into the ground, a classic device for thwarting and slaughtering onrushing horsemen, who would impale their animals on the fierce spikes if they decided to charge rather than dismount and fight on foot. On the flanks, Salisbury and his men were sheltered by the wood and a formation of wagons which had been chained together to form a barricade. While his defences were tight, the earl nonetheless realised that the odds were against him: not only was he outnumbered by perhaps two to one, but the queen was waiting less than ten miles away in Eccleshall with a second army, and a third army under the Stanley brothers – Thomas, Lord Stanley and Sir William Stanley – hung back slightly closer, supposedly awaiting royal commands to intervene on Audley’s side.

With both sides in strong defensive formations, Salisbury took the initiative with a feint: around midday his men began to recouple the horses to their wagons, as if they were preparing to fall back from the heath. Audley took the bait and sent his cavalry out to give chase. Unfortunately, in order to do so they had to cross the brook in front of them. Wading through the water slowed their progress and made them vulnerable to attack by Salisbury’s archers. A storm of arrows fell from the sky, raining death upon the advancing horses and their riders. Men were catapulted from their dying mounts, only to be chopped down by the infantry. Those who survived were forced to flee back out of the archers’ range, to the lines on the other side of the brook. Audley sent a second mounted charge across the water; but they too were driven back in a vicious hail of wood and steel sent from Salisbury’s bowmen.

At this point, the Stanleys’ army, waiting close at hand, might have been expected to join the fray. But the Stanleys, as arch pragmatists, were always wary of committing their men to a battle whose outcome seemed anything less than completely certain. Thomas, Lord Stanley simply kept his troops back, while Sir William Stanley actually sent reinforcements to Salisbury’s side. In the end, Audley had no choice but to change tactics. He abandoned the cavalry charge and led about four thousand of his men, including large numbers of dismounted knights, in an advance on foot. A furious hand-to-hand battle began, steel ripping into flesh and men hurling themselves at one another in close quarter. Although Audley was an ageing commander and his tactics had been seriously naïve, he did not lack personal valour. He fought in the thick of the battle. But in the mêlée he was sought out by one Sir Roger Kynaston of Hordley, a retainer of the duke of York, who was among Salisbury’s knights. In the open field, where the ground sloped gently downwards, Audley eventually lost his valiant stand. He was hacked down and killed, and his assistant commander, John Sutton, Lord Dudley, was taken prisoner. The loyalists had lost their leader, and soon gave up the fight. The battle lasted in total around four hours and by the end of it perhaps two thousand men lay dead in the field, their blood seeping into the warm autumn soil. Audley was buried at Darley Abbey in Derbyshire and a stone cross (which still stands) was erected at Blore Heath, where he fell. In later years local people would refer to the battlefield as ‘Deadman’s Den’.12

*

After Blore Heath, Salisbury took the majority of his men onwards to the south, to meet with his son Warwick and York. Victory had cost him considerable casualties, and he weakened his forces further by allowing his two youngest sons, Sir Thomas and Sir John Neville, to take a significant number of soldiers back north: on their way the Neville boys were both captured and imprisoned in Chester Castle. Meanwhile Salisbury’s remaining forces were pursued into the marches by the main royal army, which now included around twenty of the peers of the realm. They met up with York and Warwick, but by now their ranks were disappointingly thin and they were outnumbered by around three to one. In desperation, the three Yorkist lords came together at Worcester Cathedral, and in great solemnity swore oaths to protect one another. Then they retreated to York’s nearby castle of Ludlow, where on 10 October they wrote jointly to Henry VI, protesting their ‘humble obeisance and reverence’ before condemning the realm’s misgovernment, the failure of the law and the violence rampant throughout the kingdom. They also complained of the ‘impatience and violence of such persones as intend of extreme malice to proceed under the shadow of your high might and presence to our destruction’.13

The letters may have reached the king and his councillors, but after Blore Heath they were hardly in the mood to listen sympathetically. Just as at St Albans, a Yorkist army had been raised against the peace of the realm, and blood – some of it noble blood – had been spilled. Messages returned across the midlands from the court: the rebellious lords were to lay down their arms and beg for the royal pardon within six days. They refused, and another armed confrontation became inevitable. Audley and his men may have been dead and defeated, but another large royal army was closing in.

By the second week of October the Yorkists were camped in fields south of Ludlow. Above them, on high ground, brooded Ludlow Castle, with huge turrets and towers, vast arched doorways and narrow windows, and sheets of stoutly defended walls over which fluttered the duke of York’s arms. In front of Ludlow the river Teme swirled cold and fast, the only route across it into the town passing over the thick, recently built stone thoroughfare known as Ludford Bridge. On the south bank of the Teme, below the bridge, the rebel lords’ army was drawn up.

Yorkist morale was already evaporating when, on 12 October, the royal army finally appeared before them. It included an impressive group of English lords: commanded by Henry duke of Somerset, Humphrey duke of Buckingham and Henry earl of Northumberland, and including the duke of Exeter and earls of Arundel, Devon, Shrewsbury and Wiltshire. The royal standard flew above them, and although in a rather desperate propaganda move the Yorkists had spread rumours that Henry VI was dead, it was obvious he was not: in fact he and Queen Margaret were with the army, probably in the rear. It seemed clearer than ever that for all their justified grievances and maltreatment at the queen’s hands, the Yorkists represented partisanship and faction, while the assembled lords in front of them stood for the closest thing that existed to the united political opinion of the realm. It may also have become commonly known that summons had been sent out for a parliament in November, at which it was certain that York and his allies would be destroyed by acts of attainder.

Evening was drawing in when the Yorkists began to fire their cannon towards the royal lines. These were the preliminary exchanges of a battle that was intended to be fought the following day: 13 October, St Edward’s Day, the prince of Wales’s birthday and the most auspicious day of the whole year for English kingship. To York and the Nevilles it seemed that there was only one way that the day would be marked: with their armies scattered, their lives imperilled and their families put on the road to utter ruin. York’s own family was in close quarter at Ludlow: his seventeen-year-old son Edward earl of March was at his side, so too his second son, the sixteen-year-old Edmund earl of Rutland. Behind them in the castle were Duchess Cecily and her two younger boys, George, aged nine, and Richard, who had just celebrated his seventh birthday. Would the king, spurred by his vengeful wife, spare them, if it came to that?

Defeatism was seeping into the Yorkist ranks. At some point during the evening, while the irregular boom of cannon echoed over the black water of the river Teme, one of Warwick’s captains, a Calais soldier called Andrew Trollope, led his hardened troops out of the Yorkist camp and over to the royal side to submit to the king, taking with him both valuable fighting men and invaluable military intelligence. Now faced with what amounted to certain obliteration, in the dead of night York and his leading allies sneaked out of camp, back to Ludlow Castle, leaving their army standing oblivious in their wake as they rode hard away from the battlefield. It was a highly dishonourable thing to do, but the only means by which they could save themselves. From Shropshire they scattered ‘in to diverse parties … beyond the sea, for the more surety of their personnes’.14 York and his son Rutland made for the Welsh coast, breaking bridges as they went, before taking boats across the sea to Ireland. The Nevilles, meanwhile, fled in great peril to the west country, taking with them the young Edward earl of March. From Devon they took ship to Guernsey, from where they returned to Warwick’s haven in Calais.

They had saved their skins but at great cost to their reputations and honour. Their men, who rose for the anticipated battle, instead found themselves surrendering and petitioning for royal forgiveness. Queen Margaret, standing behind the royal lines, no doubt took great satisfaction in this moment. Four years on from the debacle of St Albans, her enemies had finally scurried from the royal standard like frightened mice. ‘Every lord in England at the time durst not disobey the Queen,’ wrote one chronicler.15 All that remained was to return to Coventry and prepare for the November parliament, where their legal destruction, and the desolation of their families, could be completed.

Up in Ludlow Castle, another great lady of the realm viewed events unfolding with growing alarm. Cecily Neville, duchess of York, had seen her husband and second son run in one direction while her brother, nephew and eldest son (Salisbury, Warwick and March) hastened in another. On 13 October she watched from the castle as royal troops broke into the town and began its sack. It was a scene that would be repeated all across the kingdom in the coming months, as Yorkist properties were despoiled and their tenants harassed. Cecily had seen enough of the violent politics of Normandy, Ireland and England during her marriage to know that she was in terrible danger. And most immediately she had to consider the safety of the two males of her kin who had not run from her: her young boys, George and Richard. As the sack of Ludlow concluded she walked out of the castle gates, taking the children with her. A day of terror and confusion had seen some men staggering drunkenly about the streets, having robbed the taverns of their ‘pipes and hogs-heads of wine’, while others stole ‘bedding, clothes, and other stuff, and defiled many women’.16 The grand wife of the vanquished duke walked through the streets of the ransacked town, her sons by her side. They walked as far as the overturned marketplace, in the shadow of the castle walls, and then came to a halt: the remnants of a great family, throwing themselves on the mercy of the crown. While Ludlow ‘was robbed to the bare walles’, Cecily, George and Richard simply stood and waited for whatever fate was to meet them.17

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