Clement Paston, a student in London of around nineteen years old, wrote to his brother John in a state of some anxiety. Clement was a bright and level-headed young man, who had studied at Cambridge before going down to the city in the late 1450s for a professional education. He had grown up in turbulent times, and his East Anglian family’s fortunes had risen and fallen according to the ebb and flow of national politics and the success or failure of their patrons near the royal court. Even at a relatively young age he was used to seeing Fortune’s wheel turn, but on 23 January 1461, when Clement sat down to dash off a communiqué to his relatives in the countryside, he admitted to his brother that he was writing ‘in haste’ and ‘not well at ease’.1
Even by the standards of tumult that had become customary on the streets of London over the previous decade, the winter of 1460–1 was a disturbed and dangerous time. York’s defeat at Wakefield was now well known around England. But the fact of his demise had done nothing to calm the realm. In the west, his wrathful son Edward – eighteen years old but by now a strapping man of six foot four with a warrior’s temperament – was leading an army against Henry VI’s half-brother Jasper Tudor. The earl of Warwick, meanwhile, still held Henry prisoner, preventing any theoretical return to ‘ordinary’ royal government. And most troublingly of all, Queen Margaret was loose in the north, buoyed by her allies’ victory in the field and said to be travelling south to take both vengeance and the capital. Rumours were flying around on the ‘common voice’ and Clement Paston reported a few that had reached his ears: he told of knights of the family’s acquaintance who were ‘taken or else dead’, he described London’s apparent preference for the Yorkists over the queen, and he relayed the fear that French and Scottish mercenaries and the northern lords’ English retainers who made up a large part of the queen’s army were being permitted to ‘rob and steal’ in the towns through which they passed – a fate no Londoner wished to share. Clement advised his elder brother to muster forces – ‘footmen and horsemen’ – in East Anglia and be ready to join battle at any moment, making sure that the men raised were presented in clean and orderly fashion, for the sake of the family honour. ‘God have [you] in His keeping’, the young man signed off, and this was more than the conventional pleasantry of correspondence.
England was in a state of civil war. The battles that had been fought since 1455 were sporadic, occasional outbursts of violence. But now armies were in the field throughout England and Wales, employing foreign mercenaries, trained noble retainers and haphazardly conscripted lords’ tenants alike. On 2 February 1461 Edward’s army clashed with that of Jasper Tudor, Owen Tudor and James Butler, earl of Wiltshire at Mortimer’s Cross, near Wigmore Castle in the Welsh marches, where the road passed between London and Aberystwyth. It was a day that would burnish the eighteen-year-old Edward’s reputation and his legend like no other. The ‘Rose of Rouen’ – as he was nicknamed by Yorkist partisans – was joined in command by several stalwarts of his late father’s Welsh lands, including Sir Walter Devereux and the Herbert brothers, Sir William and Richard Herbert of Raglan. Their enemies were formidably reinforced, for Wiltshire had brought over large contingents of Breton and French mercenaries, as well as his own retainers from his Irish estates. But they had marched at pace across Wales from Pembroke and arrived at the battlefield weary. And in Edward they came up against a commander who was learning how to inspire men with an almost devout fervour.
On the morning of the battle, the winter sky was filled with a blinding and baffling sight: three suns rising together over the horizon, which then combined to form a single blazing beacon in the sky.2 Edward read this as a divine portent predicting his victory, and his forces tore into the Wiltshire–Tudor army, routing them in relatively short order. Jasper Tudor and the earl of Wiltshire escaped the battlefield, but Owen Tudor, now about sixty years old, was captured, along with Sir John Throckmorton and seven other Lancastrian commanders. They were taken to the nearby town of Hereford, where a chopping block had been erected in the marketplace. According to one contemporary account, Owen Tudor expected his enemies to show him some leniency, although this would have been extraordinarily naïve less than six weeks after the horrible butchery that had followed the battle of Wakefield. Any remaining confidence drained from him when ‘he saw the axe and the block’. Stripped to his red velvet doublet, the old man stood before the assembled townsmen of Hereford and begged ‘pardon and grace’. Then the collar of his doublet was rudely torn away and he was led towards the headsman.
One chronicler wrote that Owen Tudor’s last words recalled his wife, the princess of France and queen of England who had seen fit to marry this humble Welshman and bear his children. ‘That head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap,’ he said. Then he put ‘his heart and mind wholly unto God, and full meekly took his death’.3
Owen Tudor’s bloodied head was set upon the highest point of the market cross. Some time later a woman, possibly Owen’s mistress and the mother of his infant bastard David Owen, was seen washing the blood from the mangled head, combing its hair and setting more than one hundred candles around it. The crowd, if they took any notice, assumed she was insane.4
The Yorkist triumph at Mortimer’s Cross barely lasted as long as the glow of the three suns that had preceded it. Jasper Tudor and Wiltshire fled, eventually to take refuge in Scotland. But theirs had not been the only Lancastrian army on the march. As Edward regrouped at Hereford, Queen Margaret was mustering her other allies, including the dukes of Somerset and Exeter, the earls of Northumberland and Shrewsbury, a large host of northern lords and the ubiquitous Calais turncoat Andrew Trollope. By 10 February this violent army of hardened northerners and foreign sell-swords had burned and looted its way as far as Cambridgeshire. By 16 February they had broken the defences of Dunstable, in Bedfordshire. London was close at hand and Warwick, in charge both of King Henry VI and the government of England, was forced to act. Earlier in the year the earl had written to Pope Pius II, telling him, ‘Your Holiness must not be troubled if you have heard of the events in England and of the destruction of some of my kinsmen in the battle against our enemies. With the help of God and the king, who is excellently disposed, all will end well.’5 Now his faith and confidence were to be tested.
Warwick took a large army out of London, aided by John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, William FitzAlan, earl of Arundel and a clutch of his own peers, including his brother John Neville, his uncle Lord Fauconberg and the treasurer, Lord Bonville. They left Londoners in a state of deep trepidation. Another battle was fully expected, in which, as one correspondent put it, ‘great shedding of blood cannot be avoided, and whoever conquers, the Crown of England loses, which is a very great pity’.6
For the second time in less than six years, the two forces met at the city of St Albans. But whereas in 1455 skirmishing and street fighting had taken place, on Shrove Tuesday, 17 February 1461 it was all-out war. Thousands of men descended on either side: the Milanese ambassador in France would hear stories of the queen and Somerset commanding thirty thousand men each.7 This was a wild exaggeration, but what is not in doubt is the fear that these huge forces struck into the hearts of the ordinary people of St Albans. The abbot, John Whethamstede, wrote in his official register of the savagery, profanity and appetite for destruction among the northerners, who in his view seemed to consider any incursion south of the Trent as a divinely sanctioned opportunity to plunder and steal.8
In truth, the northern army was much more than a rabble with pillage on their minds. As they had shown at Wakefield, they were commanded with discipline and cunning; they also marched under one identity, with every man wearing the badge of Edward, prince of Wales, a red-and-black band with ostrich feathers. Warwick’s men were blindsided by enemy troops pouring into St Albans at around 1 p.m. from the north-west, rather than the north-east, and after heavy fighting the Yorkist vanguard was scattered, fleeing in every direction as the hoofs of the Lancastrian cavalry thundered after them. Abbot Whethamstede wrote of men being rounded up and run through with lances by their vengeful enemies, until finally, around 6 p.m., the darkness of the winter evening had fully fallen, and pursuit was no longer possible.9 As their men scampered for safety, Warwick and most of his fellow commanders and captains also melted away, until only one man of any noble dignity was left on the field.
King Henry VI sat under a tree, laughing and singing as the battle raged about him. The king’s guards, Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriell, were taken prisoner and summarily executed on the orders of the queen, who allowed the eight-year-old prince to pronounce the sentences upon them. Henry, meanwhile, was reunited with his family, once more changing hands like a rag doll. Abbot Whethamstede met the king in the abbey and begged him to issue a proclamation against plundering. As ever, Henry VI did what he was told. His own army ignored him and Whethamstede’s beloved city of St Albans fell to rape and robbery, as though, said the abbot, it had been invaded by rabid animals.10
As fortune swung violently back and forth between the two parties, England was plunged into a desperate mood of self-preservation. After St Albans, the queen decided to push on to London. The city, however, decided to make a stand against her. Ahead of her arrival Margaret sent requests for food and refreshment to London, which were answered nervously but favourably by the mayor. But as carts laden with supplies were being dragged through the city, towards the Cripplegate and the road leading north, a group of citizens came into the streets to block their path. ‘The commones of the Cite took the vitailles from the Carters and would not suffer it to pass,’ wrote a chronicler. They insisted that the city’s governers send a delegation to tell the queen that she could not enter London while the feared ‘Northern men’ remained in her party. The rumour which Clement Paston had reported to his brother had clearly taken hold: everyone now believed that if the Lancastrian army were allowed within the city walls, then London, like St Albans, would be ‘robbed and despoiled’.11 Margaret had little choice but to take her husband and son once more back north. The move – and London’s communal decision that it was safer to hold with the defeated Yorkists than the victorious queen – would prove fatal.
Warwick’s escape from St Albans allowed him to reunite with Edward earl of March. At the end of the month they gathered their forces together in the Cotswolds. There they took a bold decision. Warwick had lost command of Henry’s person, and without him they lacked a totem for their legitimacy. But under the act of accord that had been passed between Henry and the late Richard duke of York, March was now heir to the crown. And since forces loyal to Henry VI had killed York at the battle of Wakefield, March could argue that he was justified in regarding the act of accord to have been broken. He no longer had to wait for Henry’s death to claim the crown that the Yorkists argued was theirs by blood. He was completely justified in seizing it.
This, at any rate, was the theory. On Thursday 26 February the earl of March rode into London, accompanied by Warwick and their noble allies.12 The city was in the early days of Lent, but if the (somewhat biased) chroniclers are to be believed, there was great cheer at his coming. Rhymes and ditties celebrated his arrival, one of which hailed him with the image of the white rose of York – one of several badges and symbols that belonged to the family: ‘Let us walk in a new wineyard, and let us make us a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March.’13
On Sunday 1 March Warwick’s brother George Neville, bishop of Exeter and chancellor of England, gave a speech in St John’s Fields, just outside the city walls, which was heard by thousands of soldiers and citizens. Neville detailed the case against Henry VI and asked whether the crowd wished him to remain as king. According to one chronicler, ‘The people cried, “Nay! Nay!” And then they asked, if they would have the earl of March to be their king; and they seid, “Ye! Ye!”’14 On Monday morning London was plastered with bills detailing Edward’s claim, and the next day, Tuesday 3 March, Edward held a council meeting at his family’s London residence, Baynard’s Castle, where a handful of bishops and lords gave their assent to his claim. On 4 March, the Te Deum was sung at St Paul’s, Bishop Neville preached a political sermon at the cross outside and Edward rode out of the city in procession down to the palace of Westminster. There, in the court of chancery, which was the place traditionally associated with a king’s exercise of legal equity, and therefore the ultimate manifestation of the royal will in action, ‘he was Sworn afore the bishop of Canterbury and the Chancellor of England and the lords that he should truly and justly keep the realm and the laws thereof maintain as a true and a just king’.15 He put on the robes and cap of state – although not the crown, for a coronation was not to be held for some time. Then Edward sat ceremonially on the King’s Bench – the marble chair in one of the two highest common law courts in the land, which symbolised the personal authority of the king as judge. Finally, he went to Westminster Abbey church to make an offering at the shrine of his namesake St Edward the Confessor. He was yet to be anointed and crowned. But in the eyes of his supporters he was now King Edward IV, ‘the true inheritor of the crowns of England and France and the lordship of Ireland’.16
While Edward was sitting on the marble throne in London, the Lancastrians were falling back to the north. As they went, the royal party sent out desperate instructions to the great families to give them military aid. One such letter reached Sir William Plumpton, a fifty-five-year-old follower of the Percy family of Northumberland and a wealthy, influential gentleman in his own right, with land and manors in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. His letter was sent from York on 13 March 1461, and marked with the small waxen seal of Henry VI’s signet. It advised him that ‘our great traitor’ the earl of March ‘hath made great assemblies of riotous and mischievously disposed people [and] … hath cried in his proclamations havoc upon all our true liege people and subjects, their wives, children and goods’. Sir William was charged to raise ‘all such people as ye may make defensibly arrayed’ and ‘come to us in all haste possible … for to resist the malicious intent and purpose of our said traitor, and fail not hereof’.17 A loyal subject and an old soldier, Sir William did not delay.
As Queen Margaret and her allies raised the north of England for battle, Edward’s men raised the realm below the river Trent. They sent instructions to the sheriffs of more than thirty southern counties damning ‘he that calls himself Henry VI’ and ‘charging all manner of men between sixty and sixteen arrayed in defensive wise in all haste to come and wait upon the king’.18 Equipping for war was no small undertaking, whether for knightly men-at-arms expected to fight in the thick of battle, the thousands of archers who protected them, or lightly armoured common soldiers who were assembled to share the allegiance of whomever happened to be their local lord. Armour, weaponry and materiel ranged from the vastly expensive bespoke suits of plate armour worn by the wealthiest lords and captains to the clubs, blades and staves wielded by the rank and file. Even to dress a man of Plumpton’s rank before a battle was a task that took several pairs of hands. One fifteenth-century manuscript describes the process by which a man-at-arms’ squires should dress him. He was to wear no shirt, but a satin-lined twilled-cloth doublet, slashed with holes for ventilation. ‘Gussets of mail [i.e. chain-mail] must be [sewn] unto the doublet … under the arm’. These were vital to protect the wearer from dagger thrusts at vulnerable points, where a sly blade piercing a joint in plate armour could sever a major artery or find its way into a vital organ – so the twine used to attach the mail to the doublet was as strong and durable as that used to string a crossbow. More thick undergarments, including patches of blanket to prevent chafing at the knees, were stitched all over with tough cord loops, on which plates of heat-strengthened and highly polished metal were hung: sheet metal covered the body from throat to toe and was topped by a heavy helmet with visor, an attachment for identifying personal insignia, and a tiny slit through which to view the terror of the slaughter.19
A knight’s horse might be as heavily protected as the rider, who would use a lance to impale his enemies if he rode with the cavalry. Otherwise weapons were long, heavy or sharp – or sometimes all three at once. Wicked little rondel daggers could be driven into a man’s heart, eye or brain at close range, while massive forty-inch broadswords that were swung with two hands by the richest and best-trained men on the battlefield permitted more room to attack. Perhaps the deadliest hand-held weapon of all was the pole-axe or bill: a strong wooden shaft up to six feet in length topped with a heavy and fiercely sharpened curved blade on one side, a short, clawlike point on the other, and a thin spike at the top. Swung hard, this could crush armour and break the flesh and bone beneath; it could trip an opponent – and once felled, a man-at-arms was vulnerable, since the weight of the armour could make it desperately difficult to get back up. The thick blade could hack off the limbs of less well-protected enemies, or lop chunks out of the skull of a knight who removed his helmet either to see properly, to communicate or to drink.
Through the month of March thousands upon thousands of men bearing weapons like these assembled throughout England and beyond. They came from everywhere between Wales and East Anglia, and from Scotland to Kent. Thanks to Warwick’s cordial relations with lords overseas, Edward’s army included a company of soldiers sent by Duke Philip of Burgundy; they carried above them the banner of Louis, the dauphin of France and eldest son of Charles VII. The Lancastrians far outnumbered them in the numbers of English nobles under their flag: besides the dukes of Somerset and Exeter, there were the earls of Northumberland, Wiltshire and Devon, Lord Rivers and his son Anthony Woodville, Sir Andrew Trollope (knighted by the queen after the second battle of St Albans) and twelve or thirteen other peers. The Yorkists marched slowly north from London towards Pontefract, men flocking to their side as they went. By the end of March, reckoned their paymasters many years later, they had 48,660 men.20 The Lancastrians however may have had as many as sixty thousand. Even if we account for the usual exaggerations, these were two gigantic armies.
The first engagement took place on Saturday 28 March at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, a crossing point on the Great North Road, just a few miles north-west of Pontefract. The Lancastrians had camped close to the village of Towton – or possibly in the village of Tadcaster – nine miles away across the river Aire.21 When they received intelligence that the Yorkist lords John duke of Suffolk and Lord Fitzwalter had been charged with rebuilding the broken bridge across the Aire, they sent a detachment of light horsemen under Lord Clifford to beat them back. A bloody fight ensued in which Fitzwalter was killed. As Edward IV pressed more men from his main army to reinforce the bridge, the Lancastrians turned to retreat. They fell into a trap: Edward had also sent Lord Fauconberg and a small contingent of men to cross the river three miles upstream from Ferrybridge. Fauconberg rode with deadly mounted archers beside him, and they stalked Clifford’s men, eventually ambushing them at dusk near the village of Dintingdale. When Clifford removed his metal neck-guard to drink a glass of wine an arrow hurtled through his throat, killing him instantly. The Yorkists then fell on the rest of the party, slaughtering them where they stood. The great showdown for the crown of England had begun.
The night that followed was abysmally cold and the next day, Palm Sunday, dawned bleak and frigid. The Yorkshire countryside was frozen over and snow and sleet were falling, increasingly heavy as the early morning unfolded. Nevertheless, the two massive armies rumbled into position at Towton and by nine o’clock they were ready to fight, mustered in two huge lines, facing each other across a shallow ridge. The blizzard swirled around them, snow blowing straight into the faces of the Lancastrians and making the battlefield a slippery, half-blind nightmare. Men would have stamped and trembled with the cold, awaiting a signal that battle was ready to begin. For those who could see, banners fluttered above the troops, advertising the presence of the dozens of lords on either side: heraldic patterns of blue, white, red and gold marking out the location of the commanders and lordly captains on either side. But only on the Yorkist side was there the banner of a king of England. Edward IV was in the field, but Margaret and Henry VI were lingering behind the lines at York, waiting anxiously for word of the result.
Eventually, the cry went up to begin battle and the wet snowflakes were joined by a bloody blizzard of arrows, carried hard on the wind from the Yorkist archers under Lord Fauconberg. Some fire was also exchanged by gunners – men wielding primitive artillery which fired iron-and-lead shot of more than an inch in diameter. Even in the wind, the blasts from these hand-cannon must have been terrific, made all the more so by the occasional screams of the gunners whose weapons backfired and exploded in their hands.22
Seeing that in this exchange of fire the Yorkists had the wind at their backs, and being unwilling to stand in the storm and watch his men shot to death, the duke of Somerset gave the order to advance. The Lancastrians waded downhill towards the enemy, crashing into the vast line of the Yorkist army and beginning a long and exceptionally fierce battle, which would turn out to be the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. The whitened, undulating landscape of Towton plain was rent with the judder of pole-axe and sword blade into armour and flesh, the screams of wounded horses and dying men, the press of steaming bodies into one another, men falling and flailing and slipping as bodies piled high on top of one another. Orders had been given by Edward that lords should be killed and not captured, but the death toll was equally appalling among the well-born and the lowly. As the armies grappled and lashed out, the fronts swayed and began to pivot through forty-five degrees, so that from a starting position in which they were arrayed on an east–west line, by the afternoon they had swung round so that the Lancastrians were fighting on a north-east–south-west axis, with their backs to the flooded meadow of a deep waterway called Cock Beck. Their right flank was menaced by Yorkist archers and their left was now fighting at the bottom of a hill, having been driven hard round when the duke of Norfolk joined the fighting on the Yorkists’ right. In short, the Lancastrians were being driven into a wetland that swiftly became a deathly pool of blood: their only escape was to make their way uphill from the left flank and attempt to flee back towards Towton and Tadcaster. Doing so, however, meant scrambling up wet and churned-up turf with the blizzard on their backs. As they tried to flee they were mown down by the Yorkist cavalry, who swept over the open ground, cudgelling and lancing their enemies with abandon. Even those who made it past Towton suddenly found themselves trapped once more: before the battle the Lancastrians had broken the wooden bridge further up Cock Beck, and they were now penned in at the far end of the battle site. As the cavalry closed in on them, men threw off their armour and tried to wade or swim through the brisk water. Weary, wounded or half-frozen, they drowned by the dozen, until eventually the beck was so dammed with corpses that their colleagues could scramble to safety over what became known as the Bridge of Bodies.
With men dying in their thousands, the Lancastrian line dissolved by mid-afternoon, and the leaders took flight. The earl of Wiltshire, perhaps the greatest coward of his generation, had previously run away from the first battle of St Albans and the battle of Mortimer’s Cross. He brought his tally to three desertions by abandoning Towton, but this time his luck had run out. He made it to Newcastle before being captured and beheaded. Andrew Trollope and the earl of Northumberland were both cut down on the battlefield. The dukes of Somerset and Exeter ran for their lives and escaped; the earl of Devon also ran but was too badly injured to get beyond York, where he too was caught and executed. Behind them, the leaders’ abandonment of the field turned defeat into a devastating rout. On Edward’s orders, no mercy was shown in victory. Skulls later found on the battlefield showed the most horrific injuries: faces split down the bone, heads cut in half, holes punched straight through foreheads. Some died with more than twenty wounds to the head: the signs of frenzied slaughter by men whipped into a state of barbaric bloodlust. Some victims were mutilated: their noses and ears ripped off, fingers snipped from hands to remove rings and jewellery in the plunder of the dying. The field of Towton was known as the Bloody Meadow, and with good reason. On 7 April 1461, Bishop Neville of Exeter wrote to the bishop of Teramo in Flanders. He reported the events of the six weeks that had just passed, including the slaughter at St Albans, Ferrybridge and Towton, and estimated that twenty-eight thousand men had been killed at the latter. (The figure was repeated by Bishop Beauchamp of Salisbury in a letter of the same day.) ‘Alas!’ he wrote, ‘we are a race deserving of pity even from the French.’23
Indeed, it must have seemed to many in 1461 that all the fates that had befallen the French a generation previously, when Armagnacs fought Burgundians and the crown was tossed about and tussled over to the utter ruin of the realm, had now been visited on the islanders across the sea. England was ruled by deeds of savagery, the north country was drenched in blood, and most distressing of all, two kings were at large. Queen Margaret’s decision to hold back Henry VI and Prince Edward from the battle of Towton had proven a wise one, for even though the Lancastrians were decisively defeated, they were not quite exterminated as a royal line. They retreated to Scotland with a few surviving allies: the dukes of Somerset and Exeter, Lord Roos and the judge Sir John Fortescue. Other loyal Lancastrian lords, such as Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, soon joined them. They were, however, very much a rump court: militarily ruined, financially constrained and exhausted.
King Edward IV spent a month in the north mopping up resistance before returning to London in triumph in May, for the coronation that would set God’s seal on his accession to the crown. He would now claim not only to be king by right of blood, but to have had his claim vindicated in blood on the battlefield. An act of his first parliament, called to Westminster in November 1461, rehearsed the legal arguments against Henry VI’s kingship and put forward the righteous case for his own. By that time parliament was merely putting the legal stamp on what was already a political fact. For on Friday 26 June Edward had made a ceremonial entrance into the capital that had long supported his claim, and two days later he had been crowned as the thirteenth Plantagenet and first Yorkist king of England.