Post-classical history

15 : Final Destruction

Like Richard duke of York before him, Richard earl of Warwick found it a great deal simpler to capture a king than to govern in his name. From Warwick Castle in the heart of the midlands, the earl moved Edward to Middleham Castle, the magnificent stonewalled stronghold that loomed over the Yorkshire Dales. But as news filtered across England and Wales of the king’s captivity, the realm erupted into violence and disorder, which proved quite beyond Warwick’s capacity to control: for while he had the royal person, this was by no means the same as having royal authority.

In London there was a burst of robbery, rioting and open violence, barely kept in check by the efforts of Burgundian ambassadors who happened to be in the city. Elsewhere, noble quarrels spilled over into private wars, waged from Cheshire and Lancashire to Gloucestershire and Norfolk, where the Paston family were forced to defend their castle at Caister from a siege laid to it by the duke of Norfolk, who had ‘the place sore broken with guns’.1 Warwick’s realm was alive with the boom of cannon, the hum of arrows and the crackle of flames licking ruined buildings. Even in Yorkshire Warwick could not keep order as the king’s teenage brother Richard duke of Gloucester took up arms in a dispute against Lord Stanley. Worst of all, rumours circulated in Wales suggesting that a Lancastrian revival would shortly be underway somewhere in the realm. And so it proved: in August two members of a renegade branch of the house of Neville raised Henry VI’s banner in northern England. ‘The earl of Warwick found himself unable to offer an effectual resistance,’ wrote one chronicler. ‘For the people, seeing their king detained as a prisoner, oner, refused to take notice of proclamations’ until Edward was set at his liberty.2

Warwick had no choice. Edward was free by the middle of October. Sir John Paston watched the king ride into the city of London in splendour, surrounded by a large posse of loyal lords including Gloucester, Suffolk and Lord Hastings, the mayor and all the city aldermen, two hundred guild members and what Paston described in a letter as a thousand horses, ‘some harnessed and some not’. The king had crushed the northern rebellion with ease, issued a general pardon to the rank and file and was set on reasserting himself in the realm at large, an end he pursued with almost ominous good cheer. Paston noted with some trepidation that while ‘the King hymself hath good language of’ Warwick, Clarence and their small group of allies, including the earl of Oxford, ‘saying they be his best friends’, quite another message was being broadcast by the men of the royal household. Edward was almost always magnanimous after victory – but it seemed clear, to Sir John Paston at least, that a great reckoning could not be far away.

Only two serious reorganisations took place in the aftermath of Warwick and Clarence’s revolt. The first was enforced: Wales had been deprived of its leading nobleman when William Herbert, earl of Pembroke was beheaded after the battle of Edgecote. In Herbert’s place, Edward promoted his own brother, Richard duke of Gloucester. Aged seventeen, Gloucester was growing into an able soldier and a trustworthy lieutenant. Tall but slender and not as physically striking as either Edward or Clarence, Gloucester was a tenacious and loyal young man in whom Edward saw a great future. He made him constable of England in place of the executed Earl Rivers, justiciar of north and south Wales and steward of the whole principality. In effect Richard became the king’s hand beyond the western marches. He took to his role with some enthusiasm and purpose.

Edward also moved to weaken some of the Nevilles’ power in the north. John Neville, earl of Northumberland, had remained loyal during his brother’s rebellions; all the same, Edward decided that there were advantages in moving his territorial base away from northern England. The king released Henry Percy from long-term imprisonment in the Tower of London, restored him to his father’s lands in the north and gave him Neville’s title of earl of Northumberland. Historically the Percys had been the dominant family in the north – a fact only changed by the ascendancy of the Nevilles in the 1450s. Now Edward was moving to restore the balance of power. To compensate John Neville for his losses, he was created Marquess Montague and awarded a huge tract of lands in south-west England, another area of perpetual bloodletting and chaos, which had fallen vacant on the death of the earl of Devon. Neville’s young son George was created duke of Bedford and betrothed to the king’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, who turned four years old in the spring of 1470. It looked like a handsome settlement for a loyal man, which served to restore some balance to the power politics of northern England while injecting a degree of much-needed experience into the south-west. Unfortunately, it would prove to have serious consequences for Edward’s rule.

In March 1470 another rebellion broke out. This time it was Lincolnshire that rose up, initially due to a bitter private feud between the local peer Lord Welles and Willoughby and Sir Thomas Burgh, a bodyguard and close servant of the king. In response, Edward raised an army and marched north to put an end to the violence. The sight of the king marching at the head of an army sent rumours whirling around the north, as speculation mounted that bloody revenge was on its way for the events of 1469. As Lord Welles and his son Sir Robert parlayed these fears into all-out insurrection, a desperate Warwick decided to raise an army of his own and throw in with the rebels once more. Once again, the unscrupulous Clarence decided to join him – despite having assured the king of his allegiance – and the pair aimed at what a government-sponsored account of the rising later described as ‘the likely utter and final destruction of [the king’s] royal person, and the subversion of all the land’.3

After most crises Edward’s instinct was usually towards calmness and reconciliation rather than murderous revenge. But this time he had been provoked too much. He responded with furious aggression. He captured Lord Welles and sent a message to his son that the old man would be killed unless he submitted. This drew Sir Robert out to fight before he had a chance to combine armies with Warwick. At Stamford on 12 March 1470, a royal army routed the Lincolnshire rebels in such humiliating fashion that the insurgents ran from the battlefield, throwing their clothes away as they hastened to escape. The field was thereafter known as Losecote Field.

According to the partisan account later published of the battle, the rebels at Losecote Field ran at the king’s men shouting, ‘A Clarence! A Warwick!’ Some of them were said to be wearing Clarence’s livery, and when Sir Robert Welles was cut down in the chase, his helmet was found to contain ‘many marvellous bills, containing matters of the great sedition’ – in other words, implicating Warwick and Clarence in yet another round of skulduggery. 4 This time, the king’s miserable relatives could expect no leniency. They refused summons to the royal presence, fled south from Lancashire to Devon, took ship at Dartmouth and escaped across the Channel, heading once more for Calais. But even here they were denied entry when Warwick’s deputy captain Lord Wenlock declined to open the gates. The two men eventually landed in Normandy, in the territory of the French king. Their isolation appeared to be complete. And indeed it might have been, but for one of the most audacious and unscrupulous alliances in all of English history.


Margaret of Anjou and her son Prince Edward had been living in French exile for nearly ten years. The prince had been raised in his grandfather René of Anjou’s castle of Kœur, in Lorraine, near the banks of the river Meuse. In the spring of 1470 the boy was sixteen years old and quite as unlike his father as it was possible to be. Indeed, those who saw him suggested that he was made in the same mould as his other grandfather, Henry V. In February 1467 the Milanese ambassador Giovanni Pietro Panicharolla commented in a letter to the duchess and duke of Milan that the prince, then only thirteen, ‘already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne’.5 He loved to ride, fight and joust with his friends and companions. His mother had never given up the idea that this splendid young tyro could some day return to claim his father’s crown.

Margaret’s determination to overthrow the Yorkists knew almost no limit. Since being ejected from England she had appealed for assistance to countless allies in France, as well as to the rulers of Scotland and Portugal. Now, in 1470, she prepared herself to make common ground with the unlikeliest partner of all, the man who had done more than anyone else alive to damage her: Richard earl of Warwick. The old enemies met in Angers on 22 June, in a meeting brokered by Louis XI, and thrashed out a deal. Prince Edward would marry Anne Neville, Warwick’s youngest daughter, and Warwick would then return to England in opposition to Edward IV, doing everything in his power to overthrow the Yorkists and return Henry VI to the throne.

Warwick, Clarence, Jasper Tudor and the earl of Oxford set sail from La Hougue in Normandy on 9 September. The young Prince Edward was left behind with his mother, presumably to his indignant frustration. After four days at sea they landed on the Devonshire coast, announced their allegiance to King Henry VI, called on all men to join them in their mission of restoration and set out on a march to Coventry to confront Edward IV.

Edward was at this time in the north. He had been kept well abreast of developments over the sea, writing to his subjects in the south-east to tell them that ‘we be credibly ascertained that our ancient enemies of France and our outward rebels and traitors be drawn together in accord, and intend … utterly to destroy us and our true subjects’. He instructed them to be ready for invasion at any moment. ‘As soon as ye may understand that thay land,’ he wrote, ‘put you in uttermost devoir [i.e. your highest duty] … to resist the malice of our said enemies and traitors.’6 Violent uprisings had racked the north throughout the summer, and Edward had been torn between the need to defend a vast coastline and the pressing demand to restore order in the north country only recently restored to the management of the Percy family. When news of Warwick’s landing reached him he set out for London, to defend his crown and capital.

As the rebels marched they gathered numerous powerful defectors, all with reasons to bear a grudge against the king. The earl of Shrewsbury and Lord Stanley brought substantial numbers of armed retainers, and they were followed, most damagingly of all, by Warwick’s brother Marquess Montague. This was far from a critical mass of the English nobility, but the uncertainty of military campaigning seems to have convinced Edward that ‘he was not strong enough to give battle’, particularly if his opponents were to include the formidable Montague.7 Rather than stand and fight for his crown with an inadequate army, Edward ‘withdrew from a contest so doubtful in its results’.8 To give battle immediately for his kingdom might have seemed like a natural course of action. But to do so also risked capture or death.

Edward boarded a ship at King’s Lynn and set sail for Flanders, leaving his kingdom in the hands of his enemies. He left in such haste that he did not even stop to collect his pregnant wife: Queen Elizabeth was forced to take sanctuary with her three daughters behind the walls of Westminster Abbey. Lodged in the abbot’s apartments, she would give birth there to her first son, yet another Prince Edward, on 2 November 1470. ‘From this circumstance was derived some hope and consolation for such persons as remained faithful in their allegiance to Edward,’ wrote one chronicler. But to the ascendant Nevilles and Lancastrians, ‘the birth of this infant [was] a thing of very little consequence’.

As Elizabeth Woodville laboured in the sanctuary apartments at Westminster, the so-called ‘readeption’ of Henry VI was well underway. The old king was brought out of the Tower of London on Saturday 6 October 1470. His supporters made no delay in formally returning him to his throne, for the most auspicious day in the English royal calendar was fast approaching: the feast day of the Translation of St Edward the Confessor, whose stunning shrine was the centrepiece of all the tombs of the Plantagenet kings inside Westminster Abbey. A week after Henry’s release, ‘after walking in solemn procession, [he] had the crown publicly placed on his head’.9

Henry was now forty-eight years old and jail had not been kind to him. He had, wrote his confessor John Blacman, ‘patiently endured hunger, thirst, mockings, derisions, abuse and many other hardships’.10 The chronicler Warkworth sniffed that he seemed ‘not worshipfully arrayed as a prince and not so cleanly kept’. Nevertheless, many in England seemed able temporarily to convince themselves that since Henry VI had not been the author of the ills done during his reign, he was fit to be restored to the throne. The chronicler Warkworth put this down to Edward’s failure to restore England to ‘prosperities and peace’. So much hope had been invested in him at the beginning of his reign, wrote the chronicler, ‘but it came not; but one battle after another, and much trouble and great loss of goods among the common people’.

Yet if there was any genuine hope placed in Henry’s return to the throne then this, too, would be sorely disappointed. The restoration of Queen Margaret was hardly an event likely to bring reconciliation and understanding to the realm, all the less so if her son had inherited his mother’s implacable temperament. It was virtually impossible to see how Lancastrian loyalists like the Cliffords, Courtenays, Somersets and Tudors might be rewarded, or even restored to their former estates and dignities, when the chief beneficiaries of the Yorkist victory had been Warwick and Clarence, the same men who had helped bring Henry VI out blinking from the Tower and placed the crown back on his head. And then there was the problem of Clarence himself: the faithless rebel had caused so much of the trouble that had descended on England through his selfish desire to inch closer to his brother’s throne. With two rival Prince Edwards now alive – the one a bellicose young Lancastrian, the other Edward IV’s tiny son and heir – Clarence was now further from the crown than ever. How, then, could his lasting support be bought? And how would Warwick enjoy a political role that would surely never reach the near-mastery that he had achieved in the 1460s?

In the end, these were not questions that the court of Henry VI had very long to ponder. New Year passed with Edward IV still in exile in Bruges: but he had been busy. He was discreetly supplied with ships and money by Charles the Bold and the merchants of the Low Countries, and with his brother-in-law Anthony Woodville (now the second Earl Rivers) Edward began fitting out an invasion fleet to reclaim his kingdom. Edward, Rivers, Lord Hastings, Richard duke of Gloucester and their company set sail from Vlissingen on the island of Walcheren on Monday 11 March 1471, armed with thirty-six ships and twelve hundred men. (Edward sailed aboard a Burgundian warship called the Antony.) This small flotilla picked its way across a sea bristling with enemy craft, heading for a landing in East Anglia. Storms, however, blew the fleet north, and they eventually landed near the mouth of the river Humber at Ravenspur. This was enemy territory in every sense, for Warwick’s men patrolled the countryside, watching jealously for any sign of an invasion. By coincidence, it was the very same point at which Henry Bolingbroke had arrived in 1399, when he had come to claim his lands, and subsequently the crown, from Richard II. It was an auspicious scene for the return of a king.


‘It is a difficult matter to go out by the door and then want to enter by the windows,’ Sforza de Bettini of Florence, the Milanese ambassador to Louis XI, wrote from the French court to his master Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza on 9 April, the Tuesday before Easter 1471. Having monitored reports from across the Channel, he held out very little hope for Edward’s mission to rescue his kingdom. Wild rumours spinning out of England suggested that the earl of Warwick had the upper hand: Bettini had heard that ‘the greater part of those who were with [Edward were] slain and the rest put to flight’. Queen Margaret and Prince Edward were waiting impatiently in port at Normandy for a wind to carry them across the sea and reclaim their kingdom in triumph. 11 It appeared that Edward IV’s mission to rescue his realm had been strangled before it had even begun.

But Bettini was misinformed. Edward was far from routed. In fact, on the very day that the Milanese ambassador wrote his letter, he was marching south on London, with men rallying to his side.

Edward’s arrival in Ravenspur had not quite thrown England into great bouts of celebration, but neither had he been immediately chased away, in part because he rode through the countryside claiming (much as Bolingbroke had before him) that he came not to take back the crown, but ‘only to claim to be Duke of York’.12 He wore the ostrich feather badge of the prince of Wales rather than the crown, and professed to all who would listen that he was returning as a loyal subject. This was enough to gain him entry successively to the northern towns of York, Tadcaster, Wakefield and Doncaster, before he moved down into the midlands and entered Nottingham and then Leicester. At every stop he was joined by supporters; a few at first but gradually more, until ‘his number was increased’ with ‘bands of men, well arrayed and habled [i.e. armoured] for war’.13 On 29 March he advanced on Coventry, where the earl of Warwick was holed up with his allies John de Vere, earl of Oxford, Henry Holland, duke of Exeter and Lord Beaumont. Warwick, preferring to avoid a fight until reinforced by Montague and Clarence, retreated inside the walls of the city, barred the gates and refused to come out. Momentum now lay with Edward, and it was at this point that he dropped the obvious pretence of claiming his duchy, and announced his determination to defeat the adherents of ‘Henry the Usurper’.14

From Coventry Edward struck out west, before turning in the direction of Oxford and London. As he went, news of his return fanned out around him. It did not take long to reach the realm’s other great rebel, George duke of Clarence, who was in the west country when Edward landed. Clarence now frantically tried to raise troops, in order to rally to the earl of Warwick. But a coward and a turncoat such as he did not have the moral steadfastness to attack his brother ascendant. (Clarence had also been lobbied by two of his sisters, Margaret duchess of Burgundy and Anne duchess of Exeter, who had counselled him to make peace.) He met Edward near Banbury on Wednesday 3 April. In the company of Rivers, Hastings and Gloucester, he threw himself at Edward’s feet. Edward ‘lifted him up and kissed him many times’, assured him that they were at peace and took him back to Coventry, in a second attempt to coax Warwick out of his bolthole. Again Warwick would not emerge, even though he was by now accompanied by his brother John Neville, Marquess Montague. Edward decided not to waste any more time seeking battle. On Friday 5 April he set out for London.

So on Tuesday 9 April London’s common council, who had much better information than distant diplomats, were aware that, far from having been crushed, ‘Edward late king of England was hastening towards the city with a powerful army’.15 Warwick was also writing to the city, demanding that the council keep it for King Henry. The stress was such that the mayor, John Stockton, had taken to his bed and would not be dragged out of it. But in the mayor’s absence, the rest of the city council resolved not to resist Edward. They had plenty of good reasons. Not only were Queen Elizabeth, her daughters and her newborn son as well as scores of other Yorkists still holed up in sanctuary at Westminster, close to the city walls, but the merchants of London had also loaned Edward a great deal of money, which, according to the Burgundian chronicler Philippe de Commines, ‘obliged all the tradesmen who were his creditors to appear for him’. Commines, who was like all good chroniclers an insatiable gossip, added that ‘the ladies of quality and rich citizens’ wives, with whom [Edward] had formerly intrigued, forced their husbands and relations to declare themselves on his side’.16

Edward entered London on Maundy Thursday. He found that the Tower had already been secured by his friends. Supporters of the earl of Warwick, identifiable by badges of the bear and ragged staff worn on their coats, were making themselves scarce. Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset had left London for the coast, to await Queen Margaret’s arrival. Warwick’s brother, the treacherous George Neville, archbishop of York, had been left in possession of the ‘other’ king, but his attempt to rally the populace by parading Henry VI through the streets during Edward’s approach was met with ridicule. Henry appeared as the pathetic, downtrodden old man he was: his shoulders draped not in the latest Burgundian finery but in a dreary old blue gown. In fact, the pious Henry was dressing according to the solemnity of the religious calendar – for Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, was a day of mourning. Yet it looked to one London chronicler as if ‘he had no more to change with’.17 Nor was the rest of the parade impressive. Lord Zouch, commissioned to carry the sword of state, appeared old and impotent. The crowd accompanying the king was small. And their symbol of defiance – a pole borne above the parade with two foxes’ tails tied to it – appeared lame and unkingly. It was ‘more like a play than the showing of a prince’, recorded the chronicler. It was in this context that the strapping, energetic Edward entered the city to ‘the universal acclamation of the citizens’, who now awaited his command.18

Edward went first to St Paul’s, to give thanks, before riding directly for the bishop of London’s palace in Lambeth, to take possession of Henry VI. Dim and vacant, the shabby figure greeted Edward with an embrace and the words, ‘My cousin of York, you are very welcome. I know in your hands my life will not be in danger.’19 Edward assured him that all would be well and sent him back to the Tower of London, with the archbishop of York for company. Then he set out for Westminster Abbey, where he gave thanks once again, this time before the shrine of St Edward: the source of all that was mysterious and holy about English kingship. Finally he made the short trip from the abbey church to the abbot’s apartments, where Queen Elizabeth was waiting for him. She had received personal letters announcing her husband’s return, but nothing would be a substitute for the man in person. Since the beginning of Warwick’s rebellion Elizabeth had lost her father and her brother. She had been in hiding at the abbey for six months, during which time the official record would state that she had endured ‘right great trouble, sorrow and heaviness, which she sustained with all manner of patience that belonged to any creature’. The queen presented Edward with his tiny namesake, ‘to the Kings greatest joy, a fair son, a prince’.20 Joyfully reunited, they spent the night back in the city, at Edward’s mother’s lodgings in Baynard’s Castle. The following day was Good Friday, and Edward spent the morning with his brothers and allies, plotting ‘for the adventures that were likely for to come’.21


‘On Holy Saturday in Easter week,’ wrote a chronicler of the time, Edward ‘quitted the city with his army, and, passing slowly on, reached the town of Barnet, a place ten miles distant from the city; and there pitched his camp, on the eve of the day of our Lord’s resurrection.’22 There were two kings in the army, for Edward had brought Henry VI with him. It was hardly likely that Henry would have escaped, or even conceived of escaping from the Tower of London. But his presence in Edward’s lines was vital, for marching in the other direction, directly towards them on the road from St Albans, came the earl of Warwick. He had finally left Coventry, ‘calling himself lieutenant of England and so constituted by the pretensed authority of King Henry’.23 Henry’s physical presence on the other side rendered this claim manifestly false.

The two armies made first contact as the light was fading on Saturday afternoon, when Warwick’s scouts were intercepted and chased by Edward’s men. With the sun setting, there was no hope of a fight that day, but the two sides were virtually within sight of one another. Both camped on the open ground north of Barnet. The damp, cold night air flashed and boomed with fire sprayed from the muzzles of Warwick’s cannon, aimed badly in the darkness and flinging shot safely over the heads of the kings’ men.

Dawn broke around four o’clock on Easter Sunday. A great mist hung over the ground, clouding the short distance between the two armies and obscuring ‘the sight of either other’. But almost all present – not least the veterans of the battle of Towton – had fought in worse. No sooner had the sun’s thin light come up than Edward ‘committed his cause and quarrel to Almighty God’, raised his banners, ordered his trumpeters to blow and charged his men forward against the blaze of the enemy artillery. 24 The reckoning had begun.

The royal army was commanded by Edward, with Lord Hastings on the left flank and Richard duke of Gloucester leading the right. Opposite them were Oxford, Montague and Exeter, with the earl of Warwick commanding from the rear. The two armies were misaligned, so that Gloucester’s men heavily outnumbered Exeter’s at the eastern end of the battlefield, while Hastings was hobbled in his fight against Oxford on the west. Hastings in particular took terrible losses, his division routed and chased back in the direction of London, carrying the false but terrifying news that Warwick had triumphed, capturing Edward and killing Clarence and Gloucester.

It was not so. Both sides’ guns were nullified by the thick fog, and the battle raged hand to hand, ‘cruel and mortal’. Edward fought in the centre of it all, his vision obscured so badly that he, like the rest of his men, could ‘see but a little from him’. Nevertheless, he ‘manly, vigorously and valiantly assailed’ his enemies and ‘with great violence, beat and bore down afore him all that stood in his way … first on that one hand, and then on that other hand … so that nothing might stand in the sight of him’.25

While Edward was accustomed to fighting on foot, Warwick was said by one chronicler to prefer to run with his men into battle before mounting on horseback, ‘and if he found victory inclined to his side, he charged boldly among them; if otherwise he took care of himself in time and provided for his escape’.26 At Barnet, however, he was harangued by his brother Montague, who insisted that he should demonstrate the Neville family’s courage by fighting on foot and sending his horses away. It was to be his undoing. After several hours of fighting the battle lines had wheeled ninety degrees, and the positions of the two armies grew very confused. The earl of Oxford, returning from his pursuit of Hastings’s men, arrived back on the misty battlefield and attacked what he thought were Edward’s rear lines. In fact he was encountering Montague’s men. In the mist and the press of battle, the Neville retinue apparently mistook the Oxford badge – a star – for Edward’s sun, and immediately turned their guns on their own allies.27 The cry of ‘Treason’ went up around the Lancastrian–Neville army and its order collapsed. In the confusion Warwick turned to scramble from the field and save himself. But on foot he was fatally hampered. By the time he had found a horse and set off in the direction of St Albans, there were Yorkist men in pursuit. Warwick was driven into a little wood at a fork in the road, where he was taken prisoner and killed before he could be brought up to Edward IV. Behind him on the battlefield Warwick left his brother John, Marquess Montague to be ‘slain … in plain battle, and many other knights, squires, noblemen, and other’.28

It was all over by eight o’clock on Easter morning. The battlefield was strewn with ten thousand spent arrows.29 The earl of Oxford fled the field and escaped to Scotland. Exeter was left for dead on the battlefield, but was eventually discovered by a servant, dragged from the field towards London and spirited into the sanctuary at Westminster. Later he was taken out of sanctuary and imprisoned in the Tower, where he remained for four years.

Edward lost his allies Lord Cromwell, Lord Saye and Sir William Blount in the fighting; his brother Gloucester and brother-in-law Lord Scales were both seriously injured and thousands more lay dead on the field on both sides. Those who staggered the ten miles back to London were seen arriving with their horses lame and faces bandaged, some having had their noses cut off in the fighting. ‘All men say that there was never in a hundred years a fiercer battle in England than this,’ wrote one well-connected foreign correspondent.30 There was no doubt that Edward had won an astonishing victory. St George, the Virgin and all the saints in heaven, wrote the official chronicler of the battle, had adjudged Edward’s ‘quarrel to be true and rightwise’. To advertise this fact, by the king’s order Warwick and Montague’s bodies were brought to London ‘in two chests, and were set upon the stones in the body of the church of St Paul’s, lying therein naked, except for a cloth tied around the private parts of either, so that everyone in London and others might see them, which many thousands did’.31

Just one enemy remained. On 16 April word reached the king that Queen Margaret, her son Prince Edward, his wife Anne Neville and many others, including Lord Wenlock, had finally found a favourable wind from Normandy and had landed on the south coast at Weymouth with seventeen ships, and had been greeted by their allies Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset and John Courtenay, earl of Devon. For all the death and destruction that had been caused, it seemed as though there might be yet more to come. Foreign diplomats, receiving their news piecemeal across the Channel, shook their heads and marvelled at England’s topsy-turvy politics. ‘I wish the country and the people were plunged deep in the sea, because of their lack of stability, for I feel like one going to the torture when I write about them, and no one ever hears twice alike about English affairs,’ wrote Ambassador Bettini in a letter home to Milan. One thing was certain: the kingdom was not safe yet.


The Lancastrian army struggled through the inhospitable land north of Gloucester on the eastern bank of the river Severn: ‘a foul country, all in lanes and stony ways, betwixt woods and without any good refreshing’. It was Friday 3 May, and some of them – including their leaders Queen Margaret and Prince Edward – had been travelling for more than three weeks. Their enemy, a rival royal army under the leadership of King Edward IV, had been in pursuit for several days. Both armies were now heading for the town of Tewkesbury, where there was a crossing in the river that would allow the chase to continue on the other side, with all of Wales opening up beyond. The troops on both sides were weary. Their leaders pushed them urgently onwards. The fight, when it came, was likely to be final.

Margaret and Prince Edward had landed in England on Easter Sunday, the same day that the slaughter was unfolding at the battle of Barnet. They had immediately begun raising troops, sending requests to supporters calling for ‘all such fellowship as you can make in your most defensible array’, against ‘Edward Earl of March the King’s great Rebel our Enemy’.32 The call was answered: large numbers of men had flocked to the Lancastrian standard from Devon and Cornwall. They formed a dangerous, undisciplined army that terrorised the towns they visited as Margaret pressed them northwards, marching through Somerset towards the Cotswolds, in the hope either of meeting up in Wales with Jasper Tudor, who might provide them with loyal soldiers from the principality, or of reaching Lancashire, ‘where great numbers of men skilled in archery were to be found’.33As they went, Queen Margaret kept up a stream of cheerfully outrageous propaganda, sending word to the king of France that ‘the Earl of Warwick was not dead, as reported, but he had been wounded in the fight with King Edward and had withdrawn to a secret and solitary place to get well of his wounds and sickness’, and that Prince Edward was ‘in London with a very large following of men and with the favour and assistance of the greater part of the common people and citizens’.34

Barely having enjoyed his victory at Barnet, Edward IV had been forced to scramble for another army, which he assembled at Windsor on 24 April, the day after St George’s Day and the annual royal feast held to commemorate the foundation of the Order of the Garter. Spies had informed him of the Lancastrians’ movements, so Edward had set off in pursuit of his enemies, heading north-west to try and cut them off in the Cotswolds. He had been in Cirencester on 29 April, as Margaret’s army approached Bath. Thereafter the two armies had tracked each other for the best part of a week.

On 3 May, a blisteringly hot day, as the Lancastrians struggled through the foul country by the riverbank towards Tewkesbury, Edward had flogged his chasing army a full thirty-one miles in a twelve-hour hike. The paucity of supplies in the countryside made supporting one army difficult, and two armies impossible. Thus Edward’s men had covered their ground without stopping once for food and water – there was ‘ne so much as drink for their horses, save in one little brook’, wrote one chronicler.35 It was an astonishing piece of leadership to have moved around five thousand hungry, thirsty men so far, so fast. But Edward managed it, and with his two brothers by his side, along with Lord Hastings, John duke of Norfolk and his stepson Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset and many other noblemen, he was able to close in on the Lancastrians with his usual certainty of purpose. Throughout the day, his scouts watched the enemy army, travelling ‘evermore … within five or six miles’.36 They camped near Tewkesbury in the afternoon on 3 May, ‘so extremely fatigued with the labour of marching and thirst that they could proceed no further’.37 Queen Margaret’s army arrived at Tewkesbury at four o’clock on the same afternoon. They, too, were exhausted from many days and miles of punishing marching. The two sides made camp around three miles away from each other, knowing full well what the next day would bring.

Early in the morning the following day, Saturday 4 May, Edward donned his armour and divided his army into three divisions under the same leadership that had prevailed at Barnet – himself, Hastings and the brilliant young Gloucester, who was now given command of the vanguard. Then he ‘displayed his banners, did blow up the trumpets; committed his cause and quarrel to Almighty God … the Virgin Mary, the glorious martyr Saint George, and all the saints and advanced directly upon his enemies’.38 The Lancastrians were arrayed under Prince Edward (assisted by Lord Wenlock and Sir John Langstrother, the prior of St John), Edmund duke of Somerset and John Courtenay, earl of Devon. Queen Margaret was some distance from the battlefield, perhaps watching events from Tewkesbury Abbey, which sat beyond a meadow and a couple of fishponds north of the Lancastrian lines. The battleground was uneven and pitted with obstacles: a road separated the two armies, and the ground between them contained ‘deep dykes, [and] so many hedges, trees and bushes’. It was, said one writer, ‘a right evil place to approach’.

Edward began his assault with a hail of arrows and gunshot – a ‘right-a-sharp shower’ –which was returned in kind. Fire was concentrated on the Lancastrian vanguard under the duke of Somerset, and ‘his fellowship was sore annoyed’. They refused to stand firm beneath the hail of deadly missiles until eventually the duke was forced to order a charge on the Yorkist lines. His men ran down the hill on which they had been arrayed, heading directly for the middle of Edward’s army, rather than for Gloucester’s vanguard, against whom they were most directly aligned. The troops crashed into each other, Somerset’s men fighting ‘right fiercely’ before ‘the King, full manly, set for the even upon them’ and began to push the attack back up the hill.

Before battle started Edward had detached two hundred pikemen and sent them to a nearby wood, instructing them to scout for a Lancastrian ambush. If they found nothing, they were to return to the battlefield ‘as they thought most behovefull’ and ‘to employ themselves in the best wise as they could’. It was a tactical masterstroke. As Somerset’s men were bowled back up the hill towards their own lines ‘with great violence’, Edward’s detachment of spearmen attacked them from the side, sending them into total disarray. Their discipline dissolved and Somerset’s whole division was scattered into the meadow and fields, ‘where they best hoped to escape the danger’. Just as at Towton, the meadow ran with blood as the fight became a rout: tired, panic-stricken men run down and hacked to pieces.

Somerset’s failure seems to have precipitated the collapse of the whole Lancastrian army. Lord Wenlock was killed. So was the earl of Devon and Somerset’s brother, John Beaufort. Most devastating of all, Prince Edward was cut down in the first battle he ever fought, ‘fleeing to the town-wards and slain in the field’. The chronicler Warkworth heard that the prince had died crying for succour from his brother-in-law George duke of Clarence.39 As their leaders were butchered, the Lancastrian captains and troops scattered from the field. Those who escaped death in the meadow fled either for the abbey or for the numerous churches of the surrounding countryside, hoping to find sanctuary. Not all of them would be so lucky.

The battle was decisive. Edward had ‘at last gained a glorious victory’.40 And just as at Towton he was determined to secure that victory with bloody swiftness. The king marched directly from the battlefield to Tewkesbury Abbey, where Somerset and others were sheltering under the protection of sanctuary. According to Warkworth, Edward walked into the abbey church ‘with his sword’ in his hand, only to be stopped by a priest holding the holy sacrament, who demanded that a royal pardon should be issued to the lords who were hiding there. Edward appears to have consented, and ordered the burial of those who had fallen in battle on the abbey’s consecrated ground ‘without any quartering or defouling [of ] their bodies’. Two days later, though, Somerset, Sir John Langstrother, Sir Hugh Courtenay and others were taken out of the abbey by force, and given into the custody of Gloucester as the constable of England, and Norfolk in his capacity as marshal. Gloucester’s court found them all guilty. They were beheaded in the town on the same day.

On 7 May Edward left Tewkesbury. He was barely out of the town when news came that Queen Margaret had been tracked down and taken at a nearby poor religious house, possibly Malvern Priory, in the company of her son’s widow, Anne Neville, the countess of Devon and Lady Katherine Vaux. The queen was brought, broken-spirited, to London in a cart. Her life was spared, but her fight was over. She would spend the next four years in honourable confinement, the prisoner of Alice de la Pole, the aged widow of her husband’s greatest minister, the duke of Suffolk, who had once been her lady-in-waiting. In 1475 Margaret would be ransomed back to Louis XI, under whose patronage she would live out the rest of her life: lonely, defeated and stripped of her power, her days of adventure over.

There was one last serious flurry of Lancastrian rebellion: as news reached London that all had been lost at Tewkesbury, Warwick’s cousin Thomas Neville, known universally as ‘the bastard of Fauconberg’, raised a rebellion in his father’s home county of Kent. He was an extremely accomplished sea captain, pirate and soldier, and between 10 May and 14 May he sailed up and down the Thames, launching attacks by land and sea on London’s gates and walls, aided by several hundred crack troops from Calais: it seems likely that they hoped to remove Henry VI from the Tower. But Edward had thought to anticipate an attack on the city. Anthony, Earl Rivers had been left to lead London’s defences and he did so with great distinction. Despite the fact that Fauconberg set up cannon on the south bank of the Thames to pound the city’s walls, destroying part of London Bridge and capturing the Aldgate, Rivers and the earl of Essex husbanded the Londoners’ defences, counter-attacked effectively from within the city and eventually hounded Fauconberg and his men away: he took ship and fled back across the Channel. (He would later be captured at Southampton, handed over to the duke of Gloucester and executed, his severed head being placed on London Bridge, facing Kent, whence he had brought his rebels.) With Fauconberg’s defeat the last serious plank of Lancastrian resistance was broken. On Tuesday 21 May 1471, Edward rode once more into London in a procession led by the triumphant Gloucester, ‘with a retinue far greater than any of his former armies, and with standards unfurled and borne before him and the nobles of his army’.41 Trumpets blared as the triumphant king returned to his city ‘to the great joy and consolation of his friends, allies and well-willers … and to the great confusion of all his enemies’.

That same night, Henry VI died. The king’s confessor and biographer John Blacman said that Henry spent his last days having visions, including one in which he successfully admonished an imaginary woman whom he saw through his window attempting to drown a child.42 A more physically harmless inhabitant of the Tower of London it was hard to imagine, but Edward was no longer prepared to be merciful beyond reason. The official chronicler of the Yorkist royal victory said that Henry reacted very badly to the certainty of his defeat and the death of his son: ‘He took it to so great despite, ire and indignation, that, of pure displeasure and melancholy, he died.’43 This would have been an unsatisfactory explanation even were it not for the fact that Richard duke of Gloucester was in the Tower on the night of Henry’s death: a more believable account is given by the chronicler Warkworth, who recorded that Henry was ‘put to death’ between eleven o’clock and midnight.44 His body was wrapped in linen and taken the next day by torchlight to St Paul’s for display; it bled on the cathedral pavement several times. Later, Henry’s corpse was transported by boat to Chertsey Abbey for burial. (It would be exhumed and moved to Windsor in 1484.) Henry may have been bludgeoned to death: his corpse was found much later to have light brown hair matted with what appeared to be blood.45

It did not take long for the news of Henry’s ‘secret assassination’ to circulate: by mid-June it was common knowledge at the French court that Edward IV, in order to bring the wars finally to an end, had applied himself to the extermination of his enemies. ‘He has, in short,’ wrote one ambassador, ‘chosen to crush the seed.’46 Edward’s decade as king had finally taught him the value of ruthlessness. Within the space of eleven weeks and against the most desperate odds he had invaded England, raised an army, rescued his son and heir from sanctuary, fought two ‘right-great, cruel and mortal’ battles, put down a rebellion, killed or captured virtually every one of his enemies, slain his rival king and successor and won back his crown.47 There had not been as successful and fortunate an English general since the days of Henry V. Edward was, as one writer put it, ‘a most renowned conqueror and a mighty monarch; whose praises resounded far and wide throughout the land’.48 He had not just staked his claim in blood: he had now earned it in bloodshed. He reigned with unarguable and well-deserved majesty: a great and glorious king.

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