Military history


A Queen Transformed

The Dukes of York and Lancaster


After St Albans, the King was in York’s power but the country was not, as it would only recognize the power of an anointed king. Within this vacuum of authority, great men of the realm followed the lead given by York at St Albans and sought to settle personal disputes by violence. Nowhere was this worse than in the West Country, where the long-standing quarrel between York’s erstwhile ally the Earl of Devon and Lord Bonville escalated. It is worth relating one incident at length, as recorded in a petition for redress. It was outbreaks of lawlessness such as this which persuaded a reluctant peerage again to make York Protector, after St Albans, in order to restore order.

The Thursday the 23rd day of October the year of your noble reign 38th, [Nicholas Radford] was in God’s peace and yours in his own place called Uppecote in the town of Cadley in the same shire. There came, on that same day and year, Thomas Courtenay late of Tiverton in the said shire who was a knight, son to Thomas Earl of Devonshire, Nicholas Philippe otherwise called Nicholas Gye late of the same town and shire who was yeoman and with him, Thomas Philippe late of the same town and shire, also holding the title of yeoman, John Amore otherwise called John Penyale late of Exilond (Exe Island) in the same shire who was a tailor – (and 94 others) – with other riotous persons whose names had been unknown, arrayed in the manner of war, that is to say, with jacks, sallets, bows, arrows, swords, bucklers, halberds, long daggers and other weapons defensible, greatly against the peace of you Sovereign Lord at midnight of the same Thursday. They then that said place assaulted and beset it all about. The said Nicholas, along with his wife and all his men were, at that time, in their beds and the misdoers, as soon as they had beset the place, they made there a great shout and set the gates of the place on fire. Nicholas Radford awoke, hearing a great noise and stirring about within his quarters, arose and opened the window of his chamber and, seeing the gates on fire, asked who they were that were there and whether there were any gentlemen among them. Nicholas Philippe, one of the aforementioned individuals, answered and said, ‘here is Sir Thomas Courtenay’.

That same Sir Thomas Courtenay, hearing the Radford speak, called to him, saying in this wise, ‘Come down Radford, and speak with me.’ And then Radford, knowing the voice of Sir Thomas Courtenay, knight, answered, saying to him these words: ‘Sir, you will promise me on your faith and truth, as you are a true knight and gentleman, that I shall have no bodily harm, nor shall you hurt any of my goods, then I will come down to you.’ Sir Thomas Courtenay, knight, answered the said Nicholas Radford once more, and said to him in this wise, ‘Radford come ye to me, and I promise you as I am a true knight and gentleman you shall be safe in regard to both your body and your goods.’ Whereupon the said Nicholas Radford, trusting faithfully in that promise, came out of his chamber with torch alight, and did set open the gates and let him in – and then cramped in with him in his place the misgoverned individuals. Radford, seeing so many within his place, was sore afraid, and said to Sir Thomas Courtenay knight, ‘Sir what do all these people here?’ and he answered again and said ‘Radford, you shall have no harm,’ and thereupon the Sir Thomas Courtenay bade Nicholas Radford bring him to the chamber where he lay. Radford did so, and there Sir Thomas C. both ate and drank, and thence came out into the hall, with Radford accompanying him, and there they stood together at a sideboard, and drank of the latter’s wine. There the said Sir Thomas Courtenay subtly held the said Nicholas R. with tales, while his men broke up the chamber doors and coffers of the said Nicholas R. and then and there the said misdoers above named, along with others, feloniously robbed the said Nicholas Radford of £300 and more in money numbered from his trussing coffers, and other goods and jewels, bedding, gowns, furs, books and ornaments of his chapel, to the value of 1000 marcs1 and more, and the goods they trussed together and carried them away with Radford’s own horse.

Through further rifling, they found the said Nicholas Radford’s wife in her bed, sore sick as she hath been for two years and more, rolled her out of her bed, and took away the sheets that she lay in and trussed them with the other stolen goods.

Afterwards, Sir Thomas Courtenay left his talking with the said Nicholas R. at the sideboard, and said to the said N. R., ‘Have do, Radford, for thou must go with me to my lord my father,’ and Radford said he would go with him, and bade his servant make him and his horse ready, and his servant answered him, ‘Sir your horse is stolen and charged with your goods.’ Hearing this, Radford said to the said Sir Thomas C., ‘Sir, I am aged, and may not well go upon my feet, and therefore I pray you that I may ride.’ Sir Thomas Courtenay answered him again in this wise, ‘Radford thou shalt ride. Come on with me.’ And he went forth with him a stone’s cast and more from his place within Cadley, and there the said Sir Thomas Courtenay, knight, met with the said Nicholas Philippe, Thomas P. and John Amore and forthwith spurred his horse and rode away, saying, ‘farewell Radford.’ The said Nicholas P., Thomas P. and John Amore and others turned upon Radford, and then and there the said Nicholas P. with a glaive smote the said Nicholas Radford a hideous deadly stroke across the face, and felled him to the ground, and then the said Nicholas Philippe gave him another stroke upon his head from behind so that the brain fell out of the head. And Thomas Philippe with a long dagger smote Radford from behind in his back, right into the heart. And so the said Nicholas P., T. P. and John Amore thus gave Nicholas Radford several deadly wounds, and then and there feloniously and horribly slew and murdered him. And the said Sir Thomas Courtenay knight, Nicholas Philippe, Thomas Philippe and John Amore and the other misdoers above named, there feloniously procured, stirred, consented and abetted with the others to carry out the horrible murder and felony in the above manner. And forthwith, after the said horrible murder and felony thus done, the said Sir Thomas Courtenay with all the other misdoers rode to Tiverton, Devonshire where the Earl, on the Friday next after that feloniously passed Thursday, comforted and harboured Sir Thomas Courtenay, N. P., T. P., and J. M. [sic] and other misdoers above named, along with the misdoers with the goods, knowing them to have done the said murder, robbery and felony in the above manner.

And the next Monday after the infamous Thursday, Henry Courtenay late of Tiverton in Devonshire, himself a squire, brother to Sir Thomas C., knight, and godson to Nicholas Radford, with several of the misdoers, came to the place where the body of Nicholas Radford lay, in the chapel of that man’s estate in Cadley, and there and then the said Henry C. and those misdoers took upon themselves the office of coroner without authority, with one of them presiding over an inquest into those that murdered Radford, he called them by such strange names as no man might know them by. The misdoers, by such peculiar names as they were called, scornfully appeared, and made such a presentment of events as pleased them and thus it is reported that they should find Nicholas Radford guilty of his own death, in great contempt and derision of your laws. And after that, Henry and several of the misdoers with others amounting to a great number, constrained certain persons there that were servants to Nicholas Radford to bear his body to the church … And there the misdoers took Radford’s body out of the coffin that he was laid in, and rolled him out of his sheet in which he was wound; and there and then cast the body all naked into the pit, and cast upon his body and head the same stones as Radford had recently put aside for the construction of his tomb, and the corpse horribly broke and quashed, having been shown no more compassion, no more pity than if it had been a Jew or a Saracen; this was one of the most heinous examples that have been seen or heard before in this realm of yours. And thereupon of your most benign grace for the confirmation of your laws and for the repression and prevention of such foul and horrible murders, robberies and felonies in eschewing of perilous example that by likelihood should ensue, if the murder, felony and robbery pass unpunished, may God defend us.2

The incident was an extreme example of the divorce between idealized concepts of behaviour and what was actually happening. In this instance the Earl of Devon’s son, Sir Thomas Courtenay, broke his word in ‘faith and truth’ as a ‘true knight and gentleman’ (not once but three times). His own actions, together with those of his brother and their followers, went against every concept of chivalry and all conventions of civilized behaviour. Shockingly, they gave recognition to institutions and concepts of justice, even as they subverted them. Devon and his sons were thugs. The rest of Radford’s property was put in the safekeeping of the Dean of Exeter Cathedral and though it was kept in a church, the Earl of Devon threatened to break the doors down unless the Dean unlocked them. He thought nothing of storming the cathedral with armed men, removing a clerk in the middle of celebrating Mass, beating him up and then imprisoning him until he was paid off.3

Appallingly, the Courtenays and their followers acted with impunity. There was an initial corrective from York, strong enough to alienate them and to join them to the court party. But there was no real punishment. Indeed, the reverse, as Sir Thomas married a cousin of Queen Margaret and received a comprehensive pardon in 1457.4 It was emblematic of the merging of national and local disputes – the Courtenays’ arch rival Lord Bonville having aligned himself with York – and of the sacrifice of formal and informal restraints on behaviour to the greater interests of security and survival.

That the institutional constraints were crumbling away was bitterly if colourfully captured by the contemporary chronicler John Hardyng in a poetic address dedicated to the King: ‘The law is like a Welshman’s hose; it is the right shape for each man’s leg. So supporters subvert it and twist it and its might is crushed under foot and the rioter’s rule might completely take the place of your law.’5

Once again York’s Protectorate was short-lived. By February 1456, most of the Lords were suspicious of York’s attempts to introduce reform of government in collaboration with the Commons in Parliament. Without the support of his fellow peers, the institutions of government naturally flowed back towards the monarch, or at least away from York. As for the King, Henry could henceforward barely function even as the figurehead he had been for Somerset between 1451 to 1453. His illness had left him a tired, broken man, increasingly in the shadow of his Queen. From this point on, York’s chief antagonist would be Margaret of Anjou.


Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is thought to encapsulate the very essence of medieval chivalry. But the story, conceived and written in the 1450s and 1460s is far more complex than that. It is a celebration of the ideal of chivalry, but, with strong asides from the author, it is also a lament to its absence at the time of writing. Malory had many months to contemplate his task as he spent long periods in prison during those years. His alleged crimes were the complete antithesis of chivalric behaviour. Beginning with an eighteen-month spree in the early 1450s, he was accused of: leading twenty-five others in an attempt to ambush and murder the Duke of Buckingham; committing rape and extortion; cattle and deer rustling from Buckingham’s estates and violent robbery against two sets of monks, from the priory at Monks Kirby and from Combe Abbey. He was captured and charged at Nuneaton in a court presided over by the vengeful Duke of Buckingham himself and was sent for trial at Westminster, a trial that never took place. Instead, for Malory, the rest of the decade consisted of imprisonment, punctuated by periods of freedom, either through being bailed by powerful supporters or through his own daring escapes. He was released early in the 1460s, only to fall foul of a different set of authorities later in the decade and it was in prison once again, probably this time in some comfort in the Tower of London, that he finished his masterpiece. However one looks at it, the case of Sir Thomas Malory is far from the ideal world of the early days of Camelot. If he was guilty, it shows a knight who possessed not a shred of knightly virtue. If he was not – and his modern biographer Christina Hardyment makes a good case for him, though she accepts ‘the deer poaching’ – then this was yet another example of the law being abused and used as a weapon in the hands of a powerful magnate, with the assistance of a new breed of unscrupulous lawyer.6 Either way, it showed how distant this age was from the chivalric ideal.

As the actual practice of chivalry began to disappear, its stylized trappings and forms became grander. This process would continue in Tudor England and would be repeated in all the other great kingdoms of Europe. Its outer expressions, in hunting, in jousting, in heraldic badges, in household ceremonies and in the vast conspicuous consumption of everyday living were increasingly just part of social competition and display.

By the time of the battle of Towton, a core element of chivalry – its operation as a code of conduct between knights – was defunct. The increasingly vengeful behaviour of both sides in the coming battles saw to that. Thus chivalry, in terms of what has been elegantly expressed as the insurance policy of the knightly class on the battlefield, had gone.7 There were also more long-term causes relating to the nature of warfare itself. It had become both more impersonal and with that more ‘democratic’. In the earlier Middle Ages, battles were generally encounters between knights on horseback.8 By the late fourteenth century and into the fifteenth, the nature of battles had changed: one only had to think of the renowned English victories in France – Crécy, Poitiers and above all Agincourt – to realize that. If you, or your horse were likely to be felled by a plebeian arrow then it made sense to fight en masse and on foot.

By Towton, there was no longer ‘a code in which a key element was the attempt to limit the brutality of conflict by treating prisoners, at any rate when they were men of “gentle” birth, in a relatively humane fashion’.9 Defeat and capture did not, as in France, mean release on the payment of a ransom. By Towton, the ideal was to profit by the death of one’s aristocratic competitor. By then the aristocracy was no longer a collaborative class. The united, unified elite of Henry V, itself a reconsolidation of what Edward III had created, was gone.

York’s Protectorate was formally ended on 25 February. This was the third time that he had been displaced. On this occasion, however, he did not withdraw completely from the exercise of authority. A more inclusive administration ensued – inclusive but not collaborative. Rather like modern politics, there were people of differing interests and approaches who detested each other, but who were temporarily united under the pressure of a common enemy, giving them the opportunity to hate each other even more. There were real fears of an invasion from France; and in the summer there would be an actual invasion from Scotland, France’s ‘auld ally’.

But in the meantime there were other pressing matters. On 9 February, the House of Lords debated the sighting of what would later be known as Halley’s Comet. No doubt with some trepidation, as comets were seen as harbingers of upheaval: in Christendom at this very time, Alfonso Borgia as Calixtus III added a prayer to the Ave Maria, ‘Lord save us from the devil, the Turk, and the comet.’10 It was a time of great tension; York and Warwick rode that day to Parliament with four hundred armed and armoured men.11Whether it was in response to a real or imagined plot cannot be known.

After St Albans, York had decided to entrench his position once and for all. A Parliament had been summoned just four days after the battle. Of course he had wanted to gain protection for himself and his allies, but he had also been determined to bring final stability to the government, with himself as its provider in its absence from the King.

The vehicle used was the House of Commons. The very first symbolic act had been the final rehabilitation of the Duke of Gloucester, with the proclamation that Good Duke Humphrey ‘was the king’s true liegeman until his death’. This had been followed by placing the blame for St Albans on the dead Duke of Somerset and two rather minor figures, a former speaker called Thomas Thorp and a royal household man named William Joseph, who had acted with malice culminating in an attempt, by force, to block the Yorkists’ resort to the King.12 It was, of course, a travesty of the truth.

A major part of this Parliament was involved, as in 1450–51, with an attempted Resumption of previous royal grants of land, sinecures and pensions. On one level it was understandable: the still crippling expenditure of the royal household needed to be brought under control. On a tactical level, however, it alienated a great number of the more neutral peers, partly because they had themselves received rewards from the generous hands of the Somerset regime, but also because they saw it as an attack on the royal prerogative. As a result, they withdrew their support for the Protectorate. Even worse, from York’s point of view, the attempted Resumption had incurred not just the opposition but the permanent bitter enmity of the Queen.13

Margaret of Anjou may have been viewed with suspicion by the common people as a French Queen of England at a time of disastrous defeat in the French Wars, but she had been, right up to the end of those wars, a loyal, submissive, mediating and very traditional Queen. For the first eight years of her marriage there had, however, been one absolutely essential missing element: she had failed to produce an heir to the throne. But on 13 October 1453, during the early months of Henry’s madness, Margaret had at last given birth to a healthy son, Edward. Despite later Yorkist slurs, there was no doubt that Henry was the father.

In 1454 Margaret put herself forward as a candidate for the regency, but it seems that she understood why York was made Protector. However, after St Albans and particularly after the move for a Resumption, her attitude changed completely. The envisaged Resumption of lands and revenues by the royal household was far more draconian than that of 1450. In an attempt to bring royal expenditure under the control of a Council dominated by York, the Yorkist-controlled House of Commons had attacked the dignity of the House of Lancaster itself. The lands of the King’s two Tudor half-brothers, the Earls of Richmond and Pembroke, would be reclaimed, as would Henry’s endowments to Eton and King’s. The income received by the infant Prince of Wales from his estates would be that for a child, with the rest going to the royal household. Furthermore, the Resumption would include the management of the Duchy of Lancaster estates within a royal household to be controlled by York; they were no longer to be treated as the King’s personal revenue. In addition to restricting the actions of the incumbent king, those of his son and heir would also be subject to Yorkist control. The Queen would countenance none of this.

Nor would the majority of the nobility. The avowed enemies of York and the Nevilles were joined in opposition by more moderate figures such as the Duke of Buckingham – a magnate who also had royal descent from Edward III and possessed landholdings almost as extensive as those of York himself. His was a personal loyalty to the King and Queen. It did not diminish when his Bourchier halfbrothers, Henry Viscount Bourchier, Lord Treasurer, and Thomas Bourchier, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, were removed from their pivotal administrative posts at Margaret’s command in October 1456. Buckingham himself, with his son-in-law the new Earl of Shrewsbury (son of the warrior of Castillon) as treasurer and Bishop Waynflete of Winchester as chancellor now ran the basic administration of the country in attendance on Henry.

The executive power to issue royal decrees through the Privy Seal was also with Henry, or rather with Margaret, whose own personal chancellor, Laurence Booth, was made its keeper operating from the new base for the court deep within the Duchy of Lancaster lands at Kenilworth and at Coventry.14 If York believed that the exceptional circumstance of the permanent incapacity of an adult King to exercise authority required a permanent solution, then so too did Margaret. Yet their motives and their approaches could not have been more different and more conflicting. Ultimately they were irreconcilable. They shared one ambition: each sought to have pre-eminent control.

York has traditionally been cast as someone whose focus was utterly self-interested, stemming from financial concerns, personal hatreds, dynastic ambitions, the fear of exclusion and the not inconsiderable aim of self-preservation.15 He was surely more complex than that and consequently far more dangerous. He may have been a recipient of the largesse of the Suffolk regime and he did consider his own personal interests, but he would not have allowed any number of grants and gratuities to compromise his honour. It was what he believed to be the gross dishonour of Somerset’s surrender of Normandy and, with it, the betrayal of men to whom he had given his promise of protection which initially stirred him to action. Furthermore he had been gravely insulted by accusations of treason and the slur of having sponsored Cade’s rebellion, compounded by the opposition to his landing from Ireland in 1450. That Somerset should then be able to take on Suffolk’s mantle at the head of the administration, rather than facing ‘justice’, led York to challenge the way the administration itself functioned.

However, this challenge outlived the death of Somerset and York’s brutal achievement of the initial objective. Increasingly, it had become the remorseless York’s aim to fill the vacuum of royal authority with his own. He wanted to dominate the Council and control and reform the Household as a ruler, rather than as a manager of interests as Suffolk and Somerset had done. Yet to do so he needed the complete control of the King and his seals of administration, together with the acquiescence of the greater part of the nobility. In the short term, through successive crises, York had gained control; in the long term he was perceived by too many of the peerage as the problem rather than the solution. They suspected him of ambitions to permanently change the nature of the monarchy and with it the position of the nobility; of an unscrupulous willingness to use the monetary and legislative power of the House of Commons; and furthermore as personally reckless, ready to unleash the physical threat of his own retainers and the common people. York saw himself as an authoritative figure, acting for the common good of all and restoring order by the most effective means to hand. His opponents saw him as a dangerous innovator, willing with the Nevilles to unleash the mob to advance their position.

The greatest of his opponents was the Queen, whose opposition spurred her to behave in a completely revolutionary way. From October 1456 onwards, she had control of the instruments of government. Not just the Privy Seal, but also, for much of the time, the supreme administrative authority of the Great Seal through the presence of Chancellor Waynflete and, additionally, access to finance through Treasurer Shrewsbury. Though she asserted the dignity of the King, she increasingly promoted a new pre-eminence: that of herself and her son. The civic records of Coventry show this: when a Great Council came to an end there in March 1457, it was made chillingly clear to the mayor and aldermen that the special honours traditionally due only to a king on his arrival and departure must henceforward, and without fail, be shown to the Queen. Thus that September, to mark the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, it was Margaret who made the triumphal entry into Coventry. We know that Henry was there, because a reference was made to him in a speech and because gifts were received, but it seems that his was a passive and silent presence.16 Again in 1457, when Margaret heard that the chapter of Exeter Cathedral had failed to install the royal candidate despite being instructed to do so in a letter sent in the name of the King, a further letter was sent – this time signed by her, not the King – expressing ‘our great marvel and displeasure if it be so’.17

The Queen was thus seeking to act as king. In this she was driven by her total focus on her son and the need to protect his inheritance. It has even been suggested, improbably, that in 1458 she vainly tried to get Henry to abdicate in young Edward’s favour. Meanwhile, having resisted York’s attempts to gain conciliar control over the Duchy of Lancaster, the Crown’s own private personal domain, Margaret sought to use its base in rich lands in the Midlands to establish herself as the most powerful regional magnate in the country. As well as trying to contain the Duke of York by using, through proxy, the power of her husband, she was prepared to utilize the resources of the Duchy. In short, to defeat the Duke of York by being, in effect, the Duke of Lancaster.

It is possible that Margaret might have destroyed York in the autumn of 1456, had she had enough noble support. That she had not even attempted it was because York’s and Salisbury’s military prowess was needed to see off the Scots and Warwick’s to protect the immensely important territory of Calais.

By 1458, England was more secure from outside invasion. Partly as a consequence, it was even less secure from internal division. Recognizing this, an attempt was made to broker reconciliation between the irreconcilable parties by bringing them together at a Love Day’. To signal a new start, it would take place on 25 March – Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary – which, until the calendar changed in 1752, was the first day of the New Year. Some have attributed this initiative to Henry, but it is more likely to have been organized by Chancellor Waynflete and the more moderate men of the Council.18 As well as peace between Margaret and York, it was hoped that this gathering would draw a line under events at St Albans three years before, by assuaging the grievances of the three lords – Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford – whose fathers had been slain. These three had, according to the Yorkists, repeatedly attempted to settle the score by assassination. The Lancastrian lords had certainly organized gangs for the purpose of ‘arresting’ York, Salisbury and Warwick, commanding them either individually or collectively. Their ally Exeter had joined the plots.

Young Somerset, in particular, had cause to hate Warwick. Henry Somerset had been at his father’s side at St Albans; having been badly wounded, he was placed under the ‘protection’ of Warwick until the Parliament opened. There can be no doubt that this was, in fact, custody. At the Great Council summoned at Coventry in October 1456, Somerset had to be restrained from physically attacking York. The next month in London he had tried to assault first Warwick and then Warwick’s younger brother, Sir John Neville.19

Love Day sought to pacify the Lancastrian lords by having York, Salisbury and Warwick make reparations to them, with the only offer in return being a bond made by Egremont to keep his peace with the Earl of Salisbury for ten years.20 The bitter foes walked side by side and hand in hand to St Paul’s for a service of thanksgiving and, with the King and Queen back in London and its neighbourhood, celebrations continued for some weeks. None of the lords, however, had come to London alone – far from it. The Lancastrian heirs of St Albans and their allies had brought more than two thousand men; York and the Nevilles fifteen hundred. The two sides were separated by the walls of the City itself, with the Yorkists inside and the Lancastrians out. Even so, the Mayor of London raised a force of five hundred men to keep the peace.21 The number of retainers brought by the leaders of the two sides for their own protection was a truer indicator of the state of affairs between them.

Love Day was doomed to failure. Proof of that came in November, when Warwick was almost assassinated in a highly dramatic manner at a Council meeting at Westminster. He had been called to the Council to justify his actions in Calais, probably with the intention of having him replaced by young Somerset. The meeting was scarcely under way when a clash of weapons was heard outside, coming from Warwick’s men and soldiers of the royal household. Warwick himself instantly became embroiled with senior household officers and had to fight his way to his barge to escape.22Soon he was back in Calais, refusing all demands that he give up his post. Within months the King and Queen were in the Midlands, hastened on their way, without doubt, by ever-increasing lawlessness in London and the South East.

The country had been slowly dividing into two somewhat unequal halves. The Lancastrians could boast possession of the Crown itself through the King. They also had the Queen and the greater part of the nobility. This included men such as Buckingham, who though he had been involved in property disputes with Warwick at a local level, had previously been more patient nationally. A pivotal figure at court and in the Council, his attitude had hardened completely, both to Warwick in Calais and to his own brother-in-law, York.

The interdependence of the Lancastrian party was being reinforced by fresh marriage alliances in the manner of an arms race. Partisans were in control of the central administration and that of most of the shires. Yet they were administering in an increasingly ad-hoc and informal way through ‘martial law, arbitrations, monetary bonds and sworn oaths’.23 The traditional route of the law and the courts was avoided as it was considered too slow at a time of increasing lawlessness. Consequently, lesser men sought to resolve their disputes by force. They protected themselves by joining the affinity of men more powerful than themselves: it was a case where the enemy of the patron of one’s enemy should be sought as one’s friend. Enmity of one family for another at a regional and local level could dictate which national faction was favoured and could bring about changes of allegiance. The desertion of the court faction for the Duke of York by the former Beaufort insider Nevilles brought the Percys, their long-standing greatest enemies, back into the bosom of royal favour. The desertion from York to Lancaster by the Courtenays of Devon brought their hated rival Lord Bonville into the Yorkist camp. In the same way, men many layers down who had no existing affiliation joined the thousands who already did, and looked to a lord to protect their interests.

Queen Margaret had not felt strong enough in 1456 to settle accounts, but by June 1459 her position had consolidated. A Great Council was called at Coventry. York, the Nevilles, the Bourchiers and some others were deliberately excluded. It was a public acknowledgement that the confrontation which both sides had been anticipating and for which they had been arming themselves, was inevitable. York, Salisbury and Warwick called their own council, with their own forces, to meet in York’s heartlands in the West Marches, at his fortress at Ludlow.


York, Salisbury, Warwick and their allies expected to assemble their forces at Ludlow, then head east together to the great royal castle of Kenilworth and, as at St Albans four years earlier, to capture and take control of the King – and if this meant they would first have to defeat their enemies in battle, so be it.

But this time the odds were stacked against the Yorkists. The King and Queen were in their Midlands heartlands and able to recruit more easily; whereas the Yorkists were widely separated. Although York was already at Ludlow, Salisbury was at his own great Yorkshire fortress of Middleham and Warwick was in Calais. They therefore had insufficient time to maximize their forces before moving to rendezvous with York. For Warwick, this was almost calamitous; on his march from London, where he had been allowed entrance for one night, he and a small group narrowly escaped capture by the vengeful young Somerset at Coleshill in Warwickshire. Meanwhile Salisbury was being tracked not by one large contingent, but three, nominally commanded by the King, the Queen and Prince Edward respectively. It was the Prince’s contingent, largely composed of men from Cheshire, that caught Salisbury’s force at Blore Heath near Market Drayton. In the ensuing engagement, though significantly outnumbered, Salisbury beat off a much larger force and the Prince’s commander, Lord Audley, was killed. Significant blood had been shed. There was also a cost to Salisbury as two of his younger sons were wounded then captured by Lancastrians and later imprisoned. Salisbury’s contingent then continued its march and, under cover of darkness, evaded the converging Lancastrian forces. The account in Gregory’s Chronicle, written after the event, added the colourful but no doubt fanciful detail that Salisbury’s decampment was aided by an Austin Friar firing a cannon at who knows what during the night to give the impression that Salisbury had remained on the field.24

Warwick and Salisbury did make it to Ludlow and soon afterwards the combined force began its march towards the King. They were between Worcester and Kidderminster, still a long way from Kenilworth, when York’s army sighted the Lancastrians. Realizing how heavily outnumbered he was, and hesitating to attack the King with Standard raised, York led his force back to Worcester. Here the three Yorkist leaders, after taking the sacrament, took an oath of loyalty to the King. Their protestations were ignored; the Lancastrians continued their advance. York then retreated to Tewkesbury while the King advanced to Worcester. It was probably from here that the Bishop of Salisbury was sent to offer a general pardon to the Yorkists, with one exception – the Bishop’s namesake by place. For the Earl of Salisbury’s action at Blore Heath, in opposing a royal army and killing its commander, was not forgiven. The more general pardon, as all must have known it would be, was rejected. As the King’s forces continued their advance, York’s crossed the Severn and returned to Ludlow.

There, at Ludford Bridge, alongside the River Teme, he spent the daylight hours of 12 October building a defensive position. His pursuers, at first slowed by their own need to rest and reorganize and then by York’s forward traps and skirmishers, arrived at near nightfall to be greeted by Yorkist cannon fire over their lines.

Yorkist morale was not good. They were heavily outnumbered, possibly by as many as two to one. Yet they faced an even greater problem: the King may not have been in command – probably, as at the Battle of St Albans, it was the Duke of Buckingham – but he was, however, present and, most importantly, his Standard was clearly raised. This was not like St Albans, where the thin excuse of not being able to see that Standard had, in their own eyes at least, covered the Yorkists’ actions. It was an important enough difference to give Andrew Trollope, Warwick’s second-in-command, the excuse to cross to the enemy lines under cover of darkness and honour his long connections with the Beauforts. Trollope, the Master Porter of Calais, was an extremely talented professional soldier, thus to lose him was a great blow. An even greater blow was that he took a good part of the Calais troops and the Yorkist battle plan with him.

York, whose visceral hatred of Somerset had stemmed from what he regarded as the latter’s dishonourable actions in Normandy, now did something deeply dishonourable himself. Taking with him his two eldest sons, together with Salisbury, Warwick and a few captains, he crossed the river into Ludlow and the castle. He had assured his remaining captains that the group was going to Ludlow Castle for refreshment. In fact they fled, leaving the bulk of York’s army to their fate.

Buckingham and the Queen were merciful to those left behind. Fined and imprisoned they may have been, but they were generally later pardoned. It was not they but Ludlow itself which was the immediate target of Lancastrian vengeance. In another dishonourable act, one designed to utterly humiliate York through showing him incapable of ensuring the well-being of his servants and retainers at the very heart of his own estates, Ludlow was treated as an alien foreign town. Gregory’s Chronicle describes the scenes that followed:

The misrule of the King’s gallants at Ludlow, when they had drunk enough of the wine that was in the taverns and in other places, they full ungodly smote out the heads of the pipes and hogs heads of wine, that men went wet shod in wine, and then they robbed the town and bore away bedding, cloth and other goods and defiled many women.25

The English Chronicle confirms that Ludlow ‘was robbed to the bare walls’.26 The rape and pillage of Ludlow was a clear and deliberate sign to York: he may have saved his own life but he had lost everything else.

At the Coventry Parliament that followed the Yorkist debacle, York’s duchess, Cecily, was allowed to retain some manors but lost her freedom. She was placed in the custody of her elder sister Anne, Duchess of Buckingham, and subjected to choleric lectures from her brother-in-law, the Duke.27 As for York’s vast English estates and those of Warwick and Salisbury, all were confiscated. Some were kept by the Crown and the rest granted to the trio’s fiercest Lancastrian enemies.

York, with his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, escaped to Ireland. Warwick, Salisbury and York’s heir Edward, Earl of March, had, with some difficulty, reached Calais, kept secure for them by Salisbury’s brother, Lord Fauconberg. Reports on the fate of Ludlow would undoubtedly have followed them to their new redoubts. But the news of the rampage of undisciplined troops and the sack of an important town was greeted with trepidation elsewhere; not least by the citizens of London.

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