The Act of Accord did more than just look to the future in settling the succession on York and his heirs, it sought to make the Yorkist ascendancy permanent. Having sworn that he would do nothing to shorten Henry VI’s natural life, York expected the same in return. He may not have been crowned, but York’s person was now sacred: any plot to harm him would be considered treason.
York may not have had the title of king, but he expected to rule as one and in this he was strongly supported by Warwick. The Earl of Warwick may have had doubts about York replacing Henry as king, but he showed no reservations about pursuing the best way forward. Even before the June invasion from Calais, Coppini had been the recipient of Warwick’s frank view of the King and his capabilities, as ‘a dolt and a fool who is ruled instead of ruling. The royal power is in the hands of his wife and those who defile the king’s chamber.’1 This may or may not have been Warwick’s real view of Henry’s mental capacity from the moment he saw a catatonic king at Windsor in 1454. It was certainly his view in 1460.
The kingly power and the Crown’s assets were henceforth, so the Yorkists believed, with them. York was given the Duchy of Cornwall and he and his sons were awarded vast sums of money taken from the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster, not to mention the Principality of Wales and the Earldom of Chester, all to be under the supervision of the new Lord Treasurer – the Earl of Warwick. There was no longer any suggestion from York, as in 1456, of restricting the Crown’s power for the good of the common weal. This was no mere reversal of the forfeiture of their titles and estates suffered by the Yorkists after Ludford Bridge.
This was England’s own particular version of the Treaty of Troyes, closely mirroring that agreement which had made Henry V heir to the Crown of France. As then, the previously accepted heir to the throne had been ruthlessly discarded. There was, however, one signal difference: this particular queen was not going to declare her son a bastard and give away his inheritance. The venom of this ‘great and strong laboured woman’2 towards York is still apparent in a letter to the City of London of several months later: ‘[York] of very pure malice, proposed to continue in his cruelness, to our utter undoing and that of our son, the prince, [has promulgated] several untrue and feigned matters and surmises.’3 Foremost amongst these of course were slurs against the prince’s legitimacy: what had been the stuff of popular ballad at the time of the 1460 invasion had become official Yorkist propaganda.
Both from York’s perspective and according to the Parliament of 1460, the preservation of the public good and common weal was reliant upon York’s repression of ‘great rebellions’4 – i.e. those in support of Margaret and the rights of her son. York was now the overriding legitimate authority and all who opposed him would be committing treason.
York left the capital for the North on 9 December. With him went Salisbury, Rutland and, at this stage, just a few hundred men. York had raised money for the payment of troops and purchase of supplies from London’s Common Council. But he received only half of the money he requested for he refused to give them the securities they sought.5 Warwick was to remain in London with the King. March, meanwhile, was in the Welsh borders, raising troops.
Had it been the normal campaigning season, York would no doubt have paused in a pro-Yorkist territory well south of the Trent, raising his own forces and waiting for his son’s to arrive. But this was outside the normal season and usual weather for warfare. Driving rain hit them on the march and it was sufficiently bad for York to send his artillery train back southwards.6
There was a skirmish with Lancastrian troops at Worksop, probably under Somerset’s command.7 This further demonstrated Somerset’s utter contempt for the Yorkists, for he thus reneged at the first opportunity on a remarkable agreement he had reached with Warwick. It was indeed singular, because the otherwise efficiently brutal Warwick, on returning in the autumn to Calais, had allowed Somerset to march out of Guînes on the understanding that he would not take up arms again.8 It showed a remarkable underestimation of both the strength and hatred of the Lancastrians.
From Worksop, York’s small army continued north and west to his northern redoubt of Sandal Castle at Wakefield. He was on his own lands, but surrounded, for the most part, by those of his enemies.
Historians have speculated about York’s motives for advancing to Wakefield.9 He probably did so for one of two strategic reasons. Either he intended to go there from the first and expected acquiescence in the Accord from all but the Queen, the Prince and a small group of Lancastrian diehards. Or he diverted from an initial intention to stay south of the Trent and was drawn to Wakefield to protect his estates and those of his loyal retainers from devastation by his enemies. In short, if the latter, to take on the protective role he had been forced to abandon so shamefully at Ludlow, just fourteen months before.
There may have been another, more immediate reason, that he made, in Legate Coppini’s words ‘a rash advance’.10 He could have been taking advantage of a seasonal truce negotiated between himself and Somerset that was due to last over the Christmas period.11
If so, it was a grave misjudgement. Somerset and the older, experienced Trollope were extremely capable commanders – the contemporary Burgundian Chronicler Chastellain, singled out Somerset for praise, as did Gregory,12 while another chronicler was to describe Trollope as ‘Magno capitaneo and quasi ductore belli’.13 To add to that, there was: ‘A new style of military leadership among the Yorkists’ opponents – devious, inventive and quick to exploit opportunities.’14
There had also been a fundamental change in the Lancastrian attitude. According to Professor Anthony Goodman: ‘The complacency shown by York and Salisbury over Christmas may have stemmed partly from a failure to grasp that they were dealing with opponents no longer prepared to keep faith with them.’15 In terms of ‘faithlessness’, one need look no further than Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford, all of whom remembered how their fathers had been brutally killed at St Albans, and who were all currently serving with the Queen’s army. The Queen herself was in Scotland, seeking aid and troops from Mary of Guelders, Regent and mother of theeight-year-old James III.16
The Lancastrian forces approached Sandal Castle on 30 December. It is not known how greatly York’s numbers had grown since leaving London, but two recent specialists on the battle, Haigh and Cox, believe they had reached between five and six thousand,17the great majority of whom would have camped outside the castle, which during a truce would have been practicable. The exact numbers of both sides may be unclear to us. Most pertinently, however, the Lancastrian numbers, through a laxity in Yorkist scouting that was inexcusable even during a declared truce, were unclear to the Duke of York himself.
York may have reasoned that Sandal, which could only maintain around five hundred, and that with difficulty, would thus not be able to withstand even a short siege in winter. He may also have estimated the Lancastrian numbers on the basis of those he could see on the open ground before him. But it seems doubtful that the Battle of Wakefield was prompted by an attempted breakout from entrapment, as has been traditionally thought, or by the even more unlikely decision to commit all York’s forces to defend a forage party.
York came on to the field of battle not under duress but in the expectation of an overwhelming victory. In so doing the Duke was not a victim of rashness but, for the final time, of his own overbearing sense of honour and rectitude. With the effective executive authority of a king, given to him by the Act of Accord, York had ordered additional troops under a Commission of Array: a form of recruitment that, short of treason, could not be refused. That such a commission should have been issued is not surprising, but the identity of its recipient certainly was:18 Lord John Neville – not Warwick’s brother, but the younger brother of Ralph, 2nd Earl of Westmorland. As a member of the disinherited elder branch of the Neville family, a victim of the machinations of Duchess Joan and her brother Cardinal Beaufort, Lord John Neville was a man who had everything to gain from the destruction of York and Salisbury. Yet York assumed Neville would recognize that he was acting with the full authority of the anointed Henry VI as well as himself and would have no hesitation in actively supporting him against the Queen and her ‘treasonous’ followers.
Thus when the arrival of the Lancastrians on the battlefield was followed, perhaps even after battle was joined, by the arrival of Lord John Neville with up to eight thousand troops,19 York’s confidence would have been high. He expected to have the advantage in terms of position and, logic would dictate, numbers, otherwise he would not have responded to the initial Lancastrian deployment by moving his own troops to well beyond the security of the castle.
Yet Lord John Neville’s actions had not been coordinated with York in mind, but in consort with Somerset and the Lancastrians. The arrival of his troops at the Yorkist lines was not to support the Duke and the cadet branch Nevilles, but to entrap them.
The trap being set, it was then sprung. Within minutes the bulk of the Yorkist forces, including York himself, were surrounded and fighting for their lives, with York trying desperately and vainly to retreat. It is said that York was offered the chance to surrender. Like Somerset at St Albans five years before, he could have had little doubt what his enemies intended for him. Within just over half an hour, the battle and York’s life were over.
Some Yorkists did escape the battlefield. York’s second son, the seventeen-year-old Earl of Rutland, was caught by Clifford’s troops near the Chantry chapel on Wakefield Bridge that survives to this day. There, no doubt relishing the symbolism of revenge on the son of the man he held responsible for the death of his father, Clifford stabbed Rutland to death.
Salisbury got further away but was captured and taken to Pontefract Castle. Somerset was prepared to ransom him, albeit for a ‘great sum of money’, but ‘the common people of the country, who loved him not, took him out of the castle by violence and smote off his head’.20 The mob acted, it is believed, at the instigation of William Holland, the bastard son of the 1st Duke of Exeter.21 Certainly Warwick believed it, as three months later, when Holland was captured in Coventry, he saw to it that Holland was killed without hesitation.
York may have been dead, but the Lancastrian revenge was not yet complete. York and Rutland were decapitated. Their heads, together with those of Salisbury and his younger son Sir Thomas Neville, together with those of the more significant knights killed at Wakefield, were sent to the city of York, where they were mounted on poles on the top of Micklegate Bar. The Duke was given the added indignity of a paper crown.
Edward, Earl of March, York’s heir, was recruiting in the West when he heard the dreadful news from Wakefield. Both he and Warwick, the surviving Yorkist leaders, regarded the Lancastrians as guilty of appalling treachery and of breaching all rules of chivalry. This might be thought extraordinary after St Albans, Northampton and even Blore Heath, and after the Yorkist ‘treason’ against the Crown and the 1460 Act of Accord. But Wakefield was added to the Yorkists’ own list of festering resentments, to join the attempted assassinations of the late 1450s, the humiliation at Ludford Bridge, the rape of Ludlow, the despoliation of their estates and the displacement of their followers.
Whatever the Yorkist cousins’ feelings, their position had become perilous. March urgently sought to gather troops while trying to anticipate the movement out of Wales of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, the King’s half-brother. Pembroke must not be allowed to break through towards London to join up with Margaret’s forces. Warwick, in London, was once again the propagandist, this time seeking to energize London and the southern counties through promoting fear of the northern people about to move against them.
The Lancastrians were not fearful – far from it. They were exultant. Queen Margaret, who had proved herself to be a highly skilled organizer in the months after Northampton, immediately prepared to leave Scotland, accompanied by a number of Scottish troops.
When the 1460–61 campaign began the adherents of the two sides were spread across the whole country, albeit unevenly. Yet by January 1461 a marked regional divide had set in. There were still many potential Yorkist recruits in the North and, similarly, Lancastrians in the South. However, due to the different areas of territorial domination and both the need and the ability to recruit and provision, the army moving southwards across the Trent in support of Margaret and Prince Edward was largely one of Northerners.
In the Midlands, potential recruitment was more balanced. Certainly, the Queen had established herself in the late 1450s as a major power in the region. She had then been able to command in the name of the King and the royal prerogative;but the latter, with the passive Henry lodged in the Tower of London, was officially with Warwick.
With the Queen’s army closing in, Warwick urgently set about arraying troops drawn from the towns and the counties of the South East, chiefly those around London. There had also been some recruitment in the prosperous areas of East Anglia, but here, as thePaston Letters show, the picture was more mixed.22 As for much-needed finance, the Yorkists were able to call upon London’s Common Council, which ‘in defence of the realm’ was willing to advance four times as much as they had to York only a short time before.
By 12 January, Margaret’s army had reached Beverley, which they immediately pillaged. This was a different type of force to those that had fought the battles of 1455 and 1459–60, partly because the distance it had to travel from starting point to objective was so much further; partly because provisioning during winter was much more difficult; and partly because any connection that the common soldiers might have had with the local people they encountered lessened with every additional mile they moved south. Thus was created a swathe of despoliation up to thirty miles wide, as alien-looking and harsh-sounding men with incomprehensible accents demanded food and ale. Sometimes money was proffered. On other occasions, when towns and estates were targeted that were thought to be pro-Yorkist, then it most certainly was not.
And with the troops came anarchy. As one fearful chronicler from Crowland Abbey described, ‘paupers and beggars flocked forth … in infinite numbers … and universally devoted themselves to spoil and rapine, without regard of place or person’. It was a fear accentuated by a sense of personal risk:
For really we were in straits, when word came to us that this army, so execrable and so abominable, had approached to within six miles of our boundaries. But blessed be God, who did not give us for a prey unto their teeth! For, after the adjoining counties had been given up to dreadful pillage and spoil … that we may here confess the praises of God, in that at the time of His mercy, He regarded the prayers of the contrite, and in His clemency determined to save us from the yoke of this calamity.23
Those who had witnessed the depredations of Margaret’s army, arriving as refugees in safer towns and villages, spread the fear with their tales of what had befallen them – or that was certainly the narrative increasingly promoted by Warwick.
Yet, because of the difficulties of marching in winter, the army’s progress was slow. The distance between Beverley and London, as the crow flies, is just over 160 miles. Partly due to their circuitous route, after a full month the Lancastrian forces were still over 30 miles to the north of the capital. However, this length of time heightened the sense of dread that gripped the city, with Warwick busily fomenting it. It was a sign of his desperation, yet in portraying these fellow countrymen as aliens, Warwick dehumanized them in the eyes of his followers. This can be seen in a letter from Clement Paston, a student in London, to his brother, written on 23 January: ‘In these parts, every man is well willing to go with my Lords here and I hope God shall help them, for the people in the north rob and steal and are set to pillage all this country and give away men’s goods and livelihoods.’24
Papal Legate Coppini had a more particular fear – and with good reason. After his powerful support of the Yorkists the previous summer and his role in the disinheritance of Prince Edward, he could expect no mercy from Queen Margaret. This showed in the letter he wrote on 9 January 1461 to his subordinate, Lorenzo de Florencia, who had remained with the Queen:
We are writing to you, as we cannot proceed in person to the Queen and the lords with her, as you know. First and foremost, as the basis of everything, we require you to declare and offer on your own behalf, that should it ever be found that we have excommunicated or cursed any one assisting her Majesty or being with her, or if we have ever committed or consented to such things, we will gladly be flayed alive or torn asunder, for we excommunicated no one, cursed no one and wronged no one at any time in this kingdom, but we shall be ready to do all these things and more still, if we are called upon to do so for her Royal Highness.25
Furthermore, he was terrified that he might find himself dangerously within her reach if the Lancastrians triumphed in battle, because Warwick fully expected him to rejoin the Yorkist army and again to threaten his enemies with excommunication.
Both sides fully appreciated the importance of the Legate’s authority. Warwick had been trying to enhance it and had been seeking a cardinalate for his ally since the previous August. The Lancastrians in their turn ‘had put about the report that he was not a legate and the Pope had recalled him and was displeased about the things which had happened through his efforts’.26 In January, after Wakefield, Warwick redoubled his own efforts, writing both to the Pope and to the Duke of Milan and stressing that Coppini’s promotion to cardinal was crucial: ‘The people will then see that our adversaries … daily scorn your authority and the legate’s … adding marvellous falsehoods to make him unpopular, to the detriment of the Church and the king.’27 Warwick was working hard to secure what would have been a glorious promotion for Coppini – and he expected something very important from the priest in return.
Coppini was in a singularly unenviable position. His dilemma and his excuses were later succinctly described by Prospero di Camulio, Milan’s Ambassador to France, in a letter to his ducal master: ‘He [Coppini] promised Warwick to go into the camp and excommunicate the enemy and give the benediction to the followers of Warwick.’ But ‘seeing the bad weather, and the Queen’s power, and not feeling well, he did not go. At this Warwick took offence.’28 Having angered two extraordinarily powerful and vengeful people, on 10 February Coppini sensibly opted for the lesser risk of crossing the Channel at an extremely hazardous time of year.
Although this deprived Warwick of the immediate spiritual power of the legate, he still had that of the divinely anointed King. When what was now being described as the royal army marched north from London to face the forces of Henry’s Queen and Prince, Warwick made sure he took Henry with him.
As in 1455, the strategically placed town of St Albans was to provide the point of collision for the two armies. There were a great number of similarities in the way that the two battles of St Albans unfolded, including an attack from an unexpected direction, an outflanking manoeuvre down undefended alleyways, and the need to withdraw troops from prepared positions in order to sustain a battle line under severe pressure.
But there were also crucial differences. This was no ‘scuffle in the street’;for one thing, the armies were much larger. Also Warwick’s troops, of around nine to ten thousand men, this time arrived well before his foes. He, with the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Earl of Arundel and a small number of other peers, including Warwick’s own brother John – recently ennobled as Lord Montagu – and their uncle Lord Fauconberg, prepared a formidable defensive position in the centre and to the north of the town. Warwick was able to utilize the latest in military hardware, medieval anti-personnel devices such as caltrops: large, spiked metal balls that would be half buried in the ground, ready to impale men’s feet or shred the hooves of any horses that rode over them. Another innovation was the pavisse, a large spiked shield that could be dug into the ground, with shooting holes like miniature arrow slits so that the user could continue the assault with greater protection from enemy shot. Then there were spiked nets that could be expanded or contracted and fitted together to give defence against both infantry and cavalry. In addition to these, Warwick had Burgundian hand gunners, who were capable of firing specialized arrows of forty-five inches as well as the usual stone shot.29
The chronicler Gregory and Abbot Whethamstede both give accounts of what happened. It seems that on this occasion, both were eyewitnesses. Gregory places himself more specifically, with his dismissive comments on horsemen and by writing that ‘in the footmen is all the trust’.30 It is from these two accounts that one is able to bring together the different elements of a confused and confusing picture.
Warwick, who had been such a dashing and decisive attacking commander in 1455, now proved himself to be an indecisive and uncertain defensive general. Having created such a strong position, he decided, on the basis of one report that the northern army was still nine miles away to the north-east, to move to a new position in that direction, covering both the Luton and Wheathampstead roads, whilst preserving a force of archers near the abbey. However the intelligence was false. The Lancastrians had already diverted westwards to Dunstable to attack and smash through a Yorkist forward post; and, astonishingly, were well advanced on the near-thirteen mile advance to St Albans before Warwick realized the true situation.
The Lancastrian army of around twelve thousand men, wearing the livery of the Prince of Wales, reached the town and attacked in the early morning of Shrove Tuesday, 17 February. They struck just east of the abbey and against a still well-defended position by the Eleanor Cross, where they were beaten off. But in a mirror image of 1455, Trollope then made a flanking move through ‘the backsides’ gardens and the alleyways to the west of the market place. This took them to the top end of St Peter’s Street and round the Yorkist barriers, with the Queen’s forces striking the defending archers to the south and rear. Still the Yorkist defenders held and, particularly at the abbey end of the defences, inflicted severe casualties on their opponents.31
Warwick could not properly reinforce the archers. His other troops were disadvantaged by the need to reverse their position from facing north-east to south-west and by the need to move their own defensive paraphernalia – the caltrops, pavisses and nets. By noon, it was too late even to contemplate aiding the beleaguered bowmen. They had become completely isolated as the main bulk of the Lancastrian troops attacked Warwick’s hastily reorganized vanguard. This held firm, but the archers were wiped out.
Military historians differ as to the reason why Warwick did not reinforce and extricate the archers. Some believe that the raw quality of Warwick’s troops meant he could not trust them to make the necessary complicated manoeuvres. Others that he established a solid enough position for fighting a defensive action until nightfall, and thus, at the sacrifice of his archers, enabled the bulk of his forces to get away. It is probable that both armies, composed largely of undisciplined raw troops, were undertaking manoeuvres which only the more professional of the soldiery would have been capable of executing properly. Thus it seems certain that the bulk of soldiers did not actively engage, but of those that did, it was the Lancastrians, both able to move more freely and better marshalled, who were to prove the more effective.
Warwick was also hampered by a turn in the weather, with adverse wind and snow constricting movement and arrow range and rendering the combustible Burgundian guns more of a danger to themselves and to their allies than to the enemy.
One factor did come to Warwick’s aid: the shortness of the winter day. With darkness approaching, he and four thousand of his force broke through the Lancastrian lines and headed west. Many of his troops in the engaged vanguard also managed to escape the battlefield under cover of darkness, though his brother Lord Montagu did not. Thus, with the exception of the archers in the town, the Yorkist losses in terms of manpower were far lighter than the strategic defeat might have warranted.
But as a strategic defeat it was momentous. The road to London lay open, leaving the capital at the mercy of Queen Margaret’s unruly and much-feared army. Furthermore, Warwick had lost more than the battle. Momentously, in the confusion, he had also lost the King.
In a repeat of 1455, Henry was taken to the abbey. He was there reunited with his Queen, with his son the Prince and with the Lancastrian lords, including Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford.
The role of Trollope in this victory and his importance for the Lancastrian cause was recognized when he was the first to be knighted by the young Prince.32 He had been wounded by a caltrop, but he had not found his immobility a problem, as he said to the Prince: ‘My lord I have not deserved it for I slew but fifteen men, for I stood still in one place and they came unto me, but they bode still with me.’33
One of the inner circle of Lancastrian lords was the former Sir Thomas Courtenay, now Earl of Devon, and it is likely that he, infamous for the treatment of Nicholas Radford in 1455, took on a persuasive role in what happened next.
The duties during the battle of Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriell, veteran of the French Wars, had been to ensure that the King was kept safe and to protect him from any possible harm, but their role as non-combatants counted for nothing in the face of Devon finding himself with the opportunity to dispose of Bonville, his family’s long-term hated rival.34
In such circumstances, it seems odd that the lives of Lord Montagu and of Lord Berners, who was captured with him, were spared. Yet there was a very good reason: their survival gave Somerset surety for the life of his younger brother, a prisoner of the Yorkists in the Tower of London.
London, meanwhile, was in a state of panic. With Warwick having fed the citizens with tales of Lancastrian troops leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, Londoners were convinced that a terrible fate awaited them. After all, the Queen’s soldiers would, for the most part, have no sense of connection with the capital and no compunction in sacking it.
Yet the Queen held back. Was this because she was worried that London would be sacked, or was she swayed by the pleas of the dowager Duchesses of Bedford and Buckingham on behalf of the city authorities? It seems highly unlikely. If London was concerned about Margaret, then she, in her turn, had concerns about London. After all, five years earlier she had taken the decision to leave the city and move the court to the Midlands. The great palaces in and around London had since then received only the occasional visit from the King, until he fell into the Yorkists’ clutches after the Battle of Northampton. Even the Palace of Westminster itself, the centre of government since Edward III, had been completely neglected between the middle of August 1456 and September 1457 and, after that, had been used very sporadically and just for a few days at a time. This abandonment would have hurt London’s pride, but more importantly it would have hit the pockets of those citizens, be they rich merchants or poor artisans, who supplied the provisions and luxury goods that all but the personally austere King seemed to require.
So far as the common people were concerned, Margaret was the French queen who had brought no dowry but who, through her plotting on behalf of Charles VII, had been responsible for the shameful end of the French Wars. It was not true; but it was what they believed that mattered. In contrast, York had been the popular ‘heir’ of Gloucester, while Warwick had been hailed as the charismatic Captain of Calais, his successes at sea at last restoring some national pride. Thus when the cautious city authorities agreed to supply victuals to Margaret’s army, it was the common citizenry that first held the provisions back and then distributed them amongst themselves.35
Even as four aldermen of London negotiated with four ‘cavaliers’ of the Queen’s party as to when and with how many troops the victorious Lancastrians would enter the city, all waited for news from the west. On 20 February, three days after St Albans, negotiations broke down and the Queen, who had advanced to Barnet, withdrew back to Dunstable.
Whether additional talks would have brought a resolution cannot be known, as later that same day came the news that the youthful Earl of March had won a spectacular victory in the West at Mortimer’s Cross and his army had closed much of the distance that separated the Welsh Borders from London.
The dynamic for Margaret immediately changed. It was possible that her northern levies might just have held together for an occupation of London, but there was the danger that they would break ranks and disperse in an orgy of looting and pillage. If they did, the Earl of March – with fresher troops and reinforced with Warwick’s regrouped forces – would have been able to retake a devastated city. Another option would have been to head off March’s forces, but to achieve that Margaret would need reinforcements from the Earl of Pembroke in the West. And even if those reinforcements arrived, there was a risk that her own troops, denied the plundering of London, would disintegrate in battle and desert for home. The safest option seemed to be to withdraw to Lancastrian heartlands in the Midlands and the North. There, with Henry back at her side, she would be able to recruit reinforcements in the name of the anointed King, while the Yorkists would be placed at the additional disadvantage of having to march towards her. An action they would need to take in order to secure their very survival.
Taking a fundamental decision, the martial Queen Margaret opted to turn back towards the North.
Had Margaret been able to occupy London and establish order over the city and the neighbouring areas of the South East, then the Yorkists would have been vanquished. If the threat of March to the West had abated, then Margaret would have been able to re-order and bring greater discipline to her forces. An accommodation between her and the London Court of Common Council would then have been inevitable. And they in turn would have helped to enforce the acceptance of what would have been an increasingly quiescent citizenry. Margaret would thus have secured her place as Regent for the next decade, until such time as her talented young son could take over the practice of government.
It is in this context that the strategic importance of the young Earl of March’s victory at Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire was out of all proportion to the numbers involved – with just a few thousand on each side.
Modern readers might wonder that the eighteen-year-old Edward, Earl of March, did not simply crumble on the news of his father’s death. But eighteen was not so young at a time when sixteen-year-olds were expected to fight. Henry II and Edward III, both great imposing Plantagenet kings, had fought battles and managed the affairs of state at a similar age.
Moreover, March was no ordinary eighteen-year-old, being an imposing giant of six foot three and a half inches, blessed with inordinate vitality, physical and sexual, both of which he put to good use. As one of the Calais earls, he had been happy to be led by Warwick, but now he was operating independently. He was also, of course, independent of the Duke of York, his late father, who had been an aloof man and a very different character to his son. Where York was ‘proud and reserved’, Edward of March was noted for his ‘charm and affability’.36 So different was March from his father (not to mention his much smaller younger brothers, George and Richard) that it was later alleged he was not a son of York at all, but that of an archer named Blaybourne, having been conceived during one of the Duke’s absences from Rouen. This can be dismissed for a number of reasons: it wasn’t raised until much later and then for political reasons; it wasn’t believed overseas;37 and it certainly did not accord with the pious nature of Duchess Cecily.38
Edward was as remorseless as his father had been when it came to the pursuit of his own interests, but unlike his father, he was possessed of a personal magnetism that claimed the support of others. His charm was liable, however, to vanish in an instant – particularly when he came under threat. Those who actively opposed him were liable to find that he was capable of a brutality even surpassing that of his cousin Warwick.
In the aftermath of Wakefield, March nursed an intense hatred for those who had been responsible for the killing of his father and, perhaps even more on account of his younger brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland. The two had been extremely close; only a year apart in age, from the time they were six and seven they had shared a household separate from their parents.39 And now Rutland was dead, killed by Clifford in what March knew to have been particularly hideous circumstances.
The death of his father had left March himself under immediate threat. His only hope had been to manoeuvre his own troops strategically to intercept those of Jasper Tudor – the Earl of Pembroke and King Henry’s half-brother – before they could reinforce Margaret in her move on London. This he successfully achieved at Mortimer’s Cross. Like Blore Heath, it is not a well-documented battle. That said, it is possible to reconstruct what happened.40
Since the battle was fought in the Duchy of York’s own heartlands and on the estates of their staunch associate Sir Richard Croft, it is likely that the Yorkist core would have been March’s own retainers and those of his close allies. With no prospect of an ordered retreat, March had to make full use of his positional advantage, so Croft’s local knowledge would have been invaluable, particularly in winter, with the river swollen and the ground boggy. He would most likely have opted to block Pembroke’s route so that the bridge over the twenty-foot-wide River Lugg was directly at his back.
Pembroke had his own inner core of troops, made up of Welshmen like himself. He also had Irish, Breton and French mercenaries under the command of Wiltshire the ‘flying earl’. The third Lancastrian battlefield commander was Pembroke’s own father, Owen Tudor, who so many decades before had married Henry V’s widowed queen.
As the troops on both sides prepared to face death on that dark February day, they witnessed a great feat of nature: in the sky above them they saw not one pale sun, but three. This phenomenon is understood today as a parhelion: when the sun shining through ice crystals creates the effect of a mirror and those below see the sun twice reflected. In that pre-scientific age, however, March could interpret it as a sign from God. March took it to signify two things: firstly, a blessing from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; and secondly, that the intended recipients were another trinity, the surviving three Yorkist brothers, March himself and his two younger brothers, George and Richard. This he powerfully communicated to his troops, now an inspired force.
March’s battle tactics were risky. He aimed to hold Pembroke’s centre in check, but to let the Lancastrian wings move forward into marshy pockets near the river where they would be picked off by archers as they made for obvious crossing points. In this way he would take advantage of any lack of cohesion of movement in the enemy troops. His own soldiers would have to hold firm.
This was exactly how the battle proceeded: Pembroke’s centre weakened through its need to aid the wings who had become sitting targets in the boggy ground. It weakened and then broke. Fleeing through their opponents’ heartlands, the chances for escape for the common soldiery would have been greatly reduced. There were better opportunities for those who could escape on horseback, including Pembroke himself. Not, of course, before Wiltshire added spectacularly to his reputation as the flying earl, again escaping in disguise, but this time at the battle’s very outset.41
One man who did not escape was Pembroke’s father, Owen Tudor. With other important captives he was taken to Hereford and summarily beheaded. The confused old man did not understand the temper of the times; even when faced with the axe and the block, he was still expecting a pardon. It was not until the collar of his red velvet doublet was ripped off to ease the passage of the coming blow that he grasped his fate. His head was taken and placed on the market cross, where it was later tended by a mad woman. After washing the blood from his face and combing his hair, she placed a hundred burning candles around the severed head.42 This act, tender, even pious in its intent, but gruesome in its context, served to mirror the distortions of a troubled age.
March did not delay long after the battle but started towards London. At Chipping Norton he rendezvoused with Warwick’s reassembled forces. It is very possible that Warwick excused his own defeat to his young cousin by putting the blame then, as he was later to do, on the betrayal of a Kentish Captain called Lovelace. On 27 February, accompanied by ‘a great power of men, but few of name’ March and Warwick entered the city of London.43
Once there, the full meaning of the 1460 Act of Accord and the oaths for its acceptance became clear. Henry having broken the conditions he had been given, March now stood to inherit more than his father’s dukedom.
Two days after his arrival in London, Edward of March was acclaimed by Londoners as well as Yorkist troops – a gathering of up to four thousand – at St John’s Fields in Clerkenwell and his title to the throne was outlined by George Neville, the Lord Chancellor.44
On 3 March, at Baynard’s Castle, just east of modern Blackfriars, the available Yorkist lords together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Salisbury and Exeter took a momentous if inevitable decision. The next day, in Westminster Hall, March was proclaimed Edward IV, the new King of England. For full propaganda effect, the ceremony needed to be magnificent. And, particularly considering the speed at which it was arranged, it was. There was even a version, revived after a century of neglect, of theLaudes Regiae, the ritual adoration of the ruler.45
Prospero di Camulio learned from his London correspondents that ‘his lordship accepted his royal sceptre and staff and all the other ceremonies except the unction and the crown, which they postponed until he has annihilated the other king and reduced the island and the realm to a stable peace and, among other things, exacted vengeance for the slaughter of his father’.46 Di Camulio was in no doubt about the importance of these developments:
Those who support the claims of Edward and Warwick say that the chances in favour of Edward are great, both on account of the great lordship which he has in the island and in Ireland, and owing to the cruel wrongs done to him by the Queen’s side, as well as through Warwick and London which is entirely inclined to side with the new king and Warwick, and as it is very rich and the most wealthy city of Christendom, this enormously increases the chances of the side that it favours.47
London was indeed with the Yorkists. The physical support of the mass of Londoners for Warwick, then York, now Edward had been well noted in the collective mind of the city’s government. The commercial links between London and a Calais secured for York by Warwick were strong. Finally, once the Calais earls had been admitted to London after their 1460 invasion, the capital had lived with the fear of a Lancastrian reconquest and a possible sack that could have far outstripped the excesses of 1450. As a result, London’s commercial interests had provided massive financial support to the Yorkists – to the tune of at least £13,000 – between July 1460 and the early months of 1461.48 This in itself would have been enough to pay 26,000 archers for 20 day’s service
London’s support had enabled the Yorkists to survive the defeats at Wakefield and St Albans. Yet they were still opposed by an anointed King, a uniquely powerful Queen consort, the bulk of the nobility and a large part of the country. Certainly Edward had been acclaimed by some lords and some clergy. But it was not enough. He had to appeal to the widest possible audience and in terms that spoke not just of potential triumph, but of the necessity of victory for survival against a savage foe. He did so in a series of proclamations. The example quoted below was addressed to the sheriffs of London, but very similar versions would have been replicated across his new kingdom.49 Just two days into his ‘reign’, it combines the language of royal command with the language of the common weal, that of the Cade petitioners of 1450 and that used by Warwick in 1460. A model of black propaganda, it has the mark of Warwick himself. Most importantly, the articulate language of protest of 1450, the rallying cry of Warwick to consolidate his collection of interests in 1460, is here used in an attempt to reconnect king and people:50
To the sheriffs of London
… Cause proclamation to be made of the accession of King Edward. Reciting that:
– he is born the true inheritor of the crowns of England and France and the lordship of Ireland.
– the lamentable state of this realm
– the loss of France and duchies of Guyenne and Normandy, and of Anjou and Maine
– the oppression of the people and decay of commerce
– justice having been exiled through the negligence of the rulers
– promising that the said realms shall be restored to fame, honour and prosperity
– charging all men to take him each for his sovereign lord
It continues Warwick’s language of the ‘Great Fear’, previously focused on the march south of Margaret’s army. But it is aimed more directly against their noble Lancastrian opponents, dressing up their ‘crimes’ in terms that would most appal the Proclamation’s target audience:
Forasmuch as it is notorious that Henry duke of Exeter, Henry duke of Somerset, Thomas earl of Devonshire, Henry earl of Northumberland, Thomas de Roos knight, John Clifford, Leo of Wells and John Neville, knights, with many accomplices with a great number of rebels in warlike guise have ridden in divers places committing treasons, robberies etc. And of oppressing wives, widows, maidens and women of religion, slaying and maiming liegemen, in such cruelness as has not been heard done among Saracens or Turks to christian men. And he that calls himself Henry VI, contrary to his promise made to such lords as went with him to the field [at the 2nd Battle of St Albans] suffered certain of them to be murdered and destroyed …
Charging none of the liege people upon pain of forfeiture and death to give any of those persons or the king’s said adversary, or his party, help or favour with men, money etc. for victuals, horses, harness etc. But to withstand them, nor to obey commandments or proclamations made by the adversary …
Finally there is the appeal to national pride, or rather the pride of one part of the nation. Edward and Warwick continued to play on the fear that had helped to close the gates of London to Margaret’s army. This conflict was presented as a war between the South and the rebellious part of the country north of the Trent, the latter being identified with the country’s greatest enemies:
No man without special license shall pass over the water of Trent towards the said adversary. And forasmuch as the earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire, adherents to the said adversary, have brought into this land both Frenchmen and Scots, and now busy themselves in bringing a great multitude of the said enemies …
There then followed a list of captains whose demise would bring a reward of the enormous sum of £100 – four thousand times the daily pay of an archer. At the head of the list of those whom the Yorkists sought to ‘effectually destroy and bring out of life’ was Andrew Trollope, even above the Bastard of Exeter who had been personally responsible for the death of Warwick’s father.
The rough and ready acclamation of his troops and assembled Londoners on 1 March, his election’ by some peers and higher clergy on 3 March, and the more formal ceremony in Westminster Hall on 4 March had all been cobbled together in an attempt to create a form of compact – of oath and acclamation – similar to that of a coronation.51 But Edward did not have time, nor indeed the authority for a coronation. He had to assert his legitimacy in the most primal way of all: through the annihilation of his enemies in battle. His proclamation was backed by the second greatest mobilization of men during the entire Wars of the Roses. The greatest being that of their Lancastrian opponents at the very same time.