Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

  York, learning that the King refused to accede to any of his demands, grimly put on his helmet and ordered his trumpeter to sound the alarm which would warn his men that the battle was about to begin. He then made a speech to his troops, using many classical and biblical allusions, saying that he represented Joab, while King Henry was as King David, and together they would overcome Somerset. Thus commenced the Battle of St Albans, the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, some time between ten and twelve in the morning.

  York and Salisbury opened the attack from the east, leading charges along St Peter’s Street, Sopwell Street and other streets leading to the market-place, and ordering their men to storm the barricades at the end of them, but Lord Clifford and other Lancastrian commanders ‘strongly kept the barriers’ at every entry. As more Lancastrian troops rallied to the defence, York and Salisbury found themselves being pushed back. Warwick, hearing that their situation was critical, ‘took and gathered his men together and furiously broke in [the town] by the garden sides, between the sign of the Key and the sign of the Checker in Holywell Street’, according to an account in the Stonor Papers. Once in the town, he had his trumpets sounded, and his men responded ‘with a shout and a great voice, “A Warwick! A Warwick!”’ With his progress covered by archers to the rear, Warwick led a fresh assault on the barricades that left his opponents reeling, for they had not expected him to approach from that end of the town.

  ‘The fighting’, says Benet, ‘was furious’, as the market-place became crammed with soldiers locked in a furious combat. As Sir Robert Ogle led his contingent into the mêlée, ‘the alarm bell was rung and every man went to harness’, for many of the King’s troops were ‘out of their array’, not having anticipated that they would be engaged so soon. Within half an hour it was over. As Henry’s men, alerted by the bell sounding in the clock tower in the market-place, raced to defend him, Warwick’s soldiers scythed mercilessly through the Lancastrian ranks until, says Whethamstead – a horrified witness to the carnage – ‘the whole street was full of dead corpses’. The King’s army, ‘disliking the sight of blood’, broke into disarray and withdrew in a stampede, knocking down and trampling underfoot the royal standard as they did so. The Stonor Papers record that the Earl of Wiltshire ‘and many others fled, leaving their harness behind them coward’; Wiltshire, says the chronicler ‘Gregory’, was ‘afraid to lose his beauty’. Many of the King’s party were despoiled of their horses and harness, and the royal banner was retrieved and propped against a house wall, while Henry stood alone and deserted, watching the flight of his men as arrows rained down about him. The Yorkists had won the battle.

  Warwick had specifically instructed his archers to target those about the King – members of the hated court party – and many fell, mortally wounded, near the royal standard. As the battle drew to a close, Henry was wounded in the neck by an arrow and, bleeding profusely, was urged by his remaining nobles to take shelter. As he ran to the nearby house of a tanner, he cried out angrily, ‘Forsooth, ye do foully to smite a king anointed so!’

  Buckingham received wounds to the face and neck and was taken prisoner by the Yorkists. Lord Dudley also got an arrow in the face, and Lord Stafford one in the hand. Henry Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, Somerset’s heir, was so badly hurt that he could not walk and had to be taken home in a cart, as was Wenlock. Benet says that ‘all who were on the side of the Duke of Somerset were killed, wounded, or, at the least, despoiled’.

  Somerset himself had been engaged in desperate hand-to-hand fighting outside an inn called the Castle. Later, it was said that, seeing the sign above him, he was utterly dismayed because he had once been warned by a soothsayer to beware of castles. His opponent – who may even have been Warwick himself – saw him falter, struck home, and killed him. He was later buried in St Albans Abbey, and was succeeded as Duke of Somerset by his son, the nineteen-year-old Earl of Dorset, whom Chastellain describes as ‘a handsome young knight’. A commemorative plaque now marks the site of the Castle Inn, which stood at the corner of St Peter’s Street and what is now Victoria Street.

  Other noble casualties of the battle were Warwick’s great enemy, Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, and Lord Clifford, who were both slain while fighting in the streets. Their bodies were stripped and despoiled, and left naked to public view. Buckingham’s son, Humphrey Stafford, suffered grievous wounds and later died of the effects of them, either in 1455 or 1458. Benet says that ‘about a hundred people were killed, mostly Lancastrian soldiers’. Abbot Whethamstead requested York’s permission to bury the dead, and begged him to show mercy in his hour of victory, as did Julius Caesar. Quoting Ovid, he asked that nothing be sought in addition to victory.

  The outcome of the Battle of St Albans, one of the shortest campaigns of the Wars of the Roses, was that York was able to crush the court faction, which had been deprived of its chief mainstay, Somerset. Much of the blame for the Lancastrian defeat lay with Buckingham, whose judgement and strategies had been fatally flawed. The royal army had faced an almost impossible task in defending all the entrances to the town. They had had little time in which to prepare their defences, and Buckingham had probably made the mistake of relying on some of the buildings to offer a degree of protection.

  York, accompanied by Salisbury and Warwick, now moved to take control of the King’s person, which they found in the tanner’s house having his wound tended. All his earlier bravado had evaporated at the realisation that his army had been defeated. The Stonor Papers record that, when the Yorkist lords came to the King, they fell on their knees ‘and besought him for grace and forgiveness of that they had done in his presence, and besought him, of his highness, to take them as his true liegemen, saying that they never intended hurt to his own person’. Benet says that when Henry heard them declare themselves to be his ‘humble servants, he was greatly cheered’.

  York justified his actions to Henry by pleading that he and his friends had had no alternative but to defend themselves against their enemies. If they had gone to Leicester, as summoned, they would have been taken prisoner and suffered a shameful death as traitors, ‘losing our livelihood and goods, and our heirs shamed for ever’. Henry seemed to accept this and ‘took them to grace, and so desired them to cease their people, and then there should no more harm be done’. Outside in the town, the victorious Yorkist troops were causing havoc. Abbot Whethamstead was shocked to see them rampaging through the streets, looting as they went and leaving behind a trail of destruction. Even in the abbey they stole everything they could lay their hands on, and threatened to burn it down. Then others came, warning them that the King and York, accompanied by the magnates and councillors, had arrived in the market-place and ordered them to reassemble, ready to return to London. Thus the abbey was saved.

  York himself had broken the news of Somerset’s death to the King. Some historians assert that shock, grief, stress and the effects of the wound he had suffered caused Henry to lapse once more into insanity – it was, after all, only five months since his recovery. However, there is no contemporary evidence to support this, and another six months would elapse before York was again appointed Protector. In view of the length of the King’s previous illness, it is likely that the appointment would have taken effect immediately if Henry had displayed symptoms of mental instability. The last word on the subject should be that of John Crane, who wrote to John Paston on 25 May: ‘As for our sovereign lord, thanked be God, he has no great harm.’

  The fact that a battle had taken place at all shocked many people, even the participants, and provoked the Yorkists into offering extravagant justification of their actions in which they attempted to shift the blame on to Somerset and the court party and thus avoid any suspicion of treason. Nevertheless, the fact remained that they had taken up arms against an army led by their anointed king, and this was enough, in the opinion of many, to condemn them as traitors. To counteract this ill-feeling, York issued a broadsheet giving his account of the battle and the circumstan
ces leading up to it.

  St Albans had accentuated the deep divisions between the magnates and the widespread grievances against the government, which could now, it seemed, only be settled by violence. This realisation acted as a brake for a time upon the warring factions. Neither side had wanted an armed conflict; the King, in particular, and most of his lords were determined that it should not occur again. But the divisions between Lancastrians and Yorkists were now so profound that it would need a committed effort on both sides to preserve the King’s peace. That an uneasy truce prevailed for the next four years is sufficient testimony to the desire of both sides to reach an acceptable settlement.

  On Friday 23 May, York and Salisbury, preceded by Warwick bearing the King’s sword, escorted Henry VI back to London, where he lodged at the bishop’s palace by St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘As for what rule we shall now have, I do not yet know,’ wrote a Paston correspondent. On Sunday the 25th, the Feast of Pentecost, the King went in procession to St Paul’s, wearing his crown, to reassure the people that his royal authority had not been in any way challenged. So potent was the power and mystique of monarchy that still no one ventured to voice the opinion that Henry himself should bear the ultimate responsibility for recent events. There were no calls for his deposition, and no criticisms of his incompetence or poor judgement.

  News of the court party’s defeat and the death of Somerset had soon reached the Queen at Greenwich, causing her deep distress, and the knowledge that York was now to assume the role of chief adviser to the King in Somerset’s place only added to her bitterness. York was immediately appointed Constable of England, an office Somerset had held, and was already filling the late duke’s other offices with men of his own choosing.

  In the week after St Albans, Buckingham, Wiltshire, Shrewsbury, Pembroke and other lords, all back at court, made peace with York and did their best to reconcile the two sides. Jasper Tudor was particularly anxious to devise with York a workable solution to the problems facing the government, and the two men spent many hours in London discussing these.

  But although Somerset was dead, his faction remained. Its members were more hostile than ever towards York, and looked to the Queen, whose influence over a suspicious and resentful Henry VI was paramount, for leadership. York was aware of this, and he knew that some of the King’s household would resist any attempt at reform. He also had to deal with the enmity of individual noblemen, who had good reason to feel bitterness towards him. Lord Clifford’s twenty-year-old son John, now the 9th Lord Clifford, was so incensed against York that he would spend the rest of his life seeking to avenge his father’s death, earning in the process the nicknames ‘Black-faced Clifford’ and ‘Bloody Clifford’.

  By the beginning of July York had established himself as the effective ruler of England. He had appointed his brother-in-law, Viscount Bourchier, Treasurer, and given Salisbury the influential office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Viscount Bourchier’s brother, Archbishop Thomas Bourchier, remained as Chancellor, and was now demonstrating that his sympathies were leaning towards the Yorkists. However, York’s continuing lack of general aristocratic support led him to rely heavily on the Nevilles and to pursue a policy of conciliation. The problem of the Queen had been dealt with by forbidding her to come to London. Other than that, however, he did not seek vengeance on those who had opposed him.

  York ruled as before, with wisdom and moderation. On 9 July Parliament, summoned by the Duke in the King’s name at the end of May, met at Westminster in the presence of the ailing Henry VI. Predictably this Parliament was packed with York’s supporters. Sir John Wenlock, now Warwick’s man, was Speaker. When the Lords and Commons had assembled, York and his fellow magnates renewed their oaths of allegiance to the King in the Great Council Chamber in the Palace of Westminster.

  York ensured the passing of an Act which justified his recent uprising on the grounds that ‘the government, as it was managed by the Queen, the Duke of Somerset and their friends, had been of late a great tyranny and injustice to the people’, emphasised his efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement, which had been frustrated by the King’s advisers, and pardoned all those involved. At the same time, also under York’s auspices, an Act was passed rehabilitating Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose political heir York considered himself to be.

  Parliament was also anxious to regulate the Crown’s tortuous finances, and approved a new Act of Resumption, cancelling nearly every grant the King had made during his reign. The only exemptions were those grants to the Tudors made since 1452, but even these were unpopular with York and other lords, who felt there should be no exclusions. Nevertheless, Richmond and Pembroke had offered their support to York without compromising their loyalty to the King, and they were now exerting a moderating influence in this Parliament, though the time was fast approaching when, because of the ever-widening rift between Lancastrians and Yorkists, they would have to decide where their true loyalties lay.

  After Parliament had completed its business – but not before Warwick had fallen out with Lord Cromwell over which side had initiated the recent hostilities – York dispatched the King and Queen, with the Prince of Wales, to Hertford Castle. Shortly afterwards Margaret took her child to Greenwich, and it may be at this time that Henry was showing once more signs of mental illness.

  In October 1455 Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, at last married Margaret Beaufort, the ceremony taking place at Bletsoe Castle in Bedfordshire. The groom was twenty-five, the bride twelve. She was a strong-minded child who would grow up to be one of the most formidable women of the age, renowned for her piety, her many charities, and her unwavering devotion to the House of Lancaster. She was intelligent, serious and high-minded, and her impeccable Lancastrian credentials, her great inheritance, and the fact that she was Somerset’s niece, made her a fitting match for the King’s half-brother. By this marriage Henry VI had hoped to build up a core of committed family support for the Crown; for Richmond, it meant rapid social advancement.

  Margaret later claimed it had been revealed to her in a vision that she should wed Richmond and, being a very devout girl, she had wished to see the vision fulfilled. That the marriage would produce a future king of England none could have foreseen at the time, but the Lady Margaret Beaufort was a great believer in destiny.

  Shortly after his marriage, Richmond was sent to protect Henry’s interests in Wales. York also entrusted him with the task of subduing the Welsh rebel, Gruffydd ap Nicholas, who was encroaching upon the March lordships belonging to York and Buckingham. In November Richmond took up residence at Lamphey, Pembrokeshire, a remote palace owned by the Bishop of St David’s and situated two miles north-east of Jasper’s fortress at Pembroke.

  In London that autumn York assumed complete control of the administration. Contemporary accounts are not specific as to what prompted this, but possibly the King had suffered another mental breakdown, something which is indicated by the Queen’s request that she be entrusted with the care of her husband, whom York sent to her at Greenwich.

  Margaret of Anjou, of course, had no intention of being relegated to the role of nurse – she meant to regain power for herself and her supporters and put an end to York’s ambitions. In the wake of St Albans, many of her household had deserted her, but now, by letters and messages, she was secretly cultivating support for her cause. Those who offered their allegiance included Henry Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset, his brother Edmund, Owen Tudor and his sons, Richmond and Pembroke, the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue, the new Earl of Northumberland and his kinsfolk, the Earl of Wiltshire, Lord Clifford, Lord Grey, and the sinister Sir William Tailboys, the member of Parliament for Lincolnshire, a county in which he exerted a pernicious influence. Some years earlier he had been imprisoned in the Tower and fined for attacking the Treasurer, Lord Cromwell, then in 1451 he had been outlawed for murdering a man, yet he had defied the law and remained in England. Now he was offering his dubious services to the Queen, who, desperate for supp
ort, was glad to accept.

  On 12 November 1455 Parliament was recalled, and on the 17th or 19th York was again appointed Protector and Defender of the Realm with much the same powers as before, except that it was now up to the Lords to dissolve Parliament. York continued to act with moderation, insisting that everything he did be subject to approval by the Council, whose members should be chosen by the Lords, and that the ‘politic rule and governance of the land’ should be reserved to the Council.

  For the rest of the year York and his allies concentrated on formulating a radical programme of reforms aimed at the royal finances and the resumption of crown lands. Parliament settled 10,000 marks a year on the Prince of Wales until he reached the age of eight, when the sum would increase to 16,000 marks annually, until his thirteenth birthday. York also obtained a writ reversing the sentence of outlawry passed by the Lancastrian government on his chamberlain Sir William Oldhall.

  As before, York enjoyed substantial support from the Commons, although the magnates were, predictably, less enthusiastic about his reforms. Two of his previous supporters, Richmond and Pembroke, were absent from this Parliament, and many peers remained suspicious of York’s true intentions. Suspecting that his calls for reform concealed a hidden agenda, they were particularly at pains to safeguard the rights of the Prince of Wales during the protectorate.


  An Uneasy Peace

  In February 1456 Henry VI appeared in Parliament and revoked York’s appointment as Protector. Benet wrote: ‘In front of the King the Duke resigned his office and left Parliament before the session was over,’ although Henry, anxious to avoid a rift, had insisted that his cousin retain his place on the Council.

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