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

  By the end of December the Duke was in an increasingly precarious situation, though his captains believed that if he stayed in the castle until reinforcements arrived he would have nothing to fear. Discipline among his men was lax; many were allowed to go out foraging, thus broadcasting to the enemy that food supplies were running low, and his scouts were incompetent, failing to discover what the Lancastrians were planning. Sir Davy Hall, grandfather of the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall, advised York not to let his men out but to ‘keep within his castle’, but the Duke replied, ‘Wouldst thou that I, for dread of a scolding woman, whose only weapons are her tongue and her nails, should shut my gates? Then all men might of me wonder and report to my dishonour, that a woman hath made me a dastard, whom no man could ever yet prove a coward!’

  During the Christmas holidays, Somerset rode over to parley with York, and it was agreed that a state of truce would prevail until after the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January; the royal commanders, however, had no intention of keeping it. For three days running they sent a herald with instructions to provoke York by insults into taking the offensive. The herald publicly sneered at the Duke’s ‘want of courage in suffering himself to be tamely braved by a woman’. On the 29th the Lancastrians selected 400 men, disguised them as Yorkist reinforcements, and sent them to join the garrison at Sandal. The deception worked.

  It is not known for certain why York left the safety of Sandal Castle on 30 December. It was commonly believed at the time that fast-depleting provisions forced him to send out a foraging party to get more food. These men either attacked the waiting Lancastrians and were quickly driven back inside the castle, or were attacked by them. Another theory is that a band of reinforcements under Andrew Trollope, who had joined the royal army the night before, were also masquerading as Yorkist soldiers by parading in Warwick’s livery; York, seeing them approaching the castle at dawn, either came out to meet them or, seeing through their disguises, decided to sally forth and take the offensive.

  Whatever happened, the centre of the Lancastrian army, under Somerset, now advanced to a position near the castle and waited to engage in battle. At the same time, the right and left flanks of that army, commanded by Wiltshire and Roos, concealed themselves in the woodland on either side of the entrance to York’s fortress. York obviously had no idea that the enemy was so near at hand, and in such strength, waiting to ambush him and his men. Nor did he listen to the repeated advice of his captains, who were still urging him to await reinforcements. Unsuspecting, he and Salisbury rode out at the head of their men across the drawbridge and cantered down the hill to the open fields south of the River Calder, an area known as Wakefield Green. With them rode York’s seventeen-year-old son, Rutland. The waiting Lancastrian centre charged to meet them and there was a tremendous clash between the two armies, with the Yorkists fighting fiercely and bravely, believing they had the upper hand. But Somerset had been advised on strategy by Trollope, to devastating effect. As soon as the Yorkists had issued forth from the castle, he and his second-in-command, Lord Clifford, had sent orders to Wiltshire to take the castle, and to Lord Roos, telling him to block York’s line of retreat. Suddenly, the two Lancastrian flanks emerged from the woods and descended on York’s men, surrounding them on three sides ‘like a fish in a net or a deer in a buckstall’. The Yorkists discovered that they were hopelessly outnumbered, but by then it was too late. Many were slaughtered, and the rest hastened to lay down their arms and surrender. York was pulled from his mount and killed in the midst of the fighting.

  As the young Earl of Rutland left the field, accompanied by his tutor, Sir Robert Aspsall, Lord Clifford rode up and demanded to know who he was. Aspsall stupidly cried, ‘Spare him, for he is a king’s son, and good may come to you!’

  ‘Whose son is this?’ demanded Clifford, suspiciously, and then, without waiting to be told, for he had guessed the answer, drove his dagger into Rutland’s heart, shouting, ‘By God’s blood, thy father slew mine! So will I slay the accursed blood of York!’

  Later writers embroidered the story of Rutland’s end, claiming that he tried to seek refuge in the house of a poor woman of Wakefield, but was followed there and dragged outside by Clifford’s men. The woman is said to have shut her door as the boy beat frantically upon it, screaming to be readmitted as he was stabbed. The Tudor antiquarian, John Leland, claimed that the murder took place by Wakefield Bridge, and there is indeed a chapel that was once endowed by Rutland’s brother Edward on that bridge; it dates, however, from 1357, so cannot have been built to commemorate the Earl’s death. The site of the murder is more likely to have been the Park Street end of Kirkgate in Wakefield, because a cross was erected there to Rutland’s memory.

  Benet states that about a thousand men were killed in the battle; at least half of York’s men who had ridden out of the castle with him were either killed or wounded. It was said that the wide expanse of Wakefield Green was covered with corpses. Salisbury’s son, Sir Thomas Neville, was among them, as were Sir Thomas Parr, Sir Edward Bourchier and the London mercer John Harrow, men who were the backbone of York’s affinity.

  During the night after the battle Salisbury was captured by one of Trollope’s men and taken to Pontefract Castle, where he was held prisoner. He bribed his gaoler to set him free, but as he was preparing to leave the castle, ‘the common people of the country, which loved him not, took him out of the castle by violence, and smote off his head’. His death left Warwick the richest magnate in the realm, for he now added to his Beauchamp inheritance his father’s intensive concentration of lands and power in the north, along with the earldom of Salisbury and the castles of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton, which would become Warwick’s favourite residences in the years to come. Warwick now owned double the amount of land that any subject of an English king had ever owned before him, and was an enemy to be truly feared.

  After the battle, some soldiers had retrieved York’s body, propped it up against an ant-heap, and crowned it with a garland of reeds. They then pretended to bow to it, crying. ‘Hail, king without a kingdom!’ Lord Clifford ordered that the corpse be decapitated and the head impaled on a lance, along with that of Rutland, and when this had been done a paper crown was placed on York’s head. His kinsfolk never forgave Clifford for his treatment of the bodies of York and Rutland, and vowed that they would not rest until their deaths had been revenged.

  Tudor chroniclers, such as Hall and Holinshed, later asserted that Clifford took the heads of the three Yorkist lords to York and presented them to the Queen, saying ‘Madam, your war is done. Here is your king’s ransom.’ She is said to have blenched at the sight, then laughed nervously, and to have slapped York’s face, before ordering that the heads be placed on pikes above the Micklegate Bar, the main entrance to the city, ‘so that York shall overlook the town of York’, and that two empty pikes be placed next to them, ready for the heads of March and Warwick, ‘which she intended should soon keep them company’. Although the heads of York, Salisbury and Rutland were indeed exhibited above the Micklegate Bar, their bodies having been quietly buried at Pontefract, there is no truth in this story. Margaret was not in York at the time, and had in fact returned to Edinburgh as a guest of the Queen of Scotland, staying there throughout late December, when the battle was fought. Only after she received news of the victory did she hasten south – clad in robes given her by Queen Mary, a long black gown and a black bonnet with a silver plume, and riding a silver jennet – to rejoin her army in Yorkshire.

  Few magnates mourned York’s death. He had not been a man to inspire affection among his peers. But the common people, whose champion he had professed to be, grieved for his passing. He was nominally succeeded as Duke of York by his son, March, who now became, at the age of eighteen, the premier English magnate. Henry VI, however, refused to acknowledge his right to succeed his father, nor would he allow him to bear the title Earl of Chester, as he was entitled to do as heir to the throne under the terms of the Act of Accord.

Some time after the battle a memorial to York’s memory was set up by the road leading from Sandal to Wakefield, about 400 yards from the castle. This cross appears to have been dismantled in the 1640s. The present monument to the fallen was set up in 1897 in the grounds of Manygates School, and is adorned with a carving of York based on a now-vanished stone effigy that once stood on the Welsh Bridge at Shrewsbury. The site of the battle is now covered by modern houses and industrial units, but from time to time bones, swords, pieces of armour, spurs and other items have been dug up by local people.

  After Wakefield, the battles of the Wars of the Roses were to become bloodier and the commanders more ruthless. Up to that time strenuous efforts had been made by both sides to avoid military confrontations. That era was past, and it was now tacitly accepted that major disputes could only be settled by violence.

  On 2 January 1461 Warwick, in London, heard the news of York’s defeat and death. March was still celebrating Christmas at Shrewsbury when a messenger came with the dreadful tidings, and he was ‘wonderfully amazed’ with grief. Spurred on by his determination to avenge his father’s death and his brother’s murder, the new Duke speedily raised an army, recruiting mainly in the Marcher shires and assembling his men at Wigmore and Ludlow. With him were Sir William Herbert and his brother Richard, Sir Walter Devereux, Roger Vaughan of Tretower, and other men of York’s local affinity. York himself was dead, but his claim to the throne had passed to his son, who had every intention of enforcing it. And as the executed Salisbury had supported York, so his son, Warwick, would continue to support York’s heir.


  The Sun in Splendour

  In the New Year of 1461 Margaret of Anjou was marching south from Scotland at the head of an army provided by Queen Mary, intent on consolidating the advantage gained at Wakefield and eliminating Warwick and March. She was on her way to link up with her main force, which was waiting for her near York.

  On 5 January the two queens had come to an agreement whereby Margaret undertook to cede Berwick to the Scots in return for troops and the marriage of Prince Edward to Mary’s daughter, Margaret Stewart. What Mary had been unable to provide, however, was money with which to pay the troops, and as Margaret was without funds herself she was again obliged to promise them unlimited plunder once they were south of the Trent. Word of this spread and, anticipating themselves growing rich on the spoils of war, many men of the north came to swell her army.

  From January onwards the Yorkists were busily spreading propaganda against the Lancastrians, claiming that the recent wars and troubles were a manifestation of God’s retribution and judgement on the realm for permitting the usurping House of Lancaster, founded by the murderer of Richard II, to remain on the throne, and for ignoring the rightful claims of the true heirs, York and his sons. Thanks to the Yorkist affinity, this propaganda permeated a wide area.

  The view that the Wars of the Roses originated with the murder of Richard II is often believed to have been the official Tudor retrospective view on the matter, but in fact it was how the Yorkists perceived the struggle, and once the dynastic issue had been raised it is easy to see how this view was formulated, given the contemporary concepts of how God’s approval or condemnation were manifested.

  The Yorkists also began a scare-mongering campaign, warning of what the northerners in the Queen’s army would do if they were victorious, and publicising the fact that she had licensed them to plunder the south: houses would be robbed, sacked and burned, womenfolk raped, lands ravaged, and citizens murdered. This appeal to the prejudices of the southerners against the northerners, who were perceived as an alien race of uncivilised savages, met with tremendous success, for recruits came forward in unprecedented numbers, eager to defend their own.

  On 5 January, Warwick and other lords requested the Council for a loan for the defence of the realm and the Council granted him 2000 marks by a unanimous vote. Throughout January and early February a nervous government issued streams of commissions of array and warrants for the arrest of dissidents and persons uttering false tidings, holding unlawful assemblies, or hindering those trying lawfully to defend the King. On the 12th the city fathers of Norwich agreed to provide Warwick with 120 armed men. Five days later the Council ordered the town dignitaries of Stamford in Lincolnshire to put its defences in order, anticipating that Margaret would march that way as she advanced south down the Great North Road. On 23 January it was rumoured in London that the Queen’s supporters and their retinues would ‘be here sooner than men wean, ere three weeks’. By the 28th the Council knew for certain that ‘the misruled and outrageous people in the north parts’ were being led south in force by the Queen.

  On 5 February, the Council ordered Sir William Bourchier and others to raise the Essex lieges and march with them to the King. The ports of Norfolk were told not to permit the shipment of provisions to the Lancastrian army, which was then at Hull. Nevertheless, provisions did get through, and the Council wasted a lot of time and effort in fruitlessly trying to discover who was responsible.

  Castles were garrisoned, curfews imposed. On 7 February the Council ordered the seizure of Castle Rising in Norfolk, the home of a prominent Lancastrian supporter, Thomas Daniel, who had served the Duke of Suffolk and been a member of Henry VI’s household. The Paston Letters imply that he was orchestrating a Lancastrian uprising, recording that he had ‘made a great gathering of people and hiring of harness, and it is well understood that they be not to the King-ward, but rather to the contrary, and for to rob’. Daniel apparently enjoyed great influence in Norfolk and presented a danger to the Yorkists, but he escaped and rode north to join the Queen.

  Margaret’s intention was to march on London and deal with Warwick. Meanwhile, Pembroke and Wiltshire, who had raised an army of Welsh soldiers and French, Breton and Irish mercenaries, intended to march east from Wales to link up with the Queen’s main force. But Edward of York had summoned the levies of Bristol, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Somerset and Dorset to meet him at Hereford, and after recruiting more men at Wigmore Castle, an old Mortimer stronghold, was also planning to march on London, intent on avenging the deaths of his father and brother. Warwick, who had been joined by Fauconberg, was holding the capital, and Edward meant to link up with him before the Queen got there, or intercept her before she reached the city.

  Edward was moving east through Gloucestershire, therefore, when he learned that a large Lancastrian army led by Pembroke had left Wales and was making for the Midlands. He made a quick decision to swing his army round, march west, and dispose of this new threat before advancing on London.

  Very early in the morning of Candlemas Day, 2 February 1461, Edward and his army came to Mortimer’s Cross, which was – and still is – a hamlet of a few homes spanning a quiet crossroads between Ludlow and Leominster, in the midst of the Marcher territory once held by the Mortimers. On that morning a strange sight was to be seen in the sky above the astonished Yorkists – three suns appeared on the firmament ‘and suddenly joined together in one’. This is a rare phenomenon called a parhelion, or mock sun, which occurs when light is refracted through ice crystals. Such things were, of course, not understood in the fifteenth century, and the Yorkist soldiers wondered what it portended, some crying out in fright. But Edward proclaimed that it was an omen of victory, saying to his soldiers, ‘Beeth of good comfort and dreadeth not. This is a good sign for those three suns betokeneth the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have a good heart, and in the name of Almighty God go we against our enemies!’ He also construed the sign as foretelling the joyful reunion of the three sons (suns) of York – himself and his brothers George and Richard. At his words the entire Yorkist army sank to its knees in prayer, overawed by the vision. In time, Edward would incorporate those three suns into his personal badge, ‘The Sun in Splendour’.

  Contemporary chroniclers estimated that Edward had between 30,000 and 50,000 men in his army; the real figure was
probably much less, and modern historians assert that it was nearer 5000. He certainly had a strong force of experienced archers and many retainers and tenants from his lordships in the Welsh Marches, men who were intent on preventing their property from being occupied by the enemy and on guarding the interests of their communities. Edward’s chief captains were Lord Audley, Sir William Herbert, and Sir Walter Devereux, ably supported by Lord Grey de Wilton, Lord FitzWalter, and Edward’s closest friend, Sir William Hastings, who was to serve him loyally until his death.

  The approaching Lancastrian army was under the command of Pembroke, Wiltshire and Owen Tudor. The chroniclers say they had 8000 men, modern historians estimate about 4000, who were largely raw recruits, Welsh squires and mercenaries. Wiltshire was a poor choice for commander: he had been criticised both in 1455 and 1460 for his bad military judgement and lack of stamina in the field, and was not a leader to inspire confidence in untried men.

  It is not recorded how long the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross lasted, but it was certainly one of the bloodiest battles of the Wars of the Roses. As the sun rose, the Lancastrian army could be seen advancing from the west. Edward, relying on the advice of his friend Sir Richard Croft of nearby Croft Castle, positioned his men in Wig Marsh, thus blocking the road to Worcester. Because he had the River Lugg at his back, with its only bridge behind his lines, he was in a strong position, in command of the crossroads. As a precaution, however, he set his archers to guard the bridge and any places where the enemy might try to ford the river, while at Kingsland to the south his supporters were preparing to obstruct Pembroke if he came that way. Thus Edward had made it virtually impossible for the Lancastrians to avoid engaging in battle.

  Wiltshire commenced hostilities by smashing the Yorkist right wing, but a similar onslaught by Pembroke failed to do the same at the Yorkist centre, commanded by Edward himself, and was repelled. Wiltshire returned to the mêlée to aid Pembroke, who was attempting to take the bridge, but both were soon overpowered. Wiltshire, however, managed to ford the river with his left flank and crushed the remnants of the Yorkist right wing. There then followed a lull in which the Lancastrian commanders, well aware that despite the crippling of his right wing Edward looked set for victory, debated suing for peace, but decided on one last attack, which was led by Owen Tudor. He tried to overcome the Yorkist left flank, but in vain, for they fought ferociously and drove a wedge through Tudor’s force. He then led a detachment of men south towards Kingsland, hoping to find a way across the river there, but was surrounded and captured by local men of Edward’s affinity, supported by soldiers of the Yorkist left wing. At this stage his men fled from the field in confusion and were chased by Edward’s men as far as Hereford.

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