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


  On Easter Monday, Queen Margaret and her company rode to the Benedictine abbey at Cerne in Dorset, where they would stay for the next ten days. Abbot Roger Beyminster extended a warm welcome to the Queen and lodged her in the abbey guest house, the remains of which may still be seen today. Soon, Margaret was joined by Pembroke, Devon and the Beaufort brothers, Somerset and his younger brother, Sir John, who broke the news of Warwick’s defeat and death at Barnet. The shock caused her to collapse in a faint. Edward Hall records that when she recovered her senses and could speak she ‘reviled the calamitous times in which she lived and reproached herself for all her painful labours, now turned to her own misery, and declared she desired rather to die than live longer in this state of infelicity’. Her chief concern now was the Prince’s safety, and she ‘passionately implored’ the lords to do all in their power to ensure it. In her opinion, no good could come of a further armed confrontation with King Edward, and therefore it would be best if she and the Prince returned to France, ‘there to tarry until it pleased God to send her better luck’. However, the lords prevailed upon her to remain and pursue her chosen course. Warwick’s defeat had indeed been a setback, but they were confident that there remained many Englishmen who were ready and eager to fight for Lancaster. If she were wise, she would recruit those men and force a final trial of strength with King Edward.

  When Margaret was calmer she may have reflected that Warwick’s death was not such a tragedy after all. They had at best been reluctant allies, forced out of necessity to the pact between them, and now, if her army triumphed, the House of Lancaster would be able to reign unhampered by the problem of Warwick.

  According to the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall, the Lancastrian lords told Margaret that ‘they had already a good puissance in the field and trusted, with the encouragement of her presence and that of the Prince, soon to draw all the northern and western counties to the banner of the red rose’. The Queen and Prince sent out summonses to their supporters, and during the next few days more Lancastrian peers and their companies arrived at Cerne, their appearance reviving Margaret’s spirits. Soon she had recovered her former energy and began to feel more optimistic about the outcome of her enterprise. And still they kept coming, men from Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, to join her ever-increasing army.

  Somerset, Sir John Beaufort, Devon, Wenlock and Langstrother now held a council of war, in which they debated whether the Queen’s army should travel speedily up the west coast, perhaps through Bristol, Gloucester and Chester, and thus reach those parts of Lancashire where they could raise a large force of archers. They were certain that in that region, more than anywhere, the lords and commons would support them. Jasper Tudor was dispatched at once to Wales to recruit an army there, and the final plan was that the Queen would march west and link up with him on her way north.

  King Edward was in London when, on 16 April 1471, he received news of the Queen’s landing. Croyland says he was ‘worn down by many different blows’ and had had little time in which to ‘refresh himself. No sooner was he done with one battle in the east than he was faced with another in the western part of England, and had to prepare himself to fight at full strength.’ He had dismissed his army after Barnet and now had to send ‘to all parts to get him fresh men’. He issued a proclamation against the Queen and her supporters, reminding the people that God had vindicated his right to the throne by giving him the victory at Barnet and ‘in divers battles against our great adversary Harry and his adherents’. Speed, he realised, was crucial to his success on this occasion, and, having ordered that workmen be recruited to service and repair the royal ordnance, he went to Windsor to gather an army with Hastings’s help.

  On the 23rd, Edward celebrated the Feast of St George with his Knights of the Garter at Windsor Castle, and the next day led his host of more than 3000 foot soldiers west in pursuit of Queen Margaret, hoping to overtake her before she crossed the River Severn and linked up with Jasper Tudor in Wales, which his intelligence sources had advised him was her objective.

  Margaret intended to cross the Severn at Gloucester, and although she and her captains took precautions to conceal their movements, Edward’s scouts managed to shadow them for most of the time. To put her pursuers off the scent, her own scouts were ordered to move east, as if the army behind them intended to march on London. At first, the King was taken in by this ruse, but his outriders soon discovered the Queen’s true intention. Thereafter, the Lancastrians ‘knew well that the King ever approached towards them, near and near, ever ready, in good array’, and this made them panicky and all the more eager to press on towards Wales. Nevertheless, their ranks were still swelled daily, for, says Croyland, ‘there were many in the west who favoured King Henry’s cause’. Edward IV, marching at great speed, drove his soldiers on mercilessly, not even allowing them time to stop and eat or forage for food.

  From Cerne, the Queen moved west to Exeter, where her appearance, and that of the Prince, inspired the ‘whole might’ of Devon and Cornwall to come flocking to them. Then it was on to Taunton, Glastonbury and Wells, where the Lancastrian army arrived on 27 April and sacked the bishop’s palace. Here, the lords advised the Queen to pause awhile, to allow more men to muster. Although she was anxious to press on, she agreed, saying, ‘I pray God speed us well.’ On that day, the King reached Abingdon, where he received certain intelligence that the Queen was at Wells.

  On the 29th, Edward arrived at Cirencester, where he learned that Margaret was on her way north to Bath, thirty miles south-west of his position. Other reports said she would be advancing on Cirencester on 1 May. At this, the King ordered all his men out of the town and set up camp that night three miles away, drawing his troops up in battle order. However, the next day there were no further reports of the enemy moving towards Cirencester, so Edward moved south along the road to Malmesbury, hoping to intercept them there. The Queen, however, was in Bath on 30 April. Edward, learning of his mistake, went after her there, but when he arrived on 1 May was told that she had gone west to Bristol and was planning to meet him in the field at nearby Chipping Sodbury.

  Margaret did indeed arrive at Bristol on 1 May, and received a warm welcome there, being presented with ordnance, provisions and money by the citizens. She ‘took new courage’ at this, but was later disappointed to learn that her captains had not recruited as many men as they had hoped in the city.

  After leaving Bristol, Margaret rested a while at Berkeley Castle, scene of the murder of Edward II in 1327. She had left her vanguard at Chipping Sodbury to put the King off her trail, and when, on the 2nd, Edward sent his advance riders there, the two sides engaged in a skirmish, with the Lancastrians managing to capture a number of the Yorkist quartermasters before they withdrew. That afternoon, Edward himself arrived in Chipping Sodbury, and spent the night there, camped in the open ‘on a great and fair large plain called a wold’, thinking that the Lancastrian army was nearby. His scouts, however, found no trace of it.

  Back in London, the court anxiously awaited news. ‘We have such different reports’, wrote the Milanese ambassador to King Louis, ‘that I cannot possibly find out the truth.’

  On the evening of the 2nd, the Queen left Berkeley Castle and marched through the night to Gloucester, where she planned to cross the Severn. Once she had joined forces with Jasper Tudor, Edward would stand little chance of prevailing against their combined strength. By 3.00 am the next day, the King had received reliable reports that the Lancastrian army had evaded him once more and was moving towards Gloucester. Determined to overtake it before it could cross the river, he at once dispatched a letter to Sir Richard Beauchamp, governor of Gloucester, commanding him to close his gates to the Lancastrians pending the King’s arrival. The royal messenger circumvented the Queen’s army by taking a different route, and reached the city first. Edward, meanwhile, had drawn up his army in battle array and begun a thirty-mile march through the Cotswolds to Cheltenham, leaving at dawn.

  At ten o’clock in the morni
ng the Queen and her army reached Gloucester and demanded admission, but the gates remained closed. Beauchamp told her that he and the citizens were bound by their oath of loyalty to the King to oppose her passage. She therefore had no alternative but to cross the River Portway and make for Tewkesbury, ten miles to the north. ‘All that day was ever the King’s host within five or six miles of his enemies; he in the plain country, and they amongst woods, [he] having always good espialls upon them,’ says the Arrivall. However, Edward’s food supplies were dwindling fast, and his men were on short rations. It was very warm, and they were obliged to drink from a brook that was polluted with mire from the carts that had passed by it. Fortunately, their quarry was almost within reach.

  At four o’clock in the afternoon of 3 May, Margaret’s great army tramped into Tewkesbury; here they could cross the Severn and pass into Wales. However, having marched for a night and a day, they were ‘right weary, for by that time they had travelled thirty-six long miles in a foul country, all in lanes and stony ways, betwixt woods, without any good refreshing’. Some of the Queen’s soldiers, overcome by heat and exhaustion, had collapsed on the march and been left to fend for themselves. Margaret herself was too exhausted to go any further, and it was decided that everyone should rest for the night and take the field on the morrow. The Queen, the Princess of Wales, the Countess of Devon, Katherine Vaux and other ladies-in-waiting all retired for the night to nearby Glupshill Manor, a house built in 1430 in the shadow of Glupshill Castle, an old Norman motte-and-bailey fortress whose mound may still be seen today.

  King Edward had arrived in Cheltenham late that afternoon, to be informed that the Lancastrians were making for Tewkesbury. He ordered his men to rest for a while and ‘a little comforted himself and his people with such meat and drink as he had carried with him’. Then, in the early evening, he pressed on to Tredington, three miles from Tewkesbury, where he set up camp for the night. Like the Lancastrians, his men were so ‘footsore and thirsty’ that they could have marched no further.

  At dawn the next day the Lancastrian army began preparing for the battle that would surely take place very soon. Somerset, as commander-in-chief, drew up his men in battle array in a strong position on a hill rising out of a field at the southern end of Tewkesbury, with the town and abbey at their backs, although his captains and the Queen expressed concern that ‘afore them, and on every hand of them, were foul lanes and deep dykes, and many hedges with hills and valleys, a right evil place to approach’, which is still today known as Margaret’s Camp.

  Later that morning, the King’s army caught up with the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury, crossing the Swillgate Brook and passing Stonehouse Farm, then taking up battle stations 4-600 yards south of the enemy.

  Meanwhile, the Queen and the Prince of Wales had mounted their horses and were riding through the Lancastrian ranks, speaking words of encouragement to their soldiers and promising them fame, glory and great rewards if they fought well. The Queen then left the field and returned to Glupshill Manor, leaving Somerset in command. The Prince, seeing active service for the first time, was to lead the centre, under the tutelage of Wenlock, a seasoned soldier but hardly a wise choice for he had twice changed sides in recent years. Somerset chose to lead the right wing, and gave Devon command of the left. On the Yorkist side, the King commanded the centre, Gloucester the left wing and Hastings the right. Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, Elizabeth Wydville’s son by her first husband, was to lead the rearguard.

  The Lancastrian army numbered around 5-6000 men, the Yorkists around 3500-5000. The King, however, had more noble support than Somerset, and consequently more professional troops with better arms and equipment; nor had his men suffered loss of morale through being hunted down over a number of days.

  Somerset’s plan was that Wenlock should attack the Yorkists from the front while he bore down on them from the right side, but it was the King who opened hostilities, leading his army with some difficulty up the hill where the Lancastrians were positioned, and then ordering Gloucester to commence the assault. The Duke led his men across what the Arrivall describes as an ‘evil place’ thick with ‘so many hedges and trees that it was right hard to approach them near and come to hands’. For an hour, his soldiers, armed with the cannon captured after Barnet and traditional English longbows, inflicted many casualties, loosing upon the enemy ‘right a-sharp shower’ of arrows, so that it appeared that the Yorkists already had the advantage. Then Gloucester gave the order to sound the retreat, an old ruse intended to provoke the enemy into leaving a good defensive position. Somerset fell into the trap, leading his men in a headlong charge down the hill, shouting at Wenlock and Prince Edward to follow him, and crashing full tilt into the Yorkist left flank.

  Because he feared an ambush by Lancastrian cavalry hidden in the trees, the King had prudently detailed 2-300 spearmen to deploy themselves in a wood or park a quarter of a mile to the right of the Lancastrian position, there to await orders. At this point their captain, on learning of Somerset’s collision with Gloucester’s men, entered the battle on his own initiative, attacking Somerset from the rear while the Duke and his men were engaged in heavy fighting with Gloucester’s left wing, which had fallen upon them savagely with axes and swords, and the Yorkist centre under King Edward.

  Somerset was now surrounded on every side, yet he and his men at first fought furiously. Wenlock, however, made Prince Edward hold back the Lancastrian centre, refusing to let it advance to Somerset’s aid. As a result, the Duke’s men were cut to pieces, which caused his remaining soldiers to panic and begin to flee. At that point, the battle was lost. When Somerset returned to the Lancastrian lines with the remnants of his force and realised that Wenlock had not lifted a finger to help him, he publicly branded him a traitor to his face; then, before Wenlock had a chance to answer, the Duke split his head open with his battle mace. This left the inexperienced Prince Edward in sole command of the Lancastrian centre and vulnerable to a Yorkist charge.

  Seizing his advantage, Gloucester led his men in a vicious onslaught on the Lancastrian centre. Prince Edward resisted valiantly, but his line broke and his men scrambled off in a full-scale retreat. King Edward now surged forward to fill in the gap left by Somerset, and there followed a desperate rout in which the Lancastrians fled the field, hotly pursued by Yorkists out for their blood. Many were cut down as they ran, while others sought refuge in Tewkesbury Abbey, little realising that it did not enjoy the privilege of sanctuary. Hundreds tried to escape by crossing the River Severn, but perished there by drowning or at the hands of their pursuers. A good many more were trapped and slaughtered near the abbey mill, but the worst carnage was to be seen on the battlefield, which is still called the ‘Bloody Meadow’ and was then rough pasture.

  During the rout, bands of Yorkist soldiers forced their way into Tewkesbury Abbey and ran riot through its sacred buildings, looting and vandalising as they went. Anyone who stood in their way was dealt with viciously, and Lancastrian soldiers who had sought refuge were savagely dispatched, their blood desecrating the sanctified ground. In the sacristy today is a wooden door completely covered with plates of armour stripped from Lancastrian casualties or prisoners. In places, the armour is perforated with gunshot or arrow holes.

  King Edward had won what Croyland calls ‘a famous victory’, having at last inflicted a devastating and final defeat on the Lancastrians, 2000 of whom were killed in the battle. Among the dead were Somerset’s younger brother, Sir John Beaufort, who was buried in Tewkesbury Abbey, Sir Walter Courtenay, Sir William Vaux, Sir Robert Whittingham, Sir William Roos and Sir Edmund Hampden, all stalwart supporters of the Queen. The chief Yorkist casualty was the King’s cousin, Humphrey Bourchier, son of York’s sister Isabella. Yet by far the most important casualty of all was Prince Edward of Lancaster.

  Commines and most other contemporary writers state that the Prince ‘died in the field’, and on 6 May Clarence reported that he ‘had been slain in plain battle’. The Arrivall, the offici
al Yorkist account of the battle, says that the Prince ‘was taken fleeing to the townwards and slain in the field’, crying ‘for succour to his brother-in-law, Clarence’.

  But Croyland, writing in 1486 after Edward IV and his brothers were dead, states rather ambiguously that the Prince died ‘either on the field, or after the battle, by the avenging hands of certain persons’. The sixteenth-century historians Vergil, More and Hall all implicate Gloucester in his death, stating that the Prince was taken during the rout and brought before King Edward when the battle had ended. The King received him graciously and asked him to explain why he had taken up arms against him. The young man retorted defiantly, ‘I came to recover my father’s heritage. My father has been miserably oppressed, and the crown usurped.’ This made Edward angry, and with ‘a look of indignation’ he slapped the Prince across the mouth with his gauntlet. At that moment Clarence, Gloucester and Hastings raised their swords and cut him down.

  This tale may not have been an invention. In the confusion following the battle, it would not have been difficult to make it appear that the Prince had fallen in the field. Tudor chroniclers were happy to slander Gloucester – later the notorious Richard III – but had no reason to defame without due cause Edward IV or Lord Hastings, who was usually depicted by them as a noble hero. If the motive behind the tale was to discredit Gloucester, why not allege that he alone had murdered the Prince? But Edward IV had many sound reasons for wanting the young man dead, and when the opportunity presented itself would doubtless have been happy for his closest supporters to take advantage of it. Indeed, the murder may even have been premeditated and planned. Clarence’s use of the words ‘plain battle’ may have been significantly over-emphatic, and Croyland was certainly hinting that there was more to the Prince’s death than contemporary reports had made clear.

 
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