The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

  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.

  Edward’s archers were now shooting deadly volleys of arrows into the Lancastrian cavalry, causing many deaths. The Yorkists quickly overcame the Lancastrian centre, pushing it south towards Kingsland and inflicting heavy casualties, so that the normally peaceful marshes and meadows around the village, where the fighting was most furious, were soon strewn with the dead and the dying.

  As the Lancastrian centre collapsed, Pembroke realised that the day was lost and fled from the field, leaving his men – and his father – to the Yorkists, who now proceeded to butcher large numbers of the vanquished enemy. Four thousand men are said to have been slaughtered on that day, most of them Pembroke’s, for Edward’s losses were slight. Many Welshmen were taken prisoner, as well as several Lancastrian captains.

  In 1799 an obelisk was raised to mark the site of the battle; it now stands outside the Monument Inn, while the battlefield, little changed in 500 years, may still be seen. The tomb of Sir Richard Croft is in the church beside Croft Castle, now owned by the National Trust. In 1839 a silver spur lost by a Lancastrian knight as he fled from the carnage was unearthed nearby, and is now in Hereford Museum.

  On 3 February, Owen Tudor and other Lancastrian captains, including a knight and his two sons, an estate steward and a lawyer, were taken to the market place in Hereford to be executed. It is likely that Edward ordered the sentence on Tudor, Henry VI’s stepfather, to avenge the death of his own father at Wakefield. The chronicler ‘Gregory’ states that, until the collar of his red velvet doublet was torn from his shoulders Tudor did not believe he would be beheaded. As realisation struck, he said sadly, ‘That head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Katherine’s lap.’ Then, ‘trusting that he should not be beheaded till he saw the axe and the block’, he ‘full meekly took his death’. His head was displayed ‘upon the highest step of the market cross, and a mad woman combed his hair and washed away the blood off his face’ before lighting over a hundred candles and setting them about him. His body was buried in the Church of the Grey Friars at Hereford, which has’ long since disappeared, and Welsh bards wrote a number of poignant laments in his honour.

  After Mortimer’s Cross, Wiltshire joined up with Pembroke and, heavily disguised, they went into hiding, Pembroke vowing ‘with the might of Our Lord and the assistance of our kinsmen and friends, within short time to avenge the defeat’. He was mercifully unaware that this was the beginning of an exile that would last for a quarter of a century. Three weeks after the battle he was at his port of Tenby, where he could count upon the loyalty of the townsfolk, and on 25 February he wrote to at least two of his Welsh allies, trying to bolster their confidence in the Lancastrian cause and urging them to seek revenge on his behalf for the defeat at Mortimer’s Cross and the execution of his father. He then fled abroad, leaving young Henry Tudor in hiding at Pembroke Castle, where the Yorkists later discovered him – by 1468 he was living under house arrest as the ward of Sir William Herbert at Raglan Castle. As for Pembroke, for the next two decades and more he would be a fugitive, moving between France, Scotland, Wales and northern England, ever constant in the cause of Lancaster, even in the face of total defeat.

  While awaiting the Queen’s arrival from the north, the Lancastrian army remained at Hull, where the civic council provided its men with food, since fresh victuals were unobtainable by boat from East Anglia thanks to Yorkist patrols off the coast of King’s Lynn. On 12 January, Lord Neville’s troops, growing restive, surged into Beverley and inflicted savage brutalities upon the citizens, a foretaste of what the south could expect.

  By the 20th Margaret and her force had joined up with the main army at York where, on that day, a large gathering of Lancastrian nobles confirmed the agreement between Margaret of Anjou and Mary of Gueldres for the surrender of Berwick and the marriage of the Prince of Wales, and pledged themselves to persuade Henry VI to agree to it. News of this concord had been conveyed to the King of France, Scotland’s ally, who was greatly pleased, and ordered that all the harbours of Normandy should be open to the Queen and her friends, should they have need of them. Margaret, believing that Charles would come to her aid himself, if need be, was now ready to march south, not stopping to consider how the English would view a queen who encouraged England’s ancient enemy to invade her shores.

  On that same day the Lancastrian army, under the command of Somerset and Northumberland, set off towards London, marching via Grantham, Stamford, Peterborough, Huntingdon, Royston and St Albans. Once they had crossed the Trent, the northern soldiers began robbing, raping, torturing, burning and looting at will, ‘laying waste all the towns and villages that stood along their way’, according to Benet. They sacked abbeys and priories, burned whole villages, barns, and even manor houses, after carrying off their treasures, and stole cattle and provisions. Because of the hardships of campaigning in winter it is likely that many were basically foraging for food, but their seizure of it meant near-starvation for country communities, especially as winter supplies were running low by that time of year.

  Many people fled south from the wrath of the northerners, carrying with them dreadful tales of atrocities. The Croyland chronicler recorded the terror of the monks of his abbey and their neighbours in the nearby villages, who brought their few valuables to the abbot for safe-keeping, much to the dismay of the brethren.

  We collected together our precious vestments and other treasures, besides all our charters and muniments, and hid them in the most secret places within the walls. And every day the convent held processions and poured forth prayers and tears. All the gates of the monastery and town were guarded, day and night.

  However, the Queen’s soldiers mercifully passed them by at a distance of six miles. ‘Blessed be God, who did not give us for a prey unto their teeth,’ wrote the chronicler

  Croyland had heard that the royal army had now been reinforced by ‘an infinite number of paupers and beggars, who had emerged like mice from their holes’ eager for booty, and whose advance encompassed a line thirty miles wide. He tells how they committed many unspeakable crimes, ‘murdering anyone, including clergy, who resisted, and robbing the rest, even digging up valuables whose whereabouts they discovered by threats of death’.

  As the Queen’s army advanced through the east Midlands, the men of the south and East Anglia were hurrying to arms. Clement Paston wrote: ‘My lords that be here have as much as they may do to keep down all this country, for they would be up on the men in the north, for it is the weal of all the south.’ Sir John Wenlock was busy arraying the levies of Hertfordshire and five other shires north of London. Reports of atrocities had caused many towns to switch sides, including Coventry, which had hitherto been chiefly Lancastrian in sympathy. Meanwhile, bands of Welsh soldiers, escaping after Mortimer’s Cross, were hastening to join the Queen.

  Warwick, who could be indecisive in a crisis, had dallied in London when he should have been busy raising an army in the Midlands to counteract the threat posed by the advancing forces of the Queen. Instead, he waited until she had reached Hertfordshire before he began recruiting in London, Kent and the eastern and southern counties. On 12 February, the Council commissioned Edward of York, still making his way to the capital, to array the lieges of the west to march with him against the King’s enemies.

  On that same day, King Henry, accompanied by the Duke of Norfolk, rode out of London to Barnet, followed hours later by Warwick, who left the city for Ware with a great army and ordnance. Four days later the Queen’s host came to Luton. Warwick had laid an ambush south of the town, with nets concealing spikes and caltraps, the latter being two rods of iron twisted together with cruelly sharp points which were strewn along the road to impede the passage of cavalry. However, a former Yorkist, Sir Henry Lovelace, espied them, and sent a message of warning to Margaret, who ordered her army to swing west and take the road to Dunstable instead of that to St Albans. At this time, some of her unruly troops were ravaging the countryside between Hitchin and Buntingford.

  A detachment of Warwick’s army under the command of a local butcher was waiting for the Queen at Dunstable, but fared badly in the ensuing skirmish, losing 200 men before being driven out of the town. The butcher, overcome with shame at his defeat, promptly committed suicide, and ‘Gregory’ is scathing in his denouncement of the man’s inefficiency and cowardice. The royal army then proceeded down Watling Street towards St Albans.

  On the 17th, King Henry rode into St Albans to rendezvous with Warwick, who was now awaiting the arrival of the Queen’s advance guard. The Earl had a large army, the size of which is nowhere given precisely, and was supported by Norfolk, Suffolk’s heir John de la Pole, and Arundel, none of whom could match him in military expertise and experience, and by the more reliable Lords Fauconberg, Bourchier and Bonville. He had divided his men into three groups, placing the weakest group, containing a large number of archers, in the town, and the other two outside it on the Harpenden and Sandridge roads, the latter being positioned on Nomansland Common. A sunken lane called Beech Bottom ran between these two wings and enabled them to keep in touch with each other.

  Warwick also had a detachment of 500 Burgundian soldiers, who would shoot flaming arrows in the coming battle, and had rudimentary handguns called ribaudkins, which fired lead pellets, iron-headed arrows and ‘wildfire’ all at the same time. He also had a company of crossbowmen armed with pavises, large wooden shields studded with nails which screened the bowmen as they fired their bolts.

  Warwick’s Kentish recruits were captained by one of his most trusted retainers, Sir Henry Lovelace, who had the reputation of being the Englishman most expert in warfare, and may have fought for Jack Cade in 1450. Warwick had appointed Lovelace steward of his household, and had in former campaigns placed him in command of his advance guard or in charge of guns and supplies. He had been captured by the Lancastrians at Wakefield and condemned to death, but the Queen had spared him when, having been persuaded by Lord Rivers to switch his allegiance, he swore never again to take up arms against her. Margaret was so overjoyed to secure the services of this renowned warrior that she promised him £4000 and the earldom of Kent when the King came into his own again in return for his continuing loyalty. Lovelace marched south with the royal army, but after leaving Luton he rode to join Warwick’s force, though he had no intention of fighting for his former lord, but was rather plotting to betray him.

  Contemporary chroniclers estimated – doubtless with some exaggeration – that the Queen had 80,000 men in her army, which was captained by Exeter, Somerset, Devon, Shrewsbury, Northumberland, Clifford, Grey, Roos and other loyal peers. The advance guard was under the command of Andrew Trollope, and the main battle under Somerset, who had 30,000 horse. Sir John Grey was in charge of the cavalry. The Queen had only twenty-four southerners in her army, including five esquires and a grocer from London, and it would appear that both sides had hastily recruited untried men, who were difficult to train and discipline. A shortage of victuals did not improve matters, and by the time it reached St Albans the Lancastrian army was already disintegrating. Having got their booty from plundering, many of the Queen’s northerners had deserted and gone home while often those who were left were useless in the field. However, when the time came for battle, the Lancastrian commanders managed to enforce discipline and effectively deployed their more reliable men, although some ‘would not be guided nor governed by their captains’.

  When Warwick reached St Albans he believed the Queen to be nine miles off, but she took him by surprise, entering the town, not as expected from the Verulamium end, but from the north-west, to the east of St Peter’s Street. Warwick had deployed his archers in the streets and in several buildings including the Red Lion and Fleur de Lys inns in order to prevent the Queen’s army from entering the town, but at dawn on 17 February her commanders tried to force entry. At first they were driven back by a deadly hail of arrows from the Eleanor Cross in the market place, and were obliged to retreat across the River Ver. On the farther bank they held a council of war, as a result of which Trollope decided to lead his advance guard along the narrow lanes to the north of Romeland and thence into St Peter’s Street, avoiding barricades set up by the Yorkists. Despite heavy casualties from enemy arrows, they succeeded in driving Warwick’s archers out of the town to Bernard’s Heath, where the Earl made strenuous attempts to regroup them. It was now nearly noon, and snow was beginning to fall.

  Before long Warwick had drawn up his men into a new line, stretching from Beech Bottom across the Sandridge Road. Caltraps had been scattered along the road, and the artillery and the Burgundians with their handguns were grouped in front of the line. As the Lancastrian vanguard under Trollope advanced, the Yorkists fired their cannon, but with little success because the falling snow had damped down the powder. Some of the handguns exploded or backfired, causing severe injuries to their owners – eighteen were burned to death by their own fire.

  Behind Trollope came Somerset with the main battle of the royal army. The Yorkists tried again to bombard the enemy with their artillery, but it had now been rendered completely ineffective, and their arrows, shot into an adverse wind, were falling short of their targets. Nevertheless, the Lancastrians were finding it difficult to breach the Yorkist position, and Warwick might have won the day had it not been for the treachery of Lovelace, who had cautiously held back his troops until he saw that the tide was turning in favour of the Lancastrians, then deserted and raced to join them. The gap in the Yorkist lines left by Lovelace was soon targeted by the enemy commanders, who launched a charge of mounted knights, which shattered the Yorkist lines.

  After this, it began to grow dark, and Warwick could see defeat approaching. His left wing was already in flight, and he therefore sounded the retreat and withdrew his centre from the field, drawing them up
in a tight defensive position between Sandridge and Cheapside Farm, to the north of St Albans. Here he remained, fighting on until dusk fell.

  Those of his army who remained in the field, hard-pressed, looked in vain for the Earl to return with reinforcements. The Lancastrians were causing confusion and it was impossible to ward off their onslaughts. But Warwick was preoccupied with disciplining his raw recruits, who made up the larger part of his army; many had deserted during the battle because they had not been adequately fed. The Earl had indeed tried to march his centre south to rejoin the fighting, but was thwarted by some of his captains, who urged him to withdraw altogether from the field and make for London. Although Warwick stubbornly insisted on relieving his men, by the time he got to them his left wing on Bernard’s Heath were already fleeing the battlefield, running in panic in all directions, with enemy soldiers in grim pursuit who butchered the Yorkists when they caught them. Whethamstead, who was at the abbey of St Albans at the time of the battle and gives the most detailed account of it, says that those who escaped did so under cover of darkness. At the sight of the carnage, more of Warwick’s inexperienced recruits ran for their lives.

  As it was now dark and useless to struggle on further, and as it was obvious that the Lancastrians had scored a decisive victory – in fact, it was to be their most decisive victory of the war – Warwick sounded the retreat and withdrew the remnants of his army in an orderly manner from the field. He then marched west through the night with a force of 4000 men, aiming to link up with Edward of York. He left behind him a battlefield strewn with 2–4000 dead. Sir John Grey was among them.

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