In July 1453, at Castillon, the English fought and lost the last great battle of the Hundred Years War. For three centuries, English nobles had fought occasional civil wars at home, but more often they had waged war abroad – in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, in the Middle East during the Crusades, and above all in France. The dammed-up violence of the feudal system was usually exported in foreign wars.
Soon after 1453, however, the violence erupted into 30 years of internecine warfare on English soil. The nobility – a band of warring brothers whose ambitions had once been sated in foreign conquest – turned on each other in a savage struggle for control of the throne and the kingdom. The prize was the royal power of patronage.
The aristocracy was dominated by a handful of great families, each at the head of huge ‘affinities’ formed of lesser lords and their followers. These families formed powerful alliances – often cemented by intermarriage – and they competed for access to, and control over, the Crown, since it was the King who made appointments to high office and possessed the greatest landholdings. The royal court was therefore a centre of intrigue and faction.
A usurper dynasty
The transition from court politics to military confrontation was easily made. The great lords stood at the head of large private armies, a mix of household troops, militia raised in their territories, and professional contingents serving under contract.
Some of the latter were short-term mercenaries, but many were ‘maintenance and livery’ men who had entered into a private long-term contract to perform military service for a particular lord – thus, they were paid ‘maintenance’, became ‘retainers’, and wore the ‘livery’ (the devices and colours) of the lord they served.
The conflict that raged so violently between 1455 and 1485 had really begun as early as 1399, with the overthrow of the last Plantagenet king, Richard II (1377-1399), and his replacement by a Lancastrian usurper, Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV (1399-1413). It did not really end until 1499, when the Yorkist pretender Perkin Warbeck was executed by King Henry VII (1485-1509).
Usurpation placed a question-mark over the Lancastrian monarchy (‘uneasy lies the head’), and the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403), where Henry IV defeated the rebellion of Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, might well be regarded as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses.
Henry IV’s son, Henry V (1413-1422), achieved a measure of stability, reuniting the kingdom in a war against the French, but he died at a very young age and was succeeded by a baby son, King Henry VI (1422-1461), who grew into a weak, mentally unstable, religious obsessive, wholly incapable of exercising royal authority.
Rampant political faction at court, coupled with military disaster on the Continent, soured the relationship between the Lancastrian elite and a large segment of the nobility. After his maturity, the King remained in thrall to a powerful faction led by his wife, the French queen, Margaret of Anjou, and the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk. When the leading opposition noble, the Duke of Gloucester, was arrested and died suddenly in prison, his estates were distributed to the friends of the Queen and the Duke of Suffolk – a measure of the very high stakes for which the rival factions were playing.
The pendulum swung against the regime: Suffolk was impeached and banished, and was then murdered en route to Flanders; a popular revolt in Kent exposed the unpopularity of the Duke of Somerset’s Beaufort faction; Richard, Duke of York, emerged as the leading oppositionist, supported by the powerful Neville affinity.
Two great blocs were taking shape, each headed by a claimant to the throne. Henry VI was a direct descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, son of Edward III (1327-1377), as was the Duke of Somerset and the Beaufort family. Richard, Duke of York, on the other hand, was the grandson of Edmund, Duke of York, another of the sons of Edward III; and Richard was married to a Neville, making Richard, Duke of Salisbury, his brother-in-law. Lancastrians and Beauforts against Yorkists and Nevilles: the battle-lines were drawn.
Between 1450 and 1455, the pendulum swung heavily. Increasingly, armed retainers were summoned to back the rival leaders’ claims to power. Matters came to a head in a protracted crisis played out between 1453 and 1455.
Phase One: 1455-1464
York became Protector of the Realm during one of the King’s periodic bouts of madness. When Henry recovered, he dismissed York and restored Somerset to pre-eminence. York retired to Ludlow Castle and summoned his followers for another armed demonstration. Margaret and Somerset convened a royal council, invited no Yorkists, and demanded that the assembled lords take measures for the King’s safety. Rival Lancastrian and Yorkist armies then clashed in full battle for the first time at St Albans on 22 May 1455.
The Lancastrians were defeated at First St Albans, Somerset was killed, and the Duke of York recovered his position. But Margaret of Anjou rallied the Lancastrians, and war broke out again in 1459. Richard, Duke of York, was killed at the Battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460), and the Queen’s army, raised in the north, marched on London. The war was approaching its murderous climax.
Edward, son of Richard, now Duke of York, who had been raising soldiers in the west, defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (2 February 1461). News of the victory, and fears of what the Queen’s army might do were it to enter London – its mix of Scots, Borderers, Welsh, and mercenaries had cut a 30-mile-wide swathe of devastation on its line of march – galvanised the Yorkist cause, allowing Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, son of the Duke of Salisbury (who had been captured and executed at Wakefield), to raise an army sufficient to march forth and challenge the Queen’s.
1461: year of decision
The Second Battle of St Albans (17 February 1461) was a Lancastrian victory, but Warwick extricated his defeated army and fell back on London, which then closed its gates to those it regarded as northern barbarians. Edward slipped into London, was proclaimed king on 4 March, and then he and Warwick advanced to battle with their united armies. Margaret fell back to the Lancastrian heartland in the north.
Here, on 29 March 1461, at Towton, two massive armies confronted each other, and slugged it out all day in a freezing snowstorm. Eventually, the Lancastrian line broke, and thousands were cut down in the rout or drowned in the Cock Beck in their panic. Some 12,000 Yorkists and 20,000 Lancastrians perished, making it the bloodiest battle in British history. Towton broke the back of the House of Lancaster, and created the Yorkist monarchy.
There matters might have rested. But faction was simply reconfigured as a conflict within the victorious Yorkist party – not at first, but in the course of time, as it became clear that the ambitious Woodville family of Edward’s queen, Elizabeth, threatened the position of the Earl of Warwick, ‘the Kingmaker’, the leader of the Neville affinity, and the man whose loyal support had secured the crown for York.
The Yorkist schism
Edward seems to have acted with scant regard for the solidarity of the Yorkist party. He had married Elizabeth Woodville secretly, and against Warwick’s wishes. He had then further alienated Warwick by marginalising him in government, and giving rapid advancement to many of Elizabeth’s family, transforming the Woodvilles into a powerful affinity in their own right. In 1467, the break became irreparable when Edward repudiated Warwick’s foreign policy.
War broke out in 1469. The King was defeated, captured, and forced for a while to accept a Warwick ministry. But at the first opportunity he gathered a new army and turned it against the rebel Yorkist. Warwick was defeated in his turn, and driven from England.
But the schism in the Yorkist ranks was now so embittered that he formed an alliance with his old Lancastrian enemies. When he landed back in Kent, the gates of London were opened to him, and the King found himself caught between a Lancastrian rising in the north, and a growing army forming around Warwick in the south. He fled to the Netherlands, and Warwick restored Henry VI to the throne.
The House of York now faced its greatest test. The key to its resilience was the number of lords deeply committed to its cause and gravely threatened by the new Lancastrian ascendancy. Consequently, when Edward returned to England, landing in the Humber Estuary with a body of 1,500 German and Flemish mercenaries supplied by the Duke of Burgundy, the Yorkist lords rose in his support. Bypassing Warwick’s army in the Midlands, Edward entered London on 11 April, closely followed by the Lancastrian army.
Approach to battle
The following day (Good Friday), the capital was packed with Yorkist supporters, and Edward felt confident that he could march out to confront the Lancastrian host. On 13 April, he advanced down the Great North Road at the head of about 10,000 men, reaching Barnet late in the day. He drove Warwick’s scouts from the town, and moved on down the road to camp just north of it, a short distance from the Lancastrian army.
Warwick ordered his artillery to fire at the likely position of the Yorkist camp throughout the night, presumably to demoralise and tire the enemy force (though the racket could hardly have assisted his own men’s rest). But an accident of the kind that is common in war generally, and seems to have been especially prevalent during England’s Wars of the Roses, caused the Lancastrian cannon consistently to overshoot, for Edward’s army had advanced closer to Warwick’s in the darkness than either realised. Edward’s artillery remained quiet, so as not to give away the true Yorkist position.
Dawn on Easter Sunday did little to clarify matters: a dense fog shrouded the battlefield, one that would hang heavy as long as the battle lasted. Despite it, perhaps on the assumption that the fog would affect both sides equally, Edward ordered his men to muster and advance on the enemy.
The Lancastrians were also mustered at dawn. Warwick, alerted to the approach of the Yorkist army by the sound of trumpets mingled with shouts of men and clanking of armour, ordered his artillery and archers to fire into the fog. Edward’s archers, cannon, and a small contingent of mercenary hand-gunners returned fire.
But as the Yorkist trumpets sounded again and the enemy host drew near, so as not to deprive his men of momentum when the collision duly came, Warwick withdrew his archers and ordered forward the men-at-arms.
Each side had deployed in the conventional three ‘battles’ or ‘wards’. The opposing lines ran roughly west to east. The Earl of Oxford commanded the Lancastrian vaward on the right; the Marquis of Montagu, Warwick’s brother, the main ‘battle’ in the centre; and the Duke of Exeter the rearward on the left. Warwick stationed himself in the rear, with a small reserve of Neville household troops. There were up to 15,000 Lancastrians on the battlefield.
The Yorkist right was commanded by the 18-year-old Duke of Gloucester, Edward’s younger brother, the future King Richard III; the centre was commanded by Edward himself (alongside his brother George); and the left by Lord Hastings.
Both armies were afflicted with doubts, uncertain allegiance, and a risk of treachery. And this, as so often in the Wars of the Roses, would play a role in the action. In particular, Edward’s wayward brother, George, Duke of Clarence, had, until very recently, been in alliance with Warwick against his sibling; while on the Lancastrian side, the Marquis of Montagu, Warwick’s brother, is known to have entered battle against the King he had served so long with heavy heart.
4.30am: collision and crisis
Because of the fog, neither side realised before the moment of collision that the opposing armies were misaligned, each right ‘battle’ overlapping the enemy left. This gave the struggle its distinctive shape, for Richard of Gloucester’s men overpowered and drove back the outnumbered and outflanked Lancastrian left under Exeter, while Oxford, whose men had begun the battle lining a hedge, accomplished the same against Hastings on the Yorkist left.
The effect, as both armies endeavoured to maintain the integrity of their line – that is, to prevent dangerous gaps opening up – swivelled through an angle of about 45°, so that battle-lines that had originally run west to east ended up running south-west to north-east.
The acute danger to the respective left flanks constituted the first crisis of the battle. Its outcome was a clear-cut Lancastrian advantage, for Warwick had a reserve with which he could reinforce Exeter’s line before it crumpled and collapsed under the weight of Gloucester’s two-sided attack, but Edward seems to have had no such reserve – or, if he did, was not quick enough to employ it – with the consequence that Hastings’ ‘battle’ broke, ran, and scattered, most of them back through Barnet (some, it is said, not stopping until they had reached London, where they delivered premature reports of Yorkist defeat).
In the centre, the struggle was more even, and the fog seems to have prevented Edward’s men from being demoralised by bearing witness to the collapse of the Yorkist left. They fought long and hard. But after about two hours, the greater weight of Lancastrian numbers seems to have begun to tell. The intervention of Warwick and the Lancastrian reserve, having stabilised the situation on the left, reinvigorated the Lancastrian line, and enabled it to drive Edward’s men back.The shape of battle
How are we to imagine what was actually taking place? Given the likely proportions of archers to men-at-arms, we can safely assume that each of the six ‘battles’ was an approximately battalion-sized bloc of up to 1,000 heavily armoured men equipped with shortened lances, bills, axes, hammers, maces, and swords. Some among them may have been commoners, but even ordinary spearmen would have worn a minimum of steel helmet and body-armour in the form of padded hauberk, metal-studded brigandine, or chainmail shirt. (Shields were not carried because armour was comprehensive and they impeded weapon-handling.)
The individual contingents forming each ‘battle’ would have given these large formations a degree of articulation. One can imagine the contingent of an individual lord or captain being capable of independent manoeuvre – to extend a line, plug a gap, or cover a flank. And one can also imagine groups of archers operating in the interstices between the blocs of men-at-arms, providing supporting fire, joining the fringes of the mêlée, and moving in to finish off and plunder the fallen.
Much of the fighting would have been tentative, taking the form of protracted stand-offs a short distance apart, as men instinctively drew back from the lethal danger represented by the blades, spikes, and bludgeons wielded by their opponents. On the other hand, the forward momentum of men in the rear ranks who could neither see the enemy nor be struck by them would sometimes propel their front-rank comrades forwards, and precipitate a flurry of frenzied hacking and stabbing.
The main ‘battles’ are likely to have been four, six, even eight ranks deep, the depth of formation having the purpose, as much as anything, of making it virtually impossible for the men in greatest danger to give in to their instinct to flee. The crush of men behind blocked the escape-route, so to turn one’s back was to invite almost certain death at the hands of an enemy only a few feet away. Even to try to get away in these circumstances was to make a very public spectacle of one’s fear, risking severe moral opprobrium and social disgrace.
So the lines did not so much collide as confront one another at close range, facing off for an hour or two, during which time there would be small-scale manoeuvres and various adjustments to the line, perhaps exchanges of point-blank archery, and periodic eruptions of ferocious duelling between opposing groups of men-at-arms.
6am: attrition and crisis
Eventually, the attrition, both physical and emotional, would cause one side to weaken and give ground, and the danger then was that fear would get a grip, the line would falter, the enemy would sense victory and push forwards, and the entire formation would disintegrate into a panic-stricken crowd, shattering like a pane of glass.
This was the danger as Edward’s main ‘battle’ began to draw back under the Lancastrian attack. It was probably now about 6 o’clock in the morning, the battle having begun at dawn, around 4am. What saved the Yorkist cause was one of the Wars of the Roses’ many battlefield accidents, one that fed on widespread fear of treachery, so as to turn the second crisis of the battle into a Lancastrian disaster.
With Exeter holding on the left and Montagu pushing forwards in the centre, Warwick sensed that a small weight might now tip the balance. The Earl of Oxford seemed to offer precisely this, sending a message that he had rallied much of his force and was returning to the battlefield.
Events on the western side of the battlefield had been decisive for the immediate participants, but had, up until this point, become irrelevant to the outcome of the wider battle. Oxford had been unable to restrain his men, who, elated by their victory, had pursued the defeated Yorkists all the way to Barnet, and there had set about plundering the town.
Medieval armies were motivated in large part by pay and plunder. Men fought mainly because soldiering was their profession. They expected to be paid well (and contemporary accounts show that they were), but they also expected lucrative bonuses in the form of plunder and ransom money. Oxford’s men had done their fighting, won their victory, and went off to reap their reward.
The good earl, however, seems eventually to have rallied about half of them, and these, around 500 mounted men, he was now leading back to the battlefield. (They had presumably mounted to hasten their pursuit of the defeated Yorkists, and so as not to leave their valuable horses behind.)
But the fog had still not lifted, and the battle-lines had turned through 45°, such that Oxford’s men had no real knowledge of where the respective armies now lay. He assumed that he was leading them into the rear of Edward’s army; in fact, their threatening shapes suddenly appeared through the fog on the flank of Montagu’s heavily engaged men.
As the shapes bore down on them, Montagu’s captains mistook the star-and-streams device worn by Oxford’s men for the sun-and-streams device of Edward of York, and ordered their archers to open fire. Oxford’s men seem to have recognised Montagu’s men as Lancastrians, the cry of ‘treason’ went up, and they broke and ran.
Treachery was common on the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses. Allegiances changed often among men motivated by little more than the main chance. In this case, where many long-standing Yorkists found themselves fighting as Lancastrians, the unease about the reliability of one’s comrades-in-arms was especially acute. Montagu in particular was known to be unenthusiastic about fighting against Edward of York. The rumour that treason was afoot spread rapidly through the embattled Lancastrian ranks.
Command and control
Warwick attempted to steady the line, while Edward, sensing the uncertainty and faltering opposite, spurred his men forward. The King charged forward in person with his household contingent towards the Marquis of Montagu’s standard.
The Lancastrian line was failing for another reason. Personal command was a highly visible and morally critical factor on the Medieval battlefield. Leading nobles were members of a warrior elite reared in a culture that valued chivalric achievement above all other. Not the least of Edward IV’s qualities was that he was exceptionally tall, fit, and warlike; he was not only a considerable military commander, but also a fearsome fighting man in the mêlée – unlike the saintly Henry VI.
Special value was placed on locating, engaging, and defeating opponents of equivalent rank. This explains the reports we have of commanders leading charges across the battlefield to engage their opposite numbers. Standards (for large bodies of troops) and banners (for individual lords forming a ‘battle’) marked their position. Enemy commanders were therefore highly visible on the relatively small battlefields of the Wars of the Roses: Barnet was about a mile wide, and probably involved around 5,000 men-at-arms in total – but for the fog, one might have watched the entire battle unfold from Hadley church-tower. The practice of seeking out enemy commanders was both good tactics – because of the centrality of personal leadership – and conformed to the chivalric code that accorded special honour to the defeat of opponents of equivalent rank.
Commanders, then, had to be seen to be able and willing to share the risks of front-line combat. Montagu, sensing demoralisation in the Lancastrian ranks before the battle, had persuaded Warwick not to follow his usual practice of beginning the battle on foot, and then returning to his mount: to maximise the effect of personal example, both brothers resolved to fight it out on foot alongside their men-at-arms.
Crisis of leadership
A crisis of leadership now played out in the Lancastrian ranks, compounding the confusion and demoralisation consequent upon the rumours of treachery. Exeter, leading the desperate struggle of the Lancastrian rearward ‘battle’ on the left flank, had been struck down and left for dead; indeed, he was reported to Warwick as felled and killed by a Yorkist axe. Fears of treachery and loss of their leader seem to have triggered the collapse of the Lancastrian left.
Then came a report that Montagu was down, apparently struck from behind by one of Oxford’s men, believing him to be a traitor. Whatever the truth about the identity of his assailant, the news of his fall was accurate: Montagu was dead. With both flanks in the air, with one flank attacked by Oxford’s men, with Edward’s Yorkists pushing forwards in front, with fears of treachery in the ranks, and with the commander down, the Lancastrian centre also now collapsed.
Warwick, realising the battle lost, lumbered to the rear in search of his horse. But it had been left a considerable distance from the battle-line, in keeping with his and his brother’s decision not to resort to their mounts as long as the fighting lasted. This decision now doomed him. He was overtaken, recognised, and cut down by pursuing Yorkist men-at-arms.
It was almost certainly in this final phase of the battle that most of the killing took place. The tentative nature of most close-quarters combat was transformed into a frenzy of hacking and stabbing once the enemy’s back was turned and he became part of a panic-stricken crowd desperate to escape. Those at the front of the mêlée now found themselves at the back of the rout, their way out impeded by a mass of colliding, stumbling, falling men ahead of them. The attackers’ onslaught would be fuelled by psychic energy as pent-up fear turned into an explosion of anger – the psychoanalytical meaning of ‘blood-lust’ – a grim reality confirmed by archaeological study of battle casualties.
The 38 or more individuals found in the Towton ‘death-pit’ tell the story graphically. Osteologists identified injuries inflicted by a mix of blunt weapons (war-hammers and maces), sharp weapons (swords and daggers), and pointed weapons (bill-spikes or arrows). These occurred on all parts of the body, but especially on hands and arms, as victims had attempted to shield themselves, and above all to the heads.
There were no less than 113 wounds on the 27 skulls examined. One man, for example, had received five head wounds before he was finally felled, and then taken a massive blow across the back of his head which smashed through his cranium and penetrated the brain. His assailant, however, did not yet desist. The victim received two more massive blows, one forceful enough to flip him over, the last bisecting his face diagonally from left eye to upper jaw.
The Towton evidence is confirmed by that of the mass graves excavated near the town of Visby in Sweden, from which some 2,000 victims of the Battle of Visby in 1361 were recovered, a very high proportion of them with multiple injuries, especially to the cranium, often delivered from behind.
The killing process
And, of course, we now have the body of King Richard III. He seems to have taken four blows to the head before he collapsed, and then to have been struck two shattering blows across the back of his head when face down on the ground. The first, perhaps from a dagger, penetrated the inner cranium. The second cleaved away a whole chunk of cranium and exposed the brain, the severed portion of bone forming a bloody flap hinged with skin. The weapon employed was almost certainly some sort of bill. Richard III was, quite literally, pole-axed.
These three discoveries are notable for the fact that each reveals a similar pattern: they show multiple injuries inflicted from behind. Once the line was broken and penetrated by the enemy, once men’s backs were turned in flight, there was no defence against the spikes, blades, and clubs of massed assailants intent on killing. The final stages of a Medieval battle like Barnet would have had the character of a massacre.
Warwick seems to have been struck down, to have had his visor prised open, and then to have been stabbed through the eye. His body was then plundered and stripped of its armour.
Edward had the bodies of the two Neville brothers returned to London and put on show in St Paul’s Cathedral: no-one was to be allowed to dispute the fact that the great Richard Neville – ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ – was dead.
Barnet secured the Yorkist monarchy. King Edward IV had allowed faction to destroy the solidarity of his party, and plunge England into a renewal of civil war. His victory over Warwick was decisive in ending the division and restoring his authority.
He consolidated his victory by defeating Margaret of Anjou at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. She had not trusted Warwick, and had failed to co-ordinate her efforts with his: she paid the price, allowing Edward to defeat the Lancastrians in detail, the men of the north at Barnet, the men of the west at Tewkesbury.
The Yorkist King henceforward ruled more or less unchallenged until his death in 1483. .
Letter from the battlefield
Sir John Paston and his brother fought on the Lancastrian side at Barnet. Four days after the battle, he found time to write to his mother.
Sir John Paston to Margaret Paston, 18 April 1471:
Mother, I recommend me to you, letting you wete [know] that, blessed be God, my brother John is alive and fareth well, and in no peril of death. Nevertheless, he is hurt with an arrow on his right arm beneath the elbow; and I have sent him a surgeon, which hath dressed him, and he telleth me that he trusteth that he shall be all whole within right short time.
It is so that John Milsent is dead, God have mercy on his soul!, and William Milsent is alive, and his other servants all be escaped by all likelihood.
Item [also], as for me, I am in good case, blessed by God; and in no jeopardy of my life, as me list myself; for I am at my liberty if need be.
Item [also], my lord Archbishop [George Neville, Archbishop of York, brother of Warwick] is in the Tower; nevertheless, I trust to God that he shall do well enough. He hath a safeguard for him and me both. Nevertheless, we have been troubled for him since, but now I understand that he hath a pardon; and so we hope well.
There are killed upon the field, half a mile from Barnet, on Easter Day, the Earl of Warwick, the Marquis Montagu [brother of Warwick], Sir William Tyrell, Sir Lewis Johns, and divers other esquires of our country, Godmerston and Booth.
And on the King Edward’s party, the Lord Cromwell, the Lord Say, Sir Humphrey Bourchier of our country, which is a sore moaned man here, and other people of both parties to the number of more than a thousand.
As for other tidings, it is understood here that the Queen Margaret is verily landed, and her son, in the West Country; and I trow [think] that as tomorrow, or else the next day, the King Edward will depart from hence to her-ward to drive her out again…