wotr_logo.jpg (2835 bytes)

An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 47: The 1st battle of St Albans: May 1455


Verification of the King's recovery

The news of the recovery of King Henry VI from his mysterious illness was received, as might be supposed, with jubilation in some quarters, and in a more sombre mood in others. If the King had indeed recovered, then the appointment of Richard, Duke of York as Protector of the Realm had come to an end. William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, and Sir Robert Botyll, Prior of St John were sent to Windsor to find out how things stood with the King. 0n 7th January 1455, they had an audience:-

"...and he speke to hem as well as he ever did; and when thei came out thei wept for joye, and he seith he is in charitee with all the world, and so he wold all the Lords were." [Paston Letters 1 cxvii p 315]

Queen Margaret insisted that the King should have one month's convalescence at Windsor before undertaking serious business once again. Her first priority was the release of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, from the Tower. She listened to the advice she was given that things must not be taken too quickly; Somerset should first be released on bail, and later the the whole matter of a Commission of Enquiry could be quietly dropped. It pleased her to see how many Lords would commit themselves to the Lancastrian cause by putting up bail. She soon found that Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, his half-brother William Bourchier, Lord Fitz-Waryn, James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, and Sir Robert, Lord Roos were willing to put up bail that Somerset would attend any Enquiry, and he was released on 5th February 1455.

Richard and his friends, furious with frustration, were unable to do anything to prevent Somerset being restored to his liberty.

Somerset was well briefed by the Queen what he should do and say. At a Council meeting on 4th March 1455, he complained that he had been held for over a year without any charge being preferred against him, and he begged that his bail should be discharged as there was:-

"noo lawfull cause proposed ayenst him".

The King at once played his part in this charade, declaring Somerset his:-

"feithful liegeman" (who had done him) "right true.....and pleasaunt service"

His bail was discharged. Now there could be no question of a Commission of Enquiry.

Queen Margaret's next step, with the King in the palm of her hand, was to see that the Yorkist Ministers were dismissed. During March 1455, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, was dismissed as Chancellor, and Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, took his place. Similarly, the Yorkist John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, left the Treasury in favour of James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire. Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter was released from Pontefract Castle, apparently unrepentant and unconvinced that he was under any obligation to his father-in-law, Richard, Duke of York. Finally, Richard was relieved of the Captaincy of Calais which was restored to Somerset.

Now Queen Margaret laughed openly in Richard's face to make his humiliation complete. So he had thought he could take over the Royal Power? So he had thought he could displace the Royal Dynasty and substitute his own? He and his friends would learn a bitter lesson that they could not tread on such sacred ground, and they would soon have ample cause to regret what they had done. Quite apart from Margaret's bitter railings, spiced as they were with a spiteful and venomous tongue, they could see for themselves their own doom. They had tried the constitutional way and it had not helped them. They began to arm once again.

The First battle of St Albans - 22nd May 1455

Richard, having learnt his lesson from his rebellion in 1452, took good care to liase with his friends, and make sure that they were arming themselves whilst he was doing the same from the security of his northern estates. This time all of them, having taken part in the Protectorate, could see that their estates, their titles, their wealth, their very lives and those of their families were threatened by Somerset and the vengeful Queen. The Nevilles, and in particular Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and his son, also Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, and John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk felt themselves to be in especial and grave danger. They readily joined Richard, Duke of York in what was an armed rebellion.

The ruling dynasty, the Lancastrians, also prepared themselves. King Henry VI was able to call upon Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, and Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, who by now had abandoned his erstwhile Yorkist friends. [The Earl of Devon had taken part in Richard's 1452 rebellion. His adherence to the Lancastrian cause was in itself sufficient to ensure that his sworn enemy William, Lord Bonville, should espouse that of York] There were also many others, among them Thomas, Lord Clifford, John, Lord Dudley, and Robert, Lord Roos. The Lancaster dynasty had already reigned for 55 years, and was in any case the side of legality. Thus there were many more Lords on the King's side than there were on Richard's.

The catalyst that sent the armies marching was the summons for the Council to meet in Leicester in April 1455 to consider the safety of the King. He was not in any danger, but the message was too clear to be misread. Summoning his friends to help him, Richard marched on London.

From Royston on 20th May, he wrote to the Chancellor, Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, to explain the doings of himself and his friends. His letter, which was also signed by Salisbury and Warwick, expressed loyalty to King Henry VI, but demanded the dismissal of Somerset. A Council had been summoned to consider the King's "suertee". This implied mistrust of certain people. Who were these people? Who had poisoned the King's mind against them? The next day, they wrote from their camp in Ware directly to the King himself in similar terms, and attached a copy of their letter to the Archbishop. Both these letters reached London after the departure of the King. The Archbishop read them and forwarded them to the King whose army was on the march northwards to meet the Yorkists. Neither reached him.

It is of course possible that, in all the flurry of an army on campaign, they were simply mislaid; it is easier to believe that Somerset, having read their contents, simply suppressed them so that his Royal Master never saw them.

The Royal army reached St Albans early in the morning of 22nd May, and found the Yorkists were still in their camp at Ware, a short distance to the east. St Albans has grown considerably since 1455, and the lines of the Yorkist advance have been built upon, but enough remains of the medieval street plan to follow the course of the battle. Then St Albans consisted of two single rows of houses along each side of Hollowell, or Hollywell, Street (now Hollywell Hill), which lead into St Peter's Street, which bears this name today. These two streets ran, and still run, in roughly a north/south line. Where the two streets joined, in about the centre of the town, stood the Market Place. Just to the South-West of the Market place, towered the Abbey and its Church which, again, is there to this day. Behind each row of houses, to east and to west, there were then gardens and orchards. To the east, and about 250 yards from the houses, there was a ditch, dug some 200 years before. The Royalist army took up its positions along Hollowell Street and St Peter's Street in two divisions facing east, the expected direction of any Yorkist attack. It seems that out-posts were, at some stage, posted along the line of the ditch, but these were withdrawn before the battle began. The Royal Standard was placed in the Market Place in the centre of the Royalist line.

It was then customary to send an embassy before battle commenced, and Buckingham duly went to Richard's tent.

Richard's demands, already set out in the letters, were repeated and included the dismissal and trial of Somerset.

None of these could be accepted, and Buckingham returned empty-handed.

The strength of the two armies was approximately equal, some 2, 000 to 3, 000 men on each side, but Richard was awaiting a contingent from John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk which would have given him superiority in numbers. It was not lost upon him that, by posting themselves in the town, the Lancastrians had done much to neutralise the effect of their archers, and in any case, he had no wish to see reinforcements reaching the Royal side. He therefore resolved on an immediate attack without waiting for Norfolk. His men advanced over the ditch and attacked the Lancastrian barricades at the heads of Sopwell Lane, Shropshire, or Butts, Lane (now Victoria Street), and Cock Lane. All their attacks were held, until Warwick found a dirt track, which was not guarded, leading between Sopwell and Shropshire Lanes to two inns, the signs of the Keye and the Chekkere. A hundred yards or so to the south of where the present Victoria Street meets with St Peter's Street, his men burst through the line of houses into the Market Place, thus cutting the Lancastrian line in two. There followed a ferocious fight which was soon settled in a Yorkist victory.

The First battle of St Albans was not a great battle which went on for the whole day or even a number of days; all was over in less than an hour. What marked it was the ferocity of the fighting in which the Lancastrian nobles were made an especial target, and it seems that Warwick had ordered his men to spare the common people and slaughter the nobles. As the Paston Letters put it:-

"At most slayn vi score [120] lx [60] persones of gentilmen and of other" [Paston Letters i 334; Chronicles Davies 72]

The conventions of the time dictated the exact opposite; noble persons should be spared wherever possible, if only because of the large ransoms which could be expected. Warwick's men followed his orders to the letter, and it is even possible that they were prepared to finish off the wounded until they were restrained by somebody such as his father Salisbury, or even Richard himself. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, lay dead on the battlefield, and a plaque at the corner of St Peter's Street and Victoria Street marks the position of the Castle Inn where he was slain. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Stafford, Buckingham's own son, and Thomas, Lord Clifford were also among the killed. Buckingham himself was wounded, as was Devon's son and Henry Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, the son and heir of Somerset. Some over-zealous archer, taking Warwick's orders too literally, had loosed off at the King himself. He had only suffered a slight wound in the neck, and was removed to a nearby cottage to have his wound dressed.

There, in a humble cottage, Richard, Salisbury and Warwick sought out their King. Kneeling before him on the dirt floor, they swore their allegiance and begged his forgiveness. The ever-kindly King forgave them, and even in this awesome moment could only chide them gently:-

"Forsothe, forsothe, ye do fouly to smyte a Kygne enoynted so".

The aftermath of the battle

We now see another example of the extraordinary respect with which a crowned and anointed King was held by medieval man. A logical consequence of the battle would have been a change in the ruling dynasty, but there was no move in such a direction. Richard may have felt that, since the populace had shown themselves so adverse to the idea during his march to London in 1450,  [page ] they would not tolerate it now. It is suggested that Richard himself did not presently desire it, and that King Henry VI's gentle chiding after the battle found an echo in Richard's own breast. By contemporary standards, it was simply not the done thing to smite an anointed King. The person before whom he knelt so humbly in that rude cottage may have been defeated in battle, but he was still the anointed King whose person was sacred to God, and whose Throne he must not covert. All too soon this was to change, and the reasons why it changed will become clear as the story unfolds. At that moment in May 1455, when he offered his allegiance to the King he had just defeated, Richard was not prepared to press his own claims to the Throne.

To turn to more practical issues, there was no immediate need to do so, and Richard had to be, and to be seen to be, consistent in all that he said and did. All he had ever demanded or sought, in the interview in August 1450, [page ]in the 1451/52 Parliament,  [pages ]in his own rebellion in 1452,  [Chapter ] and during his Protectorate, was the dismissal of the hated Somerset and other corrupt and inefficient ministers and the appointment of effective, competent and honest persons in their place; he had not sought the removal of the King. Now Somerset was gone, slain on the field of battle. His victory gave him the chance to dictate the new form of government which he and his friends desired above all else.

The King was conducted with every mark of respect to London, Richard sending on word beforehand that the citizens should turn out and greet their King. They dutifully showed their loyalties by cheering King Henry VI and calling down the blessings of heaven onto his head. Richard became Constable of England in the dead Somerset's place. Archbishop Bourchier remained as Chancellor, whilst his brother

Henry, Viscount Bourchier, who was married to Richard's sister Isobel, became the Treasurer. Another brother, John, became Lord Berners. Salisbury and his son Warwick were confirmed in their appointment, made in December 1453, as Guardians of the Western Marches of Scotland for 20 years. Warwick was also made Captain of Calais, although for nearly a year, he was unable to take up the appointment. [page ] Even Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who was still recovering from his wounds and grieving the death of his son in the battle, could be induced to:-

"come inne....and draw the lyne with them"

This was particularly fortunate because Buckingham, although a staunch Lancastrian, was at this stage a peacemaker whose instincts were to draw people together, not to separate them by playing on their enmities. There was of course still Queen Margaret to contend with. Her railings and venomous tongue were soon directed at Richard and the new Ministers. They disregarded her, having no reason to pay any attention to a now powerless woman, and simply thought of her shrieks as one of the burdens of office. Nevertheless, they under-estimated her and her power for causing mischief. It seems they had not studied their history, for if they had done so, they would have read how neatly King Richard II had turned the tables on his own captors in 1389. [page ] The constitutional position had not changed in the intervening 67 years. The King still had the power to appoint and dismiss Ministers, and King Henry VI still did what Queen Margaret told him to do. They were fortunate that, in the event, Queen Margaret did not press things as far as King Richard II was prepared to do all those years before. Even so, the Yorkists still had a loose cannon on the deck, and perhaps they should foreseen more trouble from the Queen.

For the moment however, there was some measure of relief when she departed for Hertford with the King and the baby Prince. Parliament was in the process of being elected, and was to assemble on 9th July 1455. The King's newly restored health had been sorely tried by recent events, and he needed a rest in the air of the countryside.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003