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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 49: The storm breaks: 1459


May - October 1459


As the story thus far will show, Richard, Duke of York, had long favoured a change in the government by the substitution of able and effective ministers for ineffectual and corrupt ones. Convinced that public opinion would not tolerate the unseating of the anointed King, he had strenuously urged his chosen course upon his faction, and had persuaded his friends that this was the only sensible policy to follow. Further than this they could not go, and should not attempt to do so. Any descent into unconstitutional means could only herald disaster, and they had already played with fire by what they had so far done. Uneasy in their minds at this form of compromise, for compromise it was to people of their out-look, they had dutifully followed him. It is probable that his supporters, the Neville family, lead by Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, Salisbury's own aggressive and forthright son, also Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and the growing body of Yorkist supporters among the gentry, the clergy, the merchants, the professional classes and the common folk, saw more clearly than Richard did that this compromise could not last for much longer.

In one sense, Richard was right. Most people may have been dissatisfied with the ruling dynasty, and may have been contemptuous of the weak-willed monarch, and may have detested his Queen whom they saw as an avaricious foreigner, and a French foreigner at that, but they still shrank from the extreme step of displacing the Lord's Anointed King. They had displaced King Richard II in 1399, but he had threatened their lives and all that they possessed. King Henry VI had never done this, and they felt a measure of affection and sympathy for him even if they withheld these from his Queen.

It may seem strange to look back from the 20th-century, when the monarchy is currently being attacked and criticised, onto the 15th-. It must be remembered that in those days any interference with the King and his Throne was treason, and quite apart from the dire penalties which treason attracted, it was anathema to medieval man. Medieval society was held together by loyalty, such as the servant to his master, the wife to her husband, the tenant to his landlord, the knight to his lord, and in a superlative degree, all subjects to the King. Any attack upon that loyalty put the whole of society at risk and threatened to bring it down in ruin. Society had thus a pyramidal structure, and to attack the topmost key-stone, the King himself, was a threat to the whole. In addition,  there were spiritual considerations. It has previously been said that Heaven was very close to the crown of a man's head, and Hell was equally close to the soles of his feet. Anybody who was guilty of treason, whether it be in the grand degree of disloyalty to the King or in the lesser degree of disloyalty to a lesser being, put the immortal soul at risk.

This could consign it to Hell for at least a term, and the superlative degree of disloyalty could mean a stay in the Nether Regions in perpetuity. Most people had not read Dante's 'Inferno', but if they had done so, the fate of Brutus and Cassius, who were perpetually devoured by the Devil himself, would have come as no surprise. It would have been regarded as no more than their just desserts.

In another sense, Richard was wrong. He never understood that public opinion could be moulded to suit the purposes required, even to the extent of overcoming the fears of what awaited the sinner in Hell. His very energetic and able son, Edward, presently Earl of March and the future King Edward IV, understood this very well, and did not hesitate to do so in a way that lacked any scruple; he at any rate understood that Heaven and Hell were distant concepts to the living, and that immediate material concerns were of greater importance to those who were still on this Earth. [page ]

The father had a measure of indecisiveness and hesitation which, for the most part, was not shared by the Son. Richard could have made a clean sweep after his victory in the 1st battle of St Albans, and by pressing his own and possibly superior claims to the Throne, have displaced King Henry VI in the wake of the battle. The people would have expected him to do this and, however much they initially deplored it, would in time have come to accept it. As we have seen, Richard made no attempt to displace the Anointed King. The conclusion must be that Richard had become so much a prisoner of his own honest nature and the need to be consistent that he could not nerve himself to take this extreme step. It is difficult to see the Son, had he been in his Father's place, imposing such restraint upon himself.

This self-restraint is all the more remarkable when the nature of Richard's enemies is recalled. Foremost among these was the Queen herself, who had become paranoid on the subject of Richard. Although Richard had said that he would seek no more than a change of ministers, and had many times proved that he was as good as his word, Queen Margaret could never bring herself to see Richard in any other light than as a claimant to the Throne, and thus a threat to her husband, to her own son, to herself, and to the ruling dynasty of the House of Lancaster. There was a more numerous gathering of the Great Lords, who formed the power bases in the country, around the Throne than there was in the Yorkist faction, but then the Throne stood for legality, and this alone attracted many however much they were dismayed by the obvious faults of the King and his rule. Others were attracted to the Lancastrian cause by their loathing of the Yorkist faction and their jealousy of Richard. Among these were John Talbot, Earl of Shrewesbury, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Henry Beaufort, the young Duke of Somerset whose family had had a feud with Richard for many years. Others had scores to settle with Richard such as John, lord Clifford, whose father had been killed at St Albans. Yet others saw their fortunes prospering more with Lancaster than with York, such as Sir Richard Wydeville, Lord Rivers.

The King had always lacked any resolution, and was now feeble as a result of his two bouts of illness, but the leadership of the Lancastrian party lay with the resolve and iron will of the beautiful Queen, whose femininity had a powerful and compelling fascination. She was now 30 years of age, and her beauty had taken on a maturer aspect which many found all the more appealing. There was also the young Prince Edward, the heir to the Throne and a fine looking lad just 6 years old.

Such leadership as there was in the country was directed to the maintenance of the two factions, York and Lancaster, each eyeing the other with suspicion and wondering what threatening moves the other would make. There was no leadership for the country as a whole, and the fabric of society was beginning to fall apart. In spite of the 14th-century statutes which provided that Parliament should meet every year, no Parliament had met since the 1455 Parliament had been dissolved in March 1456. The Lancastrians seem to have been afraid that if Parliament was called, they would be unable to ensure that a majority of the members would favour their faction rather than that of York. The duties granted to the King for life in 1453 meant there was just enough money on which to get by and to obviate any pressing need for additional taxation. These duties did bear heavily on all classes of society, and the people were deprived of the one out-let where they could make their concerns known. This led them to feel silenced and ignored, and this they resented.

Against this background, Queen Margaret, who never had any doubt that things between herself and Richard would be settled by any other means than the sword, began to prepare for hostilities. Those friendly to the House of Lancaster were given badges depicting a swan. Originally the badge of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester who had died in 1447, [page ] it was now adopted for the young Prince Edward. Having distributed sufficient badges, she summoned all those friendly to Lancaster to meet the King at Leicester on 10th May 1459, bringing with them their retinues and enough supplies to last for two months. She began the preparation of an indictment against Richard and his friends, and was hardly disturbed when she could find little with which she could accuse them. The message to Richard was clear, and he and his friends began to arm. The atmosphere in the country was so oppressive during the spring and summer of 1459 that it felt as though a thunderstorm was about to break at any minute, and it was apparent to all that before the political differences which so plagued the countries government could be resolved, there would be fighting and great harm would be done to a great many people.

Through this overheated and sultry air there penetrated one single shaft of light which delighted many, and increased the Yorkist prestige. A squadron of five Genoese and Spanish carracks with many smaller attendant vessels appeared off Calais during the summer. Whether their intentions were aggressive or not is unclear, but carracks were large and powerful ships for the time, and Warwick did not give them the benefit of any doubt. Sallying forth from Calais, he attacked them, and in a running battle lasting two days, he utterly defeated them. Three of the carracks were captured and brought in triumph into Calais. This was another naval victory which raised the hearts of Englishmen and proved their courage and prowess in battle. 

The battle of Blore Heath September 1459

Their military preparations complete save for the contingent of picked men that Warwick had promised from the Calais garrison, Richard, Duke of York and his friends now proposed to attend upon the King at Kenilworth. Their ostensible purpose was to pledge their loyalty to King Henry VI and the ruling Lancaster dynasty, but the considerable armed retinue they were bringing with them lead to suspicion that this was not their only objective. Queen Margaret did not wait. She went north, taking the King and the young Prince with her, to prevent Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury from advancing from Middleham to join his Yorkist friends.

Salisbury, who had no word that the Queen was advancing to meet him, marched through Market Drayton on 22nd September 1459. He was an old and experienced soldier of the French Wars, and he took ample precautions to prevent himself from being surprised by a hostile force. He camped that same night on Salisbury Hill south of the River Tern and about 1 1/2 miles south of the town. There his scouts brought him news that a superior Lancastrian force, raised in Cheshire and Lancashire by Queen Margaret, was encamped at Audley Brow about 3 miles to the west of Market Drayton. Although he knew that its commanders, John Tuchet, Lord Audley and John Sutton, Lord Dudley, were inexperienced in war, its obvious intentions were to attack him from his rear as he continued his march south. This was not something he was prepared to risk, and he very skilfully marched his force across country without re-tracing his steps though the town, hiding it from prying eyes as best he could in the woods and valleys, to take up a strong defensive position at Blore Heath way out to the east. There he waited for the Lancastrian attack.

The site chosen by Salisbury at Blore Heath lay a little more than 3 miles from Market Drayton at the top of a slight rise in the ground. He posted his men-at-arms in one solid phalanx across the Market Drayton to Newcastle-under-Lyme road, now the A 53, with strong bodies of archers in front. The Wagon Park was not placed to the rear as was customary, but was posted in a fortified position to guard the Yorkist right flank. His left flank rested on some woods. In front of the Yorkist line in the small valley below, the Hemphill Brook ran roughly parallel to their position. The brook, little more than a small stream, still posed an obstacle to the advancing Lancastrian force when allied to the woods, which still exist today and in the 15th-century may have been more extensive. It was a position well chosen to withstand the attack of a superior force, particularly as Salisbury seems to have been well supplied with archers. The battlefield today is marked by Audley's Cross, and can still be seen. The centre of Salisbury's position lay 1, 000 metres north-west of the tiny hamlet of Blore.

It is not known whether Salisbury knew of the presence of another Lancastrian force at Newcastle-under-Lyme. This was commanded by Thomas, Lord Stanley. Had he been so aware, it seems doubtful if he would have taken up his position on Blore Heath, but would have sought another to the south of his overnight camp. The risk of being taken in the rear would have been too great for this experienced old soldier to contemplate. In the event, Lord Stanley made no attempt to join in the battle, a fact for which he was much criticised at a later date. The Stanleys were known to be of a treacherous disposition, and at the Parliament of Devils later in the year, Thomas very narrowly escaped the penalty of attainture. [pages ] [See also Chapter ]

Audley and Dudley advanced from Market Drayton along the line of the modern A 53, and saw the Yorkists drawn up in battle array on the top of the crest above them. They formed their own battle line along the Hemphill brook and parallel to the Yorkist's, and then hesitated, not knowing quite what to do. Even though it was now apparent that their own force was markedly superior in numbers to Salisbury's, they were reluctant to attack such a wily old fox who must have had many tricks up his sleeve. This was indeed the case. Salisbury feigned the preparations for a retreat, and the Lancastrians could clearly see the horses being harnessed to the wagons. They then made the fatal mistake of ordering a mounted charge, an unusual step in a battle of the time when most battles were fought on foot, against an enemy line which was still intact and which included a strong force of archers.

They paid heavily for this error as they charged up the slight rise in the ground. Salisbury's archers bent their bows, and sent a hail of arrows raining down on the charging cavalry. Soon all was confusion, with men cursing and urging their horses forward, whilst others were falling in the agonies of death and horses, unwilling to face the arrows, were bolting to the rear with their riders unable to control them. Still the pitiless hail of arrows continued until it was clear that the Lancastrians could make no headway, and retreated in a headlong and disordered rabble back to the book and out of the archers range. Audley then compounded the mistake by ordering a second cavalry charge, which was no more successful than the first in spite of the magnificent courage of the Lancastrian horsemen.

Audley now did what he should have done in the first place, and ordered an attack on foot. In spite of all they had already suffered, the Lancastrian force charged gallantly up the hill to engage the Yorkists. By now, they were disorganised, and were in no position to cope with the counter charge of Salisbury's men-at-arms. These had not so far been engaged, and came fresh to the fray. With the advantage of the ground, they routed the Lancastrian force and drove it from the field. Audley was killed near the spot where Audley's Cross now stands. The action had lasted all the afternoon of the 23rd September 1459, and now the pursuit, relentlessly pressed by Salisbury, was kept up all night. Dudley himself was taken prisoner, but not all the prisoners were taken by one side; pressing on too far ahead, Salisbury's two sons, Sir Thomas and Sir John Neville, were themselves taken prisoner by the Lancastrians. This was before the days, which were to come all too soon, when prominent prisoners were executed immediately after the battle as a matter of course; both Dudley and the two Neville brothers were treated generously by their captors, and lived to fight another day. [John Sutton, Lord Dudley, later changed sides and became a Yorkist. Sir John Neville became Lord Montagu in 1461, and took the ancient title of the Percy's as Earl of Northumberland in 1464 after their disgrace. He too changed sides, and fought on the Lancastrian side at the battle of Barnet 1471 as Marquis Montagu. Sir Thomas Neville lived and died a Yorkist, being killed at the battle of Wakefield 1460 where his father also perished.]

The battle of Blore Heath had resulted in a Yorkist victory of superior tactics born in the mind of an experienced general, and showed what could be done by an inferior force when faced by a larger enemy. Although the Lancastrian losses had been heavy, and the Yorkist losses had been trifling, it was no more than a set-back to a small part of the total forces available to the Lancastrians. Their main forces were still intact, and it was their own lack of numbers which concerned Richard and his Yorkist friends. Warwick had brought with him from Calais a substantial part of the Calais garrison, professional soldiers of many years standing, commanded by two experienced warriors of the French Wars, Sir Andrew Trollope and Sir John Blunt. John, Lord Clinton, a soldier of immense experience, had joined them with his men, but they were still nowhere near as numerous as the Lancastrians. When The Lancastrians advanced upon them from Worcester in October 1459, they marched out of Ludlow and took up a strong defensive position at Ludford, a short distance away, on 12th October. There they resolved to fight a battle by repeating Salisbury's tactics at Blore Heath. 

The Yorkists discomforted - Ludford October 1459

Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury was sent on the customary embassy to Richard's camp to offer an amnesty if they would disperse. Richard replied that the Queen was not to be trusted, Warwick repeated that she had tried to murder him the previous November, and they had every reason to refuse to disperse. A battle on the morrow was looked forward to with confidence. It was the only way to settle matters.

There was however no battle, because during the night Trollope and Blunt deserted to the Lancastrian camp, taking with them all the Calais men. This sort of turning of coats, whether or not at critical moments, was a feature of the Wars of the Roses, and was to happen again and again.

Fatally weakened, Richard gave the order to disperse, and himself fled to Wales and thence to Ireland, taking with him his young son Edmund, Earl of Rutland. The Nevilles made their way to Devon, where supporters provided them with ships which took them to Calais. They took with them Richard's eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, and the future King Edward IV. It was said that to gain time, a 'crazy friar' remained in the Yorkist's position and fired guns all night to give the impression that they were still there.

After the Yorkists flight, the Lancastrians leaders allowed their men to pillage Ludlow. There they discovered Cecille, Duchess of York, and her younger children. Courteously, they sent her off to the easy confinement of her sister Anne, Duchess of Buckingham.

The Parliament of Devils - November 1459

Queen Margaret was convinced that, following the discomfiture of the Yorkists at Ludford, the Lancastrians had dispersed their (and her) Yorkist enemies for good. Richard was now a fugitive, his pretensions to the Throne over for all time. The Nevilles had been brought low, Salisbury had also fled, and his aggressive son could easily be dealt with by depriving him of his Captaincy of Calais. To neutralise them for good, they must be 'attainted' and their estates and wealth 'forfeited'. [Chapter ] These estates, once they were in the hands of the Crown, would yield a handsome income for the Royal Treasury even after their Lancastrian friends had been rewarded. What mattered most was that the Yorkists should be beggared so that never again would they be able to disturb the Lancastrian dynasty.

To this end, Parliament was summoned to meet in Coventry on 20th November 1459. Elections to this Parliament were later stigmatised as irregular because proper elections of many of the Knights of the Shires and Burgesses of the towns were never held. No doubt there was some truth in this allegation, because the Lancastrians naturally wanted a Common House which would do their bidding, and the time between the Yorkist discomfiture at Ludford and the meeting of Parliament was short. [It is also intriguing that some of the Sheriffs asked for an Act of Indemnity] Whatever means were used, proper and constitutional or otherwise, a Parliament of distinctly Lancastrian sympathies was assembled.

A description of this Parliament is given elsewhere, [pages ]but according to Friar Brackley, who was present throughout, what was especially remarkable was the spite with which its business was pursued. It was clearly of a mind to give the Queen what she wanted and to pass the Statutes of Attainder and Forfeiture against the leading Yorkists and some others as well. The only barrier to the whole-sale attainder of a great number of people, leading Yorkists and others, was the King himself, to whose gentle nature the whole thing was distasteful in the extreme. For once asserting himself, he made it clear that he would only give his assent to the Statutes on the understanding that he would add exemptions of his own, which at the time was a perfectly proper thing for the King to do, and thus pardon those whom he wished to excuse. Queen Margaret was furious, and railed at him for his lack of resolution when dealing with his enemies, but for once the King was adamant.

Even so, Richard Duke of York, and the Nevilles were attainted as were some others who had taken part in the recent fighting. Interestingly Thomas, Lord Stanley, whose behaviour on the day of the battle of Blore Heath had invited suspicion of disloyalty, was exempted from the Statutes by the King himself; he seemed inclined to accept Stanley's plea that co-ordination between the Lancastrian commanders was not what it should have been, and that Audley and Dudley had sent him no word of the forthcoming battle in which he could have played a decisive part. The Statutes never had time to have any effect, since they were repealed a year later by the then triumphant Yorkists. The Parliament of Devils does however represent the apogee of the power of Queen Margaret, and the highest point that she ever reached in her long contest with Richard. On parchment at any rate, she had undone him and his friends entirely.

Queen Margaret had arranged another ceremony with which the King neither could nor would interfere. All the lords were required to swear an oath of fealty to King Henry VI and to his son Prince Edward as the natural born heir to the Crown, and to sign and seal a declaration to that effect.

Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, signed it with an easy grace. By now he was a committed Lancastrian, whatever part he may have played in the death of William de La Pole, Duke of Suffolk 10 years before,  [page ] and whatever his marriage ties with Richard's daughter Anne may have meant. Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham readily signed, the man who had done so much to smooth the relations between the Queen and Richard and to reconcile the two factions since that dreadful day at St Albans in 1455. From now on, he was fully committed to the Lancastrian cause. John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk signed, probably with his tongue in his cheek. Perhaps he really thought that the Yorkists were finished for good, and that he had better make his peace with, and demonstrate his loyalty to, the ascendant party. The oath and the declaration gave no difficulty to Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, William, Earl of Arundel, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire and John, Viscount Beaumont. Thomas, Viscount Bourchier and his brother the Archbishop may have been a little more hesitant, but they signed nonetheless. 20 other Barons and Lords signed, as did all the Bishops whatever their private reservations. Time was to show how much value they placed on their oaths.

Support for each faction

In view of what subsequently happened, there would seem to be little reason to argue with the analyses of the support which each faction, York and Lancaster, could command at the end of 1459. These are given by Sir James Ramsey [York and Lancaster vol ii page 219] and by Bishop Stubbs [The Constitutional History of England.] Of those who signed (this excludes the fugitive Yorkist peers who had fled abroad), Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury and 11 lay peers were either committed Yorkists or were Yorkist in their sympathies, whilst 20 lay peers and most of the Bishops supported the Lancastrian dynasty. Of the lesser gentry who did not attend Parliament, the proportions were more evenly balanced, and when dealing with the views of the common people, Bishop Stubbs attempts a more geographical view.

The North, excluding the Western Border and the other areas where the Neville influence predominated, was generally loyal to Lancaster. So was Yorkshire because of the influence of the Percys, the Cliffords, and the Duchy of Lancaster. The Queen, in the Western Counties at any rate, had gained a measure of sympathy and affection, and loyalties tended to be for Lancaster. The South-West seems to have had no marked sympathies, and support for either faction was evenly balanced. The main Yorkist support lay in the South and the South-East in particular. The Capital is not mentioned, but there was strong support for the Yorkists in the City as events were to show.

No grant for taxation was asked for or given in the Parliament of Devils, but there was one plea which by now had become almost regular. There were:-

"Lamentable compleynts" (of rioting, disorder and brigandage).......wrongfull enprisonments......universally thorough oute every partie of this your Reialme"

This was nothing more than the truth.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003