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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 53: The battle of Mortimer's Cross: 2nd February 1461


Edward Plantagenet, the new Duke of York

There now appeared on the scene one of the most fascinating, if not always the most likeable, characters of the period of the Wars of the Roses.

Edward of Rouen, Earl of March, now Duke of York, and shortly to become King Edward IV, was born in April 1442 to that fruitful union of Richard, Duke of York and Cecille Neville, the youngest daughter of Ralph, the first Earl of Westmorland who had so staunchly supported Henry of Bolingbroke, and Joan Beaufort. He was not their eldest child. That honour went to Anne, who had already married one of the main supporters of the Lancastrian faction, Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter. [For Anne's divorce and subsequent adventures, see pages ] There had also been an elder brother Henry, but he had died in infancy. Edward had some younger brothers, Edmund, who had just been killed at the battle of Wakefield, and William, John, George, Thomas and Richard. Only two were to play substantial parts in the story of the Wars, George the 'false, fleeting' Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, known to history as 'humped-back Dick', although it is doubtful if he deserved this sobriquet. Richard also became a King as King Richard III after supposedly murdering his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Besides Anne, there were three other daughters. Elizabeth married John de La Pole, the second Duke of Suffolk, the son of the William who had been murdered by the sailors in 1450. Wherever William's political sympathies may have lain, John was a firm Yorkist. In 1468, Margaret was to marry Charles-the-Bold, Duke of Burgundy, after the long life of Philip-the-Good had drawn to a close in 1467. Ursula, the youngest child, seems to have been a shadowy figure of whom little is known. [For further details see House of York Appendix ]

In January 1451, Edward found himself at the head of a remarkable family with his mother Cecille, who lived until 1495, thus out-living all her sons and some of her daughters.

Of a remarkable family, Edward has the claim to be the most prominent.

Edward was a giant of a man. In an age where the average height for a man was 5' 3" or 4", he stood no less than 6' 3". He towered over everybody else. He is supposed to have had the magnificent red-gold Plantagenet hair, and he certainly had a superb physique with broad, strong shoulders and a narrow waist. There is a portrait of him in the Royal Collection at Windsor, although this shows his hair as being dark rather that fair.The forehead is high, the nose finely chiselled, and the chin jutting and determined. The eyes however are narrow and suspicious, and the mouth is small, giving a somewhat mean expression to the whole. Two enormous hands play with a ring as though he could not determine the finger which should wear it. Edward may have been the answer to every maiden's prayer, a fact of which he was very well aware, but the general impression to the onlooker is one of ruthlessness, coupled with shrewdness and a strong measure of the astute. This is not a man who will suffer fools gladly, or indeed at all, and neither will he tolerate those who take liberties. The playing with the ring seems an obvious ploy to deceive those in his somewhat forbidding presence into thinking there is a measure of his father's indecisiveness in his nature, whereas in fact the very opposite was the truth in all but the rarest instances.

Edward may have had a number of faults, but generally indecisiveness was not one of them. When the necessity arose, he could act with devastating swiftness as an account of his military exploits will show. He never had any formal training in the military art, apart from the skill-at-arms in which every young nobleman was required to be proficient, and he lacked the painfully won experience which King Henry V had gained in the Welsh Wars in the first decade of the century. His education had been supervised by one Richard Crofte, a Herefordshire squire who is recorded as being 'rather austere', and whilst it included instruction in all the civil accomplishments he was expected to master, warfare was not part of the curriculum. In spite of this, he showed such resolution and determination in his campaigns and on the battlefield that these, when coupled with an ability to move extremely quickly, carried him to victory in the four great battles that he fought, Mortimers Cross and Towton, both 1461, Barnet and Tewkesbury, both 1471. Although he never conducted a siege, he could be said to be one of the foremost military commanders of his age and a fitting successor to the Hero King Henry V. What Edward lacked in previous military training and experience and the lessons that flow from it, he made up for in speed of movement and the ability to strike hard and without mercy. Edward's aim on the battlefield was not just victory - it was his enemy's total annihilation.

Edward did not belie the impression of shrewdness and astuteness which his portrait gives. He had an instinctive feel for what other people were thinking and, being no mere bully-boy, showed how tactful he could be in the handling of his Parliaments. Having an easy-going nature, people found him approachable and willing to discuss their problems, and this endeared him to many. He was fond of music, and at his splendid Court, one of the most glittering of Europe, he liked to be thought of as a patron of the arts. There were other things in which he took a keen interest. During his reign, William Caxton introduced the magic of printing into England. When doing so, he had much Royal encouragement.

Edward has been accused of many things by historians, and this work will concentrate on the two main ones. He is said to have pursued the ancient families of England,   particularly those of Lancastrian sympathies, to their extinction, but the evidence tends to point in another direction. It is true that he could be merciless to prominent people taken in arms against him on the battlefield, and usually, but not invariably, he cut off their heads without a second thought. Most of them left numerous families from whom successors could readily be found. Against these the penalties of Attainture and Forfeiture could be used, but Edward used them sparingly. [Chapter ] He was anxious to punish those who had taken up arms against him, but usually mitigated the penalties when he felt that the family had been punished sufficiently to learn the lesson that they must not rebel against their King. This did not necessarily spring from feelings of pity or mercy. Edward was always anxious to have allies in the power game of medieval politics, being well aware that, in spite of its enormous powers, the Throne could never stand on its own. He had frequent reason for disappointment that his leniency was abused, but this did not cause him, as it might have caused many another, to lapse into bitterness and cynicism. He persisted in his efforts to reconcile people to his rule, even though many mistook his leniency for weakness. As a final measure of his astuteness, he is the only English Monarch ever to have made a private fortune. He dealt in wool, and sometimes in lead and silver.

The second charge commonly made against Edward is that he was lazy, but again this is not really true. Indolent would be a better description because Edward, who had a fondness for the good things in life, was happy to indulge in them, sometimes for days at a time. Then nobody could claim his attention for business matters. There were many attractive young ladies around the Court, and Edward was happy to worship beauty in whatever form it came. He made no secret of his many affairs, which continued after his marriage, so that his Queen often had to turn a blind eye to her husband's infidelities and amorous escapades. With attractive ladies, wine, song and other congenial company were necessary, and were much more diverting than the business to which he ought to have attended. What is often overlooked is that Edward's indolence arose from his own supreme self-confidence. He felt, with much reason, that he was more than equal to any of this band of ruffians who were his nobles, or to any combination of them. Being well informed, he knew what they were plotting or otherwise doing and thinking, and it tickled his sense of malicious amusement, which he possessed in ample measure, to see them around the Court, totally unaware that the bland face of their Sovereign concealed much that he knew about them. Edward relied on his ability to move fast and to strike hard when he had to which was just as remarkable in peace as it was in war. He considered his sense of timing would be sufficient to warn him when he must act to prevent matters from getting out of hand, even if occasionally this sense failed him. His nobles knew this, and it acted as a strong brake on any treasonable thoughts they may have nurtured.

Regarding Edward's relations with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who is known to history as 'the Kingmaker', and was now the head of the Neville House, the key to understanding them is that the two men seem to have disliked one another. Warwick had had a close relationship with Edward's father Richard, with whom he had done and shared so much, but as so often happens, the older man was not prepared to extend the regard he had for the father to the son. The first time that they had been thrown together for any length of time was in Calais during late 1459 and early 1460. Warwick, over 30-years old and with a lot already behind him, cannot have been attracted to the bumptious, self opinionated upstart of 17- years, who seemed to have an opinion on every subject, and who, to make matters worse, was so often right. Edward would have sensed this, and whilst he was complimentary about Warwick's victory at the battle of Northampton in July 1460, he was scathing about Warwick's defeat at the 2nd battle of St Albans 1461 which had followed hard upon his own victory at Mortimer's Cross. The two men were too alike to be close friends, and Edward resented his close reliance upon the Neville family. As things were in early 1461, they needed each other too much to risk an open breach, but this was to come in later years. Warwick may be known as 'the Kingmaker', but Edward would have been quick to point out that when he became King later in 1461, Warwick had not 'made' him. Warwick had helped, but Edward had 'made' himself King - and this, as the story will show, was nothing more than the truth.

The Battle

The 18-year old Edward (he would not be 19 until the following April) had been quite successful in his recruiting along the Welsh Marches. He celebrated Christmas at Shrewsbury, and was proposing to finish the build-up of his force after New Year's Day 1461 had come and gone. Then he would march to join his father in the North.

At Shrewsbury in the first few days of January 1461, he heard two bits of bad news. Firstly, his father had been killed in the disaster at Wakefield. This meant that he was now Duke of York, and furthermore, by the accord reached in Westminster in October 1460, the immediate heir to the Throne as well. Secondly, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, and James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, had landed on the Welsh coast. Even now, they were raising a force of Welshmen to fight for Lancaster.

Edward's strategic sense told him that for the moment at any rate all was well in the South. Warwick and Norfolk were raising armies, and he had no doubt that they would be strong ones. The Ministers of the Yorkist government were still in place with the levers of power firmly in their hands. There was however a grave and immediate threat from Wales where Lancastrian sympathies were, as always, strong. If Pembroke and Wiltshire were not promptly dealt with, the whole of Wales might rise in Lancaster's favour and this would present a very dangerous situation indeed. There was nothing for it but to meet Pembroke's and Wiltshire's force and inflict a resounding defeat upon it. In any case, it was highly desirable to prevent it from joining up with the victorious Lancastrians in the North.

If any of the local gentry had been laggardly in joining Edward's force, the news of Pembroke's and Wiltshire's landing would have spurred them on to prevent the Welsh from rising and devastating their lands. It is said that William Hastings, until now the obscure squire of Burton Hastings in Warwickshire and Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire, rendered the first of the many services which put Edward so much in his debt by bringing a large contingent to fight for him. There is no account of any deeds that he performed on the battlefield, but there is some confirmation that he fought valiantly there from the patent dated 1462 which raised him to the peerage. This document refers to services against "notably Jasper Pembroke and James Wiltshire, formerly earls." Edward soon found himself at the head of such a strong force that he had a superiority in numbers. With this he resolved to bar the march of the two Earl's at the crossing of the River Lugg.

Very little is known of the battle, and the following account depends on some supposition of what is known. The hamlet of Mortimer's Cross still exists at the junction of the A 4110 and the B 4362. The meandering River Lugg, little more than a stream, winds its way between steep wooded hills to the North into the flatter ground to the South on its way to join the River Severn. It is a peaceful place, and it is hard to think that the hideous sounds of battle ever disturbed such a idyllic spot.

However tranquil the place, nature still had some tricks to play. On the morning of the battle, no less than three suns were seen to rise in the West behind the Yorkist army.

This caused some dismay among its soldiers. We now know this phenomenon as "parhelion" or "parhelia", which is caused by refraction when there is some mist in the air close to the horizon. Edward went down on his knees to give thanks to God for this sign that the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were coming to the aid of the Yorkist cause.

Although not noticeably superstitious himself, he understood the fears of his men, and chose this method to reassure them.

After the battle, he adopted the sun and its rays as one of his emblems.

It is thought that Edward posted his men in three divisions on the western side of the River, with the centre division across the B 4362 up which the Lancastrian force was advancing. If he had really wanted to take up a defensive position, he could have posted his army on the eastern bank where his right, or northern, division would have had the advantage of a steep escapement which climbed up from the river. This would have more in line with contemporary military thought. He did not do this, because the river would have prevented, or at least hindered, him from attacking the enemy, and as always Edward intended the utter destruction of his opponent. By taking up a position on the west bank, with some open ground to his front, he was taking a risk, because if the day had gone badly for him, the river would have made a retreat very difficult. It was the aggressive instinct in Edward to give his men the chance to attack and utterly destroy the enemy.

The Lancastrians are said to have lacked experienced commanders, but this is difficult to accept; both the two Earls had experience in war, and it is likely that their junior officers were not without some acquaintance with it.

The Lancastrians are said to have formed up in three divisions to match their foes and to have advanced to the attack. This would have taken some time, because their own left wing had to climb some high ground and then descend again through what is now Cullender Coppice. When this was achieved they immediately attacked the Yorkist divisions which stood to their front. There seems to have been some disorganisation and hesitation in the Lancastrian centre, commanded by Pembroke himself, when it was still 200 yards from the Yorkist centre. Edward's quick eye noticed this, and he gave the order to advance through the hamlet to the attack. He lead a furious charge in person, and the sight of this enormous man, wielding a huge sword, unnerved Pembroke's men. They made no real attempt to withstand the fury of the Yorkist assault, but instead broke and fled. Thereafter Edward's division was free to attack the other Lancastrian divisions on their sensitive flanks. Soon they were all put to flight, and Edward had won the first battle where he had been in command.

Edward then ordered his horsemen to mount and to persue the fugitives without mercy. The two Earls made good their escape, but still a rich haul of prisoners was brought in, including Pembroke's father Owen Tudor, Sir John Throck-morton and eight other senior officers of the Lancastrian army. Edward was merciless, and ordered their immediate beheading. Owen Tudor pleaded that he was an old man, dragged against his will out of retirement to fight for Lancaster, and that a head which had lain in the lap of a Queen should not be subjected to such rough treatment. [pages ] Edward took the opposite view; to him the fact that it had lain in Queen Katherine's lap meant that it especially deserved the attention of the executioner.

Edward had won a notable victory, and he now considered that he could safely turn his back on Wales, even though the two Earls were still at large. He would dearly have liked to lay his hands on them if he could, but other imperatives were more urgent. He must concentrate his force with Warwick's and Norfolk's armies to meet the threat which he saw developing from the North. Before he could do this, there was some more grave news. Warwick had been defeated at the 2nd battle of St Albans. In spite of his own victory, the position was still very precarious, but then, when things were going badly, Edward was at his superb best.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003