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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 54: The second battle of St Albans: 17th February 1461


Queen Margaret in Scotland

Queen Margaret had not been idle since writing her letters in early November 1460 summoning the Lancastrian Lords to war. Whatever Shakespeare may have said, she was not present at the battle of Wakefield, but was in Scotland seeking to raise soldiers for the Lancastrian army. She was there when the news reached her of the Lancastrian triumph at Wakefield together with the welcome tidings of the death of her arch-enemy, Richard, Duke of York.

She did not abandon her chosen course of action, the recruitment of Scottish soldiers to fight in England, an act which was unwise in the extreme. As she saw it, the House of York still had to be suppressed and even if Richard was dead, the Accord reached in Parliament in October 1460 meant that Edward, the new Duke of York, was the immediate heir to the Throne to the exclusion of her own son, Edward, Prince of Wales. She had become paranoid about Richard, and was quite prepared to transfer her hatred from the father to the son, whom she saw as just as big a menace as his father had been. Not only must the House of York be crushed but those up-start Lords (and here she had the Nevilles particularly in mind), who had rebelled against their lawful king must be punished, if necessary to the extent of their elimination. This would require a substantial number of soldiers, and so lost had she become with her idee fixe of punishing a few Lords and restoring the Lancaster dynasty, with her own son as the heir to the Throne, that she did not realise, perhaps even did not care, that the course on which she was now embarked would forever alienate her husband's English subjects. The English greatly feared the Scots as a warlike and barbarous race who were given to all sorts of unpleasant vices. For the most part, they were able to prevent them from invading England, but they would never forgive their being deliberately brought onto English soil.

King James II 'of the Red Face' was dead. Unable to resist taking advantage of English difficulties, he had laid siege to Roxburgh Castle in July 1460. It fell to his army, but not before a large gun, one of his especial favourites, had burst, killing him and a number of others in its vicinity. The Scots went on to capture Wark Castle before returning to Scotland to crown the 9-year old King James III.

In late December 1460 or early January 1461, Queen Margaret found young James with the Queen-Mother, Mary of Guelders,  [page ]at Lincluden Abbey, a short way from Dumfries. There she made her suggestion that Scotland should join the Lancastrians in an offensive alliance against the Yorkists at the price of betrothing her young son to one of James's equally young sisters. In the normal way, Mary, who was herself a Burgundian Princess, and who regarded the House of York with some favour, would probably have rejected the proposal without hesitation. But things were not normal. Her own fractious nobles were getting out of hand and she lacked the authority to call them to order in the way her dead husband would have done - a few imprisonment's, some fines, the odd murder and an execution or two. This she was not able to arrange, but the idea of absorbing some of their super-abundant energies in an invasion of England had some appeal. Besides, she was not altogether hostile to the betrothal idea, which perhaps had something to be said for it. But Mary was also a hard bargainer. The fortress of Berwick, England's main bastion against a Scots invasion, must be surrendered to her troops. So desperate was Queen Margaret for Scots soldiers, and so blinded was she to every other consideration than that of cutting off the heads of some English Lords, that she even agreed to hand over the town and its Castle.

So in Mid-January 1461, Queen Margaret marched south at the head of a large force of Scotsmen. Mary was not going to pay them, and Margaret had no money to do so. Their wages were to be plunder.

The Lancastrian advance south - January and February 1461

When Queen Margaret rejoined the Lancastrian Lords at York at the head if a large number of wild-looking Scotsmen, they were horrified at the bargain she had just made. The feelings of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, whose family had for so many generations striven to keep the Scots out of England, can be imagined. However nothing could be done about it now, and they left York on the march south.

The winter was especially severe, and this added to the difficulties of keeping the troops in order. The march through the ice and snow more resembled an invasion by the Mongol horde than that of an army intent on winning the hearts and minds of the people. Such a large body of troops had to be dispersed over a wide area so that food could be found to feed them. It has been suggested that the Lancastrian army cut a swathe of destruction 30 miles wide, but whether or not this was so, the English now experienced the hardships that they had for so many years visited upon the French. Murder, rape, beatings and above all looting took place on a grand scale. The Scots had enlisted for plunder, and plunder they meant to have. Grantham, Stamford, Peterborough, Huntingdon and Royston were mercilessly pillaged, and the army's commanders were quite unable to prevent it. All medieval armies behaved badly, but this was something special even by the rough standards of the time. Even so, the Lancastrian army made good progress, and by mid-February it was approaching St Albans.

The Yorkist response

Warwick's strategy had been to draw the Lancastrians south and force them to fight a battle far from their own centres of support. Wearied by a nightmare march, they should be easier to deal with. This was a cynical calculation for which the inhabitants of the Midlands paid dearly. He still thought it was worthwhile because of the hatred they would attract by their behaviour. There was some alarm in the City of London, but all the citizens could do was to put their trust in Warwick's army. Surely the victor of the battle of Northampton could defeat this wild horde which included their own North countrymen as well as the Scots. They dreaded the Englishmen from the Northern Counties almost as much as they feared the Scots. They may have been marginally less barbarous, but they were given to the same habits of thieving, and they spoke a tongue which no civilised man could understand or would wish to speak.

On 12th February 1461, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, at last marched north from London to do battle with the wild northerners in the neighbourhood of St Albans. His force included a large number of Londoners besides a substantial contingent from Kent. No doubt he bade John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk to join him, but it appears that the battle was fought without the benefit of Norfolk's eastern troops. He took King Henry VI with him to lend some semblance of colour to his claim that he was fighting his King's enemies. The citizens watched him go, and he carried with him all their hopes and fears.

The Second battle of St Albans - 17th February 1461

Accounts differ on the course of the battle, and there is the usual confusion on the numbers involved. The following account has to use what is known, and add reasonable supposition to it. It was, for the time, a very big battle with heavy losses on each side, and if allowance is made for the exaggerations of the contemporary chroniclers, it may be supposed that a total of 20, 000 men were engaged. The Lancastrians are said to have enjoyed a superiority in numbers, with perhaps 12, 000 men to the Yorkist's 8, 000. Warwick was expecting reinforcement from Norfolk, and he probably decided to fight a defensive battle and only go over to the offensive once Norfolk had joined him. Warwick's intelligence left a lot to be desired, unlike most medieval campaigning where the gathering of intelligence was of a high order, and he never really had any reliable idea of the Lancastrian army's position or intentions. He knew of course that it was intent on reaching London, but he had no idea how it proposed to achieve this.

St Albans in 1461 was very much the same as it had been in 1455. [page ] Warwick had no desire to fight what promised to be a desperate battle within the confines of the town, so he posted most of his army in the open ground to the north. The battlefield has been built over to such an extent that its course is now hard to follow. This is frustrating to the military historian, because the Second battle of St Albans was one of the few battles where there was a substantial amount of manoeuvring once battle had been joined. It was particularly skilful on the Lancastrian side.

Lacking proper intelligence, Warwick dispersed his army over a wide front which seems to have been no less than four miles from one end to the other. He did not have the troops to do this effectively, but relied on each division being able to hold any attack until the other two could come to its aid, when the main thrust of the enemy's attack became clear. There is a parallel to this in modern times. During the Second World War, the German Army (Wehrmacht) in Russia, lacking the men to hold a continuous front, formed a series of defensive 'hedgehogs' (Kampfgruppe), each of which was able to withstand attack from whatever direction it came, until help could be sent to it. To some extent, the same tactics were adopted during the battles in Normandy in 1944, and the Allies found them very difficult to deal with. There was however an important difference; the German army had excellent communications, whereas those of a medieval army left a lot to be desired. The fog of War is a much repeated phrase, and by his dispositions, Warwick ensured that it would settle over his army.

What he could, and perhaps should, have done was to take a leaf from the Lancastrians own book and copy the tactics which they had employed at the battle of Northampton some eight months before, which, apart from treachery, they would probably have won. He could have dug his army into a defensive position, and protected it with the ample supply of nets, calthrops and pavises which were available to him. Properly sited, he could have compelled a frontal assault by the Lancastrian army which would not have dared to by-pass him and leave his intact and undefeated army to its rear. This all depended on accurate intelligence, particularly on the route the Lancastrians proposed to take, and on this vital factor, Warwick was woefully deficient.

{For a description of these weapons, see Chapter . Briefly, nets were supported by posts and had spikes woven into their mesh as a primitive form of barbed wire. Calthrops were metal stars; cast upon the ground, one spike would always come uppermost. Pavises resembled doors with spikes on the side nearest the enemy; archers, hand-gunners and artillery could shoot from behind them.]

Instead of doing this, he formed his army into three divisions. The northern division, under his own command, he posted on Sandridge Common between the village of Sandridge and the small hamlet of Sandridgebury. The centre division, commanded by his brother John Neville, Lord Montague, was posted two miles to the South on Barnards Heath, probably behind the pre-Roman earthwork or ditch which can still be seen, and in the angle formed by the modern B 651 road to Sandridge and the A 6 road to Luton. Another two miles to the South, he posted a strong force of archers in the town itself, approximately where the Royal Standard had flown in 1455 in the shadow of the Abbey. All the troops faced north, the probable line of the Lancastrian attack. These dispositions, intended to cover every eventuality, themselves indicate the poverty of Warwick's intelligence.

The Lancastrians, who were much better informed about Warwick's army than he was about theirs, reached Dunstable on 16th February. There was a short sharp fight with the townsfolk, who were not part of Warwick's army. They were led by a butcher who later hanged himself out of shame for his failure. Sir Andrew Trollope's advice was taken that they should approach St Albans by night, marching down Watling Street, and attempt to turn Warwick's position from the South by attacking through the town. A night march was always a risky business with plenty of opportunity for confusion. Such marches were frequent during the War in France, but were normally undertaken only with experienced professional soldiers. Many of the Lancastrian soldiers were not experienced troops, and whilst some at least were to prove brave and determined in battle, they could easily lapse into confusion in the dark. The alternative was to approach St Albans on the following day, but the Yorkists would have seen this with ample time to change their depositions.

Nevertheless, the march was completed with the minimum of confusion, and the dawn of the cold winters day of 17th February broke to find the Lancastrian army in the old Roman town of Verulamium, well to the south of Warwick's left flank. Now they must exploit the fact that they had already turned the flank of the Yorkist army. The day was overcast with poor visibility, and this greatly helped the attack. Without pausing, they crossed the River Ver and Sir Andrew Trollope's advance guard marched up Fishpool Street in the direction of the Abbey. They were probably not expecting to find archers there, and were driven back by a hail of arrows.

They attacked again, and were again repelled. Sir Andrew, realising that these archers were isolated and unsupported, led a body of his men round the North-West of the Houses to make their way up Folly Lane and Catherines Lane to appear in St Peter's Street between the archers and Montague's division. Surrounded and unsupported by men-at-arms, the archers fought determinedly before they were overwhelmed. It took a lot of time to subdue them, and it was already noon of the short winters day before the Lancastrians were ready to continue their attack.

Poorly informed and unable to see for himself what was going on, Montague had not come to the archers aid, believing that the action around the Abbey was a mere diversion to draw him from his position and open the way for a Lancastrian thrust through the Yorkist centre. Belatedly waking up to the realisation that this was no side-show, but was the main attack of the entire Lancastrian army, he sent word to Warwick and re-deployed his division to face south.

Now his right flank probably rested on the pre-Roman ditch to the West, whilst his left flank reached to the modern railway cutting to the East. Perhaps there was then some topographical feature, which has since disappeared, to protect it. He had time to place his nets, calthrops and pavises onto this new front. He was still on Barnards Heath in what proved to be a strong defensive position. He had less cause for satisfaction with his guns which were nowhere near the standard of the Bureau brother's French artillery, or with his small force of Burgundian hand-gunners. Some of the guns burst when fired, and the hand-gunners powder was wet, thus reducing their effectiveness.

About noon on an overcast day, Sir Andrew Trollope's advance guard and the main body of the Lancastrian army, commanded by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, launched their attack upon Montague's division. There was a biting wind from the South which blew snow flurries into the Yorkists faces and hindered their shooting. In bitter hand-to-hand fighting, the Yorkist soldiers fought valiantly, and hurled back attack after attack, hoping that support would come from Warwick's division from the North, marching down the Sandridge Road to their relief.

It never came. Had Warwick promptly marched down the Sandridge Road to his brother's relief, the probability is that the Yorkists would have won the day. Montague's messengers had failed to convince him that the Lancastrian main attack was coming from the South, and he was too far away to see for himself, in poor visibility, what was happening. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that he would shortly face a Lancastrian attack to his own front which, if he did not remain in position to repel it, would surround his army. When the pleading of the messengers finally convinced him of the true position, and he gave the order to march south to his brother's aid, he found insubordination, and even treachery, from his captains. Those who were loyal pointed out the maxim of war that you do not reinforce failure, and in their eyes this had already come about with the turning of their position. Instead, you cut your losses. The disloyalty came mostly from a Kentish Captain named Lovelace who put every obstruction in his commander's way. It seems that Lovelace had been taken prisoner at Wakefield, but had been released when he exhibited some Lancastrian sympathies and made a promise of future treachery to the Yorkist cause. When Warwick finally got his division on the move, it was too late. Montague's division had been broken, and the fugitives were streaming up the Sandridge Road.

Warwick's division briefly collided with the Lancastrian army, and Lovelace and his men immediately deserted. It was now getting dark, and seeing that nothing more could be achieved, Warwick withdrew his division in good order to the North. Joined by some fugitives, it has been estimated that he saved about 4, 000 men to fight another day. The Lancastrians, after a night march and a hard fought battle, were too exhausted to persue him. The pre-occupation with withdrawing his division meant that Warwick was unable to secure the person of the King. 

King Henry VI during the battle

King Henry VI had been provided with a strong guard to prevent any harm befalling him, and was probably housed somewhere in Sandridge during the battle. What is less certain is who his guards were. There has been speculation that they included William, Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyrielle, but it does seem very improbable that Warwick would have denied himself the services of these old and immensely experienced soldiers of the French Wars when there was a desperate battle to be fought. It is also said that after the battle was over, they brought King Henry VI to the Lancastrian camp under the promise of a safe conduct which Queen Margaret subsequently dishonoured. It seems far more likely that they were taken prisoner, together with John Neville, Lord Montague and a Captain named Gower,   [This seems to have been Thomas Gower who was forced to surrender Cherbourg in August 1450-see page ] and simply happened to be in John, Lord Cliffords tent, under guard, when the King was brought there by a squire, Thomas Hoo. If this is so, then Queen Margaret is absolved of any bad faith on the safe conduct, but there then followed a scene which she staged managed. It can only be described as revolting in its cruelty. In case it should be thought that we are imposing 20th-century morals onto a rough and brutal age, it also shocked many who lived during those troubled times of the 15th-century, and confirmed their own views of the nature of their Queen.

A tender and loving re-union between the King and his Queen and the 7-year old Prince of Wales took place in Clifford's tent. They had not set eyes upon each other since the date of the battle of Northampton, eight months before,  and it was only natural that they should rejoice that, with the success of Lancastrian arms, they had survived the dangers which had beset them. The only eminent Yorkists who had been captured were the four who have already been named, and following the precedent set by Warwick at the First battle of St Albans, and followed by him at the battle of Northampton and by the Lancastrians themselves at the battle of Wakefield, there cannot have been much doubt on their fate. What is repulsive was its method.

The matter could have been left to Clifford, a man known for his cruelty who needed no command. Instead, an impromptu court was set up, presided over by the 7-year old Prince of Wales. When he was asked what punishment the prisoners merited, he answered in his piping treble that they only deserved to be beheaded. The King interposed to pardon Montague, who had been his chamberlain and for whom he had much affection. The lives of the other three, all old warriors of the French Wars, were ended within the hour. 

The casualties of the battle

Very few eminent people had perished in the battle, and the losses were mostly borne by the rank and file. Judging by the ferocity of the fighting, there seems no reason to doubt the accepted figures of the slain as 2, 300, or 1 in 10 of those engaged. There were also many wounded, among them Sir Andrew Trollope who had been hurt by a calthrop. If his subsequent activities are any guide, the wound cannot have been too serious. The Lancastrians did however lose a distinguished warrior, Sir John Grey of Groby, who died of his wounds the next day. His young wife, Elizabeth Wydeville, the daughter of Sir Richard Wydeville, Lord Rivers and Jacquette, the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, was left a widow. Much was to be heard of her later in the story of the Wars of the Roses.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003