Thomas Stafford, first duke of Buckingham.
Instead of obeying the royal summons, York mobilised his army and began the long march south to London, probably with the intention of intercepting the King before he left for Leicester. With him went his allies, Salisbury, Lord Clinton, Lord Grey of Powys, and Sir Robert Ogle, all with an armed following of their own, Ogle having ‘600 men of the Welsh Marches’. Viscount Bourchier and Lord Cobham may also have been among their number. In the middle of May, Warwick led his army of a thousand men across the heart of England, linking up with York and Salisbury on Ermine Street, the old Roman road. York’s chief objectives were the annihilation of Somerset, the dispersal of the court party, and his own restoration to the Council, which would bring with it control of the King and the government.
By the 18th, Somerset and the council had been warned that the Yorkists were approaching London with 7000 well-armed men. Benet says: ‘When the Duke of Somerset heard this news he suggested to the King that York had come to usurp the throne. For this reason, the King sided with the Duke of Somerset,’ and authorised him to raise a small army.
On the 20th York’s company arrived at Royston in Hertfordshire. Here its leaders issued a manifesto declaring to the people that they meant no harm to the King and that they had raised their army and marched south ‘only to keep ourselves out of the danger whereunto our enemies have not ceased to study, labour and compass to bring us’. A copy was sent to the King with a covering letter in which York and his allies begged him not to believe the accusations made against them by their enemies, but again both documents were intercepted, this time by Somerset himself, who destroyed them.
York was hoping that Norfolk would rally to his support, but although the Duke led a force into Hertfordshire, he made no attempt to join either side, preferring to remain neutral for the present. York had tried on the way south to raise more aristocratic support for his cause, but with little success. His advance at the head of an army looked very much like rebellion, even treason, in view of his public oath that he would never again take up arms against his sovereign.
While he was still at Royston, York learned that Henry VI and Somerset were about to leave London at the head of an army. On 21 May the Yorkists marched into Ware, where they were told by their scouts that the royal army was advancing north along Watling Street. The Queen was not with them, having taken the Prince of Wales to Greenwich, where she remained during the ensuing hostilities. That same day, York sent a further appeal to the King, along with a copy of his manifesto. Neither got past Somerset.
Meanwhile, the King and his army had reached Watford, where they spent the night, leaving very early on the morning of the 22nd. York’s scouts advised him that Henry was making for St Albans, and the Duke swung west from Ware to confront him. On the road to St Albans the King received intelligence that Yorkist army was nearing the town. Buckingham urged Henry to press on to St Albans, meet York’s threat head-on, and deal with it firmly, for he was convinced that York would prefer to negotiate a settlement rather than resort to military force. He was also aware that the Yorkist army was larger than the King’s, and believed it would be safer to await reinforcements in the town than in an exposed position in the countryside.
By 1455 there was little remaining of the original fortifications that had encircled St Albans, just a thirteenth-century ditch, along which wooden barricades could be erected so as to prevent an enemy from entering the market-place. After arriving in St Albans early in the morning of the 22nd, the King commanded his soldiers to occupy the ditch and make it ‘strongly barred and arrayed for defence’, pitching his own camp in the market-place. York, meanwhile, had decided to camp in Key Field, to the east of St Peter’s Street and Holywell Street (now Holywell Hill), and set his men to blocking the exits from the town on that side.
In 1460, the Milanese ambassador was informed ‘that on that day there were 300,000 men under arms, and indeed the whole of England was stirred, so that some even speak of larger numbers’. This was a gross exaggeration. Benet says that Warwick arrived with 2000 men, York with 3000 and Salisbury with 2000, ‘all well-prepared for battle’. It has been estimated that the royal army numbered 2-3000 men, and may have been short of archers. The Yorkists not only had a strong force of archers but also cannon. Henry had sent an urgent summons to local levies to reinforce his ranks, but they were not ready in time. Only eighteen out of the seventy peers were present at St Albans; thirteen, including Pembroke, were with the King. Others, including Oxford, Shrewsbury, Lord Cromwell and Sir Thomas Stanley, were still on their way.
The King’s army was under the command of Buckingham, who was hereditary Constable of the realm and had been appointed the King’s Lieutenant for the occasion. Thomas, 8th Lord Clifford, who commanded the Lancastrian vanguard, had earned a distinguished reputation as a veteran of the French wars and for his successes on the Scottish border. The Lancastrian army consisted mainly of knights, members of the King’s household, and the affinities of those few lords who were with him, many of whom came from the eastern counties. Abbot Whethamstead of St Albans, who gives an eyewitness account of these events, states that the East Anglian lords and gentlemen were less warlike than the men of the north in the Yorkist army, ‘for whom wheat and barley’ – which they meant to have as plunder – ‘are like gold and ebony’. The northerners were regarded as foreign savages in the south, and enjoyed a fearsome reputation as ferocious fighters and rapacious looters.
York’s army was drawn up into three divisions, as was customary, commanded by himself and ‘the captains of the field’, Salisbury and Warwick, the latter having command of the reserve, who were on foot. With York was his thirteen-year-old son, March, who was receiving his first taste of battle, nominally at the head of a small company of seasoned border campaigners. Also with York was Sir John Wenlock, latterly chamberlain to the Queen, who had transferred his loyalty to the Yorkist cause, which he would support for some years to come.
Commencement of The Battle
The commencement of the battle was delayed for three hours, during which York made every effort to induce the King to listen to his complaints about the misgovernment of Somerset and other ‘traitors’. York’s messenger, Mowbray Herald, opened negotiations by entering the town ‘at the barrier’ at the north end of St Peter’s Street, where he was challenged. The herald bore a message from York, suggesting that the King’s army might wish to retreat to Barnet or Hatfield for the night while negotiations proceeded.
Because his army was the smaller, Henry knew it was to his advantage to negotiate a peaceful settlement, and he sent Buckingham, who was Salisbury’s brother-in-law, to ascertain York’s intentions. York told him that he and his company had come as ‘rightful and true subjects’, who desired only that the King deliver up to them ‘such as we will accuse’. When Buckingham reported these words to Henry, the monarch became uncharacteristically wrathful. Goaded by Somerset, he sent Buckingham back to York with a peremptory message:
I, King Harry, charge and command that no manner of person abide not, but void the field and not be so hard to make any resistance against me in mine own realm; for I shall know what traitor dare be so bold to raise a people in mine own land, where-through I am in great dis-ease and heaviness. And by the faith that I owe to St Edward and the Crown of England, I shall destroy them, every mother’s son, and they be hanged, drawn and quartered that may be taken afterward, of them to have example to all such traitors to beware to make any such rising of people within my land, and so traitorly to abide their King and Governor. And for a conclusion, rather than they shall have any lord here with me at this time, I shall this day for their sake, and in this quarrel, myself live and die.
York had failed, thanks in part to the hostility of Buckingham who meant to have him accused before the council at Leicester. The King, in any case, had no intention of delivering Somerset into York’s clutches. Instead, he ordered his standard to be raised in the market-place, had himself clad in plate armour, and mounted his warhorse, positioning it under the fluttering banner. Here he remained for the duration of the battle. Before the fighting commenced, he gave orders that only the lives of the common foot soldiers were to be spared: lords, gentry and yeomen might be put to the sword. Many of the royal soldiers were still hastening back to their positions, having drifted off into the town, seeking refreshment after Buckingham had gone to parley with York.
York, learning that the King refused to accede to any of his demands, grimly put on his helmet and ordered his trumpeter to sound the alarm which would warn his men that the battle was about to begin. He then made a speech to his troops, using many classical and biblical allusions, saying that he represented Joab, while King Henry was as King David, and together they would overcome Somerset. Thus commenced the Battle of St Albans, the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, some time between ten and twelve in the morning.
York and Salisbury opened the attack from the east, leading charges along St Peter’s Street, Sopwell Street and other streets leading to the market-place, and ordering their men to storm the barricades at the end of them, but Lord Clifford and other Lancastrian commanders ‘strongly kept the barriers’ at every entry. As more Lancastrian troops rallied to the defence, York and Salisbury found themselves being pushed back. Warwick, hearing that their situation was critical, ‘took and gathered his men together and furiously broke in [the town] by the garden sides, between the sign of the Key and the sign of the Checker in Holywell Street’, according to an account in the Stonor Papers. Once in the town, he had his trumpets sounded, and his men responded ‘with a shout and a great voice, “A Warwick! A Warwick!”’ With his progress covered by archers to the rear, Warwick led a fresh assault on the barricades that left his opponents reeling, for they had not expected him to approach from that end of the town.
‘The fighting’, says Benet, ‘was furious’, as the market-place became crammed with soldiers locked in a furious combat. As Sir Robert Ogle led his contingent into the mêlée, ‘the alarm bell was rung and every man went to harness’, for many of the King’s troops were ‘out of their array’, not having anticipated that they would be engaged so soon. Within half an hour it was over. As Henry’s men, alerted by the bell sounding in the clock tower in the market-place, raced to defend him, Warwick’s soldiers scythed mercilessly through the Lancastrian ranks until, says Whethamstead – a horrified witness to the carnage – ‘the whole street was full of dead corpses’. The King’s army, ‘disliking the sight of blood’, broke into disarray and withdrew in a stampede, knocking down and trampling underfoot the royal standard as they did so. The Stonor Papers record that the Earl of Wiltshire ‘and many others fled, leaving their harness behind them coward’; Wiltshire, says the chronicler ‘Gregory’, was ‘afraid to lose his beauty’. Many of the King’s party were despoiled of their horses and harness, and the royal banner was retrieved and propped against a house wall, while Henry stood alone and deserted, watching the flight of his men as arrows rained down about him. The Yorkists had won the battle.
Warwick had specifically instructed his archers to target those about the King – members of the hated court party – and many fell, mortally wounded, near the royal standard. As the battle drew to a close, Henry was wounded in the neck by an arrow and, bleeding profusely, was urged by his remaining nobles to take shelter. As he ran to the nearby house of a tanner, he cried out angrily, ‘Forsooth, ye do foully to smite a king anointed so!’
Buckingham received wounds to the face and neck and was taken prisoner by the Yorkists. Lord Dudley also got an arrow in the face, and Lord Stafford one in the hand. Henry Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, Somerset’s heir, was so badly hurt that he could not walk and had to be taken home in a cart, as was Wenlock. Benet says that ‘all who were on the side of the Duke of Somerset were killed, wounded, or, at the least, despoiled’.
Somerset himself had been engaged in desperate hand-to-hand fighting outside an inn called the Castle. Later, it was said that, seeing the sign above him, he was utterly dismayed because he had once been warned by a soothsayer to beware of castles. His opponent – who may even have been Warwick himself – saw him falter, struck home, and killed him. He was later buried in St Albans Abbey, and was succeeded as Duke of Somerset by his son, the nineteen-year-old Earl of Dorset, whom Chastellain describes as ‘a handsome young knight’. A commemorative plaque now marks the site of the Castle Inn, which stood at the corner of St Peter’s Street and what is now Victoria Street.
Other noble casualties of the battle were Warwick’s great enemy, Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, and Lord Clifford, who were both slain while fighting in the streets. Their bodies were stripped and despoiled, and left naked to public view. Buckingham’s son, Humphrey Stafford, suffered grievous wounds and later died of the effects of them, either in 1455 or 1458. Benet says that ‘about a hundred people were killed, mostly Lancastrian soldiers’. Abbot Whethamstead requested York’s permission to bury the dead, and begged him to show mercy in his hour of victory, as did Julius Caesar. Quoting Ovid, he asked that nothing be sought in addition to victory.
The outcome of the Battle of St Albans, one of the shortest campaigns of the Wars of the Roses, was that York was able to crush the court faction, which had been deprived of its chief mainstay, Somerset. Much of the blame for the Lancastrian defeat lay with Buckingham, whose judgement and strategies had been fatally flawed. The royal army had faced an almost impossible task in defending all the entrances to the town. They had had little time in which to prepare their defences, and Buckingham had probably made the mistake of relying on some of the buildings to offer a degree of protection.
York, accompanied by Salisbury and Warwick, now moved to take control of the King’s person, which they found in the tanner’s house having his wound tended. All his earlier bravado had evaporated at the realisation that his army had been defeated. The Stonor Papers record that, when the Yorkist lords came to the King, they fell on their knees ‘and besought him for grace and forgiveness of that they had done in his presence, and besought him, of his highness, to take them as his true liegemen, saying that they never intended hurt to his own person’. Benet says that when Henry heard them declare themselves to be his ‘humble servants, he was greatly cheered’.
York justified his actions to Henry by pleading that he and his friends had had no alternative but to defend themselves against their enemies. If they had gone to Leicester, as summoned, they would have been taken prisoner and suffered a shameful death as traitors, ‘losing our livelihood and goods, and our heirs shamed for ever’. Henry seemed to accept this and ‘took them to grace, and so desired them to cease their people, and then there should no more harm be done’. Outside in the town, the victorious Yorkist troops were causing havoc. Abbot Whethamstead was shocked to see them rampaging through the streets, looting as they went and leaving behind a trail of destruction. Even in the abbey they stole everything they could lay their hands on, and threatened to burn it down. Then others came, warning them that the King and York, accompanied by the magnates and councillors, had arrived in the market-place and ordered them to reassemble, ready to return to London. Thus the abbey was saved.
York himself had broken the news of Somerset’s death to the King. Some historians assert that shock, grief, stress and the effects of the wound he had suffered caused Henry to lapse once more into insanity – it was, after all, only five months since his recovery. However, there is no contemporary evidence to support this, and another six months would elapse before York was again appointed Protector. In view of the length of the King’s previous illness, it is likely that the appointment would have taken effect immediately if Henry had displayed symptoms of mental instability. The last word on the subject should be that of John Crane, who wrote to John Paston on 25 May: ‘As for our sovereign lord, thanked be God, he has no great harm.’
The fact that a battle had taken place at all shocked many people, even the participants, and provoked the Yorkists into offering extravagant justification of their actions in which they attempted to shift the blame on to Somerset and the court party and thus avoid any suspicion of treason. Nevertheless, the fact remained that they had taken up arms against an army led by their anointed king, and this was enough, in the opinion of many, to condemn them as traitors. To counteract this ill-feeling, York issued a broadsheet giving his account of the battle and the circumstances leading up to it.
St Albans had accentuated the deep divisions between the magnates and the widespread grievances against the government, which could now, it seemed, only be settled by violence. This realisation acted as a brake for a time upon the warring factions. Neither side had wanted an armed conflict; the King, in particular, and most of his lords were determined that it should not occur again. But the divisions between Lancastrians and Yorkists were now so profound that it would need a committed effort on both sides to preserve the King’s peace. That an uneasy truce prevailed for the next four years is sufficient testimony to the desire of both sides to reach an acceptable settlement.
On Friday 23 May, York and Salisbury, preceded by Warwick bearing the King’s sword, escorted Henry VI back to London, where he lodged at the bishop’s palace by St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘As for what rule we shall now have, I do not yet know,’ wrote a Paston correspondent. On Sunday the 25th, the Feast of Pentecost, the King went in procession to St Paul’s, wearing his crown, to reassure the people that his royal authority had not been in any way challenged. So potent was the power and mystique of monarchy that still no one ventured to voice the opinion that Henry himself should bear the ultimate responsibility for recent events. There were no calls for his deposition, and no criticisms of his incompetence or poor judgement.
News of the court party’s defeat and the death of Somerset had soon reached the Queen at Greenwich, causing her deep distress, and the knowledge that York was now to assume the role of chief adviser to the King in Somerset’s place only added to her bitterness. York was immediately appointed Constable of England, an office Somerset had held, and was already filling the late duke’s other offices with men of his own choosing.
In the week after St Albans, Buckingham, Wiltshire, Shrewsbury, Pembroke and other lords, all back at court, made peace with York and did their best to reconcile the two sides. Jasper Tudor was particularly anxious to devise with York a workable solution to the problems facing the government, and the two men spent many hours in London discussing these.
But although Somerset was dead, his faction remained. Its members were more hostile than ever towards York, and looked to the Queen, whose influence over a suspicious and resentful Henry VI was paramount, for leadership. York was aware of this, and he knew that some of the King’s household would resist any attempt at reform. He also had to deal with the enmity of individual noblemen, who had good reason to feel bitterness towards him. Lord Clifford’s twenty-year-old son John, now the 9th Lord Clifford, was so incensed against York that he would spend the rest of his life seeking to avenge his father’s death, earning in the process the nicknames ‘Black-faced Clifford’ and ‘Bloody Clifford’.