The period between 1337 and 1453 had seen England locked in a bloody and ultimately futile conflict with France. What became known as the Hundred Years War eventually cost England almost all its assets in Western Europe including Bordeaux and Gascony and reduced King Henry VI to near insanity.
The King was mad … England needed a new king. It was an excellent excuse for the powerful and feuding branches of the royal House of Plantagenet to try and seize the throne and plenty of land and loot at the same time. In 1455, and very much in what would become the spirit of English football, the teams decided that if they couldn’t beat the French they’d just beat each other. The War of the Roses was declared as the next fixture in British History. Over the next 30 years a series of sporadic but sometimes savage conflicts would rage across England to see who would rule at home.
Unsurprisingly, the roots of the conflict can be found in one of the most destructive of human emotions – jealousy. Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, was the second cousin of the King and had a strong claim to the throne himself. However, King Henry VI was nervous about Richard’s ambitions and ensured that he spent a considerable time outside of England. Initially Richard served as Governor of Calais without much support but was then replaced by Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset who was actually rewarded before even taking the position. Richard could only watch with dismay as the Duke of Somerset failed to hold on to England’s territories in France. Still, the real shock came when Somerset returned to England after having failed so publicly and was rewarded yet again. Outraged, The Duke of York returned to England from Ireland in 1452, raised an army and marched on London demanding that Somerset be put on trial for his failures in France. Some say that he was intimidated by the superior royalist forces while others claim that he was promised that Somerset would be removed and the government reformed. Either way Richard disbanded his army only to be arrested himself and forced to spend two years in jail before being released only after promising never to raise arms against the King. Somerset was clearly still the King’s favourite.
Further north more trouble was brewing and in 1453 the powerful Neville family found themselves locked in a lethal feud with the Percy family of Lancaster. Richard, Duke of York, allied himself with the Neville family and when the King fell ill again in 1454 the Nevilles stormed Somerset’s council and together with some other lords chose York as Protector of the Realm.
The Duke of Somerset was imprisoned in the Tower of London while Richard and the Nevilles used their new found power to settle many old scores particularly with the Percy family.
It wasn’t to last and when King Henry VI regained his health in 1455, Somerset was released from prison and the tables were turned again. Somerset allied himself with the Percy family and Richard was forced to flee London together with his Neville allies. These powerful men quickly raised armies and returned to take control by force.
The first battle took place on the 22nd of May 1455 at the fortified town of St Albans where Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset was killed. The War of the Roses had officially begun. Much of Britain quickly chose sides based on hope, fear and greed. Those that supported Richard would become known as Yorkists while those that supported Somerset’s son, Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset, the Percy family and the king became known as Lancastrians.
Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, won the Battle of St. Albans and captured King Henry VI. He was appointed the Protector of the Realm and took the title Constable of England while Henry VI suffered another period of serious mental instability. However, in 1456 Henry recovered and retook the throne forcing Richard and his allies to seek refuge in the north. Over the next five years there where many small battles between the Lancastrians and Yorkists and 1459 Richard was forced to flee to France. This period of the war culminated at the Battle of Northampton (1460) where the Yorkist forces commanded by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick captured King Henry. The defeat prompted Henry VI to suffer another period of madness and Richard was once again made Regent of England.
During 1460 the Act of Accord named Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, as the successor to the throne thus displacing Henry’s six year old son Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Richard wouldn’t rule for long as in the same year Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, raised a fighting force of Lancastrians and at the subsequent Battle of Wakefield Richard and his second eldest son Edmund, were both killed. Margaret and the Lancastrians failed to press their advantage and were unable to capture London. As a result Richard’s eldest son Edward was proclaimed King Edward IV on the 4 March 1461. Shortly afterwards the new king rallied his Yorkist forces and thoroughly defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towtown. Minor uprisings in the north of the country were suppressed in 1464 and Henry captured. For the next five years Edward ruled with relative stability but angered many of his supporters by secretly marrying a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville. Persuaded by his new wife, Edward favoured her family over the Nevilles and deeply upset his one time ally, Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick. Warwick, also known as the ‘Kingmaker’, switched sides and conflict broke out again as attempts were made to restore Henry to the throne. After two years of insurrection the two armies met at the Battle of Barnet where King Edward soundly defeated the Lancastrians. Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick was dragged from his horse and killed during the fighting. Without their leader and confused by rumours of treachery the Lancastrians were routed. Meanwhile, on the very same day, Margaret of Anjou had landed at Weymouth in England with her son, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, and a force of French soldiers. The stage was set for the Battle of Tewkesbury.
THE BATTLE OF TEWKESBURY
While resting at Cerne Abbey in Dorset, Margaret of Anjou was told of the defeat of Warwick by her loyal ally Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset. Her instinct was to return to France but she was persuaded by her son, Edward Prince of Wales, to continue with the campaign. Realising that they would need more troops they first joined forces with the armies of the Duke of Somerset and John Courtenay, 15th Earl of Devon before heading for Wales where they planned to meet up with additional Lancastrian forces under the command of Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford. Their hope was that King Edward would be distracted by attacks on Kent by Lord Fauconberg and misinformation about the military intentions of the Lancastrians. Margaret’s troops first headed towards Bath and then Bristol where they anticipated receiving both more troops and additional funding.
King Edward IV received the news of Margaret’s arrival two days after his victory at the Battle of Barnet. He had just allowed many of his soldiers and allies to take a period of leave. Fortunately for the King he was able to recall his troops and raise a substantial force at Windsor. King Edward hesitated for a while, unsure if the Lancastrians would head directly for London. Historians are still uncertain what made up his mind but he seems to have anticipated Margaret’s real intentions and set off to intercept her before she could cross into Wales. From Windsor the king’s forces headed for Abingdon just south of Oxford and then on to Cirencester which they reached on the 30th April 1471. By this time the Lancastrians had reached Bath and Bristol. To confuse King Edward a force of Lancastrians headed for Chipping Sodbury where they engaged a small force of Yorkists scouts and inflicted serious casualties. The ruse worked and believing that Margaret would stand and fight at an old iron age hill fort, King Edward turned his army southwest and passed through Malmesbury and onto Sodbury. In reality, the Lancastrians had no intention of fighting and during the night the main army headed directly up the Severn Estuary to Berkeley Castle. The following day they then marched on to Gloucester. Unfortunately for Margaret, King Edward had already sent word to Sir Richard Beauchamp of Gloucester that they were to seal the gates and defend the city. With no time to engage in battle the Lancastrians were forced to head north to Tewkesbury where an undefended ford might allow them to cross into Wales. Some say she was heading for the bridge at Upton-on-Severn a further seven miles up the river. On the 3rd of May her army made a forced march of ten miles and reached Tewkesbury but could go no further as the Yorkists were now close behind her. Edward had marched his army an incredible 31 miles and although they were nearing exhaustion they still kept going and passed through Cheltenham and on to Tredington. Cannons abandoned by the Lancastrians were captured by Yorkist reinforcements following them from Gloucester.
Realising that they could not reach the river crossings before King Edward’s army caught up with them the Lancastrians camped at Tewkesbury and prepared for battle the following day. As the first to reach the town they chose good defensive positions south of Tewkesbury Abbey where a rise in the ground would give them the advantage of height. The land in front of them was made up of hedges, woods and small lanes which would hamper the Yorkists. To the north was the Avon river and to the west the Severn.
In addition, King Edward deployed 200 mounted spearmen to a wooded hill located between his forces and the Severn River. Although the Yorkists had only 4-5000 soldiers and had actually travelled further than the Lancastrians they had also had horses and were thus much less tired. They also had better artillery and muskets as well as the psychological advantage of being the pursuers.
On the morning of the 4th May 1471 the Lancastrians, who had approximately 6,000 soldiers, divided into three groups called battles and took up their positions. On the western flank was Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset, in the centre was Prince Edward and Baron Wenlock while the Eastern flank was commanded by John Courtenay, 15th Earl of Devon. who was somewhat protected by a small river known as the Swilgate. It’s fair to point out that not all historians agree on the precise location of the battle but it’s believed that the Yorkist army approached from the southeast and divided their forces to match the Lancastrians. The eastern flank was commanded by King Edward’s younger brother Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, the centre by King Edward himself and the western flank by William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings.
The battle commenced during the morning and King Edward’s forces opened with a fearsome barrage of arrows and musket shot largely directed at Somerset’s battle. King Edward and the centre Yorkist ‘battle’ advanced towards the Lancastrians but was severely hampered by the terrain. Perhaps realising that they were dangerously exposed to the arrows and shot or perhaps seeing an opportunity to cut off King Edward from his main forces, Somerset attempted to outflank the isolated battle but was beaten back.
The collapse of the western flank allowed Richard, Duke of Gloucester and King Edward to press their advantage. The demoralised Lancastrians found themselves caught between their enemies and the Swilgate stream. Their formations broke apart as men tried to flee for their lives. Those fortunate enough to cross the stream to the north converged on an old mill just south of the town while a second group made for the ford at the bottom of Lower Lode Lane where it was still possible to cross the Severn river. The Yorkists pursued the Lancastrians and it’s estimated that some 2000 men of Margaret’s army were killed. The survivors either scattered into the surrounding countryside or were taken prisoner. It was a very final and crushing defeat for the Lancastrians.
At the crucial moment, the 200 spearmen concealed in the woods to the west launched an attack on Somerset’s exposed flank. At the same time the Duke of Gloucester surged forward trapping the Lancastrians and causing panic in their ranks. Somerset’s forces broke the line and fled to the northwest along a shallow valley. So many were killed as they retreated that the site would later be renamed the Bloody Meadow. It’s said that Somerset returned to the centre battle and in a fit of rage accused Baron Wenlock of cowardice before killing him with a battle axe (some say a mace). He then abandoned the fight and took refuge in the nearby abbey.
What exactly happened to some of the key figures during and after the battle remains unclear particularly with regard to Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. It’s recorded that some Lancastrian leaders, knights and nobles sought refuge in Tewkesbury Abbey although it appears that Prince Edward failed to reach this sanctuary and was captured in a small wood by George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence and his soldiers. It is said that he was swiftly executed, despite pleading for his life. Another version of events claims that he was killed on the battlefield while in yet another he was killed by King Edward during single combat. Some historians have even claimed that he was taken from the Church and executed without trial. Whatever actually happened it is certain that Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales died during or immediately after the Battle of Tewkesbury and is buried in the Abbey. Historians are reasonably sure that many of the Lancastrian nobles who had sought sanctuary in the Abbey were forcibly removed by Yorkist soldiers on the 6th May 1471. After brief trials they were executed on the instructions of the Duke of Norfolk, Constable of England and the Duke of Gloucester, Marshal of England. It is highly likely that after the battle King Edward had decided that the only way to end the war was to brutally remove the Lancastrian leadership once and for all. Among those executed were Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset, Hugh Courtenay, younger brother of the Earl of Devon, Sir John Langstrother, the Prior of the military order of St. John’s and Sir Gervase Clifton of Nottinghamshire. Key Lancastrians that died during the battle included John Courtenay, 15th Earl of Devon and John Wenlock, 1st Baron Wenlock.
Some historians claim that Margaret of Anjou was captured by William Stanley immediately after the battle which would indicate that she stayed on as events unfolded. Other historians claim that she abandoned the field early during the conflict and went into hiding at priory at Little Malvern . Precisely what happened may never be clear but within a few days of the battle she was definitely a captive of King Edward and imprisoned first at Wallingford Castle and later in the Tower of London. Edward returned to London and on the 21st of May 1471 where he forced Margaret to ride with him in a chariot through the streets so that everyone could see her defeat. That same night her husband, Henry the VI died in the Tower of London. Officially he died of melancholy but it is more than likely he was executed at the instructions of Richard of Gloucester. Margaret remained a prisoner in England for a further four years until she was ransomed by King Louis XI in 1475. She returned to France where she died seven years later in 1482. The Battle of Tewkesbury crushed the Lancastrian hopes and all but obliterated the royal line. Only one branch remained – The Tudors. Edward ruled England again for 11 years but died of ill health in 1483. His death triggered the final phase of the War of the Roses that would finally result in a Lancastrian king, Henry VII, and the start of the Tudor Dynasty.
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