In November of 1459, Queen Margaret summons a parliament to convene at Coventry. Not surprisingly, a Bill of Attainder is passed on 27 leading Yorkists; their property is forfeit to the Crown and their heirs disinherited. Lesser Yorkists escape with fines or are pardoned outright – possibly as an attempt to emphasise the isolation of their leaders. Despite this, little can be done against the Yorkists who have fled the country.
The Duke of York ensconces himself in Dublin, where he continues to transform Ireland into a bulwark of Yorkist support that will endure until nearly the end of the century.
An attempt by Somerset (Lancasterian) to capture Calais fails. Among his forces are members of the Calais garrison troops who deserted at Ludlow and Somerset hopes to use their local knowledge to his advantage. Some of these unfortunates are blown by rough seas into Calais harbour and taken prisoner. Dragged before the Earl of Warwick (Yorkist), those who are identified as having been with Andrew Trollope at Ludford Bridge are summarily executed (Andrew Trollope was a Yorkist who betrayed them to the Lancastrians at the battle of Ludford Bridge). Despite this, Somerset sails down the coast and strikes inland to the fortress of Guines. A promise to pay the garrison their arrears of wages gains him a bloodless victory and a base from which to launch daily attacks against Calais itself. However, Somerset is poorly supplied from England and lacks the reinforcements necessary to achieve a decisive victory.
By contrast, Warwick is able to use his reputation and continued popularity across Kent and southern England to keep him fully informed about any moves being prepared against him.
Early into 1460 during the month of January, Warwick’s spies in Kent have kept him fully updated about the preparation of a fleet designed to deal with him once and for all. The Lancastrian force, under the command of Lord Rivers, is about to set sail from Sandwich, but it is Warwick who makes the first move. In a well planned operation, 800 archers and men at arms under the command of John Dinham land at Sandwich and achieve complete surprise. The Lancastrian commanders are captured in their beds and their ships sailed back to Calais in triumph.
By February, Warwick’s coup at Sandwich sparks an invasion panic among Henry VI’s government. They hastily give orders for the construction of another fleet, but its completion is delayed by lack of ready cash and political vacillation.
In March of that year, Warwick sails from Calais to Ireland to consult with the Duke of York. He remains there for two months while they plan their next move. Warwick’s absence is the cue for Somerset to launch an assault against Calais, but as before, he is badly hampered by a lack of troops and the cash to pay them with.
The spring months bring many crossings across the channel. In April Somerset attempts an advance on Calais, but is beaten back. A month later in May, Warwick has returned to Calais.
The summer months bring yet more upheaval for both sides. In June John Dinham (Dynham), Sir John Wenlock and Lord Fauconberg capture Sandwich. This time though, they hold the town for York. At the end of the month they are joined by Warwick, Fauconberg, the Earls of Salisbury and March and between 1,500 and 2,000 men. On 26 June they leave Sandwich for Canterbury. The march on London has begun. Canterbury opens its gates to them and supporters from the surrounding counties begin to flock to York’s banner.
The common council of London vows to resist the Yorkist invaders and turns down an offer from the Lancastrian Lord Scales to act as captain of the city. The city gates are closed and troops stationed on London Bridge.
The Yorkist march on London continues, with their forces growing in number seemingly by the hour. Seeing they are determined to enter the city, the city council losses heart. Cannily, the Earl of Warwick writes to them, assuring them that his purpose is not to attack the king, but to reform the country. This ruse works, and the Yorkists are permitted to enter the city. A disgruntled Lord Scales retreats with his forces into the Tower of London.
The Yorkist army enters London, where its commanders are quick to put their case to a meeting of the lords spiritual (the bishops). They are clearly persuasive, since when they leave the city no fewer than seven bishops, including the archbishop of Canterbury, go with them.
A well-fed and rested Yorkist army marches north from London, leaving a rearguard under Salisbury to contain the recalcitrant Lancastrians holed up in the Tower of London.
The Yorkist army is further augmented by the arrival of several more peers, including the Duke of Norfolk. Meanwhile, King Henry has advanced south to Northampton, where his army proceeds to dig an entrenched camp, half way between Delapre Abbey and the River Nene. Meanwhile heavy rain and the desire to at least attempt negotiation slows the Yorkist advance.
The Yorkist army draws up half a mile from the Lancastrian camp. The embassies of the bishops come to nothing, since Lancastrian peers such as the Duke of Buckingham refuse to allow any of the Yorkist lords an audience with the king. At 2o’clock in the afternoon, the Yorkist army advances across the waterlogged fields to the attack.
In the end, the fighting lasts not much more than half an hour. The prime reason for this is the treachery of one of the Lancastrian peers, Lord Grey of Ruthin, who allowes Warwick’s men to climb the earthworks and enter the royal camp unopposed. (Warwick’s order to his men to spare all soldiers wearing Grey’s badge of the black ragged staff may indicate that Grey’s action may not have been a spur of the moment decision). At all events, Grey’s decision to turn his coat deals a fatal blow to the Lancastrian forces and they are soon broken and in full flight. Hundreds drown in the River Nene as they flee. The few lords to make a stand (Buckingham, Egremont, Shrewsbury and Beaumont) lie dead outside the king’s tent in their smashed armour.
Still proclaiming their loyalty to the crown, Warwick and his allies conduct the king back to London.
The Lancastrian garrison in the Tower surrenders.
Warwick moves quickly to take over the reins of government and issues writs summoning parliament to meet on 7th October. His probable aim is to reverse the sentences of attainder passed at Coventry the previous autumn (To remove his titles and land upon his death). A more overt move against the queen and her son might alienate the hard won support built up over the past few months. For the moment then, it is essential that he retains his image as the loyal servant of a king led astray by evil councillors.
By August, the defeat at Northampton has made Somerset’s position outside Calais untenable and he agrees to come to terms. Somerset takes refuge in France and Warwick returns in triumph to England. Here however, the situation is still quite fluid. Although the Yorkists control the south and east, the Lancastrian grip on the north is undiminished.
On the 5th September, The Duke of York decides that the time has come to claim the throne. In this it seems that he does not have the support of the Earl of Warwick who, for reasons outlined above, prefers a more cautious policy.
October 10th York arrives in London with hundreds of supporters. He soon finds that he has seriously misjudged the political climate. A humiliating rebuttal in Westminster Hall forces him to pass the case over to his lawyers, who insist that since Henry IV usurped the throne, none of his descendents can rightfully be King.
“Though right for a time rest and be put to silence, yet it rotteth not nor shall not perish.”
Although York’s claim is a strong one, parliament cannot bring themselves to depose the king and the search for a compromise is on.
By the 24th October, the 'Act of Accord' is passed. This accord assures that Henry VI is to retain the throne but on his death the crown is to pass to York and York’s heirs. Ironically, this solves nothing in the long term. In fact, it makes it easier for Queen Margaret to renew the struggle since the Act of Accord has disinherited King Henry’s son.
Margaret now has a cause that is quick to attract sympathy and support in the Lancastrian heartlands of northern England and Wales. As autumn progresses, her support continues to grow. Margaret goes to Scotland to seek allies at the Scottish court, whilst the Duke of Somerset returns to England and proceeds to stir up the south west with the assistance of the Earl of Devon.
In November, rumours begin to reach London that Lancastrian forces in the north, Wales and the west are planning to join forces. Some kind of action on the part of the Yorkists is now imperative. As an answer in early December, Edward, Earl of March is given his first solo command and dispatched to deal with Lancastrian threats in Wales (Jasper Tudor chief among them).
On 9th December, with Warwick left behind in London to supervise the king and defend the south coast, the main Yorkist army leaves London and heads north under the leadership of York, the Earl of Salisbury and York’s seventeen year old son Edmund of Rutland. Numbering no more than 6,500, they are banking on further contingents joining them en route.
By the 21st December, the army reaches Sandal Castle, where it spends Christmas. The main Lancastrian army is at Pontefract under the command of the Lords Somerset and Northumberland. Their control of the countryside means that from the moment of their arrival at Sandal, York and his army run into severe provisioning problems. Anxiously awaiting the arrival of reinforcements, yet worried about how he will feed those he already has, York is running out of options.
With many of his men dispersed on foraging duties, York is duped into bringing his army out to confront the Lancastrians. What he assumes to be the advance guard of a force under the Earl of Warwick’s banner is in fact a trap. The men are Somerset’s, wearing captured livery and under the command of Andrew Trollope. We will never be sure if this really was Trollope’s plan, but what is certain is that York is thoroughly taken in. He is horrified to find that he is under attack by not one, but three separate Lancastrian forces, commanded by Somerset, Clifford and Northumberland. All three of these men lost their fathers at St Albans and are in no mood to show mercy. Within an hour, the surviving Yorkists are hemmed in on three sides and fighting for their lives. At this point, it is probable that York orders his son, Edmund of Rutland to make his escape. With a handful of senior retainers York makes a desperate last stand under a clump of elm trees on Wakefield Green as the remnants of his army break and run. Edmund, Earl of Rutland is stabbed to death on the bridge at Wakefield, whilst Salisbury is beheaded the following day at Pontefract Castle. The heads of York, Salisbury and Rutland are impaled on spikes over Micklegate Bar in York. York’s head is graced with a paper crown, in mocking reference to his claim to the throne.
In January, Queen Margaret’s triumphant army, reinforced with contingents of Scottish troops, begins moving south towards London. The cash-strapped queen is accused of promising her army plunder in lieu of pay and lurid horror stories precede them as they march south via Grantham, Stamford and Dunstable.
By February, Edward, Earl of March, finally hears of the disaster at Wakefield and the advance of the queen’s army southwards. However, he has a more immediate threat to deal with - a small Lancastrian army under Owen and Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Wiltshire is advancing south towards Hereford.
Edward draws up his army on the flood plain of the River Lugg, near the small village of Kingsland on February 2nd. As the battle begins, the Yorkists are awed by the sight of three suns blazing in the sky (the meteorological phenomenon known as a parhelion, but of great significance to that superstitious age). The quick-witted Edward (now styling himself Duke of York), calls out to his men that the three suns signify the Holy Trinity and that therefore God is on their side. The subsequent battle lasts less than an hour and by the end of it the Lancastrian forces are in full flight. Although Jasper Tudor and the Earl of Wiltshire escape, Owen Tudor and his troops are pursued all the way to Hereford, where Tudor himself is captured and beheaded in the marketplace the following afternoon.
Warwick is in London, preparing to meet Queen Margaret’s army as it advances southwards. Commissions of Array have been sent out, and troops from the southern counties and East Anglia are mustering outside the city.
Warwick marches north from London with between 17,000 and 25,000 troops. With him are Sir John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, Sir John de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and the Lords Montagu, Fauconberg, Bonville and Berners with their armed retinues. He arrives at St Albans late in the day, still unsure of the exact position of the Lancastrian army. Accordingly, Warwick deploys his army on a two mile front across the north of the town, so that all main roads to the south are covered. He then spends the following three days improving his position with spiked nets, caltrops and handgun positions.
Warwick receives a report that his outpost at Dunstable has been overrun by the Lancastrians. Fatally, he chooses to disbelieve this intelligence, assuring himself that there is no way that his enemies could have marched so far in such a short time. This is one of the greatest miscalculations of his entire career.
The Lancastrian vanguard makes an unopposed 14 mile night march from Dunstable to the outskirts of St Albans and attacks down George Street towards the market square. The Yorkist defenders are taken completely by surprise but manage to hold the Lancastrians at bay for a while in the narrow streets. Unable to break through, the Lancastrians move around the north side of the town to Barnet Heath. Here, they run into the Yorkist vanguard and heavy fighting ensues. In the meantime, Lancastrian troops repeat Warwick’s tactics of five years previously and find an unguarded route into the centre of town. After fierce fighting, they secure the centre of St Albans, before throwing their full weight against the 5,000 men of the Yorkist vanguard under the command of Warwick’s brother, John Neville.
At this point, the full disadvantage of the Yorkist position becomes obvious. Although much of the army has not yet engaged, Warwick has no idea of how heavily outnumbered his brother is. In addition, the narrow lanes and high hedgerows prevent his moving quickly and decisively. Perhaps realising he has blundered, Warwick leads a force of cavalry across country in an attempt to get to Barnet Heath in time to stave off total defeat. He is too late, the Yorkist vanguard is fleeing in disorder and his brother is a prisoner. Warwick attempts to rally his infantry but as the light starts to fade he sees that his men have lost heart and orders a general retreat westwards. King Henry falls back into Lancastrian hands.
By the 19th February, there is total and utter panic in London as the Lancastrian army approaches. Shops are boarded up and many citizens leave the city. In order to allay panic, Margaret orders her army to return to Dunstable – a move which some chroniclers later claim to have been fatal. On this same day, Edward hears of the defeat at St Albans and marches his small army towards London.
Edward meets up with the Earl of Warwick and the remnants of his forces in the Cotswolds and together they advance on London.
Edward and Warwick enter London in triumph – Edward has augmented his forces with levies from his father’s estates (now his) and with allies from the Welsh borders and Staffordshire such as Walter Devereux and Sir William Herbert.
However, the Yorkists realise that since they have lost control of the king, they can no longer claim the obedience of his subjects. The struggle must be taken a stage further with either the deposition of Henry or the setting up of a new king. In the person of Edward they have an ideal candidate.
4th March sees a new king following a series of carefully stage managed ceremonies, Edward is proclaimed King Edward IV. His formal coronation is postponed until after the Lancastrians have been dealt with. Learning that Queen Margaret has withdrawn north of the river Trent on March 6th, Edward begins to tackle his immediate military difficulties. Margaret is still undefeated and can claim the loyalty of the majority of the English nobility. Therefore, if Edward is to survive, he must attack. He remains in London for the following week, securing an additional £4,000 in contributions from city merchants. In the meantime, many Yorkist leaders leave the city to begin raising troops.
Lord Fauconberg leaves London at the head of troops from the Welsh Marches and his own estates in Essex and Kent.
Edward leaves London with the main body of his army, including a contingent of Burgundian handgunners.
Edward reaches Cambridge, having taken a deliberately slow pace to allow contingents of recruits to catch up with him.
By the 21st March and Just north of the Trent, Edward rendezvous with both Warwick and Fauconberg. Historians disagree on the size of his army at this point, but it seems likely to have been in excess of 20,000 men. The ailing Duke of Norfolk was also struggling to join up with Edward, but at this point he was at least two days’ march behind.
On the 27th March The Yorkist army reaches Pontefract. Scouts report that the enemy has taken up a position on a small plateau between the villages of Saxton and Towton, around fifteen miles to the south-west of York. At dusk that day, Warwick and the Yorkist vanguard secure the crossing over the river Aire at Ferrybridge. The occupying Lancastrians put up stiff resistance, aided by the fact that they have destroyed the bridge several days previously on their way to York. The Yorkists take casualties; both from Lancastrian archers and from the biting cold of the river, into which their troops are obliged to wade to rebuild the bridge. Eventually the Lancastrians retreat and Warwick encamps on the north bank of the river.
Just before dawn on Match 28th, a sizable force of Lancastrians under the command of Sir John Clifford attacks Warwick’s camp. Surprise is total and the defeated Yorkists run back across the bridge to safety. Yorkist resolve begins to waver and Warwick is obliged to kill his horse as a gesture of his determination to make a stand, saying “Flee if you will but I will tarry with he that will tarry with me.”
At midday, the Yorkist main body reaches the bridge, but in the meantime the Lancastrians have destroyed the previous day’s repairs and now hold the north bank in force. Realising the likely cost of a frontal assault, Warwick dispatches a force of mounted archers under Lord Fauconberg three miles upriver to Castleford, where they cross the ford unhindered. Clifford’s scouts report their advance and Clifford gives orders to retreat to the main Lancastrian position near Towton. Unfortunately for him, Fauconberg is hard on his heels and catches him up just to the south of Dintingdale. In the ensuing skirmish Clifford and most of the Lancastrian force are slaughtered. At about this time the main Yorkist army crosses the river Aire via the repaired bridge and by late evening are encamped just to the south of Saxton village.
As dawn breaks, the Yorkist army deploys northwards from Saxton village onto a narrow neck of land bounded by the Ferrybridge road on their right and the valley of the river Cock to their left. The morning is grey and bitter and snow begins to blow into their faces as they advance towards the Lancastrians, who are drawn up about half a mile south of Towton village where the winding valley of the river Cock narrows their front.
The Lancastrians muster around thirty thousand archers and men at arms under the command of the Duke of Somerset and have in their ranks a large proportion of the nobility of England. The banners of the Earls of Northumberland and Wiltshire, the Dukes of Buckingham and Exeter and the Earls of Devon and Shrewsbury flutter above their massed retinues, together with the smaller flags of around sixty knights of varying degrees of wealth and power. The Yorkists are not so well served.
Apart from Edward himself, the only other magnates present at the start of the battle are Warwick and Fauconberg. The Duke of Norfolk’s whereabouts at this time are unknown, although he is in fact some five miles south of Ferrybridge. Furthermore, the Yorkists, with between twenty and twenty five thousand troops are outnumbered. Despite this, their ranks contain experienced battle captains such as Robert Horne and Sir John Wenlock and they are confident in the leadership of the young king.
At about 9 o’clock in the morning, the wind shifts and begins to blow the snow into the faces of the Lancastrians. At this, some 7,000 archers under the command of Lord Fauconberg advance down the gentle slope towards the Lancastrians. The change in wind direction not only adds range to the Yorkist arrows but also blinds the Lancastrian archers and shortens the range of any retaliatory shot. Volley after volley of arrows slice into the Lancastrian ranks and when their bowmen reply, their arrows fall well short. To add insult to injury, the canny Fauconberg proceeds to use the Lancastrians’ arrows against them. Aware that the army cannot sustain such punishment for long, Somerset orders a general advance all along the line. Seeing this, Fauconberg and his archers give ground slowly, loosing several volleys into the advancing ranks, before retreating through the advancing Yorkist lines. On both sides, knights and magnates lead their personal retinues into battle.
Sheer weight of numbers pushes the Yorkist line back down the slope towards Saxton village. King Edward is instrumental in the defence. He rides up and down the line, often dismounting to join in the fighting whenever the line looks like giving way. The order has been given on both sides that no quarter is to be asked or given and soon the dead are piled so high that they have to be removed so that each side can come to blows.
Slowly the Yorkist line is pushed backwards and at this point Somerset plays his trump card. A small force of mounted men concealed in Castle Hill Wood suddenly storms into the Yorkist left flank. Only the personal intervention of Edward and the commitment of most of the Yorkist reserve staves off disaster. By this time, Lancastrians have pushed the Yorkists almost to the edge of the slope leading down to Saxton village. Victory seems within their grasp, until two events tip the balance firmly against them. Firstly, the Earl of Northumberland is killed and the Lancastrian left wing begins to falter. Secondly, fresh contingents of men are appearing on the field to bolster the Yorkist right wing, men wearing the white lion badge of the Duke of Norfolk.
Hurrying up the road from Ferrybridge, Norfolk’s men (possibly some 5,000 in number), are fed into the battle piecemeal and hence it is some while before they are able to make an impression. The situation is now reversed; the Lancastrians are fought out and the Yorkists emboldened by the arrival of fresh allies and well aware of just how much is at stake. Within an hour the Lancastrian battle line is in full retreat, before finally breaking and running for their lives. Those fortunate enough to be on the left wing break for the Ferrybridge Road – amongst these are the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Exeter, who ride in the direction of York.
Those on the right are pushed back into the valley of the Cock, in whose freezing waters hundreds drown or are cut down by the pursuing Yorkists. At one point, the corpses fill the water so thickly that a bridge of bodies is formed. The pursuit harries the routing Lancastrians as far as Tadcaster, where scores more are butchered as they attempt to make a stand in the village streets.
Queen Margaret, her son and her husband escape to the safety of Scotland with a small retinue including the Duke of Somerset, the Duke of Exeter and Lord Roos. The victors spend a miserable night on the corpse-strewn battlefield before marching on York, which they reach in the early afternoon of the following day. Here Edward orders the removal and burial of the heads of his father, brother and uncle and their replacement with the heads of some of the Lancastrian nobles captured during and after the battle. The final casualty toll for Towton is still the subject of controversy today – what does seem certain though is that between 15,000 and 20,000 died, making Towton the bloodiest battle fought on English soil.