7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses

Patrick Lynch - October 8, 2016

The War of the Roses (1455-1485) was one of the most important historical events in the history of England and took place between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Although the conflict lasted for over 30 years, fighting was sporadic and featured fewer than 20 significant battles. Indeed, the total time spent on the battlefield during this period was only a few months.

Rather than being a war dominated by fighting, this conflict featured more twists, turns, conniving and deception than the Game of Thrones! A number of important battles were won and lost due to treachery as opposed to outstanding tactical skill. Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and nicknamed the ‘Kingmaker’, was one of the most famous defectors as he switched from the House of York to Lancaster only to be slain at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

In this piece, I will look at 7 of the key battles in the War of the Roses but first, let’s take a quick look at the background to this conflict.

How did it Begin?

Both houses could trace their lineage to the sons of Edward III who was king until 1377. It is a complex family tree to say the least but it basically meant that both houses could stake a legitimate claim to the throne. That being said, the House of York had a much stronger claim. Although the War of the Roses didn’t start until 1455, it could be argued that the events of 1399 paved the way.

In this year, King Richard II was usurped by Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster who was to become Henry IV. Henry was Richard’s cousin and returned from exile to take the crown. It is likely that Richard died in captivity the following year. Henry was succeeded by his son, Henry V who died in 1422. His heir was Henry VI who was an infant and Richard, Duke of York, could challenge the Lancastrian right to the throne as the Yorkist had a much stronger claim. I hope this is somewhat clear!

Instead, York became Lieutenant in France in 1436 where he was charged with dealing with England’s main enemy at that time. Henry VI’s conquests in France were unsustainable in their existing form; he either needed further conquests to force the French to become subordinates or give up territory to gain a negotiated settlement so the house of cards was always destined to fall. For his part, York had to pay money out of his own pocket to continue the campaign in France. He did this willingly but was outraged when he replaced as Lieutenant in France by Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset.

Things began to unravel for the English in France and York blamed Somerset for the collapse including the losses of Gascony and Bordeaux in 1451. He decided to arrest Somerset. While York did this partly because of Somerset’s dismal efforts in France, he was more concerned with the fact that Somerset could replace him as Henry VI’s heir. At that time, Henry had no children (his son Edward, Prince of Wales wasn’t born until 1453) so York made a play to become recognised as the rightful heir. In 1452, he marched to London only to find the city gates barred. At Dartford, York was forced to come to an agreement with Henry as his army was outnumbered. The king proceeded to punish those who had sided with York at Dartford.

In 1453, English forces were driven from France after defeat at the Battle of Castillon. Henry had a mental breakdown at this point and though the cause was unknown, the loss of France was perhaps a factor. He was unable to speak and completely unresponsive and in 1454, York was named Protector of the Realm. A number of disputes occurred between the most powerful lords in England and York used his authority to help his family and friends while placing Somerset in prison.

However, Henry VI regained his senses either in late December 1454 or early January 1455 and released Somerset from captivity. York lost the Captaincy of Calais and his title of Protector soon after. He was infuriated and gathered his forces and open fighting was to begin in May 1455

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
www.shminhe.com (War of the Roses Chart)

1 – First Battle of St Albans – 1455

This was the first battle in the War of the Roses and took place on 22 May 1455. Richard of York led a 3,000 man army to London but was intercepted by Henry VI’s Lancastrian army at St Albans. It was led by the Duke of Buckingham but included the King and was comprised of around 2,000 men. Defensive barricades were set up by locals along with the king’s soldiers and both sides attempted to negotiate. Once the talks broke down, the Yorkists attacked and the result was brutal fighting in the narrow streets of the town.

The Yorkist army suffered heavy casualties and the Lancastrians made a major breakthrough when they managed to sneak into the town’s market square. The Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker) was an ally of York at that time and he took a small group of men through a series of alleys and into the town. Once there, Warwick ordered an attack on the main reserve Lancastrian army that was still waiting within St Albans.

By now, the Lancastrian army knew the game was up and they elected to flee the town instead of trying to turn the tide. The remaining Lancastrian men were slaughtered by Warwick’s longbowmen and Buckingham and several other important nobles were killed. King Henry VI was wounded in the battle but he managed to escape.

York now became the Lord Protector of England and was effectively the nation’s ruler after St Albans. It was just the beginning of a long and arduous battle for the throne. There were a number of clashes between the two sides over the next five years including battles at Ludford Bridge and Blore Heath but the next major events occurred in 1460 where there were two crucial battles.

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
www.royal.uk (Edward IV)

2 – Battle of Northampton – 1460

This important battle occurred on 10 July 1460 and led to the capture of Henry VI. The Earl of Warwick and the Earl of March (he was later to become Edward IV) landed at Sandwich in June 1460 after sailing across to England from Calais. Warwick eventually marched north to intercept a Lancastrian army that was on its way south to Coventry and was led by King Henry VI.

The Lancastrians learned of this plan and elected to stop at the town of Northampton and create a defensive position. Instead of attacking straight away once he arrived at the town, Warwick wanted a peace settlement and was hoping to speak to the king. After fruitless talks, the Yorkists launched their attack.

As I mentioned in the introduction, treachery was a feature of the War of the Roses and it reared its ugly head at Northampton. Lord Grey had been commanding a section of the king’s army but when he faced Warwick in battle, he ordered his men to lay down their arms and allow the Yorkists through.

Had Lord Grey not taken this action, it is likely that the Battle of Northampton would have been a bloody one as the combined strength of the two armies was around 30,000. Instead, the entire conflict was over in about half an hour as Warwick captured the king and killed several important Lancastrian nobles. A number of Lancastrian foot soldiers tried to escape via the River Nene but it was overflowing so many of them drowned. These deaths made up most of the casualties which totalled only hundreds. Incidentally, Grey switched sides because the Yorkists offered support in a property dispute he was having!

It appeared as if the war was over now that the king had been captured but his queen, Margaret of Anjou, had other ideas as she assembled an army in Wales.

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
www.pinterest.com (Battle of Wakefield)

3 – Battle of Wakefield – 1460

This was yet another monumental battle in the War of the Roses and it took place at Wakefield on 30 December 1460. After capturing Henry at Northampton, Richard of York forced the king to transfer the right of succession to him (and his heirs) via an Act of Settlement in October 1460. The Act stated that Henry VI would remain king until his death whereupon Richard would become the new monarch. As a result, the king’s son Edward, Prince of Wales, would be disinherited.

The king’s wife Margaret, refused to acknowledge the settlement and marched south with an army led by the Duke of Somerset. York took an army of around 8,000 men to meet this threat and, after a short skirmish with enemy forces at Worksop on 16 December; he arrived at his castle of Sandal which was located close to the town of Wakefield. The Lancastrians were only 9 miles away and sent an army to meet York in battle. York requested aid from his son Edward but instead of waiting, he decided to meet the enemy in battle on 30 December. This turned out to be a disastrous decision.

It is not known whether York believed the enemy army was roughly the same size as his but as it turned out, the Lancastrian army was twice the size. When the Yorkists charged out of the castle, they were quickly surrounded by the enemy. The Battle of Wakefield lasted little more than an hour as the Yorkists were soundly defeated while York was killed in battle. Other notable casualties included York’s son Edmund (the earl of Rutland) the Earl of Salisbury.

If the House of Lancaster thought this was the end of the matter, they were sorely mistaken. They gained victory at the Second Battle of St Albans and rescued Henry VI in 1461 but were unable to enter London.

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
www.towton.org.uk (Battle of Towton)

4 – Battle of Towton – 1461

The Battle of Towton brought an end to what was a crucial (but not decisive) 8 month period in the War of the Roses which began with the Battle of Northampton. While Henry had been rescued at St Albans, he was reportedly mad and was virtually ineffectual.

Despite the defeat at St Albans, Edward, son of Richard of York, took the step of declaring himself the king (with the aid of the Kingmaker) and became Edward IV on 4 March 1461. Now that England effectively had two kings, it was obvious that deciding the rightful king was something that could only happen on the battlefield.

Henry’s forces had retreated north after St Albans so Edward followed them with a huge army; some sources claim he had up to 40,000 men though this may well be an exaggeration. After outflanking a Lancastrian detachment en route, the Yorkists met their rivals at an open field between the villages of Towton and Saxton. Depending on the sources you read, the combined total of the armies was between 50,000 and 80,000 men. To complicate matters, the fighting took place in the middle of a snowstorm. The result was one of the bloodiest battles in British history.

The battle began with both sides exchanging volleys of arrows before engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat. The fight lasted for approximately 10 hours in total but there seemed to be no breakthrough imminent until John de Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, arrived on the scene to help the Yorkists. He attacked the Lancastrians who didn’t see the approaching enemy until Norfolk’s men were almost upon their left flank. This proved to be the decisive moment in the battle. The exhausted Lancastrians threw off their armour to run faster but this left them more open to the blows of the Yorkists. A number of retreating Lancastrians were slain and the Yorkists finally claimed victory.

During the heat of battle, Edward was saved by a Welsh knight named Sir David Ap Mathew. At least 28,000 men died at Towton although a 16th century chronicler named Edward Hall gave an exact figure of 36,776. Once again, Henry and his wife were forced to flee, this time to Scotland. He took his son with him and was followed by Somerset, Exeter and a few other nobles. It would be another three years before the Lancastrians were even able to assemble an army large enough to take the field.

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
www.times-series.co.uk (Battle of Barnet 1471)

5 – Battle of Barnet – 1471

In the decade since Towton, quite a lot had happened but not much it took place on the battlefield. There had been battles at Hexham among others but one key event took place in 1465. The hapless Henry VI was once again captured by Edward and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. However, Warwick the Kingmaker was disillusioned by Edward IV’s rule and began a rebellion in 1469. He defeated the king’s forces at Edgecote Moor that year and imprisoned the monarch.

A counter attack forced Warwick to release the king and the Kingmaker fled to France. He returned to English soil in 1470 and helped release Henry VI while Edward was forced to flee to the Netherlands. Henry was restored as king but not for long as Edward returned to England on 14 March 1471 with a small army.

On 14 April, Edward’s force of around 12,000 men met Warwick’s 15,000 man army at Barnet. Edward attacked at 4am without realising how close the enemy actually was. The thick night fog was still prominent and as it transpired, the armies were located in such a way that an advantage could be gained if either army’s right side could wrap around the opposition’s left side. The Lancastrians spotted this first but their achievement in overwhelming the Yorkist left side had no real impact as the fog had damaged visibility so neither side could tell who had the advantage.

This confusion was to cost the Lancastrians dearly; one of their groups mistakenly attacked an ally in the belief that they were Edward’s men. A cry of ‘treachery’ went up and caused mass panic in the Lancastrian ranks. Edward quickly sent his reserves in to destroy the enemy and Warwick’s brother was killed. Warwick attempted to flee but died in the melee. Estimates on the number of casualties vary from 4,000 to 10,000.

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
Perry Miniatures – Battle of Tewkesbury 1471

6 – Battle of Tewkesbury – 1471

Edward didn’t have much of a chance to savour his win at Barnet as Queen Margaret had arrived at Weymouth on the day of the battle and quickly increased the size of her army. She was dismayed to learn of Warwick’s death but the queen elected to march north to Wales in order to augment her army with the aid of Jasper Tudor.

Edward learned of his enemy’s plans and quickly moved to intercept them before they could cross the Severn at Gloucester. The Duke of Somerset was in command of the Lancastrian army and was forced to stop for supplies in Bristol; this turned out to be a mistake as it enabled Edward to catch up. Somerset arrived at Gloucester only to find the gates were closed. The exhausted Lancastrians limped on towards Tewkesbury and realised they had to stand and fight.

While Somerset had a slight advantage in manpower (6,000 to approximately 4,000-5,000), his tired troops failed to succeed in a flanking manoeuvre which demoralised them. Once Edward led his men in a charge down the centre of the enemy lines, the Lancastrians offered only token resistance. The Lancastrians were pushed back to the river and hundreds drowned as they looked to escape. Up to 2,000 of Somerset’s men died whereas only 500 or so Yorkists perished.

Somerset and Edward, Prince of Wales were executed after the battle while Margaret also surrendered and was ultimately imprisoned. Soon after Tewkesbury, Edward put down a Lancastrian force commanded by the gloriously named Bastard of Fauconberg and on 21 May 1471, Henry VI was executed in the Tower of London. This marked the end of the Lancastrian royal family but crucially, Henry Tudor was able flee to France. He was the leading male Lancastrian claimant left and while his claims to the throne may have been reasonably tenuous, he was able to make a case for the crown and was destined to change the course of British history.

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
www.bbc.co.uk (Henry VII)

7 – Battle of Bosworth Field – 1485

Edward IV became undisputed king in 1471 and reigned until his death in 1483 when he was succeeded by his son Edward V. However, Edward and his brother Richard, Duke of York, were declared illegitimate by Parliament as the marriage between their parents was invalid because the king had a pre-contract of marriage with someone else. Edward IV’s brother became King Richard III in 1483 and it’s likely that the illegitimacy claim was just a way of justifying his usurpation of the throne. Richard probably had his nephews killed although The Princes in the Tower mystery is still one of the most enduring in British history.

Richard III has been vilified throughout history but this could have simply been a case of the Tudors rewriting history. In the meantime, Henry Tudor was in exile in France and his mother urged him to stake his claim for the throne now that Edward IV had died. After a failed attempt to land in England, he finally crossed the English Channel with French assistance and landed in south Wales in August 1485. Although he initially only had 2,000 men, he managed to gain support so by the time he faced Richard’s army near Ambion Hill which is south of Market Bosworth in Leicestershire, his army totalled 5,000 men.

Even though Richard’s army numbered at least 10,000 (up to 15,000 according to some accounts), he was to ultimately lose the battle. Henry was inexperienced in combat and was sensible enough to allow John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, to command the troops. Another issue was the presence of the Stanley’s (Sir William and Thomas) who had a 6,000 man army. While they had discussions with Henry prior to the battle, they did not immediately take part. Instead, they hung back and waited to see what would happen before making a decision.

At one point in the battle, Richard spotted Henry at the rear of his force and noticed that he wasn’t well defended. He made the fateful decision to try and end the battle there and then and he charged at his rival for the crown. Henry sensibly did not try to engage in the ensuing melee and some of Oxford’s pike men protected the Tudor until extra bodyguards arrived to force Richard back.

William Stanley saw what was happening, made his move and sent his men into battle on Henry’s side. Although Richard had to retreat initially, he refused to flee and threw himself into battle once more. He is supposed to have said: “God forbid that I retreat one step. I will either win the battle as a king, or die as one.” It was the latter outcome for Richard as he was eventually surrounded and hacked to death. When his skeleton was found in 2013, 10 wounds were found including 8 to the skull. Once news of his death spread, his army fell apart and Henry had his victory and his crown. Indeed, he was crowned Henry VII that very day on a nearby hill.

This was essentially the end of the War of the Roses although Henry did have to deal with a pretender called Lambert Simnel in 1487. Simnel claimed to be Edward, Earl of Warwick who was the leading male Yorkist claimant to the throne. Henry dealt with the matter at the Battle of Stoke Field that year and actually pardoned Simnel. The Tudor Dynasty was to reign until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.