7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses
7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses

7 Key Battles in the War of the Roses

Patrick Lynch - October 8, 2016

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.

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