This is a special post, hence its length, telling the story of the four decisive days in April that ended in the Battle of Barnet, which saw England’s most powerful noble killed and the Yorkist dynasty temporarily secured from within.
The Return of the King.
1st Day. Maundy Thursday, 11th April 1471.
Early on the day of Maundy the honest citizens of the ward of Bishopsgate stopped what they were doing and watched as 500 grim faced soldiers marched warily into London. The Tenebrae had begun the day before and Holy Week was at its height, this was a time of spiritual observance across the land. The solemn Maundy service had ended and the alters had been stripped down and covered over with twigs and branches.
The soldiers quietly intruding at this revered moment were Flemings, wearing the band of the house of York around their bodies. Foreign soldiers entering a city was never a calming sight, and it was probably made worse by the type of soldiers they were. Their skin was oily with a sooty film of powder that made them instantly recognisable as a new and ugly type of soldier. Men that fought with the satanic concoction of “saltpetre and other substances” and lead balls. These specialists spread out along the narrow streets, securing choke points and generally keeping the route to Westminster free. Behind them rode a magnificent body of Household Knights and men at arms, visors up and watchful, plate armour shining in the sun. All seemed peaceful but no one was taking any chances, for up until less than an hour before, London had been enemy territory, .
Edward of York was next to pass under the portcullis and enter his Capitol. Behind him flew his standards, and those his brothers, the Dukes, Clarence and Gloucester, the embroidered murray and blue catching the light as they passed out of the shade of the gatehouse, hooves echoing on the cobbled street. Perhaps some scaffolding was in place as the King rode underneath, and workers high above rested to watch the procession below them, the building was kept in repair by Hanse Merchants, who held warrants to ensure its upkeep, and that year it was recorded as having extensive work done on it. Edward had been gone for just under a year.
Intermittent, violent, fighting that had punctuated life in England since 1455 and now the armies of England mustered again. The Earl of Warwick viewed King Edward IV’s infatuation with the family of his wife Elizabeth Woodville as perversive, and acting in the best interest of the Kingdom decided to overthrow him in favour of his younger brother the Duke of Clarence. In a deft campaign Warwick outmanoeuvred the dithering Edward and ended up locking him up in Warwick Castle, for his own protection, of course. To a Yorkist leader this was an empty gesture for Edward’s Father had done exactly the same thing to the Lancastrian King Henry VI. He did not stay a “guest” at Warwick long. Infighting and unrest led many Yorkist Lords to demand the King’s release, Warwick’s position then became untenable and Edward was given his liberty. A cold cordiality then grew between the former allies, the King and Kingmaker not unsurprisingly viewed each other from the corners of their eyes with deep suspicion. At the first schism Warwick rose again to try and put Clarence on the throne, but this time Edward was ready for him, and defeated his army in March at Losecoat Field, aswim amongst his enemies Warwick fled to France and made a deal with Louis XI to serve the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou and invaded England in October forcing Edward this time, flee to Burgundy where his brother in law Charles the Bold gave him sanctuary. He did not overstay his welcome, in March 1471 he returned to England with an army, the Yorkist civil war was over and the Wars of Lancaster and York had resumed.
Edward had gathered a fleet at Flushing that February, going aboard his flagship Antony on the 2nd of March and he set sail nine days later. Lord Hastings, Earl Rivers and his brother the Duke of Gloucester were at his back with 1,000 men, half of which were yon Flemings, who sailed upon his own ship. They arrived off Cromer in Norfolk on the 12th of March but deeming the country hostile, Edward sailed on to come ashore on a wild and blustery day at Ravenspur in the mouth of the Humber on the 14th, the bad weather had scattered the fleet, Lord Rivers ended up landing at Powle 14 miles away. Once Edward collected his army he marched on York, spreading word that he only wanted his Dukedom back. There was no opposition as the Earl of Northumberland, though uncommitted, nevertheless kept Warwick’s brother Montagu in check. He arrived at York on the 18th and then left for Nottingham two days later, his numbers swelling with new recruits, by the 29th Edward’s army numbered over 4,600 men and he had faced down and beaten off the joint forces of Exeter, Oxford and Beaumont and bottled Warwick up in Coventry. On the 3rd of April Edward’s brother the Duke of Clarence arrived from Burford. The three brothers met on the Banbury road, a meeting all the warmer for the reinforcements Clarence had brought and demonstrating that Clarence had come back into the fold, however numbers did not reduce Coventry, and unable to make a siege Edward withdrew and turned south for London on the 5th.
As he advanced Warwick united with his allies and followed in the Yorkist’s tracks, hoping that the Duke of Somerset in London would be able to use Henry VI to rally the city and close the gates on Edward, trapping him between them. Now Edward faced the crisis point of the campaign, utter destruction could await him at London, those tense days of marching came to an end on 10 April. Edward’s army halted before the city walls half expecting to see the gates slam shut, but they didn’t, the next day he entered the city. Henry had failed pathetically to garner support and the Tower had been seized by Yorkist supporters. Somerset left a matter of hours before Edward’s gunners secured the Bishopsgate. The Yorkists entered London as the Lancastrians evacuated it.
Edward rode to St Paul’s and gave thanks before hurrying to the Bishop’s Palace where he met Henry VI. The old King, wizened and gaunt with a downturned eye and a frown met Edward with a weak handshake and surrendered himself, a prisoner once more. He was wearied of life in general and would die in May. Edward then went to Westminster were a ceremony was held re-confirming him as king and were he was reunited with his wife Elizabeth who presented him with his 5 month old son, whom he had never seen, the boy king Edward V. At a stroke it seemed that all that had been lost was rebuilt stronger, Edward had returned, taken both London and his crown back and had a male heir to boot. Now there was the small matter of Warwick.
2nd Day, Good Friday 12th April 1471.
Iron tools and nails were disdained today, remembering the implements used to secure Jesus to the cross, nor was Eucharist to be administered, and in parish churches across London people went creeping to the cross and listened to gospel of John. The sun filtering through the stained glass gave the majority of the light, as all but one candle was snuffed out. Wisps of tallow and beeswax scented smoke curled up into the cavernous space above, while the shadows lengthened across the nave and the priest intoned resonant Latin in the darkness.
Out in the secular realm a new flock of recruits had arrived to join Edward, bringing a touch of unsettling profanity to the celebration of Holy Week. There was no hiding the armed men in the streets and at the gates, nor the bustling in the armouries that were equipping them, the message of peace and love was the farthest thing from Edward’s mind. The King had learned that Warwick was at St Albans with his army and probably guessed that he was on his way to London.
Warwick had been denied his master stroke, indeed he had already missed one by not sallying forth at Coventry to support Oxford and Exeter. Arriving at Dunstable he learned of the fall of London and he advanced down the great north road hoping to steal a march and surprise them during the celebrations of Holy Week. Edward knew he was coming and made preparations to march.
The composition of the two armies would be fairly characteristic of the times. Each organised their forces into 3 Battles (Divisions), Vanguard, Centre and Rearguard, usually the van would stand on the right flank and be commanded by the leader or more commonly his most valued subordinate. In this case both commanders led the centre battle. Warwick gave his brother Montagu the right flank and the Earl of Oxford the left, while Edward gave Gloucester his right and Lord Hastings his left. In numbers it is thought that Warwick had an edge of about 3,000 men but exact figures are vague, with realistic estimates of 7-15,000 Yorkist and as many as 30,000 Lancastrians. It’s more than likely however that Edward had about or over 12,000 men and at most Warwick with 15,000.
Both utilised gunners and artillery, handguns came in the form of muzzle loading tubes
secured to an iron rod or a wooden stock with a touchhole at the breech, the weapon was fired by igniting the priming powder here, with a hot iron or smouldering match cord. Ammunition was a bag of small lead balls carried at the waist. Artillery had progressed to the point were light field pieces could be deployed on the battlefield with wheeled carriages. Many were breech loading, utilising a powder filled chamber and discharging varying weights of cut stone balls, which allowed a gunner to keep up a decent rate of fire.
As fascinating as these new weapons were, they were still fairly primitive and only just beginning to become effective battlefield weapons, as yet a battle had never been won by gunpowder alone. As far as missile weapons went the gun and cannon played second string to the bow, and we all know which bow I mean. The ordinary or “English Long-” bow was now enjoying the heyday of its popularity, it’s legend having been set in stone at Agincourt, it remained the principle missile weapon on the battlefield’s of England and France until 1500, and one of the biggest killers, good commanders always made sure they had a large and well trained corps available.
However despite the advances in military science, war in these times was done at close quarters with hand weapons. To make the enemy flee, blocks of infantry and cavalry had to charge into combat and force them from the field. If you wanted to kill or disable a man you had to do it with your own hand. Thus protective armour had grown progressively in sophistication and by 1471 it had reached its peak. These were the Knights in shining armour, not Arthur’s men, nor Lionheart’s, the Knights and men at arms of the 15th century went into battle cased head to foot in steel suits that they called harnesses. At the top level a wealthy noble was equipped from the feet up with leggings, sturdy shoes and an arming doublet along with other under armour to pad and protect. Feet were covered by sabatons, shins covered in greaves, knee and thigh protected by the poleyn and cuisse, a mail skirt protected the groin. Back and breastplates secured by tassets over the shoulder to form a cuirass and from the back hung the “Rump Guard”, which needs no explanation. On the arms he wore armour described as the upper and lower cannons. On the upper arm was the tubular vembrace, and below the couter which protected the elbow was another tube section protecting the forearm. On the shoulders were attached impressive fin like pauldrons that overlapped the front and back. On his hands he wore gauntlets, often arrayed with vicious knuckle spikes and ridges. Every piece of armour was designed and often flouted to turn the point of a blade and absorb impact. On his head he wore the sallet and armet which had replaced the basinet as helmet of choice, often with a wrapper to protect the chin, and a gorget to shield the neck with a visor to add to its versatility. A complete war harness, custom made to fit like a glove distributed 45-55 lbs across the body, which is less than a modern infantryman carries on his back alone. A fit man therefore could do everything an unarmored one could do, however it had poor ventilation and men would suffocate or die from heat exhaustion in the press of battle, in the summer it could boil you, but in winter it conducted the cold around its surface but stayed insulated within.
Shields had all but disappeared, and the fighting therefore was a grubby form of fencing, taught by expert sword masters who laid down the art of killing, armed and unarmed, in manuals. Fighting now was more likely to take place on foot than on horse, especially in England, were their expensive warhorses were much too vulnerable to arrows, guns and halberds. Nevertheless a wise commander might keep a small body of Knights mounted for the decisive moment.
Naturally weapons changed to match the evolution of armour. Swords narrowed to wicked points in order to slip into the minuscule gaps in the section plate, daggers also. Poleaxe’s and hammers grew blunt claws and rectangular section spikes to punch straight through weakpoints in the steel, the ghastly reality of having to fight in this manner meant that these were men of a completely different mindset and psychology, not only of immense endurance and strength, the best Knights were hardened killers that would scientifically and brutally dismember an opponent before the same happened to him.
Backing up the Knights and men at arms, were the foot soldier, just as iconic as the longbowman was the billman, this polearm descended from humble farming implements, was a superior close quarter weapon often with a nasty array of barbs and hooks, looking like a piece of anglers fishing tackle. These broad bladed weapons could be wielded with considerable skill and could trip up and skewer the toughest man in full armour. Ordinary foot soldiers belonging to independent companies or a lords “Livery and maintenance” retinue also carried swords and daggers, and were protected by so called half armour with sallets and gorgets and gauntlets and other bits and pieces of knightly array, and the colours of their lord’s livery. Both armies would be fairly identical in these respects, and therefore both had the capability to rip the heart out of the other with surgical brutality.
Fire in the Night.
3rd Day. Holy Saturday, 13th April 1471.
40 days of fasting were coming to an end, the last day of the Tridum dawned and as the excitement mounted for the great Easter meal the next day, the mass was held, dark and bare of ornament as usual. Only the dying were allowed the sacraments. For the soldiers of Edward’s and Warwick’s armies the hope of a peaceful vigil and a companionable breaking of the fast with friends and family after mass to mark the resurrection of Christ was slim. The Yorkists marched out of London that morning to find Warwick, their banners lowered so as not to scrape the ceiling of the gatehouse and uplifted on the other side to catch the sun. Edward took with him not only his brothers Gloucester and Clarence, the brothers Hastings, Lord Howard and Lord Cromwell but the eternal hostage, King Henry VI as well. The army snaked out of London and struck out up the great north road until at evening their “Aforeriders” came trotting into the market town of Barnet, just over 11 miles from London, a typical timber framed and tiled cluster of leaning houses hugging the market square. As they rode in they surprised a scouting party of Lancastrians and an affray took place, followed by what the Italians would have called a Scaramuccia as the Yorkist chased them out to the town. Edward’s Knights and hobilars gave the hue and cry and set their Spurs after them, galloping in hot pursuit they suddenly drew rein and gazed with astonishment at the dark mass that stained the fields and roads before them, slowly moving, imperceptibly glistening in the dying light, a dragon bearing the banners of Warwick, Montagu, Exeter and Oxford, as yet clearly discernible to the pointing fingers of Edward’s scouts, was creeping across the high ground straddling the road. The Yorkist scourers galloped back to tell their master of the beast. As the night wore on this dragon would prove to breath fire too.
On hearing the report Edward ordered the army to push on through Barnet, and not linger in the town. He arrayed his banners in battle array, and set up his tents, so as to be ready to fight first the next morning. His men hunkered down under hedges and in ditches for the night and waited, listening to the conversations of their opponents, for the dawn of Easter Sunday to light the dawn of what could be their last day.
Warwick’s men similarly sought shelter in the open, the entire army bedding down behind a long hedge that roughly fronted their position. The noise of a moving army could not be hidden, even if the darkness hid them from view Warwick realised that the Yorkists had advanced out of Barnet and brought up his artillery. In the gloom yellow muzzle flashes flared across the Lancastrian ridge, followed by the deep grunt of artillery. Men instinctively ducked but soon realised that the stone shot was howling overheard and landing behind them. By a twist of fate Edward’s precipitous advance had led his army much closer than he had intended, and had missed the Lancastrians sheltering behind their hedgerow, but by that token saved it Warwick’s bombardment, that similarly had failed to locate the Yorkists. Thinking that they were much further back the Lancastrian guns pounded away all night and, but merely furrowed a few fields with their shot. Whether Edward had originally wanted to surprise Warwick that night, or whether he truly wanted to attack at dawn, is not clear, but he issued strict orders to his men to keep quiet and not to return fire. The constant booming of artillery made it hard to get much rest for either side, but Edward could be confident that he had already gained an advantage, for Warwick was obviously unaware that he was so close. As his guns spiced the night air with the scent of sulphur the Earl discussed matters with his brother Montagu. The army was nervous and disheartened, and he convinced Warwick that they should fight dismounted the next day, so as to reassure them. The Kingmaker had a habit of dismounting in order to show his resolve. Ordinary infantry had a suspicion of nobles mounted on fast horses, nevertheless it was common practice for able bodied commanders to fight on foot anyway and it was hardly a revolutionary suggestion for a veteran like Warwick. Nevertheless the Earl was also known to ride from place to place, like a 18th or 19th century commander, encouraging his men and being on the crisis spot when needed, like most of the pre battle decisions made on the 13th, it would have decisive results.
Death in the Mist.
4th Day. Easter Sunday, 14th April 1471.
Under a lightening sky, an army of ghosts waited through a darkened landscape, surrounded by a pale cloudy nothingness inhabited only by the dull forms of trees. With the unexpected fog reducing visibility to a distance of maybe 3 yards no one was sure where they were. It was just after dawn, elsewhere the bells would be chiming the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, congregations would be gathering outside of their churches to sing hymns and a sense of joyfulness would pervade the entire day. Not so on the ridge before Barnet, though some comfort could be derived now that the sacraments could be administered to the living as well as the dying. Knights, men at arms and soldiers, their clothes muddy, damp and cold stood in silence, banners hanging limp from their poles, beads of condensation and dew pimpling their armour. The Yorkists stood ready, the order of the day was no quarter, veterans of Towton remembering a cold Palm Sunday when a similar order was given. The birds began to sing and the heavens became opaque and glowing, the mist conducting the light in an almost heavenly manner.
At 7 Edward deemed it light enough to see where they were going and ordered the advance. Over ditch and hedge they went, up the gentle slope looking for the enemy, suddenly a dark mass, softly glittering, emerged before them, the dragon of the day before. Loud calls of defiance travelled the short distance between the armies, ancient slogans and mottos accompanied by the harsh twang of bowstrings as the armies paused for the traditional exchange of missiles. Muscled archers knocked their arrows and dirty faced gunners primed their charges. The zip of feathered shafts and the popping cracks of the gunners then filled the air. Artillery boomed, adding sulphurous smoke to the fog, men began to fall transfixed by shafts, or knocked down by shot, screams of pain adding to the din of war cries, but in the mist accuracy was poor and at last the Yorkist divisions were ordered to charge. Banners floated towards each other, the Yorkist Boar’s, Bulls, lions and flaming Suns in splendour duelled with Lancastrian Stars and Saltires through a miasmic sea of cloud, the lines hurried forwards after them, hesitated on the brink of the abyss, jockeying for advantage and plunged in with an almighty crash.
Immediately the accidents of the night before began to influence the course of the battle. Because neither side had been able to see the other the opposing lines accidentally overlapped each other’s left flanks, with dramatic results. On the western flank Lord Hasting’s Yorkists cut their way through the hedges to get to grips with the enemy, only to find out that they had been outflanked. Opposing them was the Earl of Oxford’s Lancastrians who went forwards and finding no enemy to their front fell upon Hasting’s open flank and his line buckled under the pressure, and went streaming away towards Barnet, followed by Oxford’s troops who cut and slashed at them as they ran. Most of the Yorkists never rallied, some even made it to London, spreading the news of a calamitous defeat, which spread to France before it could be stopped. Oxford’s men pursued the stragglers into the town but then fell to looting it and Oxford barely managed to marshal 800 men to rejoin the fight.
While Oxford was rallying his men, the battle raged on, the pressure of the Lancastrian
onslaught forced the Yorkist left centre to give ground, while on the eastern flank the Duke of Gloucester’s division groped forwards over undulations and bogs, negotiating hermitage walls and finally realising that the enemy was not before them swung down upon the startled Lancastrians of the Earl of Exeter’s division who promptly diverted troops to meet them head on, nevertheless the pressure forced Exeter’s to slowly fall back to avoid being utterly outflanked, and so the entire battle line pivoted anti clockwise so the lines now rested on a roughly North South axis. At this moment it seemed that Edward was losing the battle. Outnumbered, his left flank had all but broken, a token force alone remained, his own right flank was making slow headway against the Lancastrians, and Oxford was returning up the road to his former position and must soon fall upon an exposed part of the battle, surely spelling the end of Yorkist hopes for victory.
The Earl of Oxford was leading his men back the way he had come, with this very intention, the sound of fighting increasing with each step. Then suddenly through the murk he perceived a dark mass of figures before him, this was in fact the Lancastrian centre under Warwick. At the same time Warwick’s men saw a dim force loom up from an unexpected quarter, perhaps unaware of what had happened they looked to their standards to identify them. The mist blurred Oxford’s star with streams and in the confusion it was confused for King Edward’s Sun with Streams, and Warwick’s archers knocked arrows to their bows and let fly.
As the arrows flitted back and forth a terrible cry arose from Oxford’s ranks, “Treason!” The word of treachery spread like a virus down the Lancastrian line, already blinded by mist and generally mistrustful of each other, large chunks of men turned and fled thinking either that Yorkist reinforcements had arrived or that Oxford had changed sides. The earl now thinking Warwick had gone back to Edward pulled his men back and fled the field.
Sensing a shift in the balance Richard of Gloucester pressed harder on Exeter’s front and flank, driving him further back, Edward too felt the tide begin to turn and urged the centre on. Amongst the noise and terror of the melee, Warwick’s brother Montagu was killed, and his death sparked a panic in the Lancastrian centre which suddenly wavered and broke in a spew of fleeing men. The Yorkists pressed home through the mist tasting victory with every step. Warwick had felt victory within his grasp, and now saw it snatched away by a stupid mistake of heraldry, learning that this brother was dead and that Oxford was gone, with his centre in ruins and his left flank disintegrating, the Earl of Exeter falling wounded and his men giving way, he called for a horse and rode North for Barnet Wood. Here he found it difficult to enter and while he skirted around to find a way past the Yorkist footmen netted him against the trees. Here the Kingmaker met his end, perhaps pulled from the saddle by a bill hook and pinned down, his visor wrenched open for the killing stroke. In any event it was a violent death. Edward was a powerfully built man, standing over 6 feet and had by now had mounted, most Knights would now mount to pursue the enemy, but rode up too late to save his former ally, perhaps it was just as well, as he would probably have had him executed for treason anyway.
By the time the mist cleared Edward was in possession of an astonishingly complete victory, yet somewhere over 3-10,000 men from both sides would not get to celebrate the resurrection of Christ that Easter. They lay stripped and empty over the countryside around Barnet a testament to the ambition of Kings and Kingmakers.
Tewkesbury 1471, the last Yorkist victory: Christopher Gravett.
English Medieval Knight 1400-1500: Christopher Gravett.
The Hollow Crown: Dan Jones.
Weapons that Made Britain Ep1, documentary: Mike Loades.
Graham Turner’s Painting Diary http://www.studio88.co.uk/acatalog/diary/arrivall_week5.htm
Medieval Easter Traditions, A Medievalist Errant: https://medievalisterrant.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/medieval-easter-traditions/