Military history


A Step Too Far

St Albans

22 MAY 1455

‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’1 Three thousand professionally trained men-at-arms and archers, with weapons ready and wearing the badges and livery of their masters, stood patiently in Key Field, a green space immediately to the east of the wealthy town of St Albans.2 It was wealth that stemmed from its position on the main road north from London to the Midlands, sporadically the centre of royal government, which then went further to the distant lands of Yorkshire and even further to the border with the alien kingdom of Scotland.

These men had arrived three hours earlier, at 7 a.m. They had been brought together on this May day in 1455 to settle a matter of honour arising from the loss of the ancient possession of Normandy, the source of England’s own conquest four centuries before. The reason for their patience was that heralds had been dispatched to the King for a third time that morning, with a series of demands. These demands were couched in terms of the politest of requests, supplications even, to a ‘most Christian King, a right high and mighty Prince’ and to a ‘most redoubted sovereign Lord’.3 They were from ‘true and humble liegemen’.4 But they were demands all the same. The petitioners’ stated purpose was to be admitted to the presence of King Henry VI to refute ‘the sinister, malicious and fraudulent works and reports of our known enemies’. The spurning of these requests caused the ‘liegemen’ to conclude that the ‘known enemies’ were preventing even their heralds from seeing the King.

It was the only possible conclusion so far as the petitioners were concerned. As the troops stood easy over successive hours, the formal responses being returned in the name of the King could not have been clearer: ‘I wish to know what traitor dares be so bold as to rise up in my own land’ and ‘I shall destroy them, every one of them, to hang them, draw them and quarter them, to make an example to all such traitors.’5

The leader of the petitioners, Richard, Duke of York, the foremost member of the nobility, a man of mature years and inflexible self-certainty and someone who had himself recently governed on behalf of King Henry, knew that these were not the personal words of the King. So did his illustrious allies: his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury’s son, another Richard Neville, who was Earl of Warwick in his own right. Not the words of the King but those of the ‘known enemies’; and in particular those of York’s and now Warwick’s bitter rival Edmund, Duke of Somerset, and of the Neville family’s traditional antagonists, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford.

There was an intermediary on the scene: another York brother-in-law, the irascible Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, fanatically loyal to his unworldly King. It was he that was trying to mediate between the two parties, though, it has to be said, from his position beside the King in the town’s market place, with his troops assembling alongside Somerset’s and their allies. All were ready to fight together under the Royal Standard in the name of Henry VI of the House of Lancaster.

What happened next took Buckingham by surprise. With the ‘parlaying’ between the two sides having extended throughout the morning and set to continue, there seemed no reason for a sudden change of mood. The Yorkists thought differently. At 10 a.m., seeking ‘to redresse the myscheff that now regneth’, they moved forward.6

The nature of their physical position itself played a role. To launch an attack on the Royal Standard, raised in the King’s presence, would indeed have been treason. From where they stood, however, they could not see it. With the justification that the King was not a free agent and that they sought merely to remove his ‘Evil Counsellors’, they told their archers to prepare.

The Royal Standard may have been out of sight, but so were the targets for the Yorkist arrows. Yet these were bowmen required by law to hone their technique through practice every Sunday and feast day; and to do so from childhood, through adulthood and into what was then most definitely considered as old age. These were extraordinarily skilled practitioners of war, whose rate of shot and accuracy was still to be envied 350 years later.7 Now they assessed the wind, distance and the altitude required to take their arrows over walls, over houses, into the market place beyond and on to the unsuspecting and thus unprepared Lancastrians.

After the initial order to shoot, successive volleys involving thousands of arrows arced into the spring sky. These projectiles of around a yard in length and travelling at speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour,8 reached the zenith of their flight in little more than a second. Then they began their descent, to arrive at maximum velocity and deliver their sharp steel arrow tips mounted on a projectile weighing a quarter of a pound. This swarm of wood and iron and steel created mayhem as it struck cobble, stone and armour; and sliced through flesh and bone. It was probably during the initial arrow storm that four of the King’s bodyguard were killed. Buckingham was wounded in the face. The King himself, inadequately protected, was grazed in the neck and forced into the malodorous safety of a tanner’s house.

As the salvoes continued, the Yorkist men-at-arms were poised to attack across the town ditch. The ditch was not problematic – generations of householders and innkeepers had filled it with their rubbish and in places it was a mere step rather than a trench.9 Nor were town walls, thought unnecessary in a country with no expectation of siege and civil war.

Then a problem arose. Salisbury’s and York’s troops came up against well-constructed barricades at the ends of two principal thoroughfares which led to either end of the market place and the Lancastrian command. Frustratingly for the brothers-in-law, the troops met with stubborn resistance and the Yorkist attackers, forced in the constricted space to deploy with just a few abreast, began to be picked off by the Lancastrian archers.

Salisbury’s son, the twenty-six-year-old Earl of Warwick, had been given command of the Yorkist centre. He faced similar barricades in his quest to break through to the market place. It was now that he made his military reputation. He did not try to attack these obstacles but went round them, straight through the houses and then into the gardens and orchards – known as ‘the backsides’ – beyond. This move, so sudden, swift and unexpected, took him to the unprotected houses overlooking the Lancastrian positions almost before the defenders realized what was happening. Whether Warwick’s archers deployed the normal flesh-slicing broadhead or the armour-piercing bodkin arrows, their longbows, supplemented by the more manoeuvrable crossbows, were lethal when shot at near point-blank range from the upper-storey windows of the houses and from the alleyways to their sides.

It was at this point, if not before, that the Royal Standard bearer was guilty of the heinous crime of deserting his post and leaving the Standard propped against a wall. William Gregory, Mayor of London in 1451 and the author of Gregory’s Chronicle,10pinpoints James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire & Ormond and the Lord Treasurer of England, as the culprit, adding that Wiltshire ‘fought mainly with his heels, for he was called the most handsome knight in the land and was afraid of losing his beauty’.11 Wiltshire was to prove a serial offender when it came to fleeing from battlefields, but the safety of ‘the flying earl’ came at the vast expense of his having repeatedly to replace his hastily discarded armour.12 On this occasion he swapped it for a monk’s habit, purloined from the abbey, and slipped away in disguise.13

The clamour of Warwick’s breakthrough to the centre caused the Lancastrian troops at the barricades to fall back. With the market place a heaving mass of stabbing and chopping men, the Yorkists surged forward and forced many of their opponents to retreat into the nearby houses.

Thus far, the entire action had taken under an hour and, fierce though it was, had probably accounted for not many more than a hundred dead.14 Now the most momentous event of the battle took place. Whether it was York or Warwick who gave the order is not known, but Warwick’s future record and position to the fore would indicate that it was him. Either way, the Lancastrian leaders – the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford – were, against any deference to the laws of chivalry, hunted down, cornered and killed. Somerset, realizing his fate, took four of his reward-seeking attackers with him, before the remainder were on him like dogs and he was finally dispatched with an axe.15

The King was taken into safekeeping in the abbey by the now dutiful Duke of York, as was Buckingham. So great was York’s hatred of the slain lords that no one dared move their corpses. It was only when John Whethamstede, the Abbot of St Albans, demanded that proper provision be made for the bodies that action was taken. It was Whethamstede, perhaps with an eye on future rewards from chantry chapels, who arranged that the lords should be buried in the abbey, their battered bodies to join the remains of his friend and fellow intellectual Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the famous younger brother of a far more famous man: England’s greatest king, Henry V.

Thus, York hoped, would end a vicious five-year rivalry for preeminence between himself and Somerset which had its beginning in a dispute over honour, entwined with the permanent collapse of England’s empire in France; a rivalry that had flared unimpeded when they each tried to fill the vacuum of authority left by a mentally enfeebled monarch.

In the event, St Albans served only to widen and deepen hostilities. There were two hugely important legacies of the battle. Hitherto, Henry’s French queen, Margaret of Anjou, had largely been the very model of a traditional English queen consort – a dutiful, supplicatory force. Though Somerset had received a pension from her, this had not made Margaret the irretrievable and natural foe of York. Indeed, letters show Margaret to have been previously on good terms with York and with Cecily, his duchess, both up to and after the birth of her one and only son, Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1453.16 But St Albans altered everything. With the forceful Somerset gone, Margaret stepped to the fore to protect her son’s interests. This was not so much a change as a transformation, with Margaret becoming as aggressive as she had previously been mollifying. In York’s eyes, she had stepped away from her true role, making her an aberrant opponent, as well as a fearsome one.

The second legacy resulted directly from the murder of the three Lancastrian leaders. Each of them had an heir. Henry Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset, aged just nineteen at the time of the battle, and himself badly wounded, was placed in the ungentle custodial care and guardianship of Warwick. Revenge became the one aim of the three heirs and a vicious element of vendetta was introduced into the overall context of the quarrel.

The two legacies merged as the descendants of the butchered lords in time became the most loyal adherents of the warrior queen. It was not surprising that, as the vendetta spiralled during the course of successive battles between 1459 and 1461, all opportunity for compromise ebbed away. Less than six years later at Towton, it was the sons bereaved at St Albans, together with York’s hated and hateful son-in-law, the Duke of Exeter, who commanded the Lancastrian forces.

In terms of numbers killed, the 1st Battle of St Albans was ‘a short scuffle in a street’,17 ‘an affray in the market place’.18 But in its savagery towards a few it was highly significant. It proved an initiation into a new kind of warfare, one stripped of the chivalric concept which had prevailed amongst the knightly class and which, on the battlefield of Towton, would culminate in two tragically well-matched armies engaging in a day of unmatched bloodshed and brutality of Englishmen against Englishmen.

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