2nd Battle of St. Albans: Lancastrians Defeat Yorkists, Fail to Take Advantage of Victory

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2nd Battle of St. Albans: Lancastrians Defeat Yorkists, Fail to Take Advantage of Victory

2nd Battle of St Albans, mediaeval wood cut, author unknown
Image courtesy of http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/albans2.htm
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 17, 1461

Today's tale of battle concerns a fight during the War of the Roses, a fifteenth century civil war in Great Britain. Two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet fought with each other for the right to rule England; they were the Houses of Lancaster and York.

Background to the War

British monarch Henry VI was crowned in September of 1422. The sudden death of his father Henry V (of the battle of Agincourt "band of brothers" fame) at the age of 35 was catastrophic, as England had the upper hand in the Hundred Years' War with France. Henry VI, who headed the House of Lancaster, was only nine months old at his coronation, so the country was ruled by a council of regents until Henry turned 16.

Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461 & 1470-71), artist unknown; Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London UK
Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461 & 1470-71), artist unknown
Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London UK

During the majority of Henry's reign, there were multiple challenges as to who was the better qualified person to occupy England's throne. This was brought into sharper focus in 1453, when Henry suffered some form of mental breakdown. A council of regency was formed, headed by Richard the Duke of York and Henry's primary opponent in the succession. Though Henry recovered his sanity in late 1454, he suffered a number of bouts of mental illness over the next 17 years.

In addition, other factors forming a political climate ripe for civil war included: growing civil discontent; the abundance of feuding nobles with private armies; and corruption in Henry VI's court. With the king so easily manipulated, power rested with those closest to him at court, in other words the Lancastrian faction. Richard and the Yorkist faction, who tended to be physically placed further away from the seat of power, found their power slowly being stripped away. Royal power and finances also started to slip, as Henry was persuaded to grant many royal lands and estates to the Lancastrians, thereby losing their revenue.

When Henry recovered, he once again fell under the influence of those closest to him at court. Directed by Henry's queen, the powerful and aggressive Margaret of Anjou, who emerged as the de facto leader of the Lancastrians, Richard was forced out of court. Margaret built up an alliance against Richard and conspired with other nobles to reduce his influence. An increasingly thwarted Richard (who feared arrest for treason) finally resorted to armed hostilities in 1455, when forces of Lancaster and York clashed at the First Battle of St. Albans.

Background of the Battle

A dynastic compromise was struck in October 1460, when the Act of Accord was promulgated. The document made the Duke of York King Henry's successor to the throne, disinheriting Henry's six-year-old son Edward. Henry's queen Margaret refused to abide by the Act's terms, fleeing first to north Wales, parts of which were still in Lancastrian hands. They later travelled by sea to Scotland to negotiate for Scottish assistance.  The Queen Consort to James II of Scotland agreed to give Margaret an army on condition that she cede the town of Berwick to Scotland and Mary's daughter be betrothed to Prince Edward. Margaret agreed, although she had no funds to pay her army and could only promise booty from the riches of southern England, as long as no looting took place north of the Trent River.

Richard Duke of York and his brother-in-law, the Earl of Salisbury (father of the Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, nicknamed "The Kingmaker"), led an army to the north late in 1460 to counter the Lancastrian threats, but they drastically underestimated the Lancastrian forces. On December 30, 1460, at the battle of Wakefield, the Yorkist army was destroyed and York, Salisbury and York's second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed in the fighting or were executed after the battle.

The victorious Lancastrian army began advancing south towards London. It was led by comparatively young nobles, whose fathers had been killed by York and Warwick at the First Battle of St Albans (in 1455). The army contained a substantial contingent from the West Country, but many of its men were from the Scottish Borders or Scotland, who subsisted largely on plunder in their march south.

Edward, Earl of March, House of York (later King Edward IV); Artist unknown; currently in National Portrait Gallery, London UK
Edward, Earl of March, House of York (later King Edward IV)
Artist unknown; currently in National Portrait Gallery, London UK

The death of Richard of York left his eighteen-year old son Edward, Earl of March, as the Yorkist claimant for the throne. [Edward is described as "handsome and affable…" and as being a soaring 6 feet, 4 inches tall.] He led one Yorkist army in the Welsh Marches, while Warwick led another in London and the south east. Naturally, they intended to combine their forces to face Margaret's army, but Edward was delayed by the need to confront another Lancastrian army from Wales led by Jasper Tudor. On February 2, 1461 Edward defeated Tudor's army at the battle of Mortimer's Cross.

Lancastrian Army

This force, under the command of Queen Margaret, was approaching London after defeating the Duke of York and his army at Wakefield, a month-and-a-half previously. The Lancastrians numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 men altogether. It consisted mainly of mounted men-at-arms, longbowmen, spearmen and billmen [see below],with some knights, likely nobles and major landholders. They were mainly members of the retinues of the Earl of Northumberland, the Baron de Clifford, and Henry Beaufort the Duke of Somerset, who all had considerable lands and support in the north of England. Another portion of the army came from the West Country (southwestern England). There were also reduced numbers of Scots and Scottish Borderer horsemen. These last were men who waged a hot-and-cold war of raids and counter-raids along the ill-defined border area of England and Scotland. They lived primarily from looting and plunder. Many had deserted Margaret's army, taking their loot with them after word was received of the Yorkist victory at Mortimer's Cross.

English bill, similar to a halberd; Adapted from civilian agricultural tool
English bill, similar to a halberd
Adapted from civilian agricultural tool

Yorkist Army

This force was under the command of the Duke of Warwick the "Kingmaker." It totalled somewhere around 9000-10,000 men. Its composition was similar to that of the Lancastrians, with a couple of exceptions: his army likely did not have large numbers of Scots or Scottish Borderers; and, as Warwick's army was marching from London, he had access to the royal arsenal, as numbers of artillery pieces were reported to be in his train. In addition, we know that the Yorkist army had fairly substantial numbers of handgunners. There were also about 500 paid Burgundian mercenaries in this army.

Prelude to the Battle

Warwick with the captive King Henry in his train (he had been taken prisoner at Northampton on July 10, 1460), meanwhile moved to block Margaret's army's route to London. He took up position north of St. Albans (site of the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses) astride one of the main roads from the north, where he set up several fixed defences, including cannon and obstacles such as fields of caltrops and pavises studded with spikes. Part of his defences used an ancient earthwork known as the Beech Bottom Dyke. Warwick's forces were divided into three "battles" (or wings), as was customary at the time. He himself led the Main Battle in the centre; the Duke of Norfolk led the Forward Battle on the right; and Warwick's brother John Neville commanded the Rear Battle on the left. Warwick expected the Queen's army to attack them across Bernards (or Barnet) Heath, a fairly flat, open area to the northeast of the town. [see map below] Although strong, Warwick's lines faced north and west only. However, he did think somewhat out-of-the box, and stationed several hundred longbowmen scattered throughout the town, a rather substandard attempt at a guard for his flank.

Margaret knew of Warwick's dispositions, probably through Sir Henry Lovelace, the steward of Warwick's own household. Lovelace had been captured by the Lancastrians at Wakefield but had been spared from execution and released, and he believed he had been offered the vacant Earldom of Kent as reward for betraying Warwick. Late on February 16, Margaret's army swerved sharply west and captured the town of Dunstable in Bedfordshire, 30 miles north of London and about 13 miles northwest of St. Albans. About 200 local people under the town butcher tried to resist them, but were easily dispersed. Warwick's "scourers" (scouts, patrols and foraging parties) failed to detect this move.

2nd Battle of St. Albans

Margaret's army left Dunstable during the night of February 16-17, arriving at St. Albans near dawn. The Lancastrians assaulted the town along the main road from the northwest (the old Roman road known as Watling Street). They were surprised when the hidden enemy archers began shooting at them from house windows and the Town Clock Tower. Withdrawing across the Ver River, Margaret's commanders searched for another route to attack Warwick's positions. After a short time, attacks were launched along Folly Lane and Catherine Street. [See above; the second attacks are in solid black lines] The Yorkist bowmen were now outflanked and cut off from their comrades to the northeast of town. The Lancastrians began rooting out the pesky missile troops in deadly hand-to-hand fighting, which lasted for several hours. [It seems that all this activity mostly escaped the attention of Warwick's men northeast of town.]

"Map for the Second Battle of St. Albans" by James Henry Ramsay (1892); From Lancaster and York: A Century of English History (1399-1485), Volume 2

"Map for the Second Battle of St. Albans" by James Henry Ramsay (1892); From Lancaster and York: A Century of English History (1399-1485), Volume 2
"Map for the Second Battle of St. Albans" by James Henry Ramsay (1892)
From Lancaster and York: A Century of English History (1399-1485), Volume 2

By noontime – but no later than mid-afternoon – the Lancastrians advanced along St. Peter Street to attack the flank and rear of Warwick's left division. Because this division was anchored by static defenses, Warwick had a difficult time realigning his forces to face the new threat. In addition, it was apparently a wet, perhaps drizzle-filled day; this was enough to dampen the Yorkist gunpowder, causing innumerable misfires, and shutting down Warwick's primary offensive punch. [Warwick later claimed that the Kentish contingent in the Yorkist army under Lovelace defected at this point, causing further confusion in the Yorkist ranks, although later historians suggest that Lovelace's role as a scapegoat was created by Warwick as a face-saving excuse to mask his own total mismanagement of the battle.]

Despite the Yorkists being outnumbered and out of position, they held their own against the Lancastrian force in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. By late afternoon, as dusk was settling in (sunset at this time of year was about 5:19 p.m.), Warwick's army finally lost heart and began a retreat westward into Oxfordshire, seeking to join up with the remains of the Yorkist army under Edward. With this act, the royal capital of London was left wide open to the victorious Lancastrians.


Yorkist casualties are estimated at about 5000 killed, wounded or captured. The Lancastrians suffered perhaps 2000 casualties.

Despite the Lancastrian victory, the army did not immediately advance toward London. Margaret's army spent several days pillaging the neighborhood (a reputation it had gained over the past several months). The people of London let it be known the Lancastrians would be denied entrance to the city. As a result, Margaret withdrew back to Dunstable. Because of the victorious army's failure to march on London, the remaining Scots and Scots Borderers left the Lancastrian force and headed back north.

Footnote #1: As the Yorkists retreated, they left behind the bemused King Henry, who is supposed to have spent the battle sitting under a tree, singing. Two knights  had sworn to let him come to no harm, and remained with him throughout. The next morning Margaret asked her son, the seven-year-old Edward of Westminster, how, not whether, the two knights were to die. Edward, thus prompted, sent them to be beheaded.

Footnote #2: Another result of the Lancastrian failure to advance and occupy London was that Edward the Earl of March and Warwick and their forces soon afterwards marched on Longdon, Entering the city on February 26. Edward was proclaimed king in March, ruling until he was deposed by the Lancastrians in October of 1470. He would recover the throne in 1471, reigning until his death in April of 1483, three weeks shy of his 41st birthday.

Footnote #3: This fight took place on Shrove Tuesday (otherwise known to the French as "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras).

Footnote #4: The Wars of the Roses would continue for another 26 years, until the final victory of the Tudor Dynasty at the battle of Stoke Field on June 16, 1487.

Footnote #5: William Shakespeare wrote three plays devoted to Henry VI. Shakespeare's portrayal of Henry is notable in that it does not mention the King's madness. This is considered to have been a politically-advisable move so as to not risk offending Elizabeth I, whose family was descended from Henry's Lancastrian family. Instead Henry is portrayed as a pious and peaceful man ill-suited to the crown. He spends most of his time in contemplation of the Bible and expressing his wish to be anyone other than a king. Shakespeare's Henry is weak-willed and easily influenced allowing his policies to be led by Margaret and her allies, and being unable to defend himself against York's claim to the throne.

Facsimile of the first page of The first Part of Henry the [Sixth]; From the First Folio, published in 1623
Facsimile of the first page of The first Part of Henry the [Sixth]
From the First Folio, published in 1623

Footnote #5.1: The First Folio of Shakespeare's plays – actual title Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies – had an initial printing of 800 copies, which sold for £1 each. [Modern equivalent of £95-£110, or $190-220 US.] There are 223 known surviving copies of the First Folio, with the single largest collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC with 82 copies.

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