History explorer: Wars of the Roses

As part of our series in which experts nominate British locations to illustrate historical topics, Sarah Gristwood visits Tewkesbury, where the battle for England’s crown was fought to the death...

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Historians can’t agree on when – and where – the Wars of the Roses ended. A few would declare it to have been as late as the battle of Stoke Field in 1487, when Henry VII saw off the last Yorkist army to oppose him. The popular vote goes to the battle of Bosworth in 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III – but by then the nature of this great familial squabble had already changed.

It was perhaps the battle of Tewkesbury – which took place 14 years earlier, in 1471 – that saw the conclusion of the conflict that truly pitted York against Lancaster. Certainly, that clash brought to an end the so-called Lancastrian ‘Readeption’ that aimed to restore Henry VI to the throne of England.

After the Yorkists seized power in 1461, Edward IV reigned successfully for a decade until, in the autumn of 1470, he was abruptly toppled from his throne. Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’, the powerful Yorkist magnate, had suddenly changed sides and struck an unlikely deal with the exiled Margaret of Anjou, queen to the Lancastrian Henry VI, whom Edward had deposed.

In 1470, as Warwick’s armies seized control of England, it was Edward who was force to flee into exile. The feeble Henry VI was nominally returned to his throne, and for six months Warwick controlled the country while Margaret (with her son – another Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales) bided their time across the Channel.

They may have waited too long. In the spring of 1471, everything changed again. That March, Edward IV was back, and with a fresh army. On Easter Sunday, 14 April, he met Warwick’s forces at Barnet, in an encounter in which Warwick was slain. This was the news that greeted Margaret after she landed at Weymouth, causing her to fall to the ground, the chronicles report, “like a woman all dismayed with fear”.

But all was not yet lost. While Margaret gathered more troops, her ally Jasper Tudor raised another army in Wales. However, she was separated from him by the river Severn. The crossing at Gloucester was blocked by the Yorkists, so she turned towards Tewkesbury.

The race to the river was on. The weather was unseasonably hot for early May, and men and horses became frantic for lack of food and water. When they reached the town of Tewkesbury late in the afternoon of 3 May, Margaret’s exhausted men could go no further. Battle was joined the next morning, in terrain one chronicle describes as a morass of “evil lanes and deep dykes, so many hedges, trees and bushes, that it was hard... to come to hand”.

Margaret herself took refuge in the abbey. Legend tells that she mounted the 200 steps of its tower – still accessible today by prior arrangement – from where she could view the fighting all too clearly. What she saw, to her horror, was an overwhelming Yorkist victory, thanks in part to Edward’s clever deployment of his forces but also to the failure to advance of one veteran Lancastrian commander. A nearby field is still dubbed Bloody Meadow in memory of the slaughter of hapless Lancastrians that took place there. Among the dead was Margaret’s son, probably killed as he fled the battle scene.

Tewkesbury Abbey. © Oliver Edwards

Many of the defeated Lancastrians fled into the abbey, claiming sanctuary. The different chronicles vary sharply in their versions of what happened there – and the propaganda war of this era, in which the different sides told two quite different stories, is a saga that can be traced through the stones of Tewkesbury Abbey.

Edward and his two brothers – George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard of Gloucester – pursued the fugitives onto consecrated ground, demanding that the abbot hand them over. One tale tells of Edward bursting into the church itself, sword in hand, at the very moment Mass was being celebrated, only to be confronted by the abbot wielding the Host. The story describes a bloodletting so great – perhaps even under the very pillars of the nave that still stand today – that the church had to be reconsecrated.

What is certain is that the Lancastrian leaders were handed over, tried, and summarily executed in Tewkesbury’s marketplace the next day. They are buried under what now serves as the abbey shop.

Margaret herself had fled farther afield. She was captured three days later in a “poor religious house” near Malvern, and displayed in Edward IV’s train as he re-entered London in triumph. That night, Henry VI died – “of pure displeasure and melancholy”, said the Yorkists, though the Lancastrians all-too credibly told a different story.

Sarah Gristwood looks out from the tower where Margaret of Anjou is said to have watched events unfold, over the fields where, in 1471, the battle of Tewkesbury was fought. © Oliver Edwards

Margaret was kept in custody until she was eventually ransomed back to her native France, where she died in poverty. After Tewkesbury she had become irrelevant. She had been a formidable fighter –  a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,” as Shakespeare would describe her. But now she had no Lancastrian claimant for whom to fight. Her son was buried in Tewkesbury Abbey, where he is commemorated by a plaque – ironically placed right under the ‘Sun in Splendour’ emblem, representing the victorious York brothers, on the ceiling.

The red ‘Sun in Splendour’ emblem commemorates the Yorkist victory. © Oliver Edwards

Edward’s plaque was laid during Sir Gilbert Scott’s Victorian restoration of Tewkesbury. The church (purchased by the townspeople when the rest of the abbey disappeared in the Dissolution of the Monasteries) retains genuine medieval remains aplenty: the famous bosses in the nave, the exquisite stonework of the chantries, the glass of the quire clerestory – and the mortal remains of one of the wars’ most debatable personalities.

Edward IV’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, had originally joined Warwick’s coup but, in the weeks before Tewkesbury, had come back over to his brother’s side. Six years later, however, the fickle Clarence rebelled again. Reputedly executed by being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, in 1478, he was buried beside his wife, Isabel, Warwick’s daughter, in Tewkesbury Abbey.

A grating on the floor behind the altar hides the cramped vault where the bones of George and Isabel lie jumbled. Indeed, Tewkesbury keeps some of its extraordinary history hidden from the casual eye. For example, horse armour taken from the battlefield by monks strengthens the reverse side of the closed door to the sacristy. And the town itself is riddled with myriad alleys to be discovered as you explore the countless agreeably junky antique shops and delightfully eccentric tea rooms.

But on the other side of the abbey from the town’s timber-framed houses, the lush, green ground where the armies struggled in 1471 still looks much the same. Get a Battle Trail plan from the town’s visitor centre, or see the display in the museum, and the Wars of the Roses are laid out before you – the whole messy human story. 

 

Five more places to explore

1) Cambridge
visitcambridge.org

No battles were fought here, but the city is still one of the best places to get a feel for the late 15th century. Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville were all patrons of Queens’ College, while King’s College was founded by Henry VI, and construction of its famous chapel continued under Henry VII and his son – an example in stone and glass of the progress of a vital half-century.

King’s College Cambridge was founded by Lancastrian king Henry VI. © Alamy

Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, founded both St John’s and Christ’s colleges; she kept her own set of rooms in the latter, and visited regularly.

 

2) Leicester
leicester.gov.uk/museums

An exhibition about the king is housed in an extraordinary series of medieval buildings that have stood since the 14th century. The Guildhall complex comprises elements ranging from cells to a wonderfully preserved great hall – a little-known treasure, and an obvious contender for a combined excursion with Bosworth (see no 5), only 11 miles away.

 

3) Tower of London
hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon

The Tower is associated above all with the mysterious fate of Richard III’s nephews, the unfortunate princes. But it’s also where Elizabeth Woodville first took refuge in 1470, where Elizabeth of York retreated during the rebellion of 1497, and where Henry VI died in mysterious circumstances. Its strategic and symbolic importance in the medieval era is still evident today.

 

4) Middleham Castle, North Yorkshire
english-heritage.org.uk

The north of England provided Richard III with the power base he needed to seize the English throne, and Middleham Castle in the Yorkshire Dales was his favourite residence.

Middleham Castle in Yorkshire was Richard III’s favourite residence. © Alamy

His short-lived son was Edward ‘of Middleham’, who died there in childhood. Largely ruined, and now in the care of English Heritage, the castle nonetheless retains evocative reminders of Richard’s day. 

 

5) Bosworth battlefield, Leicestershire
bosworthbattlefield.com

The precise conduct of the battle in which Richard III was killed seems always to be in dispute – but there’s no questioning the interest created by the new heritage centre: family-friendly, it’s informative for adults, too.

Visitors to Bosworth battlefield can experience the weight of medieval armour. © Anne Boleyn Files

Ever wondered why the battle was fought at Bosworth? Because the site is crossed by Roman roads – themselves tributes to even earlier English history – and battles were fought in places to which troops could travel quickly.

Sarah Gristwood is an author and historian. Her books include Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (HarperPress, 2013).

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