Julian Humphrys, development officer for the Battlefields Trust and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, continues his tour round the battlefields of Britain with a visit to Tewkesbury and describes the colourful ways in which the town commemorates this decisive Wars of the Roses battle
In my last blog I talked about Warwick the Kingmaker’s defeat and death at Barnet on 14 April 1471. On the very same day that Warwick was meeting his end just north of London, Henry VI’s wife Margaret and his son Edward were arriving back in England from exile in France.
After landing at Weymouth they were joined by Lancastrian supporters led by the Duke of Somerset. Knowing that they needed to reinforce their army if they were to stand any chance of defeating Edward IV, they headed for Wales where they knew they could count upon the support of Jasper Tudor.
Realising what the Lancastrians were up to, Edward set off in hot pursuit. The Lancastrians never made it to Wales. Their plans to cross the Severn at Gloucester were scuppered when the city refused to let them in and they were forced to march north in a bid to cross the river at Tewkesbury. They reached the town on 3 May after covering the last 24 miles in just 16 hours. But Edward was closing in. Not wanting his army to be caught in a bottleneck as they tried to cross the river, Somerset chose to stand and fight.
The following morning he drew up his forces south of the town where Edward’s Yorkists confronted them. Somerset, who had taken command of the troops on the Lancastrian right, had come up with quite a crafty plan. Leaving a few men to mask what he was up to and with his movement hidden by trees, he led the bulk of his force in a flanking march round the Yorkist left. It was a bold move and had all gone to plan Somerset would have taken the Yorkists by surprise.
However Edward, who was no mean general himself, had foreseen the danger and had hidden 200 cavalry to guard against such a move. Somerset duly launched his attack against Edward’s left flank and in fact enjoyed some success before the Yorkists fought back and the 200 cavalry joined the fray. Somerset was now attacked on two sides and to make matters worse Lord Wenlock, an ex-Yorkist who had been given command of the Lancastrian centre – failed to advance in support of his commander.
Gradually the pressure on Somerset’s troops began to tell; they were pushed back before they finally broke and fled. Some got away, others got no further than what is now called Bloody Meadow. Somerset managed to escape back to his lines where he angrily sought out Wenlock. According to one account he rode up to the former Yorkist ‘called him traytor [and], with his axe he strake y braynes out of his hedde’.
Under increasing pressure from the Yorkists and with their leadership in disarray Lancastrian resistance collapsed. The fleeing Lancastrians were pursued to the town where many were cut down. Others drowned as they tried to cross the Severn. Edward, Prince of Wales was amongst the slain. Somerset and a number of other Lancastrian leaders tried to seek refuge in Tewkesbury Abbey but were later taken out, tried and executed. Edward IV's victory and the death of Henry VI’s son and heir destroyed hopes of a Lancastrian succession and led to fourteen years of peace. Edward finished the job by having Henry VI quietly murdered in the Tower.
I commented in my last blog about the low-key manner in which the anniversary of Barnet was commemorated. Tewkesbury couldn’t be more different. An extremely active battlefield society leads regular walks around the site of Edward’s victory and every July (chosen then to increase the chances of getting good weather) there’s a large medieval festival during which the battle is refought by medieval re-enactment groups from all over Europe. An extraordinary number of these seem to be turning up for the event, many with names that are evocative to say the least. The Grey Goosewing Archers, the Companions of the Crow and the Aisle O’Var Backswording Clubbe are just three of the groups who’ll be strutting their medieval stuff in the fields outside the town.
But the commemoration isn’t restricted to that one weekend. The Tewkesbury Battlefield Society has produced over a hundred painted banners - each one bearing the arms of one of the combatants - and for a small payment the owners of shops and houses in the town centre can fly one throughout the summer from a bracket on the outside of their buildings. Every year the society holds an event in the town hall to enable people to choose their banner and I went along to watch people make their choice.
I was interested to see which banners were chosen first and perhaps it’s no surprise that the white boar banner of the only English medieval monarch with his own fan club – the future Richard III – was one of the first to be snapped up. I don’t know if the inhabitants of Tewkesbury are particularly Yorkist in their sympathies but even though Somerset’s banner was a rather attractive version of the royal arms of the time, when it was time for me to go it still lay rather forlornly, unchosen in a corner.
This year King Edward IVs banner flies over a ladies’ clothes shop. Given his liking for the fair sex (an Italian at his court wrote that ‘he pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried, the noble and lowly) this seems entirely appropriate!
You can follow Julian's visits to UK battlefields, castles and other historic sites on Twitter @GeneralJules
This year's Tewkesbury Medieval Festival takes place on 9 and 10 July. Visit the website for further information.