On 14 April 1471, the very same day that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was meeting his end just north of London at the battle of Barnet, Henry VI’s wife Margaret of Anjou and his son Edward of Westminster 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; instead 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.
What happened at the battle of Tewkesbury?
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 being 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.
Who won the battle of Tewkesbury?
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 of Westminster was amongst the slain. Somerset and a number of other Lancastrian leaders tried to seek refuge in Tewkesbury Abbey – they were later taken out, tried and executed.
Why was the battle of Tewkesbury important?
Edward IV’s victory and the death of Henry VI’s son and heir destroyed hopes of a Lancastrian succession and led to 14 years of peace. Edward finished the job by having Henry VI quietly murdered in the Tower of London. But it wouldn’t be the end of the Wars of the Roses, which bloomed once more following Edward IV’s death in 1483 and the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.
Julian Humphreys is a historian and battlefields expert
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2011