9 battles that shaped the Wars of the Roses – from St Albans to Tewkesbury
Despite rumbling on for at least three decades, the conflict saw fewer than 15 months of actual fighting. However, the clashes that did occur were by no means insignificant – or lacking in brutality
The first battle of St Albans, 22 May 1455 (Yorkist victory)
The clash that marked the start of the Wars of the Roses was no pitched battle, but a skirmish through the narrow streets of St Albans, the result of years of simmering rivalry between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions in the English nobility, and five months after Henry VI’s first episode of mental illness.
In April 1455, a recently recovered Henry called for a great council at Leicester. Richard, Duke of York and his allies the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Warwick were summoned, but with the king in the power of their enemies, the Yorkist lords suspected this council would be used to brand them as traitors.
The Yorkists marched to intercept the royal retinue, reaching St Albans early on 22 May. By the time the Lancastrians arrived shortly before 10am, York and his host had already established a camp east of the city. Attempts by Henry at a peaceful resolution unsurprisingly got nowhere – York’s principal demand was the punishment of the Duke of Somerset, who was a favourite of Henry VI and his queen, Margaret of Anjou. It was never going to happen.
The Yorkists abandoned diplomacy first, with York and Salisbury launching assaults up the narrow lanes, both of which were repulsed with heavy losses. Warwick – showing the first glimmers of the prowess that would see him rise to power – had a different idea: he led his men into town through the gardens and backs of houses, bursting upon the royal defenders in the marketplace.
His archers shot down the men surrounding the king and even Henry himself was injured, suffering an arrow wound to his neck or shoulder. Somerset, who it is alleged was told by a soothsayer to beware of castles as one would herald his demise, was cut down outside a tavern called the Castle Inn.
It was all over in 30 minutes. Though a minor engagement, the clash was politically seismic: with his great rival dead, York would resume his position as chief advisor to a weak king.
Blore Heath, 23 September 1459 (Yorkist victory)
An uneasy peace lingered in the years after St Albans – during which Henry VI probably suffered another mental collapse (and recovered) and Richard, Duke of York was briefly appointed lord protector – but by the summer of 1459 both factions were actively recruiting armies.
Blore Heath in Staffordshire was where hostilities began anew, when forces under the Earl of Salisbury were accosted by a Lancastrian army twice as large as they attempted to link up with York and Warwick. Outnumbered two to one, Salisbury arrayed his men atop a bank – placing a brook between himself and the Lancastrians – then made a feint as if to retreat. Lord Audley took the bait, launching two cavalry charges that were forced back by Yorkist archers on the high ground, claiming perhaps as many as 2,000 lives, including Audley himself.
Next, the Lancastrians attacked on foot, and this time the Yorkists fell upon the men struggling up the boggy slope with swords and axes. The pitched battle lasted four hours; the rout, through the night.
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Ludford Bridge, 12 October 1459 (Lancastrian victory)
Though two armies met at Ludford Bridge, no actual fighting took place – mainly because York, Salisbury and Warwick all stole away on the eve of battle.
The problem was Henry VI. Taking up arms against the king’s ‘evil’ counsellors was one thing, but taking up arms against his anointed person was quite another; the sight of Henry on horseback and in full armour was enough to sow doubt in even the stoutest heart. It was a doubt that the Lancastrians stoked further by offering to pardon anyone fighting for York.
Taking up arms against the king’s ‘evil’ counsellors was one thing, but taking up arms against his anointed person was quite another
The Yorkist position grew weaker still with the defection of Andrew Trollope and the 600 men under his command. Trollope was an experienced soldier, and his men were among the strongest fighters in the Yorkist army; worse, he was a confidant of Warwick, and knew their battle plans. And they were not the only men to switch sides or melt away.
On the night of 12 October, realising that giving battle would be pointless, the three magnates and a few close allies fled under the pretence of journeying to Ludlow to ‘refresh themselves’, leaving their army to wake up leaderless the next morning.
Henry pardoned the army – he had no quarrel with them.
On the podcast: historian Lauren Johnson responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the Wars of the Roses, the 15th-century clashes for the English throne between the houses of Lancaster and York
Northampton, 10 July 1460 (Yorkist victory)
Warwick and Edward, Earl of March – York’s eldest son – went into exile in Calais after the debacle at Ludford Bridge, but by summer 1460 they were back in England. This time they would capture the king, and they did it with the help of some battlefield treachery.
It had already been raining for two hours when the Yorkists began their advance on the Lancastrians, who established a camp in the vicinity of an abbey. It wasn’t a promising start: forcing their way through the mud as arrows fell upon them, the Lancastrians repelled the Yorkist ‘battles’ [divisions] commanded by Warwick and Lord Fauconberg, and perhaps the whole assault would have faltered had it not been for Lancastrian turncoat Lord Grey of Ruthin.
Grey had been exchanging secret messages with the Yorkists. When the third battle, led by the Earl of March, reached the defences manned by Grey, the Lancastrians stepped forward and helped the Yorkists through the pointed stakes and treacherous ditches, giving them access to the king’s camp. This was no act of ideology: in a potent reminder that many chose sides based on family feuds or material gain, Grey’s price was that the Yorkists back him in a property dispute with a cousin. He would later be made Earl of Kent.
Lancastrian resistance evaporated, and several prominent men were slain trying to prevent the Yorkists from reaching Henry VI’s tent. Two months later, with Henry in custody once more, the Duke of York felt safe enough to return from his own exile in Ireland, after which he attempted to claim the throne. It was a step too far for his allies, but it did lead to Parliament passing the Act of Accord, which disinherited Henry and Margaret’s son Edward of Westminster in favour of York.
Wakefield, 30 December 1460 (Lancastrian victory)
Unwilling to accept her son being disinherited, Margaret of Anjou raised another army that besieged York at Sandal Castle near Wakefield. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, instead of waiting for reinforcements he sallied out to give battle against a force at least double his own.
That he attacked at all caught the Lancastrians by surprise, but his men were soon surrounded and butchered. York was among the slain – his severed head, so the legend goes, tauntingly garnished with a paper crown. The manner of Richard, Duke of York’s death at Wakefield is said to have given rise to a popular mnemonic children learn to remember the colours of the rainbow: Richard of York gave battle in vain.
He wasn’t the only notable Yorkist to die: his second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland was cut down trying to flee, while his long-time ally Salisbury was captured during the night and taken to Pontefract Castle – he was subsequently dragged out and murdered by the townsfolk.
Second battle of St Albans, 17 February 1461 (Lancastrian victory)
Warwick knew Margaret of Anjou would need to march on London, so he rode to intercept her army at St Albans. Believing she would have to arrive from the north, he spread out his three battles on those outskirts of the town, fortifying the market square with longbowmen and Burgundian gunners. Unfortunately for him, the Lancastrians arrived from the west.
The men billeted in St Albans held up the Lancastrians for several hours, but they were ultimately overcome, allowing an assault on the Yorkists’ unprepared rearguard. It’s unclear whether Warwick simply didn’t realise what was happening behind him until it was too late, or had trouble coercing his captains to march back to reinforce them, but by the time he was able to take action the rearguard was in flight. He made a tactical withdrawal as darkness fell, and in doing so was forced to abandon the prize prisoner that he had brought along with him for safekeeping – Henry VI.
Towton, 29 March 1461 (Yorkist victory)
Edward, Earl of March was proclaimed Edward IV following the second battle of St Albans, the Yorkists now asserting that Henry IV and the entire house of Lancaster had been usurpers and the throne was being rightfully restored. Yet it was a hollow crown while Henry VI was still at large.
Unlike Henry VI, who been dispatched to the city of York for his own safety, Edward IV was in the thick of the fighting
Their inevitable showdown came at Towton on Palm Sunday, in a nightmare of blood and snow. It began with an archery duel, in which the Lancastrians, firing into a headwind and almost-zero visibility, didn’t realise their arrows were falling short. Once they had run out, the Yorkists dashed forward, collected the unbroken shafts, and peppered the Lancastrians with their own missiles. The melee that followed was hours of graceless work, a frenzied press of stabs and shoves – which carried on for so long that men would leave the battle to take breaks. Unlike Henry VI, who been dispatched to the city of York for his own safety, Edward IV was in the thick of the fighting.
The battle only turned with the arrival of 4,000 fresh Yorkist reinforcements under the Duke of Norfolk, who piled into the Lancastrian left. First the line buckled; then it collapsed entirely. The rout is where the real killing took place, and why part of the battlefield is today known as the Bloody Meadow, while the River Cock – which had anchored the Lancastrian flank at the start of the battle – became a lethal obstacle in which scores of men drowned. By dusk, it was running red. Henry fled to Scotland, taking Margaret and his son with him; Lancastrian power was broken.
Barnet, 14 April 1471 (Yorkist victory)
Edward IV and Warwick fell out in the mid-1460s largely due to Edward’s choice of wife: in 1464, while Warwick was away negotiating a match with a French princess, Edward secretly wed Elizabeth Woodville. Their union was a cause célèbre – she was only from the gentry, and her newly elevated family rapidly became a thorn in Warwick’s side.
Two failed rebellions in 1469 saw Warwick flee to France; he returned in 1470, this time at the head of an army that declared itself for the Lancastrians. Now it was Edward’s turn to flee. Warwick reinstated Henry VI as a puppet king, with himself as England’s effective ruler, but it was only a few months before Edward reappeared with an army of his own.
The erstwhile allies clashed at the battle of Barnet on Easter Sunday 1471, and once again the foul weather would have huge ramifications. According to one contemporary account, there was “so exceeding a mist that neither host could plainly see the other”, and in this haze neither Warwick nor Edward realised their armies were not directly facing. When the Yorkist right wing advanced, they found no Lancastrians ahead of them, so they swung around and crashed into Warwick’s flank. At the other end of the line the situation was reversed, though the outcome more palpable: the Lancastrian right wing turned into Yorkist left, which promptly broke and was pursued by the Earl of Oxford’s Lancastrians all the way into Barnet.
Oxford gradually gained control of his men and brought them back to the battlefield, where they met not Yorkists, but the rear of the Lancastrian centre under Warwick’s brother, the Marquess of Montague. In the foggy gloom, they mistook each other for the enemy and traded arrows. Cries of “Treason!” echoed when Montague’s men finally recognised Oxford’s, and their morale withered. Soon the entire Lancastrian army was in flight, with Warwick cut down as he tried to dash away on his horse.
Tewkesbury, 4 May 1471 (Yorkist victory)
On the day Warwick was killed at Barnet, Margaret of Anjou and her son, Edward of Westminster, returned from exile. Though disconsolate at Warwick’s demise, she wasted little time in raising a new Lancastrian army for another showdown, fought at Tewkesbury three weeks later.
Edward struck first, unleashing what one anonymous contemporary chronicler described as a “right-a-sharp shower” – an iron hail spewed by archers, handgunners and cannon pilfered at Barnet. The Duke of Somerset responded by leading his battle, on the Lancastrian right, not straight at the Yorkists but through a maze of hedges and lanes to flank their position. Edward had anticipated this, sequestering some 200 cavalry in nearby woodlands, and as the Yorkist left engaged Somerset they came thundering into the fray. Beset from two sides, and still without support from the rest of the Lancastrian host, Somerset’s men were gradually cut to pieces.
When Somerset made it back to the Lancastrian line and found the centre battle standing idle, he flew into a fury, branding its commander Lord Wenlock a traitor and caving in his skull with an axe. The Yorkists came in hot pursuit, the Lancastrians broke, and the killing began in earnest.
This would be the last serious challenge to Edward IV’s reign. Around 2,000 Lancastrians perished, among them Edward of Westminster. Henry VI was placed in the Tower of London, and died in mysterious circumstances shortly after, while Margaret of Anjou – captured a few days later – would eventually be ransomed to live out the rest of her days in France. Somerset attempted to seek refuge in nearby Tewkesbury Abbey, but was dragged out and summarily executed two days later. The house of York appeared to be unassailable.
What happened after Tewkesbury? Discover how Richard III came to the throne after the untimely demise of the Edward IV, the tragic mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and how the Tudors came to power at the battle of Bosworth...
This content first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed