The battle of Barnet: why is there so little awareness?

The 1471 battle of Barnet was a decisive engagement in the Wars of the Roses, helping to secure the throne for Edward IV, who triumphed over his Lancastrian opponents. But how much do modern-day Barnet residents know about the clash? Julian Humphrys, development officer at the Battlefields Trust, visited Barnet to investigate…

This article was first published in 2011

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On 14 April 1471 Yorkist King Edward IV defeated and killed his former ally Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick north of London at the battle of Barnet. Known to history as ‘the Kingmaker’, the mighty Warwick had been instrumental in helping Edward seize power ten years earlier but, finding himself increasingly sidelined by his former protégé, had gone over to the Lancastrian side.

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Fought early on a very misty morning the ensuing battle quite literally embodied the ‘fog of war’. Warwick and his new Lancastrian allies enjoyed some initial success but seem to have mistaken friend for foe in the prevailing fog and their army dissolved amongst accusations of treachery.

According to one chronicler Warwick’s men had confused the star emblem worn by the followers of their ally John de Vere Earl of Oxford for the sun badge famously worn by the Yorkists and began shooting at them. This early example of ‘friendly fire’ proved disastrous for Warwick and both he and his brother were killed in the ensuing rout. Edward is reported to have returned to London where, in a piece of pure theatre, he strode into St Paul’s while a service was taking place and laid the dead earl’s banner on the altar.

When it comes to commemoration, I’ve always felt that compared with the other great battles of the Wars of the Roses Barnet is something of a poor relation. Towton, the great Yorkshire battle that established Edward IV on the throne, has a new trail and a major Palm Sunday event with walks and displays. Bosworth has a superb visitor centre, annual re-enactment and, thanks to the archaeological work carried out by a team from the Battlefields Trust, a newly-found site. Tewkesbury is perhaps most impressive of all. It commemorates Edward’s final victory over the Lancastrians with one of Europe’s largest medieval festivals while throughout the summer its streets are bedecked with banners bearing the arms of the combatants.

Barnet, on the other hand, seems to be rather more low-key. As yesterday was its 540th anniversary I made an early morning trip there to carry out my own personal commemoration of the battle and also to see if local people were aware that it was the anniversary of such a momentous historical event.

The battle certainly has an impressive monument, an 18th century obelisk on the green at Hadley with the words ‘Here was fought the famous battle between Edward the 4th and the Earl of Warwick April the 14th Anno 1471 in which the earl was defeated and slain’.

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18th-century memorial of the battle of Barnet. © Julian Humphrys

As Barnet began to open for business I popped into a few nearby shops and asked passers-by if they knew it was the anniversary of the battle. Nobody did. The man from Parcel Force said he’d never heard of the battle but was pleased to discover what the obelisk was for as he drove past it every day. The Hadley Green barber was equally in the dark. A lady walking her dog had heard of the battle but was unaware that it was its anniversary. The Wars of the Roses were a complete mystery to the waitress in Reni’s bistro, but then again, she had recently arrived from Poland.

The de Vere Letting Bureau looked promising, given its name, but as it wasn’t open I headed down Barnet High Street and stopped off for a ridiculously cheap cup of tea in George’s café. The clientele were busy discussing Midsummer Sun’s third place in the 5.20 at Newmarket (Midsummer Sun, now there’s a good Yorkist name, I couldn’t help thinking that Edward IV would have had a couple of bob on it had he been around) but when I asked if they’d heard of Barnet they put down their Daily Mirrors and Racing Posts and one of them, a veteran window cleaner called Pat, gave a succinct and very accurate account of what was known about the battle. There was time for a quick chat about Barnet, its history and personalities before I left for a longer walk round Barnet and a two-hour hunt for my phone, which I’d managed to drop into a hedge earlier that morning.

I never did find anyone who knew it was the anniversary of Barnet but everyone I spoke to, whether they’d heard of the battle or not, seemed genuinely interested in the fact that it had taken place on their doorsteps and keen to know more.

In fact there’s a lot more we’d all like to know for, if the battle confused its participants, it continues to confuse historians and the precise dispositions of the two armies remains a matter of research and debate. As a result the Battlefields Trust have recently launched a project to raise awareness of the battle and, ultimately, to pinpoint exactly where the fighting took place. A lot of research, planning and fundraising needs to happen before any archaeological work can even be considered but there’s already been a great deal of local interest and the future of the project looks bright.

As Frank Baldwin, Chairman of the Battlefields Trust told me, ‘Barnet is a great story at many levels and its plot is pure Hollywood with gallant princes, damsels in distress, wicked uncles and a whiff of treachery. What’s more, it’s a medieval battlefield you can actually visit by tube!’

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Julian Humphrys is development officer at the Battlefields Trust. You can follow him on Twitter @GeneralJules.