Detail from Graham Turner‘s Battle of st Albans.Fought on the 22nd May 1455, this was the first battle of what would become known as the Wars of the Roses.
Kingmaker, Earl of Warwick, still only thirty-three, had not waited for his young ally before leaving London. With the queen far in the north, he mustered the men of Kent to add to his own men and the Burgundian mercenaries he had acquired. Many of the Burgundians arrived carrying early handguns that fired lead shot, something never before seen in England. The earl reached St Albans when shocking news arrived of just how close the army from the north now was. There was little choice but to set up around St Albans and prepare the town for its second dose of war. Warwick’s thirty-year-old brother John was with him and they set up wooden palisades to protect the town and laid caltrops, nets dotted with spikes designed to break up cavalry charges by injuring the horses.
Tension north of London must have reached melting point. The queen’s army had descended south, with Scotsmen in tow who had been promised their pay in whatever they could pillage as they passed. Warwick was moving north to meet them. Both sides had scores to settle and folks in every part must have feared for their property and their lives. Gregory’s Chronicle tells of a butcher who led a band of men in the king’s name to a fight at Dunstable, where they encountered a detachment of the Scots, perhaps seeking out their booty. The butcher led the ragtag band of raw recruits onto the field but they were slaughtered, 800 men perishing due to the ‘simple guidance’ of the butcher. Gregory laments that soon after the fighting, either for shame at his dismal performance or for the loss of all of his goods to the Scots, the butcher hanged himself.
The tide seemed to turn in Warwick’s favour as the queen’s army approached St Albans the day after the butcher’s failure at Dunstable. By then, 17 February 1461, many of the Scots had fled, either growing concerned by the distance between them and their homes or else already so heavily laden with their pay that they saw no further need to fight. Gregory estimates that less than 5,000 men remained in the queen’s force. That was still an impressive number. Campaigning in the winter was all but unheard of and it was almost two months into this round of brutal exchanging of blows. All of her army wore the livery of her son the Prince of Wales, bands of black and crimson with an ostrich feather badge. It was clear that she was calling men to her in the name of the dispossessed heir of the House of Lancaster rather than his father.
Andrew Trollope was to play a prominent role in the coming fighting once more. Having left the Yorkist cause at Ludlow and possibly contributed to tricking the Duke of York out of Sandal Castle at Wakefield, he led a lightning strike into the town of St Albans, catching those within the city unawares and driving them away. This allowed him to catch John Neville’s large force, set up outside the town, in a pincer movement with the rest of the queen’s army. Around 2,500 men died in the intense fighting. In an early blow, a large contingent of Kentish men took up their weapons and walked away from the field. Their leader, a man named Lovelace, had been captured at Wakefield but released upon giving his oath never to take up arms against the queen and her prince again. He and his men deserted Warwick to maintain his honour.
Either in the sudden confusion or because of the cold, damp weather, Warwick’s expensive artillery failed. Gregory recounts that there were not only the new fangled handguns, firing either lead shot or unusual double-flighted arrows, but also wildfire, the weapon of terror deployed against London by Lord Scales. All failed to be deployed, some backfiring in the hurry to react, guns blowing up in the faces of their operators and wildfire turning viciously back upon those who would use it. Although Warwick probably had far superior numbers the tactics of the queen’s army maximised the advantages of the tight streets of the town and the element of surprise.
Warwick and the other lords fled. King Henry had sat beneath a tree as the battle had raged, singing and laughing, completely oblivious to the carnage about him and the stakes involved in the fighting. Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriell stayed behind to protect the king when all others fled, passing up their own opportunity to make good their escape. Henry assured them that they would not be harmed while they were with him for the protection and loyalty they showed. Margaret had the men seized and with the encouragement of the Duke of Exeter and the Earl of Devonshire placed them on trial for treason the next day. Their judge and jury was the seven-year-old Prince Edward, who duly pronounced a sentence of death upon the two men for their crimes. William Bonville was nearly seventy years of age and Kyriell was only a few years younger. Both must have been bewildered at the sentence passed by a little boy, doubtless at the instigation of his mother and two lords with land interests in Bonville’s homeland in the West Country. Once more, land disputes played a pivotal role in the vicious feuding below the surface of the Wars of the Roses. Bonville had turned to the Yorkist cause at Northampton and may have been responsible for guarding Henry there after his capture, giving Margaret a thin motive for revenge too.
King Henry was reunited with his wife and son. On the battlefield, Henry knighted his young son and then watched on as the boy knighted several others in turn. The first was Andrew Trollope, stalwart of the king, queen and prince’s cause. Trollope had been wounded trying to cross the net of caltrops. With his foot painfully pierced he had not been able to move any further. Gregory reports that Trollope, with a modesty that was probably false, knelt before Prince Edward and told him ‘My lord, I have not deserved it for I slew but fifteen men, for I stood still in one place and they came unto me’. Sir Andrew’s star was in the ascendant. His service had turned the tide of the struggles more than once in favour of Queen Margaret’s party and his rewards were coming.
No party appeared capable of the act of clemency or kindness that might soothe the worst of the fighting. Too many now had personal vendettas to follow, land and money to gain from seeing rivals destroyed and their own fortunes too closely aligned with one party or the other to give an inch. There was no mercy in England now. There was one odd exception to this rule. Warwick’s brother John was captured for a second time, yet just as he had after Blore Heath he escaped punishment once more to be inexplicably released. In light of the fates of Bonville and Kyriell, the leniency shown to John Neville, who had led the vanguard of Warwick’s army in the fields outside St Albans, defies belief.
The queen’s unexpected victory against the previously undefeatable Earl of Warwick, who headed west to meet his cousin Edward, sent London into panic. The city was terrified that Margaret, who had no love for the capital, would exact a cruel price for the city’s support of Warwick. She had promised the remaining Scots soldiers payment in loot and London was the main prize. The city officials fell into a frenzy. Margaret sent the Duchess of Buckingham, the widow of the old duke, to negotiate and promise that no harm would come to the city, its inhabitants or their property. Dubiously, the mayor and aldermen wrote to the queen assuring her of their loyalty and good will. When soldiers were seen approaching the gates shortly after, possibly led by the Duke of Somerset, the citizens attacked them, killing many and driving the rest away. The mayor and aldermen panicked even more, gathering food and money in carts to send to supply the queen’s army in the hopes of appeasing her. When the citizenry learned of the plan they seized the keys to the gates, locked them tight and divided the carts of provisions among themselves.
In an uncharacteristic act of acquiescence Margaret decided to take her army back northwards. Fear of the Scots would never work for her and those that had already left were pillaging their way back home, taking property, money and even the beasts that worked men’s lands, leaving them with nothing. Her heartlands were north too, in the Midlands, and maintaining a siege of London with a dwindling, cold, tired army who just wanted their home and hearth was hardly practical.