Edward reached the Marches in time for the seasonal festivities, and spent Christmas at Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury was the traditional mustering point for English armies that were about to campaign in Wales, and we may assume that Edward was expected to bring order to the principality. Edward’s intended opponents – if they would stand against him – would have been retainers and allies of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, King Henry’s half-brother. During the late 1450s Pembroke, helped by his personal connections to the Lancastrian court, had become immensely powerful throughout Wales. He had consolidated his position during the Yorkists’ exile, and, although he now had fled to Brittany, his influence endured. One of Edward’s main aims would have been to take the northern Welsh fortresses of Harlech and Denbigh. These castles, along with the Tudor strongholds of Pembroke and Tenby in the south, were now crucial to Lancastrian communications and provided a possible gateway for invasion forces. Like Henry V before him, it appears to have been envisaged that Edward should gain his first experience of leading an army in Wales; it was now conceivable, of course, that Edward would shortly become Wales’s prince.
Edward was accompanied from London by a number of lords and gentry, such as Lords Audley and FitzWalter and Humphrey Stafford. If they were not with him already, he was shortly to be joined by Lord Grey of Wilton and Sir Walter Devereux, among others. The ‘odious’ Croft brothers also joined Edward; presumably they now treated him with more respect! But the most significant of his supporters was surely Sir William Herbert of Raglan, who was accompanied by his younger brother Richard. As we have seen, Herbert had declined to support the Duke of York during the Ludford Bridge campaign, but he was now firmly committed to the Yorkist cause. Moreover, Herbert was a veteran – he had served in France with the formidable Matthew Gough – and evidently the support he offered Edward at this time was vital. Herbert was an able, ambitious, and thoroughly ruthless man, and he was to become a pillar of the Yorkist regime. Important military and administrative tasks would be delegated to his charge, and Edward’s patronage would allow him to become the most powerful man in Wales.
Edward was accompanied by the nucleus of an effective and cohesive force, but recruitment in the Marches allowed him quickly to increase his numbers. Most of the men who joined him came from Herefordshire. Edward might have known many of them from his time at Ludlow. Crucially, Edward was able to call on the services of seasoned warriors, many of whom had seen service in France. William Worcester recorded the presence of several veterans in Edward’s army during this campaign. They included, for example, Henry ap Griffith, John Mylewater and Philip Vaughan of Hay. Worcester also gives the names of sons who were following in their fathers’ traditions, such as James Ash, whose father Hopkin, ‘a handsome man’, was ‘of war’. At this early stage in the Wars of the Roses there must also have been many unnamed veterans of lower status who would have answered Edward’s call; some of the unfortunate men from the mass grave at Towton appear to have been experienced soldiers. One of these, whose remains were recorded as ‘Towton 16’, has excited particular comment. He was a tall and robust man, probably in his late forties. Abnormal developments in the elbow are consistent with sustained practice of archery. At some stage in his career he had sustained a horrific blade wound to his jaw that would have left him permanently disfigured. But the wound was well healed: testimony to the skills of a medieval surgeon. Based in the Welsh Marches, Edward would have been able to recruit skilled bowmen like Towton 16, and the experience of veteran archers would have been extremely valuable. Strength and a good eye could perhaps be taken for granted, but these men would also have understood how bowmen should be deployed on the battlefield. Command was invariably held by aristocrats, but experience was always highly valued.
Edward must have looked forward to the coming campaign with confidence, but early in the New Year a messenger brought him shattering news. Although Margaret of Anjou was currently in Scotland, northern Lancastrian supporters – notably the Earl of Northumberland – had quickly raised an army. They were reinforced by the Duke of Somerset, who had now returned to England, and the Duke of Exeter, who had led their retinues on a lightning march from the West Country. On 30 December, at Wakefield in Yorkshire, Edward’s father had engaged the Lancastrian forces and been utterly defeated. York himself had been killed on the field. Edward’s brother, Edmund, with whom he had spent his boyhood and to whom he seems to have been close, had also been slain. Warwick’s brother, Thomas, was another fatality. Edward’s uncle, the Earl of Salisbury, had been captured and executed after the battle. The heads of the fallen were displayed on the gates of York at Micklegate Bar; the head of the duke himself was mockingly adorned with a paper crown. The Wars of the Roses would now enter an especially vicious phase: prisoners could rarely expect mercy and the mutilation of the dead would become commonplace.
Edward made a rapid and instinctive response to the disaster at Wakefield. Edward was moving into England – although to what immediate purpose is unclear – but he then received news of a Lancastrian landing in Pembrokeshire, in West Wales. The Earl of Pembroke had returned, and he was joined by the Earl of Wiltshire. According to the Short English Chronicle, the two earls arrived by sea with ‘Frenchmen and Bretons, and Irishmen’. We may assume that Pembroke brought the Bretons and Frenchmen. Wiltshire, who had briefly fled to exile in Flanders, had returned via Ireland, where he held extensive estates as Earl of Ormond. Wiltshire’s contingent would therefore have included Irish gallowglass (from the Irish plural galloglaigh or ‘foreign soldiers’) – heavily armed professional soldiers – and less well-equipped light infantry or kerns. It is not clear when the Lancastrians landed or when Edward received warning, but we can assume that news of the Lancastrians’ movements was brought to Edward by the Yorkist retainer, John Dwnn. Based at Kidwelly, the Dwnns were well placed to track and monitor Lancastrian movements, much to Pembroke’s chagrin. If the news did come from the Dwnns, evidently the intelligence they brought to Edward was crucial: Pembroke was later to attribute his defeat to the actions of ‘March, Herbert and the Dwnns’.
Presumably the Dwnns encountered messengers from Pembroke who were seeking support. Pembroke and Wiltshire quickly began to raise troops from the surrounding area. Chief among the men who answered Pembroke’s call were the Scudamore brothers, Sir John and Sir William, who, like many of those in Edward’s army, had experience of war in France. Sir John, described by Worcester as ‘the most valiant’ of the family, is said to have brought thirty men, some of whom may also have been veterans. Why men chose one side over the other, was, as ever, often determined by local factors: Ralph Griffiths has suggested this campaign was greatly concerned with ‘the waging of old feuds and the settling of old scores’. The last decade had seen much conflict between Welshmen who could now be regarded as ‘Yorkist’ or ‘Lancastrian’, but some of these enmities had deeper roots. How significant was it, for example, that the Scudamores were grandsons of Owain Glyndwr, whereas the Herberts were grandsons of his enemy Dafydd ap Llewelyn? Of course family honour mattered in England too – the significance of ‘feudlike’ behaviour may have been underestimated – but in Wales kinship links were always crucial. Family histories – and family hatreds – were kept alive by the bards, which meant that minor squabbles could receive an epic treatment that transcended their often petty origins.
Edward and his advisors cannot have predicted Pembroke’s movements with certainty. Ultimately, of course, Pembroke would have aimed to join the main Lancastrian force, but several options remained open to him. If Edward was aware the Lancastrians were making for Llandovery (which they did) – a move into mid Wales – this could have suggested a further destination in the English Midlands: perhaps Pembroke was intending to make for Coventry, which would undoubtedly have opened its gates to a Lancastrian army at this time. There, the Lancastrians would have been able to rest securely, before joining Margaret’s army for a final push towards London. But there was another plausible route, with disturbing implications for the Yorkists near Shrewsbury. Although Pembroke’s ‘country’ was in the south, he was also influential in the north, where his supporters still held the important castle of Denbigh, as we have seen. Pembroke could have planned to join with Lancastrian sympathisers in north Wales and the north-west of England, before then joining Margaret (like everyone he must have been surprised by the speed of events in Yorkshire). With harsh winter conditions precluding a journey through the mountainous heart of Wales, the best way would have been to move east and then north, following the Severn valley. This would have meant that the Mortimers’ heartland – Ludlow and the surrounding area –would lie in the Lancastrians’ path.
Throughout the Wars of the Roses Lancastrian armies gained a reputation for cruelty and violence that was carried out away from the field of battle; this must have affected Edward’s thinking. The previous year, following the Yorkist leaders’ flight at the Rout of Ludford, the Lancastrian army had moved on to Ludlow and sacked the town:
When they had drunken enough of wine that was in taverns and other places, they full ungodly smote out the heads of the pipes and hog’s heads of wine, [so] that men went wet-shod in wine, and then they robbed the town, and bore away bedding, clothes and other stuff, and defouled many women.
The presence of foreign troops in the Lancastrian army would have heightened fears of ill discipline. Indeed, the Kern had gained a reputation for terror throughout Europe. In the Hundred Years’ War kerns are said to have returned from raids with heads, and even dead babies, as trophies. The later invasion of England by the Earl of Lincoln, in 1487, shows the Irish were quite capable of discipline, but on this occasion enmities between local men could have ensured that the Lancastrian leaders would fail to keep the Irish troops in check. Potentially, therefore, Edward faced two serious problems, if he was to continue his advance into England. First, he risked being trapped between enemy armies. Second, he would be asking men to follow him in the knowledge that their homes and families could be at risk.
Pembroke’s army had therefore to be confronted for reasons of both strategy and morale. It made sense to meet them in the area of Mortimer’s Cross, a crossroads to the south of Ludlow, where he could intercept the Lancastrians wherever they were headed. Many of his men could be dispersed back to their homes, but they could easily be called upon when needed. Furthermore, Edward would be able to fight on ground he knew well, where he might even have hunted as a youth. Doubtless he retired to Ludlow, or perhaps to Wigmore, in order to wait in comfort for his prey.
On 2 February, the eve of battle, Edward would have risen in the knowledge that his enemies were close at hand. Probably Edward was now at Wigmore or Croft Castle. He would have expected to spend the day making preparations, waiting for the reports of scouts. But his plans were interrupted by an extraordinary event. Let the author of the English Chronicle take up the story:
And the Monday before the day of battle, that is to say on the feast of the Purification of Our Blessed Lady, about ten o’ clock before noon, were seen three suns in the firmament shining clear, whereof the people had great marvel, and thereof were aghast. The noble Earl Edward them comforted, and said ‘Be of good comfort, and dreadeth not; this is a good sign, for these three suns betoken the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have a good heart, and in the name of Almighty God, go we against our enemies.’
The phenomenon described by the chronicler has been explained by modern science. The additional two ‘suns’ are called parhelia or sun dogs: they come into being, on cold days, when the sun is low in the sky. Light is refracted through ice crystals, creating the illusion of three suns. Parhelia are beautiful and they may still provoke wonder, but in a modern person they would not cause the sense of terror recounted in the chronicle. The medieval understanding of such events therefore needs to be explained. It is easy to poke fun at medieval people’s ignorance of the natural world, but educated people did provide rational explanations for the cause and effect of natural wonders. In short, they were seen as examples of divine providence, evidence of God’s presence in the world. They were regarded as signs of God’s favour and of impending change. The great Roger Bacon, for instance, considered parhelia to be signs of particular significance.
The Illustrated Life of Edward IV presents Edward, at the moment the parhelia appear, appealing to God for guidance, just like Paul at Damascus: ‘Lord, what will you have me do?’ Coppini had described Edward as ‘prudent and magnanimous’, but we should remember that Edward was still only eighteen years old. The loss of his father and brother must have shaken him to the core. For Edward, then, this was a moment of great personal significance. He afterwards adopted the ‘rose-en-soleil’ as his badge, and he would use this as a personal emblem for the rest of his life. However, the passage quoted above also provides evidence of Edward’s precocious abilities as a leader. Medieval battles were chaotic and confusing. Tactics were important, as was military training, but willpower and motivation became increasingly important as the battle progressed. Although he would be able to inspire those around him by ‘feats of arms’, if the commander was to be in the thick of the action it was therefore crucial for him to communicate a clear sense of motivation before battle was joined. This is not controversial, but how could this be achieved? Evidently it required a commander to convey a message that would appeal to contemporary mores.46 On this occasion Edward convincingly presented the parhelia as a sign from God that his cause was good and just. On the day of the battle, he and his men would fight as one.
From Llandovery the Lancastrians moved on to Brecon, and from there they followed the north bank of the Wye, via Hay and Weobley (the alternative route, which would have brought them directly to Mortimer’s Cross, via the 1,250-foot pass at Forest Inn, must have seemed forbidding in the depths of winter). This meant, assuming that Edward was based somewhere near Wigmore, that the road to Hereford, and thence to England, was still open. It might have been tempting to evade the Yorkists and to push on. But Pembroke must have been aware that the Yorkists were familiar with the local area and they were fresh. Pembroke would have been concerned that the Yorkists could fall on them at any time. He therefore decided to engage the Yorkists, even though he must have known his polyglot force did not hold any significant advantages. On the morning of 3 February the Lancastrians approached Mortimer’s Cross from the south, in the certain knowledge that they would meet the Yorkists on the way.
Almost certainly the Yorkists had the choice of ground, and they would have wanted to find a position that would allow them to make use of their advantage in archers. Local historian Geoffrey Hodges has identified a plausible site that would have suited them well. This is just to the south of the crossroads itself, and Hodges’ case is supported by place-name evidence. Here, Edward’s army would have been able to take up a position with well protected flanks. The River Lugg would have been to their left, and to the right there is a bank with steep wooded slopes. Yorkist archers would certainly have been deployed on the flanks, although perhaps also, initially, to the front. In truth we know little for certain about either side’s dispositions, although Edward himself would have taken position in the centre, under his personal standard. This was Edward’s first experience of overall command, but he had now seen battle at first hand on more than one occasion; at Northampton he had taken a leading role. He knew what he was about to see, and what was expected of him. Edward also took the field in the knowledge that he was surrounded by men he had known since childhood, and this must have been a great comfort. There would have been comfort, too, in the fact that his men seemed in good heart. Even if he still nursed doubts and fears behind the mask of command, he had successfully used the omen of the parhelia to inspire his men and to stiffen their resolve. Perhaps the Croft brothers, watching this young giant leading his troops with confidence onto the field, thought wryly of the times they had bullied him at Ludlow.