Battle of Mortimer’s Cross
If the Yorkists adopted ‘traditional’ English tactics, relying heavily on their archers, then the onus was on the Lancastrians to attack. According to the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton, whose work may preserve earlier oral traditions, Wiltshire and his Irishmen formed the Lancastrians’ van. Wiltshire and his personal retinue would have been ‘harnessed’ and armed in the same manner as their peers. The gallowglass, although they must have looked archaic to English eyes, with two-handed axes and conical helmets, would also have been heavily armoured. However, the Irish light infantry would have been less well equipped. Few, if any, would have worn armour. Although some would have been armed with broadswords, others might have carried only ‘darts’ (javelins) and skeins. Of course, Drayton cannot be regarded as a reliable guide to events, but his poem, which suggests the Irish fought with great courage, does evoke their experience at Stoke which is better documented:
The Earl of Ormond […] came in the vanguard with his Irishmen,
With darts and skains [skeins]; those of the British blood,
With shafts and gleaves [glaives], them seconding again,
And as they fall still make their places good,
That it amazed the Marchers to behold
Men so ill-armed, upon their bows so bold.
Yet if the Irish showed immense bravery under fire, their leader could not match their courage. His father had been a noted war captain in France, serving under both Bedford and Talbot, but the Earl of Wiltshire gained a reputation for cowardice. Discussing the first Battle of St Albans ‘Gregory’ disparagingly refers to him fighting ‘manly with the heels, because he was afraid of losing [his] beauty’, Wiltshire did not redeem himself at Mortimer’s Cross. He fled once again, leaving his men to their fate.
An ‘arrow storm’ would have taken a terrible toll on the Lancastrians, but even on occasions when English archery was at its most deadly – for example at Agincourt or Halidon Hill – the two armies invariably came ‘to hands’. We must assume that the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross eventually ended in a mêlee, with the soldiers on both sides – including the archers –fighting with hand weapons. Edward himself, perhaps wielding the poleaxe that would have allowed him to make use of his great height and strength, would have been a conspicuous target. He would therefore have been in the thick of the action. He would have been surrounded by picked men, determined to protect their lord and his banner, but they could not have sheltered him from every danger. Did Edward know the relief – then exhilaration – that followed when he survived death by a hair’s breadth?
It was, of course, during the chaos of the mêlee that morale, as well as skills and numbers, would be crucial. In this, as in every other aspect, the Yorkists held the advantage. Eventually, the Lancastrian line must have wavered; then it would have broken as men fled in all directions, discarding weapons and equipment as they ran. Probably the Yorkist lords took to horse in order to pursue their fleeing enemies. Some did escape, most notably Pembroke, whose elusive qualities were more generously regarded than Wiltshire’s. However, a number of the Lancastrian leaders seem to have made a desperate last stand, before they were forced to surrender. The prisoners included Henry Scudamore (Sir John’s son) and Pembroke’s famous father, Owen Tudor. According to the English Chronicle, 4,000 of the Lancastrians lay dead. The field belonged to the Yorkists.
Edward’s victory was almost complete, but not quite. Surely Edward had Wakefield in mind when he now resolved how to deal with his prisoners. Perhaps the Lancastrian prisoners still expected to be treated according to the laws of chivalric combat, but Edward would show no mercy. After the Yorkist army had rested – possibly Edward retired to Wigmore for the evening – the most notable of the prisoners, including Owen Tudor, were taken to Hereford, where they were to be beheaded. The old Welshman was evidently shocked at his treatment, but eventually resolved to meet his death with stoicism. This was a quality the chronicler ‘Gregory’ particularly admired. Tudor was
trusting always that he should not be headed [sic]till he saw the axe and the block; and [even] when he was in his doublet, he trusted on pardon and grace till the collar of his red doublet was ripped off. [But] then he said ‘That head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Katherine’s lap,’ and put his heart and mind wholly unto God and full meekly took his death.
For Owen Tudor, who had married a queen while still a mere squire, fortune’s wheel had turned full circle. The Yorkists’ left Tudor’s head in Hereford, ‘on the highest grice [step] of the market cross’, as a grim symbol of their victory.
Edward remained in the area for over two weeks, and his actions at this time have led to some debate. The main Lancastrian army was now moving south at a furious pace. Why did Edward not hurry to support Warwick? Evans has argued that Edward was expecting, and perhaps even hoping, that Warwick would be defeated. However, this is implausible. Evans’s argument is based on the assumption that Warwick had been opposed in principle to Henry Vl’s deposition, but, as we have seen, this is doubtful. It is more likely that Edward decided to wait on events and was expecting to receive news, and instructions, from Warwick. On 12 February Warwick despatched a commission of array to Edward, which empowered him to raise more troops, but there is no indication that Warwick exhorted Edward to come to his aid at once.
Possibly Warwick had underestimated the speed of the Lancastrian advance. The Lancastrian army, now joined by Queen Margaret herself, had swept south, leaving a trail of plundered towns in its wake. Warwick, perhaps responding to the fears of terrified Londoners, moved northwards to St Albans in order to bar the Lancastrians’ way. Here, on 17 February, Warwick’s army met the Lancastrians, but was heavily defeated. The Lancastrians regained custody of King Henry. Warwick’s younger brother, John, recently created Lord Montagu, was captured. The earl himself was forced to flee. In Wavrin’s account and the English Chronicle, which may preserve Warwick’s own justifications, the Yorkist defeat is attributed to the treachery of an obscure Kentish esquire called Lovelace. However, the author of ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’, who appears to have been present at the battle in some capacity, implies Warwick’s own preparations were to blame, and that he was comprehensively out-manoeuvred by the Lancastrians. Warwick may have been let down by his scouts, but it can also be argued that his cautious, defensive tactics played into the hands of the Lancastrian commanders, whose own tactics relied, as they did at Wakefield, on speed, aggression and surprise. It is strange, however, that the Lancastrians did not take immediate advantage of their victory and failed to march on London. Instead, Margaret sought to negotiate entry with the City Fathers, who stalled by sending a delegation of noble ladies. This delay would have far-reaching consequences, as the historian Charles Ross makes clear: ‘control of the capital, with its departments of state, its financial power, and its symbolic prestige, was again denied to the Queen’s party’. Margaret’s loss was to be Edward’s gain.
Edward could have known of Warwick’s defeat by 19 February. Now, at last, he moved with decision. Warwick would have taken pains to reassure Edward that all was not lost but Edward’s new sense of purpose was surely self-inspired. Edward no longer bowed to Warwick’s authority. The defeats suffered by his father and Warwick must have made Edward realise that his destiny lay in his own hands. His victory at Mortimer’s Cross – which appeared divinely ordained – would have given him new belief in his own powers. It is also striking that Edward retained the confidence of his men, even after Warwick’s defeat had made their prospects uncertain. Edward met Warwick, who had managed to extricate at least some of his army from the disaster at St Albans, in the Cotswolds. From here, the Yorkists now moved at speed: not to engage Margaret, but to get to London. Edward and Warwick were approaching London by 26 February. By now the Lancastrians had grown impatient and there had been minor skirmishes in the outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, because there was still no indication that the Lancastrians were preparing a serious assault, this only served to harden opinion against Margaret’s forces. London opened its gates to the Yorkist army. On hearing this news, the Lancastrians withdrew north.
In London, the Yorkist lords quickly came to a momentous decision. If there had been any genuine doubts whether Henry could legitimately be deposed, these were now set aside. It was argued that Henry, by choosing to rejoin his wife, had broken his oath. As Margaret’s army was responsible for York’s death it therefore followed that Henry had breached the Act of Accord. Edward, now heir under the terms of the agreement, was, of course, next in line to the throne. Edward’s own claim to the throne was explained during his first Parliament, in November 1461, and presumably the same arguments were put forward at this time. Edward’s legitimate descent from Lionel of Clarence was stressed, and it was argued that Henry – deemed a usurper, like all the Lancastrian kings –had presided over chaos. Henry’s deposition would be to the ‘universal comfort and consolation’ of all Englishmen, because it would allow Edward, their ‘rightwise and natural liege and sovereign lord’, to take the throne in his stead.
But it was important, of course, to ensure that protocol was seen to be observed, and to convey that Edward’s accession had popular support. To this end, there were a number of carefully orchestrated ceremonies, starting on 1 March. First, George Neville (now Bishop of Exeter) addressed a crowd – allegedly 3,000–4,000 strong – at St George’s Fields. When the crowd (perhaps with some prompting) called for Edward to be king, their ‘captains’ took this news to Edward at Baynard’s Castle, the York family’s London residence. On the next day Edward’s title was formally proclaimed throughout the city. The following day (3 March) a ‘great council’, including the Nevilles, John Duke of Norfolk, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Herbert, Devereux, and ‘many others’ unnamed, was hastily convened to ‘agree and conclude’ that Edward should take the throne. On 4 March Edward heard Mass at St Paul’s, before proceeding to the Great Hall at Westminster Palace. Here, Edward took the oath, and wore the robes of state for the first time. Taking his seat on the marble chair called the ‘King’s Bench’, he was acclaimed once again by those present and formally ‘took possession of the realm of England’.
Doubtless the Nevilles took a hand in the stage-management of these ceremonies, and Warwick has traditionally received the credit for Edward’s accession to the throne. Certainly, contemporary foreign observers did believe Warwick was fully in control of events, and they would continue to do so for many years to come. However, modern historians have been more sceptical of Warwick’s influence: did Edward really need a ‘kingmaker’? Of course, Edward’s Mortimer claim was not enough – his title ultimately depended on military power – but much of the army at his back was his own. These soldiers had followed him from the Marches, many of them at their own cost, and now they trusted to a bond forged in battle. Edward, not Warwick, had won the hard-fought victory that saved the Yorkist cause. People cannot have failed to compare Edward’s victory at Mortimer’s Cross to Warwick’s miserable failure at St Albans, even though the latter’s popularity with the commons appears to have remained intact.
However, the choice people had to make was not between Edward and Warwick, but between Edward and Henry VI. Edward’s good looks, noble bearing, and affable manner – and also his newly-proven military prowess – provided a sharp contrast to the monkish King Henry. Evidently the verses recorded for posterity in ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’ are propagandist, but they may genuinely reflect the dominant feeling of optimism in London at this time:
Let us walk in a new vineyard, and let us make a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March.
Yet Henry, for all his faults, had been the anointed king, and how could Edward’s throne be secure when the main Lancastrian army –including much of the English aristocracy – remained undefeated? At his inauguration Edward held the sceptre of state but he did not wear the crown. This conveyed a clear message: Edward would seek divine sanction for his claim in a colossal trial by combat. It was to be the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.