In London urgent plans were made to meet the growing menace. York and Salisbury and the young Edmund of Rutland set out on 9 December for the north. Warwick and the duke of Norfolk remained behind in London. The earl of March now received his first independent command and was despatched to the Welsh Marches, probably with the dual task of curbing the activities of the Welsh Lancastrians under Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, and raising troops in the areas of York family influence. He was given 650 marks for his expenses. Fifteenth-century political crises were commonly decided by battles fought in the more distant parts of the realm, especially in the north and the Welsh border regions. The year 1460–61 proved no exception. In the north, Duke Richard made his final miscalculation. On 30 December 1460 he emerged from the safety of his castle at Sandal near Wakefield with an army weakened by the absence of foraging patrols, to give battle to a much larger Lancastrian force, commanded by the sons of his former enemies, Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford. In the ensuing rout York and Rutland, Salisbury’s younger son, Thomas Nevill, and several of their leading supporters were killed. Salisbury was executed shortly after the battle. The severed heads of York and Salisbury were impaled on the gates of York, Duke Richard’s adorned with a paper crown in macabre comment on his failed pretensions to the throne.
The disaster at Wakefield was a severe blow to the Yorkist cause. The way was now open for the queen’s army to march south on London. Her troops were given licence to sack and pillage along their route, and towns belonging to the duke of York, such as Grantham and Stamford, suffered severely. Such lawlessness was a grave political blunder, for the threat to property and fear of ‘the malice of the Northernmen’ stiffened support in the south for the rival cause. Yorkist propaganda was quick to take advantage: as one contemporary ballad, ‘The Rose of Rouen’, in praise of Edward, earl of March, expressed it:
All the lords of the north they wrought by one assent
For to destroy the south country they did all their entent
Had not the Rose of Rouen been, all England had been shent.
Whilst Warwick prepared to resist the queen’s advance, Edward had spent Christmas at Gloucester. Early in the New Year the bad news from the north reached him, and he prepared to set out for London with the troops he had raised in the Welsh Marches. With him were many former servants and retainers of his father, men such as Sir Walter Devereux, one of Duke Richard’s councillors, and steward of many of his Welsh lordships since 1452; Devereux’s son-in-law, Sir William Herbert of Raglan, who had been the duke’s steward of Caerleon and Usk as well as Warwick’s sheriff of Glamorgan, and his brother, Sir Richard Herbert, and estates officials like John Milewater. There were also the young John Tuchet, Lord Audley, who had deserted to the earls at Calais in spite of his father’s death at their hands at Blore Heath, Reginald, Lord Grey of Wilton in Herefordshire, another new baronial recruit to their cause, and Humphrey Stafford of Southwick, the future Yorkist earl of Devon. Many of these men were to have distinguished and successful careers under Edward IV in the 1460s. But news from Wales caused Edward instead to turn north, to meet the challenge of Jasper, earl of Pembroke, and James, earl of Wiltshire, who had recently returned from the Continent with a force of French, Bretons and Irish, and, with their Welsh supporters, mainly from Pembroke and Carmarthen, were now marching on Hereford. On 2 or 3 February 1461 the armies clashed at Mortimer’s Cross, a few miles from Edward’s stronghold of Wigmore Castle, and there he won his first and signal victory. Pembroke and Wiltshire escaped, but many Welsh Lancastrians were killed in the battle, and several others, including Pembroke’s father, Owen Tudor, formerly the husband of Henry V’s queen, Catherine of Valois, were summarily executed in the market-place at Hereford. A meteorological phenomenon-three suns ‘in the firmament shining full clear’ – seen before the battle had been interpreted by Edward as a portent of victory, and is said to have provided the origin of one of his favourite badges, the ‘Golden Sun of York’.
Edward seems to have been in no hurry to come to the aid of the earl of Warwick, now threatened by the advance of the main Lancastrian army from the north. Not until about 19 February, when news reached him of Warwick’s heavy defeat in the bloody and hard-fought battle of St Albans (17 February), did he set out with a substantial force for London. Fortunately for his cause, the royalist victory proved less decisive militarily than it might have been. The Londoners’ reluctance to admit into the city an army so notorious for its destruction of property and the queen’s hesitation about forcing an entry together prevented her from taking control of the capital, and the news of Edward’s now rapid approach helped to stiffen the citizens’ resolve. Edward joined Warwick on about 22 February, either at Chipping Norton or Burford in the Cotswolds, and together they entered London on Thursday, 26 February. They were well received. Edward especially was seen as a youthful saviour; among the citizens the saying ran: ‘Let us walk in a new wine yard, and let us make a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March.’ Margaret turned north again. Control of the capital with its departments of state, its financial power, and its symbolic prestige, was again denied to the queen’s party.
Yet the second battle of St Albans, like Northampton, had important political consequences. As usual, Henry VI had been a passive spectator at the battle, and was recaptured by the queen’s forces. At once all legal authority was stripped from the regime which the Yorkists had maintained since July 1460. Without control of the person of Henry VI, they had no claim on the obedience of his subjects. They now needed their own king, and, more than anything else, this explains Edward’s assumption of the throne in March 1461. It has been generally assumed, especially by modern biographers of Richard Nevill, that Edward’s usurpation is the first example of ‘king making’ by his powerful cousin of Warwick.1 But this view, which reflects the opinions of some foreign observers (who were prone to exaggerate Warwick’s influence), does not allow sufficiently for Edward’s own role in the events of which he now becomes the central figure. The new duke of York, already calling himself ‘by the grace of God of England, France and Ireland vray [true] and just heir’ – as he was, under the Accord of 1460-had a mind and will of his own and a natural capacity for leadership. His victory at Mortimer’s Cross had won him personal prestige, and the larger part of the army which had followed him to London was comprised of Yorkist servants and retainers, who had come at their own expense. The consent and support of the Nevill clan was necessary for Edward to assume the throne, but we have no good reason to assume that the initiative came rather from Warwick than from the confident young Edward himself.
The essential basis of his title to the throne, like that of his father, lay in the concept of legitimate inheritance. As set forth in the form of a petition from the commons in his first parliament (November 1461), his claim emphasized that, because the Lancastrian kings had all been usurpers, by God’s law, man’s law and the law of nature, the right title lay in Edward, as heir of Lionel of Clarence, after the death of his father; and since that day he had been in lawful possession. Under the rule of the usurper Henry VI (it continued), ‘unrest, inward war and trouble, unrightwiseness, shedding and effusion of innocent blood, abusion of the laws, partiality, riot, extortion, murder, rape and vicious living have been the guiders and leaders of the noble realm of England’. Moreover, Henry had ‘long before’ 4 March 1461 breached the parliamentary Act of Accord of October 1460. For these reasons the usurper had been removed, and to the ‘universal comfort and consolation’ of all Englishmen, their ‘rightwise and natural liege and sovereign lord’ had resumed possession of his inheritance. It was important for the Yorkists that the process of king making should follow precedent as closely as possible, and the ceremonies following Edward’s entry into London were carefully stage-managed to that end. The first step was an address by the chancellor, Bishop George Nevill, to a gathering of some three or four thousand people in St George’s Fields on Sunday, 1 March. He set forth the articles of Edward’s title, and the populace then acclaimed him and expressed their wish to have him as king. Their ‘captains’ carried this news to Edward at Baynard’s Castle, the York family’s London house beside the Thames. Next day the articles of his title were formally proclaimed throughout London. On 3 March a hastily-assembled ‘great council’ met at Baynard’s Castle to ‘agree and conclude’ that Edward should be king of England. Those present included the archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Beauchamp, bishop of Salisbury, George Nevill, bishop of Exeter, John, duke of Norfolk, the earl of Warwick, William Herbert, Walter Devereux, and ‘many others’ unnamed.
On Wednesday, 4 March, after hearing Te Deum in St Paul’s, Edward made his way to the Palace of Westminster and into the great hall. There he took the oath, and, donning the robes of a king and the cap of estate, took his seat upon the marble chair called ‘the King’s Bench’, with sceptre in hand. Having personally expounded his title to the throne, he was formally acclaimed by the assembled company, and at this point ‘took possession of the realm of England’. His formal coronation was postponed until later.
How long Edward could continue to enjoy his new office now depended on his ability to crush the still formidable Lancastrian resistance, which even now had the backing of a majority amongst the English nobility. On 6 March 1461 he issued proclamations addressed to the sheriffs of thirty-three English counties-significantly, all but one were south of Trent-and to the authorities of London, Bristol, Coventry and certain other cities. These called upon all men to accept him as king. No man was to offer his adversaries help or comfort, nor to pass ‘over the water of Trent towards our said adversary’ without licence. In a second proclamation issued on the same day, he announced that any adherent of Henry VI who submitted within ten days should have ‘grace and pardon of his life and goods’, except for twenty-two men listed by name, and all others with an income of more than 100 marks a year (which would include all barons and the richer gentry). This probably represents an attempt to win popular support, by isolating the Lancastrian lords from the commonalty as in the orders given to the Yorkist troops at Northampton. A reward of £100 was offered to any man who put to death certain particular enemies of the House of York. These included Andrew Trollope, leader of the contingent from Calais which had deserted at Ludford; Sir Thomas Tresham, speaker of the Coventry Parliament of 1459; Thomas FitzHarry from Herefordshire, who had fought against Edward at Mortimer’s Cross; William Grimsby, formerly treasurer of Henry VI’s chamber, who had been at Wakefield; and the two ‘Bastards of Exeter’, offspring of the duke of Exeter, one of whom is said to have executed Salisbury after the battle of Wakefield.
The Yorkist leaders now dispersed to raise troops in areas where they had ‘the rule of the country’. Edward lingered a few days longer in London in an effort to raise funds. Once again the financial support of London proved vital to the regime. The Londoners had already lent the Yorkists £4,666 13s 4d since July 1460. In the first three days of Edward’s reign they were induced to advance a further £4,048. Individual merchants also made loans, and more was borrowed from religious houses, like Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate.
By such means funds were collected to pay the troops assembled by Yorkist captains like John Fogge and Robert Home, and recruits who flocked in from regions like East Anglia, generally favourable to the Yorkist cause. On 11 March 1461 William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg, left London with the footmen of the army, many from the Welsh Marches and from Kent. Two days later Edward himself set out for the north with the duke of Norfolk and the rest of the army, which included a contingent sent by Duke Philip of Burgundy under the banner of his protégé, the dauphin of France, the future Louis XI. Their advance northwards was deliberate, in order to allow time for contingents raised by captains like Sir John Howard in East Anglia and the earl of Warwick himself in the midlands to join the main army.
When Edward eventually reached Pontefract on 27 or 28 March, he commanded an exceptionally large force by the standards of the age. The Lancastrian forces are generally agreed to have been even larger. They contained an impressive array of noblemen, including two dukes, four earls, a viscount and eight barons, mainly from the north, in addition to various baronial cadets. There was also a huge array of knights and gentry from all over England: some sixty were afterwards attainted for their part in the battle, and of these twentyfive were of sufficient substance to have sat in parliament as members. By contrast, Edward’s army contained comparatively few men of note – the duke of Norfolk, the earl of Warwick and his brother, John Nevill, Lord Montagu, his uncle, Lord Fauconberg, John, Lord Scrope of Bolton, and John Radcliffe, styled Lord FitzWalter. Among the gentry were several who were to become his trusted servants, and whom he knighted after the battle, such as Walter Devereux, John Howard, Humphrey Stafford, Walter Blount and William Hastings. Medieval estimates of numbers are notoriously fallible and exaggerated, and most modern scholars have tended to discount the very high figures of combatants which the chroniclers supply. But, given the unparalleled number of notables present at the battle-they included some three-quarters of the surviving adult peerage-it is not at all unlikely that as many as 50,000 men were engaged.
The battle of Towton, on Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461, was fought in bitter Yorkshire weather and no less bitter spirit. It was the bloodiest battle of the entire civil war. On the previous day there had been a sharp clash between the Yorkist vanguard attempting to cross the River Aire at Ferrybridge and a Lancastrian force under Lord Clifford. Edward’s troops turned Clifford’s position by forcing a crossing at Castleford slightly upstream, and, in the ensuing fighting, FitzWalter was killed and Warwick slightly wounded. But the Lancastrian holdingforce was driven northwards and cut to pieces at Dingtingdale, two miles south of the main Lancastrian position. Lords Clifford and Nevill died in the action.
Early the next morning, with snow already threatening from the north-east, Edward’s troops advanced towards the enemy host who were drawn up on a ridge between the villages of Saxton and Towton, with the little River Cock on their right. This bold offensive (as at Barnet and Tewkesbury) is more characteristic of Edward’s generalship than the defensive tactics usually adopted by Warwick. The Yorkist vanguard under William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg, soon challenged the enemy. Taking advantage of the wind which blew the snow into their enemies’ faces, his archers opened fire. The Lancastrian archers, blinded by snow and out of range, wasted most of their arrows in a vain response. Stung by the Yorkist archery, the Lancastrian infantry charged down the hill, and bitter hand-to-hand fighting followed. For hours a furious and indecisive struggle raged, until, in the course of the afternoon, the duke of Norfolk’s contingent came up on the Yorkist right and began to turn the enemy left. Even then the stubborn Lancastrians did not give up, and the day was drawing to a close before their line eventually collapsed, and they fled the field. Many were drowned in the Cock river, many more cut down on the field, and others were killed by the Yorkist cavalry as they streamed north towards the little town of Tadcaster. The slaughter was immense. The earl of Northumberland, Lords Dacre of Gilsland and Welles, Andrew Trollope and Sir Henry Stafford, younger son of the late duke of Buckingham, were all killed in the field. According to Gregory’s Chronicle, forty-two knights were taken prisoner and put to death at the end of the day. A report on the battle amongst the Paston family papers states that the slain numbered 28,000, though this is likely to be exaggeration. The earl of Devon was taken and executed at York on the following day, and the earl of Wiltshire soon after at Newcastle. King Henry, the queen, and the prince of Wales, who had not been at the battle, made good their escape to Scotland, where they were soon joined by the dukes of Exeter and Somerset, Lord Roos, Sir Humphrey Dacre, Sir John Fortescue and other Lancastrian stalwarts. By contrast, the Yorkists lost no men of note save Lord FitzWalter and the Kentish captain Robert Home.
Edward had won an immense victory. The particular importance of Towton is that it finally shattered the strength of the great northern lords, like Percy, Clifford, Roos and Dacre, who had hitherto been so loyal to Lancaster, and who between them could dominate England north of Trent. The way now lay open for the subjugation of Yorkshire and the regions towards the Scottish Border. As we shall see, the danger was far from over. Many die-hard Lancastrians were still at large, and even exiles might prove a menace with foreign support. Traditional loyalties to the great families were not extinguished overnight. Much of Wales remained to be brought under control. Yet, in a wider sense, Towton proved politically decisive. For most Englishmen, including a majority amongst the barons and gentry, it now became prudent and realistic to acknowledge the authority of the new king.