Barnet or How wrong can a man be?

Posted: April 13, 2010 in Barnet, John Nevill, Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick

Here was fought the famous battle between Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick April 14th Anno 1471 in which the Earl was Defeated and Slain.


The earl of Warwick was born a hundred years too late, I keep reading, but I don’t agree.  He wasn’t the Last of the Barons so much as a  template for a new kind of politician.  His main problem was that he was born in an age of kings, with just enough royal blood in his veins to make it impossible for him to be contented with his lot. Which, by any means of measurement, was a lot.  In a meritocracy, he might have achieved his lofty ambitions.  In a democracy, his masterful self-publicity, energy and very real abilities might have taken him to the top.  His major flaws, and there were many, would have led him to the same sorts of mistakes he made in his life and, as he never did things by halves, that could have been as disastrous in any century as it was in the fifteenth.

I have a great deal of affection, regard and admiration for the man, but doing him any favours, cutting him some slack, is not on my agenda.  I am extremely ambivalent about his death at Barnet – as a Yorkist, it comes as something of a relief; as a Nevillist it’s pure tragedy.

In the early hours of 14 April 1471, he stood in the mist, facing his cousin and king.  With him were three men about whom he had contrasting feelings:  his estranged brother-in-law, the earl of Oxford, eternal optimist as he was, didn’t inspire much confidence; the duke of Exeter, about to be divorced and dispossessed, had never been his favourite person.  The only one of his allies that he loved and trusted, and even that was under some strain, was his brother John, marquess of Montagu.  With Edward IV was William Hastings, another brother-in-law, and Richard, duke of Gloucester, the young cousin who had grown up in Warwick’s household.  Ten years ago, when he’d helped Edward take the throne, this was not how it was supposed to end.  Wind-changing Warwick, Shakespeare calls him, which is a bit harsh – it wasn’t a stiff breeze that sent him to the exiled court of Margaret of Anjou, it was more like a typhoon.

His belief that he could be forgiven anything, that in the end people would realise that he was right, started very early.  After the first Battle of St Albans, all it had taken was bent knees and a few heartfelt words to the king and all had been well, at least for a time. Margaret of Anjou had managed it, albeit out of desperation to restore herself, her husband and her son to what she knew was their rightful place.  Edward IV had forgiven him twice already and had been prepared to one last time just days earlier.  Join me, he’d said in a letter to his cousin and his brother.  I will pardon you with your lives and we can talk.  When he was captured after Barnet, the possibility of throwing himself once more at someone’s mercy must have crossed his mind.  Maybe he was rehearsing his words when the assassin’s blade struck.  But he’d done the one thing Edward couldn’t set aside – he’d got his brother Montagu killed.  Had both the Nevill brothers fronted the king, they might have had a chance.  A tiny slim sliver of a chance.  Without John, Warwick had none.

He didn’t die fleeing, entangled in a wood, just strides away from freedom. Not that fleeing wasn’t an option, he’d done it after second St Albans and lived to fight another day; he’d done it during the confusion at Ferrybridge and went on to win the decisive and bloody victory that was Towton.  Flight would have been a sensible course of action, capture – as it turned out – wasn’t.

When it came to what to do about his recalcitrant cousin, Edward had three choices:  execute him, forgive him or have him quietly despatched. Someone chose the third option, whether Edward actually ordered it himself we can’t be sure.  Executing someone who had once been so close, who had been instrumental in setting the young king on the throne and who was related by blood was unthinkable.  When faced with what to do about brother George, Edward had been absent from the room when the sentence was pronounced and the deed itself was done far away from his eyes (more likely in a bathtub than a butt of wine – I’ve always thought the malmsey reference was a metaphor for George’s reported drunkenness.)  The second option was far too dangerous, no matter how useful a rapidly rehabilitated Warwick might have been in the mopping up operations.  The third was the only one that saved Edward unnecessary pain.  He wasn’t a man who enjoyed pain.

In those last days before Barnet, Warwick was deserted by just about everyone who mattered to him, except John, and his reasons for being there weren’t predicated on family loyalty.  Clarence had left him, with the connivance and agency of his wife, Warwick’s older daughter; Louis XI had abandoned him; and he couldn’t have been sure of the continuing loyalty of his younger daughter Anne, now that she was married to a prince and looking towards queenship.

Was that what he was thinking about during those wolf hours before the battle began?  Was he imagining himself the grandfather of a king?  I wonder what he’d have done with Clarence; if he’d have spared Edward’s life and Gloucester’s.  And George Nevill, Archbishop of York, who’d thrown the gates of London open for the king, when he’d been charged by his brother with holding him out – would he have been rewarded with another term as chancellor?  There were embittered Lancastrians, exile channelling their thoughts and emotions as it would anyone’s, who would need to be taken into consideration.  Whether Wariwck could have worked with them is doubtful.  He wasn’t particularly adept at working well with others – in a modern bureaucratic setting he’d have been roundly accused of not being a team player.  Hard to be, when the rest of the team are incompetent fools.

The new-old king would need him, at least in the short term, at least until things settled down and England once more accepted a change in rulers.  England was getting good at that.  The people didn’t care much who was king as long as someone was and they didn’t suffer from misgovernment.  It was the times when there was no visible king, or two concurrent, present rivals that were difficult.

Margaret would never trust him and he’d never trust her.  Even the marriage of their respective children wasn’t a strong enough cement to hold the alliance together for long, but it was the key, the only way Warwick could get close to what he wanted.  If Anne had done what she needed to do, despite Margaret’s watchful eye, then all would be well.  She understood the importance of it.

Speculating is pointless, unless you need to see the world through his eyes for a time.  Warwick was impulsive and driven by emotion.  The long view wasn’t his preference.  A great deal of what he did satisfied what he wanted now and now was so often equated with forever.


Edward’s secret marriage and the subsequent elevation of the Wydevilles is often credited with being the catalyst for Warwick’s later difficulties (rebellion, treason, bloody minded pig-headedness, call it what you will.)  It clearly upset him, seeing as how he was in the middle of negotiating a match for Edward with a French princess. Edward didn’t wilfully let Warwick go off and make a fool of himself. I’ve no doubt that until he was called on it by Elizabeth’s family, the political marriage would have gone ahead and that would have precipitated a crisis long before the one that cost his sons their freedom, if not their lives. That Edward did acknowledge the marriage and that he and Elizabeth had an inordinate number of children together does suggest that his love for her was genuine. That he failed to remain faithful suggests that it wasn’t able to sustain him for long. Warwick acknowledged one illegitimate daughter and, doing some quick and dirty maths based on the year of her marriage, it would seem she was born when he was quite young. Fidelity to his countess did not pose him any difficulties after that. I can see how he might have viewed Edward’s rich and varied love life, and how that would have irked him somewhat.

In an angry outburst to Louis XI, he supposedly harshly criticised Edward and claimed that he would have made a far better king than any of the other candidates. He was probably right, except a king should make (and break) alliances and treaties based on what’s best for his kingdom, not on personal preference, affinity or dislike. Warwick wasn’t clearheaded enough to negotiate that particular minefield, though he was a dab hand at negotiations once the decisions were made. It was foreign policy that proved to be the deal breaker. Warwick couldn’t understand why Edward insisted on supporting Burgundy, and Edward didn’t trust France.

Once the chasm widened between king and earl, everything piled up; every slight, every doubt, every post given to someone with a name other than Nevill. That Edward continued to trust him long after he should have stopped points either to his naivete, his dependence on Warwick or an ability to separate the personal from the professional – not a trait Warwick shared. In the end, Montagu didn’t either. Edward should never have given him the earldom of Northumberland. Of all the rewards handed out, it was the one that caused the most distress amongst the nobility, of all the rewards he could have given John, it was the one that meant the most.  Giving him the title Marquess was a bit like taking away a child’s favourite toy and replacing it with an ornate but useless ornament. That this pushed John to join his brother shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It surprised Edward.

The myths of the battle concentrate on John. His story is seen as the more tragic. He wore, according to legend, the colours of York beneath his own. That was one way to make sure he was murdered before the battle even started. Mediaeval army camps had no locked doors.  John was as angry with Edward as Warwick was, though his reasons were different. That he had doubts is not in dispute but they were about who they were fighting for not against. There is a persistent undercurrent of the hopelessly romantic sort that John was either considering or actually did (just before the end) change sides. He didn’t, again for the reasons stated above. There would have been men close to him specially charged with keeping an eye on him, ready to turn on him the moment there was even the slightest hint of treachery. There were no doubt some close to Warwick as well.

The one myth that may have some credibility is the white rose. Though I’m not a sucker for the whole roses thing in the first place, this one could well be true, mainly because it’s about someone else, not Montagu himself. After their deaths, the brothers were transported to London, laid out in front of St Paul’s (some say naked, some say wrapped only in loin clothes, I say wearing what they wore when they died, minus their armour), and someone slipped a white rose between John’s fingers. Again not so much a comment on John’s feelings but those of someone who thought of him with some regard and regret. This is the way it ought to be, that gesture says. There are a lot of people who would agree.

They were buried at Bisham alongside their father, mother and brother. This says a great deal about how they were regarded by their cousin, the king. It’s quite a bit of trouble to go to when other, equally well born, well connected and important people who died in battle were buried where they fell. I’m sure their betrayals bewildered Edward. He’d rewarded them handsomely, taken them into his closest counsel and they turned on him.

They left behind between them nine children and two widows. The countess of Warwick panicked on hearing the news of her husband’s death and took to sanctuary. Anne Nevill, now the Princess of Wales, accompanied her husband and mother-in-law on the hellride to Tewkesbury where she endured a second loss. We don’t know what Isobel Ingoldisthorpe felt, but if John was half the man historians claim he was, her grief and devastation would have been real and profound. She remarried a year later, died three years after that and was buried with her first husband. The tomb was desecrated during the dissolution of the monasteries, if anyone knew or cared I hope they kept the Montagus together.

There’s something about the pathologically, wilfully wrong people of history that appeals to me enormously. For a lot of his career and life, Warwick’s actions, values and attitudes were right.  In the end, they weren’t. There are any number of nodes along the way, decision points, that would have led Warwick, John, Edward and Gloucester away from Barnet. But taking a deep breath and thinking Now, what did I just do wrong? What can I learn from this? wasn’t a strong suit of Warwick’s.  His focus was always on the wrongs of others.

Today, Warwick and Montagu are dead. Tomorrow, Edward, Gloucester and Hastings will be on their way to Tewkesbury and the strange schizophrenic bifurcation of my life can end. If only I knew where the bones of the Nevill brothers lie, I could wish them a peaceful rest.

A very good summary of Barnet can be found here.

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Comments
  1. 1karla says:

    I’ve always had a weak spot for Warwick, as well as for Clarence…

  2. Michael V says:

    The Barnet link is dead.

  3. Dawn Likha says:

    Reblogged this on A Passion for History and commented:
    So y’all can be even know more about the Battle of Barnet during which Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, was killed…

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