Archive for June 24, 2010

I had Armstrong’s Politics and the Battle of St Albans, Hicks’s Propaganda and the Battle of St Albans, copies of the Stow Relation, the Phillips Relation, the Dijon Relation and (thanks to Susan Higganbotham) the Fastolf Relation. So I really didn’t need to buy anymore books about St Albans… Except I bought two: Burley, Elliott & Watson’s The Battles of St Albans (which is very pretty, lots of pics, and I haven’t read it yet) and Boardman.

When writing these quick and dirty reviews, I’m going to be looking at two things: firstly, just a general overview of the book; and secondly, the benefit (or otherwise) to me specifically for the Nevill project.

What was I hoping to get from Boardman? I had (from sources cited above) a fairly clear idea of the course of the battle, the events leading up to it, the written material generated by the leading players before and after, and the medium term consequences. What I wanted from this book was more detail on the course of the battle – which I got; and more detail on the immediate aftermath, the hours and day or two that followed – which I didn’t. That’s likely to be because the information’s just not available. Still, I was kind of hoping…

There are pages of written description of how St Albans was laid out at the time, where the various groups of armed men where on both sides, which may well suit some people, but not this visio/spatial/direction challenged little duck. The numerous maps and charts in the appendices really helped.

While this is in many ways a very well documented battle, there’s a lot of detail missing. This was partly deliberate on the part of the victorious Yorkists, who were anxious to sweep a couple of things under the carpet and present themselves, and their motives, in the best possible light. Two things in particular are frustratingly unclear: who made the first move that began the battle? and who was responsible directly for the deaths of Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford? On both counts, Boardman lays responsibility squarely at the feet of the Nevills (the earls of Salisbury and Warwick). (More on this below.)

The first few chapters are a brief background. In this he gives prominence both to the aftermath of York’s stand at Dartford some years earlier, the Nevill-Percy feud and York’s first protectorate. This is brief and useful, though there is some signs of misunderstanding the beginnings of the Nevill-Percy feud, particularly the confrontation on Heworth Moor. (I’m planning to blog this in August.) The Nevills were, en masse, on their way home from Tattershall Castle, where Thomas Nevill had recently married Ralph Cromwell’s co-heir, Maud Stanhope. Connections between the marriage and the feud have been made, with some writers convinced that this was what began the feud, but the young Percys and young Nevills had been at it hammer and tongs for some time before this. The wedding party was a target of opportunity, I think. Still, the feud itself did have an important bearing on the conduct of the Nevills at St Albans and on the death of Northumberland.

One thing I have never been able to get my head around is the skirmishing that was said to have taken place before the battle proper. Skirmishing which Boardman says got out of hand to the point that York could no longer control the situation and battle became inevitable. If the king’s forces were behind barricades across lanes leading into the town, and Warwick and Robert Ogle had to break through gardens in order to reach the marketplace, where did this skirmishing take place? And how? I don’t doubt that it did, but the details have never been made clear enough for me to be utterly convinced.

Boardman’s take on the start of the battle is that the Nevill’s allowed their personal vendetta with the Percys to get the better of them and began skirmishing before York gave the order. York then had no choice but to join in in order to keep the king safe. I’m not entirely convinced about that either, but I don’t think it’s preposterous. I guess I just need to sort out the little matter of the skirmishing before I can take a clearer view.

What Boardman does do is give greater prominence to the actions of Robert Ogle. He, in fact, suggests that the charge through the gardens, usually credited to Warwick, was Ogle’s idea and Ogle’s decision.  Ogle’s contribution is traditionally reported as cutting a way through to the marketplace with arrow fire. Boardman goes one step further and gives the timing of Ogle’s pivotal role as some minutes earlier. His reason for this is that Warwick wasn’t always a good strategist and therefore was unlikely to see the way through the gardens. This poor reputation Warwick has developed over the centuries seems to be based on his defeat at the second battle of St Albans and at Barnet. He certainly failed miserably in both. His greatest mistake as a general, we are told, is that he insisted on fighting on foot with his men, which obscured his overall view of events. This is probably true, but Warwick wasn’t in overall command at first St Albans, and finding a way through for his own force wasn’t something that was beyond his capabilities. I’m more inclined to think that both men worked together in this, and that Ogle deserves credit absolutely for smashing his way through to the king’s forces, underprepared and still not harnessed, in the marketplace.

The deaths of Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford Boardman describes as ‘a frenzied bout of cold blooded murder’, and holds the Nevills solely responsible for this. York is credited in the Dijon Relation for the death of Somerset, though I agree with Boardman and think it more likely that Warwick was responsible. There is some doubt as to York’s whereabouts at this time; he may well have been hunting for the king (said to have taken refuge in a tanner’s house) with the view to getting him to the safety of the Abbey. That quite neatly absolves York, in Boardman’s eyes, of any culpability.

Clifford died in the thick of the fighting at the barriers and I’ve never been totally convinced that he was targetted at all. Recent dealings between Clifford and the Nevills had been surprisingly cordial, with Clifford (along with Thomas Stanley senior) tasked by York (and complying with his wishes) in helping put down the nascent rebellion of the duke of Exeter and his young Percy allies. I think he was a casualty in the normal course of events and has only been added to the Nevill body count with the view of hindsight. Northumberland, on the other hand, was clearly targetted by his brother-in-law and nephew.

Somerset, by all accounts, died on his feet, taking four men down before he fell. There are no similar details of the other prominent deaths.

Missing, as I said earlier, is detail of the immediate aftermath of the battle. We know that several nobles – the duke of Norfolk, lord Cromwell, the earl of Shrewsbury, lord Stanley – were in the vicinity of St Albans, either too far away to get there in time or deliberately hanging back. We know they arrived the following day. We know that the wounded duke of Buckingham was taken into custody by York after the battle, largely for his own safety. We know that sometime before they king’s party, escorted by York, Salisbury and Warwick, arrived in London, Warwick had been named Captain of Calais. That’s all we know. I suppose I was asking for a miracle to have any of this more closely detailed or explicated, and it’s not a failing of the book that it wasn’t. I guess I just have to come to terms with the fact that we just don’t know any of this and probably never will.

For anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses, and the first battle of St Albans in particular, this is an indispensable book. The appendices alone are a treasure trove of detail, both contemporary and modern. Boardman knows his medieval military history and writes engagingly and well. My quibbles – about the implication of the Nevills, and the Nevills alone, in the three major deaths, and the subsequent sidelining of York – could well be a product of my own personal bias, but they could also reflect the author’s.

Buy it, borrow it from a library or from a friend – just read it if this is your thing. It will not be time wasted.