Recent purchases 3 – Burley, Elliott & Watson: The Battles of St Albans

Posted: July 4, 2010 in 1st St Albans, Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick, Second St Albans

Part of the Battleground series, Peter Burley, Michael Elliott & Harvey Watson’s The Battles of St Albans deals with two battles that have little in common except the town where they took place. Everything else had changed: the commanders, the balance of power, the size of the armies and the tactics and strategies used. This makes for a more interesting comparison than was perhaps first intended.

I’m not going to talk a great deal about the first section of the book, which deals with the first battle in 1455, because I think others have done a better job. Not that this is a bad one at all; and as I’ve said, discussing both battles in the same book is an excellent idea. There are one or two minor errors that were grating rather than concerning, such as describing lord Fauconberg as Salisbury’s half brother, but these were very minor. The focus is on the battle itself rather than, as in Armstrong, the hours of negotiation beforehand.

Both battles are accompanied by copious maps and pictures and the (very) potted biographies of the major players should help keep things straight for anyone new to the Wars.

The second part of the book looks fairly closely at the second battle. The air of panic and confusion caused by the Lancastrian army’s wild march south is evoked well and the impact this had on Warwick’s decision making is well established. I’ve held the view for some time that some of the criticism levelled at Warwick for his conduct of the battle is unwarranted. A great deal of it is entirely warranted and unanswerable, I think that needs to be said. But the fog of war was thick around St Albans at the time and the one report, from Dunstable, that, had it been acted on would possibly have changed the outcome, was lost in the confusion. That this point of view is, to some extent, reflected in this book is gratifying. Edward, earl of March’s, failure to move swiftly to support Warwick after his win at Mortimer’s Cross is also highlighted. Had Warwick’s assessment of the line of the Lancastrian march been correct, his defences would probably have worked and he’d be hailed now as a great innovator, not (in words that make me grit my teeth and are burned into my brain, and I can’t for the life of me recall where this quotelet comes from) “a notable failure as a general”.

The battle itself is dealt with in a few pages, but considering how much they had to get into one volume, and the amount of background information given, it was done well. It is made clear that the Nevill brothers (Warwick and Montagu) lost contact with each other at vital times, that Warwick didn’t move as quickly as he could (or perhaps should) have when it was clear his intelligence had failed him. Warwick couldn’t have known for certain what his brother’s fate was while he was making his “fighting retreat”, and given the deaths of his father and brother Thomas at/after Wakefield, he couldn’t have been very confident that he would see John alive again. He had lost the battle, lost control of the king and some of the glory that had surrounded him since he seized the initiative at St Albans 6 years earlier. It must have been a very dark time for him, with the very real prospect of the Lancastrian army taking London leaving the Yorkist cause in ruins.

Warwick lost control of the king after (or during) the battle and the book discusses a number of different theories as to how this occurred. The deaths of Bonville and Kyriel (and Prince Edward’s reported role) are reported dryly and dispassionately. It isn’t clear whether they returned the king voluntarily on promise of their lives, or whether Henry was located and restored by a member of queen Margaret’s army. It was, oddly enough, the loss of the king that freed up the Yorkists to seize the throne.

Edward’s possible motivations for delaying his rendezvous with Warwick are also discussed, as is the received opinion that Edward was by far the most successful general of the Wars:

“The fact is that March … was the most successful general of the Wars of the Roses, but his string of victories … tend to hide the fact that on several occasions he made serious strategic errors and underestimated the opposition he faced. February 1461 seems to have been one of those occasions. Too complacent after his victory at Mortimer’s Cross, March failed to appreciate the danger that faced Warwick and he was too cautious about the possible continued Lancastrian danger in the west. He wasted two vital weeks when he should have been marching to join Warwick’s army.” (p 86)

It’s difficult to dispute this, but it must be said that it is a point of view that benefits greatly from hindsight.

The Lancastrian success is largely attributed to Andrew Trollope, of the Calais garrison, who had deserted the Yorkists two years earlier at Ludlow. The difficult position that queen Margaret was in – very much in charge in private, but in public needing to defer to the duke of Somerset, who headed the army – is highlighted.

Some space is given to speculations on what might have transpired at the meeting between Warwick and March. Whatever did take place, it’s clear that Warwick’s enviable ability to assess the situation and adjust his thinking and actions to suit must have been at work. Far from continuing as a failed military commander, he swiftly turned the situation to his (and March’s) advantage and before the Lancastrians had time to draw breath, they were in London and March was being hailed king. George Nevill’s pivotal role in this – his stirring sermon at Paul’s Cross – is acknowledged.

“According to some accounts, the first thing that March asked was, ‘Where is the king?’ to which Warwick smoothly replied, ‘But you are the king'”. (p 91)

Even if this is apocryphal, I think it’s a good summing up of the way Warwick’s mind worked.

The book continues – briefly – to recount Margaret of Anjou’s difficulties in entering London, her retreat with the king to York, the meeting of Warwick and March, their warm welcome in the capital and the battle of Towton.

The last few pages of the book are devoted to a quick history of St Albans and a walking tour of the two battlegrounds.

I wish I could find a more thorough and detailed work on second St Albans, something along the lines of Boardman’s accounts of the first battle and Towton. If there is one out there somewhere, it has hidden itself from my view. Failing that, this book is a very useful addition to any WoR library.

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