The battle itself, fought in the streets of St Albans, the royal standard raised then abandoned in the market square, lasted little over half an hour. Three prominent noblemen were killed. Henry VI was wounded. Yorkist propaganda got its first real work out. The Earl of Warwick’s reputation was made.
The build up to the battle – the convergence of the two parties on St Albans; the steady stream of letters from York’s party to anyone they thought might read them; the toing and froing of heralds – took up several days. The aftermath – the extraordinary Parliamentary Pardon; Warwick’s appointment as Captain of Calais; York’s second protectorate – briefly shifted the balance of power from Henry VI and his supporters to the Duke of York and his. More nobles stayed out of the battle than took part and, unlike Towton, no-one rushed to submit themselves to the new authority in England: York’s power proved illusory and transient.
I really should have spread this over several days, announced a solemn and serious Countdown to St Albans, perhaps. Missed opportunity, I suppose. Still, there’s always next year…
We know about St Albans from a number of sources, not all of them impartial. Most are, sadly, not available online. The Stow Relation (decidely pro-Yorkist) can be found among the Paston letters, but you’ll have to hunt. I didn’t keep the link after I printed what I needed. Abbot Whetehamstede’s account is decidedly hostile, which is understandable as the battle was fought on his doorstep. The Dijon Relation is more balanced, coming as it did from a foreign observer. The Fastolf Relation was probably written by a young pursuivant attached to the party of Mowbray Herald. It breaks off just before the battle begins, concentrating as it does on the several hours of parlay before the battle proper. These last two, and part of Whetehamstede’s Registrum, can be found in Andrew Boardman’s excellent The First Battle of St Albans 1455.
Two other secondary sources that are particularly useful are CAJ Armstrong’s Politics and the Battle of St Albans, 1455 and Michael Hicks’s Propaganda and the First Battle of St Albans, 1455. Burley, Elliot & Watson’s, The Battles of St Albans is also a very useful book.
The story begins with a message of warning, possibly from the Duke of Buckingham, advising the Duke of York that his main rival, the Duke of Somerset, had been holding secret meetings in London with a view to orchestrating the downfall of York and the Nevills at the upcoming parliament in Leicester. York, the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Warwick were together in Royston on 20 May, and here they began a letter writing campaign to convince Henry VI of their loyalty and of the slanders made against them. York’s sons, Edward Earl of March and Edmund Earl of Rutland, were with them. I’ve yet to find an account, primary or secondary, that clearly places Thomas and John Nevill in the party, but it makes sense that they were there as well.
The letters can be found here.
Much is made of the difficulties of mediaeval travel – poor roads, bad weather, time taken to cover distances – the letters written in Royston and, the next day, in Ware, certainly found their respective recipients in good time. The letters intended for the king got into the hands of his advisors well before the two parties met in St Albans. They weren’t read by Henry or, if they were, he neither acknowledged them nor responded.
I’ve used the term ‘Yorkist’ here, but I’m not sure there was a Yorkist party before St Albans. The previous year, Salisbury and Warwick had joined York in his first term as Protector and Defender largely because their interests coincided, rather than because the Nevills believed in York’s right to lead government. Now they were banding together for mutual protection. They had little support. York’s son-in-law the Duke of Exeter was firmly on the other side. Salisbury’s brother Lord Fauconberg was as well, at least nominally. His sons-in-law, Thomas Stanley and Henry Fitzhugh, stayed well out of things, Fitzhugh (as he was to be up until Towton) in the king’s army and Stanley hovering somewhere in the ‘sorry, couldn’t get there in time’ zone. He wasn’t the only one: the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Cromwell, both York’s supporters on paper at least, were also just too far away to make it to the battle.
Fauconberg being in the king’s party was quite useful. He was one of the lords York sent his letters to, in the hope that he could get them to Henry. Though Norfolk wasn’t there himself, he did send his herald who had a starring role in the pre-battle negotiations. Some months later, for reasons that are clear to no-one, Cromwell was blamed for the whole mess by an angry Warwick and hightailed it to the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury for protection.
In the hours before the battle, Mowbray Herald conducted negotiations with Buckingham Herald. The Duke of Buckingham had been put in charge of the royal army in place of the Duke of Somerset. This was a shrewd move by Henry, as Buckingham was known to be more neutral (by far!) than Somerset. York’s demands were simple: he wanted to speak with the king in person and he wanted Somerset handed over to him so he could be tried on the charges laid against him late in 1453. Henry wasn’t about to give Somerset up and probably hoped for the same outcome as he’d enjoyed at Dartmouth in 1452 – York backing down, swearing an oath and promising to never take up arms against the king again.
York and the Nevills were camped outside the town in Key Field. Henry VI and his party, unprepared for battle, were in the market square. The royal standard was raised.
There was no easy way the Yorkists could get into the town. Though unwalled, defensive barriers could be drawn across two main access routes – Sopwell Lane and Shropshire Lane. A ditch ran along the ‘town backsides’. Various sources say that skirmishing took place before the battle proper, but with the topography of the town, and the defences, I’ve never quite been able to figure out just where, or how, this happened. I’m hoping for the light of understanding to dawn one of these days!
Warwick (or sir Robert Ogle for those who don’t want to give Warwick the credit) saw a way through the gardens of the houses backing onto the ditch. With cries of ‘A Warwick! A Warwick!’ filling the air, his archers clearing the way, Warwick crashed through the gardens and into the market square. York and Salisbury, facing the barricades, began their assault.
Here’s a pretty good map of St Albans.
Most of the men in Henry’s party weren’t prepared for battle. Some were still getting into their armour. The King was in the market square, defended by a stout band of men. Someone – and there are several candidates for this, including the ever fleeing Earl of Wiltshire, dropped the standard on the ground and cut for it. (After the battle, Wiltshire was caught attempting to escape. While this, and other flights from lost battles, is often used to demonstrate his cowardice, fleeing the scene of defeat was by no means a habit unique to him.)
Three noblemen were killed in the battle, two of them probably deliberately targetted by York and the Nevills. The Duke of Somerset, trapped in a house, came out fighting and was felled by a blow from a battle axe. Just who was responsible for this is unclear, but Warwick is often given the credit. The Earl of Northumberland – long an enemy of the Nevills – was also slain. Possibly Salisbury was responsible for this, but if John Nevill was at the battle, I wouldn’t be looking too much further for a culprit. The third man killed was Lord Clifford, who died defending the barriers. He doesn’t seem to have been a deliberate target of attack.
The King was found in the house of a tanner (by the more reliable reports). His neck had been grazed by an arrow, but the wound was not life threatening. York found him, dropped to his knees in front of him and swore his allegiance. He then had Henry taken to the nearby Abbey where he could rest.
Whetehamstede reports looting by the Yorkist soldiers. He also reports seeing many dead. The Phillips relation (which can be found in the Paston Letters) gives a more or less reliable list of the dead.
When all was quiet, York, Salisbury and Warwick went to the king in the Abbey and fell to their knees, swearing they meant no harm and wanted only to save him from those who would harm him. Possibly somewhat fuddled, Henry received them and before he knew it, had appointed Warwick Captain of Calais, a post most recently held by the late Duke of Somerset.
The next day, the Yorkists escorted Henry VI to London where a crown-wearing ceremony took place. With Somerset dead, there was a power vacuum into which York neatly slipped.
Next post, I shall explore the extraordinary Parliamentary Pardon, that turned what was if not a treasonable act something that looked and smelled like a treasonable act into a triumph for the Duke of York.