Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …
Lancastrian and Yorkist History, and the Wars of the Roses
The Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke was formally crowned King Henry IV, after the deposition of Richard II, on the feast day of St Edward the Confessor, October 13th (although technically the heir-presumptive had been Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, who was descended from Edward III). The Welsh Revolt against English rule broke out during his reign, in 1400, and ended during that of his son Henry V in 1415, in defeat for the rebels. Its principal leader, Owain Glyndwr, the anglicised version of whose name is Owen Glendower, went into hiding in 1415, never to be seen or heard of again (Owain’s lieutenant Rhys Ddu was captured on a raid into Shropshire in 1410, brought to London, “laid on a hurdle and so drawn forth to Tyburn through the City”, and there “hanged and let down again”, and “his head … smitten off and his body quartered and sent to four towns and his head set on London Bridge”). Owain’s daughter Catrin and her children had previously been captured by the English at the Siege of Harlech in 1409. They had then been taken to London, where they were imprisoned in the Tower, and at least most if not all of them died there in 1413, under circumstances best described as “mysterious” (the children had a claim to the English throne through their late father the aforementioned Edmund Mortimer, and some suspect that they were done to death so as to prevent them from making any such claim). Surviving records indicate that Catrin and two of her daughters were buried not in the Tower but in the churchyard of St Swithin London Stone on the other side of the city (there are no records of what became of her other daughter, or of her son Lionel).
A modern Gelligaer bluestone sculpture by Nic Stradlyn-John and Richard Renshaw, inscribed with a Welsh englyn by Menna Elfyn, marks the spot. Freely (by me) rendered into English, the englyn reads: “In the Tower, now her home,|Her heart-song turns to longing:|The exile’s silent lament”.
The attempt of the Lollard Revolt of 1413/4 to overthrow the established church came to nothing when the supporters of the movement, gathered at St Giles-in-the-Fields on the western outskirts of the City of London, were betrayed and dispersed. Its local leader, Sir John Oldcastle, was later put to death at St Giles – by hanging in chains over a slow fire – in 1417 (another Lollard Priest, William Taylor, was burnt at the stake for heresy in West Smithfield in 1423).
Henry V was crowned King in 1413.
A month after his famous victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he made a triumphal return to London (image courtesy of “Look and Learn” (www.lookandlearn.com)). An anonymous author wrote the following eye-witness account: “[T]he citizens went out to meet the King at the brow of Blackheath, … the mayor and … aldermen in scarlet, and the … lesser citizens in red cloaks with red-and-white party-coloured hoods, to the number of about 20,000 … . And when the King came through the midst of them … and the citizens had given glory and honour to God, and congratulations to the King … the citizens rode before him towards the city, and the King followed … . When they arrived at the … bridge … there placed on the top of the tower was an enormous figure, with … the keys of the city hanging from a staff in his … hand … . … And when they reached the … aqueduct in Cornhill they found the tower hidden under a scarlet cloth stretched in the form of a tent, on spears hidden under the cloth. Surrounding … were the arms of St George, St Edward, St Edmund and of England, … inset with this pious legend: ‘Since the King hopes in the Lord and in the mercy of the highest, he shall not be moved’. Under a covering was a band of venerable white-haired prophets, … who released, when the King came by, sparrows and other small birds in great cloud as a … thanksgiving to God for the victory He had given …, while [they] sang in a sweet voice … [a] psalm … . Then they went on to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which was decked with an awning of green … and erected to resemble a building. … And when they came to the [Eleanor] cross in Cheapside … it was hidden by a beautiful castle of wood … . … And when they came to the tower the conduit at the exit to Cheapside towards St Paul’s, … above the tower was stretched a canopy sky-blue in colour … and the top … was adorned by an archangel in shining gold … . Below … was a figure of majesty represented by a sun darting out flashing rays … . … Such was the dense throng of people in Cheapside … that a bigger or more impressive crowd had never gathered before in London. But the King himself went along, amidst … the citizens, dressed in a purple robe, not with a haughty look and a pompous train … but with a serious countenance and a reverend pace accompanied by only a few of his most faithful servants; following him, guarded by knights, were the captured dukes, counts and the marshal. From his silent face and … sober pace it could be inferred that the King … was giving thanks and glory to God alone and not to man. And when he had visited the sanctuary of SS Peter and Paul [Westminster Abbey], he rode away to his palace of Westminster, escorted by his citizens”.
Henry VI was crowned King in 1422. During the course of his reign, in 1450 Jack Cade, alias Mortimer, and thousands of armed supporters entered London “to punish evil ministers and procure a redress of grievances”.
Cade went on to strike the “London Stone” on Cannon Street with his sword, and declare himself “Lord of this City” (an act immortalised by Shakespeare in “Henry VI, Part II”); and in this capacity to oversee the show-trial at the Guildhall and subsequent execution on Cheapside of the corrupt Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, Baron of Saye and Sele, and his son-in-law William Crowmer. Unfortunately for Cade, in succeeding days he lost what support he had for his cause among the citizens of London, as his followers descended into drunken rioting and looting in the City. Eventually, the citizens drove him and his followers from the City, after a pitched battle on London Bridge, during which scores of combatants were killed. Cade was later captured and executed in Sussex, whereupon his body was brought to London and beheaded and quartered in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, and his head was put upon a pike on London Bridge. Thus ended the “Harvest of the Heads”.
The Yorkist Edward IV was crowned King in 1461, after the overthrow of the Lancastrian Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses; Edward V in 1483; and Richard III in 1483. Note, though, that for a brief period in 1470-1, Edward IV was forced into exile, following a falling-out with two of his principal supporters, his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, otherwise known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, and that during this period Henry VI was readepted to the throne.
During the Wars of the Roses, between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of political machination; and the Tower, at least according to some accounts, the scene of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind great locked doors. It appears that Henry VI was done to death here, possibly on the orders of Edward IV, in 1471; and that George, Duke of Clarence was done to death here, possibly on the orders either of his elder brother, Edward IV, or his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 1478 (by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine). It also appears that the recently-deceased Edward IV’s sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the “Princes in the Tower”, were done to death here, possibly on the orders of their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III – in 1483. Certainly, the deaths of his nephews removed any obstacles standing between the ambitious Richard and the crown, which he was duly eventually offered in Baynard’s Castle, in 1483.
There was, though, some military action on the outskirts of London, in the Battles of St Albans in 1455 and 1461, and of Barnet in 1471.
The Battle of Barnet was fought on April 14th, 1471, between a Yorkist army under Edward IV, and a Lancastrian army under the Earl of Warwick. Earlier, Edward had sallied forth from Bishopsgate in the City of London, and marched ten miles or so up the Great North Road to meet Warwick’s advance from the north, battle lines being drawn a little to the north of Barnet, at that time a small market own in Hertfordshire: the Yorkists to the south; the Lancastrians to the north. The night before the day of the battle, the two sides bombarded each other with artillery fire, such that on the morning of the day of the battle, the air was thick with smoke as well as fog, and visibility was poor. Historical written accounts of the battle are correspondingly unclear, and no systematic archaeological survey of the battle site has yet been undertaken that might clarify the course of events (as in the cases of Towton and Bosworth Field). The consensus view among historians is that the Lancastrian army got the better of the early exchanges, its right, under the Earl of Oxford, turning the Yorkist left, forcing it to flee to the south, and then pursuing it into Barnet, and ransacking the town. Oxford’s men later returned to the field of battle from the south, only to be fired on by their fellow Lancastrians, under Montague, who in the smoke, fog and general confusion had mistaken them for Yorkists (their banners also evidently resembled those of the Yorkists). The Lancastrians were then themselves turned by the Yorkists, and pursued and routed; Warwick was killed in the ensuing melee, as depicted in the “Ghent Manuscript”; and the Yorkists won a decisive victory. John Paston, a Lancastrian, wrote in a letter to his mother: “[M]y brother … is alive and fareth well, and in no peril of death: nevertheless he is hurt with an Arrow on his right arm, beneath the elbow; and I have sent him to a Surgeon, which hath dressed him, and he telleth me that he trusteth that he shall be whole within right short time … . [A]s for me, I am in good case blessed be God; and in no jeopardy of my life … . [T]he world, I assure you, is right queasy … [unsettled]”. Most of the dead, from both sides, numbering somewhere between 1,500-4,000, were buried on the battlefield, possibly where the essentially late fifteenth-century Monken Hadley Church now stands (Fabian’s “Great Chronicle of London” refers to the construction of a “lytyll Chappell” at the burial site). However, some noblemen were taken back to London to be buried in Austin Friars Priory; and Warwick’s body was for a while put on display in St Paul’s, where, according to von Wesel, it was seen by “many thousands”.
The battlefield site is marked by an eighteenth-century obelisk monument bearing the inscription “Here was fought the Famous Battle Between Edward the 4th and the Earl of Warwick on April 14th, 1471, in which the Earl was Defeated and Slain”. Many of the artefacts recovered from the site over the centuries may be seen in the Barnet Museum, including cannonballs, various types of arrowhead, and spurs. The Battle of Barnet was reportedly one of the earliest engagements to have involved the use of handguns, although as yet no physical evidence has been recovered to substantiate the written reports. “Warkworth’s Chronicle” recounts that Edward had “300 Flemings handgunners”, armed with arquebusses, in his army.
There was also some action in the City. On July 2nd, 1460, a Yorkist army arrived at the gates of London, and was admitted by Aldermen sympathetic to their cause. At this, the Lancastrian garrison in the Tower, under Thomas, the Seventh Baron Scales, indiscriminately opened fire on the City in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent its occupation, using both conventional and chemical weapons from the Royal Armoury, causing both combatant and civilian casualties, and occasioning extreme public outrage, ultimately resulting in Scales’s summary execution (as a contemporary chronicler put it: “They that were within the Tower cast wildfire into the City, and shot in small guns, and burned and hurt men and women and children in the streets”). The chemical weapon, let loose from a primitive and unreliable flame-thrower, was “Greek fire” or “wildfire”, which may be thought of as a form of napalm, that stuck and set fire to everything – and everyone – it came into contact with, and flared up even more fiercely if water was cast onto it.
And on May 14th, 1471, shortly after the Battle of Barnet, London’s by then Yorkist garrison was bombarded and then assaulted, as the contemporary “Chronicle of London” put it, “on alle sydys”, by Lancastrian forces under the privateer Thomas Nevill, illegitimate son of William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg, and otherwise known as the Bastard Fauconberg. In response, the Mayor, John Stockton, and his Sheriffs, John Crosby and John Ward, rode from gate to gate to rally the City’s defences, “in alle haast with a Trumpett” (Crosby was later knighted for his role in the City’s defence: his memorial in the church of St Helen Bishopsgate shows him in armour). And for the most part the defences held firm. Aldgate came under the most sustained attack, “with mighty shott of hand Gunnys & sharp shott of arrowis”. Indeed, some attackers even managed to enter the City there, only to be held up by defenders under the Recorder of the City, Thomas Ursewyk, and an Alderman named John Basset, and then to be forced to retreat by the arrival of defensive reinforcements from the Tower of London, “which dyscomffortid the Rebellys”. The attack had failed, and the attackers who had evaded capture took to their ships, and sailed out to the safety of the Thames estuary. Many of those who had been captured were summarily executed, including Spysyng and Quyntyn.