Where The Rival Roses Warred
Although the Wars of the Roses originated as nothing more than a sordid family feud, which was inspired by the ambitions and the jealousies of the rival descendants of King Edward the Third, the long and bloody struggle was destined to be of great historical importance, owing to the far-reaching changes of which it was the immediate cause; for between the first Battle of St. Albans, in 1455, and the decisive Battle of Bosworth Field, in 1485, an old order was swept away, and a new England was born. In fact, it may be truly said that the Wars of the Roses marked the death-struggle of that long period of violence, tyranny, and intellectual stagnation which is known in history as the Middle Ages; but when making this generalisation, it must always be remembered that the war itself was not the cause of this great change. The change was due, being the natural harvest of that widespread revolt against oppression and ignorance that is called the Renaissance; and the Wars of the Roses were simply the manifestation in England of an awakening of the people, similar to the awakening which was taking place throughout the greater part of Central and Western Europe.
This is not the place, however, in which to enter into an explanation of one of the most intricate mazes in English history-for the whole period bristles with debatable and unsolved problems-and it must suffice, in this brief description of the scenes of the principal incidents of the struggle, simply to indicate the circumstances which led to the rupture between the rival Lancastrians and Yorkists.
King Henry the Sixth was in his thirty-second year when his reason gave way, in October, 1453, at almost the same moment that his son and heir, who was christened Edward, was born; and the insanity of the king necessitated the appointment of a Regent-or, as he was called, Protector. The situation was complicated owing to the fact that in 1445 the young king had married Margaret of Anjou, a strong-willed, ambitious, and jealous woman.
Margaret felt that as the Queen Consort, and as the mother of the heir to the throne, she was the right person to act as Regent, or Protector; but as she and her party, of whom Edmund, Duke of Somerset, was the head, were heartily detested, the queen's claims were ignored, and Richard, Duke of York, who had been heir-presumptive to the throne until the birth of Prince Edward, was chosen to fill the important office.
This slight infuriated Margaret, and she became York's mortal enemy; and it may be added that the feeling of dislike was reciprocated by the duke. But although the queen was powerless to alter the course of events she was dangerous; for she resented the attitude of the Protector, and thwarted his plans upon every possible occasion. When her favourite, Somerset, was sent to the Tower of London as a prisoner, she found herself left alone to confront her numerous and powerful opponents; but with all her faults, she was a courageous woman-and she did not shrink from the formidable trial of strength, regardless of the consequences.
When Henry recovered his reason, in December, 1454, York's protectorship came to an end; and this enabled the queen to be avenged upon her enemies. York was dismissed from all the offices he held, his partisans were replaced by Lancastrians; and when Somerset was released from the Tower, and reinstated in his old position as chief court favourite, the duke realized that he and his supporters were in imminent peril. Moreover, it is only fair to conclude that York, who distrusted the queen and Somerset, felt that their influence upon the king would be disastrous to the country; therefore, his first moves, which led to the fighting, were intended not to advance his own vanishing claim to the crown of England, but to counter the malign influence of the queen's party. With this object in view, York was hastening towards London when he heard that Henry had left the capital; and Henry was informed of the duke's proximity when he lay at Watford. Both parties turned aside, determined to settle the dispute outside London; and at seven o'clock in the morning of Thursday, May 22, 1455, the Lancastrian and the Yorkist forces were within striking distance, in and around St. Albans, in Hertfordshire. Vain attempts were made to avert bloodshed; but the king bravely and quite rightly refused to surrender Somerset to his deadly foe as the price of peace, and consequently, the first battle in the long and bloody Wars of the Roses began at half-past eleven o'clock in the morning.
Most of the fighting took place in the narrow, tortuous streets of the old monastic town, where the Lancastrians had erected barricades; and the hero of the day was Richard Neville, the dashing young Earl of Warwick, who was destined to win the title of "King-maker," owing to the important part which he played in the struggle, and to fall in the Battle of Barnet, on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1471.
While the cautious York was seeking for a place to attack, Warwick found an undefended opening between the houses in Chequer Street, and through this unguarded approach he poured his men, while he, himself, dashed through a house to lead the attack, and fell upon the rear of the Lancastrian positions.
"A Warwick ! A Warwick!" he cried, waving his sword aloft, and raising the well-known battle-cry of his family.
Swift and terrible was the onslaught, and the fortune of the day was settled within a few minutes. Many of the Lancastrians, taken by surprise, flung down their arms in panic and fled; and before evening the king, who had been wounded in the neck by an arrow, was found hiding in the house of a local tanner. The unfortunate monarch was conducted to the Abbey with great pomp and ceremony.
This victory made York once more supreme, for Somerset and many of the Lancastrian leaders had fallen in the streets of St. Albans; and when, a few months later, Henry again lost his reason, the duke became Protector for the second time.
The next actual conflict occurred at Bloreheath, on September 23, 1459. The scene of the battle was in Staffordshire, between three and four miles north-west of Ashbourne; and there the Earl of Salisbury fell upon, and practically annihilated, a Lancastrian force under Lord Audley. It was an overwhelming defeat, but the position of Salisbury was too insecure to enable him to enjoy the fruits of victory, for on either side of him lay a considerable Lancastrian army which, had a simultaneous attack been made, would have crushed him.
Less than a month later, on October 13, what appeared to be a decisive catastrophe overtook the Yorkists. The Duke of York had occupied a strong position at Ludford, in Shropshire; and he was prepared to give battle. But at the last moment he was deserted by Andrew Trollope, and by a large body of men-at-arms from Calais, who decided to accept the king's free pardon as a reward for instant surrender; and as this defection reduced the Yorkist army to about one-sixth of the forces by which it was opposed, York realized the folly of fighting, and fled under cover of darkness.
This complete disaster was for the time being overwhelming. York fled to Ireland, where he was very popular, and Warwick was in France; while most of the other Yorkist leaders crept out of the country, to escape the vengeance of the queen. So complete was the Lancastrian triumph that Parliament was summoned to meet at Coventry, in order to review the whole question of the "recent disturbances"; and at this Parliament, held November 20, 1459, York, Warwick, Salisbury, and all the great Yorkist leaders were attainted of high treason.
Ordinary men might have been cowed by this terrible misfortune; but it produced very little effect upon Warwick and the other bold White Rose leaders. In open defiance of the sentence Warwick hastened to England, mustered a considerable force - for men were always ready to flock round the bear and the ragged staff which had so often led them to victory - and hastened to where the king lay at Northampton. The Lancastrians had occupied a well-protected camp outside the town, situated at Newfield, on the banks of the river Nene, which was then in flood: and with his usual impetuosity the warlike earl rushed to the attack, on July 10, 1460. He was aided by the treachery of Lord Grey of Ruthin, who, without striking a blow to defend the position, allowed the enemy to pass over that part of the encircling mound for which he was responsible. Consequently, the Lancastrians were caught unawares before they had time to muster; and many of them, trying to escape, were drowned in the river.
Immediately after he had secured the position, Warwick, accompanied by the young Earl of March -York's son, who was destined to ascend the throne of England as King Edward the Fourth - hastened to the royal tent to look for the king. There they found him, solitary and depressed- a pathetic figure, deserted by all his followers, and with only misery to bear him company.
Having formally taken charge of their sovereign - but, in reality, having made him their prisoner- the victors conducted Henry, with every possible mark of respect, first to Northampton and then to London. Meanwhile, when she heard of the disaster, Queen Margaret, who was at Eccleshall, in Staffordshire, with her young son, Edward, Prince of Wales, fled into Wales, and sought the protection of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke; and a few months later she made her way to Scotland, and thence to France. This battle marks the close of the first main phase of the Wars of the Roses; for, when fighting was resumed, at the end of 1460, York had ceased to be merely the champion of King Henry, and had become a competitor for the crown.
Parliament was summoned to meet at Westminster on October 7; and three days later, the Duke of York, who had come to London escorted by an imposing band of five hundred men-at-arms in blue and white livery, made a dramatic appearance in the House of Lords, where the peers were assembled.
Six days later, the Duke of York again came to the House of Lords, and in order that there might be no doubt about his pretensions, he placed in the hands of the Lord Chancellor a formal claim to the crown of England upon the death of King Henry the Sixth. Such a claim as this might possibly have been made valid had it been authorised by a full and representative Parliament. But this particular Parliament was neither full nor representative.
York's bold move was the signal for a renewal of hostilities in a fiercer and more bitter mood than ever - and on a larger scale.
Henry had tamely acquiesced in the spoliation of Prince Edward; and the Act of Parliament by which the succession was secured to Richard, Duke of York, was passed on October 31, 1460.
Immediately the news spread, there was feverish activity in the Lancastrian camps; and the Yorkists were not slow to take up the challenge- although the Duke of York himself was allowing precious time to be wasted in the completion of empty formalities.
Margaret was still in Wales when she heard the news; and with characteristic energy she flew to arms. The smouldering resentment of the Lancastrians was fanned into a flame of indignation by her intrepid attitude; and when, at length, York left the capital, and advanced towards the north to suppress his enemies, he discovered that the country was ablaze. When he arrived at Sandal Castle, his stronghold which stood two miles south of Wakefield, on December 21, he found a Lancastrian army of fifteen thousand men awaiting his own force of six thousand. Towards evening on December 30 fighting began; and after a desperate contest the Yorkists were completely overwhelmed by the furious onslaught oi the vastly superior force that was against them. York fell in the thickest of the fighting, sword in hand, and bravely defending his life to the end; and many of the Yorkist leaders also lay dead upon the field.
The death of the Duke of York left his son, Edward, Earl of March, who immediately assumed the dukedom, to continue the fight in the interests of the Yorkist party. Margaret, as the real head of the Lancastrians, displayed marvellous energy; and, hastening to York, she led her victorious supporters towards London. Meanwhile, the Earl of March, who was coming from the west country with all possible speed, in order to cut off the advance of the Lancastrians, was informed that Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, was on the march from distant Wales to support the cause of Queen Margaret.
The news was disconcerting, but Edward turned to bay; and retracing his steps into Herefordshire, he met the Welsh army at Mortimer's Cross, on the River Lugg, between five and six miles northwest of Leominster. There, the young duke won a hard-fought battle, on February 2, 1461; and then he turned towards London to support Warwick, who was preparing to meet Margaret and the victorious Lancastrians.
Before the union could be effected, however, Margaret and Warwick had come into collision at St. Albans, on Shrove Tuesday, February 17, 1461; and thus, for the second time, the ancient abbey town was the scene of a desperate encounter. Once more, the fighting took place for the most part in the streets; but although the Yorkist archers, in close formation round Eleanor's Cross, more than held their own for a time, the battle ended in the complete defeat of Warwick. After the rout following the battle, Margaret's lawless supporters sacked the town.
Notwithstanding the diplomatic victory won by York, who must henceforth be called King Edward the Fourth, the advantage in the field in this great year of battles had been gained by the Lancastrians. Two out of the three engagements which had taken place had been won by the supporters of the Red Rose, while the Yorkist victory at Mortimer's Cross had had but little effect upon the course of events in the main struggle. But the Yorkists, far from being beaten, were preparing with stubborn courage for a great encounter to settle the whole dispute.
The Lancastrian forces were slowly moving towards the north, whither Margaret was retreating after she discovered the mistake which she had made in leaving London open and undefended; and when he was quite ready to move, Edward, with a great army, remorselessly followed them. The rivals faced each other on a wide, open heath between the villages of Towton and Saxton, three miles to the south of Tadcaster, in Yorkshire; there were over one hundred thousand men in the field. The armies were of about equal strength; but according to some accounts, the Lancastrian Duke of Somerset was in command of sixty thousand men, while Edward the Fourth had an army of fifty thousand.
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