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The Second Battle of St Albans was a battle of the English Wars of the Roses fought on 12 February, 1461, at St Albansmarker. The army of the Yorkist faction under the Earl of Warwick attempted to bar the road to London north of the town. The rival Lancastrian army used a wide outflanking manoeuvre to take Warwick by surprise, cut him off from London, and drive his army from the field. The victors also released the feeble King Henry, who had been Warwick's prisoner, from his captivity. However, they ultimately failed to take advantage of their victory.

Background

The Wars of the Roses were fought between the supporters of the House of Lancaster, represented by the mentally unstable King Henry VI, and those of the rival House of York, headed by Richard of York, who was respected for his statesmanship and believed by many to have a better claim to the throne.

After several armed clashes and attempts at reconciliation, York and his friends finally openly rebelled in 1459. At the Battle of Northamptonmarker in 1460, the Yorkist forces under the Earl of Warwick defeated a Lancastrian army and captured King Henry, who had taken no part. In the aftermath, York attempted to claim the throne, but his supporters were not prepared to go so far. Instead, an agreement was reached, the Act of Accord, by which York was to become King after Henry's death.

This agreement disinherited Henry's young son Edward of Westminster. Henry's Queen, Margaret of Anjou, refused to accept the Act of Accord and took Edward to Scotland to gain support there. York's rivals and enemies meanwhile raised an army in the north of England. York and his brother in law, the Earl of Salisbury (Warwick's father), led an army to the north late in 1460 to counter these threats, but they fatally underestimated the Lancastrian forces. At the Battle of Wakefieldmarker, the Yorkist army was destroyed and York, Salisbury and York's second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed, or executed after the battle.

Campaign

The victorious Lancastrian army began advancing south towards London. It was led by comparatively young nobles such as the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford, whose fathers had been killed by York and Warwick at the First Battle of St Albansmarker. The army contained a substantial contingent from the West Country, but many of its men were from the Scottish Borders or Scotlandmarker, who subsisted largely on plunder in their march south.

The death of Richard of York left his eighteen-year old son Edward, Earl of March, as the Yorkist claimant for the throne. He led one Yorkist army in the Welsh Marches, while Warwick led another in London and the south east. Naturally, they intended to combine their forces to face Margaret's army, but Edward was delayed by the need to confront another Lancastrian army from Walesmarker led by Jasper Tudor. On 2 February, Edward defeated Tudor's army at the Battle of Mortimer's Crossmarker.

Warwick, with the captive King Henry in his train, meanwhile moved to block Margaret's army north of London. He took up position north of St Albansmarker astride the main road from the north (the ancient Roman road known as Watling Streetmarker). He set up several fixed defences, including cannon and obstacles such as caltrops and pavises studded with spikes, and partly manned by Burgundian mercenaries equipped with handguns. Part of his defences used the ancient Belgic earthwork known as Beech Bottom Dykemarker. Warwick's forces were divided into three "Battles", as was customary at the time. He himself led the Main Battle in the centre. The Duke of Norfolk led the Forward (or Vaward) Battle on the right and Warwick's brother John Neville commanded the Rear Battle on the left.

Although strong, Warwick's lines faced north only. Margaret knew of Warwick's plans, possibly through a traitor named Lovelace. Late on 11 February, her army swerved sharply west and captured the town of Dunstablemarker. About 200 local people under the town butcher tried to resist them, but were easily dispersed. Warwick's "scourers" (scouts and patrols and foraging parties) apparently failed to detect this move.

Battle

From Dunstable, Margaret's forces moved south-east at night, towards St Albans. The leading Lancastrian forces attacked the town shortly after dawn. Storming up the hill past the Abbey, they were confronted by Yorkist archers in the town centre who shot at them from the house windows. This first attack was repulsed. As they regrouped at the ford across the River Vermarker, the Lancastrian commanders sought another route into the town. This was found and a second attack was launched along the line of Folly Lane and Catherine Street. This second attack met with no opposition and the Yorkist archers in the town were now outflanked. They continued to fight house to house however, and were not finally overcome for several hours.

Having gained the town itself, the Lancastrians now turned north towards John Neville's Rear Battle, positioned on Bernards Heath. Warwick found it difficult to extricate his other units from their fortifications and turn them about to face the Lancastrians, so that the Yorkist battles straggled into action one by one instead of in coordinated fashion. The Rear Battle, attempting to reinforce the defenders of the town, was engaged and dispersed. The Kentish contingent in the Yorkist army under the traitor Lovelace apparently defected at this point, causing further confusion in the Yorkist ranks.

By late afternoon, the Lancastrians were attacking north-east out of St Albans to engage the Yorkist Main and Vaward battles under Warwick and Norfolk. As dusk set in (which would have been in the very early evening at this time of year and in the poor weather), Warwick realised that his men were outnumbered and increasingly demoralised, and withdrew with his remaining forces (about 4,000 men) to Chipping Nortonmarker in Oxfordshire.

Aftermath

As the Yorkists retreated, they left behind the bemused King Henry, who is supposed to have spent the battle sitting under a tree, singing. Two knights (one of them Sir Thomas Kyriellmarker, a veteran leader of the Hundred Years War) had sworn to let him come to no harm, and remained with him throughout. The next morning, Margaret asked her son, the seven year old Edward of Westminster, how, not whether, the two knights were to die. Edward, thus prompted, sent them to be beheaded.

Although Margaret and her army could now march unopposed on to London, they did not do so. The Lancastrian army's reputation for pillage caused the Londoners to bar the gates. This in turn caused Margaret to hesitate, as did the news of Edward of York's victory at Mortimer's Cross. The Lancastrians fell back through Dunstable, losing many Scots and Borderers who deserted and returned home with the plunder they had already gathered. Edward and Warwick entered London on 2 March, and Edward was quickly proclaimed King Edward IV of England. Within a few weeks he had confirmed his hold on the throne with a decisive victory at the Battle of Towtonmarker.

References

  • Winston Churchill, A History of the English speaking peoples, Vol. 1, Cassell and co. 1956, ISBN 0304295000
  • Philip Warner, British Battlefields: the South, Fontana, 1975
  • Burley, Elliott & Watson, The Battles of St Albans, Pen & Sword, 2007, ISBN 9781844155699


See also




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