2nd Battle of St. Albans: Lancastrians Defeat
February 17th, 2015 by Siggurdsson
Today in Military History: February 17, 1461
2nd Battle of St Albans,
mediaeval wood cut, author unknown
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations in this article are
courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today's tale of battle concerns a fight during the War of the Roses, a
fifteenth century civil war in Great Britain. Two branches of the Royal
House of Plantagenet fought with each other for the right to rule England;
they were the Houses of Lancaster and York.
Background to the War
British monarch Henry VI was crowned in September of 1422. The sudden death
of his father Henry V (of the battle of Agincourt "band of brothers" fame)
at the age of 35 was catastrophic, as England had the upper hand in the
Hundred Years' War with France. Henry VI, who headed the House of Lancaster,
was only nine months old at his coronation, so the country was ruled by a
council of regents until Henry turned 16.
of Henry VI
(reigned 1422-1461 & 1470-71),
Currently in National Portrait Gallery, London UK
During the majority of Henry's reign, there were multiple
challenges as to who was the better qualified person to occupy England's
throne. This was brought into sharper focus in 1453, when Henry suffered
some form of mental breakdown. A council of regency was formed, headed by
Richard the Duke of York and Henry's primary opponent in the succession.
Though Henry recovered his sanity in late 1454, he suffered a number of
bouts of mental illness over the next 17 years.
In addition, other factors forming a political climate ripe for civil war
included: growing civil discontent; the abundance of feuding nobles with
private armies; and corruption in Henry VI's court. With the king so easily
manipulated, power rested with those closest to him at court, in other words
the Lancastrian faction. Richard and the Yorkist faction, who tended to be
physically placed further away from the seat of power, found their power
slowly being stripped away. Royal power and finances also started to slip,
as Henry was persuaded to grant many royal lands and estates to the
Lancastrians, thereby losing their revenue.
When Henry recovered, he once again fell under the influence of those
closest to him at court. Directed by Henry's queen, the powerful and
aggressive Margaret of Anjou, who emerged as the de facto leader of the
Lancastrians, Richard was forced out of court. Margaret built up an alliance
against Richard and conspired with other nobles to reduce his influence. An
increasingly thwarted Richard (who feared arrest for treason) finally
resorted to armed hostilities in 1455, when forces of Lancaster and York
clashed at the First Battle of St. Albans.
Background of the Battle
A dynastic compromise was struck in October 1460, when the Act of Accord was
promulgated. The document made the Duke of York King Henry's successor to
the throne, disinheriting Henry's six-year-old son Edward. Henry's queen
Margaret refused to abide by the Act's terms, fleeing first to north Wales,
parts of which were still in Lancastrian hands. They later travelled by sea
to Scotland to negotiate for Scottish assistance. The Queen Consort to James
II of Scotland agreed to give Margaret an army on condition that she cede
the town of Berwick to Scotland and Mary's daughter be betrothed to Prince
Edward. Margaret agreed, although she had no funds to pay her army and could
only promise booty from the riches of southern England, as long as no
looting took place north of the Trent River.
Richard Duke of York and his brother-in-law, the Earl of Salisbury (father
of the Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, nicknamed "The Kingmaker"), led an
army to the north late in 1460 to counter the Lancastrian threats, but they
drastically underestimated the Lancastrian forces. On December 30, 1460, at
the battle of Wakefield, the Yorkist army was destroyed and York, Salisbury
and York's second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed in the fighting
or were executed after the battle.
The victorious Lancastrian army began advancing south towards London. It was
led by comparatively young nobles, whose fathers had been killed by York and
Warwick at the First Battle of St Albans (in 1455). The army contained a
substantial contingent from the West Country, but many of its men were from
the Scottish Borders or Scotland, who subsisted largely on plunder in their
Edward, Earl of March, House of York (later King Edward IV); Artist
currently in National Portrait Gallery, London UK
The death of Richard of York left his eighteen-year old son Edward, Earl
of March, as the Yorkist claimant for the throne. [Edward is
described as "handsome and affable…" and as being a soaring 6 feet,
4 inches tall.] 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
Wales led by Jasper Tudor. On February 2, 1461 Edward
defeated Tudor's army at the battle of Mortimer's Cross.
This force, under the command of Queen Margaret, was approaching London
after defeating the Duke of York and his army at Wakefield, a
month-and-a-half previously. The Lancastrians numbered somewhere in the
neighborhood of 12,000 men altogether. It consisted mainly of mounted
men-at-arms, longbowmen, spearmen and billmen [see below],with some knights,
likely nobles and major landholders. They were mainly members of the
retinues of the Earl of Northumberland, the Baron de Clifford, and Henry
Beaufort the Duke of Somerset, who all had considerable lands and support in
the north of England. Another portion of the army came from the West Country
(southwestern England). There were also reduced numbers of Scots and
Scottish Borderer horsemen. These last were men who waged a hot-and-cold war
of raids and counter-raids along the ill-defined border area of England and
Scotland. They lived primarily from looting and plunder. Many had deserted
Margaret's army, taking their loot with them after word was received of the
Yorkist victory at Mortimer's Cross.
This force was under the command of the Duke of Warwick the "Kingmaker." It
totalled somewhere around 9000-10,000 men. Its composition was similar to
that of the Lancastrians, with a couple of exceptions: his army likely did
not have large numbers of Scots or Scottish Borderers; and, as Warwick's
army was marching from London, he had access to the royal arsenal, as
numbers of artillery pieces were reported to be in his train. In addition,
we know that the Yorkist army had fairly substantial numbers of handgunners.
There were also about 500 paid Burgundian mercenaries in this army.
Prelude to the Battle
Warwick with the captive King Henry in his train (he had been taken prisoner
at Northampton on July 10, 1460), meanwhile moved to block Margaret's army's
route to London. He took up position north of St. Albans (site of the
opening battle of the Wars of the Roses) astride one of the main roads from
the north, where he set up several fixed defences, including cannon and
obstacles such as fields of caltrops and pavises studded with spikes. Part
of his defences used an ancient earthwork known as the Beech Bottom Dyke.
Warwick's forces were divided into three "battles" (or wings), as was
customary at the time. He himself led the Main Battle in the centre; the
Duke of Norfolk led the Forward Battle on the right; and Warwick's brother
John Neville commanded the Rear Battle on the left. Warwick expected the
Queen's army to attack them across Bernards (or Barnet) Heath, a fairly
flat, open area to the northeast of the town. [see map below] Although
strong, Warwick's lines faced north and west only. However, he did think
somewhat out-of-the box, and stationed several hundred longbowmen scattered
throughout the town, a rather substandard attempt at a guard for his flank.
Margaret knew of Warwick's dispositions, probably through Sir Henry
Lovelace, the steward of Warwick's own household. Lovelace had been captured
by the Lancastrians at Wakefield but had been spared from execution and
released, and he believed he had been offered the vacant Earldom of Kent as
reward for betraying Warwick. Late on February 16, Margaret's army swerved
sharply west and captured the town of Dunstable in Bedfordshire, 30 miles
north of London and about 13 miles northwest of St. Albans. About 200 local
people under the town butcher tried to resist them, but were easily
dispersed. Warwick's "scourers" (scouts, patrols and foraging parties)
failed to detect this move.
2nd Battle of St. Albans
Margaret's army left Dunstable during the night of February 16-17, arriving
at St. Albans near dawn. The Lancastrians assaulted the town along the main
road from the northwest (the old Roman road known as Watling Street). They
were surprised when the hidden enemy archers began shooting at them from
house windows and the Town Clock Tower. Withdrawing across the Ver River,
Margaret's commanders searched for another route to attack Warwick's
positions. After a short time, attacks were launched along Folly Lane and
Catherine Street. [See above; the second attacks are in solid black lines]
The Yorkist bowmen were now outflanked and cut off from their comrades to
the northeast of town. The Lancastrians began rooting out the pesky missile
troops in deadly hand-to-hand fighting, which lasted for several hours. [It
seems that all this activity mostly escaped the attention of Warwick's men
northeast of town.]
"Map for the Second Battle of St. Albans"
by James Henry Ramsay (1892);
From Lancaster and York: A Century of English History (1399-1485), Volume 2
By noontime – but no later than mid-afternoon – the
Lancastrians advanced along St. Peter Street to attack the flank and rear of
Warwick's left division. Because this division was anchored by static
defenses, Warwick had a difficult time realigning his forces to face the new
threat. In addition, it was apparently a wet, perhaps drizzle-filled day;
this was enough to dampen the Yorkist gunpowder, causing innumerable
misfires, and shutting down Warwick's primary offensive punch. [Warwick
later claimed that the Kentish contingent in the Yorkist army under Lovelace
defected at this point, causing further confusion in the Yorkist ranks,
although later historians suggest that Lovelace's role as a scapegoat was
created by Warwick as a face-saving excuse to mask his own total
mismanagement of the battle.]
Despite the Yorkists being outnumbered and out of position, they held their
own against the Lancastrian force in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. By late
afternoon, as dusk was settling in (sunset at this time of year was about
5:19 p.m.), Warwick's army finally lost heart and began a retreat westward
into Oxfordshire, seeking to join up with the remains of the Yorkist army
under Edward. With this act, the royal capital of London was left wide open
to the victorious Lancastrians.
Yorkist casualties are estimated at about 5000 killed, wounded or captured.
The Lancastrians suffered perhaps 2000 casualties.
Despite the Lancastrian victory, the army did not immediately advance toward
London. Margaret's army spent several days pillaging the neighborhood (a
reputation it had gained over the past several months). The people of London
let it be known the Lancastrians would be denied entrance to the city. As a
result, Margaret withdrew back to Dunstable. Because of the victorious
army's failure to march on London, the remaining Scots and Scots Borderers
left the Lancastrian force and headed back north.
Footnote #1: 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 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.
Footnote #2: Another result of the Lancastrian failure to advance and occupy
London was that Edward the Earl of March and Warwick and their forces soon
afterwards marched on Longdon, Entering the city on February 26. Edward was
proclaimed king in March, ruling until he was deposed by the Lancastrians in
October of 1470. He would recover the throne in 1471, reigning until his
death in April of 1483, three weeks shy of his 41st birthday.
Footnote #3: This fight took place on Shrove Tuesday (otherwise known to the
French as "Fat Tuesday," Mardi Gras).
Footnote #4: The Wars of the Roses would continue for another 26 years,
until the final victory of the Tudor Dynasty at the battle of Stoke Field on
June 16, 1487.
Credit: American Legion, Burn Pit series, Mar 2015
I do not know if the Ogle family was engaged in the second battle,