The Second Battle of St Albans - 17 February 1461

Talk to the Society by Peter Burley and Harvey Watson on 23 February 2013

Report by Rosemary Ross

First published in Newsletter 119, April 2013

Photo:The Second Battle of St Albans - Lancastrians attack lines

The Second Battle of St Albans - Lancastrians attack lines

Cover of The Battles of St Albans by P Burley, M Elliott & H Watson, 2007

Harvey Watson and Peter Burley were welcomed back to the Society to present the sequel to their talk in February last year on the First Battle of St Albans (reported in NL 117, p.11). They set the scene by seeking to explain the complexities of the power struggle between rival branches of the Plantagenet kings descended from Edward III – the Houses of York and Lancaster. The Yorkist Richard II had proved such a weak king that he was deposed by Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke from the Lancastrian house of John of Gaunt), and he was followed by his charismatic son Henry V. However his son Henry VI, who came to the throne as an infant in 1422, was seen as weak, first under a regency and then under the sway of his dominant wife, Margaret of Anjou, during which time he lost England’s lands in France through the 100 Years’ War, led to rebellions among the nobility, who rallied under Richard, Duke of York.

York started his bid for power in 1452, and was appointed Protector the following year. The unexpected birth of Henry VI’s son in 1453 revived the ambitions of Margaret and the Lancastrians. However, the Yorkists marched on London, meeting the King’s Lancastrian army in St Albans on 22 May 1455 – the First Battle of St Albans, won by the Yorkists who took control of the King and killed his Protector, the Duke of Somerset and other nobles.  

During the ensuing uneasy peace the Duke of York lost the Protectorship but continued campaigns against the Lancastrians in Wales and northern England. He briefly regained ascendancy before meeting his death at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. Although the Lancastrians were now poised to gain ascendancy, their troops caused devastation and lost civilian support.

Line-up for the Second Battle

For the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461, the King had been brought from London to St Albans with Yorkist supporters – including the Earl of Warwick and Lord Montagu. Montagu set up camp on Bernards Heath overlooking Beech Bottom using its defensive bluff to set up his cannons and gunners. Warwick was encamped near Sandridge, and there was a garrison around the Clock tower. The Yorkists anticipated that an attack from the Lancastrian army, which was coming down from the north, would move south to St Albans through Hitchin and Sandridge. However, the Lancastrians made a detour from Royston to Dunstable and then down Watling Street. They marched through the night of 16-17 February, and made a surprise early morning attack from St Michael’s in the west up Fishpool Street to the Eleanor Cross at the southern end of the Market Place, where they were ambushed and repulsed by Yorkist archers in the Clock Tower and surrounding houses. The Lancastrians then made another surprise attack up Folly Lane and Catherine Street and rallied by St Peter’s Church, thereby encircling the Clock Tower garrison.

After fighting in St Peter Street, they advanced across Bernard’s Heath to attack the Yorkist forces under Lord Montagu’s command, where the King’s tent was said to be pitched under an oak tree. Montagu had to try re-positioning his northwards-facing guns to counter this attack from behind. What had been intended by the Yorkists as a battle with gunners, became a fierce and deadly hand to hand fight, with a very high toll on both sides. Wet and windy conditions probably also hampered the use of gunpowder – and also of archers. In the confusion of battle the Yorkists lost control of the King (which makes him sound like a pawn in these wars).

After the battle, the Lancastrians escorted the King to be reunited with his wife Margaret and the Prince of Wales and they were taken to give thanks at St Alban’s shrine in the Abbey. The Lancastrians ignored the King’s proclamation forbidding them from looting and sacking St Albans, so by the time the Lancastrians reached London, the Londoners barred Cripplegate to them, and they failed to take the capital. So despite the Lancastrians winning the Battle in St Albans, Henry VI was deposed a fortnight later and the Yorkist Earl of March became King Edward IV.

Bringing the battle to life

Photo:Replica of breechloading gun

Replica of breechloading gun

The Battles of St Albans, op.cit. 2007

Peter and Howard illustrated their talk with plans, diagrams and photos of the likely locations of the fighting, and described the tools of warfare, from caltrops (spikes for tripping up horses and men) pavises (for sheltering primitive muskets), cannons, handguns (a very recent development) and archers.

Photo:Replicas of caltrops

Replicas of caltrops

The Battles of St Albans, op.cit. 2007

The Lancastrians had the benefit of a professional soldier, Andrew Trollope, who is credited with the surprise elements of the Lancastrian attack. Compared with the First Battle, large numbers of troops were involved on both sides, with 8000-12,000 Yorkists and 15-20,000 Lancastrians, and there were substantial casualties. The armies were made up of Knights, Feed men (who were paid and fed), Mercenaries (including 500 Burgundians in the Yorkist army) and pressed men (who relied on looting for their pay). The first recorded treatment of a gunshot wound was by a doctor in St Albans.

More information

There are more fascinating details in The Battles of St Albans by Peter Burley, Michael Elliott and Harvey Watson, published by Pen & Sword Military in 2007. They also recommended the novel The White Queen by Philippa Gregory as giving a good description of the times.

More information about the battles of the Wars of the Roses and other battlefield sites can be found at the website of the Battlefields Trust. http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/

Peter Burley and Mike Elliott will be leading a walk around the Bernards Heath on Sunday, 11 May 2014

Photo:Second Battle of St Albans, showing the Yorkist positions and Lancastrian attacks

Second Battle of St Albans, showing the Yorkist positions and Lancastrian attacks

1766 Drury & Andrews map, reproduced in The Battles of St Albans, 2007

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 04/04/2013.

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