The Wars of the Roses in the Cotswolds

Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Sudeley Castle, which was given to Richard, Duke of Gloucester by his elder brother after he became King Edward IV. Richard would be the owner twice, between 1469 and 1478 (his brother’s grant) and then as King Richard III from 1483 - Credit: Wdejager/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

What role did the Cotswolds play in the 30-year Wars of the Roses? Stephen Roberts investigates the effect the 15th-century royal houses had on the Wolds 

Lancastrians were slaughtered at Tewkesbury. Sudeley became a royal castle. At Minster Lovell, one of the vanquished may have gone into hiding, never to emerge.  

The Wars of the Roses is my bag. A fractious, internecine civil war, it was fought over a 30-year period in the 15th century, the dates 1455-85 usually proffered, although the fighting persisted until at least 1487. The protagonists wouldn’t have cared much for roses: They knew it as a dust-up between rival royal houses, York and Lancaster, both having claims on the English throne. It was a war between cousins; the Cousins’ War. Red and white rose counties; well, that came later. I am interested in two things. What happened and what effect did the wars have on our Cotswolds? 

The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Northleach

The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Northleach, which was restored using money bequeathed by John Fortey, a local wool ‘baron’. Work was underway as the Wars of the Roses got into their stride - Credit: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Well, I wouldn’t claim life in the Cotswolds was rosy for everyone in the mid-15th century, but some people made fortunes out of fluffy gold (wool). In Northleach, the church was restored via the woolly wealth of John Fortey who died in 1458, three years into the wars, bequeathing the considerable sum of £300 for building the clerestory, porch and nave, work underway by the time he died. Fortey would have been aware of the wars. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was lacking in martial quality, pious, ineffectual and prone to bouts of insanity. Into this regal vacuum strode the Yorkist claimant, Richard, Duke of York. This was not, of course, the Grand Old Duke of York who had a penchant for marching his men up a hill; that was a later one.  

The Warwick Almshouses, Burford

The Warwick Almshouses, Burford, which were built under the auspices of the Earl of Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’, as Burford was one of his manors. The plaque above the door records that: ‘These almshouses were founded by Richard, Earl of Warwick in the year 1457 and were rebuilt in the year 1828’ - Credit: wfmillar/geograph.org.uk

The first fisticuffs were exchanged at St Albans (Herts) on May 22, 1455, which saw Yorkists celebrating and the king wounded. Fighting alongside the Duke was Richard, Earl of Warwick, the so-called ‘Kingmaker’ and lord of all he surveyed at Warwick Castle. Warwick left his mark at Burford, one of his manors, building the almshouses in 1457, two years into the wars. York was recognised as Henry’s heir as his star ascended. He’s commemorated in Cirencester where the church, the Cathedral of the Cotswolds, was part-endowed (the chantry chapel) by two of his retainers, whose brasses occupy the church. The east window has some stained glass, a roundel depicting the Duke’s head, which he would soon lose. Yorkist badges and insignia mark the stonework. It appears the Yorkists were favoured here.  

St John the Baptist Church, Cirencester

St John the Baptist Church, Cirencester, the ‘Cathedral of the Cotswolds’, which was part-endowed by two of the retainers of the Duke of York - Credit: Traveler100/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

The East window, St John the Baptist Church, Cirencester

The East window, St John the Baptist Church, Cirencester, which includes a depiction of Richard, Duke of York, the patriarch of the Yorkist dynasty who was to die in battle in December 1460 - Credit: Jules & Jenny/Creative Commons

York overreached and was killed at the Battle of Wakefield (Yorks) on December 30, 1460. He wore only a paper crown, plonked mockingly on his severed head to the approval of Henry’s formidable queen, Margaret of Anjou. There was a Yorkist leviathan in the wings, though, Henry’s eldest son, the 18-year-old colossus, 6-foot 4-inch Edward, Earl of March, who took up the Yorkist mantle, vowing revenge for his father’s destruction. Two stunning victories put his posterior on the throne: Mortimer’s Cross (Herefordshire), fought on February 2, 1461; Towton (Yorks), fought on March 29.  

Battlefield memorial, Mortimer’s Cross, Herefordshire

Battlefield memorial, Mortimer’s Cross, Herefordshire, commemorating one of the two 1461 battles that put Edward IV, the first Yorkist king, on the throne - Credit: Stephen Roberts

At Mortimer’s Cross, the appearance of a ‘parhelion’ when a triple sun appears to rise, led to Edward adopting the emblem of the ‘Sun in Splendour’. During this tumultuous spring two Yorkist armies met at Burford, Edward’s, victorious in Herefordshire, and Warwick’s, defeated at Second St Albans (February 17). It was probably at Burford these allies decided on a march on London where Edward was declared the first Yorkist king. Edward then headed north to spank another Lancastrian army at Towton: Henry VI headed for the Tower. 

Pub sign at Mortimer’s Cross

Pub sign at Mortimer’s Cross showing the red and white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York, the ‘Sun in Splendour’ (parhelion) and the date of the battle, 1461 - Credit: Stephen Roberts

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Edward sat securely on his throne certainly for the next decade, although there were rucks. For most people in the Cotswolds life resumed its seasonal rhythm. They might have heard about the king’s clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the ‘White Queen’ of the TV series, in May 1464, which was a major factor in the king falling out with his erstwhile ally, Warwick. Once kings are made, they like to make their own decisions. At Kington the church contains the tomb of Sir Thomas Vaughan, killed at the Battle of Edgcote in July 1469. He’d fought for the king (although the king wasn’t present) against a rebel army, supporting Warwick, that won the day and had the Kingmaker in charge for a few months. 

St Mary’s Church, Kington, Herefordshire

St Mary’s Church, Kington, Herefordshire, where Sir Thomas Vaughan lies buried. He was killed at the Battle of Edgcote in 1469 fighting against the Earl of Warwick’s rebels - Credit: Philip Pankhurst/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

As if the civil war wasn’t enough, there was also localised strife kicking off, such as at Nibley Green (Glos), on March 20 1470, when the final battle fought on English soil between ‘private’ armies occurred. The dispute was over ownership of Berkeley Castle and saw around 2,000 men belonging to William, Lord Berkeley and Thomas, Lord Lisle opposed. Lord Berkeley stumped up the cash for the south aisle of North Nibley’s church in thanks for his victory. Lisle was killed. Shot through his visor by an archer (‘Black Will’), he was terminated with a few nifty dagger thrusts. This demonstrated that even in the midst of civil war there were still ‘domestic’ issues needing sorting. The battlefield lies just over 30 miles from Tewkesbury where a far bigger affair was brewing.

View from Nibley Knoll over the village of North Nibley and towards Nibley Green

View from Nibley Knoll over the village of North Nibley and towards Nibley Green where the battle was fought in March 1470, the last fought entirely between ‘private’ armies in England. The battle was fought in the fields between North Nibley and the River Severn which lies in the distance and was a dispute over ownership of nearby Berkeley Castle - Credit: Dr Duncan Pepper/Creative Commons

Old Sodbury hill fort

Old Sodbury hill fort, viewed from the east, where Edward IV is said to have rested his army on his march to Tewkesbury and victory over Margaret of Anjou’s Lancastrians - Credit: Ethan Doyle White/Creative Commons

Edward IV fought for his throne all over again in April and May 1471. First of all, the rebellious Warwick was slain at the Battle of Barnet (Herts) then Edward rocked up at Tewkesbury to vanquish the force led by Margaret of Anjou and her son and heir, the 17-year-old Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, who’d die in the fighting or its aftermath. The king had rested his army at the ancient hill fort at Old Sodbury (Glos) after a brief skirmish before pressing on via Cheltenham and Tredington to destroy the Lancastrian army at Tewkesbury. Having covered Tewkesbury a little while back (Cotswold Life May/June 2021) I won’t repeat it, save to say that it was another bloody affair.

The Church of St Eadburgha where the Lancastrian Sir John Fortescue lies buried

The Church of St Eadburgha, where the Lancastrian Sir John Fortescue lies buried - Credit: David P Howard/Creative Commons

The tomb of the Lancastrian Sir John Fortescue

The tomb of the Lancastrian Sir John Fortescue, who was pardoned by the Yorkist king Edward IV after the Battle of Tewkesbury and permitted to retain Ebrington - Credit: Michael Garlick/Creative Commons

At Ebrington (Glos) the church contains the tomb of a prominent Lancastrian, John Fortescue, a Lord Chief Justice who’d worked for Henry VI. He was lucky, pardoned after Tewkesbury by Edward IV and permitted to retain Ebrington. Other Lancastrians were less fortunate, some pursued right into Tewkesbury’s abbey as Yorkists’ blood was up. Henry VI was collateral damage, done to death in the Tower, two to three weeks later. Edward IV had fought alongside his two remaining brothers, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Clarence was damaged goods, though. He’d married Warwick’s daughter and plotted against the king. Come Tewkesbury he was reconciled to the king, but he’d be plotting and conniving again (allegedly) to the point that Edward had him snuffed out, executed in the Tower on February 18 1478. A week later he’d be laid to rest in Tewkesbury Abbey where he'd join the Lancastrian Prince of Wales.

King Edward IV and his Yorkists prepare to storm the abbey, 1867

The violation of sanctuary. King Edward IV and his Yorkists prepare to storm Tewkesbury Abbey in pursuit of fleeing Lancastrians whilst clerics try to prevent them continuing their pursuit into God’s church. Painting of 1867 - Credit: Richard Burchett/Guildhall Art Gallery

St Mary’s, Broughton

St Mary’s, Broughton where Elizabeth Wykeham and William Fiennes have set aside their Wars of the Roses antagonism and now lie together - Credit: Motacilla/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

The fratricidal nature of these wars is nowhere better illustrated than at Broughton (Oxon). The church has a fascinating tomb where the incumbents wear Yorkist and Lancastrian favours. It wasn't just the 17th-century English Civil War dividing families. The tomb is of grandmother and grandson, two separate ones put together. She is Elizabeth Wykeham and sports a Lancastrian collar. He is William Fiennes, second Lord Saye and Sele, husband of her grand-daughter, and wears a Yorkist collar of suns and roses. He died at Barnet. 

Edward IV sat plumply on his throne until April 1483 when he died, probably of over-indulgence. His death sparked a succession crisis, which saw his two boys, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, disappear in said Tower and Edward’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the boys’ uncle, seizing the throne as Richard III. Richard appeared to have been loyal to Edward IV and benefited from that loyalty, for example he was given Sudeley Castle after Edward became king. Intriguingly, Sudeley was built by Ralph Butler (or Boteler) in the decade before the wars began. It was his daughter-in-law, Eleanor Butler, who’d been pre-contracted to marry Edward IV before his hush-hush wedding to the White Queen. When the king died the rumour-mongers dug out Eleanor’s story, claiming that the king’s marriage had been bigamous and his children therefore illegitimate: It smoothed Richard III’s accession. 

It ended badly for Richard, though; duffed up at Bosworth Field in August 1485, destined to be the crookback meanie of Shakespearean prose and the monarch excavated from beneath a car park in 2012. The jury’s still deliberating as to whether he was good or bad or shades between. Fifield, near Burford, has glass showing Edward IV’s ‘Sun in Splendour’ but also the crown in a thornbush, signifying the end of Richard III, the crown reputedly plucked from the bush and placed on the head of his nemesis, Henry Tudor, the last Lancastrian hope and first Tudor monarch. The tail wagged and Henry defeated a Yorkist army at Stoke Field (Notts) in June 1487. Someone who disappeared after that final nail was Francis Lovell, Richard’s henchman. Rumours persist that he hid himself away too well at Minster Lovell Hall (Oxon), never to emerge. 

The ruins of Minster Lovell Hall

The ruins of Minster Lovell Hall where Francis Lovell may have hidden himself rather too well from his Lancastrian pursuers and was never to be seen again, not alive anyway - Credit: Stephen Roberts

Chronology

1455 – The wars commence with a skirmish in the streets of St Albans. 

1460 – Richard, Duke of York is killed at the Battle of Wakefield. 

1461 – Richard’s son, Edward Earl of March (Edward IV), is victorious at Towton. 

1464 – Edward IV’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the ‘White Queen’. 

1471 – Edward IV retains his throne with victories at Barnet and Tewkesbury. 

1478 – Execution of George, Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s brother, for treason. 

1483 – Death of Edward IV, disappearance of Princes in the Tower, accession of Richard III. 

1485 – Defeat & death of Richard III at Bosworth. Henry Tudor becomes the first Tudor king. 

1487 – The Battle of Stoke Field is the final significant dust up of the Wars of the Roses. 

References