St Albans’ Wars of the Roses

Re-enactors recreate a Yorkist charge against Lancastrian forces

Re-enactors recreate a Yorkist charge against Lancastrian forces - Credit: Archant

As Richard III, whose death marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, lays newly buried in Leicester Cathedral, Steve Roberts follows the course of the St Albans battle that lit the touchpaper for the conflict 560 years ago this month

View of St Albans from the medieval clock tower. French Row (l), Market Place (r), with St Peter's S

View of St Albans from the medieval clock tower. French Row (l), Market Place (r), with St Peter's Street in the centre and St Peter's Church in the far distance. The Yorkists attacked from the right. (Photo Przemyslaw Sakrajda) - Credit: Archant

Few places have had battles fought over their soils on two occasions, but St Albans did – in 1455 and 1461, both in the Wars of the Roses. On May 22, it is the 560th anniversary of the first of those battles, the aptly named 1st St Albans, when Lancastrian forces under King Henry VI were undone by opposing Yorkists. Almost six years later, 2nd St Albans was fought on February 17, 1461, but the outcome was quite different. This time Yorkists were vanquished by Lancastrians led by Henry VI’s redoubtable queen, Margaret of Anjou.

Madness and conflict

The Wars of the Roses began following the temporary insanity of Henry VI in August 1453, which left him bereft of speech for 18 months. During this time Richard, Duke of York, became chief counsellor, much to the chagrin of the king’s favourite, the Duke of Somerset, who was incarcerated in the Tower of London. When Henry recovered, his kingdom split into Yorkists, who believed the Duke of York should remain the king’s protector, and Lancastrians who supported the Duke of Somerset. Somerset was liberated from the Tower and York’s services were not retained by the king. The conflict between the red rose of Lancaster and the white of York was the result as the opposing families battled for power.

Street fighting

The first battle of these bitter wars took place at St Albans, when Lancastrians led by the king barricaded themselves in the town in an attempt to stop a Yorkist army heading to London. The 1st St Albans battle was unusual as the fighting took place in the city rather than the surrounding fields and visitors today can still trace the course of the fighting as the street layout is largely unaltered.

Between 2,000-3,000 Lancastrians made use of the old 13th-century town ditch and wall (or bank) some 200 yards east of St Peter’s Street and Holywell Hill (once Holywell Street), thoroughfares that exist today much as they did in 1455, as the king’s army established a position around the market place. Crucially, while the sides parleyed, Lancastrians who had set themselves up to defend the ditch fell back into the city to quench their thirst. Talks broke down meanwhile due to York’s insistence that Somerset surrender for trial (a euphemism for execution).

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The Yorkists, around 3,000 strong, who had pitched camp in Key Field to the east, attacked from that direction, where the ground was more open – the Duke of York piling along Shropshire Lane (today’s Victoria Street), the Earl of Warwick in the vicinity of what is today London Road, and the Earl of Salisbury along Sopwell Lane. Some Yorkists attacked further north at Cock Lane.

After initial attacks were repelled, it was Warwick who forced the ditch, breaking into St Peter’s Street and the market place in the city centre. Warwick’s assault seems to have taken Lancastrians by surprise, as he suddenly emerged through houses (his troops even battering their way through walls) and gardens between Shropshire and Sopwell Lanes, where the earl found enemy leaders unarmoured and rank and file unprepared. Pressed back, Lancastrians fell easy prey to Yorkist archers. Somerset and Northumberland were both slain in the savage melée of hand-to-hand fighting that ensued in the market place. Even the king is said to have been wounded when he was grazed by an arrow before being led away to a tanner’s cottage for refuge. The Queen’s Hotel is supposed to mark the spot where Warwick attacked.

The aftermath

Numbers of casualties were not recorded, but deaths among the common soldiery were probably light, maybe as few as 100, most of them Lancastrian. The confined nature of the fighting may have prevented the more usual bloodbath. What was not in doubt was the outcome, a Yorkist victory, which was established within an hour. Henry was captured but apparently treated with respect and taken back to London. A brittle peace would hold for four years. Henry was still king but York and his adherents were in the ascendancy.

A plaque opposite the tourist information centre records the spot where the Duke of Somerset was killed, on a corner where Castle Inn once stood. Near here stood the king and Duke of Buckingham, whose son was killed. Clifford meanwhile was cut down near Sopwell Lane. Shakespeare gives his son a vengeful speech here as he vows to take revenge on York, which he duly did at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 when York and one of his sons were slain.

St Albans Abbey featured in 1st St Albans as Queen Margaret sought sanctuary there with her son, Prince Edward. At the conclusion of the fighting, York also headed to the abbey for an impromptu thanksgiving service.

The battle, while rapidly concluded, was the violent spark that ignited more than 30 years of civil war, a period that became known as the Wars of the Roses.