Now considered the last great Yorkist victory, this desperate clash for the English throne should have put an end to the Wars of the Roses
Only nine years after wresting the English crown from his rival Henry VI at the exceptionally bloody battle of Towton in 1461, Edward IV found himself in exile in Holland and faced with the prospect of doing it all over again.
He had been ousted in a near-bloodless coup, the product of unlikely alliance between his once staunch ally the Earl of Warwick, his grasping brother the Duke of Clarence and Henry VI’s queen Margaret of Anjou. But he would not have to remain overseas for long. Within six months he would be campaigning for his throne once more, heading for a showdown at Tewkesbury in May 1471 that should have ended the Wars of the Roses for good.
Warwick and Edward had fallen out over the King’s choice of wife: in 1464, while Warwick was away negotiating a match with a French princess, Edward exchanged vows in secret with Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of a low-ranking English noble. The newly elevated Woodville family became a diplomatic thorn in the side of the ambitious Earl, and as his influence at court began to melt away his darkening thoughts turned to treason.
Two failed rebellions later, Warwick and Clarence fled to the French court. They returned in October 1470 at the head of an army that proclaimed itself for the Lancastrians, and Edward found he could not muster the support to oppose them. It was his turn to flee. Henry VI was released and returned to the throne as a puppet monarch under Warwick’s control, at least until such time that Margaret joined him from the continent. Henry himself played little part in the intrigues involving him. Years of captivity had left him more feeble now than he had ever been, to the point he had to led by the hand when he was triumphantly paraded through the streets of London.
But when Margaret finally came ashore at Weymouth on 14 April 1471 it was to find her grand scheme undone. Edward was already back, with a fresh army of his own, and he had returned Henry to the Tower. Warwick was dead, slain at the battle of Barnet that very day, while flighty Clarence, whose position in a Lancastrian England was always going to be precarious, had been reconciled to his brother once more. When given this news, she is said to have collapsed in shock and, according to contemporary chronicler Edward Hall, “declared she desired rather to die than live longer in this state of infelicity”.
Her first instinct was to return to France with her son, the 17-year-old Edward of Westminster, but her councillors convinced her to engage Yorkists in one final trial of arms. Judging that she did not have strength to rush to London to liberate Henry immediately, she instead began to trace a path towards Gloucester, where she would cross the River Severn to link up with Lancastrian forces being raised by the Earl of Pembroke, Jasper Tudor.
Edward became aware of her return within days, and by the 29th had brought his army to Cirencester. From there he searched and scoured the rolling hills; he thought he had caught up with her in Sodbury on 2 May, only to discover he had been wrong-footed and she was some 10 miles to the north. Margaret’s men reached Gloucester the next day after a hard march, but found the gates barred to them. The Lancastrians had no choice but to make for Tewkesbury, the next viable crossing, but the delay had diminished their lead and by nightfall Edward was just five miles away. Attempting a river crossing when the enemy was so close would be to risk disaster; the battle could not be postponed any longer.
Edward marched at first light on the 4th, arriving south of Tewkesbury to find the Lancastrians waiting for him in three equal ‘battles’, or divisions, arrayed side by side, which was both the typical formation for period and a mirror of his own. Unlike at Towton, the two armies were of a roughly similar size – up to 5,000 men for the Yorkists, and up to 6,000 for the Lancastrians.
After the usual rousing speeches promising glory and renown Margaret abandoned the battlefield, leaving command of the Lancastrian host to the Duke of Somerset. But it was Edward who struck first, marching his archers, handgunners and ordnance captured from Barnet forward over the uneven and broken ground to unleash their fury into the Lancastrian position. It was, noted the unknown (but irrefutably Yorkist) author of the Historie of the Arrivall of King Edward IV in England, a “right-a-sharp shower”.
Somerset responded by leading his own division, which occupied the Lancastrian right, forward and into the “evil lanes” that stood between him and the Yorkists. Picking his way through dykes and hedges, he emerged not in front of the Yorkist left battle as might be expected, but approaching Edward’s centre battle.
At first the Lancastrians held their own in the furious fracas of clattering steel that followed, though they were slowly pushed back towards their own lines by the combined battles of Edward and the Duke of Gloucester. But that morning Edward had also sent 200 ‘spears’ into the dense woodland alongside the battlefield, to act on their own initiative to prevent any Lancastrian flanking attempt. Now they too came charging out of the trees, and into the exposed rear of Somerset’s men. Beset from all sides, and without support from the rest of the Lancastrian host ‒ still standing calmly under their fluttering flags ‒ his men were cut to pieces.
When Somerset made it back to the Lancastrian line and saw the centre battle had not moved to his aid, he is said to have branded its commander, Lord Wenlock, as a traitor, then stove his head in with a mace. Hot on his heels came the entirety of Edward’s army, which proved too much for the weakened Lancastrians. Soon their line had buckled and men started running in all directions to escape the bloodlust of the Yorkists. Just as at Towton, so many men died in this phase of the fighting that part of the battlefield has become known as the Bloody Meadow.
Some 2,000 Lancastrians perished, among them Henry and Margaret’s son, Edward of Westminster, who remains the only Prince of Wales to have died in battle. Quite how he met his end is unclear: on chronicle suggests he was slain on battlefield, another that he was cut down trying to run, another that he was brought before Edward and executed by his brothers.
Whatever the truth, the depth the Lancastrian defeat was the same. The Wars of the Roses should have ended at Tewkesbury, and in terms of the red rose versus the white, they did. Henry was imprisoned, his son slain and within two days the Duke of Somerset would be executed, extinguishing the Lancastrian threat through the male line of the Beaufort family. On the third day, Margaret was taken prisoner too. Had Edward not gone to an early grave just 12 years later, or had the Princes in the Tower survived into adulthood, perhaps no one would have paid heed to the distant claim of the Earl of Pembroke’s nephew, Henry Tudor.
The buried battlefield
Unlike Towton, the Tewkesbury battlefield has been warped with time. Much of the land we think the fighting took place has been swallowed up by urban developments, though as the exact position of the two armies is still debated, how much remains is unclear. One place we do know played a role and still survives is Tewkesbury Abbey. A number of prominent Lancastrians took refuge here as they fled the slaughter of the Bloody Meadow, among them the Duke of Somerset, Margaret of Anjou’s favoured general.
Just as with the death of Edward of Westminster, what happened next varies between the chronicles and the sympathies of their authors. In one account, the victorious Edward IV civilly pardons all those except the Lancastrian ringleaders; in another he enters sword drawn and has to face down a vexed priest. Again, both have the same ending: though the commons were spared, Somerset and 12 others were dragged from the abbey and executed after perfunctory trials.
Somerset was given the dignity of being buried within the abbey, as was Edward of Westminster, whose resting place is marked by a gold plaque in the floor. Though he survived for several years after Tewkesbury, the remains of one of Edward IV’s brothers, the Duke of Clarence, are also interred here.
For a more lively experience of medieval warfare, this decisive encounter between Lancaster and York is re-enacted every year in July as part of the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival (www.tewkesburymedievalfestival.org). Thousands take part in the event each year, which is staged on what is thought to be the original battlefield.
First published in Your Family History magazine