On 4 May 1471, a Lancastrian army arrayed for battle before a Yorkist force. In the centre of the Lancastrian army was the 17-year-old Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, only child of King Henry VI and the great hope of his faction. The Yorkist army was led by King Edward IV, who had deposed Henry VI in 1461, but in turn was deposed in 1470 when Henry VI was restored.
In a heatwave, after days of relentless marching, the houses of Lancaster and York would undergo the trial of battle once more.
The return of Edward IV
Edward IV had been forced from England by an alliance between his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, remembered now as the Kingmaker, and the deposed House of Lancaster, led by Queen Margaret and her teenage son Edward, Prince of Wales. Henry VI himself had been a prisoner of Edward IV in the Tower of London, but found himself restored to power, at least as a figurehead.
In 1471, Edward landed on the north-east coast and moved south, reaching London and taking back power before moving to confront Warwick on a foggy morning at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471. On the same day Warwick was defeated. Margaret and Prince Edward landed in the south-west and began recruiting support. As Margaret tried to reach the Welsh border to join up with reinforcements, Edward marched out of London to confront her. What followed was a desperate game of cat and mouse.
The road to Tewkesbury
On 30 April, Margaret was at Bristol. She sent word to Edward that she would meet his forces the following morning at Sudbury Hill. Edward arrived and prepared for battle before realising he had been tricked. The Lancastrian army was nowhere to be seen. Realising they would try to cross the River Severn, Edward sent riders ahead to Gloucester, the first available crossing, and ordered them to prevent the Lancastrians passing through. When Margaret arrived at Gloucester, she was denied entry.
The next available fording point was at Tewkesbury. The Lancastrians marched on, covering 36 miles as they marched day and night, reaching Tewkesbury as night fell on 3 May. Edward IV had pushed his army to match the Lancastrian pace, and they camped three miles from their quarry as darkness fell. The weather was stifling. One eye witness called it “right an-hot day”, and the Crowland Chronicle described how “both armies had now become so extremely fatigued with the labour of marching and thirst that they could proceed no further”.
The prince fights
On the morning of 4 May, Margaret made the difficult decision to let her 17-year-old son take his place in the centre of the Lancastrian army. It would be his first taste of battle. Not only was he her son, but the entire future of the Lancastrian line rested on his young shoulders. If their cause was to have any hope, he had to prove he was everything his ineffectual father was not. He was placed alongside the experienced Lord Wenlock. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset took the Lancastrian vanguard and the Earl of Devon the rear.
Edward IV stood at the centre of his army. His youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) was given the vanguard, and Lord Hastings the rearguard, perhaps as a result of having been routed at the Battle of Barnet. Edward had found himself with 200 spare cavalry, and stationed them in a small wood off to his flank with orders to do anything they felt was useful. It was to prove fortuitous.
The Battle of Tewkesbury
Edward IV’s army opened fire with cannon and arrow. The Lancastrians, who had positioned themselves among “foul lanes and deep dykes, and many hedges”, knew they could not stand and take the punishment, so Somerset advanced. Gloucester moved to meet the enemy’s vanguard, but Somerset swung around, through lanes they had found in the night, and tried to attack Edward’s flank.
Spying the Lancastrian approach, those 200 cavalry saw their moment and attacked, catching Somerset unawares. As his men retreated, they were caught by Gloucester’s force and chased from the battlefield. Many drowned in the nearby river, while others fled into the Abbey at the edge of the site.
For a long time, the fighting in the centre was close and the outcome of the battle uncertain. But eventually, Edward IV’s Yorkist army was victorious. Prince Edward was killed. Whether he died in the fighting or was captured and killed afterwards is unclear from the sources.
Edward IV burst into Tewkesbury Abbey in the aftermath of the battle, demanding that those Lancastrians sheltering within should be handed over. One brave monk apparently confronted the 6’4 king, fresh (or not so fresh) from the battlefield, and chastised him for entering the Abbey with his sword drawn. Edward withdrew, but continued to demand the handover of those inside. When they were forced to leave, they were tried and executed in Tewkesbury town centre two days after the battle, on 6 May. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the last legitimate male of the House of Beaufort, was amongst those who lost their heads.
By way of an apology to the Abbey, Edward paid for it to be redecorated. However he had it painted in the Yorkist livery colour of murrey (a deep red) and blue and covered with his personal badge of the Sun in Splendour. If you visit Tewkesbury Abbey today, you can still see this decoration in place. There is also a plaque commemorating Prince Edward, the last of the Lancastrian line (his father, Henry VI, would die, probably murdered, when the Yorkists returned to London). It seems cruel not only that another young man lost his life, but that his resting place is loomed over by the badges and colours of his vanquisher.
Sometimes, if you visit the Abbey, you can also get to see the inside of the vestry door, which is covered in metal. It is claimed that this is horse armour recovered from the battlefield, showing the puncture marks where arrows pierced it.
The end of the Wars of the Roses?
If the Wars of the Roses is viewed as a dynastic struggle between the royal Houses of Lancaster and York, then it can be argued that the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471 brought it to an end. Prince Edward was killed, and his death meant there was no reason to keep his father alive any longer.
Henry VI had probably been kept alive to prevent his younger, active son becoming the focal point for Lancastrian support, which rested instead on an ageing and ineffective deposed king. Henry’s life ended on 21 May 1471, and with that, the House of Lancaster became extinct, and the Wars of the Roses, at least as a dynastic struggle between Lancaster and York, ended.
It was not the end of trouble, though, whatever it might be named from this point onwards.