In the early morning of Easter Sunday 14 April 1471, the usual nervous energy of two armies awaiting a battle was heightened by the thick fog that clung to the fields around them. Just outside Barnet, a dozen or so miles north of London, King Edward IV arranged his men to face off against his former closest ally, his first cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, remembered now as the Kingmaker.
Edward, the first Yorkist king, had been ejected from his kingdom in 1470 by Warwick’s decision to change sides and champion the readeption (a word made up in 1470 for the reappointment of a former king) of the Lancastrian Henry VI. The Battle of Barnet would decide the future of England.
When the battle drew to a close, Warwick was dead, marking a vital victory for Yorkist Edward IV over his Lancastrian foes.
Here’s the story of the Battle of Barnet.
Forced to leave England, Edward and a few allies had taken refuge in Burgundy. When France attacked, Burgundy backed Edward to prevent Lancastrian England from joining the assault. Crossing the Channel, they found their planned landing place at Cromer in Norfolk heavily defended.
Pushing north in storms, Edward eventually landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire. Pushing south, he tried to gather support to confront Warwick. Edward had two brothers alive in 1471. George, Duke of Clarence had backed Warwick, but was brought around by the rest of the family and stood beside Edward at Barnet. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) had gone into exile with Edward and been key to convincing George to return to the fold.
Camping in darkness
Both armies had arrived outside Barnet as night was falling on Saturday evening. Unaware of each others’ positions, the two armies had accidentally camped much closer than they meant to. Edward only discovered this when Warwick ordered his cannon to open fire and the shot sailed harmlessly over the Yorkist camp. Edward gave the order that his own guns should remain silent to avoid alerting Warwick’s gunners to their mistake. How much sleep anyone managed that night is hard to guess.
The numbers involved in medieval battles are hard to judge with any certainty. Chronicles struggle to give reliable numbers, not least because men were unaccustomed to seeing large numbers of people packed so tightly together and so had no real mechanism to count them accurately. Warkworth’s Chronicle suggests that Edward had around 7,000 men, and Warwick, who was joined by his brother John Neville, Marquis Montagu and John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, about 10,000.
Sources agree that the heavy mist that hung in the air in the early morning of Easter Sunday was to prove decisive for the battle’s outcome. Between 4 and 5 o’clock in the morning, Edward ordered his men to form up to the sound of trumpet blasts and the thunder of his cannon. The gunfire was returned, demonstrating that Warwick too was prepared. After a brief exchange, the armies moved forward into hand-to-hand combat. Now, the part played by the mist became clear.
The two armies had lined up off centre, unable to see each other. Edward held his centre, keeping his wayward brother George close. Warwick and Montagu had the centre of their force. On Edward’s left, Lord Hastings faced off against the experienced Oxford, but found Oxford’s lines went beyond his own and he was quickly outflanked. Edward’s left broke and Hastings’ men fled back to Barnet, some continuing to London where they broke news of Edward’s defeat. Oxford’s men began looting in Barnet before he regained control of them and turned them back towards the battlefield.
A first battle
On the other flank, the story was reversed. Edward’s right was under the command of his youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He found he could flank Warwick’s right, led by the Duke of Exeter. This was Richard’s first taste of battle, and Edward seems to have placed a lot of faith in him by giving him command of a wing. A few of Richard’s men fell, and he would see them commemorated later. Exeter was so severely wounded that he was left on the field for dead, only to be discovered alive later in the day.
The two centres, under Edward and Warwick themselves, were engaged in a brutal and even melee. Warwick had been Edward’s mentor and a key ally in securing the throne for the House of York. He was 42 years old, and faced his former protégé who was just a fortnight away from his 29th birthday. It seemed impossible to tell who would gain the upper hand until the mist once again played a decisive part.
As Oxford’s men made their way back onto the field from Barnet, their presence ought to have swung the advantage in Warwick’s favour. Instead, it seems that in the mist, Oxford’s badge of a star and streamers was mistaken for Edward’s emblem of a sun in splendour. Warwick and Montagu’s men panicked, thinking they were being flanked, and their archers opened fire on Oxford’s men.
In turn, Oxford’s men feared Warwick had turned his coat and gone over to Edward’s side. Such was the fragility of faith in others during the Wars of the Roses. A cry of treason went up and all parts of Warwick’s army were thrown into panic and confusion. As his army broke ranks and fled, Warwick and Montagu also ran.
As his forces collapsed, Warwick tried to escape into Wrotham Wood at the rear of the battlefield. He was hotly pursued by Edward’s men. Some sources suggest Edward gave an order that Warwick was to be captured alive, but that his men ignored it. Edward was known to be forgiving, and it was suggested there were fears he would pardon Warwick, risking another outbreak of unrest.
Warwick and Montagu were both hunted down and killed. Warwick reportedly received a coup de grâce – a dagger through the eye slit in his helmet to ensure he was dead. The bodies of both Neville brothers were taken from the field and displayed at St Paul’s the following day so that all would know they were dead, mainly so that people would understand Warwick was definitely gone.
It is impossible to know how Edward, Richard and George felt about taking the field against their cousin, to whom each had been close. Warwick had been a mentor to Edward, was George’s father-in-law and co-conspirator, and had been Richard’s guardian and tutor for a time.
Richard, along with Anthony Woodville, was amongst those injured at the Battle of Barnet, according to one newsletter that was sent to the continent by merchant Gerhard von Wesel. We don’t know what the injury was, but although von Wesel said he was ‘severely wounded’, Richard was well enough to march out of London within a few weeks to head for the next decisive clash in the Wars of the Roses at Tewkesbury on 4 May.