Why Did Richard Duke of York Fight Henry VI at the Battle of St Albans?

Matt Lewis

5 mins

20 May 2020

The First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455 is cited as the date the Wars of the Roses began.

Richard, Duke of York is often considered an ambitious war monger who dragged England into the Wars of the Roses in his relentless pursuit of the crown worn by his second cousin once removed, Henry VI.

The truth is very different.

York’s early years

Born in 1411, York was orphaned in 1415. His mother Anne Mortimer died shortly after his birth and his father, Richard, Earl of Cambridge was executed by Henry V for treason as he prepared to leave for the Agincourt campaign.

After his father’s death, York became a ward of the crown and was placed into the care of Robert Waterton.

Waterton also had custody of some of the most famous prisoners taken at the Battle of Agincourt, including Marshal Boucicaut, Charles Duke of Orleans, and Arthur, son of the Duke of Brittany.

A depiction of the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans, in the Tower of London from a 15th-century manuscript. The White Tower is visible, St Thomas’ Tower (also known as Traitor’s Gate) is in front of it, and in the foreground is the River Thames.

It is tempting to see these men, sat around a fire in the evening, telling an impressionable boy stories of what happens to a country cursed with a weak king, threatened with invasion, and torn apart by factions.

As he grew, York watched Henry’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his great-uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester indulge in a rivalry that was a precursor to the Wars of the Roses as Henry VI showed himself weak and disinterested in ruling. It must have rung alarm bells.

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Richard’s inheritances as a threat

Richard’s uncle Edward, Duke of York was killed at Agincourt, his title passing to his young nephew, along with his crippling debts.

In 1425, Richard also acquired the rich inheritance of his maternal uncle Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. The Mortimer family were problematical, since they arguably held a better claim to the throne than the Lancastrian kings.

Richard represented a convergence of inheritances that meant he was perceived as a threat even before he became politically active.

On 8 May 1436, aged 24, Richard was appointed lieutenant-general of France after the death the previous year of Henry VI’s uncle John, Duke of Bedford. Bedford had been regent, and Richard held watered down powers, but performed the role well during his one-year commission.

He returned to England in November 1437, unpaid and having used his own money to fund efforts in France.

When York’s successor died, he was reappointed to the office in July 1440. He served until 1445, when he was surprised to find himself replaced with Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.

Henry VI (right) sitting while the Dukes of York (left) and Somerset (centre) have an argument.

Opposition to the House of Lancaster

It was the beginning of a bitter personal feud between the dukes. By now, York was owed more than £38,000 by the crown, equivalent to over £31 million in today’s money.

Willingly or otherwise, York also became associated with Henry VI’s last remaining uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who began to name York first amongst those he believed were being unfairly excluded from power.

In 1447, Humphrey fell victim to his nephew’s paranoia. Henry became convinced his fifty-six-year-old childless uncle meant to steal his throne. Humphrey was arrested and suffered a stroke, dying in custody a few days later.

The face of a popular desire to pursue war with France, Humphrey’s death caused his supporters to turn to York. For the first time, opposition to the increasingly unpopular government of Henry VI had a focus outside the House of Lancaster.

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York was sent to Ireland as lieutenant. His tenure was cut short by Cade’s Rebellion in 1450, a populist revolt that saw London stormed by men of Kent. Rumours abounded that York was behind the uprising, but his return may well have been born of a sense of duty.

As the senior nobleman and heir presumptive to the king, his responsibility was to help keep law and order, but he was viewed with ever-increasing suspicion and excluded from power.

A failed attempt to force himself on the government in 1452 at Dartford led to an embarrassing arrest, more suspicion and deeper exclusion.

York as Lord Protector 1453

When Henry had a mental breakdown and became incapacitated in 1453, his wife Margaret of Anjou made a bid for power, but the misogynistic lords turned instead to York, appointing him Lord Protector.

York’s rule was moderate and inclusive, though Somerset was imprisoned in the Tower. When Henry suddenly recovered at Christmas 1454, he immediately excluded York again, undid most of his work and freed Somerset.

If Henry’s illness was a crisis for England, his recovery was to prove a disaster.

First Battle of St Albans

When Henry tried to move to the Midlands in 1455, York gathered an army and marched south. Despite writing letters each day explaining where he was and that he meant Henry no harm, York received no response.

He reached Henry at St Albans, with the king’s army inside the town and the gates barred. York had around 6,000 men and the king’s army only numbered about 2,000, but most of the nobility were firmly on Henry’s side.

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At 7 o’clock on the morning of 22 May, York’s army arrayed on Key Fields outside St Albans. A parlay failed and hostilities began just after 11 o’clock.

Finding the gates heavily fortified, the Earl of Warwick eventually broke into some gardens and made his way to the market square, unleashing his archers on the king’s unprepared forces. The distraction allowed York to breach the gates and a vicious slaughter ensued in the streets.

Edmund Beaufort, York’s rival, was killed. Henry himself was wounded by an arrow in the neck. When York found the king, he fell to his knees and pledged his loyalty before seeing to it that Henry’s wound was treated.

A modern day procession as people celebrate the Battle of St Albans.

Road to the Wars of the Roses

York took control of the government again for a time as Protector, but it was short-lived. His financial reforms threatened those who had prospered under Henry’s slack rule.

The First Battle of St Albans is often seen as the violent birthing of the Wars of the Roses, but it was not a dynastic dispute at this point. The real rivalry was between York and Somerset over the right to advise the weak king.

York would not claim the throne until 1460, when he had been backed into a corner and left with nothing to lose.

York’s second eldest son, Edmund, was killed at the Battle of Wakefield, 1460

It came after a decade of opposition to the regime which was less about his burning ambition and more about the responsibility he felt to help see the kingdom properly governed.

He had done all he could to avoid it before eventually igniting the Yorkist claim to the throne.

Matt Lewis is an author and historian of the middle ages with a focus on the Wars of the Roses. He has written books covering The Anarchy and the Wars of the Roses as well as biographies of Henry III, Richard, Duke of York, and Richard III.

His books also include The Survival of the Princes in the Tower. Matt can be found on Twitter (@MattLewisAuthor), Facebook (@MattLewisAuthor) and Instagram (@MattLewisHistory).

Richard Duke of York, by Matt Lewis, published by Amberley Publishing (2016)