Battle of Mortimer's Cross, 2 February 1461

The battle of Mortimer's Cross (2 February 1461) was Edward, earl of March's first battlefield victory and was the start of a campaign that would end with him securely crowned as King Edward IV.

At the start of 1460 the Yorkist leaders had been in exile, forced to flee after their humiliating defeat at Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459). This changed in the summer of 1460 when the earls of York, Salisbury and March, who had been in exile at Calais, landed at Calais. They advanced north and after passing through London defeated the Lancastrians at Northampton (10 July 1460). Henry VI was captured, although Queen Margaret and Prince Edward escaped. The Yorkists gained control of London, where they waited for the arrival of Richard, duke of York. He finally appeared in mid-October, but almost immediately caused a crisis by attempting to claim the throne. There was no support for this, but eventually an agreement was made in which Henry kept his throne, but York and his sons became the heirs to the throne. The earl of March thus found himself second in line to the throne.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

Despite the loss of the king the Lancastrians were still a powerful force in the country. In the north Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford held most of the country and were attacking Neville and York estates. Queen Margaret had rallied support in Wales, where Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke was a key ally. She then sailed to Scotland to try and get aid from the court. Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, who had agreed to go into exile after the battle of Northampton, landed in the south-west and raised an army there. In late November he moved north and joined the northern Lancastrians at York.

The Duke of York and his allies now only really controlled the south-east and London and it was clear that they would have to fight if they were to secure their power. They decided to split forces. Warwick was to remain in London to guard Henry VI. York headed north to deal with the main Lancastrian army. Edward, earl of March, was sent to the Welsh Borders, partly to raise troops and partly to secure control of Wales.

Events very quickly turned against the Yorkists. When York reached his castle at Sandal he found himself facing a larger army led by Somerset, while at the same time he was short of supplies. On 30 December 1460 York left the safety of his castle and attacked the Lancastrians. The resulting battle of Wakefield was a disaster for the Yorkists. York himself was killed in the battle. His son Edmund of Rutland was caught on Wakefield Bridge and killed. The earl of Salisbury was captured late in the day and executed on the following day. Their heads were then stuck on poles at York.

This meant that Edward, earl of March, inherited his father's claim to the throne. He was now officially Duke of York, although he is rarely given that title, for within a few months he was firmly established as King Edward IV. When the news of his father's death reached Edward in the borders that must have seemed like a very distant possibility. Queen Margaret had joined the Lancastrian army and they were now advancing on London. Warwick was in the south, but he lacked a reliable army. Edward was preparing to march to London when he received news of a fresh threat. Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke and James Butler, earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, had landed in Pembrokeshire. Pembroke brought with him some French and Breton troops, while Wiltshire, who had briefly visited Ireland before the landing had Irish troops with him. The Lancastrian leaders were also able to raise Welsh troops.

The Lancastrians decided to try and break into England and join Queen Margaret's main army. Their route took them to Llandovery, then to Brecon (along the route of the modern A40). From Brecon they moved to the River Wye, advancing along the north bank of the river. Edward, who couldn't be sure what route they were taking, took up a position at Mortimer's Cross, an important crossroads on the River Lugg. South of the crossroads the terrain is fairly flat, but to the north the Lugg runs through a narrow steep sided valley.

The Lancastrians could easily have slipped past Edward's army by following the Wye to Hereford or cutting across to Leominster, but this would have left them exposed to a Yorkist attack, and so Pembroke decided to attack Edward at Mortimer's Cross.

We don’t know much about the events of the battle itself. The most famous incident happened before the fighting began. On the morning before the battle there was a parhelia, where ice crystals refract the sun and three suns appear. Edward used this to claim that the Holy Trinity was on his side and encourage his men.

The battle took place on 2 or 3 February. It is possible that Wiltshire and his Irish troops fought in the Lancastrian vanguard. They are recorded as having fought bravely, and may have broken the Yorkist right. Owen Tudor, Pembroke's father, probably failed in an attack on the Yorkist left and in the centre Edward was victorious. Owen Tudor was amongst the prisoners taken, although both Pembroke and Wiltshire escaped. A few days later Owen Tudor was beheaded at Hereford.

Edward was still in a dangerous position. Although his Welsh opponents had been dispersed the main Lancastrian army was still intact. On 17 February Warwick was defeated at the Second Battle of St. Albans and forced to flee. Queen Margaret approached London, but rumours of the poor behaviour of her troops arrived before her and the Londoners refused to admit her without a guarantee of good treatment. While Queen Margaret was negotiating with the Londoners, Edward joined with Warwick and marched to London. On 19 February the Queen withdrew to Dunstable as a sign of good faith, but this left the way open to Edward. On 22 February Edward and Warwick met in the Cotswolds and on 26 February they entered London. Queen Margaret and the Lancastrians retreated north towards their powerbase.

In 1460 Richard of York had attempted to gain the support of the Lords for his claim to the throne. In 1461 his son made a much more successful play for the throne. Henry was said to have broken the oath he had taken to support the Act of Accord by joining with Queen Margaret. On 1 March George Neville, bishop of Exeter, addressed a large crowd, which in turn called for Edward to take the throne. On 2 March Edward was officially proclaimed as King Edward IV. On 3 March a 'great council' was called, although at this stage very few peers were actually on Edward's side - the main figures were the surviving Nevilles, the Archbishop of Canterbury and John, duke of Norfolk. Finally, on 4 March Edward took the coronation oath. He avoiding holding a formal coronation while the Lancastrians were still at large, but from now on the fight was between two rival kings - Henry VI and Edward IV. The decisive clash of this first phase of the Wars of the Roses would come at Towton on 29 March 1461 and one again Edward would emerge victorious. Only after this victory did he hold his formation coronation.

Edward IV and the War of the Roses, David Santiuste. A look at the military career of Edward IV, the often overlooked winner of the main part of the War of the Roses, and a king who ruled peacefully for nearly twelve years before dying a natural death. [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: War of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (22 November 2013), Battle of Mortimer's Cross, 2 February 1461, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_mortimerscross.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies