The battle of Northampton (10 July 1460) was a major Yorkist victory that transformed their fortunes after their disasterous failure at Ludford Bridge in 1459, and that ended with the capture of Henry VI and the death of several important Lancastrian leaders.
In 1459 the court party had decided to move against the main Yorkist lords. Richard, duke of York, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, were charged with treason at a council held at Coventry in June. The Yorkist leaders weren't invited to the council and just as in 1455 they decided to resort to arms. Salisbury moved north and recruited a force around his base at Middleham, York went to the borders and raised a force around Ludlow and Warwick prepared to bring over part of the Calais garrison, where he was serving as captain of the town.
The Yorkist campaign ended in embarrassing failure. Warwick was able to cross the channel. He moved to London and then Warwick, before eluding the Royal armies to reach Ludlow. Salisbury was faced with at least three Royal armies on his way south. He eluded the armies led by Henry VI and by Queen Margaret, but was intercepted by Lord Audley at Blore Heath (23 September 1459). The resulting battle was the only significant Yorkist success of the year. Audley was killed, his army defeated and Salisbury was able to pass to the west of Queen Margaret's force and join with York and Warwick.
Although all three Yorkist armies were now united, they were still badly outnumbered by the Royal armies. In 1455 the court had been caught out, but they didn’t make that mistake in 1459. After a short campaign in the southern Midlands the Yorkists were forced to retreat to Ludlow. They took up a defensive position at Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459), but the contingent from Calais, unhappy about the idea of having to fight against the King in person, changed sides. Overnight the Yorkist leaders decided to abandon their army and flee into exile. York fled to Ireland while Warwick and Salisbury slipped away to the south, reached Devon and from there sailed to Calais.
At the end of 1459 the Lancastrians looked to have triumphed. York had managed to establish himself in Ireland, while Warwick and Salisbury held Calais, which gave them control of the most important standing army in English service, but the humiliating defeat at Ludford Bridge meant that their position in England collapsed.
The Lancastrians realised that they would have to capture Calais if they were to be secure. Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, was appointed as Captain of Calais and set off to take up his post. He was refused entry to Calais itself and his fleet came under fire. He was able to gain control of the outlying castle of Guines, where the garrison hadn't been paid, but a series of attacks on Calais itself all failed.
In the meantime a Lancastrian fleet was taking shape at Sandwich. On 15 January 1460 a Yorkist raiding party, under John Dinham, captured this fleet along with Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers, the commander of the garrison. After this success Warwick decided to visit York in Ireland. The trip out was trouble-free, and the two men must had planned the upcoming invasion of England. On the way back a fleet under Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, briefly threatened to interrupt the journey but retreated when Warwick prepared to attack.
The first step on the road to Northampton was taken in early June 1460 when a Yorkist force captured Sandwich. This time they stayed in the town, and on 26 June the main Yorkist leaders landed there. The army was now led by the Earl of Warwick, despite the presence of his father. Edward, earl of March, would soon emerge as a great military leader, but at this stage he was too young and inexperienced to take the lead.
The Yorkists began the campaign with between 1,300 and 2,000 men but they gained strength as they advanced north. The Lancastrian commanders at Canterbury, John Fogge, John Scott and Robert Horne, all changed sides. By the time the army reached London contemporary eyewitnesses estimated its size as being between 20,000 and 40,000, although these figures can't be taken entirely seriously. The army was large enough to convince the citizens of London to enter the city on 2 July, forcing Lord Scales, the Lancastrian commander in London, to withdraw into the Tower.
The Yorkists only stayed in London for a couple of days. On 4 July the vanguard began to move north, followed by the main army on 5 July. Salisbury was left behind to watch Scales in the Tower, and a rare siege of the Tower of London began.
When the Yorkists landed in the south King Henry, Queen Margaret and the main Lancastrian forces were at Coventry. When the news reached them the Lancastrians moved south-east, eventually reaching Northampton.
Medieval Northampton was on the north bank of the River Nene. The Lancastrians took up a position on the south bank of the river, where they built a protected camp. The camp was protected by a bank and a water filled ditch, and the Lancastrians had more powerful artillery than their Yorkist opponents. They were also determined to fight. The army was led by Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham, a former moderate who had now come over to the Royal side.
The Yorkists were still claiming that their argument was with Henry's advisors and not the king, and in order to maintain this stance they sent a delegation to the Lancastrian camp. This included Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the papal legate Francesco Coppini, bishop of Terni were offered as negotiators. Buckingham angrily refused to allow this delegation to even meet the king. Warwick tried again, sending his herald, but with the same result. After this failure Warwick sent a message into the Lancastrian camp announcing that he would attack two hours after noon.
The Yorkist army was split into three battles, commanded by Fauconberg, Warwick and Edward, earl of March. Fauconberg commanded the vanguard, which consisted of the men recruited in Kent. The exact role of Warwick and March is unclear.
The battle probably began with a general attack by all three Yorkist battles, although we don’t know if they fought side-by-side or in a single column. The first key moment in the battle came when the Yorkists reached artillery range. At this point the Lancastrian guns failed to open fire, probably because their powder had got damp in heavy rain that marked the start of the fighting.
The second key moment came when the Yorkists reached the Lancastrian defences. At this point heavy hand-to-hand fighting began, and if the Lancastrian defence had been sufficiently determined their strong position might have paid off. Instead they were betrayed by the commander of their own vanguard, Edmund Grey, Lord Grey of Ruthin. He had apparently decided to switch sides before the start of the battle, and Warwick's men had been ordered not to attack anyone wearing Grey's livery. Grey's men may even have helped the Yorkists climb over the defensive barrier. Grey later became earl of Kent, although he had to wait for several years to receive his reward. Quite why Grey had been given such an important post isn't clear, especially as Henry had other more experienced military men in his camp.
Once the Yorkists were inside the camp the Lancastrians were doomed. Most of the army appears to have surrendered or fled, with some drowning in the River Nene (although many others will have escaped across this shallow river).
Just as at the first battle of St. Albans the victorious Yorkists took the chance to kill many of the Lancastrian leaders. Amongst the dead were Buckingham, Thomas Percy Lord Egremont, John Talbot earl of Shrewsbury and John Beaumont Lord Beaumont were all killed close to Henry's tent. Henry himself was captured. Away from the leaders the casualties appear to have been quite low - the battle was over too quickly for there to have been heavy casualties in the fighting and the Yorkists had been ordered to spare the common soldiers. There may have been as few as 300 casualties.
The battle of Northampton transformed the political situation in England. Queen Margaret and Prince Edward had escaped, but the Yorkists now held the king and many of their most important opponents were dead.
After the battle the Yorkists returned to London. The garrison of the tower soon surrendered, although Lord Scales was killed by some London boatmen on his way to safety. However the Yorkists still faced the same problem as in 1455. Henry VI was still king, and no agreements forced on the king could be relied on.
Richard of York had his own idea of what to do next. He landed in England in early September 1460 and made a slow but stately progress across the country to London. On 15 October he reached Westminster, entered Parliament and placed his hand on the empty throne. York had misjudged the mood. His allies had made much of their loyalty to King Henry and the Peers were not ready to see him deposed. York's attempt to claim the throne was rebuffed and he left Parliament having been rather humiliated.
A more moderate compromise was eventually agreed. Henry would retain his throne but York and his descendents would become his heirs. Prince Edward would be removed from the succession.
This settlement would be short-lived. Inevitably the determined Queen Margaret was unwilling to see her son's claim to the throne ignored, and raised a fresh army. The Yorkist leaders scattered to raise fresh armies, but the Lancastrians moved quicker. On 30 December 1460 the Duke of York was killed in battle at Wakefield. His claim now passed to Edward, earl of March, but he was in a potentially difficult position in the Welsh Marches. Things got worse when Warwick suffered a defeat at the second battle of St. Albans (17 February 1461). In this difficult situation Edward proved to be the most capable of the Yorkist commanders. He had already escaped from a dangerous position at Mortimer's Cross (2 February 1461). He then moved to London, where he claimed the throne as Edward IV. He then moved north and on 29 March 1461 won the decisive battle of the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, at Towton.