Second Battle of St. Albans, 17 February 1461

The second battle of St. Albans (17 February 1461) was a Lancastrian victory that opened the road to London and appeared to give them a chance to take advantage of their earlier victory at Wakefield, where Richard, duke of York, had been killed.

Background and Campaign

At the start of 1460 the Yorkists had been in exile, with Richard of York in Ireland and Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and Edward, earl of March, all at Calais. This changed in June 1460 when the lords at Calais landed at Sandwich. After advancing on London they clashed with the Lancastrian army at Northampton (10 July 1460), where they captured Henry VI. Queen Margaret and their son Prince Edward escaped, but for the moment the Yorkists controlled the government.

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

Richard of York didn't reach London until October, but when he did arrive he made a disastrous attempt to claim the throne, putting his hand on the empty throne in Parliament and waiting for acclaim. Instead he was greeted with silence and then an invitation to meet with the king. Eventually York and the Lords came to a compromise - the Act of Accord. Henry kept his throne but accepted York and his sons as his heirs. Prince Edward was thus cut out of the succession. This gave the Lancastrians a rallying cry - any threat to the normal rules of inheritance struck at the heart of the mediaeval aristocracy, as Richard II had found to his cost.

While the Yorkists held court in London the Lancastrians gathered strength elsewhere. Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, landing in the south-west and occupied Corfe Castle. Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, prepared to return to Wales. Queen Margaret rallied her supporters in Wales and then sailed to Scotland, where she attempted to gain support at court. In the north Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford took control of most of the country, attacking York and Neville estates. In November Somerset moved north and joined with Northumberland, forming a strong Lancastrian army.

The Yorkists were forced to react. March was sent to the Welsh borders, York went north and Warwick stayed in London. Disaster struck in the north. When York reached his castle at Sandal on 21 December he discovered that he was short of supplies and close to the main Lancastrian army, which moved to Pontefract a few miles to the east. On 30 December York came out of his castle and attacked the larger Lancastrian army. The resulting battle of Wakefield was a disaster for the Yorkists. York was killed during the battle. His son Edmund, earl of Rutland, was killed while attempting to escape across Wakefield Bridge. Salisbury was captured and executed at Pontefract on the day after the battle. Leadership of the main Yorkist families now passed to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and Edward, earl of March, Richard of York's eldest son.

Soon after the battle of Wakefield Queen Margaret joined the Lancastrian army and it began a rapid advance south towards London. It was rare for towns to be sacked during the Wars of the Roses, but the Lancastrians had the worse reputation for this, and on their march south they may have attacked Grantham and Stamford, both part of the Duke of York's estate. Yorkist propaganda certainly painted them as northern savages come to destroy the south, and this would eventually cost the Lancastrians dear as they struggled to arrange a peaceful entry into London.

First they would have to deal with Warwick and the apparently sizable army that he had raised around London. We have two estimates of the size of his army from men who were present at the battle. John Whethamstede, abbot of St. Albans, gives a figure of 25,000. William Gregory, who fought in Warwick's army, claimed to be part of an army of 100,000 men. Both figures are probably over-estimates, but Warwick had clearly managed to raise an impressive host. Perhaps for the first time a Yorkist army contained a sizable number of peers who weren't direct members of either the York or Neville families.

Warwick was accompanied by his brother John Neville, Lord Montague. John Mowbray, third Duke of Norfolk, John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk were both connected by marriage. William Fitzalan, earl of Arundel made one of his rare appearances on the battlefield. Lords Berners, Bonville, Bourchier and Fauconberg were also present, but again there were family connections here - Fauconberg was William Neville, Warwick's uncle. Bonville's grandson was married to one of Salisbury's daughters. Bourchier was married to Richard of York's sister. Henry VI was also present with the army. In theory he was in command of the army, but in reality he was a prisoner, too dangerous to be left unguarded in London. 

On the Lancastrian side the list of peers was larger and more varied. Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon, and John Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury were present from the higher aristocracy along with Lords Roos, Grey of Codnor, Fitzhugh, Greystoke, Wells, Willoughby and Clifford. This may indicate that the Lancastrian army was larger than the Yorkist, but we don't know for certain.

Warwick left London on 12 February, but he only advanced as far as St. Albans, which he reached on the following day. That was the limit of his advance. Over the next few days Warwick remained at St. Albans, although he did post some outposts further afield including one at Dunstable, twelve miles to the north-west. Some of Warwick's men were deployed in the town while the vanguard, under Warwick's brother Montagu was moved to Barnet Heath, just to the north of the town, early on the morning of the battle.

The Battle

On 16 February the fast moving Lancastrians reached Dunstable, where they overwhelmed Warwick's outpost. Warwick refused to believe that the Lancastrians were so close, and didn't prepare for battle.

On the morning of 17 February the first Lancastrian troops, under Andrew Trollope, advanced down Watling Street, heading south-east into the centre of St. Albans. This brought them to the southern Abbey end of the main market street. A force of Yorkist archers was posted here, and the Lancastrians were forced back.

Their next move was to follow a lane that brought them to the northern end of the town, near St. Peter's Church. Once again the Yorkists held their own.

The Lancastrians continued to move north, trying to find a way around the Yorkist line. This brought them into contact with the unprepared vanguard on Barnet Heath. This would see the hardest fighting of the day. The Yorkist vanguard may have contained around 4,000-5,000 men, and at first it fought well, but Montagu struggled to get any messages to Warwick, who in turn failed to get the main part of his army into the battle. Eventually the Yorkist vanguard broke and fled. Montagu was captured, and the pursuit lasted until nightfall.

The main Yorkist army had not taken any part in the fighting on 17 February. That evening the morale of Warwick's remaining men collapsed and his army fell apart. Warwick was able to escape with a few troops and fled west towards Edward, earl of March. In the chaos of the collapse Henry VI was abandoned. When he was found by the Lancastrians he was only accompanied by William Bonville, Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyrill. Henry had promised that neither man would be harmed, but he held little or no power. Queen Margaret insisted that they were executed, and got Prince Edward to issue the orders. Montagu was more fortunate - Somerset's brother was in Yorkist hands, and so Montagu was kept as a bargaining card.

Aftermath

In the aftermath of their victory at St. Albans the Lancastrians advanced towards London, but they didn’t want to risk an assault on the city. Instead Queen Margaret entered into negotiations with the city fathers. A delegation of ladies led by the dowager duchesses of Bedford and Buckingham was sent to Queen Margaret to negotiate terms for the Lancastrian entry into the city, but most Londoners didn't want to take their chances with the northerners of the Lancastrian army.

On 19 February, in an attempt to prove her good faith, Queen Margaret ordered her army to move back to Dunstable. On the same day the news of St. Albans reached Edward, earl of March, who had just defeated a second Lancastrian army at Mortimer's Cross (2 February 1461). In response he led his army east. On 22 February he met Warwick in the Cotswolds and their combined armies continued towards London. On 26 February March and Warwick entered London to popular acclaim. Queen Margaret and the Lancastrians retreated north, where they prepared to make their stand.

Back in London the Yorkists finally ended their long-running claim to be loyal to Henry VI. On 1 March George Neville, Bishop of Exeter, addressed a large crowd that responded by demanding that Edward take the throne. On the following day Edward made his formal claim to the throne. On 3 March a 'great council' of the surviving Yorkist lords agreed to support Edward's claim, and on 4 March he took the Royal oath, wore the robes of state and began his reign as King Edward IV. His formal coronation had to wait until the Lancastrian threat had been eliminated, so within a few days Edward and his army were on the road, heading towards Towton and the decisive battle of the first phase of the Wars of the Roses (29 March 1461).

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

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (25 November 2013), Battle of St. Albans, 17 February 1461, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_stalbans1461.html

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