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  • James Houser

May 4, 1471 - The Battle of Tewkesbury

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 4, 1471. This war inspired Game of Thrones, but with MORE murder. At a small town called Tewkesbury, the Wars of the Roses for the throne of England are about to reach their climax. Death is on the line as the rival families of Lancaster and York line up for their most decisive confrontation yet. It’s finally the end of the struggle – or is it?

This is the second of three posts on the Wars of the Roses, aka “real life Game of Thrones, but even more people die.” The first was on March 29, the Battle of Towton. If you like, you can go read that post to get some more background on what’s about to happen. Not to worry, I’ll give a brief summary.

From 1455 to 1487, the rival Houses of Lancaster and York fought a bitter struggle over which family would occupy the English throne. Since the House of Lancaster used a red rose for their symbol and the House of York used a white one, this series of wars became known as the “Wars of the Roses.” It was one of the bloodiest wars of the Medieval age; almost 1% of the entire country of England had died at Towton, and there was more to come.

When last we left the Wars of the Roses, on March 29, 1461 at Towton, the 18-year-old Yorkist King Edward IV had nearly annihilated the forces of his Lancastrian rival, King Henry VI. Edward’s victory was so complete that Henry and his wife Margaret of Anjou (the real power behind the throne) had fled England, leaving Edward in charge of the country. Henry’s power base had been destroyed through the mass slaughter of his followers at Towton, and it seemed like things were good and settled.

Trouble was ahead for young King Edward, though. In keeping with our Game of Thrones comparisons, Edward has often been compared with Robb Stark – though he met a much less terrible fate. Like Robb Stark, Edward went to war to avenge his murdered father, Richard of York, and proved a brilliant and inspirational battlefield commander. Also like the book and TV character, he was a poor politician and made some bad choices in his romantic life that alienated powerful people that he needed to keep on his side.

Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, had been one of the Yorkists’ most important supporters throughout the struggle against the Lancastrians. His father had been killed alongside Edward’s at the hands of the Lancastrians, but the Nevilles were the most powerful noble family in southern England and Warwick’s support had been critical to the Yorkist victory. He was so powerful in England that the saying went that “Edward reigns, but Warwick rules.” For our analogy, he was some combination of Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton. His nickname was “Kingmaker.”

Now that the war was “over,” Warwick spent many months trying to secure Edward’s position by securing a French marriage for him. This would make him safe diplomatically from any move against France, and ally him with French King Louis XI – a smart move when France was rapidly getting stronger. Warwick placed great emphasis on this marriage.

Edward really could not afford to alienate Warwick, especially with the surviving Lancastrians still out there, so what he did next was a bad idea. Edward fell in love – specifically, with the widow Elizabeth Woodville, whose wealth of beauty was equaled by her lack of actual wealth. In 1464, Edward married Elizabeth in secret. The new queen’s family quickly occupied most of the high positions in Edward’s court, shutting out Warwick’s people. Warwick was furious, not only because the marriage had ruined all his plans, but because the secrecy that surrounded it made him look like an idiot to the French court.

Though several years would pass before the break became irreparable, Edward and his most powerful ally were now on a collision course. Warwick had promised the French court an English marriage to cement the alliance, and suggested that Edward could marry his sister to the French King instead. Edward once again blew off the Kingmaker, and married his sister to Charles the Bold of Burgundy, the French King’s hated rival. This, too, was done in secret, meaning that Warwick was negotiating one deal with France for Edward while his king was going behind his back to make a separate deal with France’s enemies. As Warwick’s people were dismissed from court in favor of the Woodville clan and all his attempts at alliance spurned, Warwick decided Edward and the Woodvilles had to go.

In 1469, Warwick tried to replace Edward with Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, but this coup attempt fell through and eventually Warwick and Clarence both fled from England to France. Without Warwick’s firm hand in England, the country soon broke out in uprisings. Edward was in serious trouble – he just didn’t know how serious yet.

Back on the continent, the exiled King Henry VI and his wife Margaret had an awkward meeting with the Kingmaker Warwick and Clarence. Considering that Margaret had both their fathers humiliated and executed, there was probably a long silence before they finally agreed on the deal. King Louis of France, fearing an English alliance with Burgundy, gave the Lancastrians money and troops in exchange for the promise of a marriage alliance. These poor girls were getting passed around like poker chips, but that’s European politics for you.

In September 1470, Warwick and Clarence landed back in England with a large mercenary army, Henry VI in tow. The Yorkists’ most important ally, and one of Edward’s own brothers, had allied themselves with the hated Lancastrians. Cleverly, Warwick had staged an uprising in the north of England, drawing Edward away from London; the Lancastrians seized London quickly and this time it was Edward that went into exile. The Kingmaker had made another King: once again, he was the power behind the throne. Since King Henry VI was a dullard with no real will of his own, Warwick was happy: this dunce would be a much easier puppet than young, arrogant Edward. He also made sure Edward’s brother Clarence was given all of the Yorkist lands, seeming to make their conquest a done deal. All wrapped up nicely.

Well, of course, except for Edward. Just as Warwick and the Lancastrians had gotten help from the French in exchange for their alliance, Edward was about to make his alliance with Charles the Bold of Burgundy pay off. Charles feared an English-French alliance against him, and offered his young brother-in-law troops and money to go take his crown back.

On March 11, 1471, Edward landed in northern England and began rallying support. After ten years of Yorkist rule, the people of England had forgotten how pissed off the Lancastrians had made them; the return of Henry VI jogged their memory, and many nobles and soldiers flocked to join Edward and his Yorkists. Even Edward’s brother Clarence, who had married Warwick’s daughter and who owed everything he had left to Warwick, returned to his side. Now the Yorkists advanced quickly on London, even as Warwick scrambled to raise forces. Queen Margaret was sent off to France to gather reinforcements, while Warwick headed north to face off with Edward.

Edward slipped past Warwick and captured London, easily scooping Henry VI up and locking him in the Tower of London. Warwick had been outmaneuvered, and as he raced back towards London with his army Edward pounced. On April 14, in thick fog, Edward IV hit Warwick’s army like a buzzsaw at Barnet. In all the confusion, some of Warwick’s troops ended up attacking each other by accident, and cries of “Treachery!” went up across the battlefield. The Lancastrian army dissolved into panic, and Warwick was thrown from his frightened horse. As he ran to find another horse, the Yorkist soldiers closed in. Despite Edward’s orders to take him alive, Warwick was cut down. The Kingmaker, for ten years the power behind two Kings, was gone.

It wasn’t over. The Yorkists had defeated Warwick just in time for Margaret and her army from France to land in southern England. Margaret’s husband, Henry VI, was still captive in the Tower of London, and Edward headed south to keep her from reaching the city. She had tricked him; she and her army were actually heading north, trying to make it into Wales where they could raise the Welsh lords, who were huge supporters of the Lancastrians. Edward knew that this was his last chance to end the war quickly – and if Margaret could raise a big army, he may lose his throne yet again.

Despite the defeat at Barnet, the Lancastrians rallied around Margaret. She and her army were the last hope for their faction to take the throne. Some even believed that they were better off without Warwick and his constant double-dealing. Also with them was Henry VI’s young son, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales and the Lancastrian heir – a banner to rally around. As Margaret headed north, Edward and his Yorkists chased her. Whatever happened next would decide the fate of England. For both sides, it was the critical moment.

Edward forced Margaret and her army to turn and fight at Tewkesbury, on May 4, 1471. Margaret’s army was commanded by Edmund Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset. The 1st Duke, Edmund’s father, had been killed by Edward’s father Richard of York. Then Margaret had killed Richard. This bloody game of tag was about to finally end.

Each army had about 6,000 men, but Edward had more and better cannon, and it showed. As Edward’s forces advanced, a rain of longbow arrows and cannon fire descended on the Lancastrian forces. Edward’s center was led by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. Though he was only 18, Richard was already a battle-hardened veteran and led the frontal fighting fiercely. The Yorkists began to use their firepower and Richard’s hard-fighting attitude to push the Lancastrians back.

Somerset tried to avoid the fire and lead his forces around Edward’s flank, only to be ambushed by some troops Edward had hidden. Somerset and his division were routed, and Edward’s cavalry pursued, cutting them down as they fled. Somerset went crazy, even killing his own officers for failing him. The Lancastrian army finally broke up and ran in every direction; even those trying to surrender were cut down.

The aftermath of the battle was somehow worse than the battle itself. The Yorkists had taken many prisoners – no major Lancastrian leaders escaped Tewkesbury. Many of the leading nobles of the Lancastrian faction had sought refuge in a local church, including Somerset, but by Richard of Gloucester’s command they were dragged out and summarily butchered. The young Prince of Wales, only 17, pleaded with George, Duke of Clarence, for his life. George, Edward’s side-switching brother, had sworn loyalty to the Prince’s family only a year before, but murdered him nonetheless. A few days later, even Queen Margaret was run down and forced to surrender.

Edward reentered London in triumph a few weeks later, Queen Margaret captive and by his side. The Yorkists had won, but now it was time to end things once and for all. On the night of May 21, King Henry VI died in his cell in the tower of London. Most accounts claim that Richard of Gloucester, later villainized in Shakespeare’s plays, slipped in and butchered the ailing, feeble claimant to the throne. There would be no more running into exile then coming back to reclaim the throne. No resurrections this time. The Wars of the Roses were over.

Or were they? Tune in on August 22 for the thrilling conclusion to the Wars of the Roses at Bosworth Field.

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