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The First Battle of St. Albans (1455)

THE FIRST BATTLE OF ST. ALBANS (1455), was the first engagement in the Wars of the Roses.

It was brought about by the recovery of Henry VI in 1455, and the termination of York's protectorate. The Somerset party were again in power, and York, seeing his influence at an end, determined to secure by force of arms the downfall of Somerset.

Accordingly he collected troops in the north and marched towards London. The king advanced in force to meet him, and after a vain attempt at negotiation, a battle followed which, though only lasting half an hour, had most important results. Somerset was slain, together with other Lancastrian nobles, the king wounded, and York completely victorious.

The Dictionary of English History. Sidney J. Low and F. S. Pulling, eds.
London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1910. 902-3.


Battlefield Map for the first Battle of St. Albans, 1455

... On August 10 [1453], King Henry was seized with a sudden access of insanity.... He fell into absolute imbecility, sitting for days without moving or speaking; he had to be fed with a spoon, and lifted from his chair to his bed. Henry's insanity by itself might not have had any evil consequences. If it had been permanent the natural sequel would have been the appointment of York as regent of the realm. York the regent would in due time have become King Richard III, for there could have been no possibility of urging against him, when once he was in power, the feeble claim of the Beauforts to the crown. But on October 13, six days before the surrender of Bordeaux, Queen Margaret was delivered of a son. This unexpected event threw everything into confusion. The partisans of York were furious—some said that the child was supposititious, that the queen had foisted in a changeling now that her husband was unable to repudiate him. Others said that the child was Margaret's, yet that its father was not the king, but the queen's friend, James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, "the best-favoured knight in the land, and the most feared of losing his beauty."1 But the fact that York himself made no attempt to attack the legitimacy of the young prince seems conclusive against these rumours. If he had believed them, it is incredible that he would have permitted himself to be cheated out of the crown by such a shameless device.

It would appear that the queen and her friends kept the king's insanity secret as long as they could, and represented him as attacked by some casual illness; for only some time after the prince's birth was the question of a regency raised. At a great council held at Westminster to consider the matter, when it at last became known, it was found that the ministers had not even invited the Duke of York to be present. But the peers of his party were strong enough to insist that he must be summoned, and allowed to give his advice. It seemed so clear that public opinion would designate him as the proper person to be made regent, that the queen and Somerset put off any decision, and prorogued the parliament summoned for November 12 till February, 1454, in the vain hope that the king might recover his senses ere it should meet. This served them little: York soon got control of the council, and when his faithful partisan, the Duke of Norfolk, presented a "bill" demanding that "process be made upon the Duke of Somerset" and a commission granted to inquire into his deeds,2 the petition was conceded, and in December the council ordered that the duke should be placed in custody in the Tower, pending an inquiry. Somerset's imprisonment forced the queen to come forward as the head of the court party. In anticipation of the coming session of parliament she drew up a document asserting her right to the regency, and to such appurtenances of it as the patronage of all civil and ecclesiastic offices, and a sufficient livelihood for the king, the prince, and herself. Meanwhile both her friends and her enemies were secretly arming, and when February came round the roads to London were crowded with carts conveying hidden stores of jacks and brigandines, and with retinues of "likely men" riding behind their masters in military array.3

On February 13, 1454, York opened the parliament, acting, on the council's nomination, as "lieutenant of the king". The sittings were stormy, and the impeachment of Somerset was revenged by a similar action on the part of the royalists, who impeached the Earl of Devon [Thomas Courtenay] and Lord Cobham [Edward Brooke] for joining in York's Kentish demonstration of 1452. They also petitioned that the king's son should be created Prince of Wales, after the usual fashion. Richard of York, very greatly to his credit, made no opposition to the proposal, and the patent of creation was sealed on March 15. Financial matters made no progress; the Commons refused to grant supply till they should have been satisfied by the chancellor-archbishop as to the way in which their last gifts had been expended, and informed why the realm did not enjoy the "sad and wise" counsel which he had promised them in the preceding year. Kemp was old and feeble: he died suddenly, on March 22, while framing his justification and apology. His tenure of office had lasted for no less than eighteen years, and he was personally respected by both parties, so that his death was one more blow to the cause of peace. Five days later, after sending a deputation to Windsor to verify the king's helpless incapacity, the lords declared York "protector and defender of the realm"; he obtained all the powers, if not the actual name, of regent.

He at once installed his friends in power, appointing his brother-in-law, Salisbury, chancellor; it was forty-four years since a layman had held the post. The archbishopric of Canterbury was given to Thomas Bourchier, Bishop of Ely, whose brother, Lord Bourchier, had married Isabella, York's only sister. Salisbury's young son, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was admitted to the privy council. Somerset's post as governor of Calais was taken over by the protector himself, but the duke was not brought to trial as the extreme Yorkists demanded; the protector was content with keeping him safe in the Tower.

This was part of York's policy of moderation; for the sixteen months that King Henry remained imbecile, he refrained from crushing his enemies, though he took care that his friends should be rewarded. His conduct with regard to the succession to the crown was scrupulously correct; not a word was said about his own possible claims, and the rights of the Prince of Wales were acknowledged without hesitation. It would seem that Richard's ambition was satisfied by the prospect of the long regency that lay before him. His main attention was directed to enforcing order in the realm: foreign affairs did not press, for, though the French war still lingered on, King Charles seemed content with what he had won, and made no attempt either to attack Calais or to collect a fleet in the Channel. It was an immense relief to England that there were no longer any outlying garrisons in Normandy or Guienne crying aloud for succour. The protector's troubles were from domestic matters; he discovered that several lords of Somerset's faction were busy in framing confederacies and collecting stores of arms. This was especially the case in the north, where the Duke of Exeter and the Percies were openly hiring men-at-arms and circulating proclamations. But when York paid a visit to the parts beyond Trent in June, they dared not offer open opposition; Exeter, though he had taken sanctuary, was arrested and put in ward at Pontefract Castle. The Percies retired to their own estates, and temporised for the moment.

Just as there appeared to be some prospect of order and good governance being restored, the king suddenly recovered from his fit of insanity at Christmas, 1454. This was the most unlucky of chances; the moment that he had come to himself, greeted his wife and acknowledged his son, Prince Edward, he proceeded to undo all the work of the last sixteen months. York's protectorship, of course, came to an end. Not contented with this, the king proceeded to dismiss the ministers who had served under York, not only Salisbury, the new chancellor, but the Earl of Worcester who had held the treasury since 1452, and so was not one of the protector's nominees. Somerset was released from the Tower and restored to the captaincy of Calais. Exeter was liberated from his prison at Pontefract. The queen's special friend, James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, was created Lord Treasurer. If matters had gone no further than this, it is possible that Richard of York might have accepted the situation. But the queen and Somerset showed themselves determined to push their triumph to the uttermost. In May they summoned a council, to which neither York, Warwick, Salisbury, nor any other adherent of their cause, was invited. This body issued a summons for a great council—not a parliament—to meet at Leicester "for the purpose of providing for the safety of the king's person against his enemies". The Yorkists had given no excuse for any such proceedings; they had been living quietly on their estates since their dismissal from office. But when thus challenged they were ready to take up the gage, and to fight for their lives.

The moment that the summons to the council at Leicester was published, York, who lay at his castle of Sandal, called in his brother-in-law Salisbury to council; they armed their Yorkshire tenants and marched south, hoping to gather in friends on the way. But of all their adherents, only the young Warwick and Lord Clinton had joined them before the crisis came. Norfolk, who was collecting a great force in East Anglia for their succour, was just a day late for the battle.4 The total strength of York and his kinsmen was not over 3,000 men, nearly all drawn from the North and West Ridings. The movements of the rebel army were rapid. On May 20 it had reached Royston, on the 21st it was at Ware, close to London. At Royston the duke issued a manifesto directed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, explaining that he had been forced to take arms by the proclamation summoning the council at Leicester, seeing that he and his friends were the "mistrusted persons" against whom that document declared that action must be taken. From Ware he wrote another letter to the king himself, couched in laboriously apologetic terms, to the effect that he and his kinsmen were "coming in grace as true and humble liegemen, to declare and show at large their loyalty," but that they must demand instant admission to his noble presence, to the intent that they might convince him of the "sinister, fraudulent, and malicious labours and reports of their enemies."5

Long before this letter had been received, Somerset had learnt that York and Salisbury had marched south. He had at once directed his friends from all the parts of the realm to concentrate on Leicester.6 But for the moment Somerset and the king were surrounded by little more than the ordinary retinues of the lords of the council and the loyalist peers who chanced to be in London at the moment. Although they mustered less than 3,000 bows and bills, the number of great magnates present was imposing. Somerset had with him his young son the Marquis of Dorset, the Duke of Buckingham and his son Lord Stafford, the Earls of Northumberland, Devon, Pembroke, and Wiltshire, and the Lords Clifford, Dudley, and Roos—nearly a quarter of the peerage of England. They left London on their way to Leicester on May 21, slept that night at Watford, and had just reached St. Albans when they heard that York was close at hand.

Somerset resolved to take up a defensive position, rightly believing that his adversaries had the advantage in numbers. St. Albans was a long straggling place, destitute of wall or gates; but he hastily barricaded all its outlets, and drew up his army under cover of the line of houses which formed the eastern part of the town. The royal standard was pitched in St. Peter's Street, the main thoroughfare. A long parley preceded the opening of hostilities. When he saw York's army, cautiously advancing from the east, the king sent out the Duke of Buckingham to demand of his cousin why he had appeared in arms against his natural lord. Richard replied in words of effusive loyalty, but ended by demanding that Somerset should be arrested and tried for treason. He would not be put off with promises that justice should be done, remembering the oaths sworn to him in 1452 which had never been kept. When this message was brought back by Buckingham the king, abandoning for once his accustomed mildness of speech, burst out into angry words. Rather than surrender any of the lords who were with him that day he would risk his own life in their quarrel. He would make an example of the traitors who had dared to raise a host against him in his own land. "By the faith that I owe to St. Edward and the crown of England, I will destroy them, every mother's son."7

Receiving this uncompromising reply, York turned to harangue his troops. He declared that when their master refused them all reform, would not listen to their petitions, and threatened them with the traitor's shameful death, they had no alternative but to defend themselves by force of arms against the cruel malice of their enemies. Death in the field would be preferable to death on the scaffold. It was nearly noon when York formed his men in three columns, and attacked the barricades which blocked the three roads that led into St. Albans from the east. His first attempts to break in were beaten off with loss at all points. But the young Earl of Warwick, now for the first time displaying his quick military eye, had noted that although the royalists were strong enough to man the barricades, their numbers were but scanty to maintain the long straggling line of houses which formed the south-eastern part of their front. Gathering his retainers about him, he thrust his way through the closes and gardens of the houses of Holwell Street, and bursting open several of their back doors ran out into the main thoroughfare of the town "between the sign of the Key and the sign of the Chequers," with shouts of "A Warwick! A Warwick!" and trumpets sounding.

Though thus taken in flank, the royalists faced about and fought manfully to thrust back Warwick's men. But it was but for a short half hour; they were overmatched; a panic set in after the Duke of Somerset had been slain; Sir Philip Wentworth, who bore the royal standard, threw it down and fled, and the Earl of Wiltshire left the field too early for his good fame. Of the other magnates of the king's party, who fought the game out to the end, nearly all were slain or hurt. Besides Somerset, there fell the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford; while Buckingham, Devon, Stafford,8 and the young Dorset were wounded and taken. The only unwounded prisoner of note was Lord Dudley. The unfortunate king himself, who stood passively beneath his standard throughout the fray, received a slight wound in the neck from an arrow. His attendants led him aside into the little house of a tanner. York addressed his master in a short exculpatory speech, and led him with great reverence to a chamber prepared for him in the abbey, where his wound was dressed. It was so trifling that he was able to ride to London with his captors next morning.

The first battle of St. Albans was but a short scuffle in a street; it lasted in all but an hour, and the number of slain and wounded was small. As in all the engagements of the Wars of the Roses, the lightly armed archers and billmen of the defeated party flung down their weapons and got off with ease, while the nobles and knights, weighted with their ponderous double-sheathing of mail and plate, could retire but slowly and were caught and cut down. Not more than 120 persons in all perished, possibly as few as sixty: of forty-eight bodies buried by the abbot only twenty-five were those of unknown common soldiers, the others were lords, knights, squires, and officers of the king's household.9 There was no massacre of fugitives or prisoners: the victors contented themselves with plundering the captives of their armour and their valuables; they let the common soldiers depart and held the gentlemen as hostages. The evil custom of putting to death all the men of rank who were captured, the most disgraceful characteristic of these wars, did not begin until after the battle of Wakefield, when enmities had grown far more envenomed than was yet the case. York on this occasion behaved handsomely to the prisoners; only Lord Dudley was sent to the Tower; of the rest some were merely placed in the custody of known Yorkists, others were set free, on undertaking to acquiesce in the new regime which the duke's victory had created.

1. See Engl. Chron., ed. Davies, p. 79; Fabian, p. 628; Basin, i., 299.
2. For the "bill" see Paston Letters, ii., 290-92, and Newsletter in Paston Letters, ii., 295.
3. See Paston Letters, ii., 297.
4. See Paston Letters, iii., 30.
5. Rot. Parl., v., 281.
6. The Earl of Shrewsbury and others were coming to join them with 10,000 men, as was said. See Paston Letters, iii., 30.
7. All this from the narrative in Paston Letters, iii., 25-29, save the fact that Buckingham was the envoy, which comes from Whethamsted.
8. Who ultimately died of his wound though it was only an arrow through the hand.
9. See Paston Letters, iii., 28, and Chron., ed. Davies, p. 72.

Oman, C. The History of England.
London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906. 361-8.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study: Burley, Peter, et al. The Battles of St. Albans.
       Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword Books, Ltd., 2007.

Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses 1455-1485.
         New York: Routledge, 2003.

Weir, Alison. The Wars of the Roses.
         New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

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George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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