Battle of St. Albans, 22 May 1455

The first battle of St. Albans (22 May 1455) was the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, and was a Yorkist victory that saw Richard, duke of York temporarily take control of Henry VI's government.

Background

The reign of Henry VI had been marked by the sort of political instability that was normal during the reigns of weak kings, with major members of the nobility struggling for control of the government and fighting over major posts. The main figures during the early 1450s were Richard, duke of York and Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. York was the senior member of the English aristocracy and would have expected to play a major role at the court, and he had served as Lieutenant of France in the 1430s and 1440s.

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

This period had ended in controversy. In 1443 John Beaufort, duke of Somerset, had been made Lieutenant of France and Gascony, and in 1447 the post passed to John's brother and heir Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset. In July 1447 York was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland, almost certainly in an attempt to get him out of the way. York delayed his departure for Ireland until July 1449, but when he did finally reach his new post he appears to have been fairly successful.

York only spent a short period in Ireland before, in September 1450, he returned to England, without asking for Henry VI's permission. This was probably a response to the return of Somerset, who arrived in England in August 1450 after presiding over the loss of Normandy. All of York's efforts over the next few years failed to prevent Somerset from becoming the dominant person at court, and York was soon very clearly out of favour. In 1452 he went as far as raising an army in an attempt to overthrow Somerset, but he had no support amongst the senior members of the aristocracy and after a standoff at Dartford York had to back down.

York's fortunes began to change in August 1453. News reached England of the defeat at Castillon that finally saw her lose control of Gascony. After hearing this news Henry VI suffered the first breakdown in his mental health and became almost completely immobile. This breakdown lasted until Christmas 1454, and although the court party attempted to rule as normal York's claim to become Protector was strong.

He was also aided by events in the north, where the long running Neville-Percy feud erupted into violence. On 24 August 1453 a force led by Thomas Percy, lord Egremont, the second son of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, attempted to intercept the wedding party of Sir Thomas Neville, a son of  Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury. The Nevilles were able to fight their way to safety, but in the aftermath the court proved unable or unwilling to help them against the Percies, and as a result the Nevilles moved firmly into York's camp.

Once the King's condition became public knowledge York began to demand that he be made Protector. Before the birth of Prince Edward on 13 October 1453 he had been heir presumptive to the throne, and was still the most senior member of the English aristocracy. This became a key issue in the Parliament that opened in February 1454. Queen Margaret of Anjou was determined to take power herself, but on 27 March 1454 Richard, duke of York, was appointed Protector of the Realm during Henry's illness.

York's performance as Protector would play a major part in the outbreak of the war. His ally the earl of Salisbury was quickly appointed as chancellor. Somerset had already been confined to the Tower of London where he was to face charges relating to the loss of France. York faced a brief rebellion led by Egremont and Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, but this quickly fell apart. Exeter joined Somerset in the Tower while Egremont was captured by the Nevilles at the battle of Stamford Bridge (31 October or 1 November 1454) and placed in debtor's prison. York had successfully defeated his most important enemies, but his position depended entirely on the King remaining incapacitated.

On 25 December 1454 Henry VI came back to his senses, and at that moment York's position crumbled. In January 1455 he stood down as Protector. In the following month Somerset was released, and returned to favour at court. Henry had also gained the support of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, who now saw York as an enemy. In March Somerset and Northumberland were able to force Salisbury to resign as chancellor, leaving York feeling very vulnerable.

The Build-up to Battle

Soon after this York and Salisbury left court and it appears that they soon began to raise an army, although this work may not have begun until mid-April, when York, Salisbury and his son Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, were all ordered to attend a council at Leicester on 21 May 1455. This council was to 'provide for the king's safety'. York and his allied are generally seen as having interpreted as a threat to their own safety, although they could already have decided to attempt to restore their control of the court by force. Somerset and his allies do not appear to have been expected a battle, and didn’t began to raise troops until after York had made his move, so the council at Leicester may have had less sinister motives.

After the summons to the council York and his allies began to move south. This news reached Westminster on 18 May and only then did Somerset and the court began to raise their own army. The king also sent a letter to York ordering him to disarm or be considered a traitor. On 21 May the court left Westminster and moved towards St. Albans. A few hours later a message from the Yorkists reached them. York and his allies claimed to be loyal to Henry VI, and that their quarrel was only with Somerset. They asked to be allowed to appoint the members of Henry's council, and inevitably demanded the arrest of Somerset.

The King spent the night of 21/22 May at Watford. The lines of communication were still open between the two armies, and a message reached the court at two in the morning. This letter had been sent from Ware, twenty-two miles to the north, but it had clearly been sent fairly early on the previous day, for by the morning of 22 May the Duke of York had reached St. Albans and his army was camped on the Key Field, south-east of the small town.

The Royalists broke camp early on 22 May and moved towards St. Albans, where they planned to stop for lunch. Much to their surprise they found the Yorkists outside the town. Henry now received differing advice. Somerset wanted to stand and fight outside the town. Buckingham, who was now officially in command of the army, wanted to move into St. Albans and begin negotiations with the Duke of York. in the hope that York would back down as he had done at Dartford. Henry chose to follow Buckingham's advice and the Royal army moved into the market square of St. Albans.

An hour of negotiations followed. York's Herald entered the town three times as messages were passed between York and Buckingham, but these efforts were doomed to fail. York would only back down if the king agreed to arrest Somerset, and Henry refused to turn on one of his main supporters. Eventually, at about 10am, the Yorkists decided to attack,

The Battle

Henry VI was outnumbered at St. Albans, but he did have the support of a significant number of peers. Somerset was present, as was Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, James Butler, earl of Wiltshire, Thomas Clifford, Lord Clifford and Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham. William Neville, Lord Fauconberg and Thomas Courtney, earl of Devon were also present with the court, but don't appear to have taken part in the battle (both were closer to the Yorkists than to the king).

The Duke of York had the larger army, but few noble supporters. His main allies were the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick, both of whom could provide significant numbers of troops. A contingent came from the Welsh borders under the nominal command of York's son Edward, earl of March (the future Edward IV). The Yorkists probably had a two or three thousand man advantage, and had been preparing for battle, while the Royalist army had only been assembled in the days before the battle. A number of Royalist nobles arrived at St. Albans on the day after the battle, by which time it was too late.

The Royalists had quite a strong defensive position at St. Albans. The town wasn't walled, but the houses were built closely together and formed a defensive barrier. The streets and lanes of the town were barricaded, so the entire area formed a defensive stronghold. Henry was based in the Market Place, with St Peter's Street to the north and Holywell Street to the south. The barricades were defended by most of the Royalist troops, commanded by Lord Clifford and the earl of Northumberland.

The battle began at about 10am with a series of Yorkist attacks down the narrow alleyways. These were all repulsed by the Royalist archers, and the Yorkist position began to look rather vulnerable. The fighting was going so well that Henry and his immediate supports appear not to have donned their armour.

The deadlock was broken by the earl of Warwick, who began to win his great reputation at this battle. He decided to ignore the narrow lanes and instead led his men into the gardens of the houses on Holywell Street. They were able to fight their way into these houses from the rear and then break out into the street, emerging between two inns, the Sign of the Cross Keys and the Chequers. Northumberland and Clifford were forced to send men from the barricades to deal with the new threat, while the Royal household found itself in the middle of an archery battle. Henry himself was wounded at this stage of the battle.

After a short battle in the streets the Royalists were broken. Northumberland and Clifford were killed fighting in the streets. The King took refuge in a tanner's cottage, Somerset in the Castle Inn and Buckingham and Wiltshire in the abbey church. The King was soon captured by the duke of York, who ordered him to be well treated. He then turned his attentions to the besieged Somerset. Realising that his cause was lost Somerset launched a ferocious final attack from the Castle Inn and is said to have killed four men before he was overwhelmed and killed. 

Aftermath

Somerset's death ended the fighting. Wiltshire had managed to escape from the abbey, possibly disguised as a monk. Buckingham surrendered, and remained a moderate influence at court.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle the duke of York was triumphant. His most important enemies were dead and he had control of the king. By November 1455 this had turned into a second protectorate, after Henry's health declined for a second time.

York's position declined slowly. The second protectorate ended on 25 February 1456, but he remained an important member of the Royal Council despite the best efforts of Queen Margaret and the heirs of Somerset, Northumberland and Clifford (this is where the Wars of the Roses begin to become rather confusing, as all the dead Lancastrian leaders were replaced by heirs with the same titles, and in the case of Somerset and Northumberland the same names - Thomas Clifford was at least succeeded by his son John).

By 1459 York was once again out of favour and out of power, and once again he attempted to seize power by force. This time the Royalists were better prepared, and despite an initial success at Blore Heath the Yorkist cause collapsed at Ludford Bridge, forcing the main Yorkist leaders into exile.

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

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (11 November 2013), Battle of St. Albans, 22 May 1455, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_stalbans1455.html

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