Siege of London, 12-15 May 1471

The siege of London (12-15 May 1471) was a brief attack on the city that threatened to revive the Lancastrian cause, which had appeared to be lost after the disaster of Tewkesbury, but that failed after two attacks on the city defences were repulsed.

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

The attack was led by Thomas Neville, the Bastard of Fauconberg. He was an illegitimate son of William Neville, Lord Fauconberg and earl of Kent, a rare example of a Neville who had died of natural causes (in 1463). Like his father, Thomas served the Yorkists at sea, and in 1470 he commanded part of Edward IV's navy. Thomas Neville was a cousin of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and when Warwick was forced into exile after a failed revolt he supported him and took his part of the fleet with him. After Warwick's successful invasion later in the year Fauconberg was appointed to command the fleet, and given the task of preventing Edward IV from returning to England. He was always short of money and was thus easily distracted by opportunities for piracy that would help pay for his fleet, and thus failed to intercept Edward when he returned to England in March 1471.

As Edward advanced on London Fauconberg was given the task of raising troops in Kent, but at the crucial moment of the campaign he was absent collecting the experienced men of the Calais garrison. When he returned to Kent Fauconberg was initially unaware that Warwick had been defeated and killed at Barnet (14 April 1471) and that Edward now had control of London, but when he did discover the bad news he wasn’t discouraged. Instead he raised a large army in Kent, with contingents from most Kent towns (amongst them was Nicholas Faunt, Major of Canterbury. Some of Fauconberg's men were probably motivated by loyalty either to Warwick or to Henry VI, but others were simply after plunder and others were simply anti-London.

London was vulnerable to attack because Edward had already moved west to deal with the Lancastrian army of Margaret of Anjou. Queen Margaret had landed at Weymouth on 14 April, and raised a sizable army in the south-west. By the end of April the two armies were on a collision course, and on 4 May 1471 Edward defeated the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury. Henry's son and heir Prince Edward was killed in the battle, and the future of the Lancastrian cause seemed bleak.

This didn't put off Fauconberg. On 8 May he was at Sittingbourne, from where he wrote to the London authorities asking to be allowed to pass through the city on his way west to attack Edward. In the recent past London had let most armies pass through - the one major exception being the Lancastrians after their victory at St. Albans in 1461. This time they had more reason to resist. Fauconberg's letter arrived at about the same time as one from Edward announcing his victory at Tewkesbury. On 9 May the city authorities replied to Fauconberg, and refused to give him permission to enter the city. They then began to prepare for a siege. The river bank was lined with troops and guns and all of the city gates were reinforced. The defenders of London were well armed, with plenty of guns, but there were some doubts as to the loyalty of the Londoners, many of whom had welcomed Warwick in the previous year.

London would have been a valuable prize for the Lancastrians. Henry VI was a prisoner in the Tower of London, while Edward's queen and their young son were both in the city. If Fauconberg had managed to capture the city and free Henry then the Lancastrian cause might have been revived. This probably explains why he decided to continue with the attack despite the news from Tewkesbury.

On 12 May Fauconberg's fleet anchored close to the Tower of London, while his army reached Southwark. On the same day he launched his first attack on the city. In 1471 London Bridge was fortified, with a newly built gate at the southern end and a drawbridge part of the way across. Fauconberg's men managed to burn down the new gate, but they were unable to fight their way across the bridge. They did manage to set a few pubs on fire on the north bank, but their first attack was a failure.

On 13 May Fauconberg tried an alterative plan. He led his men west, and announced that he was going to cross Kingston Bridge and attack London from the west, taking Westminster before attacking the fortified city. Earl Rivers, the commander of the Tower, shipped some of his troops up the river to guard the bridge, but Fauconberg abandoned the plan and returned to Southwark. That even he drew his men up in battle array opposite the city, perhaps in an attempt to intimidate the defenders.

The most serious attack came on 14 May. Fauconberg had prepared well for this attack. He had shipped 3,000 of his Kentish rebels across the river, where they joined with another 2,000 men from Essex. The guns were removed from his ships and lined up on the south bank of the river in an attempt to counter the city's artillery.

The attack started with an artillery barrage across the river, but the city guns returned fire and the rebels were forced to abandon their positions. The main attack began at around 11am. On the north bank the rebels attacked Aldgate and Bishopsgate, the eastern and north-eastern gates of the city, while on the south bank they made another attempt to cross London Bridge.

The attack on London Bridge reached as far as the tower that guarded the drawbridge but was stopped there. At Bishopsgate they were able to set the gate on fire, but again got no further.

At Aldgate the rebels managed to capture the bulwark that the defenders had just built to protect the gate. It took a two-pronged assault to recapture the gate, with the Londoners attacking from within and part of the garrison of the Tower coming out of a postern gate to attack the rebels in the rear. The rebels were driven back from the gate, and the retreat soon turned into a rout. Several hundred of them were killed and more were captured before the survivors reached their ships and escaped back to the south bank. On the same day Edward, who had moved to Coventry to deal with a northern revolt that had now collapsed, was able to dispatch the first of his troops towards London.

Fauconberg spent 15 May at Southwark, but then only withdrew a short way east to Blackheath. He finally abandoned the enterprise on 18 May, as Edward's advance guard reached the city. Fauconberg sent his fleet to Sandwich, and then accompanied the Calais garrison as they marched across Kent to join the ships. Most of the Kent rebels went home at this point, although some would be found and punished later (amongst them was the major of Canterbury, who was hanged, drawn and quartered. Fauconberg sent the Calais troops back across the Channel, but it was increasingly clear that the Lancastrian cause was doomed, and with Warwick and his brother Montagu both dead the Neville cause was also rather uncertain. Fauconberg still had his fleet, and he used it save himself. On 27 May he surrendered his ships in return for a pardon.

As was so often the case Edward attempted a reconciliation with Fauconberg, and he was sent to serve under Richard of Gloucester in the north of England. Again as was so often the case the efforts failed, and for unknown reasons Fauconberg was beheaded at Middleham Castle in September. His head was then returned to London and displayed on London Bridge, facing towards Kent.

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

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 February 2014), Siege of London, 12-15 May 1471 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_london_1471.html

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