This week 555 years ago one of the significant Wars of the Roses contests, the battle of Northampton, took place. Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, reveals a dark love story behind the battle…
On 10 July 1460 there was a brief but decisive battle just outside Northampton. A Yorkist army, commanded by Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, defeated a smaller Lancastrian one. Henry VI fell into Yorkist hands, and although fatalities were light they included the principal Lancastrian commanders, most notably Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham. The battle marked a remarkable recovery in Yorkist fortunes. In the previous October, having failed in humiliating fashion to give battle when faced with a superior Lancastrian army near Ludlow, the Yorkist lords had fled into exile in Ireland and Calais. An Act passed in the Parliament of November 1459 confiscated their estates and briefly all seemed lost. On 26 June 1460, however, the earl of Warwick and the duke of York’s son, the earl of March, landed at Sandwich from Calais. They quickly gathered support as they marched through Kent, peacefully entered London and then travelled north to confront a Lancastrian army that had moved from its stronghold of Coventry to Northampton. Their victory set the course that, after various vicissitudes, was to lead to Henry VI’s deposition and the accession of the earl of March as Edward IV in the following March.
Two contemporary chroniclers preserve a story that gives the battle an interest beyond its place in the narrative of national history. One of those who fell on the Lancastrian side was Sir William Lucy, an elderly knight of long military experience in France who had represented Buckinghamshire in the Parliament of November 1449. The apparent circumstances of his death were so remarkable as to attract the notice of the chroniclers. The London chronicle identified with William Gregory, mayor of London in 1451-2, provides the best account:
And that goode knyght Syr Wylliam Lucy that dwellyd be-syde Northehampton hyrde the goone schotte, and come unto the fylde to have holpen the kynge, but the fylde was done or that he come; an one of the Staffordys was ware of hys comynge, and lovyd that knyght ys wyffe and hatyd hym, and a-non causyd hys dethe.
There are some curiosities in this account of Lucy’s death. Why, for example, was he, a prominent Lancastrian, not in the King’s army at the outset of the battle, coming there only when he ‘hyrde the goone schotte’ and arriving only after the conflict was over? The story of the Gregory chronicler is probably not to be taken literally, but is rather intended to emphasise the element of treachery in the knight’s death. That death occurred after the battle was over; and it was provoked not by the differing political allegiances of killer and killed (although they were on different sides) but by a base personal motive on the part of the former.
Other evidence indirectly implicates Lucy’s wife Margaret in the murder. Another chronicle account specifically identifies the killer as John Stafford, who, very soon after the battle, took Lucy’s widow as his wife. Thus one likely explanation for these events is that Lucy’s wife, who was some 40 years his junior, had begun a liaison with Stafford and that Stafford had then taken advantage of the chaos of battle to remove her troublesome husband.
Stafford’s interest in Margaret may have been as much financial as emotional. On his marriage to Margaret, his third wife, in 1457, Sir William had settled upon her a life interest in a valuable part of his extensive estates. As Stafford had few lands of his own, her hand promised him the acres he lacked. For Margaret the advantages of the match are less obvious, and, in any event, their marriage was to be very brief. A marriage that began with death in battle quickly ended in the same way. Stafford enjoyed a brief period of prominence due to Margaret’s lands, sitting as MP for Worcestershire in the Yorkist Parliament of October 1460 before being killed in the Yorkist ranks at the battle of Towton in the following March.
Margaret’s own subsequent history was also short. Having lost two husbands in the space of eight months, she found herself under pressure to marry again and took as her third, Thomas Wake of Blisworth (Northamptonshire), a servant of the earl of Warwick. She has also been tentatively and probably mistakenly identified as one of Edward IV’s mistresses.
Her eventful life ended on 4 August 1466 at the age of only about 28, and the probability is that she died of complications arising from childbirth. A son, John, had been born to her and Wake only three months before she died. A brass to her memory survives in the church of Ingrave in Essex. She may also have a unique claim to fame as the wife of two MPs, the second of whom was responsible for the death of the first.
For further details of Margaret’s life: S.J. Payling, ‘Widows and the Wars of the Roses: the Turbulent Marital History of Edward IV’s Putative Mistress, Margaret, daughter of Sir Lewis John of West Horndon, Essex’, in The Fifteenth Century XIV, ed. L. Clark (Woodbridge, 2015)