Making the most of a parhelion: the earl of March and the battle of Mortimer’s Cross

In our latest blog Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow for the Commons 1461-1504 project, looks back to this date in 1461, when a natural phenomenon appeared to the future King Edward IV on the eve of battle…

The battle of Mortimer’s Cross has two claims to uniqueness among medieval British battles: it was preceded by the appearance of the meteorological phenomenon of a parhelion and it took place while Parliament was in session. Fought on either 2 or 3 February 1461, it came at a time when the fortunes of the house of York hung in a dangerous balance. In the first session of the Parliament which had assembled on the previous 10 October the duke of York had been named as heir-apparent to Henry VI. On 29 November Parliament, after making this momentous step, was prorogued to reassemble on 28 January. Few MPs can have doubted that the prorogation would witness a military campaign in which either the duke would validate his status as heir or Queen Margaret and the Lancastrian lords would restore her son, Edward, prince of Wales, to his disputed birthright.

The beginning of that campaign proved disastrous for the Yorkists. The duke took an army north from London to confront a Lancastrian force then growing rapidly in strength. Through either miscalculation or over-confidence, he found himself isolated in enemy territory and met defeat and death in a desperate foray from his own castle of Sandal on 30 December. His second son, the earl of Rutland, was also killed, and the Yorkist cause now came to depend on the success and survival of York’s heir, the eighteen-year-old earl of March. He had not accompanied his father north, perhaps, in part, on the calculation (the very necessary one as it transpired) that father and heir should not put themselves at hazard in the same battle (had Edward died, his brother George, the future duke of Clarence, would have been the Yorkist heir, and he was only eleven years old). 

The Earl of March, later Edward IV

Instead, he travelled to the Marches of Wales to raise an army of his own in the heartlands of the duchy of York. This he succeeded in doing, not least through the efforts of his two leading lieutenants, Sir William Herbert of Raglan (Monmouthshire) and Herbert’s brother-in-law, Walter Devereux of Weobley (Herefordshire). These two men were the Herefordshire MPs in the prorogued Parliament and, no doubt, they found little difficulty in giving priority to their military over their parliamentary responsibilities, remaining with their lord in the Marches rather than taking the eccentric decision to travel back to Westminster. Indeed, when the Parliament reassembled on 28 January, there must have been many absentees among both Lords and Commons and the session lasted no more than a few days with prorogation coming on either the day Mortimer’s Cross was fought or the day after.

As the earl of March’s army waited in the vicinity of Leominster for the approach from Wales of a Lancastrian army, under the command of the King’s half-brother, Jasper, earl of Pembroke, and James Ormond, earl of Wiltshire, a parhelion appeared, at least according to testimony of several chroniclers. Davies’s English Chronicle gives the fullest account. In its words, on the day before the battle at about ten in the morning there ‘were seen iij sonnys in the firmament shynyng fulle clere, whereof the peple had grete mervayle, and therof were agast’. There is no reason to doubt this story. Parhelia are seen in very cold weather and are caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. In themselves they are not particularly rare, although they generally lack the clear definition of the one described by the chronicler. Where the chronicler may have been guilty of embellishment is in his description of the earl’s reaction to it: he urged his troops, who were seemingly ready to take a gloomy view of this portent, ‘Beeth of good comfort, and dredethe not; thys ys a good sygne, for these iij sonnys betokene the Fader, the Sone, and the Holy Gost, and therefore late vs haue of good harte, and in the name of Almyghtye God go we agayns oure enemyes’. Whatever the truth of this story, it reflects a politically important narrative. The chronicler’s sympathies were firmly Yorkist and it is likely that he compiled his text in the early years of Yorkist rule. His purpose in relating the story was probably twofold: first, to portray Edward IV as a man of initiative and courage (not a difficult case to make, at least in the circumstances of the early 1460s); and, second, much more importantly, to imply that the new King’s claim to the throne enjoyed divine approbation. That approbation had not been obviously apparent when Edward’s father and brother fell at Sandal; the opportune appearance of the parhelion could be interpreted as showing that God looked more favourably upon Edward himself.

A parhelion

Divine intervention is not, however, necessary to explain the result of the battle. When it was joined, Edward was at the head of an army with a significant advantage in numbers, quality and situation, waiting for advancing opponents in a place of its own choosing. The victory was won and it was a crucial one. Although the Yorkists had recovered from defeat at Ludford Bridge and Sandal, it is unlikely that they would have surmounted defeat at Mortimer’s Cross, particularly as it was followed, on 17 February by the defeat of the other Yorkist army, under the command of the earl of Warwick, at St. Albans. In short, without his victory at Mortimer’s Cross, the earl of March would never have become King. His later adoption of the ‘sun in splendour’ as a personal badge may reflect his recognition of that fact and his reverence for the parhelion that had seemingly foretold his accession.

S.J.P

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