An empty victory: Queen Margaret and the second battle of St. Albans 17 Feb. 1461

Today Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project marks the anniversary of the second battle of St. Albans. The battle may have been a convincing victory for the Lancastrian side, but was it a blessing in disguise for their Yorkist foes?

The Lancastrian victories of the civil war of 1459-61 have a curious quality. Any victory in a campaign that ends in defeat has the air of the pyrrhic about it; none the less, it is striking that after success at Ludford Bridge, Wakefield and St. Albans, the Lancastrians found themselves, on the eve of the decisive encounter at Towton on 29 March 1461, on the defensive and with their King deposed. Certainly, the battle of Towton might have gone either way, but how was it that after the duke of York had been killed at Wakefield and the earl of Warwick defeated at St. Albans the Lancastrians found themselves playing no more than an even-money chance on that fateful day? The earl of March’s victory on the Welsh Marches at Mortimer’s Cross a fortnight before the engagement at St. Albans is an important part of the answer, but so too is what happened at St. Albans.

The facts of that campaign can be briefly set out. Fresh from victory at Wakefield, the Lancastrian army made its way south, plundering as it went, lavishing particular, but by no means exclusive, attention on the duke of York’s property at Grantham and Stamford. The earl of Warwick, meanwhile, who had remained with the King in London after the duke of York had departed north to meet his death, made preparations to meet this threat. The parliamentary session (the second of the assembly that had passed the Act of Accord in the previous October), which had convened on 28 January, was prorogued after only a few days, and, on 12 February Warwick’s army, hastily-assembled and with a high-proportion of ill-trained troops, set out on the road north. He chose to take the King with him, perhaps believing, vainly as it transpired, that the royal presence in his own ranks would deter the Lancastrian army from fighting. One Yorkist chronicler echoed this reasoning, seeing evidence of the depravity of the Lancastrians in the fact that they came against the King ‘his Baner displaied’.

Queen Margaret of Anjou c. 1445 from British Library, Royal 15 E VI, f. 2v (presented to her by John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, on her betrothal to Henry VI) via Wikimedia Commons

The battle itself was quickly won by the Lancastrians. Warwick had chosen elaborately-defensive tactics, deploying his forces in an extended line with the town of St. Albans at its centre, but found himself surprised and outmanoeuvred by the speed and direction of the Lancastrian attack. The narrowness of the town’s streets hampered the movement of his forces, and it may be that the Lancastrian victory came even before the main Yorkist forces had engaged. The escape from the field of Warwick himself and the other Yorkist leaders (with the exception of Warwick’s brother, John, Lord Montagu, who was captured) is consistent with that conclusion.

From the Yorkist point of view, Warwick’s escape was one blessing from that humiliating day, but there was another less immediately obvious. The Yorkists lost not only the battle but also the body of, in the words of Warwick’s brother, George Neville, bishop of Exeter, ‘that puppet of a King’. He was retaken by the Lancastrians, found, at least according to a report made to the dauphin of France, ‘laughing and singing’ under a tree. This loss brought a new clarity of purpose to the Yorkist cause. Had the King remained in their hands, there would have been those amongst the Yorkist leaders (and their sympathisers more broadly) who would have argued that the Act of Accord should be maintained, with Henry VI as the nominal head of a Yorkist government. Such a middle way would have offered a path to reconciliation with some at least of the Lancastrian leaders. The loss of the King ended this as a practical option. Medieval government needed a King; the Yorkists had now lost him and with him the justification for their rule. The solution was obvious: the new duke of York (and former earl of March) must take the throne.

Just as losing Henry VI had some positive consequences for the Yorkists, regaining him was not the blessing it first appeared for the Lancastrians. It may be going too far to say, as one modern commentator has done, that possession of Henry’s person ‘brought immediate military and political paralysis to the queen’s hitherto successful forces … his presence inhibited action without his approval and his indecisiveness now infected the direction of affairs’ (B.P. Wolffe, Henry VI (1981), p. 329). One may doubt that even his most loyal adherents would have placed much value on his views, particularly in relation to military matters. Yet his recapture may have partly informed the major miscalculation that followed the battle.

Queen Margaret and her advisers chose not to exert every effort to take London. They were undoubtedly faced with practical restraints in the achievement of that aim: they did not trust themselves to prevent their troops plundering the city and feared the reputational damage that would have done (one well-informed London chronicler remarked that  the Lancastrians withdrew because ‘they demyde that the Northeryn men wolde have ben to creuelle in robbyng yf they hadde come to London’); they were aware that, even though the city authorities were divided on the wisdom of admitting them, the city populace was fiercely hostile; and, perhaps most worryingly, they knew that the new duke of York was advancing towards London with the army that had won at Mortimer’s Cross. Yet it may also be that the queen’s determination to attempt to press the advantage was diminished by the retaking of her husband. She may have considered that this had fulfilled the principal purpose of her move south, and that his person, hapless as it was, would serve to rally the uncommitted to her cause. As it transpired, however, the failure to take London was followed by the victorious entry of the duke of York and his acclamation as King on 4 March. Not surprisingly, one chronicler concluded that the Lancastrian retreat from London, ‘was the destruction of King Henry and his queen’. For the Lancastrians, St. Albans had, indeed, proved a pyrrhic victory; for the Yorkists, it had the appearance of a defeat but brought the consequences of a victory.


Find more blogs depicting the events of battles within the Wars of the Roses here.

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