‘How much ancient divisions survive’: unnatural alliances and the battle of Barnet, 14 April 1471

On 14 April 1471 a crucial battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought. Just outside the town of Barnet, Edward IV’s Yorkist force faced off against the Lancastrians, led by his former ally the earl of Warwick. In today’s blog Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project examines the events of the battle and the impact of alliances…

The period between June 1469 and May 1471 witnessed a series of bewildering fluctuations in political fortunes and was, in the sound view of one modern commentator, ‘a period of political instability without parallel in English history since 1066’ (C.D. Ross, Edward IV, p. 126). The modern student of this confusing drama, of which the battle of Barnet was the penultimate act, might well sympathise with the exasperated remark of the Milanese ambassador at the French court. On 5 May 1471 he wrote to his master: ‘I wish [England and its people] were plunged deep in the sea … for I feel like one going to the torture when I write about them’.

The events that occasioned the unfortunate ambassador so much mental distress began in the summer of 1469 when Richard Neville, earl of Warwick’s alienation from Edward IV, the man he had done so much to make King, bore its first poisonous fruit. By means of orchestrated popular risings in the north, the earl compromised Edward’s authority and assumed control of government. His attempt to rule in Edward’s name, however, soon foundered, and in the following autumn Edward recovered power and, after a brief and hollow reconciliation, forced Warwick into exile in April 1470. Warwick responded by entering into an unlikely alliance with Queen Margaret, wife of the deposed Henry VI, and, in the autumn of 1470, catching Edward ill-prepared, his invasion led to the restoration of the hapless (and probably deranged) Henry. Edward found himself in exile in the Low Countries with the daunting task of recovering his throne.

Monument commemorating the battle of Barnet, erected in about 1740

As he planned for his return, Edward had one important advantage. The opponents ranged against him were an unnatural alliance of former enemies. Queen Margaret and Warwick had been brought together, in part at least, by the self-interested machinations of the French King, Louis XI; and the queen (and those Lancastrian lords who had remained loyal to her since 1461) had no reason to place trust in one of the main architects of her husband’s deposition. 

Thus, a notable feature of the campaign of the spring of 1471, was the failure of these new ‘allies’ to coordinate their resistance to Edward’s invasion. The Burgundian ambassador and chronicler, Philippe de Commynes, was quick to draw a moral from this: ‘how much ancient divisions survive, how much they are to be feared and how great are the losses they can cause’. Further, the division in the ranks of Edward’s opponents went beyond that between queen and earl. The earl had drawn the Edward’s brother, George, duke of Clarence into rebellion, marrying him to one of his two daughters and heiresses-presumptive, but their alliance was understandably fragile. Since the other daughter was married to the Lancastrian heir, the queen’s son, Edward, as part of the earl’s alliance with the queen, the duke had every reason to suppose he would become marginalised, or worse, under the new dispensation.

Yet, although the disunity of his opponents provided Edward with his opportunity, there were very considerable obstacles in the way of its realisation. He landed at Ravenspur on 14 March with only a relatively small force, perhaps as few as 1,200, and enjoyed little popular support. Indeed, he was only able to gain admittance to the city of York with the subterfuge that he had returned not to reclaim the Crown but only his dukedom of York. As the subsequent campaign showed, his victory depended on everything going right for him with no margin for miscalculation or misfortune.

At every turn his path was eased by the failure of enemies, actual or potential, to confront him. On his landing, the opposition of the dominant local lord, Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, whose father had fallen in the Lancastrian ranks at the battle of Towton, might easily have derailed him, but the earl stood aside and Edward reaped the dividend of having restored him to the earldom a year before. Soon after, as he had advanced to Nottingham, a Lancastrian force of some 4,000 under John de Vere, earl of Oxford, a die-hard Lancastrian, was nearby at Newark, yet failed to give battle.

These failures allowed Edward to expand his forces unmolested as Yorkist loyalists rallied to him, most notably William, Lord Hastings, who brought some 3,000 men. Thus when he came into contact with Warwick’s main force, the earl withdrew within the walls of Coventry and refused to give battle in the expectation that he would soon be reinforced by Clarence coming from the west country. That help never came, as Clarence, in the crucial moment of the campaign, joined his brother. Edward then had his final piece of good fortune. Thwarted of battle outside Coventry, he continued south and won admittance to London, in part because the Lancastrian lords, principally, Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, whom Warwick had hoped would defend the city, had marched west to meet Queen Margaret’s anticipated landing in Dorset.

Indictment taken on 11 May 1472 before royal commissioners of inquiry sitting at Barnet against the late earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford and others for levying war against the King. The National Archives, KB9/330, m. 40

Nonetheless, for all that had gone right for Edward in his march south, it is probable that he faced a numerically-superior force, perhaps by a margin of some 4,000, when he marched out of London to confront Warwick at Barnet. Further, for all the failure of his opponents to coordinate their activities, Queen Margaret’s landing was now imminently expected (indeed, she landed at Weymouth on the day of the battle), and he thus needed a decisive victory more than Warwick. This, together perhaps with a natural inclination, explains the aggressive tactics he adopted from the outset, attacking in the early morning in, as one well-informed chronicler has it, ‘suche a grete myste, that nether [side] might see othere perfitely’.

The same chronicler describes one incident as decisive. After the earl of Oxford, commanding one wing of Warwick’s army, had routed and pursued the opposing wing of Edward’s commanded by Lord Hastings, he returned to the field in the disorientating mist. In the confusion his troops were attacked by Warwick’s men who mistook their badge of ‘a sterre with stremys’ with Edward’s badge of the sun in splendour. Oxford took this as a sign that he had been betrayed and that Warwick had reverted to his Yorkist allegiance. He fled the field with his 800 men. This story is perhaps not to be taken too seriously. There is no evidence that the star with streams numbered among the de Vere badges, and the story conforms to the understandable convention of the chroniclers to explain victories in battle in the simple terms of a single incident. It does, however, illustrate the perception that, even on the field of battle, Edward’s opponents were fatally undermined by distrust and disunity. Indeed, the same chronicler emphasises this theme with an improbable account of the death of Warwick’s brother, John, Marquis Montagu: he was killed by one of Warwick’s own men who saw him donning Edward’s livery.

By whatever means the victory was won, it was complete. Warwick himself fell in the battle and his army was scattered. Edward now only had Queen Margaret to defeat, and the odds were now in his favour as he faced a final encounter, to be fought at Tewkesbury on 4 May.


Further reading

M.A, Hicks, Warwick the Kingmaker (Oxford, 1998)

H. Kleineke, ‘Gerhard von Wesel’s Newsletter from England, 17 April 1471’, The Ricardian, xvi (2006)

J. Ross, The Foremost Man of the Kingdom: John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford (1442-1513) (Woodbridge, 2011)

Look out for our upcoming blog on the battle of Tewkesbury, on 4 May. Read about previous battles in the Wars of the Roses and their impact on Parliament via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

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