The hunting down of Queen Margaret: the battle of Tewkesbury 4 May 1471

Today we mark the anniversary of another key battle within the Wars of the Roses: the battle of Tewkesbury. As Edward IV’s forces sought to build on their earlier victory at the battle of Barnet, attention turned to Margaret of Anjou, as Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project explains…

The most striking facet of the campaign that saw Edward IV win victories at Barnet and Tewkesbury was the remarkable run of fortune he enjoyed. That fortune was, in part, hard won by his own efforts: at every turn he acted quickly and decisively and showed himself the most accomplished English general of his day. Yet much that went his way was the result of factors beyond his control. The opening phase of the campaign that ended with the battle of Tewkesbury provides the clearest example.

Queen Margaret had intended to sail from Honfleur on about 24 March, but, as it transpired, adverse winds detained her for some three weeks, and it was not until 14 April, the day on which her supposed ally, the earl of Warwick, was defeated at Barnet, that she landed at Weymouth. Had she arrived on schedule, what followed would probably have taken a profoundly different course. With the forces raised in the west county by two of the leading Lancastrian lords, Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, and John Courtenay, earl of Devon, she would have had the opportunity to rendezvous with Warwick’s army before it joined in battle with Edward. Failing that, she would have had ample time to march north from Weymouth to meet with the forces being raised in Wales by Jasper Tudor, duke of Bedford, and then had the leisure to view Warwick’s defeat as a blessing, removing her unnatural ally and putting herself once more at the head of the Lancastrian cause. As it transpired, however, her delay turned the campaign into one of desperate pursuit.

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

Fresh from victory at Barnet, Edward quickly regathered and renewed his forces, and marched west to cut Margaret off before she could cross the Severn and effect a junction with the Jasper’s Welsh army. For all his dispatch he came near to failing in that aim. The Lancastrians would have crossed the Severn at Gloucester, but for the refusal of Richard Beauchamp, to allow them entry into the town and make the crossing there. Here Edward reaped a significant return on the trust he had placed on Beauchamp, whom he had named as constable of the royal castle of Gloucester in February 1470. Beauchamp’s dutiful resistance, carried through despite the enthusiasm of some of the town’s populace for Margaret’s cause, enabled Edward to intercept the Lancastrians at the next crossing at Tewkesbury and force them to battle on terms favourable to himself.

The armies that faced each other at Tewkesbury on the morning of 4 May were probably of roughly equal size, perhaps about 6,000 each. The Lancastrians had the advantage of a strongly defensible position: in the words of the ‘Arrivall’, the official Yorkist account of the campaign, ‘a right evill place to approche … full difficult to be assayled’. Yet their failure to give battle until they had to implies a lack of confidence in their chances of victory. The Yorkists were better led with a higher proportion of well-trained troops drawn from baronial retinues and a lower proportion of footmen. Further, since Barnet, they had been significantly refreshed by a powerful contingent from the marches of Wales (it is noteworthy here how many leading gentry from Shropshire were knighted by Edward after the field was won). The course of the battle, as far as it can be discerned in the surviving sources, can also be interpreted as indicating a fear on the Lancastrian side that they were overmatched, and that they could hope for victory only through the success of some desperate resort. This, at least, would explain why Beaufort, Margaret’s principal general and an experienced commander, chose to break their defensive position and lead the army’s vanguard in a head-long assault on the Yorkist vanguard, commanded by Edward IV’s brother, the duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). Even the author of the ‘Arrivall’ noted, with apparent approval, the ‘great harte and corage’ of this attack, but it was repulsed, and the Lancastrians were unable to regather. Victory followed for the Yorkists.

That victory meant that the Lancastrian cause, at least in the incarnation represented by Henry VI and Margaret, was effectively destroyed, above all else because of the death of their son, the seventeen-year-old prince of Wales. There are conflicting accounts of how he met his end. The Tudor chronicler, Robert Fabyan, says he was captured and brought before Edward, who, enraged by the prince’s proud countenance, struck him and permitted his attendants to kill him. More contemporary accounts, however, claim he was killed in battle or fleeing from the field. Whatever the case, his death suited Edward IV admirably. 

Tewkesbury Abbey

Other of the Lancastrian leaders, among them Beaufort and Courtenay, fled to the sanctuary of Tewkesbury abbey. If Edward can be acquitted of ruthless conduct in the matter of the prince’s death, the same cannot be said of his treatment of these fugitives. One chronicler claims that he violently entered the abbey and only the intervention of a priest prevented him and his followers from cutting Beaufort and others down on the spot. What is not in doubt is that he had the leading Lancastrians taken from the abbey, tried before the constable, his brother, Gloucester, and the marshal, John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, and then beheaded. Given that the abbey had no franchise as a sanctuary for those suspected of treason, his actions could be justified in legal terms. In moral and political terms, the justification is harder to see. Although those executed had showed themselves implacable enemies, the death of the prince might have served for them as the moment to reconcile themselves to Yorkist rule. In other respects, however, Edward showed greater restraint and mercy. Queen Margaret, captured soon after the battle in a nearby religious house, was treated respectfully and later sent back to France, and some of her partisans, most notably the former chief justice of the King’s bench, Sir John Fortescue, were pardoned.

The deaths of so many high-ranking Lancastrians, whether in battle or by execution, meant that, in the words of one modern observer, the abbey became ‘the mausoleum of Henry VI’s lost cause’ [A. Goodman, The Wars of the Roses; the Soldiers’ Experience (Stroud, 2005), p. 217]. A contemporary chronicler noted the burial of some 36 high-ranking Lancastrians in the abbey, with pride of place given to the young prince who was buried in the midst of the monastic choir. These victims have no surviving contemporary memorials with one exception (I exclude here the doubtful example of Sir William Feldyng, to whom a tomb in the Leicestershire church of Lutterworth has been attributed).

The Whittingham tomb in the church of Aldbury (Hertfordshire)

The picture shows the fine tomb to Sir Robert Whittingham, keeper of Margaret’s great wardrobe and receiver-general to her son in the late 1450s, and his wife, Katherine Gatewyne, lady-in-waiting to Margaret, now in the church of Aldbury in Hertfordshire. Originally in the Bonhommes college at  nearby Ashridge, it was removed to the church by Whittingham’s descendant, Edmund Verney, in 1575.

S J P

Further reading

Biographies of Sir Robert Whittingham, Sir William Feldyng and other casualties of the battle are to be found in The Commons, 1422-61, ed. L. Clark

Lt. Col. J.D. Blyth, ‘The Battle of Tewkesbury’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, LXXX (1961), pp. 99-120.

C.L. Kingsford, English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1913), pp. 377-8.

A. Goodman, The Wars of the Roses (London, 1981)

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