How not to fight a battle: William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and the battle of Edgcote 24 July 1469

Senior research fellow for our House of Commons 1461-1504 project Dr Simon Payling continues his look at significant battles during the Wars of the Roses. Today he considers the failed leadership of William Herbert at the battle of Edgcote ahead of the anniversary of the battle on Saturday…

Some of the battles of the Wars of the Roses were predictable affairs, in that, at the moment battle was joined, there was an overwhelming favourite and the odds were duly landed, as in the Lancastrian victories at Ludford Bridge (if that skirmish can be designated a battle) and Wakefield, and the Yorkist victory at Mortimer’s Cross. Others were too close to call, most notably the greatest of them, that of Towton. Other battles were unpredictable for another reason, in that all pre-battle calculations as to the likely winner were rendered nugatory by treacherous defections from one side to the other, as in the Yorkist victory at Northampton and, more famously, in Henry VII’s triumph at Bosworth. The battle of Edgcote falls into another category of unpredictability in that the single most important factor in defeat was, seemingly at least, an egregious failure of leadership.  

Castle of Raglan from which Herbert departed for the campaign that ended at Edgcote
By Bob McCaffrey from Rickmansworth, UK – Raglan Castle (2), CC BY-SA 2.0

The main outlines of the campaign are quickly set down. The immediate context was Richard Neville, earl of Warwick’s increasing alienation from Edward IV; and the mutual hostility between the earl and the clique that surrounded the King, most notably the Welshman, William Herbert, created earl of Pembroke in 1468, and the relatives of the King’s wife, Elizabeth Wydeville. Neville, in his ruthless duplicity, cloaked his hostile intentions behind the façade of popular rising. Exploiting local grievances in Yorkshire, he fomented a rebellion, ostensibly led by a popular leader named ‘Robin of Redesdale’, but in fact commanded by leading members of the earl’s northern retinue. The King was slow to respond to what the chronicler of the Lincolnshire abbey of Croyland described as ‘a whirlwind .. from the north …a mighty insurrection of the commons’. The opening of the campaign found him at the royal castle at Nottingham (more than 60 miles north of the battle’s eventual location) with a small force awaiting reinforcements from Herbert, advancing from Raglan with an army considerably larger than his own, and from Humphrey Stafford, newly-created earl of Devon, coming from Devon with a smaller force. 

In the meantime, Warwick and his ally and new son-in-law, Clarence, the King’s brother, were marching north from London to join with the northern rebels on their march south. The probability is that Warwick’s combined force was numerically superior, probably significantly so, to the combined royalist army, and that this knowledge informed the actions in the campaign of the King and the two new earls. The battle, fought at Edgcote near Banbury on 24 July, came before these military manoeuvrings were complete. The forces of Herbert and Stafford had come together, but the King had not yet made junction with them nor had Warwick joined the rebel army. 

Collating the various chronicle accounts, there appears to have been two principal factors in bringing about the rebel victory: first, before battle was joined, Herbert and Stafford argued and the latter separated his forces some miles away from where battle was eventually joined; second, late in the fighting Herbert’s forces were demoralised by the arrival of an advance party of Warwick’s army which led them to the belief that the main body of that army was much nearer the field than it was. In their flight many fell on the Welsh side and its leaders were captured with Herbert and his brother, Sir Richard Herbert, then executed, on Warwick’s army, a few days later. The King too, denuded of forces, fell into Warwick’s hands. The earl’s victory was seemingly complete, particularly as the queen’s father and brother were also captured and executed a month later, as too was the unfortunate Stafford.

There are several curious factors in this chain of events. At the heart of them lays Edward’s passivity. Although he was again to allow himself to be outmanoeuvred when forced in to exile in the autumn of 1470, on earlier and later occasions he proved himself to be an effective and energetic military leader. In the Edgcote campaign, he seems to have dallied, underestimating the threat he faced and deciding to wait for Herbert and Stafford. Thus, when the northern rebels bypassed him, the rebel army was able to cut them off. This prompts a further reflection.  Stafford’s conduct is routinely condemned in the chronicles; the general charge is that, after an argument over billeting arrangements in Banbury, he did not bring his forces to the field.

There is, however, another more charitable explanation for his behaviour, namely that his disagreement with Herbert was not a minor one over billets but a fundamental one over tactics. He may have wanted to avoid battle until a junction could be made with the King in the realistic hope that the royal presence would make the rebels reluctant to commit the treason of taking up arms against the royal banner; Herbert may have taken the contrary view that the rebels must be confronted before they could make their own junction with the earl of Warwick. Subsequent events suggest that caution may have been the best counsel, and there is some suggestion in the contemporary record that Herbert behaved recklessly. The Welsh poets, an important source for the battle, although they generally attribute the defeat of their hero to treachery, are not unanimous in that view. In his elegy to a fatality of the battle, Herbert’s half-brother, Thomas Vaughan, Lewis Glyn Cothi remarked, ‘it was through heedlessness that the field was lost’. On this reading, Herbert could and should have avoided battle.

The Welsh poets strongly reflect another dimension of the battle.  For them, it was very much more than a proxy fight between Edward IV and Warwick.  Herbert was a Welsh national leader, and his loss and the heavy Welsh casualties were seen as a national disaster.

In the words of Guto’r Glyn, ‘I was killed, I and my nation too, the moment that this earl was killed’. He urged vengeance, ‘Let us all go to avenge our nation in the teeth of the Northerners’. Hywel Swrdwal was yet more strident: ‘Let there not be a single good night for the owner of a bow yonder in Yorkshire, and let there not be there a home for any man lest it be a grave’. He also drew a contrast that even the most nationalistic of the Welsh might have found a little extreme. ‘Jesus endowed the English with only two qualities’, they were heretics and traitors, ‘similar to pagans’; Herbert, by contrast, was ‘very similar to God’. This nationalism was also reflected on the English side, albeit in a more minor key. The Croyland chronicler saw the defeat of Herbert as the refutation of a ‘celebrated and famous prophecy’ universally believed among the Welsh that they would regain what they had one held, namely the sovereignty of England.

One consequence of the battle may have been a mutual hostility between the northerners and the Welsh that lasted into the Tudor period. In the short term, it further destabilised English politics. Warwick’s rebels had won the battle, but the earl’s ‘dark machinations’ (to use the words of Howell Evans) had gained nothing beyond cruelly satisfying his hatred of Herbert and the Wydevilles. There was no political consensus for Edward IV’s removal and no possibility that he could be reduced to the earl’s cipher. Edward regained his power and Warwick was forced into his fatal alliance with the Lancastrians.

S. P.

Further reading

G. Evans, The Battle of Edgcote 1469: Re-evaluating the Evidence  (Northamptonshire Battlefields Society, 2019) both covers the ground and helpfully draws the sources together.

Howell T. Evans, Wales and the Wars of the Roses (1998 edn.), pp. 102-110, although published as long ago as 1915, remains a useful account.

For the redating of the battle from the traditional 26 July to 24 July: W.G. Lewis, ‘The Exact Date of the Battle of Banbury’, Bulletin of Historical Research, lv (1982)

For biographies of William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and Humphrey Stafford, earl of Devon, see The House of Commons, 1422-61, ed. L. Clark, iv. 852-63; vi. 684-90.

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