‘He knewe the slaightes, stratagems, and the pollecies of warlike affaires’: Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, and the battle of Blore Heath

On 23 September 1459 the battle of Blore Heath took place. In today’s blog, marking the anniversary of the battle, Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project looks into the events of the encounter, as the earl of Salisbury’s Yorkist forces faced up to those led by the Lancastrian Lord Audley.

The battle of Blore Heath, two miles from Market Drayton, near the border between Staffordshire and Shropshire, was the only significant fighting to occur in the rebellion of the Yorkists in 1459, which ended in their humiliating flight from Ludford Bridge on 12 October. An uneasy truce between York and Lancaster had persisted since the Yorkist victory at the first battle of St. Albans in 1455, but, by the autumn of 1459, it had been placed under an irresistible strain. The increasing confidence and militancy of the Lancastrians, which owed much to Queen Margaret, drove the duke of York and his allies into desperate measures. The late September of 1459 saw several armies in play. For the Yorkists, the earl of Warwick, captain of Calais, crossed from there with a small professional force drawn from the garrison and passed through London on 21 September; his father, the earl of Salisbury, was then making way south from his north Yorkshire stronghold at Middleham; and York himself was at his castle in Ludlow, either awaited their arrival or preparing to march east to meet them. The disposition of the Lancastrians is less clear: their main army, under the nominal headship of the King, was in the Midlands, probably dispersed into several units; and a secondary force, raised by the queen in Cheshire and under the command of James Tuchet, Lord Audley, lay well-placed to intercept Salisbury on his march south.

Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury’s castle at Middleham, via Wikimedia Commons

Audley was not the most natural choice as commander of the queen’s army. Although locally powerful – his castle of Heighley lay only a few miles from Blore Heath – he was only a minor peer, was over 60 years of age, and his last military experience had been in France nearly 30 years before. Salisbury, the commander he was to face, was of similarly advanced age, but, as a great northern lord, he was not only of much greater standing than Audley, he also had more intensive and recent military experience, serving both in France and on the Scottish marches. In the words of the Tudor chronicler, Edward Hall, ‘he knewe the slaightes, stratagems, and the pollecies of warlike affaires’.

A potential source of personal animosity between the two commanders provides an additional dimension to the battle. Audley had taken as his second wife, Eleanor, the only child of Edmund Holand, earl of Kent (d.1408), and, but for the allegation that she was illegitimate, she would have inherited a comital estate that would have elevated Audley to the ranks of the higher peerage. Instead that inheritance had been divided between Edmund’s sisters and part had descended to Salisbury. In the Parliament of 1431 Salisbury and the other coheirs, among whom was also the duke of York, had successfully petitioned against Audley’s efforts to prove his wife’s legitimacy. Whether this resentment persisted on Audley’s part nearly 30 years later can only be a matter of speculation, but it may have informed his conduct during the battle.

That battle was fought on 23 September when Audley intercepted Salisbury at Blore Heath. The former appears to have had everything in his favour. The chroniclers are agreed that he had a significantly larger force, not, no doubt the 5,000 to 500 estimated by one London chronicler, but perhaps by more than two to one. Further, he had time on his side. The main Lancastrian force, or, at least a detachment of it, was only a few miles away, while the earl of Warwick, deterred from attempting to recruit around his castle of Warwick by the presence of the Lancastrian army, was moving west to Ludlow. Salisbury’s only hope of reinforcement lay in his son-in-law, Thomas, Lord Stanley, but Stanley had failed to commit himself beyond failing to act on a royal summons to join Audley’s troops. By contrast, Audley was assured of substantial reinforcement within a short time. Salisbury’s best hope was to engage the superior force quickly, and this may explain why several chronicle accounts claim that he employed the tactic of a feigned retreat. Audley, perhaps over-confident of victory and eager to have his revenge on Salisbury, attacked recklessly and found his cavalry drawn into the steep sided-defile of Wemberton Brook. In the initial phase of the battle Lancastrian losses were very heavy, and, although the battle is said to have lasted from 1 to 5 p.m., Salisbury maintained the advantage.  Audley himself was among the Lancastrian dead.

Cross supposedly marking the place where Lord Audley fell.  It is probably not contemporary, but was in situ by 1686.

Despite his victory, a ‘grete wondyr’ in the words of one chronicler, Salisbury was still in a difficult position. He had to press on to make his junction with York at Ludlow, potentially pursued by the main Lancastrian army. This tactical necessity is the probable context for the story related by ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’, the most vivid of fifteenth-century chroniclers. He relates that, on the night after the battle, ‘a Fryer Austyn schot gonnys alle that nyght in a parke that was at the backe syde of the fylde … And in the morowe they (presumably a reference to the main Lancastrian army or a detachment of it) founde nothyr man ne chylde in that parke but the fryer’. The implication is that this ruse delayed the Lancastrians in their pursuit of the victorious Yorkist army. In any event, that pursuit never took place, probably because the Lancastrian army was both dispersed and restrained by the necessity to counter Warwick’s movements.

Salisbury, seemingly through his boldness and superior general ship, had defeated Audley and won free passage to march further south. Yet, even in military terms, the victory was illusory. It shares certain characteristics with the later Lancastrian one at the second battle of St. Albans on 17 February 1461. Both were won in the course of campaigns that were decisively lost. Yet, in one important respect they differed, the Lancastrian victory at St. Albans brought an opportunity – to take the prize of London – albeit one that was not taken; the Yorkist victory at Blore Heath brought the victors only the opportunity to draw themselves further into an already hopeless situation. Further, if there was no more military upside to the Yorkist victory beyond the consideration that a victory is better than a defeat, in political terms the battle was an important turning point, which, in the short term, was close to terminal for the Yorkists. They had risen in arms on the ostensible pretext that they sought peace and security by bringing their grievances personally before the King. In a letter of excuse made between Blore Heath and Ludford Bridge, they claimed ‘to haue forborne and avoided alle thynges that myghe serue to the effusione of Crysten blood’. The bloodshed of Blore Heath had already revealed this to be a lie. Had that battle not taken place, and Salisbury had withdrawn without giving battle, the notion might have persisted that there was a workable compromise to be found between York and Lancaster. That notion, however, was, like Audley, one of the casualties of Blore Heath.


Further reading

Anthony Goodman, The Wars of the Roses (1981)

Follow the research of our Commons 1461-1504 project, including analysis of other key battles, via our Commons in the Wars of the Roses blog series.

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