The Battle of Barnet, which took place on 14 April, 1471, was one of the most important engagements of the Wars of the Roses. These were a series of civil wars fought in England during the later fifteenth century, with the rival houses of York and Lancaster vying for the throne. The battle also determined the ultimate outcome of the personal conflict between King Edward IV and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – former allies who had by then become implacable foes.
Ten years earlier the Earl of Warwick, at that time a Yorkist, had helped Edward (pictured) – then still in his teens – to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and seize the throne. Warwick became the greatest man after the king. By the end of the 1460s, however, despite numerous attempts at reconciliation, the relationship between Edward and Warwick had broken down. Edward and Warwick clashed over the direction of foreign policy. Edward’s controversial marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was another key factor, as Elizabeth’s relatives gained increasing influence at court. Warwick was the driving force behind two rebellions; his supporters included Edward’s own brother, George Duke of Clarence. But ultimately Warwick’s plans failed; both he and Clarence were forced into exile in France.
Incredibly, through the agency of King Louis XI, Warwick now formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s formidable queen. (Margaret had earlier fled to France with her young son, Prince Edward.) In September 1470 Warwick invaded England with French support, accompanied by Clarence, and quickly raised a large army. Crucially, Edward was betrayed by Warwick’s brother, John Marquis Montagu – who had hitherto remained loyal to Edward – and he was forced into exile in his turn. Queen Elizabeth, who was then heavily pregnant, sought sanctuary at Westminster. Henry VI, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, was restored to the throne. But Henry, never strong, was by now a broken man: Warwick was to rule.
Though Warwick appeared to be fully in control of events, his position was less secure than it seemed. The earl enjoyed much popular support, but many of the nobles remained aloof. Moreover, Edward found his own foreign support in the person of Duke Charles of Burgundy, who had earlier married Edward’s sister. Charles was also related to the House of Lancaster, but he understood that an Anglo-French alliance would surely lead to a significant attack on his own lands. With Burgundian assistance Edward was able to assemble a small fleet at Flushing. Luck was on Edward’s side: the same winds that confined Margaret of Anjou to France allowed Edward to return to England. The stage was now set for a final reckoning between Edward and Warwick.
The march to battle
On 14 March 1471 Edward landed at Spurn Head, at the mouth of the Humber. Duke Charles had provided Edward with some troops, to supplement his band of exiles, but the Yorkist position was precarious. Substantial forces had been raised to oppose Edward’s invasion. However, through a mixture of boldness, deception and speed, Edward managed to avoid becoming trapped, striking hard for the heart of the kingdom. Montagu, perhaps regretting his earlier decision, appeared curiously reluctant to hinder Edward’s progress.
By the time he reached the Midlands Edward was in command of a much more substantial army. He received a great boost when Clarence – in command of 4000 men – deserted Warwick and returned to the Yorkist fold. Warwick was now based at Coventry, where Edward offered battle, but Warwick refused to leave the safety of the city walls. Edward therefore decided to move south towards London, where the citizens declined to oppose him. On 11 April Edward was welcomed into the capital, where he was reunited with his wife and new-born son. The hapless Henry VI was once again taken into Yorkist custody.
For Warwick, the loss of the capital (and Henry) was a serious blow. He was determined to regain the initiative, however, and his army was still larger than Edward’s. On 13 April Edward received news that the Lancastrians, now rapidly moving south, had reached St Albans. Edward, having ordered a hasty muster, set out to meet them. The Yorkists reached Barnet in the early evening, whereupon they encountered some of Warwick’s scouts. It soon became clear that Warwick was camped a little way to the north of the town. Seeking to force battle the following day, Edward advanced immediately towards the Lancastrian position.
The fifteenth century witnessed rapid developments in gunpowder technology, and we know that Warwick’s army was equipped with some early types of field artillery. The earl, now aware of Edward’s proximity, ordered an overnight bombardment. As darkness was already falling, however, his ordnance had little effect. According to the Arrivall – an account of the campaign written shortly afterwards – Warwick’s gunners ‘overshot’ the Yorkists because ‘they were nearer than they deemed’. Edward ordered silence throughout his army, so that Warwick remained ignorant of the Yorkists’ true position.
Struggle in the fog
The next morning was Easter Sunday, but Edward did not flinch from battle on this holiest of days. He launched his attack at dawn, perhaps hoping to catch the Lancastrians unawares. But Warwick’s army was ready and waiting. Moreover, both sides were hindered by the weather; a thick fog now enveloped the battlefield. On the previous evening Edward’s army had taken up a position that was not directly facing the Lancastrians, but the fog made this obscure. This meant that one of the Yorkist flanks was overlapped by the Lancastrian army (and vice versa) – an important factor in the battle to come.
The battle of Barnet began with an ‘arrow storm’, as the deadly English bowmen were given an opportunity to do their worst. One contemporary source describes Edward’s Burgundian troops as ‘gunners’, so we can assume that both commanders would also have deployed gunpowder weapons at this stage. But with visibility poor the two armies quickly came ‘to hands’. The Lancastrians enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. On the flank where the Lancastrians overlapped Edward’s army the Yorkists were routed. Some of the Yorkist fugitives fled as far as London, where premature news of a Lancastrian victory caused panic.
In the centre, however, where Edward had taken personal command, the Yorkists were more successful. Edward was a fighting general, a tall imposing figure whose prowess would have inspired his men. According to the Arrivall Edward performed great feats of arms:
‘He manly and vigorously assailed [the Lancastrians], in the midst and strongest of their battle, where he, with great violence, beat and bore down afore him all that stood in his way … nothing might stand in the sight of him and the well assured fellowship that attended truly upon him’.
Edward’s closest supporters were also fighting hand-to-hand. There were a number of fatalities among the Yorkist nobility, including Lords Cromwell and Say. Edward’s youngest brother Richard, fighting in his first battle, was involved in the thick of the action and was wounded – although his injuries were not as severe as was initially feared.
Nobles were always specifically targeted, although there were also heavy casualties among the Yorkist rank and file. The German merchant Gerhard Von Wesel, who witnessed the Yorkist army’s return to London, provides a distressing account:
‘Those who went out with good horses and sound bodies brought home sorry nags and bandaged faces without noses etc. and wounded bodies, God have mercy on the miserable spectacle […]’.
The Lancastrians came close to victory, in spite of Edward’s efforts, before the weather again proved significant. According to Warkworth’s Chronicle, Warwick’s soldiers – peering uncertainly into the gloom – attacked their own allies in error, confusing the Earl of Oxford’s badge of the star with Edward’s emblem of the sun. But it would have been all too easy for Oxford’s men to believe they had been betrayed. Oxford was Warwick’s brother-in-law, but how many of Henry VI’s supporters really trusted Warwick? And, given their previous allegiance to Edward, could Warwick really trust all of his own men? In Warkworth’s account Oxford’s soldiers flee the field, crying ‘Treason! Treason!’.
The tide of battle of Barnet now flowed inexorably with the Yorkists. The Lancastrian leaders were overwhelmed, and their army melted away into the mist. The Duke of Exeter, who ‘fought manly’, suffered terrible injuries and was left for dead. According to Warkworth, Montagu – now agonised by the choices he had made – had gone into battle wearing Yorkist colours under his armour. Apparently this was somehow revealed and he was cut down by a member of his own side. But the most significant fatality was the Earl of Warwick himself, killed, as the Arrivall tells it, ‘somewhat fleeing’. Warwick’s death made Edward’s victory complete.
The Battle of Barnet, then, marked the fall of the Earl of Warwick, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in English medieval history. For Edward, though, it was not quite the end of the struggle. Margaret of Anjou and her son had now landed at Weymouth. But a few weeks later, at Tewkesbury, Edward destroyed a second Lancastrian army, making his throne secure. Prince Edward of Lancaster died on the field; Henry VI met his death in the Tower shortly afterwards. Edward ruled unchallenged for almost twelve more years, until his premature death ushered in a new phase of civil strife.