The First Battle of St Albans

Photo:Deployment of Yorkist & Lancastrian troops, shown onthe 1634 Benjamin Hare map

Deployment of Yorkist & Lancastrian troops, shown onthe 1634 Benjamin Hare map

From cover of The Battles of St Albans, Pen & Sword Books 2007

Photo:The approach marches to the first Battle of St Albans

The approach marches to the first Battle of St Albans

From The Battles of St Albans, Pen & Sword Books 2007

Photo:Keyfield: the Yorkist assembly area with the earth rampart behind the Tonman Ditch marked by the wall on the right

Keyfield: the Yorkist assembly area with the earth rampart behind the Tonman Ditch marked by the wall on the right

Mike Elliott, The Battles of St Albans, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2007

Photo:Different types of bill - main weapon of foot soldiers

Different types of bill - main weapon of foot soldiers

Peter Shepherd, John Kliene, from The Battles of St Albans, as above

February 2012 society meeting

By Gavin Ross

At our February meeting there was a full audience to hear Peter Bradley and Harvey Watson describe how the Wars of the Roses began in St Albans.  Together with Mike Elliott they have produced a book describing both battles, and they will talk about the Second Battle of 1461 at a society meeting next year.  The authors are members of the Battlefield Trust, formed 20 years ago in response to concerns about the neglect of important battle sites in Britain, with little public information and threats of development in some cases.  St Albans, site of two key battles, hardly acknowledges this important piece of history in any street plaques or in the City Museum. 

Harvey Watson described the dynastic struggles of the major royal families following the death of Henry III and the overthrow of hapless Richard II in 1399.  The heirs of John of Gaunt were from the House of Lancaster, providing the three Henrys of the Shakespearian history plays.  By 1453 England was losing the Hundred Years War with France and was left with nothing but Calais.  Henry VI then suffered a mental breakdown and the Duke of York saw his chance to make a bid for the throne.  The Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Warwick played important roles in the struggles, as did the influential wives and their families, providing money for raising armies.  So in May 1455 the Yorkist army of 300 men was marching south as far as Royston, and the King’s Lancastrian army of 2000 men moved up from London, and halted in St Albans. 

Peter Bradley then described the battle itself, with three Lancastrian sections in St Peter’s St and Holywell Hill.  The Yorkists then assembled probably along Tonman Ditch (Upper Marlborough Road - Keyfield) and prepared the assault.  The present London Road did not exist at the time, and rather than force their way up the existing road the Yorkist forces climbed over a low bank and forced their way through a house in what is now Chequers Street and had the advantage of a surprise attack, with the Lancastrians not all prepared with their armour on.  The whole affair lasted little more than half an hour, and although only about 150 soldiers will killed in all, the major casualties were the Duke of Somerset and many Lancastrian noblemen, while the king himself was wounded.  So it was first round to York, but there were more serious battles to come.

The talk was well illustrated with old maps and views of the present site locations.  The main weapons were the sword and battleaxe, as firearms were unreliable at the time.  The old military code whereby the nobles were spared so that they could be ransomed had been abandoned, and the new philosophy was that they were more trouble alive than dead. 

This page was added by Gavin Ross on 01/05/2012.

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