As battles during the Wars of the Roses go, Barnet may not have had the final say but it was certainly impactful. It was a clash where the Yorkist Edward IV pitted his wits against his Lancastrian foe, the Earl of Warwick, and decisively won. But as battles during the Wars of the Roses also go, it was more about egos and the politics of the time than anything else.
The leadership line-up…
Edward IV, who’d relied on his influential cousin and ally Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, for support during the early years of his reign, was maturing into his regal role.
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who’d enjoyed significant power for some time, was railing against being side-lined and losing his sway.
The battle build-up…
Edward had begun to find his own voice and decision-making prowess by 1471. Having sneaked off and married the widow of a Lancastrian knight, ignoring his cousin’s attempts to get him to marry a French princess, he had certainly shown he had his own head by this point. In 1469, Warwick had shown his colours and Edward had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Edgecote Moor and imprisoned in Warwick Castle. But the Yorkists had refused to kowtow to the Earl, and Edward had seen off other skulduggerous attempts to oust him, forcing Warwick and Edward’s duplicitous brother, the Duke of Clarence, to flee to France after the Battle of Losecoat in 1470.
Warwick, seemingly ever the opportunist, however, had schmoozed his way with the Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou, who happened to be in exile in France too. Don’t forget, Warwick had come from a Yorkist background with Edward, so he and Margaret were actually sworn enemies. But Louis XI then helped the schmoozing, and the result was the betrothal of Warwick’s daughter to her son, Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales.
Now he and Margaret were effectively kin, Warwick next invaded England on her behalf in 1470. This forced Edward to dash to Burgundy, and Henry VI had been restored to the throne briefly. Of course, Henry had really just been a puppet king, with Warwick yielding all the power. And it was no surprise, therefore, that this got right up Edward’s nose. So, with him supported by the blessing of the Duke of Burgundy, we return to the start of this story with Edward heading back to Blighty in 1471, to meet Warwick head on at Barnet.
Just as an aside, by this point it’s of note that the Duke of Clarence had found his second wind, but he’d chosen this time to puff it in the direction of his brother, Edward, in order to get back in favour with him. Deserting Warwick (live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say), he now re-joins Edward’s forces.
Edward, on the day of the battle…
Edward with his two brothers, George and Richard, arrived on 13th April and set up. Warwick was already in position, but the darkness meant Edward was unaware of just how close he was to Warwick’s men. He placed Lord Hastings on his left flank, Richard on his right, and kept George close to him in the middle; there’d been far too much chopping and changing mid-campaign in the past for there to be much trust now. He was also canny enough, though, to leave a contingent of reserves at the rear.
Warwick, on the day of the battle…
Warwick’s henchmen included the Earl of Oxford on his left, the Duke of Exeter on his right, and himself in the centre.
When things kicked off, the close proximity that Edward had inadvertently found himself was actually a bit of misfortune for Warwick, for the barrage after barrage of artillery he’d sent in his enemy’s direction all night had overshot almost entirely.
As the dawn broke, it became obvious that visibility would continue to be a significant problem; a thick mist covered the scene.
The Battle of Barnet
It was Oxford who made the first decisive move on Hastings, and almost immediately panic set in. The Yorkist soldiers fell into disarray and started to flee. Oxford’s crew instantly took advantage and began to loot what had been abandoned. However, because the fog was so thick, none of the other commanders were aware of the success Oxford had just had. And, interestingly, the reverse had happened on the other side. Richard had also taken his cue and knocked Exeter back.
Then, as Oxford returned, his ‘star with rays’ banner was mistaken for Edward’s ‘sun in splendour’ and another of Warwick’s commanders unleashed a barrage of friendly fire against his own side.
As the mist began to lift, it became clear that Warwick’s forces were in disarray, and Edward’s strategic thinking paid off. He sent in his reserves, and the final swing in his favour became decisive. Warwick was very likely captured at some point, though accounts don’t clarify when. However, it’s been surmised by many that he must have been recognised, for sketches of the battle suggest he was swiftly dispatched with a thrust of a sword down his throat.
In truth, though it was certainly a resounding victory, it was not quite enough to bring the Wars of the Roses to a conclusion. However, this victory for Edward did see the removal of one of the most powerful and unreliable men in England; the Earl of Warwick. And, in conjunction with the Battle of Tewkesbury, which took place about 3 weeks later, is believed to have secured Edward’s position on the throne. With Warwick gone, Edward could at least pursue his own agenda without the underhand influence of another vying in the background.