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The Battle of Northampton – Drama, treachery, and the risk of treason

York and Lancaster. Two powerful English factions, each with an extraordinarily fanatical following. Religion; politics; a mentally unstable king; large egos; and competing lust for power in abundance. It was a heady mix that had been bubbling for many years during The Wars of the Roses, and on 10th July, 1460 yet another head to head was ready to take centre stage.
Having enjoyed a period of supremacy, the year before in April 1459 the Yorkists had found themselves under challenge. Margaret of Anjou, the Lancastrian Queen no less, had gathered an army at Leicester, formed a parliament, and ordered the arrest of key Yorkist figures. In September that had then culminated in the Battle of Blore Heath, the outcome of which then leaving Margaret with egg on her face and her foes revelling in victory. The Yorkist Earl of Warwick had next headed off to Calais to serve as Captain of the English garrison, and the Duke of York had disappeared to Ireland to take up the post of Lord Lieutenant.

And so the scene for another showdown was set…

However, by 25th June 1460, Warwick had had enough of France and returned, and had marched his gathering army with the Earl of March (who later became King Edward IV) to London; a mostly Yorkist stronghold. Knowing that the city would open its arms, the Duke of Buckingham, loyal to the House of Lancaster, had swiftly left with his troops and headed to the Midlands to set up camp in Northampton.
Also by this time, Margaret had recovered from her smarting loss the previous year and had assembled her Lancastrian troops in the North with her son, Edward, Prince of Wales. However, most significantly, her husband – King Henry VI – was with the Duke of Buckingham in Northampton. This was a very tactical move on the part of the Lancastrians, for despite Henry being mentally unstable and reclusive he did still hold the crown and that had weight. And this meant the Yorkists had a problem.

The need to play to the crowd…

A king was a king. Whether one was a battling Yorkist, a peeved Lancastrian, or a simple woodsman in Nottingham, any action taken against the monarch amounted to rebellion and an act of high treason… with being hung, drawn and quartered the thanks you’d receive. The Yorkists, therefore, could not be one hundred percent sure their followers and troops would actually mount an attack if the Royal Standard appeared. Their strategy, therefore, involved a couple of ploys.
First, they spread the word that they were not rebelling against Henry, merely seeking to remove him from the wicked influence of misguided advisers, a.k.a. the Lancastrian nobles. Secondly, they convinced the Archbishop of Canterbury and his cohort to accompany them. This would give the Yorkists the opportunity to send them ahead openly to be seen to try to persuade the king that he should agree to a private consultation with Warwick.
Whether they predicted Buckingham’s response or not, he did refuse them access, and so the scene for battle was set.

The performance begins…

On 9th July, 1460, the Yorkists approached Northampton to find Buckingham’s troops entrenched to the north of Delapre Abbey. The layout and topography was such that the northern edge was a deer park bordered by a ditch and ten foot high fence. The River Nene ran from west to east. And the main road from London approached from the south.
Of note, was that at each corner of the deer park were small fortifications, and the Lancastrians were planning their defence through gunpowder rather than longbows; an approach that potentially had further reach.
Despite the vehement animosity between the two sides, though, convention dictated that they meet first and attempt to address their differences without a shot being fired. The Yorkists needed this to be very apparent, given the nature of Henry’s status. So this time Warwick sent a herald to open a parley to persuade Buckingham to again give Warwick access to the king. The response came back a firm no.

The curtain lifts on a stormy scene…

And so, probably much to the Yorkists’ delight, the battle began.
It’s believed to have been initiated on horseback, with the approaching Yorkists being met by a shower of arrows as rain pounded into their faces. With the weather, Buckingham’s grand plan to blast his enemy with cannonballs had turned into a damp squib but his archers did their best. It has to be remembered that both armies were substantial, and the Lancastrians held a strong defensive position, so it is initially surprising that the battle was actually very short. But only surprising until one learns that treachery was at play.

An unexpected scene-change takes place…

Lord Grey of Ruthin, a Lancastrian nobleman, had secretly communicated ahead of the battle with the Duke of March, offering to switch sides in return for support regarding a property dispute. It’s accepted by historians that Warwick had indeed ordered his men not to attack those bearing Grey’s colours, so suspicion of such treachery does bear scrutiny. And with Grey later becoming Treasurer of England in 1463, the finger becomes even pointier in its attitude. However, as a result of Grey’s acquiescence to Yorkist troops as they arrived at the Lancastrian position, and with the space within the fortifications limiting the defenders’ actions, the battle lasted just thirty minutes and resulted in a Lancastrian defeat.

The curtain falls…

The aftermath was significant for the Yorkists. Many key Lancastrian figures were killed, and by October that year the Duke of York had returned to England to be bestowed the right of succession in an Act of Settlement signed by Henry VI. His wife, Queen Margaret, mind you, was not one to give in that easily and refused to accept an agreement that disinherited her seven year old son, so civil war did continue to rumble on.
Each battle that took place during The Wars of the Roses was certainly a drama-laden play in every case. But one does have to ask if the overall story has more of a soap opera feel to it. We’ll leave you to decide for yourself on that. But we’re sure we’ll be presenting you with another episode very soon…