An indispensable site for anyone researching the Wars of the Roses: British History Online. Here you can find, among other things, the Rolls of Parliament for the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. There’s a lot you can access for free, but getting the full benefit of it costs around £36 a year. I really can’t do without it.
Immediately after the first battle of St Albans, York, Salisbury and Warwick attended the King in his quarters at St Albans Abbey. Abbot Whetehamstede gives York a hell of a speech denouncing the dead Somerset and urging Henry to ‘rejoice’ at both Somerset’s death and York’s triumph. “I am, and always was, and all my followers are and were your faithful – indeed, your most faithful – liegemen; and we will always remain…” York had been insisting the truth of this for some years now, so determined to get his point across that twice he stood with a sizeable band of armed men, demanding to be given access to the king.
What Henry VI must have gone through in the brief half hour of battle proper… Having already suffered a breakdown that left him uncommunicative and insensible for more than a year, his mental state was perhaps not fragile but at least vulnerable. He’s often seen (and portrayed) as a puppet, carried along by his favourites and chief councillors, Somerset among then, reacting to the things that happened, believing the last man who spoke to him. York certainly chose to promote the view that, before the battle, Henry was deliberately kept in the dark, the letters sent to him from Royston and Ware kept out of his hands. There’s an alternate reading to this. In the Stow Relation (from Boardman, The Battle of St Albans 1455, p112) strong words are put into Henry’s mouth in response to York’s demands:
I, king Henry, charge and commaunde that no maner personne of what degree, astate or condicion that ever he be, abide nat but that they avoide the fielde and noughte to be so hardy to make resistence ageinste me in myn owne reaume. For I shall knowe what traitor dare be so bolde tareise any people in myn owne lande, wherthroughe I am in grete disease and hevines [heaviness]. Be that feithe I owe unto Seint Edward and unto the crowne of England, I shall destroye hem every moderis sone, And eke they to be hanged, drawen and quartered that maybe takyn aftirwarde of theim inensaumple to make all such traitors to be ware forto make eny rising of people withinne myn owne lande and so traitorously tabide theire king and gouvernor. And for aconclusion, rather thanne they shall have eny lorde that there is with me at this tyme, I shall this day for theire sake in this quarrel my selfe lyve and dye.”
These sounds like the words of a King who knows what’s going in and is very much in his right mind. By the time the battle was done, Henry’s mental state seems to have deteriorated. It’s hardly surprising. With Warwick’s northern archers, led by sir Robert Ogle, firing into the market square, Warwick and his men not far behind, York and Salisbury assaulting the barricades across Sopwell and Shropshire Lanes, his own men desperately scrambling into armour and the royal standard – which should have made him safe – thrown down in the confusion, an arrow wound in the neck, being bustled into a nearby house for safety… By the time York found him, whether he gave the speech Whetehamstede credits him with or not, it’s hardly surprising that Henry responded the way he did. “There were rebels in the town,” York says, more or less, “but we dealt with them for you.”
The following month in parliament, York, Salisbury and Warwick made a declaration excusing themselves entirely of blame for anything that happened at St Albans, transferring the fault onto the shoulders for three men: the late Duke of Somerset, Thomas Thorpe and William Joseph. These three had, according to York:
“entendyng as it is supposed to the hurte and destruction of oure true right trusty and well beloved cousyns, Richard duc of York, Richard erle of Warrewik, and Richard erle of Salisbury, and of theire heires; moved and sollicited us by diverse meanes to mistruste oure seid cousyns, and to instraunge theym from oure favour and good grace affermyng theym not oure true liege men, and therefore provoked and stired us to have proceeded with grete might of people under colour of oure matiers, where noon we hadde, to the avaunsyng of theire owne matiers and quarelles. Oure said cousyns understandyng and consideryng, as they saye, the labours made ayenst theym, and that the said Edmunde, Thomas, and William, for thexecution of theire entent, enforced thaim with grete might of men in diverse countreyes, moche harneys and grete habilmentes of werre, addressed thaim toward oure presence, to declare theim oure true liegmen, the better accompanyed for theire suertee, and to resiste such malice as they verrely demed was purposed to have been executed ayenst theim, at thaire commyng unto us, by the seid Edmunde, Thomas and William, and for noon other cause; and to thentent that we shuld not wondre nor mervaille of the commyng of oure said cousyns aforereherced toward us, nor of the manere therof, nor have any suspecion or mystrust therof toward oure persone, they wrote thaire lettres at Roiston the .xx. day of May last passed, and thaim sent afore thaire commyng unto us, for thaire declaracion and desire, to the most reverend fadre in God Thomas archiebishop of Caunterbury, oure chaunceller of Englond, to be by hym openned unto us, whereof thendorsment and teneur foloweth hereafter:”
These letters “were never openned or declared unto us, afore the commyng of oure said cousyns to the side of the toune of Seint Albone, the .xxij. day of May last passed, we than beyng within the same toune, but from us to that tyme kept by the seid Edmunde, Thomas and William”.
York, therefore, had no choice but to do what he did:
“And the said .xxij. day, oure said cousins heryng of oure beyng in the said towne of Seint Albone, come thider desiryng in full lowly wyse to have hadde knowlache of oure entent and pleasire of thaire demeanyng, touchyng the matier in thaire said lettres, to us by thaim the said .xxij. day afore sent, and to come to oure presence to declare thaim as above it is specified. Whereunto aboute .xij. of the clocke of that same day, by thavis of the said Edmunde, Thomas Thorp and William Joseph, it was as we conceyve withoute oure knoweleche answered unto thaim that than we had not seen the same lettres; wheruppon oure said cousins, demyng as we nowe conceyve and understond for trouth, that the same lettres shold be by the seid Edmunde, Thomas Thorp and William Joseph that were thanne there aboute us kept from us, to the entent that we shuld not knowe the true and feithfull disposition of the same oure cousins toward us and oure estate, profered theim self to entree into the same towne, to come to oure presence for thaire said declaracion.”
There seems to be no doubt in the minds of anyone, then or now, that the Yorkists – specifically Warwick – attacked first. The king, however, has allowed himself to be convinced otherwise. Not a month after the battle, a different version of events is enshrined in the parliamentary roll:
“And the said Edmunde, Thomas Thorp and William Joseph, with grete multitude of people to thaim assembled, defensably arraied, to the entent to let oure said cousins to come to oure < presence, and > thaim to destroie and slee, opennely saiyng and callyng thaime fals traitours to us, and that they shuld dye as traitours, thenne and there sore assaulted oure said cousins in the said entre into the said towne”
York, Salisbury and Warwick were entirely blameless and the king was happy to let everyone know:
“We therfore consideryng the premisses, declare, repute, accepte, hold and approve oure said cousins, and all thoo persones that comme with thaim in thaire felaship to the said towne of Seint Albone, the said .xxij. day, and all < other persones that > thaim or any of thaim have assisted, stired, helped, conforted or counseilled, oure true and feithfull liegmen; and woll that thurgh all oure said reaume by all oure people of the same, they and ichoon of theim be soo taken, reputed, accepted, holden and approved.”
“that noon of oure said cousins, the duc of York, and erles of Warwic and Salisbury, nor noon of the said persones commyng or beyng with thaim, nor noon of thaire said assistours, helpours, stirrers, confortours or counseillours, ner noon of any of thaire heires, of ner for any thyng supposed or pretended to be doon to or ayenst oure persone, corone or dignitte, be empeched, sued, vexed, greved, hurt or molested in thaire bodies, landes or goodes, in anywyse. And over that, we woll by the said advis and auctoritee, that noon of oure said cousins, ner noon of the said persones commyng with thaim to the said toune of Seint Albone, ner noon of thaire said assistours, helpours, sturrers, counseillours or confortours, ner noon of any of thaire heires, of ner for any thyng that happened the said .xxij. day to falle or be doon at the said towne of Seint Albone, be empeched, sued, greved, vexed, hurt or molested in thaire bodies, goodes or landes, in anywyse.”
That was that. Sorted. What would have been seen and treated as treason by a stronger king was altered, by some particularly beautiful Double Speak, into a triumph for the rebels. A new need for a Protector was identified and York was, once again, appointed and the lords spiritual and temporal turned their attention to the always pressing matter of Calais. Yorkist propaganda (which is a bit like Tudor Propaganda! only Yorkist) had been used to spectacular success.
First St Albans didn’t bring lasting success to York and his backers. He was again dismissed as Protector once Henry was more strong of mind. Four years later, York, Salisbury and Warwick were once again to gather together to make declarations of loyalty and write their manifestoes. This time, though short term disaster and exile were the result, the real triumph of spring 1455 was to benefit them. Of all that was achieved – the deaths of Somerset and Northumberland; the astonishing pardon of the Yorkists; York’s short term ascendancy – it was the appointment of Warwick as Captain of Calais that proved to be the master stroke. The Yorkists (and Warwick in his later rebellions) had a safe haven where they could regroup, arm and plan, and from where they could launch their invasion.