Nation in Conflict - Battle of Tewkesbury

Posted on Wednesday 2nd May 2012

The Battle of Tewkesbury
On 4 May 1471 the forces of Lancaster under the Duke of Somerset and those of York under Edward IV clashed at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire in one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses. Edward's overwhelming victory secured for him the throne of England and led to the near ruin of the Lancastrian cause.
The battle opened with a bang. Guns would not have been familiar to most of the army, and the sound, smell and sight must have been intimidating. It must have reminded them of what they had been told about Hell from the pulpit. This was a premonition of what was to come. The guns and arrows were aimed at Somerset. Though the range was necessarily long, and guns were neither accurate nor consistent, the Yorkist supremacy in numbers began to tell and the action became more one of attrition. No matter how inaccurate, if enough random missiles are fired into the lines men will be killed or wounded. They will also be made fearful, feeling that they have no control of their destiny. The Lancastrians had no response to this assault. Somerset knew that cowering behind his defences and seeing his men maimed one by one was not the route to victory. He had to take the initiative:
‘But Edmond, called Duke of Somerset, having that day the vanward, whether it were for that he and his fellowship were sore annoyed in the place where they were, as well with gun-shot, as with shot of arrows, which they neither would nor durst abide, or else, of great heart and courage, knightly and manly advanced himself, with his fellowship, somewhat aside-hand the King’s vanward, and, by certain paths and ways therefore afore purveyed, and to the King’s party unknown, he departed out of the field, passed a lane, and came into a fayre place, or close, even afore the king where he was embattled, and, from the hill that was in one of the closes, he set right fiercely upon the end of the King’s battle. The King, full manly, set forth
It is unlikely that this manoeuvre was spontaneous, as the Lancastrians would not have expected to win the battle with purely defensive tactics. There had to be an offensive move, and there had to be a plan, discussed at length with Queen Margaret through the night. This was probably the first part of it and it would have been familiar to all the other commanders.
The Lancastrians mount an attack on the Yorkist flank, which is repelled, then attacked and scattered by the 200 spearmen.
The ‘certain paths’ must have been Lincoln Green Lane, then a road to Deerhurst and ultimately to Gloucester. Some of the army could have trodden this track on the way to Tewkesbury on the previous day. Running along the bottom of the shallow valley between the park and the ridge now occupied by the Yorkist army, it was hidden from the Yorkists by the trees and bushes growing in the badly drained and uncultivated valley bottom. The ‘hill that was in one of the closes’ is there today a few hundred yards down the lane. Being on the edge of their front line, the Lancastrians would have surveyed this track on the evening before and prepared plans to utilise it.
The need for stealth suggests that not all of Somerset’s division was deployed. The ‘fellowship’ was probably a small group of hand-picked men. The manoeuvre would make more sense if they were mounted and this would resolve a lot of the problems there are in understanding the action. There is nothing in the accounts of the battle, or any of the many subsequent analyses, to say if they were on horseback or not, unless the use of the word ‘fellowship’ is intended to mean a mounted group. However, when discussing the Yorkist group sent to the deer park, the Arrivall states specifically that they were horsemen.
Somerset’s mission in isolation was unlikely to win the battle but it would create a diversion to allow time and space for the other divisions to act. It was a considerable gamble, to take the commander away from his command to attack ‘the end of the king’s battle’, knowing that he would lose contact once he had passed behind the Yorkists. It was a tortuous path, passing close to, if not between, elements of the Yorkist army. A strict interpretation of the text suggests that Somerset attacked the centre of the Yorkist army, which he reached either by passing between the centre and van wards or by outflanking the army and attacking from the rear. This latter is the most plausible, but suggests a weakness of Gloucester’s flank defences. Attacking Edward directly with a small élite group would have been an obvious tactic if the opportunity presented itself, because the battle would be won if Edward fell. Gloucester himself was later to attempt the same at Bosworth against Henry Tudor.
Not only was it a desperate move but it was also a trap. Edward’s 200 spears were watching the battle unfold below them, awaiting an opportunity to intervene. They must have seen Somerset’s move but chose not to react. The thick and well-maintained hedge surrounding the park was the probable reason. This would be too difficult a barrier to negotiate at a gallop and, without the element of surprise, they had no advantage. They chose to wait.
The Yorkists advance into the Gaston, pushing the Lancastrians back until they eventually break and flee.
Somerset’s heroic gambit inevitably failed. Having gained the brow of the hill, his fellowship had no choice but to expose itself and charge down the slope. On foot, this would have been both slow and noisy and there could not have been a lot of surprise left by the time they struck the king’s ward. They were driven back by Edward into the hands of Richard. Fighting desperately hand-to-hand the fellowship retreated, not towards their own lines, from which they were cut off, but back towards the park, where they hoped to find some respite in the difficult ground among the trees. They may also have hoped to draw some of the Yorkist force away from the battle, as had happened at Barnet, where Oxford left the field to pursue Lord Hastings. This was not to be, however.
‘Which provision came as well to point at this time of the battle as could well have been devised, for the said spears of the King’s party, seeing no likeliness of any ambush in the said wood-corner, seeing also good opportunity to employ them self well, came and brake on, all at once, upon the Duke of Somerset and his vanward, aside-hand, unadvised, whereof they, seeing the King gave them enough to do before them, were greatly dismayed and abashed, and so took them to flight into the park.’
Once through the park hedges, in an environment designed for charging downhill along wide grassy rides, the horsemen found the fellowship easy prey. The surprise was complete. Somerset had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Edward and his attack ended in total confusion and rout. They fled in all directions, with Yorkists in pursuit. Many were wounded, taken or slain.
An illustration from the Ghent manuscript depicting the climax of the battle. Behind the archers, King Edward is seen unmounting a Lancastrian knight and Edward, Prince of Wales is being cut down and killed, probably by Clarence or Gloucester.
The Duke of Somerset seems to have escaped back to his command. Though contemporary accounts make no mention of it, Edward Hall’s Union of the Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York, published in 1542 under a Tudor king, contains a note that Somerset sought out Lord Wenlock and, calling him traitor, struck the brains out of his head with his battleaxe. Though this is unlikely to have happened, it does reflect the lack of support the rest of the Lancastrians gave to Somerset’s diversion, and the suspicion that Wenlock was somehow responsible and even in the pay of the Yorkists. Wenlock is listed among those slain in the battle.
Having beaten off Somerset’s fellowship with little difficulty, King Edward immediately went on to the offensive. He ordered a general advance of the army and in short time had taken the defensive hedges and ditches. The Lancastrians were now fighting a desperate, hand-to-hand battle on the Gaston field and losing ground. The whole line was engaged and soon broke in confusion, with men fleeing the field in every possible direction:
‘The king courageously set upon that other field, where was chief Edward, called Prince, and, in short while, put him to discomfiture and flight, and so fell in the chase of them that many of them were slain, and, namely, at a millstream,
The mêlée quickly degenerated into a rout. Discipline in the Lancastrian lines collapsed and individual soldiers fled from the field in desperate panic and confusion with no aim beyond immediate self-preservation. In their triumph and with humanity cast aside, the Yorkists engaged in a ruthless and merciless pursuit, hacking down their prey as swiftly as they could be cornered:
‘In the winning of the field such as abode hand strokes were slain incontinent [impatiently, without thought]; Edward, called Prince, was taken, fleeing to the town wards, and slain, in the field.’
At this point, the whole purpose of the Lancastrian cause was gone. The last of the Lancastrian line was dead, and the war was lost.
View of the deerpark, now a golf course, from the abbey tower. The Swilgate is in the foreground.
Mounted knight of the Wars of the Roses. Apart from the head armour, it is unlikely that the horses engaged in the fighting at Tewkesbury would have been so heavily protected.
Edward IV surrounded by his court. Kneeling before
Detail from the battle model in Tewkesbury museum.
Erected on the site of vineyards of the abbey, this obelisk commemorates, among other things, the Battle of Tewkesbury.
Richard Beauchamp, father-in-law of Warwick the Kingmaker, clad in Italian armour in a style current in 1471.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard III, 1483-1485.
The Ghent manuscript depicts the execution of the Lancastrian leadership. Sir Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, is seen on the block. Heading the queue awaiting their turn is Sir John Langstrother, Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and treasurer o the Lancastrian king.
Example close-combat weapons of the type used during the Wars of the Roses.

Further Reading

(Paperback - 160 pages)
ISBN: 9781844151905

by Steven J Goodchild
Only £12.99

On 4 May 1471 the forces of Lancaster under the Duke of Somerset and those of York under Edward IV clashed at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire in one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses.

Edward's overwhelming victory secured for him the throne of England and led to the near ruin of the Lancastrian cause. Steve Goodchild's gripping account of the fighting, and of the politics and intrigue that led to it, is the first to take fully into account the landscape of the…
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