A Fresh Look at the Battle of Tewkesbury

by Nora Day

The Combatants

The Lancastrians: King Henry VI, imprisoned by Edward IV who usurped his throne. Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou, and their son, Edward Prince of Wales, both of whom were exiled in France for many years, returning to England to try to regain the throne. They were supported by various English nobles, including the Duke of Somerset and Lord Wenlock, and a large army of mainly foreign mercenaries which gathered local supporters as they marched through the south of England.

The Yorkist: Led by King Edward IV, the eldest son of the deceased Duke of York. He had two younger brothers, George, Duke of Clarence (who was inclined to be uncertain about which side he supported and reputedly ended his life in a butt of malmsey wine. He and his wife are buried in a crypt in the Abbey), and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later to become King Richard III. The Lancastrians, led by Queen Margaret, were, trying to join up with the Earl of Pembroke, who had gathered an army in Wales and was waiting on the other side of the Severn. Refused entry at Gloucester, Queen Margaret headed for Tewkesbury to try to use the ford at Lower Lode. King Edward, at the head of the Yorkists, was trailing the Queen's forces by keeping parallel with their movements at a distance of five or six miles.

History has us believe that the Lancastrians drew up for battle on the high land with their backs to Tewkesbury and faced the Yorkist onset from the south. I take the view that the Yorkists came from the east, from the direction where Walton Cardiff is now situated.

Sources

There have been many previous accounts of this battle, as follows:

  • Shakespeare's account in 'Henry VI, part III'
  • W.Dyde's 'History of Tewkesbury', in which he quotes the account by Holinshed.
  • The Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 1903 and 1961.
  • Tewkesbury Abbey Chronicle.
  • Bennett's 'History of Tewkesbury'.
  • An account written for the Tewkesbury Festival Committee 1971.
  • Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in England and the Final Recoverye of his Kingdom from Henry VI A.D. 1471

The last is usually referred to as the 'Arrivall' and is generally held to be an eyewitness account written by one of the Yorkist supporters in 1471 soon after the battle. Some of this I have extracted from other sources, and, as I intend to use it as a basis, I quote it herewith:

Queen Margaret travelled 'In a foul country all in lanes and stony ways, betwixt woods, without any good refreshing,' and the Lancastrians, when they reached Tewkesbury, 'placed them in a field, in a close even at the town's end; the town and the Abbey at their backs; afore them and upon every hand of them, foul lanes and deep dikes and many hedges, with hills and valleys, a right evil place to approach as could well have been devised. Their field, which was strongly in a marvellous strong ground placed, full difficult to be assailed.' (Warkworth says near the Severn; the Abbey Chronicle, 1471, and Leland, about 1450, say the Gastons.)

'When the King came before their Field, before he set upon them, he noticed that upon the right hand of the Field there was a park with much wood, and to guard against any ambush of horsemen that might be concealed there, he chose 200 spearmen and set them in a plomp nearly a quarter mile from the Field, charging them to keep a good eye on the corner of the wood, but if no danger appeared to employ themselves to best purpose. '

'The King's ordinance was so conveniently laid afore them, and his vaward, so sore oppressed them with shot of arrows, that they gave them a right-a-sharp shower.' (Effective bowshot was between 250 and 300 yards.)

'Edmund, called Duke of Somerset, having that day the vaward, (of the Lancastrians) whether it were that he and his fellowship were sore annoyed in the 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 vaward, and by certain pathes 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 fair 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 upon them, entered and won the dike and hedge, upon them into the close, and with great violence put them up towards the hill, and so also the King' s vaward being in the rule of the Duke of Gloucester,'

The 200 hundred spearmen left at the wood 'seeing no likelihood of any ambush in the said wood corner, seeing also good opportunities to employ them self well, came and break on, all at once, upon the Duke of Somerset and his vaward, aside hand, unadvised, whereof they, seeing the King gave them enough to do afore them, were greatly dismayed and abashed, and so take them to flight into the park.'

Glossary: 

  • Close: field or meadow, normally enclosed by a hedge 
  • Field: place chosen by defenders as a battlefield 
  • Plomp: All together in a group, probably flattened to the ground 
  • Park: This is usually a tract of land surrounding a mansion, but militarily can mean a collection of artillery, wagons, etc. in an encampment. 
  • Vaward: The vanguard who made or received the first assault in battle.

Most of the previous authors have been bedevilled by the position of the 200 spearmen set to watch the wood, a quarter of a mile from the Lancashire battlefield, and placed them at Tewkesbury Park. One writer even transformed them into horsemen because of the distance to be covered to the fighting. What if we place them by a different wood? Here is the evidence of its existence.

Inquisitions Post Mortem

Paulinus de Kaerdif 1315.

Walton contains a capital messuage, garden, curtilage and 2 vivaries, 200 arable acres, 20 meadow, 7 acres of several meadow, 40 acres of wood and a windmill,

Edward de Kerdyf 1369.

Messuage, 2 carucates of land, 30 acres of meadow for mowing, wood of great timber trees, a pa.sture in it worth nothing by the year on account of the denseness of the oaks.

From the will of John Bubb, 1612.

It mentions renting a piece of ground 'between the rivers of Swilgate and Tirle, bordered on one side by a piece of ground called Orchards and on the other by path of Walton' s Wood.'

From the Victoria History of Gloucestershire. Walton Cardiff.

'........in the Middle Ages there was an extensive wood in the western part of the Parish in the angle between the Swilgate and the Tirle Brook.'

Obviously, John Bubb rented a piece of ground south of Oldfield Estate and the path of Walton's Wood now leads to Mr. Walker's farm and goes along the front of Barton Court flats. The wood was definitely there in 1471, because a memo of 1632 re the Abbey lands mentions

Two pasture grounds which were lately Walton's Wood.' An acre is a furlong by a chain (220 yards by 22 yards), so the extent would be about a quarter of a mile square or the equivalent in an irregular pattern.

It is known that Queen Margaret left Gloucester and came to Tewkesbury by the old westward road. It is probable that neither of the commanders knew Gloucestershire very well, and although they would have had maps and advisers, Margaret took the precaution of travelling with the Severn in view, and Edward moved along the edge of the Cotswolds from church to church, parallel with the Lancastrian army. The churches of Swindon Village, Stoke Orchard and Tredington all date from the twelfth century. He may have been hoping to get ahead of the Lancastrians if they moved on to Worcester, as no doubt his scouts advised him that the Lower Lode was a difficult crossing, There were plenty of boats in Tewkesbury, but Margaret is estimated to have had about 6,000 troops to get across with battle wagons and horses and guns. There is an old road running through Gloucestershire known as the Rudgeway which passes through Tredington towards Walton Cardiff; we know this part as Rudgeway Lane. It goes over open level ground with clear sight of Tewkesbury Abbey and the houses of Priors Park. These are all on high ground, and at the end of them is the place we know as Queen Margaret's Camp. I think King Edward used this road. Leaving Tredington it goes along beside the Swilgate River for a little way which would have been useful for watering the horses as they left. Now I think it is time to set the scene.

According to tradition, the Yorkists spent the night of the 3rd. May at Tredington. The weather was hot. Apparently very hot for early May. The Tredington farmers must have been tearing their hair. The hayfields were almost ready for mowing and the corn was knee-high, and here were about 5,000 men with all their gear and their horses camping down on their precious fields. 5,000 was about the population of Tewkesbury between the two World Wars. Hungry men-at-arms don't stop to consider the rights and wrongs of property, and fat lambs and piglets and barrels of cider and perry must have gone the way of all flesh. I was interested to note that some years later several tenants of the village were fined for refusing to repair their houses. This may or may not be relevant, but it is something to speculate about.

According to the Abbey Chronicle the Lancastrian army made camp on the Gaston field. It seems the only logical place to hold men with several hundred horses and mules, battle wagons, cannons and tents, needing camp kitchens and latrines. If the Vineyards were really the monastery vine fields, in May they would be covered with supports for the vines, and next to them would be the fish ponds on the ground now called the Wynyard Moats; for it has to be remembered that the monks had extensive cultivated grounds round the Abbey before the Dissolution, with orchards possibly on the 'Perry' Hills, where the Lancastrian sentries were stationed, watching for the Yorkist advance.

With nearly an hour's march to go from Tredington, I think the King's army must have moved off at first light. The Lancastrians were in ambush on the rising ground behind the River Swilgate and the old road to Gloucester, which, if it followed the old right-of-way, ran to the east of the present Margaret and Wenlock Roads and was probably hedged on both sides. The Swilgate River, although it was a very minor stream, would have had pollarded willows all along its length. It could have been the 'dike' referred to in the Arrival]. At the town end of their line were the two fishpools and the vineyards of the Abbey. Behind the soldiers were the Gaston Fields with their tents and battlewagons and support troops.

Where a little brook crosses the Rudgeway Lane it turns to the east, and I think that about this point King Edward decided to turn west and lead his army to the attack. The sun rising over the Cotswolds was shining directly in the faces of the Lancastrians as he advanced, and about 30 yards to his right lay the end of Walton's Wood. It was then that he made the historic decision mentioned in the 'Arrivall' to leave 200 spearmen on watch. I have a theory about this. All armies gathered troops as they went along, and amongst them must have been untrained teenagers and tramps, without armour, tagging along for the excitement of battle. So rather than have them getting in the way of his trained forces, the King armed them with spears and handed them over to one of his captains. I emphasise this is theory only, but please note that the wood is on King Edward's right hand, not the Lancastrians as so many have assumed.

The vanguard of the king's forces was commanded by his young brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who spearheaded his attack with cannon and bands of archers, probably stationed at each end of his line. The Duke of Somerset, commanding Queen Margaret's vanguard, massed at the south end of the high ground - now Priors Park Estate - replied in kind, but his troops were so harassed by the enemy that he led a sortie, probably mounted knights and archers, followed by men-at-arms on foot, against the end of Gloucester's division. The 'Arrivall' says 'passed a lane' , and this could have been across Conigree which led down towards Queen Margaret's Camp. Then the knights turned and charged down the hill, attacking the side of the Yorkist vanguard and their 'middle ward', which was commanded by the King himself. This attack was fiercely repulsed, and at this point the 200 spearmen raced across the fields to join in the melee and push the Lancastrians back.

Lord Wenlock and Prince Edward, commanding the Lancastrian Middleward, should have moved forward in support of the Duke of Somerset, but failed to do this and his vanguard was pushed back up the hill and down the other side into the Gaston fields. This left a gap for the entry of King Edward's divisions, and the Lancastrians were completely demoralised and beaten hack amongst all their battlewagons and tents. They tried to make a stand on Windmill Hill, then some retreated down to the Bloody Meadow and others across Lower Lode Lane to the Mill Avon. These last three places saw the worst of the casualties. There was an old disused windmill on Windmill Hill and this could have been the mill mentioned in the 'Arrival)'. which says, '...and so fell in the chase of them, that many of them were slayne, and, namely at a mylene (mill), in a meadow fast by the towne, were many drownyd; many to the Church, to the Abbey, and els where, as they best myght,', rather than the Abbey watermill in the town, which is favoured by Mr. Bennet in his 'History of Tewkesbury'.

Tradition says that Queen Margaret watched the defeat of her army from the top of the Abbey tower, and was later smuggled by the monks across the Severn to Payne's Place where the owner Thomas Payne was a supporter of the Duke of Warwick and the Lancastrian cause. From there she went to Malvern, and was found by the Yorkists sheltering in a 'poor religious house', perhaps Malvern Priory.

Of battle relics there are very few. Just the armour on the sacristy door of the Abbey and the 'Sun' of York placed in the roof of the Abbey choir by order of King Edward. The bloodstained floor that used to be at No. 102 Church Street, and reputed to be the blood of Prince Edward. murdered after the battle by the Yorkists, is gone. This tradition was very dubious, but I did wonder if perhaps this house was used as a temporary mortuary when the leaders of the Lancastrian army were beheaded at the Cross. Armour and weapons were very valuable in an age when the common people had few possessions. Souvenir hunters must have been out in force as soon as the troops moved off, and would have left no stone unturned in their search for booty, so it is not so surprising that nothing is left.

A word about Priests (or Prests) Bridge which figures in some accounts. In the thirteenth century Robert de Kerdif gave the hay from his pastures in Walton Cardiff to the Monastery, and in 1248 the monks were given permission to build a temporary bridge over the Swilgate to transport the hay. This was to be erected at the beginning of harvest and dismantled by the Feast of the Holy Cross in September. If this was Priests Bridge it may or may not have been there at the time of the battle.

When the recent re-enactment was made (in Festival Week 1993) I was walking along Swilgate Road during the height of the fighting. The shouting of the troops, the clash of arms and the thunder of the guns as the explosions reverberated from the Abbey walls sent me hack five centuries to the terror that must have gripped the town on that day. There were about ten thousand troops and hundreds of horses milling around the fields and fighting through the streets. It was said that about 3,000 Lancastrians were killed, but no mass burial ground is known at present. Many of the Queen's troops were French mercenaries, and as England and France had been fighting intermittently for a very long time there was no love lost between them and the Yorkists. I can imagine the Officer in charge of the burial parties telling his men to 'throw the Frogs in the river and let them float back to France.' Who knows after all?

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