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POD Cast: 30 December 1460

By Tim Venning

Someone shot the tree! The Battle of Wakefield, 1460.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.




If newspapers were around during the Wars of the Roses, that is a lurid headline one might have seen. Tim Venning looks at the battle, and in particular at the POD:


What if Duke Richard of York had not been killed and ended up a King of England in 1461 instead of Edward IV?


It was the inexperienced but glamorous, six-foot-tall blond eighteen-year-old Earl Edward of March (the future King Edward IV), and not his father Duke Richard of York (born 1411) who headed the Yorkist cause when the overthrew King Henry VI in March 1461. He was able to claim the throne after defeating the main Lancastrian army in the Welsh Marches, the Lancastrian army being led by Owen Tudor (grandfather of the later King Henry VII) and Earl Jasper of Pembroke. The battle was fought at Mortimer’s Cross near Ludlow on (probably) 2 February 1461.

King Edward IV, as envisaged by Phillipa Gregory.

Picture courtesy Phillipa Gregory Wiki.

This dramatically reversed the recent destruction of the main Yorkist army under Duke Richard in the north of England following a surprise attack by the Lancastrians at Wakefield on 30 December 1460.

The supposed post-Christmas truce between the two rival faction leadership groups – currently staying at crucial bases in Yorkshire (Yorkists at Sandal Castle and Lancastrians at Pontefract Castle) exploded into violence.


Richard and his 17-year-old second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed in the battle on Wakefield Green, and Richard’s brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, was captured and quickly executed. The victorious Lancastrian commanders, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Henry Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, were both sons of noblemen killed by Duke Richard five years earlier at the battle of St Albans. The father of their ferocious lieutenant John, Lord Clifford had also been killed by York’s men in the battle of St Albans. Evidently the bloody killings of December 1460 were a direct retaliation in an escalating ‘tit-for-tat’ blood feud.


Contrary to how Shakespeare portrayed the battle in his Henry VI trilogy of plays, the Lancastrian leader Queen Margaret of Anjou (Henry’s wife, the ‘Tigress of Anjou’) was not on the battlefield, nor did she order the killings – though she rejoiced in them afterwards and had the enemy leaders’ heads stuck up on the Micklegate of York. The Queen was busy raising an army in the North and calling in her Scots allies, and as a result could not march on London immediately. The landed and Church elite were nervous at what her unruly army of Northerners might do to traditionally pro-York towns and cities (London included) in the South, and she accepted their pleas to delay her arrival.

The Tigress of Anjou, according to Phillipa Gregory.

Picture courtesy Phillipa Gregory Wiki.

York’s eldest son Edward (born April 1442) had been busy raising troops in the Welsh Marches where his family held the Mortimer estates around their base of Ludlow Castle. Edward destroyed the local Lancastrian forces near Ludlow at Mortimer’s Cross, despite having a smaller army and limited personal experience. The victory was played up as a miracle showing Divine approval of the Yorkist cause. The appearance of the then-mysterious celestial phenomenon of a ‘parhelion’ – a line of “three suns” in the sky, an optical illusion of a duplicate of the real sun to either side of it caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere in cold weather – was declared by Edward to be a sign of Divine favour. He then took the “Sun of York” as his battle standard. (Hence the opening words of Shakespeare’s play Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent; Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”) He then executed Owen Tudor in nearby Hereford marketplace in revenge for the killing of his father and brother.

Edward then marched on London, joined up with the Earl of Salisbury’s son Warwick in the south Midlands, and occupied the capital as the local Lancastrians fled north to join Queen Margaret. As his father had done when he captured King Henry and took over the administration earlier in 1460, Edward asserted the old Yorkist claim that Henry’s son Edward of Westminster (born 1453) was a bastard and so should not be the King’s heir. In addition to the steps his father had taken, he also arranged a special assembly of those pro-Yorkist nobles and clergy that were available to declare Henry deposed.

For years, the King had been accused of misrule and incompetence and of being a puppet of his power-hungry wife and her close allies. King Henry had also lost almost all of the ‘glorious’ conquests of his father Henry V in France to the French Valois dynasty, his mother’s kin. Now he was being accused of breaking his word to support York and his allies given in the peace agreement of summer 1460 between Henry VI and the Duke of York, and instead the Yorkists deposed him in Edward’s favour.


Edward took the throne as King Edward IV – though Henry was still recognised as King in much of the north and this was to continue until Edward defeated Queen Margaret and her army at Towton Moor near York in another bloodbath – and a snowstorm – on Easter Day 1461.

England's bloodiest battle: Towton Moor, 1461. Fought in a snowstorm on Easter Day, 1461.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But this series of dramatic reversals in fortune could easily have been avoided, and they would not have been predicted at the time of York’s occupation of London and seizure of power from Queen Margaret. York’s unexpected death in battle on 30 December 1460 was entirely avoidable. It was due to a mixture of: over-confidence on his part, faulty intelligence, and the perseverance and ingenuity of his opponents. There was also bad luck involved, in that he could have been defeated but escaped the carnage to fight on as his eldest son did when taken by surprise and treachery in 1470. Instead, he was taken by surprise and cut down.


Richard controlled most of the south of England, but he was being defied in arms in Yorkshire by Duke Henry (Beaufort) of Somerset, Duke Henry’s cousin the Duke of Exeter – who York had once gaoled – and other magnates. They had marched unopposed up to Yorkshire from their base in the South-West to link up with the local Percies, the pro-Lancastrian leading dynasts in Northumberland. The Queen was collecting a new army in Scotland.


The Yorkists had already killed Somerset’s father Duke Edmund, the late (Percy) Earl of Northumberland, and the father of the young northern magnate Lord Clifford. As a result, the principal Lancastrian leaders with troops to hand in the region were unlikely to accept or trust York controlling the government.


Owen Tudor and his second son Jasper also resisted York in Wales.


York’s attempt to make his ascendancy in London permanent by claiming the throne had met with large-scale resistance from parts of the peerage.


York marched north early in December to defend his pillaged Yorkshire estates from the Lancastrians, and was based at his residence of Sandal Castle west of York over Christmas 1460. Somerset, with a larger army, was based nearby at Pontefract Castle awaiting the Queen. Some sort of truce had been negotiated, but Somerset returned to the offensive and harassed the Yorkists. He possibly infiltrated men into Sandal Castle to spread reassuring stories that his army was smaller than it actually was.

Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire, base of Duke Henry of Somerset.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Lured out to respond to the provocations, York faced what seemed to be a relatively small force. Once he was committed to battle, two hidden Lancastrian ‘wings’ emerged from nearby woods to change the odds. York fell fighting, as did his second son Edmund and Salisbury’s younger son Thomas, while Salisbury was captured and later beheaded. The Yorkist claim to the throne thus passed to York’s eldest son Edward, who was currently in the Welsh Marches. He first had to defeat the Tudor’s army here and then march to London and occupy it ahead of Queen Margaret.

York had already seriously miscalculated by claiming the throne in October 1460 rather than a simple ‘Protectorship’ (ie, regency) on behalf of the mentally weak and malleable King. He had been implacable towards Somerset’s father Duke Edmund, having had him thrown in the Tower of London in 1453-54 while he was ‘Protector’ for the then comatose Henry. York was clearly not someone who compromised willingly. The anger this generated among both ‘neutral’ lords as well as strongly anti-Yorkist lords caused them to rally to the Queen and insist that as soon as Henry showed signs of recovery, the ‘regency’ should end.


York’s continuing confrontations with the Queen and the Beauforts rendered King Henry’s well-meant but hopeless attempts to arrange a reconciliation futile. In 1459, the Queen’s party had launched a coup and driven York, his sons, and Neville allies out of the country.


As the Queen’s army marched on Ludlow in 1459 denouncing their foes for treason, it was possible that if she captured York and his wife’s brother Salisbury, she would have had them executed. However, they managed to escape abroad to Ireland. Their lands were seized, but this was reversed following their successful invasion in 1460, and the Queen fled as York seized power. He then tried to also claim the throne, claiming that Henry IV had cheated his family of the throne following Henry IV’s coup in 1399. This proved to be another miscalculation.


The majority of the peerage and senior clerics were opposed to his removing the King, to whom they had all sworn allegiance. After failing to bully Henry VI into abdicating, York was forced to give in and accept that he should just be the King’s heir. He had miscalculated the strength of his support and the willingness of most of the senior lords to break their oaths of allegiance.


His attempt scared or angered enough of the uncommitted nobles to cause them to rally to the Beaufort-Percy forces.


York’s death at Wakefield was due to another miscalculation: he was confident that his local foes were few in number and he could tackle them with a small army. Although his cause in the North needed urgent reinforcement in December, he could easily have sent the veteran Salisbury (a local Neville from Westmorland) and the latter’s younger son Thomas Neville on their own.


Alternatively, as holding out in Sandal Castle would expose him to a siege when the Queen’s army arrived, he had the option of withdrawing south and evading battle once he learned that the Percies and Somerset had a larger army than he had expected. He could then have linked up with Salisbury’s son Warwick, lord of Warwick Castle and with extensive estates in the West Midlands, in time to face the Queen and Somerset as they marched south in February. Edward would still have been preoccupied with the Tudor army in Wales.

Micklegate Bar, York. Margaret of Anjou had the heads of Duke Richard of York and the Earl of Rutland, killed at the Battle of Wakefield, displayed here. The cars were probably not there in 1460.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

York would have had the advantage of Warwick’s force of Burgundian cannoneers and crossbowmen to pit against the ferocious but probably ill-armed Scots. His southern foes also had professional soldiers from the one surviving English garrison in France – Calais – that Lord Trollope had brought over.


York would also have had an extra legal ‘boost’ for Yorkist claims to the throne that his heir was to use in March to justify usurping the throne. Henry VI had sworn oaths of protection to the Yorkist leadership in October, but the treacherous attack at Sandal had broken these, so he could be deposed. Unlike in Autumn 1460, there was now direct evidence of Henry’s ‘treachery’ to his kin as an excuse for deposing him.


York and Salisbury were outnumbered in Yorkshire and could not have held on there in January 1461 when the Scots army arrived. The decisive battle would have come when the Queen marched south, or possibly back in Yorkshire had she had to withdraw in the face of Edward joining up with his father’s army after victory in the Welsh Marches.


The Yorkists might well have still held possession of King Henry, not losing him to the Queen at St Albans. The retention of Henry on the throne would have entailed keeping him separate from his implacable wife, and this would have made it easier to depose him. Richard III would have assumed the throne in Spring 1461, without his rival being at large in Scotland and the north of England as a focus for resistance until 1465.


Queen Margaret would have used her son the Prince as her rallying point instead of her increasingly feeble and bewildered husband, until she was forced to flee to France, as she did in OTL after the Yorkists secured the Northumberland castles. Her cousin King Louis XI would then have been able to use her against the Yorkists if they posed a threat to him, as he did to Edward IV in real life.


York had made his name as a dogged and competent general in France in the 1440s, more so than most of Henry VI’s appointees. He was more likely than Edward to fight a serious war in northern France to warn Louis off of meddling in English affairs. In OTL, when Edward invaded France in 1475, Louis was quickly able to bribe him to call off the war. York might even have followed the tradition of Edward III in the 1340s and Henry V in the 1410s in seeking to unite his fractious nobility by concentrating their energy on a French war, expanding the English area of control south from Calais into Artois and Picardy with the help of Duke Philip of Burgundy, cousin and long-time rival to the French King.

Duke Philip of Burgundy, "The Good". My French friends would dispute that description.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

York, born in 1411, could have lived into his sixties like his grandfather Edmund and great-grandfather Edward. His eldest son Edward would then have succeeded, with it being probable that with his father still alive and able to command his adherence, he would not have dared to take the controversial step of his secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. He would have been in a weaker position to defy the Council’s expectations of his marital choice than if he had been King. His father was likely to have been as keen as Warwick was in real life to marry Edward off to a French royal bride to achieve reconciliation with Louis XI. With Edward married to a more acceptable wife of impeccable royal blood (‘commoner’ Elizabeth’s late husband had been a Lancastrian, killed fighting for Queen Margaret), Edward would probably not have faced anger from and later desertion by his powerful cousin Warwick, who killed Elizabeth’s father and brother in 1469.


The kingship of York would have meant his nephew Warwick (the Kingmaker) had a less powerful role. Warwick was fourteen years older and much more experienced than the real-life Edward IV, but he did not have these advantages over the older York. Once York died, Warwick could be expected to take a leading role at the Court of Edward IV. Given his ambition, Warwick may still have tried to marry off his daughters to the King’s brothers, Dukes George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester.


If there had been no bloodbath at Wakefield in December 1460, Edward IV’s next brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland, would have been next in line if the King had no son or had a ‘dubious’ secret marriage such as his Woodville marriage, which was not made public or at first even known about.


This would have materially altered the nature of any subsequent struggle for power involving Edward IV’s wife’s family and his brothers. Duke Richard of Gloucester (OTL Richard III) would have been at a substantial disadvantage in seeking the throne. If Rutland had survived, he would have had landed estates, probably with a well-dowered bride, and a dynastic claim to stand in the way of both George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester in their manoeuvrings for power after 1469.


Nothing is known of Rutland’s capability as a leader, but it is unlikely that he would have been as treacherous to Edward IV as Clarence was to be in 1469-71 and 1477-78. He would probably have been married off before Warwick’s eldest daughter Isabel (born 1451, so eight years his junior) was available. Would this have stymied Warwick’s ambition to marry his daughters off to Edward IV’s heirs?


It is most likely that Rutland would have been married to a foreign princess, possibly in negotiations with France which were ruined in OTL by Edward IV’s secret marriage. If Rutland had loyally been at Edward’s side in 1469, Warwick would have had less temptation to depose the King and place Clarence on the throne as his puppet. Would this have given him second thoughts about seizing the King?


In addition, a 27-year-old Rutland in possession of a strong landed base and clientele would have been a major block to Warwick revolting successfully in 1469 and 1470; without Rutland, Edward was more vulnerable. Edward’s main supporter in real-life 1470, his youngest brother Richard, was only 18, new to governance, and untried as a commander. With Rutland alive, Edward would have been more secure regardless of whether he was married to Elizabeth or not, as Warwick would not be able to use Rutland as a potential replacement for Edward as he did with Clarence in real life in 1469.


Would Edward have been arrested in 1469 or overthrown in 1470 at all? Or if he had married a different wife in around 1464, as ordered by his father, he might have had an adult son by the time he died, rather than the twelve-year-old in OTL. Under these circumstances, would the new King have been safer from a coup?


Discuss this article Here.


Tim Venning has written a series of books for SLP on Ancient Rome, starting with Caesars of the Bosphorus.






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