The battle of Barnet, 1471: the Wars of the Roses clash that killed the Kingmaker (2022)

Warwick’s attempts to reassert his position in 1469 led to a period of chaos and rebellion, as he and the king jockeyed for power. In 1470, Warwick concluded an alliance with his old enemy, Margaret of Anjou – the wife of Henry VI – and Edward was forced into exile. Henry VI was reinstated as king, with Warwick as the country’s effective ruler.

But Edward still had plenty of fight left in him. In March 1471, he raised an army and returned to England to reclaim his throne. On 25 March, he reached Leicester, where he was joined by 3,000 men – retainers of his old friend, Lord Hastings. Four days later, he arrived outside Coventry, where Warwick was based. Secure behind its powerful city walls, the Earl probably planned to sit it out until he could be joined by his various allies, but his plans were wrecked when one of these, the Duke of Clarence, changed sides and joined his brother the king. Edward now decided to strike for London and, on 11 April, the city opened its gates to the Yorkist king.

Warwick, who had followed Edward south, drew up his army on high ground north of Barnet and offered battle. On 13 April, Edward – no doubt hoping to defeat his former ally before he could join forces with Margaret – led his army back up the Great North Road and advanced through Barnet. By now, it was getting dark, so he decided to spend the night in order of battle, ready to attack in the morning. However, in the failing light, he miscalculated where Warwick’s army actually was and pitched his camp much nearer to the Earl’s forces than he intended. Furthermore, the two armies weren’t directly opposite each other. Each army’s right flank overlapped its opponent’s left – a misalignment that would have a major effect on the course of the battle on the following day.

What happened on the battlefield?

That night, Warwick tried to make the most of his superiority in artillery by ordering a bombardment of the King’s position. His primitive cannon duly opened fire, but because the two armies were so close, his guns overshot the Yorkist army. Edward made sure that Warwick’s men were unaware of their error by forbidding his own gunners from shooting back, with the result that Warwick’s gunners pounded away all night with little effect.

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The following day was Easter Sunday. Edward had his troops ready for battle before dawn. The precise site of the action is still unknown, although an ongoing archaeology project being carried out by the Battle of Barnet Project may eventually supply us with some answers. What does seem likely is that the two armies were both deployed in three 'battles' or divisions in the vicinity of the Great North Road. The Lancastrians were drawn up, with Warwick and his brother the Marquess of Montagu in the centre, flanked on the left by forces under the Duke of Exeter and on the right by the troops of the Earl of Oxford. Edward's army was deployed in a similar way. The king was in command of the centre, while the flanks were led by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and his friend Lord Hastings. Exactly who was where is a matter of debate.

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A contemporary account said there was “so exceeding a mist that neither host could plainly see the other”, and the smoke from Warwick’s guns can only have made the visibility even worse. As a result, as the two armies closed in for combat, neither was aware that they weren’t correctly aligned. As one chronicle put it: “So it was, that the one end of their battle overreached the end of the King’s battle, and so, at that end they were much mightier than was the King’s battle at the same [end] that joined with them, which was the west end… and, in likewise at the east end, the King’s battle, when they came to joining, over-reached their battle, and so distressed them there greatly…”

Outnumbered and outflanked by the Lancastrians, the troops on Edward’s left soon broke and fled down the road to Barnet, with Oxford’s men in hot pursuit. Some of the fugitives didn’t halt until they reached London, where they announced that Edward had been defeated, causing brawls to break out between the supporters of the rival factions. Oxford’s men stopped in High Barnet, where they set about both looting the village and rifling through the Yorkist baggage.

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In the centre, completely unaware of what had happened, the armies battled it out with men laying about each other with swords, bills, poleaxes and maces. Farther east, where they outflanked the Lancastrians, it was the Yorkists who had the advantage, and as they pushed back their opponents, they slowly rotated through 90 degrees.

Meanwhile, Oxford had managed to persuade some of his men to leave their plundering and return to the fray. Peering through the fog, Warwick’s men saw them coming. The line of advance of Oxford’s men must have made them look like Yorkist reinforcements, and if one contemporary chronicle is to be believed, the star badges of Oxford’s men bore an unfortunate resemblance to the sun badge of Edward IV. Thinking they were about to be attacked, Warwick’s men loosed arrows into the advancing troops. Oxford’s men shot back and in the ensuing chaos, Lancastrian morale collapsed and their line began to crumble.

How did the Earl of Warwick die?

Finally, amid cries of “treason”, it broke altogether. It was now that the Lancastrian army suffered the bulk of its casualties. Among them was the Earl of Warwick himself, chased down and killed as he tried to get to his horse and ride away. His brother Montagu was also killed, along with perhaps 1,000 Lancastrians, but Oxford succeeded in escaping to Scotland.

The battle was over before noon. Edward hurriedly returned to London and, in an act of pure theatre, strode into St Paul’s Cathedral while a service was taking place and laid Warwick’s banner on the altar. He then ordered that the bodies of Warwick and Montagu be brought to the city and displayed on the cathedral steps so that there could be no rumours that they were still alive. Three days later, they were taken for burial at Bisham Abbey.

It had not been an easy victory. At least 500 Yorkists had fallen, including Lords Cromwell and Saye, and many more had been wounded, among them Edward’s brother Richard (the future Richard III). A merchant in London who witnessed the return of the Yorkist army later wrote: “Those who went out with good horses and sound bodies brought home sorry nags and bandaged faces without noses etc and wounded bodies, God have mercy on the miserable spectacle…”

But Edward’s victory and the deaths of Warwick and Montagu had broken the power of the Nevilles. Much of their land in the north would be taken over by Richard. Three weeks later, Edward completed his triumph by defeating Margaret at Tewkesbury and killing her son, the Prince of Wales. The Lancastrian cause was all but extinguished and Edward made doubly sure by having Henry VI, now a pathetic prisoner in the Tower of London, quietly put to death.

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Julian Humphrys is a historian and battlefields expert

This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed

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