The seeds of Tewkesbury were sown in 1470, when the reigning King Edward IV was overthrown by supporters of his predecessor Henry VI – including Edward’s mentor, the Earl of Warwick, and his own younger brother, the Duke of Clarence. Edward then fled to Burgundy (now France), leaving his wife and children behind.
Henry VI’s first reign had been something of a disaster. He succeeded his father Henry V at the age of nine months, which meant that England was ruled by a regency council full of colourful and power-hungry nobles. Things didn't improve when he came of age, as Henry was prone to mental illness. Nobody’s entirely sure what he had, but historians think it may have been catatonic schizophrenia: he would slip into a catatonic state for months at a time, not recognising his son or his wife, and leaving the country to be ruled again by powerful nobles. After ten years of war, he was overthrown by Edward IV, and he fled to France.
Needless to say, his return to the throne in 1470 was clearly in name only: the real power lay in his wife, Margaret of Anjou; his kinsman the Duke of Somerset; and the Earl of Warwick – who, until recently, had been on the other side. Henry VI’s second reign was not to last.
In March 1471, Edward IV returned from Burgundy, landing in the North of England. They met with little challenge as they moved south, instead gaining support from disgruntled and disaffected nobles. One of these nobles was Clarence, who had been pushed aside by Warwick as they grew closer and closer to the Lancastrian cause. According to Vergil, it was youngest brother Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) who played peacemaker between the two, in the typical role of the long-suffering sibling.
Reunited, the three sons of York made their way to battle. At Barnet, in the heavy fog of the morning, the Yorkist and Lancastrians fought. The fog was so thick that the Lancastrians turned on each other, mistaking a ‘star with rays’ heraldic badge for Edward IV’s 'sunne in splendour'. And, amidst the chaos, Warwick was cut down trying to reach his horse. The great Earl of Warwick, Kingmaker, who had put two kings on the throne, was dead.
The race was on.
Suddenly lacking in a strong leader, the Lancastrians fled west, where they met with Somerset. Waiting in Wales was Jasper Tudor, half-brother of Henry VI, with a new, sorely needed, Lancastrian army. Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou and Prince Edward of Lancaster landed in Weymouth and headed north.
They planned to cross at Gloucester, the lowest crossing paint of the River Severn, and from there gain entry to Wales – but the city refused to let them in. Already exhausted by days of forced marching, the Lancastrians set out for the next closest crossing: a bridge at the small town of Upton-upon-Severn.
The Yorkists were hot on their heels. Anticipating Somerset’s moves, Edward IV sent a message to the city of Gloucester, commanding them to close their gates. Then he moved to cut them off before they could reach Upton.
They would meet at Tewkesbury, a small town in the north of Gloucestershire. Mere miles apart, two armies made camp and prepared to meet each other on the field the next day.
As 4 May dawned, the two sides lined up for battle. Edward IV (understandably) kept Clarence close to him in the centre, while the Dukes of Hastings and Gloucester took the rear and vanguard respectively. Suspicious of the woodlands surrounding the battle, he also hid 200 spearmen in the trees – just in case. Meanwhile, Somerset himself led the vanguard for the Lancastrians, with Devonshire at the rear. Technically Edward of Lancaster led the centre but, as he lacked actual military experience, John, Lord Wenlock, was the real power there.
Despite their loss at Barnet, the Lancastrians had regained enough men to slightly outnumber the Yorkists, but this wasn't to help them in the end. Instead, pushed back by Gloucester's men, Somerset and his vanguard were to be set upon by Edward IV's hidden spearman, while the centre, under Wenlock, watched in (presumably) horror. Somerset, who survived the vanguard attack, was furious. Not at Edward IV, not at himself, not at the general situation – but at Wenlock.
And so, he took his poleaxe and struck Wenlock down where he stood, murdering his second-in-command. It is doubtful that this helped the Lancastrian morale.
The Lancastrians fled, but it was as if Tewkesbury itself was against them. They were sandwiched between different wings of the Yorkist army, herded into a narrow strip of field that is still today called the Bloody Meadow. Many that survived the meadow found themselves drowning in the River Swilgate. At their back was the Warwickshire Avon, and behind that the Severn. They were trapped.
But some did escape, including Somerset himself. They made it through the meadow, past the Swilgate, to claim sanctuary at Tewkesbury Abbey.
This did not save them.
Edward IV had those men dragged out of sanctuary; this skirmish caused so much blood to be shed that the abbey had to be reconsecrated. Days after, they were trialled and executed in the centre of Tewkesbury, before being buried without markers in the abbey.
Meanwhile, whatever happened to Edward of Lancaster, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, it is still unclear. One thing is certain: he died that day. But history does not definitively say how. The Historie of the Arrival of Edward IV claims that he was cut down while fleeing, possibly amidst the chaos of Bloody Meadow. Vergil wrote that he was captured by Edward IV and refused to yield, then was summarily executed on the orders of the victorious king. The Warkworth Chronicle suggests that he was cut down by his one-time ally and brother-in-law Clarence. However it happened, Edward of Lancaster ended his days in a small West Country town, buried in a lowly abbey, although he does at least have a plaque. He remains the only heir to the English throne to die in battle.
Edward IV had not only won both battles, he had won the war. Margaret of Anjou was found at Little Malvern Priory and was dragged back to London. Henry VI, already under Edward IV's care, would find himself dying 'of sadness' as soon as the Yorkist king arrived in the capital. The only direct heir to the throne was dead, and almost everyone further down the line was as well. In effect, Edward IV had wiped at the Lancastrian dynasty.
And that would have been the end of the Wars of the Roses – if he hadn't died twelve years later, leaving the throne to his 12-year-old son and starting the political turmoil all over again.
By Jezz Palmer