A brief history

The Battle of Tewkesbury, 1471

On Saturday May 4th 1471 the Yorkists finally and conclusively won the throne of England in battle on a field in Tewkesbury.

Politics and power in fifteenth century Europe, which started and fuelled the Wars of the Roses, are the subject many learned volumes. The background is complex, but it was plotting by the English and French royal houses which led to King Edward outmanoeuvring his Lancastrian opponents, who were trapped by the Rivers Severn and Avon at Tewkesbury, and had no choice but to fight.

The campaign which led to this began with a failed attempt by the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker, to put George, Duke of Clarence, on the throne. It resulted in him plotting with the King of France for a Lancastrian invasion and uprising. After early success, the Yorkists regrouped and attacked. Warwick was killed on 14th April, Easter Sunday, at the Battle of Barnet. The other conspirator, Queen Margaret, arrived in England too late, but set about raising a new army on behalf of her husband, Henry VI, a prisoner in the Tower of London.

She consulted her allies, the Duke of Somerset and the Earls of Devonshire and Pembroke. They developed a plan; Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke left for South Wales to raise troops, whilst the rest scoured the West Country for support, and soon a growing army was marching north to join with Pembroke.

King Edward was not idle. His army mustered at Windsor and moved into Gloucestershire to meet the Lancastrians. The two armies came close to battle at Sodbury Hill, but Margaret and her army slipped away in the night and marched on Gloucester, to cross the Severn and meet up with the Earl of Pembroke. This was not to be, though, as the City was in the hands of the Yorkists and closed against them. They had no choice but to continue north along the Severn and so arrived at Tewkesbury, where they now had the problem of having to take an exhausted army through the town and over the narrow and rickety bridge over the Avon before they could continue along the Severn. With the Yorkist army on their tail this was a huge risk. They were cornered. They stopped at Tewkesbury and prepared to fight the battle they didn’t want. They camped in the Gaston field, then a large field immediately north of the Gupshill, and spanning the modern main road. The Yorkist army camped at Tredington.

On the morning of Saturday May 4th, the Lancastrian army took a defensive position along the hedges of the Gaston and the fields to the Swilgate Brook. The Yorkists took the field with a great fanfare, and set about the task of encouraging their enemy to take to open ground and fight. They attacked them; ‘they gave them right-a-sharp shower both with shot of arrows and guns’, which eventually persuaded the Duke of Somerset to mount an attack on the Yorkist flank, commanded by Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). The attack was repulsed, not least because of two hundred Yorkist knights concealed in the woods of Tewkesbury Park who unexpectedly charged down the hill into them, scattering them in every direction.

After this, the Lancastrians were in retreat. Legend has it the Lord Wenlock, commander of the Lancastrian centre, was killed on the field by the Duke of Somerset for not supporting his attack. The morale of the army must have been broken.

Many were massacred in the Bloody Meadow in the panic of the retreat, probably including the Lancastrian heir to the throne, Edward Prince of Wales. Men sought sanctuary in the Abbey, but after a stand-off between King Edward and the Abbot they were surrendered to the King. They were tried for treason at a court hurriedly convened and beheaded on a scaffold set up in Church Street. Among these was Edward Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. In a display of mercy, King Edward allowed the bodies of his enemies to be buried in consecrated ground, and many were interred in the Abbey. Prince Edward is buried in the Choir, and above him on the ceiling is painted the ‘Sun in Splendour’ emblem of King Edward. The Duke of Somerset’s grave was in front of an alter of St James, in what is now the Abbey shop.

Queen Margaret was captured whilst fleeing to Wales. She returned to London as a captive on 21 May. On that very day her husband Henry, the last Lancastrian king, died in the Tower. King Edward ruled unopposed until his unexpected death in 1483. The Yorkist succession foundered when his brother Richard seized the throne, prompting another usurpation, when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, faced Richard at Bosworth Field in 1485, and won his crown.

The victims of the battle are still remembered in an annual communion service in the Abbey on 4 May and at the annual Medieval Festival in July. During the summer, the banners used by over 100 participants in the battle are displayed on properties in the main streets. Guided walks around the battlefield are run through the year. Further information can be obtained from the Battle exhibition in the Museum in Barton Street, or from the Tourist Information Centre, where copies of booklets about the battle and battle trail can be obtained.