Battles and SiegesSource Material

Battle of Barnet

The Battle of Barnet was fought on 14th April 1471. The clash saw the forces allied to the Earl of Warwick defeated by the army of King Edward IV. The battle was affected by the weather which had an influence on the outcome. Close to London, the prize for the victor was clear. Control over the capital by the Yorkists would provide a platform for dealing with the Lancastrian threat posed by armies of Margaret of Anjou, and men under Jasper Tudor. For the Lancastrians, victory here potentially ended the Wars of the Roses in their favour.

Edward IVs return from exile

14th March 1471. Edward landed at Ravenspur, on the banks of the River Humber, with 1200 men. He had been refused entry to the City of Hull before moving through Yorkshire and gathering support at York, Tadcaster, Wakefield and Doncaster. The army at that stage was still in a precarious position. He had not been challenged by the Earl of Northumberland, who commanded a larger force than Edward had at his disposal whilst in his lands, nor was he challenged by John Neville, Earl of Montagu, as he marched close to Pontefract Castle. His army had grown as he made his way south. In the Midlands, a force said to be 4000 strong under the Earl of Oxford refused to give battle. The speed of Edward’s advance and increasing strength was impressive. When he reached Coventry, the Earl of Warwick refused to take to the field of battle. Edward camped outside Coventry goading the Earl into action, Warwick sat behind the defences awaiting further reinforcement. Yet the final outcome of the 1471 conflict would appear to be most probably a Warwick / Lancastrian victory. Once the forces combined, Edward and his Yorkist force stood little chance.

Changing fortunes of Edward IV in the weeks preceding the Battle of Barnet

But that did not happen. Nor did London refuse Edward entry, as some have speculated that Warwick was sure of. Instead, the Duke of Clarence changed sides. Having spent the previous few years allied to the Earl, he had been persuaded to return to the side of his brother. Clarence and his men were a major addition to Edward’s fighting capabilities. The Aldermen of London chose to allow Edward to enter the city, which he did on 12th April, Maundy Thursday, 1471.

Upon this, the king proceeded to London, where he once more seized the person of the before-named king Henry, and George, archbishop of York, the then chancellor of the kingdom. Hardly, however, had he passed two nights there, when he was obliged to leave the city, for the purpose of manfully engaging, without it, the enemy who were hastening onward to capture him in the place. For Easter Day was now close at hand, upon which it was conjectured that the king would be attending more to prayers than arms, and it was their design at the moment when he was intent upon the duties of religion, suddenly to surprise him when unattended by any considerable number of people.

Croyland Chronicle

London secured

With King Henry VI in his possession and the City of London secure, Edward was able to take stock of the situation and decide upon a course of action. His situation was relatively straightforward. He faced an army led by the Earl of Warwick, Duke of Exeter, Earl of Oxford and Marquis of Montagu which had followed him south from the Midlands. This threatened the Capital. Queen Margaret and her son, Edward of Westminster, were known to be gathering a force in France. When and where this additional threat would land was not known: but facing a combined force of Warwick and Margaret may be too much for Edward’s army to deal with. On top of these threats was the presence of Jasper Tudor in South Wales. Would he be able to raise forces as he had in 1460/61 and present a fresh challenge?

Baynard's Castle, London. Centre of Yorkist operations in London throughout the Wars of the Roses
Baynard’s Castle, London. Yorkist headquarters in London.

Why was the battle at Barnet?

With a finite number of men, King Edward and his chief advisors would have little choice as to what to do next. The problem of the Earl of Warwick would need to be dealt with. On 13th April Edward and his army marched out of London. They headed north, to the edge of Barnet. The Earl of Warwick’s army reached the edge of the town on the same day. Both armies camped overnight on the edge of the town.

And so he toke in his companye to the felde, Kynge Henrye; and soo, that aftar none, he roode to Barnete, x myles owte of London, where his aforne-riders had founden the afore-riders of th’Erles of Warwikes hooste, and bet them, and chaced them out of the towne, more some what than an halfe myle; when, undre an hedge-syde, were redy assembled a great people, in array, of th’Erls of Warwike. The Kynge, comynge aftar to the sayde towne, and undarstanding all this, wolde [ne] suffre one man to abyde in the same towne, but had them all to the field with hym, and drewe towards his enemies, without the towne. And, for it was right derke, and he myght not well se where his enemyes were enbataylled afore hym, he lodged hym, and all his hoste, afore them, moche nere[r] then he had supposed, but he toke nat his ground so even in the front afore them as he wold have don yf he might bettar have sene them, butt somewhate a-syden-hande, where he disposed all his people, in good arraye, all that nyght; and so they kept them still, withowt any mannar langwage, or noyse, but as lytle as they well myght. Bothe parties had goons, and ordinaunce, but th’Erle of Warwike had many moo then the Kynge, and therefore, on the nyght, weninge gretly to have anoyed the Kinge, and his hooste, with shot of gonnes, th’Erls fielde shotte gunes al∣moste all the nyght. But, thanked be God! it so fortuned that they alway ovarshote the Kyngs hoste, and hurtyd them nothinge, and the cawse was the Kyngs hoste lay muche nerrar them than they demyd. And, with that also, the Kyng, and his hoste, kept passinge greate silence alnyght, and made, as who saythe, no noyse, whereby they might nat know the very place where they lay. And, for that they shulde not know it, the Kynge suffred no gonns to be shote on his syd, all that nyght, or els right fewe, whiche was to hym great advauntage, for, therby, they myght have estem∣ed the ground that he lay in, and have leveled theire gunns nere.

[Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in England]

The Croyland Chronicle notes the reasoning for Edward marching out of London. Aware of the enemies plans to use Easter for their advantage, he chose to march out of the city. A pitched battle seemingly being Edward’s preference to a siege or any plot within the walls of London.

This prudent prince, however, took due precautions against this stratagem of the enemy, and, paying more attention to urgent necessity than to absurd notions of propriety, on Holy Saturday in Easter week, quitted the city with his army, and, passing slowly on, reached the town of Barnet, a place ten miles distant from the city ; and there pitched his camp, on the eve of the day of our Lord’s Besurrection.

Croyland Chronicle

Where did the Battle of Barnet take place?

The exact location of the battlefield is open to interpretation. English Heritage outline possibilities in their report (see links). Contemporary and near-contemporary sources refer to places though:

The Earl of Oxford, commanding the vanguard:

“pycchid his ffeyld upon the playn withowth the toun well lyke a myle Athens” [Great Chronicle].

The Arrivalll said of the location:

“chaced them out of the towne, more some what than an halfe myle; when, undre an hedge-syde, were redy
assembled a great people, in array, of th’Erls of Warwike” [Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in England]

Ghent manuscript, a late 15th-century document (source: Ghent University library, MS236)
Battle of Barnet from the Ghent manuscript

Gernard von Wesel said:

“Warwick and his liegemen and followers, who had been at Coventry, pitched camp a mile beyond the said village [High Barnet], right beside the St Albans high road, on a broad green. King Edward’s followers, not knowing exactly in the darkness where their opponents were, rode on to that same place in the night and pitched their camp on the other side of the aforementioned high road in a hollow, on marshy ground, right opposite Warwick”. [Gernard von Wesel]

Tudor Chronicler Edward Hall noted:

“This toune [High Barnet] standeth on an hill, on whose toppe is a faire plain, for two armies to joyne together…” [Edward Hall]

These descriptions, the last of which was only discovered in the 20th century, place the battlefield to the North of Barnet, in an area known as Hadley Green.

The Battle of Barnet

The two camps were close. Warwick had his men fire artillery at the Yorkist camp throughout the night to harass them. What he didn’t know is that Edward used the cover of darkness to move his own camp very close to that of Warwick’s men. The artillery simply went over the top of the Yorkist forces, who now had the element of surprise against their opponents by being close and primed to form up as daylight broke.

Typically armies would form up in three ‘battles’ that faced each other directly. Volleys of artillery fire would precede the commencement of fighting, though this was very limited due to the time that it takes to load and reload a medieval cannon. Archers were also present and would be used to try and ‘soften up’ the enemy. At Barnet, the battles were not formed up directly opposite each other.

Overarched battles

So it was, that the one ende of theyr batayle ovarrechyd th’end of the Kyngs battayle, and so, at that end, they were myche myghtyar than was the Kyngs bataile at the same [end] that ioyned with them, whiche was the west ende … And, in lykewyse, at the est end, the Kyngs battayle, whan they cam to ioyninge, ovarrechyd theyr batayle, and so distresyd them theyr gretly… [Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in England]

This led to confusion as the fighting saw the battle commanded by Lord Hastings pushed back by those of the Earl of Oxford. In doing so the overlapped manner in which they had formed up led to the clash turning as if on a pivot and as Hastings men withdrew, the Earl of Oxford’s men in chase soon became confused as being Yorkists by the remainder of their own army. Confusing the Earl’s badge with that of King Edward, they were targeted by archers from their own side as they returned from chasing down some of Hastings men.

The Earl of Oxford’s battle puts Hastings to flight

…afftyr the Sunne was upp, eythir hoost approachid unto othir, But than it happid to be soo excedyng a
myst that nowthir hoost cowde playnly see othir, soo that It happid therle of Oxynfford to sett upon the wyng or end of the duke of Glowcetirs people [actually Lord Hastings’ division] & afftyr sharp ffygth slew a certayn of theym & put the Remenant to fflygth, and anoon as they had a while chacid such as ffled, soom Retournyd & ffyll to Ryfelyng & soom of theym wenyng that all had been wonne, Rood In alle haast to london & there told that kyng Edward haddf lost the ffeeld … Then afftyr this ffayt was doon by therle & he parceyvid well that he had erryd of his waye, he then wyth such as were abowth hym sett upon the Remenant of that hoost and held batayll wyth theym.. [Great Chronicle]

A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth also describes this aspect of the battle:

But it hapenede so, that the Erle of Oxenfordes men hadde uppon them ther lordes lyvery, bothe before
and behynde, which was a sterre withe stremys, wiche [was] myche lyke Kynge Edwardes lyvery, the sunne with stremys; and the myste was so thycke, that a manne myghte not profytely juge one thynge from anothere; so the Erle of Warwikes menne schott and faughte ayens the Erle of Oxenfordes menne, wetynge and supposynge that thei hade bene Kynge Edwardes menne; and anone the Erle of Oxenforde and his menne cryed “treasoune! treasoune!” and fledde awaye from the felde withe viii c. menne. [John Warkworth: A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth]

Communication problems on the battlefield

The problem with the Earl of Oxford’s battle having given chase and then being mistaken as Yorkists was not the only issue faced by the Warwick / Lancastrian army at Barnet. The commanders fought from the front which was quite typical of the day but meant that there was no particular oversight of how things were developing across the whole battlefield. As they were in the thick of the fighting, there was the risk of them being injured, killed, or of rumour spreading throughout the amassed body of men in the thick of the fighting. The Earl of Oxford had left the field of battle. The Duke of Exeter was believed to have been killed, which illustrates the communication problems faced by armies fighting in this way as he survived the battle. The Marquis of Montagu had been killed. This effectively left just the Earl of Warwick in command of a large force: and in foggy conditions, he would not have been able to see the entire field of battle from even a vantage point to the rear.

Casualties in the Battle of Barnet

See Ricardian Riddle: the Casualty List of the Battle of Barnet by Livia Visser-Fuchs (pdf file).

“Casualties at Barnet reflected the evenness of the battle. Wesel thought 1500 fell on both sides. Commynes gave the same figure for the Yorkists, more among the defeated Lancastrians. These neutral estimates fall between John Paston’s 1000  ‘of both parties’ and Warkworth’s 4000.”
Cassell’s Battlefields of Britain & Ireland, Richard Brooks, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2005

Most notable is that the battlefield casualties included the Earl of Warwick and Marquis of Montagu. The leadership of this part of the Warwick-Lancastrian alliance were now dead. Others, such as the Earl of Oxford, were able to escape the battlefield.

The account of the Croyland Chronicle does not give overall casualty figures. Instead it notes the famous nobles of each side who fell during the clash. It also notes the escape of the Duke of Exeter and the Earl of Oxford.

In the morning a dreadful engagement took place, in which there fell various nobles of either party. On the side of those who were of king Henry’s party, there fell those two most famous nobles, the brothers, Bichard earl of Warwick, and John Marquis of Montague. Among those on that side who contrived to escape alive from the field, were Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, and John Vere, earl of Oxford, of whom, the one took
sanctuary at “Westminster, while the other betook himself to the sea, once more to seek his fortune. On the other hand, king Edward lost two nobles, kinsmen of his, Humphrey Bourchier, lord Cromwell, and another Humphrey, of the same surname, the eldest son and heir of the lord Bemers; besides many others who fell in the battle. However, he gained a wonderful, glorious, and unhoped-for victory.

Croyland Chronicle

Inconsistencies in the sources

Some of the contemporary sources contradict others. And historiography over the years has also seen interpretations of the battle, particularly its location, change. An example of how easily sources could muddle things up is the simple issue of which direction the two armies were facing. Margaret of York, the sister of Edward IV, wrote to her mother-in-law of the battle that:

“mon dit seigneur et frere se porta si honnestement que, là où il avoit le visage vers le vilage où Warwicque estoit parti, qui est à dix mil de Londres, nommet Vernet [Barnet], il se trouva le dos en la fin contre icelui village” [Anchiennes Croniques d’Engleterre par Jehan de Waurin ed. Dupont]

Margaret would have heard of the battle from those who were present, or at the very least, have had the information relayed to her by people known to both herself and her brothers. Usually speaking, this would suggest that she would be provided with reasonably accurate information and, whilst taking into account that she herself was not present, would be thought to be as reliable a source as possible from a non-combatant. Yet Margaret has her brother’s army facing south. This would see his army marching from London, around Warwick’s men and forming up with the north behind them and London to Warwick’s rear.

Map of the Battle of Barnet
Battle of Barnet, Map by James Ramsay

Historians have drawn various conclusions as to the manner in which the armies formed up. Some of the best-known accounts pre-date the discovery of the account by Gernard von Wesel. The earlier modern historians to tackle the issue were men such as Ramsay, then Cass. In the post-world war two era, a concept known as Inherent Military Probability was developed by Burne. He applied this to the uncertainties over the site of the battlefield. Burne’s theory applies modern-day logic to historical scenarios and so whilst it makes sense to the modern mind, has had its critics. Burke didn’t have access to materials that have emerged since his work on the Battlefields of Britain though. More recent interpretation includes those of historians such as Hammond and investigations by Archaeologists and through organisations such as English Heritage and the Battlefields Trust.

Listing and official documents

Battlefields Trust – Context maps, articles, aerial photography, summary information and updates on any current investigations into the Battle and Battlefield.

English Heritage – report on the Battle of Barnet and the Battlefield. 1995.

Heritage England – the Barnet Battlefield is on the list of Registered Battlefields of special historic interest.

Battle of Barnet Links

Barnet Museum – notes from a lecture given by John Hall on the Battle of Barnet. pdf File.

Barrett, C R B. Battles and Battlefields in England (1850).

Burne, Lt-Colonel A H. The Battlefields of England (London 1950)

Cass, Frederick Charles ‘The Battle of Barnet’ (Book)

Chronicles of London (pdf file)

Commynes, Philippe de. The Memoirs of Philip de Commines, Lord of Argenton.

Hammond, P W The Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury

Historie of the Arrivall of King Edward IV, A.D. 1471  and the ‘Short version’ written to Charles of Burgundy, is here.

Paston Letters and Papers

Ramsay, Sir J H Lancaster and York (London 1893)

Scofield, CL. The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth (London 1923)

Warkworth, John. A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth. (Buy the book).

Waurin, Jean de. Anchiennes Croniques d’Engleterre par Jehan de Waurin ed. Dupont (or, the rolls as a book).

Wesel, Gerhard von. Can be found in this article: Gerhard von Wesel’s Newsletter from England, 17 April 1471. Hannes Kleineke. (pdf file)

Image Credits

Featured Image: An imagining of the Battle of Barnet, Lithograph, 1885. Picture originally published in: Church, Alfred (1885) “Of the Battle of Barnet” in The Chantry Priest of Barnet: A Tale of Two Roses, Seeley & Co., pp. p. 208 Artist M. & N. Hanhart Chromo Lith (floruit 1839-1865

Baynard’s Castle. “Old England”: A Pictorial Museum of Regal, Ecclesiastical, Baronial, Municipal, and Popular Antiquities; published by Charles Knight and co., London.1845.

Battle of Barnet. Ghent manuscript, a late 15th-century document (source: Ghent University library, MS236)

Battle of Barnet Map. Ramsay, James Henry (1892) “Battle of Barnet” in Lancaster and York: A Century of English History (A.D. 1399–1485), Volume II, Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press, pp. p. 370


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