First Battle of St. Albans
When the first protectorate of Richard Duke of York came to an end, relations between his followers and those allied to Queen Margaret were at breaking point. Disputes between the Duke of Somerset and the Neville family over inheritance had seen the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury ally themselves with the duke of York. The Duke of Somerset had then been imprisoned during the protectorate. Now free, he, the Queen, and those in their affinity sought to regain the political upper hand. It led to the opening of the Wars of the Roses in the First Battle of St. Albans. The battle was a Yorkist victory and blame for the clash was laid at the door of those in the Queen’s affinity by parliament, who absolved the Yorkists of fault.
How they would do that was of concern to the Yorkists. A council meeting was called to be held in Leicester, in the centre of the Queen’s geographical sphere of influence. The royal party would need to travel from London to Leicester. It would be accompanied by retinues of several leading nobles.
Fear of Reprisals
The Yorkist faction anticipated that the intention was reprisals against them. They decided to challenge the royal party whilst making it clear that they sought only to remove the traitors around the king.
The Yorkists and Lancastrians meet at St. Albans
The Yorkists met the royal party at St. Albans. Attempts at negotiation failed. The duke of York demanded that the duke of Somerset be handed over for trial. Unsurprisingly, this was rebuffed.
The seyde duke Richard and the erle abouesayde, seyng that they myghte nat preuayle ne withstond the malice of the forseyde duk Edmond ; the whiche dayly entended and prouoked the kyng to J/s^tA^bon theyre fynal destruccioun ; and gadered priuyly a power of peple [May 22nd.] and kept thaym couertly in villages aboute the toune of Seynt Albons; and whan the kyng was there, they beseged the toune aboute, and sente to the kyng besechyng hym that he wolde sende oute vnto theym theyre mortal enemy, Edmond duke of Somerset, and enemy to alle the reame ; yef he wolde nat so, they wolde haue hym by streynghte and violence.
An English Chronicle, Camden Society.
The attempts at negotiation are mainly known to us through texts that are sympathetic to the Yorkist cause. These became propaganda tools in the aftermath of the battle. Professor Michael Hicks has written about these sources in an article available here.
The standoff whilst messages were exchanged through heralds was expected. Similar shows of force had taken place in 1452 with a peaceful, though tense, outcome. Things had changed since 1452 though. The Yorkist force was larger, it now had the earls of Salisbury and Warwick in its ranks, and was now willing to make use of their massed ranks.
Lancastrian strategy at the First Battle of St. Albans
The royal party had set up in defensible positions in St. Albans. Barriers were erected and manned near St. Peter’s Church. Though it is quite likely that they did not expect to be attacked, the men commanded by Lord Clifford were able to withstand the initial assault by the duke of York’s men.
Despite the deadlock at the barriers, the battle was incredibly short. The Earl of Warwick led a contingent of men through alleyways, entering the market square where many of the Lancastrian force were located, seemingly at rest and totally unprepared to be attacked.
The result was a quick and decisive Yorkist victory. As the outcome became clear the lords in the kings party sought refuge, or tried to flee. Several of them were targeted by the Earl of Warwick’s men. The Duke of Somerset was found hiding in the Castle Inn and summarily executed. Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland was killed whilst trying to take refuge in the inn. Lord Clifford was set upon and killed in the main street.
The fyrst Batel at Seint Albons.
This yere the Lord Egrymond was take by Sir John Nevell, my Lorde of Salysburys sone. And in the same yere (the xxth day of May, beyng Thyrsday was the fyrst batayll at Seint Albonys; and ther was slayne the Duke of Somersett, the Erle of Northehomberlonde, the Lord Clyfforde, with oþer mo under the kynges baner. And the Duke of Yorke, the Erle oof Warwyke, the Erle of Salysburye wanne the felde, and so came with the kynge to London with mycche ryalte
A Short English Chronicle, Stow.
The element of surprise had resulted in a short and decisive victory for the Yorkist faction. The king was found, injured, and taken into the care of the Duke of York. The political landscape had changed dramatically, with government once again being in the form of the Duke of York as protector with the Earl of Warwick taking an increasingly significant role in national politics.
The king’s forces were concentrated in St. Peter’s Street and the Market Place, while the army of the duke of York was drawn up in a field called Keyfield, belonging to the Cross Keys Inn, which stood on the site of the present London Road. From this field Sir Robert Ogle suddenly, with 600 men of the Marches, forced his way through into the town and seized the Market Place before any man was aware. The alarm bell was rung, presumably from the Clock Tower, and the king’s men ‘got to harness’ and attempted to drive the Yorkists back. A fierce fight ensued. The dead and wounded lay on all sides. For a time the issue seemed doubtful, but at length the king’s troops took to flight, fleeing hither and thither, and sheltering in the gardens and thickets outside the town. The king himself took shelter in a little house in the town, and lay there till he was found by the duke, who took him to the abbey, and after he had rested escorted him to London. The corpses were left lying in the streets till the abbot prevailed upon the duke to have them decently interred.
A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908
Whilst the intention at this stage was not the removal of Henry VI from the throne, it acted as a stimulus for bad feeling and a desire for revenge which would lead to the outbreak of regime changing warfare.
Parliament absolves the Yorkists of blame for the First Battle of St. Albans
The Yorkist victory at St. Albans transformed the balance of power within the Court, Council and Parliament. This was reflected in the opening addresses of the July 1455 Parliament. Here, the crown acknowledged the Yorkist faction as being faithful lieges whilst also condemning the late Duke of Somerset amongst others for advancing their own interests. The text is intriguing, showing how complete the transformation in fortunes was at this time. It was accompanied by appointment to hear petitions of a predominantly Yorkist group and the exclusion of those affiliated with the defeated faction led by Somerset and Queen Margaret.
18 July 1455: Parliament absolves the Yorkists of any blame for the 1st Battle of St. Albans.
“…Lord the King, with the advice and assent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons of his kingdom of England being in the present Parliament, and also by authority of the same Parliament, declared his beloved kinsmen Richard Duke of York, Richard, Earl of Warwick, and Richard, Earl of Salisbury, to be his faithful lieges, in the manner and form presented in a certain schedule in the said Parliament…
… Edmund, late duke of Somerset, Thomas Thorpe and William Joseph, intending, as it is supposed, the hurt and destruction of our true, most trusty and well-beloved cousins Richard Duke of York, Richard, Earl of Warwick, and Richard, Earl of Salisbury, and their heirs, prompted and solicited us by various means to mistrust our said cousins, and to estrange them from our favour and good grace, declaring them not to be our true liegemen, and therefore provoked and incited us to proceed with a great force of people on pretence of our own interest, but in fact to advance their own interests and quarrels”.
Parliamentary Roll of Medieval England, July 1455.
Contemporary Documentation on the size of the two armies at the First Battle of St. Albans
The Paston Letters, Volume III (of 6), Edited by James Gairdner contains an entry sourced from MS. Phillipps, 9735 that provides a contemporary account of the numbers at St. Albans. As with many estimates of arrayed men in battles from this period, the numbers need to be treated with caution.
THE solecytouriz and causerys of the feld takyng at Seynt Albonys, ther namys shewyn her aftyr:—
The Lord Clyfford.
Tresham and Josep.
The inony [enemy’s] batayle was in the Market-place, and the Kynges standard was pight, the Kynge beynge present with these Lordes, whos namys folwe:—
The Duke of Bokyngham.
The Duke Somyrcete.
The Erle Devynshire.
The Erle of Northeombirlond.
The Erle Stafford.
The Erle Dorcete.
The Lord Clyfford.
The Lord Ros.
With many Knyghtes and Squyeriz, to the noumbre in alle that faught that day iijml. , and it was done on Thursday last past atwyx xj. and xij. at mydday.
The namys of the Lordes that were on the othir party shewyn here aftyr:—
The Duke of York.
The Erle of Salysbury.
The Erle of Warwyk.
The Lord Clynton.
Sir Robert Ocle.
With many otheriz, to the noumbre of vml.  men.
And Sir Rober Ocle tok vjc.  men of the Marchis, and tok the Market-place or ony man was war; than the larum belle was ronge, and every man yed to harneys, for at that tyme every man was out of ther aray, and they joynid batayle anon; and it was done with inne di. [i.e. one half] houre, and there were slayn the men, whos namys folwyn:—
The Duke Somyrcete.
The Erle Northombirlond.
The Lord Clyfford.
The Lord Clynton.
Sir Bartyn at Wessyll.
Babthorpe and hese sone.
Cotton, Receyvour of the Duchye.
Gryphet, Ussher of Hall.
John Raulyns. Asple.
Harpour, Yoman of the Croune.
With many othir men, to the noumbre of iiijc , and as many or mo hurt. The Kynge was hurt with an harwe in the necke. The Duke of Bukkyngham hurt, and fled in to the Abbey. The Erle Devynshire hurt. The Erle Stafford and Dorcetyr gretly hurt. Fylongley faught manly, and was shet thorwe the armys in iij. or iiij. placys.
The Duke of Norfolke come a day aftyr the jurney was done with vjmll.  men.
And the Erle of Oxinford also.
The Erle of Shrewysbury,
And Sir Thomas Stanley,
with xmll. [10,000] men were comynge.
The Kynge with all the Lordes come to London to Westmenstyr on Fryday, at vj. of clocke at aftyr none, and London went a generalle processyon the same day.
[From MS. Phillipps, 9735, No. 278.]
Content related to the First Battle of St. Albans
The Second Battle of St. Albans. Fought in and around St. Albans in 1461.
First Battle of St. Albans: References
“An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II., Henry IV., Henry V., and Henry VI” Ed. Rev John Silvester Davies. London: Camden Society, 1838-1901. 70-72, Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/anenglishchronic00camduoft/page/70/mode/2up
“A Short English Chronicle: London under Henry VI (1422-71).” Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles with Historical Memoranda by John Stowe. Ed. James Gairdner. London: Camden Society, 1880. 58-78. British History Online. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/camden-record-soc/vol28/pp58-78.
‘The city of St Albans: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 469-477. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp469-477
The Battle of St. Albans. The Paston Letters, Volume III of VI. ed James Gairdner. New Complete Library Edition. The Project Gutenberg eBook. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41024/41024-h/41024-h.htm#tag29_1