We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Lancastrians (act. 1455–1461) were the adherents of the branch of the Plantagenet family descended from John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and in particular those who supported Henry VI and his son Edward during the Wars of the Roses. They are often identified by Henry's emblem of a red rose. ‘Lancaster’ and ‘York’ were terms used in the sixteenth century to refer respectively to Henry VI and his supplanter, Edward IV. But the expression ‘Lancastrians’ was not commonly used to describe Henry's party in the dynastic conflict until the early nineteenth century.

Origins

The loyalty of certain English nobles and gentry, even bishops, to Henry VI was tested during the early 1450s when his cousin, Richard, third duke of York, and his allies criticized the king's counsellors and policies for public and personal reasons. They denounced the management of the French war and the loss of Normandy (1449–50), the power that first William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk, and then Edmund Beaufort, second duke of Somerset, enjoyed at court and in the provinces and Wales, and the way in which York, Richard Neville, fifth earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury's son, Richard Neville, sixteenth earl of Warwick, were sidelined in government and as recipients of royal favour. In March 1454 York became protector of the realm during Henry VI's insanity and Somerset was arrested, but York's and his supporters' power was circumscribed by the birth of Prince Edward (which ended York's claim to be Henry's heir presumptive), the assertive role of Queen Margaret, and the king's recovery at Christmas 1454, followed by Somerset's reappearance as Henry's chief adviser and the release from prison of Henry Holland, second duke of Exeter, the king's young kinsman who had opposed York's protectorate.

In 1455 such tensions among the nobility intensified, and York, Salisbury, and Warwick concluded that they must either submit to the king's regime or take decisive action against it. Early on 22 May they and their Yorkshire retainers confronted the king's retinue at St Albans, as it made its way from London, accompanied by a substantial body of nobles, for a great council meeting at Leicester. Attempts at mediation between the two parties, especially by Humphrey Stafford, first duke of Buckingham, failed, and later that day fighting broke out. Somerset and his men were cornered in the streets of the town, and the duke was slain, while his eldest son Henry Beaufort, hereafter third duke of Somerset, was seriously injured; also killed were Thomas Clifford, eighth Baron Clifford, and Henry Percy, second earl of Northumberland, while the king was wounded in the neck. In all between 60 and 100 men were killed, most of them servants of the king's household or of the duchy of Lancaster, and blame for the battle was conveniently attributed to Thomas Thorpe, an exchequer official against whom York had a grudge, and William Joseph of the royal household who, with the dead Somerset, were accused of hindering the pre-battle negotiations; with some justice, later writers called these men ‘Lancastrians’.

Nevertheless, at this juncture bishops, nobles, and retainers overwhelmingly acknowledged Henry VI as rightful king. There was no question of deposing him, and York and his small group of allies (the ‘Yorkists’) pledged their loyalty on their knees. There was no stomach for further military action, though the heirs of the dead longed for revenge. The bulk of the nobility, some of whom (such as John de Vere, twelfth earl of Oxford, John Talbot, second earl of Shrewsbury, and Ralph Cromwell, Baron Cromwell) arrived in St Albans after the action was over, had little option but to acquiesce in York's coup d'état: the duke and the Nevilles controlled the king and government and their leading enemies were dead. Few are likely to have sympathized with York. Parliament, which met on 9 July, aimed for ‘parfite love and rest’: on 24 July all attendant lords, whatever their feelings about events at St Albans, swore loyalty to Henry VI who issued a general pardon, and in November York once more became protector of the realm until February 1456.

The emergence of a ‘Lancastrian’ party

The battle of St Albans did not begin a civil war for the English crown, but in the world of national politics it embittered rivalries and created a continuously unstable situation. The following five and a half years saw growing antagonism towards the king's regime, which responded by consolidating its support into an identifiable ‘Lancastrian’ party. The ultimate outcome was that Henry VI was dethroned and his son disinherited (though neither was yet captured or killed), prominent subjects disowned them, and their supporters were made fugitives.

Such a situation was slow to develop. Up to 1461 most bishops, nobles, and gentry were still loyal to Henry VI and Prince Edward, if with varying degrees of enthusiasm; so were members of the royal households and local and central government officials. This loyalty was reflected in formal oaths sworn to the king and his son in parliament in 1455 and 1459. Oath swearing might have come easily even to the king's critics, and some swore at the Coventry parliament of 1459 who took an oath to Edward IV in 1461. None the less, it has been estimated that of about 70 available nobles, 56 were in arms in 1459–61 (80 per cent), at least 33 of them (almost 60 per cent) for King Henry. In January–February 1461 an aide-mémoire prepared perhaps for the opening of parliament listed no more than 18 Yorkist lords (and 3 bishops) and, at best, 13 newtri or neutrals (and 3 further bishops), which left substantial numbers still considered loyal to Henry VI. Even at Edward IV's decisive victory at Towton (29 March 1461) nobles on the king's side outnumbered Yorkists (though senior nobles were more evenly matched)—which explains why this battle was hard-fought.

No doubt some nobles were disillusioned by the French war or the king's capacity for government. A few, like Ralph (III) Greystoke, fifth Baron Greystoke [see under Greystoke family], and Henry Fitzhugh, Baron Fitzhugh (c.1429–1472), vacillated when circumstances became dangerous, but although there was a widespread reluctance to resort to arms, when it came to fighting in 1459–61, no more than half a dozen nobles (among them the earl of Oxford) absented themselves. John Sutton, first Baron Dudley, took no part after he was wounded at Blore Heath. But the only others who avoided battle were either elderly, incapable, or—like John Tiptoft, first earl of Worcester, who was studying in Italy—unavailable. In the end both Fitzhugh and Greystoke took the field for the king, and others were more wholeheartedly prepared to risk their lives for Henry VI during 1459–61, when a number of lords, and many of their retainers, were killed.

Aside from loyalty to the anointed king, several factors tied nobles and others to the regime, and so helped to create a Lancastrian party: upbringing with or closeness to Henry VI, marriage within families of similar political attitudes, personal relationships and enmities often forged locally (for instance the Percys and Nevilles in the north), royal patronage of office and reward, and expectation of political advancement, even a peerage. Allegiances were also often strengthened, as the conflict intensified, by the way it took on the aspect of a series of vendettas, in which sons and kinsmen sought revenge, sometimes for ancient injuries. Thus Sir Humphrey Neville, a representative of the senior line of Nevilles, seems to have followed the king in the hope of settling scores with the junior line represented by Salisbury and Warwick. Similar divisions within the Mountford family of Warwickshire resulted in Sir Edmund Mountford [see under Mountford family] following the duke of Buckingham while his half-brother Sir Baldwin Mountford rallied to the earl of Warwick.

Gentry retainers and servants formed the bulk of noble forces on both sides. Major recruiting grounds were in Yorkshire and the north, where York and the Nevilles as well as the duchy of Lancaster had large estates, and in Wales. Royal shires in north and west Wales responded to appeals from the king's officers, while tenants of marcher lordships supported their own lords, such as Buckingham and Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, on the king's side, and York and Warwick against them. Men who held royal office or enjoyed court connections—for instance Sir Thomas Tuddenham in Norfolk, or Sir Thomas Tyrell (c.1411–1476) [see under Tyrell family] in Essex—at this stage inevitably tended to support King Henry.

Edging towards civil war

After 1455 fighting was slow to recur. Efforts were made to shore up loyalty to King Henry among spiritual and lay lords, especially in the midlands, where the court frequently resided. Loyalists headed commissions issued in July 1457 for the king's protection: Buckingham, Shrewsbury, John Beaumont, Viscount Beaumont, Edmund Grey, fourth Baron Grey of Ruthin, and Leo Welles, sixth Baron Welles. Several noble marriages in 1457–8 strengthened the court's links with, inter alia, Thomas Courtenay [see under Courtenay, Thomas, thirteenth earl of Devon], the young fourteenth earl of Devon, the earl of Shrewsbury's son, another John Talbot, and Edmund Grey. Attitudes were hardening, to judge from the writer of Stere Welle the Good Shype (1458), which commended seventeen nobles who were assisting the king in directing the ship of state; led by Henry VI's kinsmen (Exeter, the young duke of Somerset, and the king's ‘courteous and fierce’ half-brother, Pembroke), they also included Buckingham, Shrewsbury and his brother-in-law, James Butler, first earl of Wiltshire and fifth earl of Ormond (and treasurer of England), Henry Percy, third earl of Northumberland, and several north-country lords, all known defenders of the king.

Henry himself may have inspired the loveday of March 1458 that sought to reconcile York and his allies with those nobles whose fathers had died at St Albans—Somerset, Northumberland, and John Clifford, ninth Baron Clifford. But such efforts were forlorn when the temper of the king's court, led by Queen Margaret, was increasingly, and openly, partisan. In May 1459 it again moved to the midlands, where at Coventry charges were laid against York, Salisbury, and Warwick, who planned another armed challenge to the king and his entourage. Salisbury's force from Yorkshire was intercepted at Blore Heath (Staffordshire) on 23 September 1459. The cautious Thomas Stanley, second Baron Stanley, though expected to intervene on the king's side, stayed 6 miles off; the royal commander, James Tuchet, fifth Baron Audley (1398–1459), was slain, while Lord Dudley was wounded, in an inconclusive engagement that hardened resentments on both sides. Salisbury proceeded to Ludlow, while the royal army, augmented by the king and queen, pursued him.

On 12 October 1459 a further showdown took place at Ludford Bridge, just south of Ludlow. King Henry offered pardon to the Yorkists, whose reluctance to face him under arms exposed their weakness. Some of York's marcher retainers were absent, and others defected to the king; so did Warwick's force from Calais under the command of Andrew Trollope. York and his allies were routed with scarcely a shot fired, the duke fleeing to Wales and then Ireland, his eldest son Edward with the Nevilles to Calais; their leaderless forces surrendered. The king and queen and their supporters now resolved to assert their power and destroy that of York and the Nevilles. The Coventry parliament (November–December 1459) was royalist and partisan and dismissed an accommodation between the regime and the insurgents. The Yorkist lords and their lieutenants were proscribed for their actions at St Albans, Blore Heath, and Ludford Bridge, through a bill of attainder—the work of Thomas Thorpe, Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue, and John Morton, the prince's chancellor—that served as the prelude to active campaigning directed by the queen. The rest of the nobility and bishops who were present at what was later called the ‘parliament of devils’ swore allegiance on 11 December to Henry VI and acknowledged Prince Edward as his heir. It seemed a triumph for the king's regime, although some doubtless swore with a heavy heart, and in any case the leading traitors were at liberty, York safely in Ireland, the others more vulnerable in Calais.

In 1459–60 younger, vengeful royalists—notably Somerset and John Tuchet, sixth Baron Audley (d. 1490)—along with the stalwart royalist Thomas Ros, ninth Baron Ros (who was Somerset's half-brother), attacked Calais in November 1459, while in January 1460 York's eldest son, Edward, earl of March, and the Nevilles responded by attacking the remainder of the king's forces under Richard Woodville, first Baron Rivers, and his son at Sandwich. The assault on Calais failed: Somerset fled to Guînes and Ros to Flanders; Audley was captured and joined the Yorkists. At Guînes Somerset and Andrew Trollope's men were defeated at Newnham Bridge and could not prevent March and Warwick returning to England in June 1460. The volatility of opinion in London is indicated by the fate of the lords in charge of the Tower: Thomas Scales, seventh Baron Scales, was murdered by a mob on 25 July when he tried to escape a Yorkist siege, while Robert Hungerford, Baron Moleyns and third Baron Hungerford, and Henry Bromflete, Baron Vescy (d. 1469), were captured. These months saw the fracturing of the king's party; the news that Henry himself had been seized by the Yorkists made war unavoidable.

Earlier that month the battle of Northampton, fought on 10 July 1460, had been a turning point, since it enabled the Yorkist lords (in the absence of York himself) to achieve their long-term objective, namely, to dominate the king. Henry VI's advisers had rejected a parley before the fighting began, and the king was captured in his tent. According to one chronicler the Yorkists had proclaimed that no one should lay hands on the king or common people, but only on lords, knights, and squires. Not surprisingly, therefore, the death toll on Henry's side was the higher: Buckingham, Shrewsbury, Beaumont, and Northumberland's turbulent son, Thomas Percy, Baron Egremont, all fell; others fled or were drowned in the River Nene, including Welsh retainers of Buckingham and Shrewsbury. In the panic following the king's capture both Grey of Ruthin and Dudley deserted, perhaps the first noble desertions from the king's party since 1455. The victors had no need to depose the king and instead escorted him to London and purged his household and advisers. But the bloodshed at Northampton and the king's capture by attainted rebels completed the rift between the Yorkists and the royalists led by Queen Margaret and Prince Edward, and the parliament that was summoned to legitimize the new regime was shunned by a number of Henry's nobles.

Lancastrian apogee and nadir

York realized that he was at a crossroads. He returned from Ireland early in September and on reaching Westminster on 10 October claimed the throne by virtue of superior descent from Edward III. The nobles, the king's law officers, and parliament all demurred, and on 31 October York accepted a compromise with the king, whereby the duke rather than Prince Edward should succeed to the throne after Henry VI's death. This outcome of successful rebellion enabled those who continued to champion Henry's and his son's rights to be stigmatized as rebels. However, in the months that followed, Queen Margaret with the prince rallied support in Wales, Scotland, and northern England to challenge the Yorkist settlement and free the king from his captors.

They were much heartened by news that York and Salisbury had been ambushed and killed at Wakefield on 30 December 1460. The queen's forces were led by Henry VI's most committed supporters, along with several powerful north-country landowners: Somerset, Devon, Northumberland, Clifford, Greystoke, and Ros, as well as the earl of Westmorland's brother, John Neville, Baron Neville (c.1410–1461), the turncoat Andrew Trollope, and northern knights like Sir William Plumpton. The fact that many of them were bent on revenge made the encounter merciless as well as decisive: the head of the duke of York was afterwards placed over York city gate, and Clifford was reportedly dubbed ‘the butcher’ for exploits that included killing the duke's second son, Edmund, earl of Rutland.

The way was open for Queen Margaret and her northern forces to march south and join with Pembroke, who had been recruiting in west Wales, and Wiltshire, who brought men from the continent and perhaps Ireland. The aim was to destroy ‘Yorkism’ and recover the king. The advantage seemed to rest with the queen and her supporters, not least because York's heir, Edward, was an untried youth of eighteen who was in the Welsh borderland: however, the different outcomes of the two battles in February 1461 simply lengthened the conflict.

At Mortimer's Cross (Herefordshire) on 3 February 1461, the western army under Pembroke and Wiltshire, both staunch royalists since before St Albans, was defeated by Edward, leading a force of retainers from his father's former lordships. This victory kept his cause alive, for, two weeks later, after an advance force from the queen's army, led by Exeter, Shrewsbury, and lords Fitzhugh, Greystoke, Welles (with his son Richard), and Willoughby, together with Henry Grey, seventh Baron Grey of Codnor (c.1435–1496), had won a skirmish at Dunstable on 16 February, a large Yorkist army commanded by Warwick was roundly defeated next day by the royalists at St Albans, and Henry VI was recovered by his adherents. He had played no part in the fighting and may have been paraded by his captors to deter those who were fighting for him. Again, uncompromising royalists led the retinues and household men: Exeter, Somerset, Northumberland, Devon, lords Neville and Ros, all of whom had been at Wakefield. Henry VI was reunited with his wife and son, whom he promptly blessed and knighted. But the news from Mortimer's Cross and accusations that Henry VI had broken the accord of October 1460 made the queen hesitate to advance on a hostile London, so that March was able to slip past the royalists and declare himself king on 4 March.

There were now two kings in England. Henry VI, his wife and son retired to York to await the inevitable battle with Edward IV's army. It took place at Towton on 29 March 1461, and to judge by the number of lords present on Henry's side (at least eighteen) there had been no significant loss of support. Clifford had been killed the previous day at Ferrybridge on the River Aire, but Exeter, Somerset, Northumberland, Devon, Wiltshire, John Talbot, third earl of Shrewsbury (1448–1473), William Beaumont, second Viscount Beaumont (1438–1507), whose father had been killed at Northampton, lords Hungerford, Neville, Rivers, Ros, Welles, and Willoughby, as well as Ranulf Dacre, Baron Dacre of Gilsland, and Thomas Grey, Baron Richemount-Grey, and Yorkshire gentry like Sir William Plumpton, turned out for the king. The battle, fought in a snowstorm, resulted in a bloodletting that poisoned political life and irretrievably crippled the Lancastrian party: Northumberland, Neville, Welles, Dacre, and Sir Andrew Trollope (knighted after St Albans by Prince Edward) were among those slain, while Devon, Wiltshire, and Richemount-Grey were executed afterwards; many on the king's side were drowned in the River Wharfe. Henceforward Henry VI's following was a faction driven to operating in northern England, Scotland, Wales, and France.

The parliament that met in November 1461 was as partisan for the Yorkists as that at Coventry in 1459 had been for Henry VI: it stigmatized Henry as a usurper and condemned his surviving adherents (most notably Exeter, Somerset, Pembroke, Hungerford, and Ros) as an outlawed faction. By this time they constituted only a surviving Lancastrian rump. Hapless bishops who had been particularly close to Henry's and Margaret's court—like Laurence Booth of Durham—were allowed to submit. The cause of Lancaster seemed hopeless, and, indeed, it was only a series of splits within the ranks of York that subsequently enabled it to survive.

R. A. Griffiths

Sources  

C. A. J. Armstrong, ‘Politics and the battle of St Albans, 1455’, BIHR, 33 (1960), 1–72 · T. B. Pugh, ‘The magnates, knights and gentry’, Fifteenth-century England, 1399–1509, ed. S. B. Chrimes, C. D. Ross, and R. A. Griffiths, 2nd edn (1995), chap. 5 · J. R. Lander, Crown and nobility, 1450–1509 (1976) · C. F. Richmond, ‘The nobility and the Wars of the Roses, 1459–61’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 21 (1977), 71–86 · C. F. Richmond, ‘The nobility and the Wars of the Roses: the parliamentary session of January 1461’, Parliamentary History, 18/3 (1999), 261–9 · R. A. Griffiths, The reign of King Henry VI, 2nd edn (1998) · B. P. Wolffe, Henry VI, 2nd edn (2001) · J. Watts, Henry VI and the politics of kingship (1996) · A. E. Goodman, The Wars of the Roses: the soldiers' experience (2005)