In honour of the anniversary of this important battle in the Wars of the Roses, I’m posting my take on it as portrayed in an excerpt from The Last Shroud, book 4 of my Rebels and Brothers series. This is more or less how I interpret the history of the battle but it is fiction and I have taken a few liberties here and there. I think Gloucester commanded the left flank though it’s often said that it was the right. As you will see, it makes quite a difference! Needless to say our hero, Ned Elder, plays a signifcant part in how the battle unfolds…
It looked like dawn, for there was light in the heavens, but God had shrouded the field in grey. Ned could barely see a dozen yards in the gloomy mist. Warwick’s cannon had fired all night and now every man’s face was grimed with powder smoke. Men coughed and spat as they prepared themselves for battle. Even the Duke of Gloucester’s resplendent armour was besmirched. Yet the youth exuded only confidence, as Ned had been warned.
Ned took care to move his men between Gloucester and the king. There he was well placed to go to the aid of either. He also made sure that their mounts, though at the rear, could be brought up swiftly. The mist worried him. If Gloucester was pressed back then he would need to be ready either to support him or aid his retreat. It was difficult enough to do so in the brutal heat of any battle, let alone when no-one could see more than a few yards. King Edward could fall and Ned would not even know it, Gloucester would not know it, nor Hastings commanding on the far right flank. To fight any battle was dangerous; to fight one like this was madness.
He sought out Gloucester to reassure him of his support, though given his previous dealings with the duke, he did not expect a cordial reception.
“I bring two hundred horsemen to your battle, your grace,” said Ned.
“So my brother told me,” replied Gloucester. “Horsed are you? Well, I shall be afoot – fighting with my men – as a good commander does.”
“Your grace,” replied Ned, “when battle begins I shall be on foot with my men too – the mounts will be ready though, when we need them.”
“What, for flight perhaps?” suggested the duke.
Ned bit back his anger. “For the rout, of course, your grace…”
“All I ask is that you keep out of my way,” said Gloucester. “I don’t want your clumsy men at arms causing confusion in my lines.”
“If I find confusion, your grace,” said Ned icily, “then I’ll attempt to bring order…”
He was relieved when further discussion was cut short by a sudden blast as Warwick’s bombards started belching fire once more and this time the king’s gunners replied in kind.
“Ready archers!” shouted Gloucester, though Ned wondered how many heard the duke’s voice above the deafening cannons.
After a long exchange of shot, there was an uneasy silence. Then arrows seared out of the mist at them to strike or pass overhead as God decreed. Since no man on the field could see their enemies, they could not possibly be aiming at them.
A cry of “Loose, loose!” went out from Gloucester and other captains echoed the command along the lines. The arrow duel was short-lived though for, as both sides had to concede, their arrows might be peppering a barn for all that they could see.
The duke gave a shout for those around him, a cluster of heavily armed knights, to advance and Ned had to admire the way they moved with him, like a well-fitting harness of armour. Cries broke out for King Edward, for Duke Richard, and for the white boar – his badge. Others proclaimed their lords’ names as Ned’s men roared: “An Elder! An Elder!”
The whole battle shifted forward one pace at a time – even young Gloucester, it seemed, would not charge headlong when he could see barely a few yards in front of him. Through the dense fog came the rallying cries of their opponents, close by – damned close by. Ned held his men to the duke’s rear and waited for the shuddering impact of Gloucester’s assault on the opposing line, but it did not come, which troubled him. Surely the Lancastrians must only be yards away by now. Then out of the mist to their left a horde of men tore into Gloucester’s flank. The duke himself, in the vanguard, was so far forward he was unaware of the catastrophe unfolding on his flank.
Cries of: “An Oxford! An Oxford!” filled the morning air as Gloucester’s men at arms were pressed back and driven sideways upon their hapless comrades. Before Ned could respond, the entire left wing was swept away before the men advancing with the star banner of the Earl of Oxford. Gloucester’s men at arms fell back, broken and bleeding before the onslaught.
“God’s blood! Where is he?” declared Ned, seeking out Gloucester’s banners in the fog.
Gloucester could not be very far ahead but Ned must defend the flank or the king’s centre battle would be exposed to Oxford’s attack. Ahead he glimpsed dim shapes writhing in the mist and caught sight at last of Gloucester’s white boar and royal banners. They were retreating towards him.
He rallied his own men and prepared to meet Oxford’s men on the flank. Bear ghosted out of the mist to stand at his shoulder. There was a raucous cheer from Oxford’s ranks and Ned glanced around, gripped by sudden fear when he could not see Gloucester himself in the cluster of men retreating towards him.
“Where’s he’s gone, Bear? Where in the name of Christ has he gone?” He hurled the words through his visor. So much for keeping an eye on the king’s little brother, he thought.
When Gloucester’s men reached him he must somehow part his lines to let them through without giving Oxford an opening. Gloucester’s billmen and men at arms were almost there when they suddenly broke and ran, bursting though Ned’s ranks.
“We’re lost,” they cried, “The duke’s dead! Flee for your lives!”
“Hold!” bellowed Ned at the fleeing men, but to no avail. Their panic shuddered along his lines and gave Oxford’s advance renewed vigour. He peered in vain through his visor for a glimpse of Gloucester’s armour or pennants, but all those coming at him now wore Oxford’s badges.
He stood ready with a pollaxe in one hand and a mace in the other and he roared at the men around him to stand firm. Then he caught another glimpse of the duke. He was in the midst of his household knights – the most loyal and determined of his retinue.
“There!” Ned stabbed a finger at them. But he soon saw that the retreating group was isolated and being attacked from all sides by Oxford’s men.
“An Elder!” cried Ned and surged forward towards the duke.
His shout was taken up by Bear beside him and a host of others nearby. But they would have to cut their way through Oxford’s men at arms to get there. A spiked mace struck Ned’s chest a glancing blow and rocked him back onto his heels. With breath-taking suddenness, he was in a melee – a tortuous, shifting melee of men, thrusting and hacking with steel upon steel. The noise was terrifying, the cries bitter.
In one instinctive, angry swing he took off the offending arm of his assailant with the axe and fell upon him with the mace. He abandoned finesse and delivered several ringing blows to the man’s head. An axe blade swung at him out of the mist and he ducked, ramming the spike of his pollaxe under the shoulder joint of his new opponent. The man cried out and melted away into the mist. It was like that: weapons flailed at him for an instant only to disappear at once; sharp sounds quickly became muffled and distant.
He had a sense that the line was somehow out of kilter, but he had no idea why. All he knew was that the left flank was being heavily mauled. Men were falling all around him – some cut down from behind as they fled. Oxford’s men trampled over them in their haste to crush the lingering resistance.
A tangle of brawling soldiers appeared like wraiths only a few yards ahead. In the centre of the heaving mass of men and steel, Ned saw the duke again. He was in the press of the fighting with enemies all around thrusting in their bills and pikes. Gloucester’s personal knights defended their duke with savage courage but they were falling, one by one, even as Ned pressed forward towards them. He saw the duke fall and cursed aloud. For all their valour his body guards had fought themselves to a standstill and were being slowly battered to death. Despite Ned’s efforts, the king’s brother had fallen and the army of York was disintegrating around him.
Ned watched, appalled, as Gloucester’s diminishing group was consumed once more by the swirling fog. The king’s brother was about to die and he knew he could not allow that to happen. Yet he was torn, for Oxford’s men were still pressing them back. If Ned’s men gave ground the whole Yorkist host might be rolled back upon itself.
“Croft!” he roared above the clamour. “Hold this line – no matter what!”
Then he punched Bear on the shoulder to get his attention. “Bring a dozen men!” he bellowed and broke out of the line heading for the beleaguered duke.
It was an act of folly and he knew it for the two sides were already becoming enmeshed and confused. He picked up his feet and tried to move faster; not easy in his armour. He thanked God that the mist that blinded them was at least a cooling mist. Bear crashed forward to join him followed by the dozen or so he requested.
“Look to your colours and badges!” he warned them. Some hope, he thought grimly, when a man was difficult enough to see – let alone his badges. Men screamed behind him and he prayed it was not Croft’s men in such distress.
Bear carved a swathe through Oxford’s ranks and many more sheered away just at the sight of him. Ned and the others followed in his bloody wake. Soon the duke’s escort was only a few yards away and the wall of enemies around them was breached.
“Your grace!” Ned cried. “Fall back towards us!”
Richard of Gloucester, nursing a wound, darted a glance at him – and nodded. Ned’s men hurried forward to swell the ranks of Gloucester’s sore-pressed men at arms.
“Are you hurt?” asked Ned.
“A small wound!” retorted Gloucester, indicating the buckled armour on his leg. “I can still fight, my lord!”
“Aye, your grace, but your flank has been gutted by Oxford’s men – we must reform our lines!”
“Very well!” agreed Gloucester testily. “If we must, then we shall!”
Together, Ned and the duke made a slow retreat and a score of yards brought them back to Croft and the remnant of Gloucester’s wing of the army.
Ned sensed at once that somehow the pressure on the line had eased.
“What’s happened, Croft?” he demanded.
Croft laughed. “The stupid bastards charged past us – after those who were fleeing. I reckon Oxford’s men must be off into Barnet now!”
Ned clapped him on the shoulder “Well fought, Croft! Well fought!”
Then he realised that he had no idea what was happening elsewhere on the field. Oxford’s confusion was only a slight reprieve for the Lancastrian centre would discover soon enough – if they had not already – that there was little stopping them from outflanking King Edward’s main force.
“See if you can get to the king, Croft. Tell him what’s happened and ask him to send us some of his reserves.”
Croft was gone at once into the mist, dragging a couple more men at arms with him.
Gloucester was taken to the rear for his wound to be tended and Ned knew that it was up to him now.
“Bear,” he said, “put all the archers on our left flank and some behind us in case Oxford rallies his men and they attack our rear.”
Bear nodded. Then Ned reformed his battle line and began to move forward again. He dare not delay in case the other commanders were also hard pressed. But he had only advanced a few yards when he stopped as a host of men at arms appeared through the mist ahead of them. He was about to launch an assault upon the newcomers when shouts of “An Elder, an Elder!” echoed across the field. It was Croft, returning with scores of men, but how could they be coming from ahead of him?
“Croft?” he demanded. “What in God’s name are you doing there?”
“The whole battle line has somehow swung around, my lord,” replied Croft, breathless. “The king is hard pressed but Lord Hastings has fared better I think on the far flank.”
Ned struggled to make sense of their position but in the end just nodded and urged his men forward once more. Strengthened by the reserves, they hurried across the ridge where the Lancastrian line had once been. As had been the case all morning, figures came at them suddenly, breaking out of the mist, and probably just as surprised as they were, Ned reflected. Further reflection ended with the crash of a bill against his shoulder and battle was joined once more: bone-cracking, limb-aching battle.
Some took up his battle cry but he soon lacked the breath to utter the words himself as he sucked in lungfuls of the choking mist. Men wheezed as they fought, their movement gradually slowing as weariness told hold and mistakes were made… fatal mistakes. There was no time for thought, no space to rest one’s arms, no respite from the crushing, soul-rending carnage.
He saw some of the banners against him now and recognised with sadness those of an old comrade, John Neville, Lord Montagu – Warwick’s own brother. By God, Montagu was a fearsome warrior to have against you. Ned felt rather than knew that they were still heavily outnumbered for the press of the enemy seemed to gain strength even as their own waned. Oxford may have left the field but his opening manoeuvre had taken more than enough toll on the Yorkist army.
An archer caught his arm and Ned almost took his head off but stopped mid-strike as he saw the dirty blue badge of the Elders.
“Lord!” the man shouted. “There are men coming up behind us!”
“Whose men?” demanded Ned. “They could be our reserve – the field is muddled!”
“Star banners again, my lord!”
“God’s blood! It’s Oxford, come to finish us off.”
They were already buckling under the weight of Montagu’s attack. If Oxford struck at their rear or left flank he would annihilate them. Now they really were lost.
“Take your comrades to the horses and hold there,” he ordered the archer, then cried: “Archers to the rear!”
He wanted to warn his two captains, Croft and Bear, but had no chance of reaching them in time. All they could do when Oxford struck was to try to withdraw in good order… he must save as many as he could. It was St Albans all over again.
There was a roar from his left as the Earl of Oxford’s men attacked. Any moment now they would join with Montagu’s men. Then a strange thing happened: Montagu’s men broke off from the line and turned to face Oxford, their ally. Ned could see Oxford’s banners even in the swirling mist, surely so could Montagu’s men. Perhaps they did, perhaps they were confused, like Ned himself. Whatever the reason, Montagu’s archers let fly into the midst of Oxford’s ranks and at once the air was filled with cries of “Treason!” and “Traitors!”
Ned looked on in astonishment as Oxford’s men fell back in disarray. The confusion caused Montagu’s men at arms to hesitate, so Ned pressed home the attack. His men took heart from what seemed like divine deliverance and advanced with more spirit. Montagu’s ranks took a brutal battering from Ned’s men, while the king in the Yorkist centre was also driving them backwards.
Ned never saw Montagu fall but he knew the moment it happened for the resistance of his men crumbled and they fled. Surprisingly quickly, the retreat became a rout.
“Call up the horses!” ordered Ned, impatient to seek out the Earl of Warwick.
The earl would have fought until there was no longer any hope but he would no doubt have had a horse ready – just in case.
As soon as their mounts were led up by the pages and a few of the archers, Ned set off in pursuit and discovered almost at once that, away from the field, the mist was much thinner and under the morning sun was beginning to disappear. Warwick’s army was in full flight and being pursued with great vigour by the time Ned’s horsemen caught up with them. His men, like all the rest, would be looking for trophies from the dead or soon to be dead: a sword, a dagger perhaps, or a finer bow than their own. Perhaps a few might tease out a purse or a ring, or pick up pieces of armour to be worn or sold.
Ned sought none of those things: he wanted the earl – the man who had sheltered his enemies and brought destruction down upon his family. No matter that he also tried to bring down King Edward – this was personal, a debt that must be paid once and for all.
He questioned some of the wounded Lancastrians and swiftly learned that the earl had fled north towards a swathe of woodland and that was where Ned went with as many of his men as Croft and Bear could cajole into following him.
They scoured the fringes of the woodland to no avail before Ned ordered them into the forest. They advanced in a long line on as broad a front as they could sustain. If the earl was there, Ned did not want to miss him. They searched until many of the men became restless. Ned could hardly blame them: they were exhausted and they wanted to gain the spoils which they believed were rightfully theirs. One by one they melted away, knowing they would have to face his wrath later – but that would be later…
When Ned actually found Warwick it was not as he expected. The earl had been tracked down by others and his personal retainers were attempting to defend his wounded body against a crowd that, from their livery, Ned knew to be Hastings’ men. He removed his helm and called them off but they were angry and resentful at his interference.
“This is the Earl of Warwick,” said Ned, “and the king has decreed that his life may be spared if he is taken.”
One or two of Hastings’ men knew Ned Elder of old and they drew their disgruntled comrades away.
Ned addressed Warwick, who lay against an oak, badly wounded.
“Tell your retainers to put down their arms and leave,” ordered Ned, “unless you wish them to be taken or killed too.”
Warwick removed his helm. “Ned Elder,” he said wearily. “The day gets better and better.”
But he motioned his men to yield and they did.
“Save yourselves,” he told them, “your oaths to me are fulfilled… Whatever you do now, I am a dead man… so go…”
The men still hesitated and Ned admired their show of reluctance.
“I will arrest as a traitor any man who stays,” said Ned. “Expect no clemency…”
Warwick’s men looked at each other for a brief moment and then hurried away into the woods.
“What now?” asked the earl. “I can tell you I’ll be dead within the hour, Ned.”
Ned dismounted and went to him. There was a broken spear protruding from his belly and blood seeped slowly out.
“When I reached the horses,” muttered the earl, “I thought I’d make it. One of them got me with a lucky thrust – though unlucky for me.”
“Do you want a priest?” asked Ned.
Warwick laughed. “They’ll be a little busy, I think, just now. Besides, I confessed my sins this morning and I’ve committed few since then. But… if it’s in your mind to grant me something, then you could swear to take an interest in the fate of my wife and daughters…”
“That’s easily enough done,” agreed Ned, “I would not wish harm upon them – as I did not wish harm upon my own…”
Warwick nodded. “I’m grateful for that… there’s one other request…”
“What?” asked Ned.
“Give me a quicker death than I’ll get if you leave me here to bleed.”
“You may live…” said Ned.
“We know different, Ned, don’t we? I’ll die – either here, or on the scaffold.”
“Why should I give you an easy death?” asked Ned.
“For the same reason that I would have done so for you.”
Ned gave him a nod and turned to Croft. “Take the men back to Barnet,” he said. “Bear, stay if you will.”
He knelt down beside the earl and drew out his dagger. Then he removed the gorget from around Warwick’s neck and tossed it aside.
“Italian armour, Ned,” murmured the earl, “worth a bit… When I’m ready, I’ll raise my-”
“Peace!” said Ned and plunged his dagger through Warwick’s throat. The earl’s body shook for moment and then lay still as his blood ran freely onto the grass. Ned looked at the corpse for a while, then stood up and faced Bear.
“Toss him onto his horse and bring him with us,” he said.
It is September 1459 and in England the rival forces of York and Lancaster prepare to compete for control of the kingdom. But against the savage backcloth of the Wars of the Roses, another relentless struggle begins. The Elder family are young, flawed and they make mistakes; yet they have courage. They will need every ounce of it if they are to survive…
For the first time this epic conflict is available as a boxed set of e-books allowing the reader to follow the whole compelling story in one edition.
‘It is impossible not to feel invested in the characters – they are flawed and damaged, but trying their best to survive and you find yourself willing them on.’ The Review