The Importance of the Battle of Edgecote

by JoHarrington

During the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV found it necessary to defend his crown against his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and the 'Kingmaker', Earl of Warwick.

The Battle of Edgecote is one of those clashes which many wish would just go away. Not least the three men in whose name it was fought.

Ultimately Clarence and Warwick won the battle, but could not win the war. All involved had to eventually attempt to kiss and make up, leaving lasting scars in the hierarchy of British aristocracy.

Edgecote looms large in Welsh history too. Until the First World War, it remained the site of the highest loss of Welsh lives on a single day. Survivors supported Henry Tudor out of revenge.

Today, planners of a high speed railway through England want to carve up the battlefield. They really wish it would go away.

The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

The Context to the Battle of Edgecote

Edward IV turned out not to be the puppet king that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had expected. So Warwick tried to replace him with his brother.

The first phase of the Wars of the Roses had put the Yorkist Edward IV on the throne of England and Wales. The previous monarch, Henry VI, was locked up in the Tower of London.

Peace finally reigned.

Behind all of these manoeuvrings was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Despite the title, and the fact that he lived at Warwick Castle, this was a man with property and holdings the length of England.

He could command troops from the North and the South-East, as well as those central areas. Moreover he had the tremendous wealth to back this up.

It had been the Earl of Warwick who taught the young Edward to fight. It had also been him who encouraged the teenage Edward to desire a crown. Without a doubt, it was the support of the Earl of Warwick who delivered the adult Edward to that throne.

From 1461 until 1469, it seemed that the violence of the Wars of the Roses was over. Edward's monarchy had brought an end to all of those clashes between Lancaster and York. But neither house was actually doing the ruling.

The Earl of Warwick, with his all encompassing influence over the king, was pulling the actual strings. For all intents and purposes (particularly in the earliest years), Richard Neville was the king. Except in matters of love.

Edward IV thwarted his mentor by secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville. This proved embarrassing to Warwick, as he'd already arranged a marriage between his king and a French princess.

Moreover, it turned out to be dangerous to Warwick's ambitions, as the Woodvilles began to fill every available position of power in the realm. They were not Warwick's people. He could not buy them off and they were usurping his place as the king's right hand man.

These niggles turned to actual insult, when Edward refused permission for his brother to marry Warwick's eldest daughter.

By now, Warwick had had enough. He was willing to support the brother - George, Duke of Clarence - over his prodigy Edward IV; and he was quite able to raise the country in war to demand yet another change of monarchy.

This was the political landscape in which the Battle of Edgecote could occur.

History Books about Warwick the Kingmaker

Discover for yourself the charm, wealth, shifting loyalties and political influence of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick.

The Banned Wedding of Clarence and Isabel Neville

Edward IV really did not see this coming until the very 11th hour. While he was writing friendly letters to Warwick and Clarence, they were already marching with their armies.

The wedding between George, Duke of Clarence, and Isabel Neville took place in Calais, on 11th July 1469.

The marriage was barely consummated before Clarence was sailing across the channel, to raise an army against his brother, Edward IV.  He landed in Kent alongside Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and now his father-in-law.

Warwick owned extensive lands in Kent. He was popular there, after he'd used his power and wealth to stem the onslaught of pirates along that coastline.

The Kentish men took up arms for Clarence.

Image: George, Duke of Clarence
Image: George, Duke of Clarence

Meanwhile, Edward IV was on a royal tour of England. He had reached the central region and was heading north. He had no idea that his mentor and brother had turned so completely against him.

However, he had heard rumors that the wedding was being planned against his express wishes.

Perhaps a little hypocritically, considering Edward's own love match, he had a diplomatic marriage in mind for Clarence. It's intriguing to ponder about whether Edward was also trying to erode Warwick's influence. A marriage between the Earl's eldest daughter and the King's brother was an ambition too far.

Edward responded to the rumors by sending letters to his brother, Warwick and George Neville, Archbishop of York. The latter was the cleric who officiated at the wedding. Edward warned them all, in the nicest of fond tones, to please return home. He wanted a little chat.

He was too late. The wedding had already happened, and the protagonists were already in England. The letters crossed them on the English Channel.

Image: Duke and Duchess of Clarence
Image: Duke and Duchess of Clarence

The Uprising of Robin of Redesdale

This is a name used now, but never heard again. Historians have suggested it as a pseudonym for many Northern aristocrats, but he still eludes us.

The first whisper of trouble for Edward IV came, not from the south, but from the north. And it was big.

Robin of Redesdale rose in Yorkshire and commanded vast numbers of troops. Nobody had ever heard of him. No-one that obscure could have been taken so seriously. A document seemed to sprout up simultaneously all over Britain bearing his name. It asked people to rebel against the king, and they did!

The uprising was undoubtedly orchestrated by the Earl of Warwick. Every Northern Neville commander joined in the fray, taking their armies to fight for Robin of Redesdale.

But the fact that it happened at the opposite end of the country should have wrong-footed the startled Edward IV.  It didn't quite work like that. The monarch had to reach and immediately react on some shocking conclusions, but he did it.

Edward IV realized that none of this could have happened, nor been so big, if Warwick wasn't involved. He knew his mentor's mind and tactics. He'd been taught by him, and fought alongside him throughout the Wars of the Roses.

Edward stopped dead near Nottingham and evaluated his options. He didn't know who he could trust in the North, East and South, so he turned West. He sent the Earls of Devon and Pembroke to raise the Celts.

The swiftness of their flight to Devon and Wales, then their return at the helm of thousands of men, is the stuff of legends.

Unfortunately, the legend quickly soured into something quite, quite terrible.

Book about the Wars of the Roses

The Battle of Edgecote July 26th 1469

The Welsh died in their thousands on that battlefield, all due to a disastrous misunderstanding.

It's a measure of how suddenly the Battle of Edgecote arose that the armies weren't yet properly formed. 

Neither Edward IV, Clarence nor Warwick were even present. Both York and the rebel forces were awaiting reinforcements. Yet thousands met in the carnage.

The encampments of the Earl of Devon and the Earl of Pembroke were some miles apart.  They had marched together, but the two leaders had quarreled. Some say that it was over accommodation, and others over the affections of a barmaid.

Either way, the Earl of Devon split the army up, leading his men somewhere else. That tantrum left the Welsh exposed and resulted in the capture of Edward IV. 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment it's enough to know that Edward IV was still riding hard to meet up with his armies from the west; and that the Earl of Warwick, with Clarence alongside him, had already marched several miles past them.

It was the army of Robin of Redesdale which first spotted the Welshmen under the Earl of Pembroke. During the night of July 25th, they camped just out of sight, ready to form in the morning for the attack.

Both sides had reinforcements which could have come. But, as the dawn rose on July 26th 1469, it was fundamentally a force headed by Robin of Redesdale, and just the Earl of Pembroke's Welshmen and men from the Marches, who stood face to face at Edgecote.

Image: Battle of Edgecote by Ramsey
Image: Battle of Edgecote by Ramsey

In many ways, this was a highly disproportionate battle. Those insurgents fighting under the banner of Robin of Redesdale were largely inexperienced, while those traveling from Wales with Pembroke were professional spears-men.

The problem lay in that last word. The Welsh had a reputation throughout Europe for their prowess on the battlefield, but only in archery. The formidable Welsh archers were mostly ten miles away in the camp of the Earl of Devon.

Nevertheless, for much of the battle it seemed that the Welsh would win on behalf of Edward IV. Especially when the man hailed as Robin of Redesdale was overwhelmed and killed. He turned out to be Sir James Conyers, son of one of Warwick's men in York.

However, just when Pembroke's forces were about to finish the day, the distinctive war-cry of the Earl of Warwick was heard in the distance. The Welsh reformed in a defensive position. The rebels surged forward, morale high and convinced that the famous and ferocious Warwick was coming.

He wasn't. It was a mere vanguard of a small troop, made up largely of Warwick's household. Had the Welsh ignored their cry, they would have won the day. Had they not returned to their defensive position, they would have won. Had the rebels hung on to check precisely who was coming, the Welsh would have won. Had the Earl of Devon caught up with his archers, the Welsh would have won.

In the event, the uncertainty meant that the Welsh were trapped in their defenses, with no archers to stem the tide of rebels approaching.  Between 2,000 and 5,000 Celts were killed within an hour. None fled, they fought to the bitter death.

And then the Earl of Devon arrived. But seeing the carnage, he immediately sounded the retreat. Thousands of men from Gloucester, Wiltshire and Devon, plus the Welsh archers, fled south and west for home.

Reenactment of the Battle of Edgecote

In 2010, reenactors got together to restage this battle. While the weaponry and armour are accurate, you'll have to imagine 1000s more people on that battlefield.

The Aftermath of the Battle of Edgecote

A clash of swords is one thing, but you also have to win the peace. Warwick discovered that he couldn't do that.

Without an effective army to pit against the rebels, Edward IV was easily hunted down and captured near Kenilworth.

He was taken to Warwick Castle, where he refused to abdicate in favor of his nineteen-year-old brother George, Duke of Clarence.

Meanwhile the Earl of Warwick's men found and executed the Earl of Pembroke and his brother. They also found Earl Rivers and his son John Woodville - the father and brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville - and executed them without trial. The latter happened at Warwick Castle, within sight of the helpless Edward IV.

For a couple of months there, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, nominally did run the country. But he was doing it in his own name, not on behalf of the king. For this reason, he suddenly found support amongst the aristocracy slipping away.

It also seemed that England wasn't ready for a third living king. Parliament would not give its consent to a coronation of the erstwhile King George.

They can hardly be blamed for this. The wounds from the War of the Roses were hardly healed, when another man's ambition had started it all again. Moreover, there were currently two monarchs - both crowned under God - as prisoners in the realm.  Henry VI was in the Tower of London and Edward IV was in Warwick Castle.

Allowing another man his coronation would not only make a mockery of the sanctity of kingship, but it would inevitably lead to more battles.

Warwick found himself suddenly very isolated politically. Nor could he find much sympathy amongst the monarchies abroad. The crowned heads of Europe saw Britain in disarray and an unwelcome precedent being set for their own positions.

First Warwick moved Edward to Middleham Castle, North Yorkshire, where the population could be trusted to support the rebellion. Then he merely gave up and fled the country, while giving orders for the release of the king.

Warwick might have won at the Battle of Edgecote, but he couldn't win it all.

Why was the Battle of Edgecote so Important?

In 2013, a planned high speed railway will potentially sever the battlefield in two. Supporters say this is fine, as Edgecote wasn't that important.

The Battle of Edgecote was a complete shock to Edward IV.  He wished it had never happened, because he couldn't quite believe that his brother and Warwick would rise against him.

When Warwick and Clarence's ambition failed, then they both would have given anything to reverse time. If they could have just erased that rebellion from history, then all would be well.

As it was, the two men had to flee again to France, and to make an alliance with the Lancastrian cause under Margaret of Anjou.

Imagine that scenario for the Duke of Clarence, a proud son of York, having to bow and scrape under a red rose. No wonder he immediately jumped ship again and realigned himself with his brothers, especially once he realized that Warwick no longer supported his bid for kingship.

The fourth major party to wish that the Battle of Edgecote would simply remove itself from our historical landscape is HS2.

This modern day, government backed consortium has released plans for a high speed railway in England. The proposed route will cut straight through the site of the Battle of Edgecote. It will disturb the mass grave of up to 5,000 Welshmen.

There is naturally a 21st century ploy to downplay the importance of Edgecote. Supporters of the route state that it was fundamentally a low-key skirmish. Edward IV was triumphant in the end, and his reign went on as if the battle had never happened.

But that is a very short-sighted view of the results of the Battle of Edgecote. Two major consequences changed everything.

  1. Clarence's part in the rebellion led directly to his attainder. This meant that he and his heirs were knocked out of the royal succession. Had this not happened, then it would have been Edward of Warwick who succeeded Edward V (one of the Princes in the Tower), not Richard III.
  2. Wales did not recover quickly from the massacre of practically an entire generation of South Welsh men. It turned Celtic public opinion firmly against the York monarchy. It had been a York king who called them to the carnage, then didn't turn up to lead them personally. Sixteen years later, Rhys ap Tomas was able to ride through South Wales and raise a massive army on behalf of Henry Tudor. It was the sons, brothers, uncles, nephews and the occasional father of the Edgecote dead who marched onto Bosworth Moor. They were there to avenge their loss, and without them Henry Tudor could not have won.

In short, it can very firmly be argued that Edgecote led directly to a Tudor dynasty on the throne of Britain.  No-one can state that wasn't important in British history!

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More Wizzley Articles about the War of the Roses

Known at the time as the Cousins' War, this was a dynastic battle for the English crown. It was the House of Lancaster (red rose) versus the House of York (white rose).
The Medieval struggle for the English crown continues. The House of York and the House of Lancaster pitted cousins against each other on the battlefields of Britain.
It was known at the time as the Cousins War. The family tree grew very tangled between the House of Lancaster and the House of York.
Bosworth was the final clash in the Wars of the Roses. It marked the end of the Middle Ages and gave rise to the Tudors.
Updated: 11/09/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

Awww! I'm really blushing now. I'm glad to have brought history alive to you all. Can you see why it fascinates me so much now?

Mira on 08/02/2013

I'll be back to read the article, but I agree, I wish I had a history teacher like you somewhere along the way. I realize now how much wonderful stuff I have missed :)

JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

That is one of the loveliest compliments that anyone has ever given me. Thank you. :)

JoHarrington on 08/02/2013

Thank you very much.

John on 08/02/2013

Great piece. Very well researched an written

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