Fighting in the Streets – The Battles of St Albans

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Bookworm

The Battles of St Albans

Fighting in the Streets – The Battles of St Albans

People who know me, will have realised that I have a particular interest in St Albans and anything connected to the town or the saint..  After I had previously looked at the goings-on at the Abbey and its cells, I am planning to turn my attention to the civilian population in the middle ages.  As the civilian population would have been very much at the receiving end of the two battles fought in their midst, irrespective of who won that battle, I recently read two books dealing with these battles.

The first one was:

The Battles of St Albans

Andrew Boardman, The First Battle of St Albans 1455

Andrew Boardman, The First Battle of St Albans 1455.  Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2006.  ISBN 0 7524 2983 3 (paperback).

Boardman starts by explaining the whole lead up to the battle, the rivalry between Richard Duke of York and Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, as well as the local rivalries in the north (Nevilles and Percys) and  between Welsh Marcher Lords.  On the whole this is a coherent explanation, though referring to Catherine Swynford as John of Gaunt’s second wife (p.17), when she was in fact his third, is somewhat sloppy.  Then follows a detailed analysis of the battle, based on a critical evaluation of the available sources.  For Boardman the Nevilles and their quarrels with the Percys are the determining factor in the battle.  There is are appendices with maps and copies of three sources.



The second book is:

The Battles of St Albans

Peter Burley, Michael Elliott & Harvey Watson, The Battles of St Albans

Peter Burley, Michael Elliott, Harvey Watson, The Battles of St Albans.  Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, 2007.  ISBN 978 1 844 15569 9 (paperback)

While the scope of the first book obviously is more limited, as the title says it only deals with the first battle, the second one deals with both, and also has a short overview of other battles in between.

I was a bit apprehensive, when I read in the opening “Outline Chronology Locating the Battles in the Wars of the Roses” under 1483 that “Edward [V] and younger brother disappear (probably murdered by Richard III)” (p.viii).  This is to a certain extent indicative of the book:  the authors usually follow conventional lines.

However, to give the authors their due, I don’t think original research into 15th century politics was their aim, as they state in their “Conclusion”:  “The modern city [of St Albans], though, remains one of the best-preserved and most explicit of all battlefields of the Wars of the Roses, and we would like this to be properly understood and acknowledged” (p.159).  This book is not so much about the why and how, but rather about the where.  And in that respect it is very successful.

There are two appendices, Appendix A giving contact details of “Museums, Churches, Clubs and Societies”, where I as a member of the Richard III Society I was rather sad to see that the Richard III Foundation is listed, but the Richard III Society is not.  I would have felt that a bit less parochialism would have been appropriate.

Appendix B gives a “List of Names Mentioned in Primary and Secondary Sources as Associated with the Battles”, an overview of the names in alphabetical order, information in which battle they fought on which side, possibly some biographical information, whether they were killed and – if known – where they were buried.

Both books are well illustrated showing the various places of interest as well as maps and overviews of battle positions. I found the overview of the medieval road network around St Albans in Burley, Elliott and Watson fascinating, and am sure that it will come in handy when researching other places in Hertfordshire.

If you know the modern city it is fairly easy to follow the action described and connect it to your own knowledge of the landmarks, this holds true for both books but especially for Burley, Elliott and Watson.  A more detailed map of present day St Albans would have been helpful though – in the end I just printed one off Google Maps.   And if you have not been to St Albans before, I’m sure they would entice you to go there pretty soon.  I came to acknowledge that here is a town I thought I knew pretty well, just to realise how little I actually knew.

In the second part of their book the strength of Burley, Elliott and Watson’s book becomes clear when the authors deal with “Visiting Modern St Albans and Battlefield Tours”, complete with walking tours of the sites of each battle and a driving tour to the more outlying sites of the second battle.  This is not history on planet 15th century, far removed from the present day, but history that can be traced in the here and now. The next time I get a chance to visit St Albans this book will certainly form part of my hand luggage for easy reference.

Apart from their different emphasis, either on the action or the geography, there are also differences in content.  For the first battle, Boardman has the Yorkists arriving in St Albans before the King, probably already on 21 May 1455 and camping in the Keyfields, where they were waiting from 7am on the 22 May onwards.   Henry VI and his entourage spend the night 21/22 May in Watford, probably arriving in St Albans only by 9 am, with the fighting starting by 10 am (pp.81-83).

Burley, Elliott and Watson, on the other hand, has them arriving after Henry VI, with both groups in position between 3am and 7 am (p.ix).  Boardman thinks it unlikely that the king’s party would have gone on an 8 ½ mile night march, and following his reasoning that an actual battle was not anticipated, this is probably correct.  Both authors agree that the king’s followers were not ready for the battle, with especially Burley, Elliott and Watson making much of the noblemen not having had time to put on their armour.

For Boardman the Nevilles and their quarrels with the Percys are the determining factor in the battle.  He sees the Duke of York still wanting to negotiate a hand-over of his personal foe, the Duke of Somerset, while the Nevilles and their retainers already started skirmishing and it was this skirmishing that got out of hand.  The person who for him secured the Yorkist victory is Sir Robert Ogle who managed to break through backyards and houses into the market place (pp.116ff.).

Burley, Elliott and Watson on the other hand have three hours of negotiations without any fighting, with the king’s party playing for time (to wait for re-enforcements), until the Yorkists lost patience and started to attack (pp.25ff.).

On the whole I would say that Burley, Elliott and Watson’s book is great if you want a short overview of the battles and want to visit the places where the actions took place, for this it is a valuable and accessible source of information.  If you want a thorough analysis of the first battle, however, I can only recommend Boardman.  Just leaves to find a similar work on the Second Battle!

There is a little quote from Burley, Elliott and Watson’s book that appealed to me particularly after my previous research into Abbot William Wallingford’s clash with John Morton, then Archbishop of Canterbury:

A special twist, though, was that John Morton, who was Chancellor to Edward of Lancaster in 1461 and present at the second battle, took great exception to the Abbey’s Yorkist leanings after the battle.  When he became Henry VII’s Archbishop of Canterbury after 1486, he used his power to undermine and impoverish the Abbey (p.110).

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