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How a king was defeated at the Battle of Northampton

Mike Ingram tells the story of the 1460 Battle of Northampton which will be commemorated on July 15 and 16 at Delapre Abbey. Northamptonshire Battlefield Society will have a stand at the event…

The battle was the first major engagement in what is now known as the War of Succession that ended with Britain’s bloodiest battle at Towton in Yorkshire. The battle is of national importance because it was the only time during the wars that a fortified camp was assaulted; the first use of massed guns; and the last time protracted negotiations proceeded a battle. Also, in the immediate aftermath, Richard of York returned from Ireland and for the first time pressed his dynastic claim to the throne. It was also the first battle for Edward, Earl of March who within a year, would be proclaimed King Edward IV.

In October 1459, the Yorkists were forced to flee the country, taking refuge in Ireland and Calais. Soon after they left, orchestrated by a leading Lancastrian, Thomas Thorpe, from Northamptonshire, the Yorkists were attainted. Over the next few months the Yorkists planned their return. On 15 January 1460, the Yorkists raided Sandwich seizing a fleet and capturing Richard and Anthony Woodville. Richard Woodville and his son, from Grafton Regis would later change sides when his daughter Elizabeth became Queen on marrying Edward IV. On 25 June, Edward, Earl of March, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker), and his uncle George Neville, Lord Fauconberg, landed at Sandwich in force. By 2 July they were in London. On the 5th, Warwick marched north via St. Albans with a train of artillery.

BoN1On hearing the news that the Yorkists had returned from France, King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou left Coventry for Northampton with their army under the command of the Duke of Buckingham. With them was John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Lord Grey of Ruthyn, John, Viscount, Lord Beaumont, and Thomas Lord Egremont, son of the Earl of Northumberland. More than one chronicler suggests that the Duke of Somerset was also present. It is also quite probable that the Sir Andrew Trollope the Lancastrian military advisor, who was described by Waurin as “un tres soubtil home de guerre” was present, being under the patronage of the Duke of Somerset. Then, when the army reached Northampton they began to build a field fortification in the fields between Delapré Abbey and Hardingstone.

On 7 July, William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and Henry VI’s Lord Chancellor resigned and surrendered the great seal to the King in his tent on Hardingstone field. The King’s secretary, and the Bishop of Durham, Keeper of the Privy Seal also resigned. As was common at the time, a number of Lancastrians were knighted by Henry VI immediately before the battle, including Henry Stafford, Thomas Stanley, William Norrys, Henry Lewys and Thomas Thorpe. It is probable that Henry Stafford was the four or five year old grandson of the Duke of Buckingham and Thomas Stanley, the future Earl of Derby. Both of these, along with William Norrys would later play an important part in events during the reign of Richard III.

In the meantime, the Yorkist army marched north through Dunstable, Towcester and Blisworth. They then spent the night before the battle on a ‘mountain’ outside the town, probably Hunsbury Hill, the site of the ancient hill fort. The next morning, the Yorkists sent Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury with other clerics and an armed guard to the King with a list of grievances. He was quickly rebuffed. Unperturbed, Warwick sent another delegation, this time, the Bishop of Hereford who was leading it, changed sides and urges the Lancastrians to fight. A third delegation was sent. This time they brought a chilling message from Warwick that he would either talk with the King or die. The threat was ignored, and the delegation once again rebuffed. It was the last time protracted negotiations proceeded a battle. Warwick ordered his army to attack and began to move them into position. The Papal Legate who was with the Archbishop of Canterbury watching from Queen Eleanor’s Cross (which according to one chronicler was already headless), excommunicated all the Lancastrian army.

We do not know exactly how many men faced each other that morning, although all the chroniclers agree that there were far more in Warwick’s army. Most modern historians estimate that there was between 8-10,000 Lancastrians and 12-15,000 Yorkists.

Waurin says that ‘le seigneur de Greriffin’, along with thirteen to fourteen hundred men, charged straight into Warwick’s men. In a battle that lasted half an hour, the cavalry were pushed back to the gates and cut down. During the battle, ‘le seigneur de Greriffin’ was captured and later executed. The Newsletter from Bruges tells us that there was a torrential downpour, which, “forced them to come out of that place and encounter Warwick”. Hall says it was Beaumont, who with a small force, attacked Warwick’s battle as they approached but are easily swept aside. A division of the Yorkists led by Sir John Stafford and Lord Scrope of Boulton then attacked the town, burning part of it.

With the town now in their hands, the Yorkists turned their attention to the field fortifications and began to bombard the camp with the cannons brought from London. The rediscovery of a lead cannonball near the present day Eagle Drive, suggests that some at least overshot. Then the Yorkists, in three divisions, began to march towards the Lancastrians. From the outset, as with all best laid plans, things started to go horribly wrong for the Lancastrians. For some unexplainable reason (possibly the weather or an incorrect mixture of gunpowder), their guns failed to fire.  We know that some guns fired however, most probably Yorkist, from the account of Sir William Lucy who came from Dallington on the sound of gunfire, to fight on the Lancastrian side. It appears that the Yorkist knight John Strafford was in love with Lucy’s wife. And, as soon as Lucy appeared, Strafford attacked and killed him with an axe.

Although the guns had failed, the Lancastrians were not beaten, as they would have had at least three thousand archers. It would have also taken around three minutes for the Yorkists, moving in tightly packed blocks of infantry. With an average rate of fire of twelve arrows (the best could fire fifteen) per minute, the Lancastrians would have fired over 108,000 arrows into their midst. And, if only one in a hundred were fatal, that would have meant over one thousand would have been killed, and thousands more injured in the arrow storm.

Those who made it to the defences then had to try and scramble across the water-filled stream and the bank of earth behind. The defenders, stabbing and hacking down into the mass of men with swords, bills and axes, desperately trying to keep them out. At this point, Buckingham must have thought the battle was won, in living memory no army had successfully assaulted a fortified position without days of artillery preparation or by starving the defenders into submission.  The chroniclers tell us that the clash continued for a half an hour, then to Buckingham and the other earls’ surprise, there came a shout from his far left. Lord Grey’s men were helping Edwards’s troops over the defences and were now swarming through the position.

It was all over for the Lancastrians. Many were killed in the ensuing rout. Some would have tried to reach the nearby bridge but would have been stopped by Fauconberg’s men. Many more poured out the back of the camp heading east. Many would have been hunted down and killed as they fled. Many more were drowned as they tried to escape by crossing the river or its tributaries swollen by the unseasonable rain. The Duke of Buckingham was either killed outside his own or the King’s tent. Shrewsbury, Beaumont and Egremont were also killed close by.

King Henry stayed in Northampton for three days where he heard mass at Delapré before being led back to London in procession with Warwick at the head bearing the sword of state.

Whilst, the ordinary soldier was buried in unmarked grave pits, the lords were given burials befitting their station. Although most were taken back to their homes, the Duke of Buckingham was buried at Greyfriars in Northampton. The site of the Priory has long since disappeared, but the tomb still may survive under the ground in the area of the old bus station.

King Edward would spend considerable time in the county, not least because his future wife Elizabeth Woodville came from Grafton Regis. The two supposedly married in secret in the church there. In 1463, Edward was coming through the town with the Duke of Somerset, who was at the head of the King’s Guard. The people of the town made it clear that they thought Somerset was a traitor and attempted to hang him in the market square. Edward had to stand over him, sword drawn to protect him. To placate the rioters, the King gave a tun (around 250 gallons) of the Royal wine to the town. It was reported that from all around, locals began to appear with bowls of silver, which they promptly filled with the wine. With the locals preoccupied, Somerset made his escape.

BoN2On Monday, 10 July, the actual anniversary of the battle, there will be a memorial walk for the fallen of the battle with the laying of flowers at Queen Eleanor’s Cross starting at 7:00 pm from Delapré Abbey car park.

BoN5On the weekend of 15/16 July, there will be a commemoration of the battle with an event at Delapre Abbey starting at 11:00 am. This Includes a medieval encampment by the Harrington and Beaufort Companyes, medieval firepower demonstration by the Compagnie St. Barbera, the Essential Guide to the Battle of Northampton, have-a-go archery and Kiddie Knights. Plus refreshments.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.


  1. I don’t think Stanley changed sides at Bosworth I believe he changed sides a good two years before – when he married Madge. But there was a lot of animosity between Richard and the Stanley’s way before then.

  2. That Lord Grey. What a ratbag!
    His changing sides tactic at Northampton might have given Stanley the idea he later executed with devastating effect at Bosworth Field.
    Who was the more perfidious, would you say?
    Please discuss, Mike.

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