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The battle decided by a Banbury bar maid

Historian Mike Ingram reveals the story behind the Battle of Edgecote which legend has it was decided by the whim of a Banbury bar maid…

It was the year 1469. The ‘war of succession’ that started at Northampton in 1460 was over and Edward Plantagenet, Earl of March was now King Edward IV, despite the old King, Henry VI being still alive and held in the Tower of London.  A new and bloody war was starting and it was one of Northamptonshire’s oldest families, the Woodvilles, who would be the catalyst. The first battle of this war was fought in a sleepy corner of Northamptonshire near Edgecote on 26 July. And, if local legend can be believed, was decided by a Banbury barmaid.

The Woodvilles (Wydeville) of Grafton Regis had held Grafton since the 12th century and had been High Sheriffs of Northamptonshire during the reigns of Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, V and VI. Sir Richard Woodville, was considered ‘the handsomest man in England’ and rose to become a squire of Henry V. At the Battle of Agincourt, he kept the King’s lucky totem of a fox’s tail tied to a lance “always within sight of the King” during the fighting, and was knighted afterwards. He became chamberlain to Henry V’s brother, the Duke of Bedford. Then, after the Duke died, his son, also called Richard, married the widowed duchess, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the eldest daughter of Peter I of Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol, Conversano and Brienne and his wife Margaret of Baux.  She was related to both King Henry and Queen Margaret by marriage and outranked all the ladies at court except for the queen herself. It was no doubt through her royal connections that her new husband Richard was created Baron Rivers by Henry VI on 9 May 1448.  Together they had fourteen children, Elizabeth being the oldest had married Lord Grey of Groby in Leicestershire and had two children with him.

A feud between the Woodvilles and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, better known to history as the Kingmaker began in 1451 when Rivers was made Captain of Calais, a highly prestigious post. Four years later, after the battle of St. Albans, Rivers was replaced by Warwick. However, Rivers refused to give it up and it was not until April 1456 that Warwick was finally allowed into Calais. The feud between Warwick and Rivers smouldered, and in January 1458, both were summoned to appear before the Great Council at Westminster to resolve their differences. Peace did not last long as six months later Rivers was appointed to lead an enquiry into Warwick’s attack on the Lubeck salt fleet. The attack was effectively an act of piracy and had severely damaged relations with the Hanseatic League. As a result, Warwick was replaced as Captain of Calais by the 22 year old Henry Beaufort, the new Duke of Somerset.

The Woodvilles fought on the Lancastrian side during the war. After the debacle of Ludford Bridge in 1459, the Yorkists were forced to flee to Calais but in January 1460, a daring raid from Calais, led by John Dynham with 800 or so men, captured a large number of ships loaded with artillery. Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, his wife, Jacquetta, and his son, Sir Anthony, were also captured whilst still in their beds, and taken back to Calais in triumph. The Woodvilles were then publicly berated and called knaves and commoners by Warwick and his father. Elizabeth Woodville’s husband was killed fighting for the Lancastrians at the second Battle of St. Albans.

Find out about an Edgecote battlefield walk here

With the war of succession over, Warwick became the most powerful man in England and was given all the old Duke of Buckingham’s estates in Northamptonshire. One of Warwick’s first tasks was to find King Edward a queen. Warwick therefore opened negotiations with the French King to marry Edward to a French princess.

However, early in 1461,  King Edward met Elizabeth Woodville, according to legend whilst out hunting in the county. The traditional spot is marked today by an oak tree called the ‘Queens Oak’, just outside Potterspury, off the A5. The meeting would have far reaching consequences. They were soon having a passionate relationship despite Elizabeth being considered a commoner. The couple were married in secret in the church at Grafton Regis on 1 May 1464. Elizabeth’s importance cannot be over emphasised as she would go on to be Grandmother to Henry VIII and Great, Great Grandmother of Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. Through her granddaughter, Queen Margaret of Scotland, she became an ancestress of the Stuart, Hanover, and Windsor dynasties.

So, imagine Warwick’s surprise and shock when he discovered that Edward had married Elizabeth. Not only that, but Edward had also repeatedly refused to let his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, marry Warwick’s eldest daughter. As the Woodvilles power grew, Warwick’s resentment towards them festered and he recruited George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s younger brother to his side. Around July 1467 he began plotting.

It was revealed that Warwick’s deputy in Calais, John, Lord Wenlock, was involved in a Lancastrian conspiracy, and early in 1469 another Lancastrian plot was uncovered, involving John de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Northamptonshire’s Thomas Tresham who had been a staunch Lancastrian since the murder of his father in Moulton. Then in June 1469, a shadowy figure calling himself Robin of Redesdale started a revolt in Yorkshire. Robin of Redesdale was in reality one of Warwick’s relations either Sir John or Sir William Conyers. The rebellion quickly grew and was soon marching south with around 15,000 men.

According to the Croyland Chronicle:

“… a whirlwind came down from the North, in form of a mighty insurrection of the commons of that part of the country (who), having appointed one Robert de Redysdale to act as captain over them, proceeded to march, about sixty thousand in number, to join the Earl of Warwick …”

When Edward heard of this he believed the rebellion would easily be put down and mustered only a few of his men. He soon learned that the rebels in fact outnumbered his own small force, and started a retreat towards Nottingham to gather more recruits. Unfortunately the King lacked the popularity he once had and reinforcements were few. Edward decided to wait in Nottingham for the William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon, arriving with an army from the south. The strength of this army was around 15,000 -20,000 men and had with it over 200 Welsh nobles. Unusually, most of the archers were with the Earl of Devon, whilst Pembroke’s contingent included around 2,000 cavalry under Pembroke’s brother, Sir Richard Herbert. Also with Pembroke was his ward, a ten year old Henry Tudor, future King Henry VII.

On 25th July, Pembroke and Devon arrived at Banbury. According to legend, they argued over who would spend the night with a barmaid.  Pembroke won and Devon left in a sulk, taking his forces with him. The real cause of the altercation will probably be never known; however, Devon withdrew with his men to Deddington Castle, thus dividing their army at a crucial point.

On that same day the Welsh cavalry skirmish with the vanguard of Conyers’ army, which was coming from the direction of Daventry.

“…from the covert of a wood, espied the enemy passing on, and suddenly set upon their rear; whereupon, the Northernmen with such agility so quickly turned about, that in a moment of an hour, the Welshemen were clean discomfited and scattered, and many taken”.

Where this incident happened has been lost to time, but was probably somewhere along Banbury Lane.

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The battlefield of Edgecote today

According to Waurin, that night the two armies were camped on either side of a stream, possibly the River Cherwell,  just to the east of Edgcote. The rebels attacked Pembroke’s camp that night.  Then on the morning of the 26th the two forces fought for the crossing. Pembroke was at first successful, but the rebels rallied and regained the crossing. Waurin also claims that it was actually at this point that Devon withdrew from the field, not the night before.

Hall, writing much later says that the two armies met in a “fair plain’ between three hills, a plain that was called Danesmoor”. The battle started when the rebel force descended from the southern hill and their archers attacked Pembroke’s army, which was deployed on the western of the three hills. Unable to respond with his own arrowstorm, because Devon had departed with all the archers, Pembroke was forced to descend from the hill and engage in hand to hand fighting in the plain below.

Despite having fewer men, Pembroke seems to have soon got the upper hand. Sir Richard Herbert is said to have twice passed through the “battail of his adversaries”, armed with a poleaxe, and “without any mortal wound” returned.

Then disaster struck.  

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Reenactors throw flowers into the River Cherwell at Trafford Bridge in memory of the fallen from the battle.

On the hill to the east of the battle, fresh reinforcements appeared. Pembroke’s men thought it was Warwick himself with an army. Pembroke’s men broke and ran. Unbeknown to Pembroke, it was according to another chronicle, “John Clapham Esquire … accompanied only with 500 men gathered of all the rascals of the town of Northampton…crying ‘a Warwick, a Warwick.”

In the ensuing rout, large numbers of the fleeing troops were cut down. According to contemporary estimates, 5,000 Welshmen including 168 Nobles were killed. Over a century later the Welsh poets were still calling for revenge on those responsible for the “unique treachery at Banbury” and to exact judgement on the men of the north.

The young Henry Tudor was spirited away from the battle to his uncle, Jasper Tudor and then to Europe. The Earl of Devon never reached the battlefield and on learning of the defeat of the Welsh he fled with his army, but was captured and executed at Bridgewater, Somerset a few weeks later. The Herbert’s were taken to Northampton’s Queen Eleanor’s Cross and executed in the presence of Warwick and Clarence. Edward, heading from Northampton was surprised just over the county boundary at Olney and taken prisoner by George Neville, Archbishop of York (Warwick’s brother). He was taken to Middleham Castle in Yorkshire. Warwick now had two kings in his power.

But he was not finished. The rebel army surprised Lord Rivers, the queen’s father, and Sir John Woodville, her brother, at Grafton. They too were taken to Northampton and executed. Then, no doubt under orders from Warwick, Thomas Wake, Sheriff of Northampton and John Daunger a parish clerk of Stoke Bruerne from Shuttlanger accused the Queen’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg of witchcraft. Wake brought to Warwick Castle a lead image “made like a man-of-arms . . . broken in the middle and made fast with a wire, “and alleged that Jacquetta had fashioned it to use for witchcraft and sorcery. Daunger, attested that Jacquetta had made two other images, one for the king and one for the queen. However, the case fell apart when Warwick was forced to release Edward IV from custody, and Jacquetta was cleared by the king’s great council of the charges on February 21, 1470.  In 1484 Richard III in the act known as Titulus Regius revived the allegations of witchcraft against the now dead Jacquetta when he claimed that she and Elizabeth had procured Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward IV through witchcraft; however, Richard never offered any proof to support his assertions.

Warwick was publicly reconciled with King Edward. However, privately he continued to ferment rebellion and was eventually killed fleeing from the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471.

The Woodvilles would continue to play a huge part in national politics. After King Edward IV’s early death, they took control of the new king and it was planned to meet their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (who was born at Fotheringhay in the county) in the centre of Northampton. The new King was sent on to Stony Stratford but the Woodvilles returned to Northampton for the meeting. Here they were taken prisoner by Richard and the Duke of Buckingham and executed soon after. Soon after, Richard became King Richard III. But that is another story for another day.

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