On May 22, 1455, the armies of Henry VI and Richard, Duke of York met near London at St. Albans.
The 2,000 Lancastrians set up their camp in the marketplace of the town, and here they built barricades to protect themselves. When York and the Nevilles swept down into the city that day with their force of 3,000, the Lancastrian resistance crumpled and began to flee in panic. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who made a surprise side attack on the city square where the main body of Henry's troops were located, was able to corner both Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and the king; Somerset was killed, and Henry was wounded by an arrow in the neck. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was also among the Lancastrian dead. There were no casualties amongst the Yorkist leadership. The battle ended shortly after.
St. Albans was a great victory for York. He had killed his chief political opponent. The king himself had been captured while having his wound tended in a tanner's house. York, still respectful of his sovereign lord, begged for forgiveness, explaining his motives for rebellion.
After St. Albans there was an almost embarrassed pause in the hostilities. For a time an attempt was made to work out the differences.
Margaret of Anjou was uncompromising in her hatred for York, but this was to be expected with the death of her favorite, Somerset. But Henry was now more amiable towards the Yorkists, going so far as to declare, with his typical naivete, a "Loveday" wherein Yorkists and Lancastrians would pledge to live in harmony together.
A more tangible benefit was York's brief reinstatement as Protector, which lasted until the next year. The Nevilles also reaped rewards. In April 1456 Warwick was appointed Captain of Calais. Ironically, Warwick's appointment may also have facilitated the next phase of the wars. His acts of piracy on German ships from his base at Calais incensed the queen, who always preferred to keep England neutral in Continental affairs.
In 1458 he was summoned to London to stand trial. He arrived with a small army of loyal followers. Though tensions in the city were palpable, the trial came to nothing. Later, Margaret attempted to have Warwick dismissed from his post in Calais in favor of her new lackey Henry Beaufort, the son of the previous Duke of Somerset, who had taken his deceased father's title.
When Warwick came to London to announce his refusal to give up the position, Margaret seems to have attempted to have him murdered in a council chamber. Warwick escaped, but it was obvious by now that these volatile issues could only be resolved by more bloodshed.
Margaret moved the court to a more centralized position at Coventry, where she could respond to threats from all directions, and introduced a draft to muster soldiers for her army. The Yorkist leaders realized that they would have to collect their forces and march on London once again. They agreed to rendezvous in Wales. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury struck south, while Warwick sailed from Calais to first undertake the necessary task of occupying London. Warwick did not wish to leave such a formidable base untaken in his rear. With this accomplished, he marched west to Ludlow.
Salisbury was the most exposed of the three. He was taking a considerable risk marching to Wales, for his army was much smaller than the queen's and the most vulnerable to attack. On September 23, 1459, a large portion of her forces met up with Salisbury at Blore Heath. Salisbury was an experienced veteran, however, who staked out a good defensive position behind a hill, with a muddy river between him and his Lancastrian enemies. The terrain and his archers forced back the untried lords of the royal army, inflicting many casualties. St Albans was a skirmish compared to this, the first pitched battle of the Wars of the Roses.
Salisbury won an unlikely victory and was able to continue his march, after pausing to behead Margaret's commander, James Tuchet, Baron Audley. Audley was the husband of Eleanor Holland, Constance of York's illegitimate daughter, and their daughter Anne's husband, Thomas Dutton, was killed in the battle.
At last the Yorkists rendezvoused at Ludlow. By now the royal army had recruited a substantial force, easily enough to annihilate the Yorkists, and they were rapidly advancing. York wrote to Henry, protesting his loyalty to the Crown and expressing his wish to reconcile with the king, with the usual excuse of evil councilors being the reason for rebellion. No response was forthcoming.
On October 12, 1459, the two armies met at Ludford Bridge on the river Tern, outside Ludlow. Morale plummeted among the Yorkists at the immense size of the royal troops. They began to desert in large numbers, the greatest loss being a large contingent of soldiers from Calais under Andrew Trollope, who fled to the other side and revealed York's defensive preparations to the king.
By then York and the Nevilles realized that victory was impossible. They snuck out of camp and fled into the countryside, leaving their army behind.
Many saw this as a cowardly and treacherous act, and York's abandonment of Cecily and their three youngest children (Margaret, thirteen, George, nine, and Richard, seven) in Ludlow Castle won him no respect. But it may be that the Yorkists had judged the situation correctly. Henry was not a vindictive man, and he soon dismissed the rebel army, knowing that his true enemies had already slipped through his grasp. Cecily and the children were taken into custody and treated well.
Upon returning to Coventry the queen had Salisbury, Warwick, York, and his two eldest sons, Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland, all proclaimed traitors to the crown, seizing their lands and authorizing their arrest and execution. For the Yorkists, there was now no turning back.
York sailed to Ireland with his seventeen-year-old son Rutland. Eighteen-year-old March joined Salisbury and Warwick in Calais. Margaret sent the new Duke of Somerset to dislodge Warwick and take Calais, but despite repeated efforts he was unable to do so.
Warwick was assisted by Cecily's brother William Neville, Baron Fauconberg and Earl of Kent, who had fought on the Lancastrian side at St Albans but switched his allegiance to the Yorkist cause. He was irritated over the king owing him thousands of pounds spent out of pocket for the upkeep of Roxburgh Castle on the Scots border and not being reimbursed for his ransom when he was held in captivity by the French for two years (the Hundred Years' War was still sputtering along simultaneously at this point). Fauconberg would not be the last nobleman to change sides in this conflict.
The Yorkists' new plan was to take and hold London, and, with its administrative resources and a healthy propaganda campaign, reshape the government themselves. Accordingly, the Nevilles and March landed in Kent on June 26, 1460, with 2,000 men-at-arms.
There was at first some doubt as to whether the city would open its gates to them, but influential and sympathetic men in the city ensured that their entry was unhindered. All of London was quickly taken except for the fortified Tower, where frightened Lancastrians held out for the king, defiantly firing the cannons of the tower at the city streets.
The king and queen were at Coventry when they heard the news. Henry promptly marched towards Northampton, leaving the queen and his son behind. When he met the Nevilles on July 10 he was pinned against the river Nene, which was flooded and prevented retreat. Henry's army was only half the size of the Yorkists', and the rain made his cannon useless.
As the Yorkists advanced, soldiers under Ralph, Lord Grey de Ruthin defected to them, and the battle turned into a rout. Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham (a grandson of Edward IIIs youngest, Thomas of Woodstock) was slain and Henry himself was captured. As at St. Albans, the Yorkists approached their prisoner and begged forgiveness, a testament to the respect that the Crown continued to command. Nevertheless, he became their prisoner and would not be released.
It was a tremendous victory. When Margaret heard the dreadful tidings she took her son and fled to supporters in Scotland. York promptly proceeded to London.
On September 10th, 1460, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, marched into London at the head of paid trumpeters carrying banners with the arms of England. He regally made his way to Westminister Hall, where Parliament was sitting; upon entering, he bowed to the lords, approached the throne at the far end, and placed a hand upon it, as if to claim it as his own.
If York was expecting cheers of approval, he was not to receive them. An awkward silence reigned over the hall. York had badly misjudged the situation. That he was the better man for the throne was undeniable, but Henry had reigned for almost four decades, and the noblemen of England were terrified at the prospect of unseating a reigning king. There was a saintly aura to Henry, and to depose a saint was a far more difficult task than to depose a tyrant.
York was enraged, but collected himself and made a formal claim to the throne as the descendant of Lionel of Antwerp. When it was gently suggested that York ought to visit the king to discuss this, York angrily replied that it would be more proper for Henry to come meet with him. But eventually he stormed out and forced an audience with Henry, who staunchly refused to abdicate. York might hold the king, but the king held the crown.
Now battles were fought over old books and legal judgments, and they were waged by lawyers who analyzed hereditary precedent to see which of the two men had the superior claim to the throne. The begats were of the utmost importance.
York was undeniably the heir of the elder son of Edward III, but his descent was through two women (Philippa Plantagenet and Anne Mortimer), which, according to Henry's supporters, nullified the claim. The lawyers refused to make a final judgment, referring it to the House of Lords. The Lords eventually voted in favor of York, but argued that Henry had been king for too long to simply unseat him on a whim.
On October 31, a compromise was made. Henry would rule until his death, after which York would take the throne. It was not a victory for the Duke, who was ten years older than Henry, but it was the best he could do and he reconciled himself to it. At the very least, with the king in his possession, he could rule from behind the scenes.