With the Act of Accord naming Richard, Duke of York as next in line for the throne, Henry VIs own young son, Edward, was disinherited. Margaret of Anjou and her Lancastrian allies now had a powerful motive for continuing the civil war. Many saw the Act as a violation of the rights of inheritance, and in a society based on landed wealth this was a serious issue indeed.
The Act also changed the course of the wars. The battle was no longer for supremacy of individual factions.
It was for the throne itself.
At York, Margaret publicly protested against the Act of Accord and challenged York to settle the issue in battle. All those nobles who had not agreed with the Act joined her, and in late November 1460 this army started marching southwards.
York, still in the south, began a propaganda campaign directed at instilling the southerners with fear of Margaret’s northern hordes. In early December, York and Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury marched out of London with about 5,000 men, leaving Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick to maintain control of the capital. York headed for his castle at Sandal, two miles west of Wakefield, recruiting on the way. When he arrived, he set his men to building trenches and positioning guns around the castle. It seemed they were in a good defensive position if the Lancastrians attacked. His son, Edward, Earl of March, was recruiting in Wales, and York intended to await his arrival with reinforcements.
During the Christmas season, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset met with York and it was agreed a truce would prevail until after the feast of Epiphany on January 6. The Lancastrians, however, did not intend to keep the truce and they moved part of their army closer to Sandal.
On December 30 it is believed that a foraging party, sent out for supplies and information, was attacked by men under the command of Somerset when returning to the castle. York could see the skirmish from the castle, and could also see a second army closing in behind.
Believing this to be a relieving force under the command of his wife Cecily's half-brother's son, John Neville, Baron Neville of Raby (who had, unbeknownst to York, changed sides), York decided to take advantage of what he thought was a rear attack on Somerset. As soon as he reached the fighting, York realized his mistake, but, assuming that the men before him constituted the entire Lancastrian army, he decided to give battle instead of retreat.
It was then that other Lancastrian forces encamped around Sandal began mobilizing and advancing on the battle area. With the arrival of the last the Lancastrian troops under the command of one of Margaret's right-hand men, John Clifford, Baron de Clifford, the Yorkists were totally surrounded. After York himself was pulled from his horse and killed, all Yorkist resistance broke down. James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, who was married to Eleanor Beaufort, Somerset's sister, took possession of Sandal.
York's seventeen-year-old son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland was captured by Clifford, found hiding under Wakefield Bridge. Clifford is supposed to have said, "By God's blood, your father slew mine, and so will I do you and all your kin," and drew his sword and killed Rutland. Clifford's father, Thomas, had been a casualty of the battle of St Albans.
Salisbury was captured, taken to Pontefract, and beheaded the next day. He was condemned by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and John Clifford, all who had had fathers killed at St. Albans. His head, along with York’s and Rutland’s, was placed on spikes and exhibited above the Micklegate Bar in York. A paper crown was placed on York’s head. The hatred between the two sides was now intense and the violence displayed at Wakefield set a precedent for the rest of the wars.
The death of their fathers left the Earl of March, now nominally the Duke of York, and the Earl of Warwick two of the richest magnates in England. However Henry refused to acknowledge March’s right to succeed his father and did not allow him to bear the title Earl of Chester, as he was entitled to do as heir to the throne under the Act of Accord. The succession was now firmly back in the Lancastrian line.
After the Yorkists' devastating defeat, the way to London lay open for the Lancastrians. Margaret was marching south at the head of an army provided by Mary of Gueldres, Regent for her nine-year-old son James III of Scotland. In return for these troops, Margaret agreed to cede the border town of Berwick to the Scots, and to marry seven-year-old Prince Edward to Princess Margaret, the young king's six-year-old sister. Edward was temporarily taken into the royal Scots household for his safety while his mother waged war for his inheritance.
The main Lancastrian army was encamped near York and the two forces planned to meet up and march to London. Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke (the king's half-brother), and Wiltshire had raised an army composed mainly of Welshmen, but also including French and Irish mercenaries. They were now marching east from Wales, hoping to link up with the main Lancastrian army.
The Yorkists again turned to propaganda, spreading news among the southerners that Margaret’s northern army had been given free reign to rape, rob and murder. This worked effectively, and the Yorkists were able to recruit large numbers of men who were eager to defend their homes against these savages. The Earl of March, at the head of an army, was hoping to link up with Warwick and intercept Margaret before she reached London. After hearing about Pembroke’s forces, however, he decided to turn his army west and deal with this threat first.
On the morning of February 2, March’s forces met with Pembroke’s at Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire. On that morning both sides witnessed a natural phenomenon called a parhelion, when it appears that there are three suns in the sky. March quickly turned this to his advantage, claiming this was an omen from God, signifying the Trinity. He also read it as an indication of the reunion of the three sons (suns) of York, Edward, George, and Richard. This boosted the morale of Edward’s soldiers. He later used “the sunne in splendour" as his personal livery badge.
The Yorkist army was about 11,000 strong. The right flank was commanded by Walter Devereux, the center by March, and the left flank by Sir William Herbert.
The Lancastrians were about 8,000 strong. The left flank, which included the more experienced and professional mercenaries, was under the command of Wiltshire, the center under Pembroke, and the right flank under the joint command of Owen Tudor (Pembroke's father, said to have secretly married his late mother, Henry Vs widow, Queen Catherine of Valois) and Sir John Throckmorton.
Wiltshire began hostilities by advancing on the York right wing, which was pushed back and scattered. Pembroke advanced on the Yorkist center and both sides fought for some time before the Yorkists began to gain ground and the Lancastrians broke and scattered westward.
Owen Tudor attempted to encircle the Yorkists, but in doing so exposed his left flank to Herbert's forces. Herbert ordered his men to advance towards Tudor's forces, who could offer little resistance. Tudor tried to rally his troops, but they broke and scattered.
It was clear that despite losing their right wing early on, the Yorkists looked set for victory. The Yorkist archers now began shooting volleys of arrows into the Lancastrian cavalry, causing their center to collapse. Realizing the day was lost, Pembroke fled the field, leaving his men and his father behind. Wiltshire also later managed to escape.
About 4,000 men were killed in the battle, mostly Pembroke’s. March’s losses were light. The Yorkists pursued the fleeing Lancastrians all the way to Hereford, where, after a brief skirmish Owen Tudor and the remaining Lancastrian captains were captured.
The next day, Tudor and Throckmorton were executed in the Hereford market place. This was the first in what would be a line of stunning victories for nineteen-year-old Edward, and showed the Lancastrians that the new head of the house of York was a man to be feared.
Undeterred by the defeat at Mortimer's Cross, Margaret of Anjou marched her troops south to regain control of the capital and the king. On January 20 she reached York, where her troops met up with the main Lancastrian army. As this army moved south, it was also joined by some of the Welsh soldiers escaping from Mortimer’s Cross. The Lancastrian army was headed by Somerset and captained by Henry Holland, Earl of Exeter, great-grandson of Humphrey of Gloucester; Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, grandson of John Beaufort; John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, son of Cecily Neville's sister Anne; Henry Percy, Earl of Nothumberland; and Clifford; as well as the veteran military expert Anthony Trollope. The Lancastrians, who numbered more than 25,000, had by far the greater number of nobles in their ranks.
The Yorkists continued with their propaganda campaign in the south, and the behavior of the Lancastrian army fed into it. Many towns, particularly those with Yorkist sympathies, suffered a great deal of damage from the Lancastrians as they passed through on their way south. Panic set in in London, and citizens began to board up their homes and bury their possessions. Great numbers of armed men began arriving in London voluntarily, offering to join Warwick, the man they believed would save the south from the northern hordes.
On February 12 Warwick marched out of London, with an army numbering about 25,000. He took Henry with him under guard. In Warwick’s army were his brother John Neville, Baron Montagu; John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who was married to Eleanor Bourchier, a granddaughter of Humphrey of Gloucester; William Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, who was married to Warwick's sister Joan; the young John de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, husband of York's daughter Elizabeth; Lord Fauconberg; and Sir John Wenlock, who had come over from the Lancastrian side after St Albans. Philip III, Duke of Burgundy provided a contingent of handgunners to the Yorkist cause. The left flank was under the command of Montagu, the right under Norfolk, and the center under Warwick himself.
The Yorkists arrived in St Albans (yes, again) the following day, and Warwick spent the next few days reinforcing the Yorkist position. Early in the morning of February 17 the Lancastrians entered the town from the northwest, meeting with the Yorkists in the market square, but were pushed back by Warwick’s archers. Despite heavy casualties the Lancastrians forced the Yorkists out of the town to Bernard's Heath.
Warwick succeeded in regrouping his men, and it was here that the fiercest fighting of the day ensued. The Yorkist cannon were almost useless, as snow had started to fall, dampening the powder. Some of the handguns backfired, causing horrific injuries to their owners.
The fighting continued until dusk but the Lancastrians were eventually able to break through the Yorkist lines. Warwick sounded the retreat and withdrew some of his troops into a defensive position to the north of St Albans. The Yorkists withdrew from St Albans that night, hoping to link up with Edward at York.
The battle was a significant victory for the Lancastrians, in fact their most decisive victory of the wars. The defeat for the Yorkists was not great in terms of lost men, but was a political disaster. Warwick had left Henry under the guard of William, Baron Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyrell, and they were captured. Henry was returned to his wife and son. Bonville and Kyrell were executed. Legend has it that Margaret asked Prince Edward what should be done with the men and it was the little boy who declared that their heads should be struck off, much to his mother's approval.
With the king again in their possession and the Yorkist army scattered, the way to London lay open to the Lancastrians. It was time for the Yorkists to regroup.