Second St Albans had lost the Yorkists the custody of the king. They could no longer command the obedience of his subjects wihout his royal person as a titular head for Yorkist rule. Warwick was disgraced for not securing Henry VI before taking flight. It was viewed as a political disaster.
But when Edward, now calling himself Duke of York, entered London, he was cheered and welcomed by the Londoners as a hero. It became clear to the Yorkists that they no longer needed Henry VI under their control. On March 4, 1461, in the Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster, Edward was formally proclaimed the new King of England.
Though he was named king, nineteen-year-old Edward IV (he would not turn twenty until April 28) was by no means in control. The pro-Lancastrian north posed an enormous threat to his infant kingship. Edward also lacked support from a large section of the nobility. The earls of Northumberland, Wiltshire, Devon, and Shrewsbury, the dukes of Exeter (Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, was married to Edward's older sister, Anne) and Somerset, and Lords Clifford, Roos, Dacre, and Scales, all sided with Lancaster. Edward needed a significant victory to secure his throne. His handsome, six foot four physique, glowing charisma, and loyalty of the Londoners was insufficient to rule the entire kingdom. Much like William the Conqueror before him, Edward had to subdue the rebellious North.
The Battle of Towton would be the needed victory, but it was won at a very high price. It was the longest and largest of any battle of the wars and carries the grim epithet of being the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. The field in which the battle was fought would later be known as "Bloody Meadow".
Edward left London on March 13. The retreating Lancastrian army had wreaked havoc, pillaging in the countryside heading north, and this certainly helped Edward's cause. By the time he caught up to the Lancastrians outside York, he had been joined by thousands more men. To these troops would be added the men recruited by Warwick and John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk.
Edward sent a detachment to seize the bridge at Ferrybridge on March 18. They found the bridge broken down, but unguarded, and spent the day repairing it. The men were caught completely unaware by a dawn attack led by Clifford and the Yorkists were forced back across the river Aire.
Edward, with his sharp military acumen, immediately sent another force upstream to cross the river at Castleford and cut off Clifford's retreat. This fresh force caught Clifford's men and killed most of them within sight of their lines. Somerset, for reasons known only to himself, sent no troops to help the unfortunate Clifford, but instead waited for the advance of the main Yorkist army.
On March 29, Palm Sunday, Edward marched his forces north to meet the Lancastrians, and his army encamped on the hill south of the village of Saxton, about ten miles south of York. The Lancastrians took up their position half a mile to the north of the Yorkists on higher ground. A fierce snow storm was raging around both armies.
Behind the Yorkist army was the road to London and the river Aire. The Yorkists could be defeated by being pushed backed and trapped by the river. The Lancastrian position appeared superior, but if defeated, their escape routes were limited. On their right was the Cock Beck River, which was flooding due to the snow, on their left was the road to Tadcaster, which was also flooding. Both armies were in precarious positions; it was do or die.
From the first the Lancastrians were at a disadvantage as the wind was blowing the snow in their direction and they were unable to see the enemy or to judge distances. Their arrows continually missed their targets, and were being picked up by the Yorkists and fired back at them.
The Lancastrians gave the order to charge into battle across the meadow. For hours the two sides engaged in a savage confrontation. There were so many bodies on the snow that it became colored crimson and it was said there were pauses here and there to move the dead out of the way so that the living could get past them and go on fighting. The battle continued fiercely throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, the troops sent by Norfolk arrived, and the Lancastrians, having been pushed back, turned and fled at the sight of fresh Yorkist reinforcements. So many men tried to escape across the Cock Beck that its bridge collapsed.
With the Yorkists in hot pursuit, the Lancastrians had no choice but to plunge into the icy waters in an attempt to escape. So many men died in the water it was said to run red many miles from the battlefield. Edward estimated that about 20,000 men had died in the battle; contemporary chroniclers put it as high as 28,000. However, this number included only the dead on the battlefield. Many more were killed during the rout.
The battle lasted about ten hours, from approximately eleven in the morning until nine at night, but the rout lasted for much longer, many Lancastrians being chased for miles. The Lancastrians lost some of their best battle captains: the earls of Northumberland, Devon and Wiltshire, Sir Richard Percy, Trollope, Lords Dacre and Welles, were amongst the dead. With their armies all but annihilated, the Lancastrians would be unable to put an effective force in the field for several years. Two huge pits were dug, one at Saxton and another near the Cock Beck, and hundreds of bodies were buried in them. There was also a smaller grave, undiscovered until recently, near Towton Hall, that contained less than 40 soldiers. It's suspected there are likely more of these scattered about the area, their whereabouts as yet unknown.
Despite Towton’s bloody ferocity, Henry and Margaret were able to escape, to Scotland, there to plot and scheme away to bring the Lancastrians back to power. Edward settled into the business of being king, keeping a watchful eye to the North.
Early in 1464, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who had been pardoned by Edward, decided to return to the cause of Lancaster, and engaged in secret correspondence with the deposed king and queen. Somerset hoped to reach Newcastle; if he could take control of this town it would be a distinct advantage to the Lancastrians and hamper supply lines to Yorkist forces in the north. Edward discovered the plot in time and reinforced the garrison with men loyal to York.
Thwarted, Somerset decided to head for Bamburgh, to join the remaining Lancastrian sympathizers. Here he met up with other rebel lords, who were able to wreak havoc with continual military campaigns. They managed to secure for the Lancastrians the castle of Norham and the towns of Prudhoe, Bywell, Langley, and Hexham.
For Edward, the Lancastrians were threatening a potential agreement with the Scots, a priority for Edward's plan in keeping order in the north where Lancastrian sympathies were strongest. For safety's sake, talks were postponed until April 20 and moved from Newcastle to York. In mid April, John Neville, now Marquess of Montagu, was sent to the border to meet the Scottish envoys and escort them through Lancastrian-held territory to York.
Montagu, by the time he left Newcastle, had a following of about 5,000 men. On April 25, this group met up with the main Lancastrian force at Hedgely Moor. It is believed Sir Ralph Percy commanded the Lancastrian right wing, Somerset the center, and Lords Hungerford and Roos the left.
Montagu advanced first and the force under Hungerford and Roos broke and scattered. This surprising departure required the Yorkists to readjust their lines and for Montagu to consolidate his forces against the remaining Lancastrians. The depleted Lancastrians were ineffective against Montagu's forces, and as the Lancastrians began to give way Sir Ralph Percy was deserted by everyone except his household retainers, even Somerset. The remaining Lancastrians fought bravely, but were vastly outnumbered. The battle did not last long, and Percy and most of his men were killed.
After his victory, Montagu continued to the border, met with Scottish envoys and escorted them to York, where a fifteen year truce was agreed upon. This peace with the Yorkists and the Scots acknowledgment of Edward as England's rightful king was a devastating blow to the Lancastrian cause on the heels of the defeat at Hedgley Moor.
While Montagu was making his way to York with the Scottish envoys, Edward (who somewhere in all this was busy getting secretly married to Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of the Lancastrian Sir John Grey, at her parents' home near Northampton) ordered men to be sent to Leicester, where he would lead them north. The Lancastrians, meanwhile, regrouped at Alnwick after their defeat. On hearing of Edward's force, they headed south with Henry at the head of their army. They hoped his presence would bring men to support the cause.
On hearing that the Lancastrian army had reached Hexham, Montagu, business concluded in York, decided go there with all his retainers to meet with the Lancastrians, without waiting for reinforcements. On May 15 he reached Hexham, taking the Lancastrians totally by surprise.
It was early morning when Montagu ordered his men to charge down the hill and engage the Lancastrians. When the Lancastrians began to give way under the onslaught, they could not retreat, as they had their backs to a stretch of river called Devil's Water. As Somerset tried in vain to reorganize his surprised troops, the front ranks pushed back, and those in the rear were pushed into the water; many were drowned under the weight of their armor, while others were crushed to death.
Now the rest of the Yorkists under the command of Lords Greystoke and Willoughby advanced, and the fighting was intense but brief. Somerset tried to rally his army, managed to organize his left flank, but when he turned to deal with the right flank, discovered the unreliable Roos and Hungerford had repeated their actions at Hedgley Moor and had fled the battlefield, taking their men with them. As the Lancastrian line broke, soldiers began to flee. Somerset, cornered, was captured.
He was summarily executed the next day, a great blow to the Lancastrian cause. Roos and Hungerford were captured near Hexham and executed two days later. Over the next two months, more than two dozen noble Lancastrian sympathizers were snared and executed on Montagu's or his brother Warwick's orders.
The Lancastrian resistance in the north was effectively crushed. Montagu was rewarded for his services to the crown by being granted the now-vacant earldom of Northumberland.
It seemed as if the crown would remain securely upon Edward’s golden head.....