On 10 July 1460, a Yorkist army of around 15,000 led by the ‘Kingmaker’ Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and the 18 year old, Edward, Earl of March, the future King Edward IV, assaulted between 7,000 and 10,000 Lancastrians in a fortified camp, in fields close to Delapre Abbey. Although King Henry VI and probably his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, were at the battle, it was Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Northampton who led the Lancastrian army.
As Earl of Northampton, Buckingham probably drew heavily on his extensive lands within the county for the army, as did the Queen who owned Kingsthorpe. And many local lords such as the Wake’s, Tresham’s, Vaux’s and Catesby’s who all held positions of power in the Lancastrian government were also present with their men. However, many more answered the King’s summons and men from as far away as Beverley in Yorkshire are recorded as taking part. The majority of the Yorkist army meanwhile, came from the South and East of England, although no doubt it included those from their lands around Fotheringhay.
The precise site of the Lancastrian camp is unknown, and several theories to where it was have been put forward. Only a full archaeological survey, such as the one carried out at Bosworth, will determine its exact location. However, the assault on the camp was only the start, as work on other medieval battlefields has shown that fighting could continue miles from where it first started. At Towton for example, which took place less than a year after Northampton, grave pits full of men who took part, have been found three miles from where the two sides first clashed. In recognition of the battle’s national importance, English Heritage has designated the area identified as where the fighting took place, a registered battlefield. Out of all battles that have taken place in England throughout the centuries, it is one of only 42 to receive the distinction.
Much of what has written in the past about the battle has been dominated by the defection to the Yorkists of Edmund Grey, Lord Grey of Ruthin, who also had extensive property within the county. However, the battle and the events leading up to it, is much more involved and far more interesting.
When the Lancastrians first arrived in the town, according to one chronicle, they set part of it on fire. Both Edward IV and Richard III would later grant tax relief on the town as it had recently fallen into ruin. Two years after the battle, when King Edward came to the town he brought with him the Duke of Somerset, who had recently changed sides. When the townsfolk saw Somerset, they tried to hang him in the Market Square. King Edward had to stand over him, sword drawn to protect him, whilst 250 gallons of wine were brought up to placate the gathering crowd and allow Somerset time to escape. Was it Somerset who fired the town? After all, defection was common-place and insufficient to warrant such anger.
Official records also show that three days before the battle William Waynefleet, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor went into the King’s tent on Hardingstone field and surrendered the Great Seal. Then along with Bishop Booth, Keeper of the Privy Seal and Bishop Stanbury of Hereford, the King’s confessor, he resigned his post and fled. At some point between then and the start of the fighting, King Henry knighted nine men, one of which was Thomas Stanley, another was Henry Stafford, the grandson of the Duke of Buckingham. Both would go on to play significant parts in the downfall of Richard III.
When the Yorkist army first arrived, an intense round of negotiations took place. The Yorkist’s still maintaining they only wanted to talk to the King. It was the very last time any such negotiation took place before an English battle. The negotiations quickly broke down, and at one point a Bishop negotiating for the Yorkists changed allegance, instead urging the King to stand and fight.
A significant but forgotten part of the battle is a charge by around Lancastrian 1,500, possibly Welsh, cavalry against Warwick and his men as they approached the defences. It would be the last great cavalry charge until Richard III’s 25 years later. A chronicle reports how the cavalry were forced back to the bridge and all killed, whilst their leader was taken prisoner and later executed. The bridge in question, was not Southbridge however, but another further to the south and known as St. Leonard’s Bridge. An 1870 Bridge report describes how it was enclosed at each end and became the main Hardingstone sewer. A 1894 report in the Herald also recounts how this bridge was culverted over, hiding two of the earliest and best proportioned arches in the county. The most likely location for this long forgotten waterway and bridge is on the northern boundary of the Abbey. A sewage plant near the Abbey entrance, its last visible remains.
The battle also took an international dimension in the form of the Papal Legate, Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Turni. He had officially been sent by the Pope to stop the two sides fighting and encourage them to join a planned crusade. However, he was also on a secret mission from the Duke of Milan to help the Yorkists win and then persuade them to invade France, something King Henry and his French Queen would not do. If England had invaded France, it would have taken the pressure of Milan which was being threatened by the French. Although, he strenuously denied it, Coppini reportedly ex-communicated all the Lancastrians before the battle and forbade their burial. Never the less, on his return to Rome, Coppini was defrocked and thrown in a Papal prison for exceeding his authority.
When the Yorkists began to assault the camp, it is very unlikely that the Lancastrian’s just sat and waited for them to reach the defences. The guns may have not worked, but they would not have been defenceless. At least half of the army would have been archers, men who would have practiced to shoot bows all their lives, making them very fast and very accurate. As the Yorkists approached 5,000 archers each shooting up to 15 arrows a minute, meant an arrowstorm of at least 100,000 arrows. It would have been the medieval equivalent of the Somme, and if only one percent found their target, that is still a thousand dead! This alone makes nonsense of some Yorkist claims that only 59 to 300 were killed. If we look at other contemporary chronicles, they report that between 10,000 and 20,000 were killed in total. Whilst these may also be exaggerations, they are not outside the realms of possibility.
As the Yorkists reached the defences, Lord Grey changed sides and began to help Edward, Earl of March’s men into the camp. They then began to slaughter those inside. In panic, the Lancastrians began to flee. This was the rout, where the real slaughter began. It is not recorded in which direction they ran. As we have already seen, the bridge was under Yorkist control, and to the north there was a substantial water course. There was also several smaller streams running west to east that were used by the local wool and cloth trade. And then there was the river itself which had had probably flooded. With the amount of water obstacles, it is therefore highly unlikely that they headed directly north towards the town. In which case, the drier and safest route, would have been east. It was also recorded that many were killed trying to cross the river at a place called Sandyford, was this then Rushmills?
The leading Lancastrian supporters, Viscount Beaumont, the Earl of Shrewsbury and Lord Egremont were all killed in the battle. So too was the Duke of Buckingham who was buried in the town at Greyfriars, The King was captured by the Yorkist and taken back to London and three months later, Richard of York publicly laid claim to the throne. In the meantime, Queen Margaret fled north to raise a new army.
The Wars of the Roses were only just beginning.