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Wars of the Roses: First Battle of St. Albans

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Wars of the Roses: First Battle of St. Albans

Henry VI of England

Photograph Source: Public Domain

First Battle of St. Albans - Conflict & Date:

The First Battle of St. Albans was fought May 22, 1455, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).

Armies & Commanders

Yorkists

  • Richard, Duke of York
  • Richard, Earl of Warwick
  • approx. 5,000-7,000 men

    Lancastrians

  • Edmund, Duke of Somerset
  • approx. 2,000-3,000 men

  • First Battle of St. Albans - Background:

    The antagonism between the Houses of Lancaster and York commenced in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster overthrew his unpopular cousin King Richard II. A grandson of Edward III, through John of Gaunt, his claim to the English crown was relatively weak compared to his Yorkist relations. Ruling until 1413 as Henry IV, he was forced to put down several uprisings to maintain the throne. On his death, the throne passed to his son, Henry V. A great warrior known for his victory at Agincourt, Henry V only lived until 1422 when he was succeeded by his nine-month old son Henry VI. For most of his minority, Henry was surrounded by unpopular advisors such as the Duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, and the Duke of Suffolk.

    During Henry VI's reign, the French gained the upper hand in the Hundred Years' War and began pushing English forces from France. A weak and ineffective ruler, Henry was heavily advised by the Duke of Somerset who desired peace. This position was countered by Richard, Duke of York who wished to continue fighting. A descendent of Edward III's second and fourth sons, he possessed a strong claim to the throne. By 1450, Henry VI began experiencing bouts of insanity and three years later was judged unfit to rule. This resulted in a Council of Regency being formed with York at its head as Lord Protector. Imprisoning Somerset, he worked to expand his power but was forced to step down two years later when Henry VI recovered.

    First Battle of St. Albans - Forces Mobilize:

    Resuming the throne, Henry again fell under the influence of his advisors. Seeking to eliminate York as a threat, Queen Margaret of Anjou had him removed from court. Departing, York increasingly began to fear that he would be arrested for treason. This came to a head in 1455 when he received a summons to appear before the King's council to answer allegations against him. Fearing the outcome, York began raising troops from among his supporters in the north. Assembling his men, he started moving south towards London. En route, he was joined by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, both members of the allied Neville family. The addition of their forces brought York's army to between 5,000 and 7,000 men. In response to York's actions, Henry formed a small army of 2,000-3,000 men, with the Duke of Somerset in command, and began marching north.

    First Battle of St. Alban - The Armies Meet:

    Departing London, Henry was surprised by the speed of York's advance and directed his army to occupy the fortified town of St. Albans on the morning of May 22. Shortly thereafter, York's forces arrived outside the town and began deploying to the east. Despite the aggressive stances assumed by both sides, neither Henry nor York was eager to engage in combat. York desired that his name be cleared and certain Lancastrian advisors removed. Badly outnumbered, Henry and Somerset wished to escape from militarily weak position. As a result, much of the morning was spent in negotiations as messengers travelled back forth between the two camps. After three hours of talks, York proved unable to convince Henry of his peaceful intentions and the King became increasingly angry in regard to the Duke's demands.

    First Battle of St. Albans - A Short, Violent Clash:

    Around midday, York grew tired of the impasse and directed his forces to assault St. Albans via the Sopwell and Shropshire Lane gates. Charging forward, they found both gates barricaded by Henry's men. Repeated assaults failed to break through and casualties began to mount. Assessing the situation, Warwick led the Yorkist reserves in search of another way into St. Albans. Moving through gardens and back roads, he was able to enter the town and approached its marketplace. Here, Yorkist forces found the Lancastrian reserves. Caught by surprise, they were not prepared for battle when Warwick's men charged forward. Quickly shattering the enemy's forces, Warwick pressed his attack. With the Lancastrian reserves fleeing, the troops at the gates were also forced to withdraw.

    First Battle of St. Alban - Aftermath:

    As the battle swirled through the streets, Somerset was killed and Henry captured. In the fighting, the King was slightly wounded in the neck. While a minor clash in regard to numbers engaged, the First Battle of St. Albans marked the opening of the Wars of the Roses and had a substantial political impact. Taking possession of Henry, York reclaimed his position at court and was made Lord High Constable of England. As the King again slipped into another bout of insanity, York also became regent with the title of Lord Protector in November 1455. Following Henry's recovery the following year, York was forced from his posts by Margaret and sent to Ireland. Fighting resumed in earnest in 1459 when the two sides clashed at Blore Heath and Ludford Bridge.

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