Battle of Barnet - Dates & Conflict:
The Battle of Barnet was fought April 14, 1471, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).
Armies & Commanders
Battle of Barnet - Background:
The dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses took a decisive turn in 1461 following the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Towton. Victorious, Yorkist Edward IV supplanted Lancastrian Henry VI, who was prone to bouts of insanity, on the throne. Ruling in relative peace for nearly a decade, Edward's actions as king began to alienate several of his key supporters including Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Known as the "Kingmaker" for his connections and role in Edward's elevation, Warwick became sufficiently irritated in 1469 to lead forces against the king in open rebellion.
Enlisting the aid of the king's younger brother, the Duke of Clarence, Warwick sought to replace Edward with the duke. Defeated in 1470, the two were forced to flee to France. There they entered into the service of Henry's wife, Queen Margaret, and the Lancastrian cause. Returning to England that October, Warwick succeeded in forcing Edward to flee to Burgundy and Henry VI was returned to the throne. Not to be deterred, Edward made the necessary preparations and landed on the Yorkshire coast on March 14, 1471 with an army. Coming ashore, he stated that he only sought to reclaim his father's title of Duke of York.
Battle of Barnet - Moving to Battle:
This ruse worked as Lancastrian forces avoided battle with Yorkists. Strengthening his army, Edward dropped this pretense and began marching on London. Moving south, he deflected attacks from Warwick's brother, the Marquess of Montagu, and the Duke of Exeter. Arriving at Coventry, he besieged Warwick's army and challenged him to battle. This was refused as the earl was awaiting reinforcements under Clarence. Learning of this, Edward sent his other brother, the Duke of Gloucester (future Richard III) to convince Clarence to return to the family fold. These entreaties were successful and Clarence defected back.
As Warwick would not offer battle, Edward withdrew towards London and entered the city. Arriving, he was met by Henry who offered no resistance and passed into Yorkist custody. Irate at Clarence, Warwick was soon reinforced by Montagu, Exeter, and the Earl of Oxford. Giving chase, they reached Barnet approximately twelve miles north of London before encountering Yorkist forces. Here they assumed a position along a ridge and astride the Great North Road with Exeter's men on the left, Montagu in the center, and Oxford on the right. Warwick led the reserves which moved into position behind his brother's men.
Outnumbered, Edward quickly moved to engage Warwick's army. Marching out of the city, they arrived near Barnet on the evening of April 13. Deploying, Lord William Hastings' men held the left, while Edward and Clarence were in the center, with Gloucester on the right. The reserves stood behind the center. During the night, Warwick bombarded the Yorkist position with his guns. This proved ineffective as Edward had moved his army forward under the cover of darkness with the goal of striking first in the morning. During the night, Warwick and Montagu made the decision to fight on foot as a show of support for their men.
Battle of Barnet - Fighting in the Fog:
As both armies awoke around 4:00 AM, they found the field shrouded in heavy fog. After an exchange of artillery fire and arrows, the two forces slammed into each other beginning hand-to-hand fighting. Due to the fog, the lines were offset with each side's right overlapping the enemy's left. Realizing this, Oxford attacked into Hastings' flank shattering his lines. As Hastings' men fled the field, they were pursued by Oxford's troops. In the chase, Oxford's command fell apart as his men sought plunder and loot. Gathering up around 800 men, he moved to rejoin the battle.
With the thick fog still covering the field, this Lancastrian triumph went unnoticed had little effect on the morale of either side. On the Lancastrian left, Exeter's men were coming under heavy pressure from Gloucester as the Yorkists worked around his flank. Rather than break like Hastings' lines, Exeter' men began to slowly fall back. As a result, the battle lines rotated from east-west to northeast-southwest. Unaware of this due to the fog, Oxford's returning men came behind Montagu's command. Mistaking Oxford's men for Edward's in the mist, Montagu's troops opened on them with a volley of arrows.
Oxford's men returned this fire and began departing the field under cries of treachery. These calls of treason quickly spread through Warwick's lines causing many of his men to begin quitting the field. With the fog lifting and the Lancastrian army wavering, Edward attacked with his reserves. Shattering the enemy lines, his troops killed Montagu and despite orders to capture Warwick, struck down the earl as he tried to escape. Pressing the attack the Yorkists cut down the Lancastrians as they fled the field.
Battle of Barnet - Aftermath:
Casualty numbers for Barnet are not known with certainty but most sources believe the Lancastrians to have suffered twice as many losses as the Yorkists. In the wake of the fighting, Edward showed mercy on the bodies of Warwick and Neville allowing them to be displayed at St. Paul's before being buried in their family vault. Despite his triumph, Edward was unable to rest as Margaret landed Weymouth with another army on the day of the battle. Maneuvering against this new threat, Edward defeated her forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury on May 4. Capturing Margaret, Edward effectively consolidated his position on the throne which he would hold until his death in 1483.