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Wars of the Roses: Battle of Tewkesbury

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Battle of Tewkesbury - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Tewkesbury was fought May 4, 1471, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).

Armies & Commanders

Yorkists

  • Edward IV
  • Richard, Duke of Gloucester
  • approx. 3,500-5,000 men

    Lancastrians

  • Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset
  • Edward, Prince of Wales
  • Queen Margaret of Anjou
  • approx. 5,000 men

  • Battle of Tewkesbury - 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.

    Clashing at the Battle of Barnet on April 14, Edward succeeded in defeating the Lancastrians and killing Warwick. Capturing the docile Henry VI, Edward occupied London and reclaimed his throne. On the same day that Warwick was defeated, Margaret and Edward, Prince of Wales landed at Weymouth. Swiftly joined by the veteran commander Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, they learned of Warwick's defeat. Unwilling to attack Edward without first augmenting his forces, Somerset began moving towards Wales where he hoped to unite with troops under Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke.

    Moving to Battle:

    To the east at Windsor, Edward learned of Margaret's arrival and began moving towards the West Country to intercept the Lancastrian army before it could be reinforced. Marching hard, Somerset's men were compelled to make a detour to Bristol to re-supply and then another when the city of Gloucester refused them entry. As a result, the Lancastrians were forced to head to Tewkesbury where they hoped to cross the River Severn. Closely followed by Edward, Somerset was able to avoid battle at Sodbury, but was concerned about being attacked as his army crossed the river.

    As a result, with his columns approaching Tewkesbury, Somerset elected to turn and fight on May 3. Selecting a strong position south of the town and including a pasture known as the Gastum (Gastons), he formed his army into three battles with himself commanding the right, Lord Wenlock the center, and the Earl of Devon the left. Somerset's right flank was anchored on small stream with a forest park opposite, while his left was on the banks of the Swillgate River. Arriving the next day, Edward was eager to destroy the Lancastrian army to prevent the rebellion from spreading.

    The Battle of Tewkesbury:

    Arriving on the field early the next day, Edward deployed his army with Richard, Duke of Gloucester's (future Richard III) men on the left, his own in the center, and Lord Hastings on the right. Possessing an advantage in artillery and archers, Edward began a bombardment with the goal of softening the strong Lancastrian position. In addition, concerned about a possible flank attack from the woods on the left, he dispatched a force of 200 mounted spearmen to keep guard. While enduring the bombardment, Somerset devised a plan to strike at Gloucester's flank (Map).

    Leaving a line of men to screen his movements, Somerset led his troops across a series of back roads to the base of a hillock in the forest park. From this point he intended to strike at Gloucester while Wenlock launched a frontal assault. Moving forward, Somerset's men failed to strike directly at the Yorkist flank and instead veered towards Edward's troops in the center. As the fighting raged, Wenlock failed to come to Somerset's aid. As a result, Somerset was halted and pushed back by Gloucester. As his men struggled to hold their ground, they were assaulted in the flank by the mounted spearmen from the park.

    Driven back, Somerset's men suffered heavy losses in an area known as the Bloody Meadow. Escaping back to the main Lancastrian lines, Somerset accused Wenlock of treason and may have struck him down. On the Yorkist side, Edward turned over the pursuit of Somerset's shattered division to Gloucester and began an attack on the remaining Lancastrian lines. Striking at the enemy's center, which was now leaderless and full of rumors of treason, the Yorkists succeeded in shattering the Lancastrian position. Many of the Lancastrians, including the Prince of Wales, were cut down as they fled north.

    Aftermath of Tewkesbury:

    Several of the Lancastrian leaders, including Somerset, sought sanctuary in nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. Forced out, he was quickly tried and executed by Edward in the days after the battle. In the fighting, the Lancastrians lost around 2,000 men. Yorkist losses are not known, but most likely were significantly less. The victories at Barnet and Tewkesbury brought the second phase of the Wars of the Roses to an end as Edward effectively consolidated his hold on the throne. This was aided by the capture of Margaret a short time later. With Margaret in custody and the Prince of Wales dead, Henry VI remained the last Lancastrian who posed a threat to his throne. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Henry died of "melancholy" on May 21 or 22, though it is generally believed that he was murdered on Edward's orders. This threat removed, Edward ruled in relative peace until his death in 1483.

    Selected Sources

  • English Heritage Battlefield Report: Tewkesbury, 1471
  • UK Battlefields Resource Centre: Battle of Tewkesbury

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