Medieval Mayhem: from Fight to Festival

With Maggie Chaplin Summer in the Four Shires is the festival season, and thousands of people get together to have a good time. You could set off in your...

With Maggie Chaplin

Summer in the Four Shires is the festival season, and thousands of people get together to have a good time. You could set off in your car on a Friday night ready to camp, glamp or caravan and look forward to an enjoyable weekend. Once on site you’d find toilet facilities, showers, multiple food outlets and plenty to drink, be it water or a G&T.

Not all camping’s like that.  On Friday 3rd May 1471, a 6,000 strong Lancastrian army pitched camp at around 4pm just south of Tewkesbury. A limited number would have the luxury of a tent, only a handful of them would have anything resembling a toilet to use, there wasn’t enough water to drink, let alone wash with, and food was in very short supply.

These 6,000 Friday-nighters were as far removed from festival goers as you could get. They were soldiers with allegiance to Queen Margaret, wife of the deposed and incarcerated Henry VI, and they faced the prospect of a bloody battle the following day. The Yorkist King Edward IV and his troops were in hot pursuit and camped only a few miles away at Tredington. Margaret had wanted to move on west to Wales to recruit more men before engaging in warfare, but to do that she’d need to take her troops across the Severn. That would be a slow process and make them an easy target for King Edward’s advancing forces.

Her army had spent the day marching. They’d travelled 24 miles or so, some on horseback but most on foot, and they carried much of their equipment themselves. The weather had been hot and men and horses were tired, hungry and very, very thirsty. The water in the streams they’d passed had been low, and what little there was rendered undrinkable by being churned up by the baggage train. Sheer exhaustion forced them to stop on what was for most, completely unfamiliar territory.

They took up a position on a ridge just south of Tewkesbury, with the Abbey at their back. To the east was the river Swilgate and to the west the Avon where it ran into the Severn. This limited the direction from which the enemy could approach, but it also meant that they’d be bottled in should the battle go against them. They looked out over uneven ground, deep ditches and high hedges that would present a challenge to attackers. It was the best they could do.

The Lancastrians settled down to get what sleep they could on that Friday night, in the certain knowledge that whatever the outcome the following day, many of them would die. The only weekend entertainment would be had by the citizens of Tewkesbury who would, no doubt, watch the melee from a safe distance.

The power-hungry Plantagenet Houses of York and Lancaster were both continually jockeying for supremacy, resulting in an English Civil War that lasted on and off between 1455 and 1485. The Battle of Tewkesbury was just one of the confrontations in what was later dubbed the Wars of the Roses, because of the family emblems of white and red roses. It turned out to be a decisive one. The Yorkist King Edward rode into battle on that May morning in 1471 determined to hang on to the throne.

Margaret had other ideas. She was resolute that her only son, also called Edward, should inherit the crown. Her timing was unfortunate. She’d just returned from exile in France on the very day that King Edward had defeated a Lancastrian army at Barnet, north of London. When she landed in Weymouth and learned that her staunch ally, the Earl of Warwick (The “Kingmaker”) had been slaughtered, her resolve wavered, but she was encouraged to carry on, believing that she could re-provision her army and cross the Severn at Gloucester.

King Edward was a wily adversary. Guessing Margaret’s plan, he arranged that the city defences be manned and the gates barred to her. Her army had a fruitless detour. Not only were they unable to cross the river, but they’d counted on obtaining arms and food for the men and horses. Neither was available, and valuable time and energy had been wasted, so there was no option but make a stand at Tewkesbury.

As dawn broke on that fateful 4th of May, Margaret would dress in her royal finery to rally her troops. It was important to look regal even though it meant additional baggage to transport. She would then withdraw from the battlefield, whilst her eighteen year old son Edward would ride amongst the men promising rewards for loyal service.

The 29yr old King Edward also had a striking presence. He was unusually tall for the time – over 6ft 3ins, attractive to women, and an approachable leader, although ruthless when angered. Whilst Margaret was putting on her velvet and ermine, Edward and his knights would be donning their armour, ready to mount their horses for the advance. He would offer a prayer and commit his cause to God, before setting off towards Tewkesbury.

The first the Lancastrians would hear of the impending approach would be the trumpets, and the crashing racket of Edward’s men hacking down hedges, then the thunder of hooves. The armoured knights would dismount within sight of the battlefield and corrall their horses behind the battle lines, then stride rather than run into battle. 16kg of the total 50kg weight of armour was around their legs and slowed their progress. The common soldiers were less well covered. They might have worn metal helmets, with their bodies protected by padded canvas jackets, perhaps with strips of metal reinforcing them. Some would have only their doublets.

Much of the fighting was hand to hand with swords, daggers, halberds (a spiked and hooked blade) and poll-axes. 15th century armies relied heavily on their artillery and on the skills of their bowmen. (Of the 5,500 men Edward had at Tewkesbury, 3,500 were archers). Armour gave fair protection against arrows, but horses were an easy target. During the battle the only mounted soldiers would operate behind the lines to run down deserters or the fleeing enemy.

The sight of King Edward’s approaching army with banners unfurled and the sound of trumpets and battle cries must have been daunting for the waiting Lancastrians. The advance would be accompanied at a range of about 300 yards by a massive hail of arrows and a pounding from the field guns that Edward’s men had hauled across the grass. Although Margaret had the larger army by about five hundred men, they were less well equipped and Edward knew it. He was a clever tactician, and after several hours of gruelling combat it was clear his forces were winning.

Many Lancastrians died in the battle, including Prince Edward, who was later buried in Tewkesbury Abbey. The rest decided to quit and run. Some tried to cross the river Swilgate and were drowned. Others retreated into Tewkesbury and were cut down in the streets and in the abbey where they’d hoped to gain sanctuary. Many more tried to flee over the rough ground to the west but were cornered by the Yorkist cavalry in the watermeadow next to Southwick brook. A once idyllic spot, it became a killing field; hedges and men hacked down, turf churned up and bloodied, and dead and dying men everywhere.

After the slaughtermen came the looters. The bodies were stripped of anything worthwhile – armour in particular was valuable. Then it was the turn of the grave pit diggers. Finally, after all the shouting and clamour of the fighting and its aftermath, there was an eerie silence. Still the smell of battle lingered: the sweat, the smoke, the fear and the metallic tang of blood.

The divisional commanders of the Lancastrian army that weren’t killed in the battle were captured and subsequently publicly beheaded in Tewkesbury market place. Edward couldn’t risk another rebellion. The only prisoner whose life he spared was Margaret, Henry VI’s Queen Consort. The brutal policy worked and Edward, the first Yorkist King of England, enjoyed a relatively unchallenged reign until his death in 1483.

If you visit Tewkesbury today, you can learn about the battle in the Tewkesbury Heritage Centre, see objects in the museum that were found on the battlefield, or walk the way-marked battlefield trail. Interpretation boards at various points on the trail remind you of what happened here over five hundred years ago, and the killing field is still called Bloody Meadow.

It doesn’t end there. Every July thousands of people from countries worldwide converge on Tewkesbury for yet another summer festival. The medieval-themed weekend includes a re-enactment of the battle of 1471. Many of the participants camp near the battlefield, but unlike their medieval forebears they can slip out of character and enjoy a meal and a pint, and there are bound to be portaloos on site. When the excitement’s over they can go home safe and sound to their families, because this time it isn’t for real.