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Background to the Battle of Barnet

The Battle of Barnet, fought by the Yorkists and Lancastrians, took place on the 14th of April, 1471 and was one of the battles that made up the War of the Roses.

Edward IV and his brother Richard (the future king of England Richard III) returned to England arriving on the Yorkshire coast on March 14, 1471. Their fleet of ships had been hit by a storm and their men scattered. Taking the men they had left the two brothers marched south to try and recruit more support. The Earl of Northumberland, an enemy of Edward, lay in wait but Edward managed to steer his smaller army around the trap. Edward's army grew as he moved further south towards a waiting Earl of Warwick and a much larger army. George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Edward and Richard had raised an army and was marching north to confront them. Clarence had sided with the Earl of Warwick and had even married the Earl's daughter. But instead of fighting Clarence declared his support for Edward's return and was welcomed back into the family. Edward's next move was to take control of London. The city was in Lancastrian control but the citizens of London had different ideas and it was decided that if Edward arrived at the gates they would be opened for him.

Edward entered London on 11th of April, 1471 and promptly arrested Archbishop George Neville and put him in the Tower of London along with King Henry VI. But Edward did not stay long in London. News reached him that Warwick was still a threat and that if he was to meet up with Queen Margaret who was expected to arrive in England at any time their combined armies could be too strong for the Yorkists to deal with. When Edward and his army left London they took King Henry VI with them in case he should be rescued by the Queen.

Site of the battle

Barnet is roughly 10 miles to the north on London on the road to St. Albans from where the Earl of Warwick was advancing. Edward was advancing from the south. The armies met on a flat plateau around 400 feet high. It was the evening of the 13th of April and Edward gave the order to advance under the cover of darkness towards the enemy. He ordered his troops to move silently so that their position would not be discovered. To the north Warwick knew Edward was close and ordered his cannons to open fire. Edward had moved closer to Warwick than he realised which was fortunate as Warwick's cannons were firing harmlessly over his and and army's heads. Edward stopped his men returning fire because to do so would have given away their positions.

Yorkist leaders

Edward IV, king of England. The eighteen year old Richard of Gloucester (Edward's brother and the future king of England) and William, Lord Hastings a chief supporter of Edward.

Lancastrian leaders

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker) - KILLED. the Earl of Oxford, Lord Montague - KILLED. the Duke of Exeter.

At the start of the battle

It was early on the morning of the 14th of April and the mist was heavy making it difficult for each army to see the other. Because of this the front lines of the two armies were not directly opposite each other. Gloucester's men overlapped at one end and the Earl of Oxford's men overlapped at the other. The Earl of Warwick was positioned towards the back of the Lancastrian lines with a reserve of men.

Image based on plan in 'Richard The Third' by Paul Murray Kendal

The battle

As Richard, Duke of Gloucester advanced on the right hand side of the Yorkist lines he found that the enemy was not there. He turned his men left taking advantage of the overlap that his position had granted to out flank the Lancastrians. In the centre Edward had attacked Montague's men head on and had taken them by surprise causing Warwick, who had positioned his men further back, so join the fight.

On the right-hand end of the Lancastrian line the Earl of Oxford had advanced so quickly on Lord Hastings that the Yorkists under his command were scattered, turned and fled back to Barnet. Oxford followed them all the way and the armies disappeared into the mist out of sight. It was fortunate that the mist hid the retreat of Hastings as the sight of Hastings' men being chased off the battle field may have caused a much bigger retreat of Yorkist soldiers.

Image based on plan in 'The War of the Roses by Hurbert Cole

Confusion leads to a Lancastrian defeat

The axis of the battle now rotated from a east-west orientation to a north-south alignment. The Earl of Oxford took some time to regroup his men and return to the battlefield from the south. But when he did so the banner his men were carrying was mistaken for Edward's banner. Montague's men saw the banner and thought they were being attacked by Edward's men from the south and so attacked them. The Earl of Warwick was unable to prevent the confusion and shouts of 'Treason' spreading throughout the Lancastrian ranks and his army turned and fled. Warwick was caught and killed. The Yorkists had won.

References Used
  • 1) Richard The Third, Paul Murray Kendal
  • 2) The War of the Roses, Hurbert Cole
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