LIC Blog

On this day ... The Battle of Barnet

Easter Sunday fell on 14th April in 1471. That day was to see the utter ruin of one of the great families of England. 

Barnet was a small town 10 miles north of London.

North of the town itself, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, had assembled an army of around 20,000 men in a line stretching from west on the St. Alban's Road to the east. That side was protected by a steep slope dropping to Dead Man's Bottom. Warwick waited on Saturday for the arrival of his opponent, Edward IV, King of England.

The root cause of the enmity between these cousins was a woman, Elizabeth Woodville. Edward's insatiable lust could only be relieved by marriage with her, at a time when Warwick was deep in negotiations with France for a more advantageous match.

Warwick never forgave Edward for humiliating him by contracting a private marriage with the widowed Elizabeth, and his pride drew him inexorably into the arms of the House of Lancaster against his closer kin of York.

The events of that Easter Sunday would settle matters between them. 

Edward's men arrived under cover of darkness and approached within a few hundred yards of Warwick. All through the night Warwick's cannon blasted into the dark below them, but overshot Edward's men, injuring none. 

The Yorkist army spent a miserable night. No fires were lit to conceal their position and when battle was joined an opaque fog shrouded both armies. Neither side could see the opposition clearly. After the exchange of arrows, the Yorkists advanced, Edward in the centre, William Hastings on his left and Richard of Gloucester on his right. It was 5 am.

Richard's men had to climb out of Deadman's Bottom to attack Warwick's left flank, a hazardous mission at any time, but virtually insane in armour. But the King had entrusted this assault to his younger brother. Richard was 18 years old.

Hastings on the left wing was subjected to a fierce attack on his flank by John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The left wing of York crumbled and ran for their lives back to Barnet. If Oxford had been able to control his men, then he would have smashed into Edward's centre and ended the combat.

But his men charged after Hastings' forces. Also the fog prevented Edward's forces from appreciating the disaster.

Meanwhile Richard's men had reached the high ground and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Warwick's men. If Gloucester failed to hold his ground, they would be pushed down the slope and butchered like sheep. At least one of Gloucester's squires was killed at his side, whilst the battle raged.

At long last Oxford and his men returned to smash into Edward's lines. But in the fog and confusion they struck Warwick's right flank. Before they could be checked Warwick's men mistook Oxford's banners for those of the King and suddenly allies were at each other's throats.

This was the moment Edward had been waiting for. He threw his reserves against Warwick. These troops were fresh and eager for the fray. Warwick's line broke into chaos. As always, most men died, when they turned and fled. So now Warwick, the richest and most influential man in England, fell beneath the blades of his Yorkist pursuers. 

The House of Neville was dead.

Edward had won a great victory. But he owed it to the leadership of his brother Richard and the courage of the men he commanded.

Not a bad day's work for one caricatured as "small of body and weak in strength".