Battle of Barnet: 1471


A small, green area in a London is not the sort of place usually associated with great historical events, but Hadley Common holds the distinction of being the spot where the great Warwick the Kingmaker met his end.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was the most powerful man in England in the late 1400s. He owned huge tracts of land in the Midlands, North of England and Wales and was the nephew of the heir to the English throne, Richard, Earl of York.

Background to the battle

The struggle for the Plantaganet crown was to occupy the history of England for more than 30 years and resulted in the series of battles which have come to be known as the Wars of the Roses.

How this conflict led to a tiny town on the northern fringes of the capital is a strange one and begins with the death of Edward III in 1377.

His heir was his grandson, the 10-year-old Richard II and he wasn't very good at kingship. The fall-out from his poor decision making led to his cousin, Henry Bolinbrooke, son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seizing the throne in 1399.

It was Henry's grandson, the sixth to bear the name, who created a vacuum of power into which the powerful Richard, Earl of York, Yorkist heir to the throne, was able to step.

The conflict came to a head in May 1455 when the conflicting houses met at St Albans. York won, Somerset was killed and Henry was seized by the Yorkists and forced to acknowledge Richard as his heir.

Unfortunately for the Yorkist cause, Richard was killed in 1460 at the Battle of Wakefield. This didn't stop the fight, his young son, the future Edward IV, took up the cause alongside his cousin, Richard Neville.

Once Edward became king, Neville plotted for a marriage alliance with Louis XI, King of France. Unfortunately Edward had his own ideas and he married Elizabeth Woodville, widow of a Lancastrian knight.

Neville was enranged and conspired behind Edward's back, finally erupting into open rebellion in 1469 at the Battle of Edgecote. Neville won but he was forced to free Edward and flee to France where he plotted to put Henry VI back on the throne.

He landed at Dartmouth on September 13, 1470 and forced Edward to flee to Burgundy. Henry only had his throne back for a year before Edward landed at Ravenspur, near Hull, and marched on the Lancastrian forces, meeting them on what was described as 'a faire plaine outside Barnet' on April 13 - today's Hadley Green.

The battle

Warwick had his men deployed along three divisions. Montague took the centre with the Duke of Exeter on the left and the Earl of Oxford to the right. Warwick himself took command of the reserve.

Edward was determined to end the conflict quickly and he marched far closer to the Lancastrian forces than he might have wished to. This proved beneficial however, as the artillery bombardment from Warwick sailed over his troops and left his army relatively unscathed come dawn.

William, Lord Hastings, commanded Edward's left, Edward himself took the centre and Richard, Duke of Gloucester - future King Richard III - led the left. There is no mention of a reserve, although the possibility of one has never been ruled out.

Numerically the armies were only slightly mismatched, Warwick generally being held to have the advantage with around 15,000 men to Edward's 12,000.

Edward made the first move, his archers launching a barrage of arrows at the opposing frontline at 5am. His artillery followed shortly after but it soon became apparent that dense fog had caused a miscalculation in Edward's ranks - his line overlapped Warwick's and Gloucester found himself advancing on a non-existant position.

Across on the left Hastings found himself in a similar position, out of alignment with Oxford's division and the latter's advance over reasonably level ground resulted in an outflanking manoeuvre which put the Yorkist left wing to flight.

Oxford was unable to control his persuit however, and the cut-throat element within it went on a rampage which saw the Yorkists chased half-way to London.

Gloucester, on the right flank, had slightly better luck and he turned to outflank Exeter's division. As Exeter held the higher ground, Gloucester's movement was not as effective as that of Oxford and it forced Edward to give ground in the centre.

Warwick must have felt victory was his but the return of Oxford's somewhat reorganised troops was to lead to the biggest blunder in the whole War of the Roses campaign.

The thick fog on the battlefield made it impossible to see clearly and the returning Oxford, coming across Montague's troops, thought he had stumbled on Edward's Yorkist rear. His men started firing on the line and Montague, thinking Oxford had turned traitor, began to shower his men with a hail of arrows. In the confusion that followed Oxford, closely followed by the Earl of Somerset, abandoned the field.

This bitter blow was compounded by the death of Montague and, as morale among Warwick's troops started to fade, the Earl himself made an escape bid, fleeing through his reserve towards the grounds of what is now Wrotham Park, where his charger was tethered.

The most accepted death for this once powerful man is that his livery was recognised and he was attacked by a group of Yorkist men-at-arms. Wounded and knocked to the ground, his visor was torn open and a heavy war blade brought to an end the great Warwick the Kingmaker.

For more information on the War of the Roses or the aftermath of the Battle of Barnet there are a number of excellent web sites on the internet.