At the gates of Gloucester in 1471….
The Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471 was to prove decisive for the reign of our first Yorkist king. The opponents were Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrians, versus King Edward IV and the Yorkists. Margaret was defeated, and her heart and spirit was broken by the death in battle of her only son, Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales.
This article is concerned with what happened immediately before the battle, when there was a game of hide and seek between the foes. Margaret set off north from Bristol, intending to cross the Severn at Gloucester, which was the first bridge over the dangerously tidal river. Edward had been thrown off the scent, but suddenly realized what she was doing, and set off north on a parallel route, up on the drove road along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, while Margaret’s exhausted army trudged the wetter alluvial road in the vale of the Severn.
It was clear to Edward that she planned to enter Gloucester and cross the bridge, the only access to which was through the town. The main road to the west crossed three branches of the Severn and low-lying meadows by a series of bridges and a long causeway.
Edward sent a swift rider ahead to order the governor of Gloucester, Sir Richard Beauchamp, to close the gates against the Lancastrians and hold the town. Sir Richard was the son of a staunch Lancastrian, but was now loyal to Edward, and did as he was commanded.
Margaret could have taken Gloucester by force, but it would have been time-consuming, and she did not dare to risk Edward’s forces coming up behind her. She decided to march on north for the town of Tewkesbury, where there was a ford over the Severn at Lower Lode. The next bridge over the river was further north again, at Upton-on-Severn. The ford was impassable, Edward was almost upon her, and so Margaret prepared to make a stand. The rest, as they say, is history.
If you visit Gloucester today, it is hard to associate anything with the Gloucester of 1471. Oh, there are four main streets that form a crossroad in the heart of the city: Southgate, Northgate, Eastgate and Westgate. But the gates themselves have long since gone, and the streets are now pedestrianised. There are medieval buildings, if one knows where to look, but a great deal of wanton 1960s damage was done to Gloucester’s soul. The cathedral remains, however, and is still (in my opinion) the most handsome of all our cathedrals. But perhaps I’m biased.
What has also gone forever is the castle from where Sir Richard would have commanded his men as Margaret’s host banged at the gates. First it was dismantled until only the keep was left, and this was used as a gaol. Then that too was pulled down, and HMP Prison Gloucester was built. That is also no more, and in excavations they have found the remains of the old castle keep. What goes around, comes around.
The original castle nestled in the south-western curve of the old city walls, beside the river and quay, and would have been able to overlook the approach to the South Gate. This is surely the way Margaret would have come.
The land on the floor of the Severn vale is flat Severn clay, which after rain is like thick half-set glue. Whether it had been raining or not I don’t know, although I imagine that the impassable ford at Lower Lode meant there had been a quantity of rain in recent days. Well, there had been somewhere upstream on the Severn, if not in Gloucestershire. Or, of course, there was the Severn bore to consider, with the notoriously hazardous wave sweeping well inland. I have been told that it was not unheard of for it to sweep all the way to Worcester. There is a weir at Gloucester now, to stop it, but in 1471 Tewkesbury was well within reach. And spring tides are high in March, April and May.
If these conditions prevailed, Margaret’s men would have been even more disheartened. More than that, the land south of Gloucester was marshy anyway back then, the river would spread out of its bed. Thus the main road from Bristol was on another causeway. Not the ideal landscape and conditions for a medieval army that was already weary. (The land had been drained a great deal by the time the illustration below was drawn.)
Map of 1712 showing South Gate and Castle (middle, bottom, just above river)
With the gates closed firmly against them, Margaret marched on north, and Sir Richard Beauchamp’s men came out behind her army and harried the rear, capturing some guns. He was to be knighted after the battle.
An artist’s impression of Margaret of Anjou being taken away in defeat