The scene above is fictitious, with roses being brandished nobly, but the strife known to posterity as The Wars of the Roses was full of treachery. Turncoats abounded, loyalty could be non-existent, and men’s names dragged down. Not always dragged down, of course, because if the traitor defected to the ultimately winning side, he did very nicely, thank you very much.
The Battle of Northampton, 10th July 1460, for instance, was won by the Yorkists because the Lancastrians were betrayed by the commander of their own vanguard, Edmund Grey, Lord Grey of Ruthin. It was a prearranged plan, with the Earl of Warwick’s Yorkists told not to attack anyone in Grey’s colours. Grey’s reward was to be made Earl of Kent.
But five months later, on 30th December that same year, was fought the Battle of Wakefield, at which the tables were turned and York lost to Lancaster, in the process forfeiting the lives of the Duke of York himself, his prominent supporter the Earl of Salisbury, and York’s 17-year-old second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland.
York was trapped at Sandal Castle near Wakefield, with (it is estimated) round 5,000 men compared with the (equally estimated) 20,000 of the Lancastrians. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury (not his namesake, the Earl of Warwick) was at York’s side throughout. The Nevilles were one of the great families in the north, but were divided because Salisbury’s cadet branch had risen above the senior branch, which was led by his great-nephew, the Earl of Westmorland. Westmorland was ill, and his younger brother, John Neville of Raby, had a great deal to gain by the destruction of both York and Salisbury.
The Percys were another great northern family, who, resentful of the jumped-up Nevilles, opposed York and Salisbury. John Neville of Raby was soon colluding with the Percys and other Lancastrians. A plot was hatched by the northern veteran Andrew Trollope to fool the Duke of York into coming out to join battle, when he should have stayed safely in Sandal Castle, waiting for the help that was on its way from his son and heir, Edward, Earl of March, the future Edward IV, and from the Earl of Warwick.
Trollope had been a Yorkist, but changed sides after feeding York with false information about the strength of the Lancastrians. Then, after concealing most of the Lancastrian army in the woods surrounding the intended battlefield in front of the castle, Trollope marched a much smaller contingent into the open to challenge York and deceive him into thinking the opposition was much smaller than it really was.
It would also seem that the scheming John Neville of Raby further fooled York with false colours, so that he thought some Yorkist reinforcements had arrived from Warwick. Another version is that Neville pretended he would raise men for York, but raised them for Lancaster instead. Either way he was a lying turncoat. And all this went on while a Christmas truce was in force! Not very honourable or chivalrous.
Oh, sneaky, sneaky Lancastrian traitors, yet York appears to have had faith in these men. Certainly it is thought he believed that if he gave battle, a large portion of the Lancastrian army would come over to his side. He was strongly advised to stay in the castle and just wait for his son Edward and real allies to arrive to save him, but something convinced him to march out and not only be confronted by the Lancastrians he could see, but surrounded too by the greater numbers hidden in the woods. Was he incredibly brave and sure of his cause? Or deluded and a complete fool? As we do not know what was in his mind, we will probably never know. All we do know is that he was betrayed by so-called friends.
The battle was short. York, Salisbury and young Edmund were all slain and beheaded, and their heads displayed ignominiously on Micklegate Bar in York. York’s head was ridiculed with a paper crown, and a notice: York overlooks the city of York.
It was a disaster for the Yorkist cause, but now Edward of March took over as head of the House. He triumphed, became Edward IV, and after one brief blip when he had to flee to his sister in Burgundy, he returned to vanquish Lancaster and reign for twelve peaceful years. He passed away at a relatively young age, but death came in his bed, not on a battlefield.
Of course, being a Ricardian, I have to think of Bosworth, where the greatest betrayal of them all brought about the brutal death of the Duke of York’s youngest son, Richard III. The name Stanley is all I need to say. Back-stabbing and fence-sitting was their game. The Stanleys benefited greatly from their shameful treachery. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
As I have commented here, if only York had stayed put in Sandal Castle, how different might things have been. Would he, not his youngest son, have become King Richard III? Edmund could have lived to marry and perhaps have progeny. George of Clarence might never have rebelled and been condemned for treason. And if York had been around, might his eldest son Edward have been prevented from making the disastrous Woodville “marriage” that was to eventually lead to the horror of Bosworth? Bosworth, where it might have been King Richard IV who was hacked to death.
Who knows? Without the Woodville marriage, there wouldn’t have been a King Richard to die at Bosworth. There wouldn’t have been a Bosworth, because Richard, Duke of Gloucester, would probably have happily lived out his days as Lord of the North, maintaining a peaceful balance between the Nevilles and the Percys.