Medieval spies….

Thanks to a post on the Richard III Society Forum, I was steered to the following interesting Ian Arthurson article about medieval spying. We know that the Tudors excelled in this dangerous world, but it’s not so well known that it was quite rife during the Wars of the Roses as well. Royalty—and the Church—always needed to keep a finger on the pulse of the nation, friends and enemies alike.

There is a point where Arthurson mentions that in 1471 Edward IV sent out spies to follow the progress of Margaret of Anjou and her army from Bristol to Gloucester and then on to Tewkesbury, where of course, the battle ensued. A tradition in my Gloucestershire village of Churchdown is connected with these particular events. Churchdown, as its name suggests, arose on the slopes on an outlier of the Cotswold escarpment called Churchdown Hill or Chosen Hill (both apply) that some of Edward’s spies were positioned on the hilltop to watch the Lancastrian activities in the vale below.

If you stand on the western edge of the Cotswold escarpment and look down into the vale of the River Severn, you’ll see two hills rising from the flat countryside around. One is Robinswood Hill, and the other Churchdown Hill. Either would give splendid vantage points for spying upon what was going on closer to the river, so Edward IV chose well. Churchdown Hill is closer to Tewkesbury, so that’s the one to pick.

I can look at the hill from my house every day, and yes, I fully believe it would have been an excellent vantage point:…/uploads/2013/11/arthurson.pdf.

I also found a much lesser link on the subject of medieval spying. This places more emphasis on the involvement of the Church in the murkier side of watching what everyone was up to. It’s from this second site that I have taken the above illustration.


  1. Very interesting article, but Arthurson’s reference for his comment on Edward’s spies before Tewkesbury is the Arrivall, which simply says that Edward rwched Malmesbury, where he had:
    “knowledge that they, undarstandynge his approchinge and marchinge neare to them had lefte theyr purpos of gevynge battayle, and turned asyde-hand, and went to Bristowe. . .”
    So clearly both sides were spying – or scouring as this particular type of spying was more often called – out the movements of the other (Arthurson can be somewhat one-sided). This was absolutely normal practice in times of war.
    Where a battle was imminently desired by both sides, the two armies could communicate by means of heralds. But before Tewkesbury the Lancastrians would have been trying to avoid Edward, and Edward trying to catch them up, so spies would have been essential, as they surely always have been even in such emergencies, even in the days before organised and permanent spy networks.

    This is a bit more from the Arrivall, which gives a good feel for how the two armies were operating, and how the Lancastrians, earlier in the chase, had avoided battle at Sudbury. After getting themselves refreshed at Bristol, Margaret and her army:

    “toke new corage, the Thursday aftar to take the filde and gyve the Kynge battayll, for whiche intent they had sent forrydars to a town ix mile from Bristow, callyd Sudbury, and, a myle towards the Kynge, they apoyntyd a grownd for theyr fielde at a place callyd Sudbury hill. The Kynge, heringe this, the same Thursday, first day of May [sic], with all his hooste in array and fayre ordinaunce came towards the place by them appoyntyd for theyr fielde. Th’enemyes alsoo avauncyd them forthe, the same day, owt of Bristow, makynge semblaunce as thwoghe they would have comen streyght to the place appoyntyd, but, havynge knoledge of the Kyngs approochinge, they lefte that way, albe it theyr harbengars were come afore them as ferre as Sudberye towne; where they distressed certayne of the Kyngs partye, five or six, suche as neglygently pressed so ferre forwards, dredynge no dangar, but only entendyng to have purveyed ther theyr masters lodgyngs; and so they changyd theyr sayd purpos, and toke theyr way streght to Berkley, travelyng all that nyght, and, from thens, towards the towne of Gloucestar. The Kynge, the same Thursday, sonne aftar none, came nere to the same grownd, called Sudbury hill, and, nat havynge eny certaynty of his enemys, sent his scowrers alabowte in the cuntrye, trustynge by them to have wist where they had bene. Aboute that place was a great and a fayre large playne, called a would, and dowbtfull it was for to pas ferther, to he myght here somewhate of them, supposynge that they were right nere, as so they myght well have bene, if they had kepte forthe the way they toke owt of Bristow. And, when he cowthe nat here any certayntye of them, he avaunced forwards his hoole battayle, and lodgyd his vaward beyonde the hill, in a valley towards the towne of Sudberye, and lodged hymselfe, with the remenaunt of his hooste, at the selfe hill called Sudbery hill.”

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: