The ‘Wars of the Roses’ probably feature in most people’s general knowledge, but not always in any great detail. So, as a reminder, they took place during the second half of the 15th century, a period which also featured the demoralising loss of Normandy and Aquitaine in the reign of Henry VI (although England managed to hold on to Calais), and political uncertainty at home as various factions manoeuvred for influence. Henry, who began his reign as a baby and reputedly ended it in a state of imbecility, was finally murdered in 1471. From then until 1483 Edward IV was established as King, most of the potential competition having by then died deaths premature, unnatural and sudden.
But before then, there had been a whole series of battles and skirmishes, all basically about who should be king. The leading barons were naturally involved, supporting one candidate or another, with one group called Lancastrians (later, thanks largely to Shakespeare, called the Red Rose group) and the other called the Yorkists (White Rose). The historical impact of these power struggles cannot be compared to that of the great Civil War in the time of Charles I. But although in the long term the ‘Wars’ did little general damage except to the individuals actually engaged in them, there was the usual amount of disorder and destruction that may be expected when armies cross the land, and small landholders were often kitted out in liveries and sent into battle as part of a great lord’s ‘affinity’. One engagement - at Towton, Yorkshire in 1461 - reputedly involved at least 50,000 men, half of whom were slaughtered on the field. Other battles occurred throughout England: from Northumberland, south west to Tewksbury (with a few excursions into Wales), and down to the outskirts of modern London.
Post medieval Mount structures hidden by 21 century mist. Is this what it looked like in the 1470s?
(photo: Linda Camidge)
All this may seem a long way from Cornwall, and from local history. But there was one lone, surprising military action in the far south west, and that was at St. Michael’s Mount in 1473-1474 - a time when the ‘Wars’ were otherwise in abeyance.
Most of Cornwall was, in the 1470s, generally supportive of the Yorkist king Edward IV. He was an active and militarily successful ruler, who had regained the throne by force after being driven into exile during the first part of his reign. His eldest son, of course, was technically the Duke of Cornwall, which helped to keep the area loyal – although the young Prince (who would famously disappear from the Tower of London before reaching man’s estate) never seems to have crossed the Tamar, and Cornwall’s Members of Parliament were noteworthy – even by the standards of the time – as having no connection with the boroughs they were meant to represent.
The Duchy was a huge estate, with incomes from many sectors, especially its control of many leases of lands and mills in the county. Ducal patronage was used to attract the support of many of the Cornish gentry. The Duchy was also an important employer, with many officials needed to administer it. These men were not to be compared to the modern independent Civil Service; when a monarch changed in the 15th century, tenants and officers could all be superseded by the new king’s favourites, which was an added incentive for them to support their current Duke. It must have seemed that King Edward would not have to worry about any opposition suddenly arising in the far south west, and after his return from exile he concentrated on moving southwards from Yorkshire to his victory at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, finally disposing of Henry VI after another victory at Tewkesbury.
From then until 1483, England enjoyed much more settled and prosperous times. The Battle of Barnet was, however, to have an aftermath. Two of the defeated Lancastrian barons, the Earl of Oxford and Lord Beaumont, both escaped to France. Here, they looked around for ways to continue their opposition to Edward, hoping for support from England’s traditional enemy, the King of France. Louis XI, they will have reasoned, might be inclined to provide this, as his own main rival, the Duke of Burgundy, had given tacit support to the English Yorkist court during their recent exile. However, a letter from the Milanese Ambassador at the French Court to the Duke of Milan suggests that Louis did not trust Oxford, who had told him he was an enemy of King Edward “but that he afterwards kept his feet in two shoes, practising a double treachery”.
However, any mistrust was evidently dispelled – or at least smoothed over - as by May 1473, Oxford had at least one ship and was engaged in general piracy in the Channel. By September, he had arrived on the Cornish coast, together with Beaumont, and on September 30th captured St. Michael’s Mount, presumably with the help of his French crew.
Oxford promptly asked Louis for supplies and support. A French ship duly arrived with twenty crossbowman, four gunners, two light mortars and enough food to keep forty men for a month. One chronicler, Warkworth, described the Mount as “a strong place and a mighty, and cannot be got if it is well victualled with a few men to keep it, for twenty men may keep it against the world”.
This development finally caught the attention of King Edward, who had (according to rumour) not been particularly worried about the fall of St Michael’s Mount, perhaps because it was not a Duchy Castle and was in any case remote. He may have judged that there was no chance of support in Cornwall, although Warkworth says that on arrival the new occupants had “right good cheer of the Commons”.
Traces of early modern fortifications possibly connected with the siege (photo: Dawn Walker)
The King now sent six ships to blockade Mounts Bay, to keep out any further French assistance to Oxford and Beaumont – acting decisively while Louis of France dithered. Sir Henry Bodrugan was sent to besiege the Castle from the landward side. Bodrugan (otherwise known as Henry Trenowith) did not apply himself to the task with particular energy. Described in recent times variously as the “party boss” and “little more than a bandit”, Bodrugan had been the subject of a petition to parliament complaining of – amongst lesser crimes – murder, rape and wrongful imprisonment. It was said that he terrorised the seas to the extent that trade in and out of Cornwall was “utterly decayed and brought to nought”. Any loyalty to the Yorkist regime generated by the existence of an absent, juvenile Duke of Cornwall seems likely to have been negated by King Edward’s use of such a dubious individual.
Bodrugan was not even effective; perhaps he had his own agenda, and was making no more than a token effort to dislodge the Earl of Oxford. At first the would-be insurgent would venture out from the Mount to look for supplies – on one such occasion he was wounded in the face by an arrow – but it quickly became apparent that there was no need for such risky behaviour. Bodrugan was quite happy to meet the Earl under terms of truce, and even to provide food when stocks were getting low provided the price was right.
By December, the siege had been taken over by John Fortescue, the Chief Justice, who brought some artillery and was much more determined. There were regular skirmishes on the beach, during which some men lost their lives, although there were also brief periods of truce, perhaps when the attackers had other work on, or the weather was particularly uninviting. Fortescue employed such tactics as offering rewards to any defenders who decided to leave; a policy said to have been so successful that fewer than ten men remained to defend the Mount. This is surprising in view of reports that the original force which had taken the castle numbered 397, plus the 24 French soldiers. It would be interesting to know exactly how Fortescue’s offer was conveyed to the French defenders.
The Mount held out until February 1474, as the last Lancastrian stronghold in England. With winter coming to an end and no prospect of success, Oxford and Beaumont surrendered on terms. Oxford was sent to prison in Calais, and Beaumont elsewhere. The last flicker of opposition to Edward IV was out, and Cornwall once more settled down to business as usual.
The Wars of the Roses, Douglas Seward, 2002 edition pages 226-230, provides a very full account, and was the source of the information on Bodrugan. Seward follows five separate characters through the later 15th century, and has chosen the Earl of Oxford as one of them in a highly readable and well-supported narrative
A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward Fourth, by John Warkworth, DD (“Warkworth’s Chronicle”), Camden Society edition 1839, pages 26-27 (accessed 21 10 2017). The extracts quoted are also in Seward, page 226
Rickard, J (23 January 2014), Siege of St. Michael's Mount, 30 September 1473-February 1474 (accessed 21 10 2017)
History Today Companion to British History, ed. Gardiner and Wenborn, 1995
British History on line, State Papers Milan 1485-1618 (accessed 21 10 2017)
Edward IV, Charles Ross, 1974 esp. page 343-344 (for MPs)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/york/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8673000/8673322.stm and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/11047871/Towton-Englands-bloodiest-battle.html (accessed 21 10 2017) give colourful, and probably exaggerated, accounts of the Battle of Towton