19 January 2008

The Battle of Barnet: Defeat from the Jaws Of Victory

6. In initially discussing Barnet with my teacher, he seemed to much enjoy pointing out that an heraldic misidentification turned what could have been one of the War of the Roses's pivotal triumphs into an embarrassing, tragic and deadly (at least for Richard Neville) defeat.

My wife, Teceangl, latterly has supplied me with a page out of Stephen Slater's lovely 2002 reference The Complete Book of Heraldry (Lorenz Books, ISBN ISBN 0-7548-1062-3) that gives an excellent thumbnail of who battled and what sad thing actually happened. The information is contained therein on page 29 of that edition. Here, Slater (which ironically, also describes an insect one may find on a coat of arms) lays out the groundwork:

The white mullet, or star, of the de Veres was partially responsible for one famous defeat during the Wars of the Roses. In 1471, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the former friend and supporter of the Yorkist king Edward IV, was fighting against him, having now sided with his Lancastrian rival, Henry VI. The two armies met at Barnet. The royal troops wore the rising sun of York; Warwick's forces were wearing red tunics upon which was the white ragged staff. (The bear and the ragged staff of Lancaster were, initially, two separate badges, combined only in later centuries.)

So we have Lancastrian and Yorkist partisans meeting on the field of battle not only to decide a battle but obviously to settle at least one score, bringing to mind a maxim that would have found a comfortable home amongst the royal houses of Medieval Europe: Fighting never proved anything – except who wins.

We will doubtless come to treat the bear and the ragged staff in future. For now, they are a bit beside the point, so we will note that parenthetical in passing.

The fight is joined and initially it looked as though it would be perhaps a Lancastrian rout of the Yorkists. Sadly, however the famous English weather and any number of conditions we might guess at conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of Lancaster victory that day. Slater continues:

On that day Warwick was joined by the troops of John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. At the height of the battle, which was fought in thick mist, de Vere's forces managed to drive the Yorkists backwards. After this success they attempted to rejoin the main Lancastrian force, and appeared out of the mist at some distance from their colleagues. Warwick's archers, mistaking the star on Lord Oxford's badge for the Yorkist sunburst, believed they were being attacked by King Edward's men, and let loose a shower of arrows. Oxford's troops believed that their former comrades had turned traitor and what had lately seemed to be destined to be a Lancastrian victory soon turned into a shambolic defeat for them. Warwick was killed and King Edward was able to march on to Tewkesbury and complete the defeat of King Henry's cause.

Awkward, to say the least, not to mention fatal to several members of the then-winning side. And ironically lethal to the Earl of Warwick.

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1 comment:

Ciaran said...

Right on. Slater, eh? I guess I'll actually Have to get a copy. (8^)>o