A paper crown clung, fluttering, on a head impaled on the southern gate to the City of York. Richard, Duke of York had been killed in battle on 30 December 1560. He had claimed the throne of Henry VI, head of the royal House of Lancaster, arguing that the ancestors of the House of York had the superior blood claim. Now he paid the price. ‘York could look upon York’ the Lancastrians had jeered as they jammed the duke’s head on a spike, and placed the paper crown on his bloodied hair in mockery of his former ambitions.
Revenge for the House of York would not to be long coming, however. Just over a month later, Jasper Tudor – half brother to Henry VI and uncle to the four year old Henry Tudor, who was destined one day also to be a king – was with the little boy’s grandfather, Owen Tudor, commanding the Lancastrian forces as they confronted the dead duke’s eldest son at Mortimer’s Cross, Herefordshire. Blonde, handsome, and standing at six foot three, Edward of York was only nineteen, but he was determined the battle ahead would see a settling of scores.
Edward knew he lacked the experience of the Tudor commanders, but no one had ever seen anything like the strange dawn that greeted them on that icy February morning. Blinking in the breaking light, the rival armies saw three suns appear in the sky. The phenomenon, known as a panhelian, is caused by light shining through ice crystals in the atmosphere. Edward, a natural leader, seized the opportunity to tell his frightened troops that the triple stars represented God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and they were shining a blessing on their enterprise. As a chronicler records with his army’s morale renewed, ‘freshly and manly he took the field upon his enemy, and put them at flight, and slew three thousand’.
Few other details of the battle survive, but we know that Jasper escaped and was on the road when he learned, to his horror, that his father, Owen Tudor, was captured. Owen still lived not far from Jaspar’s Pembroke Castle in Wales, and he was also well regarded by the Lancastrian king. It had come as a shock to Henry VI when, aged sixteen, he had discovered that his dying mother, Katherine of Valois, had for many years been married secretly to this handsome Welshman , and had children by him. The king had been angry then, but he had grown to see his humble stepfather as his most ‘well-beloved squire’. Owen, in return, had been prepared to fight for the king, even in his old age – but he had now fought for the king for the last time. Edward had ordered that Owen be executed along with eight other Lancastrian commanders.
In Hereford, where he was taken, Owen still assumed he would be ransomed when a Yorkist soldier grabbed the collar of his red doublet and ripped it off to expose his neck. Facing the rough wooden log that served as the block, and now realising his fate, he recalled how he had first come to Katherine of Valois’ attention. Dancing at a party in her household, he had spun out of control and landed on her where she sat. ‘The head that shall lie on the stock was wont to lie on Queen Katherine’s lap’ he observed with mordant wit. Then, at the fall of the ax, the extraordinary life that began with a stumble at a dance was ended.
Owen Tudor’s head was placed on the top step of the market cross where a woman, ‘combed his hair and washed away the blood off his face’, before she placed candles around him. No one has before suggested who she was. The watching crowd thought she was mad, as she carefully lit over a hundred small flames. She was surely, however, the grief-stricken mother of Owen’s illegitimate son, David, who was almost two. Even in his fifties it seems Owen had had the power to attract a woman’s love.
The four-year old Henry Tudor would have understood his grandfather’s fate only as an absence. His grandfather was a familiar face at Pembroke, where he often stayed with his uncle Jasper, yet Owen was nowhere to be seen when Henry was brought by his mother, Margaret Beaufort to the castle in May. It was here that Margaret had come looking for Jasper’s protection when she was a pregnant widow of thirteen, and it was here that Henry had been born. But his uncle Jasper too was now absent; he was on the run. In the three intervening months since Mortimer’s Cross Edward of York had re-asserted his father’s claim to the throne, denounced Henry VI as a false King, Edward IV was proclaimed King in London on 4 March. For twenty-five days there had been two kings in England, a situation ended on 29 March with a decisive battle at Towton in Yorkshire. It was one that had left Henry’s family, and much of England, traumatised.
Margaret Beaufort’s stepfather, Lord Welles, had been one of the many nobles arrayed with the Lancastrian forces as Henry VI, spent the day in prayer nearby. It was Palm Sunday, a spring day. But the wild flowers in the fields and hedgerows were bitten by unseasonable cold and the sky was low and dark. The two armies, the largest England had ever seen – amounting to perhaps more than 30,000 out of a population of three million – had faced a fight to the death. When the banners of two kings were unfurled it invoked ‘guerre mortelle’, the most ruthless form of armed combat in the Middle Ages, with no quarter given for the supporters of a false King. As the men began to put on their armour there had been flurries of snow. By ten a.m a snowstorm was blowing straight into the faces of the Lancastrian forces. The Yorkists had advanced on foot into the whiteout. Blind, and with the wind against them, the arrows fired by the Lancastrian archers fell short. The Yorkists had then collected the arrows and returned them home: thousands of arrows a minute had poured into the Lancastrian ranks, leaving them with no choice but to engage their enemy. As the armies hammered at each other the sheer weight of numbers on the Lancastrian side had forced the Yorkists back, but with King Edward leading from the front the Yorkists gave ground only slowly.
For hour upon hour the Lancastrians and Yorkists had battled on. When the heaps of dead made it impossible for the men to engage, short truces were arranged so the corpses could be heaved out of the way to allow the fighting to continue. In late afternoon re-enforcement came for the Yorkists but it was only as daylight faded that the Lancastrians ranks had at last given way. Bridges over the nearby rivers had broken under the weight of fleeing men. Some fell into the freezing water to drown in their heavy armour. Others, who had cast off their helmets to help them breathe as they ran, became easy targets for the Yorkists who smashed their skulls in a frenzy of bloodlust. A last stand was made to the north at the little town of Tadcaster. Then it was over, save for the executions of survivors. The bodies, scattered over an area of at least six miles by four, included that of Lord Welles, the only father Margaret Beaufort had ever known, and a second grandfather to Henry Tudor.
Most surviving supporters of the House of Lancaster now judged it prudent to acknowledge the authority of King Edward. Jasper Tudor was an exception, and he would soon follow his half-brother Henry VI, into exile. Pembroke castle was left garrisoned with sufficient food, men and arms to withstand a long siege, however, and there Margaret Beaufort now awaited King Edward’s next move, anxious to see what he intended for her little son, the ‘false’ King Henry’s nephew.
Leanda de Lisle is the author of Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder, The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family, which released in the United States September 23, 2013. (This book is titled Tudor: The Family Story in the United Kingdom.)