I debated with myself for quite some time as to whether I should write about the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, as there isn’t really a great story to tell. The battle was short and decisive, but one of the most poorly accounted in the Wars of the Roses. Much of what we know is filled with holes and contradictions, particularly regarding the location of the venue and even the date is unconfirmed.
But I felt the story must nonetheless be told, mostly for the sake of how the key events fit into the bigger picture. Several notable figures made their mark in history that day, one way or another either by their actions or simply as a result of the outcome. And as we all know, background and context is hugely important in establishing motives, alliances, and later events. So let’s dive in and see what happens.
Our key players on the day were for the Yorkists, Edward, Earl of March, with his flanking commanders, William Herbert (later Earl of Pembroke) and his father in law, Sir Richard Devereux. Other major attendants of note included John Tuchet, 6th Lord Audley (who had defected earlier the same year from the Lancastrian cause after being taken prisoner by the Earl of Warwick in Calais), John Milewater, Lord Grey of Wilton and Humphrey Stafford, future Earl of Devon.
For the Lancastrians, led by Owen Tudor were his son, Jasper Tudor Earl of Pembroke and James Butler, 5th Earl of Ormond. Their army comprised roughly 4000 men, a thousand less than the Yorksists, made up for the most part of Tudor’s Welshmen and Butler’s happy band of French, Irish and Breton mercenaries. Their plan was to travel South to meet with Queen Margaret of Anjou who was leading the remaining Lancastrians to take London. Warwick held captive her husband Henry VI.
Edward had learned of the deaths of his father Richard, and brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland at Wakefield some five weeks previously. At that time, he had been staying in Shrewsbury by most contemporary accounts, from where he heard Margaret was heading for London; he had moved to Wigmore to gather up his forces from the March area. Upon hearing that the Tudors were marching South to meet with the Queen, Edward altered his plans to head for the capital and instead made the decision to head towards Tudor’s force and cut them off with battle. Being in Wigmore suited his plans as it gave him the advantage of being very close to his chosen point somewhere near to Mortimer’s Cross.
The city of London in the meantime, upon hearing Margaret was on her way flanked by Scottish forces, whom she had spent the previous few weeks recruiting with the help of recently widowed Scots queen Marie of Guelders, closed the city gates to her and prepared to defend themselves against the inevitable pillaging and destruction that her army were famous for.
The Tudor forces marched from Brecon. Jasper and Owen had spent the winter period following the Battle of Wakefield supposedly at Pembroke Castle, being as it lay on the river from Milford Haven. It is supposed that Butler landed here with his overseas mercenaries, and it was from here that Margaret sailed up to Scotland some weeks before after stopping to meet the Tudors, possibly at Harlech. The Lancastrians force was inferior in number to the Yorkist army, and had the added disadvantage of language differences. The commanders were not for the most part known for their battle skills, including Jasper Tudor who had little inexperience in battle, or indeed their bravery. The army under Edward by contrast were Marches men well known for their courage, comprising mainly of long bowmen and billmen.
Jasper’s army faced a long march towards London, and as word spread knew there was a possibility that they would have to face Edward, particularly as the Brecon route they took was almost certain to have them cross paths. Tudor was not especially looking forward to an engagement but the closer he got, the more likely it became. It is argued that the route he chose was deliberate as his intention was to reach the area before battle lines could be drawn and attack the Yorks at either Wigmore or Ludlow. After covering 110 miles in somewhere between five to ten days, the Tudor forces arrived near the Yorkist lines. Edward had on the other hand, like Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, had plenty of time to rest his army, and reconnoitre the area for the best place to wage his battle. He chose an area close to Wigmore somewhere between Mortimer’s Cross and Kingsland, where two valleys met, flanked by wooded hills to one side and the River Lugg to the other. The exact position was not recorded however is believed to be somewhere close to the crossroads of what is now the A4110 and the B4362. A cottage down towards the turnpike is known as Battle Acre, and a farm-hand has reported many finds of bits of metal associated with horses, bridle bits, stirrups and so on, as well as many that could arguably be from weapons adding weight to the site as the correct one.
Some historians would argue that Edward chose to have the river to his rear, but I would suggest that made little tactical sense as if he gained the upper hand, he would be driving uphill, and should he be forced to retreat it would be through the river. Wigmore Castle was a stones’ throw away holding provisions, and reinforcements and would be easily defended should he be on the losing side and be forced to retreat. Further men would be stationed at Ludlow. Croft Castle at Mortimer’s Cross, home of Richard Devereux was to provide another tactical stronghold, and was allegedly where Edward chose to stay before the battle. Had the Lancastrian forces changed direction and continued past the chosen position they could have marched straight past Croft, which would have allowed Edward to engage them there also.
On the morning of February 2nd 1461 (some would have the 3rd) Edward rose and led his men to their positions. Taking the centre, he positioned his bowmen under the tree cover to the right led by Devereux, on the hillside shielded by trees, from where they would be hidden from view and placed to inflict maximum damage on the opposing force. His billmen flanked the river and were commanded by William Herbert. The sun that day was a peculiar phenomenon known as parhelion or sun dog, which occurs when the sun rises on a very cold day and is flanked on either side by ice crystals which reflect the rays leading to the impression of three suns in alignment. Edward’s army were said to be a little afraid of the sight, but he convinced them that it was a sign from God representative of the Holy Trinity and that he was on their side. After the battle, Edward had the symbol of three suns woven into a banner, which became his emblem.
The initial charge, often attributed to Jasper Tudor was in fact made by the Earl of Wiltshire, leading the Lancastrian left flank to the opposing right of Edward. This charge was halted before any significant damage could be sustained, by the hidden archers on the hillside who inflicted heavy casualties and caused immediate chaos. Edward’s right hand vanguard were forced to retreat slightly over the road during the melee, which saw the survivors of the charge flee into the central Lancastrian force, led by Jasper, causing mayhem and obstruction. Pembroke then attempted to engage Edwards centre force, led by Edward himself with his men-at-arms. He was said to have made his mark as a warrior that day, with images of him standing a head and shoulders above most of his men, and clad in full armour, slashing away with his sword to maximum effect.
Meanwhile, Owen Tudor tried desperately to encircle the left flank and failed, his forces routed. At this point it was said that Pembroke and Wiltshire made their escape from the battlefield knowing the day was lost. In a contemporary account however it is claimed the Wiltshire as soon as his initial charge met the rain of arrows from the Yorkist archers, turned and fled. As the Lancastrian army realized their defeat was imminent, many tried to make their escape. Most were slain on the battlefield, drowned in the Lugg trying to swim to safety or chased from the river bank and slaughtered as they were caught. It was claimed that there were up to 4000 Lancastrian dead that day, however that would account for pretty much their entire force. It may not be as fanciful as it sounds, desire for revenge of his father and brother would no doubt have been at the front of Edward’s mind; mercy was probably not in his vocabulary that day. Other sources indicate this number was total casualties from both sides combined, which ordinarily sounds more likely but due to the short length of battle and the ferocity of the Yorkist defence, it seems fair to presume that the majority of dead were from the Lancastiran side.
The survivors of the Tudor force were said to have fled, some as far as 17 miles to Hereford, all the while being chased by York’s army. Indeed, it is claimed that it was at Hereford where Edward caught up with Owen Tudor, taking him prisoner and later having him beheaded, before spiking his head on the town gate or sitting it atop the market cross, whichever account you believe. It is claimed that Tudor thought he would be spared right up until the moment his collar was ripped away. His last words were said to be “that hede shalle ly on the stocke that wass wonte to ly on Quene Katheryns lappe.” Other sources would have the battle itself taking place on the outskirts of Hereford, and Owen Tudor being captured at the edge of the battlefield as he tried to escape. Although I discount this suggestion, either way the result is the same. Edward won, and Owen Tudor lost his head. Popular legend states a local mad woman visited the head of Tudor on its spike, washed his face and combed his hair and placed candles around it. Owen’s body was buried in a small chapel of the greyfriars at the edge of Hereford. His illegitimate son David later paid for a memorial. There is a later stone close to where Tudor’s head was spiked.
Several key lords on the Lancastrian force managed to escape, a small number were executed, one died in battle. It would appear in stark contrast that York losses were few, estimates vary but a conservative figure of 50 to 100 men is given, with none of the commanders amongst the casualties. As for Margaret of Anjou, when reaching London and finding her way barred, her Scottish ‘barbarians, having already plundered and pillaged their way to the city, fled back to the north, content with the spoils they had gathered, and happy enough not to have to fight. Margaret hesitated unsure of her next move, when news reached her of the loss at Mortimer’s Cross. Her army fell back and retreated through Dunstable, leaving Edward to join with the Earl of Warwick and march on to London himself where he was crowned King of England.