The battle of Tewkesbury began as a political power struggle between the Lancastrians and Yorkists. Since 1399, the Lancastrians had ruled England. Although not having the strongest claim to the throne, Henry IV successfully overthrew Richard II. As a result, the new king faced many rebellions during his reign. After crushing multiple revolts, Henry passed on a secure throne to his son, Henry V, after his death.
Upon his accession, Henry V gained support by re-igniting the Hundred Years’ War in France. During his military campaign, Henry won the crucial Battle of Agincourt against the French in 1415. As a result, the king capitalized by forcing Charles VI to agree to the Treaty of Troyes. After becoming the French king’s heir and marrying his daughter Catherine, Henry appeared to be close to claiming France. However, the king would later die during a subsequent campaign from dysentery on August 31, 1422.
After Henry V’s death, his infant son, Henry VI, succeeded to the English throne. Over the following decades, Henry grew into a pious man who was disinterested in ruling. Despite marrying Charles VII‘s niece, Margaret of Anjou, in April 1445, the situation in France began to unravel. Although the English fought to defend their French territories, Charles and his army had steadily regained land. In response, angry English nobles turned against the Lancastrian government.
The War of the Roses
During the early 1450s, Henry VI had been king for thirty years. Since he preferred religious observance to politics, Henry allowed others to rule for him. Due to his poor judgment, the king surrounded himself with greedy and inept advisors. As a result of their incompetence, the government began to collapse, and lawlessness took hold in England.
As the Lancastrian’s popularity plummeted, the Yorkist faction of the Plantagenet royal family emerged. Led by Richard, Duke of York, the Yorkists demanded governmental reform and punishment for Henry VI’s most inept advisors. Unlike the king, Richard had a stronger claim to the throne. Although both men descended from King Edward III, Richard descended from the king’s second and fourth sons. Henry only descended from Edward’s third son.
Fearing Richard’s growing power, Queen Margaret attempted to curb York’s ambition. Much to the queen’s dismay, Richard became Protector of the Realm when Henry VI became catatonic in August 1453. The duke subsequently began enacting his reforms and imprisoning Lancastrian advisors. However, when Henry recovered in January 1455, Richard lost his role and Margaret stripped him of political power. In response, York gathered his followers, and raised an army, beginning the War of the Roses.
Rise of the Yorkists
Over the next five years, both sides experienced their share of victories and defeats. Richard eventually captured Henry VI and briefly ruled through him. However, the duke would later be killed in battle in December 1460. After his death, Richard’s son, Edward, became the new duke of York. When Margaret and the Lancastrian army attempted to enter London, its citizens turned them away. When Edward and the Yorkist army arrived, London opened its gates to him.
On March 4, 1461, Edward was crowned King Edward IV. Upon his accession, the king established the Yorkists as England’s new rulers. Despite falling from grace, the Lancastrians remained determined to regain the throne. After deposing Edward in late 1470, Henry VI would be restored. However, the Yorkists wouldn’t stay in exile for long.
The Battle of Tewkesbury
In March 1471, Edward IV and the Yorkists returned from exile in Holland. As the Yorkists traveled across England, Queen Margaret and her son, Prince Edward, returned from France. Aware of Edward’s invasion, the queen rallied a Lancastrian army to stop him. On May 3, Yorkist forces intercepted the Lancastrians south of Tewkesbury. In turn, both sides prepared themselves for one last, decisive battle.
Before the battle of Tewkesbury began on May 4, the Lancastrians took a defensive position. Margaret and Edward’s armies each had around 3,000 soldiers. As both sides fought, the Lancastrians launched an assault on the Yorkist left. However, the assault would fail and left the Lancastrians vulnerable. Capitalizing on the opening, Yorkist soldiers counterattacked. The Lancastrian position would be overwhelmed, and 1,000 soldiers died in the slaughter.
After the battle, many Lancastrian leaders lay dead. Amongst them was Prince Edward, the only son, and heir of Henry VI. On May 21, the former king would be killed in the Tower of London. Upon the death of Henry, the Lancastrian branch ended. A devastated Margaret retreated to France with surviving Lancastrians. Edward IV had finally secured the English throne for the Yorkists.
The battle of Tewkesbury proved to be a pivotal turning point during the War of the Roses. Before the battle, the stakes were high for both sides. For the Lancastrians, they sought to regain the English throne and destroy the Yorkist threat. For the Yorkists, they wanted to secure the throne by crushing the Lancastrians. Although both sides fought bravely, the Yorkists ultimately won. With the Lancastrians in ruin, Edward IV finally secured Yorkist power in England.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Cheetham, A. (2000). The Wars of the Roses. London: Cassell.
Battle of Tewkesbury. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Tewkesbury