Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bloody Deeds at Tewkesbury

by Anne O'Brien

In May of 1471, the little town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, today a peaceful place of half timbered buildings, a magnificent Abbey and lovely surroundings that make it a lure for visitors, witnessed a terrible battle.

It was a momentous victory for the Yorkists under King Edward IV and his brother Richard of Gloucester, played out over the water-meadows of Tewkesbury where the Rivers Avon and Severn meet. The Lancastrian Army was attempting to cross the river Severn when King Edward ordered an attack. It was a devastating and final defeat for the Lancastrians with wholesale carnage on what is still known today as ‘Bloody Meadow.’

The Lancastrians went into full scale retreat, many drowning when attempting to cross the river, many cut down as they ran. Lancastrian soldiers who sought refuge in the Abbey were hunted down and mercilessly hacked to death within the building itself. The Lancastrian leaders were dragged from the Abbey and summarily executed in the market place. It was a truly bloody event, with over 2000 Lancastrians killed, the church and churchyard so polluted that King Edward had to arrange for its re-consecration by the Bishop of Worcester. In the Abbey today a wooden door bears witness to the bloodbath: it is completely covered with plates of armour, perforated by gunshot and arrow holes, stripped from the dead and dying.

One of those to meet his death at Tewkesbury was Prince Edward of Lancaster, son and heir of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. But how did he die, and exactly where? There is considerable debate about it.

The Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward and Richard, recorded that the Prince ‘had been slain in plain battle.’ Many contemporary writers also noted that he ‘died in the field.’ The Arrivall, the official Yorkist account, recorded - as might be expected - that the Prince was ‘taken fleeing to the townwards and slain in the field.’ There would appear to be no doubt that the Lancastrian Prince died in the fighting and there was no direct culpability on the part of King Edward and his brothers.

But was this so? The historian Croyland in 1486 after the death of King Edward and Richard III is more ambiguous, recording that the Prince died ‘either on the field, or after the battle by the avenging hands of certain persons.’ Tudor historians were also keen to implicate Richard of Gloucester. According to them, the Prince was taken during the rout and brought before King Edward when the battle was over. The King struck the Prince with his gauntlet in retaliation for an insolent remark, after which Clarence, Gloucester and Hastings cut the Lancastrian heir down with their swords. This might, of course, simply be a Tudor attempt to bloody Yorkist hands, but an illustrated French version of the Arrivall, perhaps dating to the actual year of the battle, shows a scene very like the one where the Prince was forced to face King Edward and was ultimately slain -as in this later very fanciful illustration.

So perhaps there was more to Prince Edward’s death than contemporary reports made clear. Certainly the Prince as a future Lancastrian King, was too dangerous to be allowed to live. King Edward and the leading Yorkists might have seen it in their best interests not to leave the Prince’s death to chance. Wherever Prince Edward was killed it was the death of the hopes of Lancaster to retrieve the Crown of England.

Legend says that the brutal confrontation and murder took place in the chancel of Tewkesbury Abbey. Today, the brass that marks the official place of the Prince’s death in the chancel is a Victorian addition and thus can not be used as proof of the site of the deed. It bears the words:

Here lies Edward prince of Wales,
cruelly slain while a youth.
Anno Domini 1471.
Alas the savagery of men,
Thou art the sole light of thy mother,
the last hope of thy race.

Whatever the truth of it, the Abbey is a place of wonderful atmosphere, and since ultimate proof is lacking, I make no excuse for choosing the Abbey for the scene of Prince Edward’s death in Virgin Widow. It seemed very fitting that Prince Edward should, at the end, be forced to face the King he had tried to overthrow.

Anne O'Brien
Author of historical fiction novels Virgin Widow and Queen Defiant (US)/Devil's Consort (UK)
The King's Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers will be released in June 2012.


  1. That is exciting information. I love reading about this time in history. So much went on and there is such a veil of mystery to it because of all the conflicting reports that might just be putting a spin on the truth for their own purposes.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks for bringing out this great piece of history.


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