Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mortimer's Cross 1461: a day of signs, portents and wonders

by Anne O'Brien

Anyone driving through Mortimer's Cross in the Welsh Marches today, on the road between Hereford and Ludlow, would have no sense that this was the scene of one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the Wars of the Roses.  It is a quiet hamlet with a scattering of cottages, a local inn, a watermill on the River Lugg and a busy crossroads.  There is nothing to indicate that there was an historic battle here except for a less-than-eye-catching monument that was erected, but not until 1799.  It stands today outside the Monument Inn.  There are no 'signs and portents' today to remind us of the bloody deeds here.

The battle, between Yorkists and Lancastrians, was fought over the same fields that we can see today.  There has been no recent building and I doubt that this battle field will ever be lost to commercial development.  Herefordshire is, fortunately, far too isolated and rural.  It was a Yorkist victory where Edward, Earl of March, eldest son of Richard of York who had been killed at Wakefield, was victorious against Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke, who was advancing his army from Wales.  

It was fought on a misty morning, 2nd February, Candlemas Day.  Edward, although barely nineteen years old, was already showing signs of his precocious gifts on the battlefield.  Taking local advice from his one time tutor Sir Richard Croft - Edward had been raised by him at Ludlow just to the north -  he made it impossible for the Lancastrians to avoid battle by blocking the road to Worcester in the east and to Hereford and Gloucester to the south.  After hours, Pembroke fled, leaving the remnants of his army to be slaughtered and his father Owen Tudor to be taken prisoner.  It is estimated that 9000 men fought in the battle.  The dead were counted as 4000, of which 3000 were Lancastrians.  This is the view from the Mortimer stronghold of Wigmore Castle, showing the level area over which the battle must have been fought.

This was the battle which was to give Edward his personal heraldic badge, the 'Sunne in Splendour.'  Just before the battle began, a parhelion was seen, three suns rising together, spread across the sky, a rare phenomenon caused by light refracted through ice crystals or through mist.  Sometimes they are called sun dogs.  It put, as we can imagine, fear into both armies, but Edward, declaiming to his troops, reassured them that it was undoubtedly an omen for his victory.

'Be of good comfort and dreadeth not.  This is a good sign for those three suns betoken the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have a good heart, and in the name of Almighty God go we against our enemies.'

Shakespeare described this miraculous sign in Henry VI part 3.  He recognised the importance of such a portent.

'Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun;
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But sever'd in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, see! they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vow'd some league inviolable:
Now are the but one lamp, one light, one sun.
In this the heaven figures some event.'

For Edward, it was indeed a sign of great change.  By March of that same year he had been crowned King Edward IV of England.

There is much remaining significant local interest for the visitor.  Sir Richard Croft, a tough marcher lord who gave Edward such valuable advice but was killed in the battle, has a magnificent tomb in the little church at Croft Castle, the family home, a handful of miles away.

Even more 'spine-tingling' is the little church at Kingsland, built by the Mortimers who owned all this land, where a chantry chapel, named the Volka chapel was added to the 13th century building.  We have no knowledge of the true reason for the building of the chapel, but one tradition says that it was for those who wished to offer prayers for the dead at Mortimer's Cross since the battle was fought in the Great West Field of the Kingsland parish.  It is still held sacred to the battle.  A ceremony of Eucharist is held there every year on the anniversary of the battle in memory of those slain on the battle field.  Whether the stone coffin had any connection with the battle we do not know.  When it was opened in the early 19th century, it was found to contain the skeletons of a woman and child.  I don't know what happened to these skeletons either ...  But the little chapel is a lovely place.

If you are ever passing through, and have no time to stop to see these remnants of a tragic loss of life and a magical moment as the three suns rose over the fields, perhaps you might stop at the Monument Inn, place a hand on the memorial, and raise a glass to those who died at Mortimer's Cross.

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  1. Thank you, Anne! An extraordinary battle, a fascinating turning point in England's monarchy. As it happens, I visited Mortimer's Cross this spring. My host was the former owner of the water mill you mention and had created in the mill quite a nice display on the history of the battle. The mill is open to the public on a schedule and is both interesting in its technology and a beautiful place to visit.

    1. Thank you Anne, I really enjoyed this. The photo of the parhelion is lovely. Thank you for sharing this with us, something I would not have come across otherwise.

  2. Thank you Anne - I really enjoyed reading about this fascinating place and the historic connections with Mortimer's Cross.

  3. Hi,
    Sir Richard Croft did not die at Mortimer Cross.

  4. If the Volka Chapel dates to the 13th Century as you state, how can it have been built to allow people to pray for those who died at the Battle of Mirtimer's Cross - that battle occurred in the 15th Century!

  5. You state that the Volka chapel was built in the 13th century. If so, how could it have been built for people to pray for those who died at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, when that battle occurred in the 15th century?

    1. If you re-read it, the sentence states the chapel was added to the 13th c building.


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