The voyage went well enough, but you can imagine how we cheered when at last we sighted the English coast. But George had been right—the southeast of England was hostile. The scouts sent ashore at Norfolk scurried back to report that the county was against us, and to land there would be our death warrant. So on we sailed up the east coast toYorkshire.
I revived enough to vomit all over the beach when at last we landed, then being ashore worked its usual cure. Although I was weak as a kitten, I was in better trim than many of the men. The weather was vile, high seas, a wind straight from Russia cutting through our wet, salt-stiff clothes. The first hours were a cacophony of the squealing of frightened horses, shouted orders, and obscene complaints in three languages. We did it, however. But we were alone.
Where are the Kings ships? Richard croaked; he looked as deathly as Id felt for the past two weeks. And Rivers? I volunteered to investigate, and set off munching noisy cheese and a lump of that garlicky German sausage. All I could discover was that wed come ashore north of our target, Ravenspur, and there was no sign of the rest of our fleet. I picked up vague word of other ships having landed to our south, so we formed our men, and in the early dark, set out southward. A few miles on, someone hailed us, and sure enough, it was the King. He and Rivers were safe.
Next morning we began our march through England. We moved inland and south, and for every town that welcomed us with joy, another shut us out. York closed its gates to us, but with Richard interpreting in the broad Yorkshire wed learnt at Middleham, Edward used Bolingbrokes trick and vowed hed only come to reclaim his York dukedom—throne? What throne? The good burghers of York enjoy a joke, and let us in.
And then we broke out our banners in good earnest, the Royal Arms, Edwards Sun In Splendour, Richards Blanc Sanglier. Men flocked to us, and by the Midlands we had an army of near five thousand. Percy of Northumberland neither aided nor molested us, which was better than wed hoped. John Neville, the same. At Coventry, Edward proclaimed himself King, and sent a formal offer to Warwick: battle, or a life pardon. No reply came. And just outside, Coventry we met Clarence.
Looking over his army of some six thousand in their warlike array, I understood why the King was at such pains to placate him. Even as our two forces closed up I wondered if it was a trap. Surreptitiously we all readied our weapons. Clarence rode forward with his personal bodyguard. The King and Richard did the same. Clarence waved, and Richard spurred his horse forward, full-pelt toward his brother. I thought, Christ, no, youre riding to your death—then their right hands clasped and they embraced, clumsy figures in their armour. George took his brothers face between his hands and kissed him, and from both sides a great cheer went up.
As they rode back to us I was struck by the difference between them. George had gained weight, and the fullness of his face made him look boyish. His hair crackled with recent washing, he was shaved smooth, clean and glossy. No dent or scratch marred his beautiful Italian armour gleaming silver in the sun. Richard, by contrast, showed all the strain of exile and work. Hed lost weight; helping arm him that morning I could count his ribs. From boots to helmet his leathers and armour were scratched, stained, scuffed. Tanned and weathered, with the sharp lines of authority and tension in his face, he looked ten years his brothers elder. As indeed he was, in character and mind, for George was forever caught at the age of eleven, the pampered golden boy.
George knelt before the King. Holding out his sword across his palms, he raised his voice to carry to every man in the two armies. I am your Highnesss loyal subject and true liege man. Cheers went up.
Edward said, George— very quietly, then swung off his horse and took his brother in his arms. For a moment they clung together, then George lifted their clasped hands in the air and yelled, God for England! Edward and Saint George! The battle-cry rang out valiantly, echoing as every last man took it up. But I thought Clarence had only just remembered to insert the word Saint. Sodding hypocrite.
Another pardon-offer was sent to Warwick, this time by George, a nice irony. Again no response, and we learnt that his brother Montagu and the Earl of Oxford had joined Warwick. And again the race for London was on. Both sides ordered the City to hold. In a last-ditch attempt, Archbishop Neville paraded King Henry through the city, then read the runes and popped Henry back into the Tower before galloping off to submit himself to Edward.
Any doubts about feeling in England fled at the reception London gave us. The city went mad for us. Every citizen who could walk was out in the streets. The air was thick with flowers, we were garlanded with laurels and white roses, every hand seemed to hold a wine cup, every throat was hoarse with cheering. Ive never kissed so many girls in so brief a time. Edward was back.
We went first to St. Pauls to make offering, then Edward pelted off to Westminster Sanctuary to the Queen. Dog-tired and with no wish to intrude on their reunion, I went straight to Baynards Castle. The Duchess of York welcomed me like a son, kissing me and patting me gently when, from joy, I wept all over her. She was in her mid-fifties, and looked it, but she was still one of the loveliest women I ever saw, and she was the nearest thing I had to a mother. I loved her; I was home.
And married now! she said. Margaret wrote to me about your wedding and your knight-hood. You deserve the honour, Martin, dear. And Margaret says your wife is as beautiful and charming as we would want for you.
She is, and near as beautiful as you, madam. It was cheek, but she liked it, although she disclaimed it as arrant flattery.
Not that I mind compliments from handsome men . . . Dear, if youre as tired as you look, no doubt youd like to go straight to your room. And would a bath appeal?
It sounds— I was going to say heaven, but she would think that blasphemous. —the most wonderful offer in months.
Good. The steward has orders—and heres someone youll remember?
I looked at the tall, slim boy with dark-blonde hair flopping in his eyes. Francis Lovell! How good to see you!
He was shy. He said later that we seemed so much older, so entirely changed from the boys hed known at Middleham, that he hardly dared speak to us. I didnt think youd remember me, Sir Martin. How do you do? How good to have you home. The Duchess was glancing toward the door, her hands clenching and unclenching. Tactfully, Francis said, Youll want to go to your room—youll allow me to squire you?
And gladly I trod up the narrow, worn stairs to the room I remembered. The beds had new red and yellow hangings, the walls were fresh-plastered and hung with a tapestry showing Dido greeting Aeneas. Fur rugs on the floor. A table with a shelf of books. Candelabra blazing from the mantel, the table, beside the bed. A cushioned clothes chest. Spring flowers in a silver bowl. A tray of wine.
In a daze, I watched the servants set up the bath-tent of red silk. The sheet they draped over the wooden tub was of finest linen, the water scented with rosemary. The soap was best Castile. There were loofahs, sponges, brushes. Since leaving Burgundy thered been no chance for more than a quick once-over at the basin, so this was bliss.
Kneeling to pull off my boots, Francis said shyly, One thing about growing up in Warwicks household, you learn to squire a knight.
You do. Gods bones, its only three years—feels like thirty. Who could have imagined whats happened! But how come you here, Francis? I thought you were still at Middleham?
I was, but it became—difficult. His fingers nimble on my buckles and laces he gave me a quick, bitter smile. So a short time ago I simply left. I was with my wifes people, but once I heard you were coming, I threw myself on the Duchesss mercy. Martin, sorry, Sir Martin, would—do you think—Im fifteen and well-trained, so—do you think the King would let me fight?
Naked for the first time in a month, I stood and stretched luxuriously. My clothes lay in a filthy, malodorous pile. Perhaps burn them . . . You can ask, Francis, but the King has a rule, no-one under sixteen.
Richard might . . .
You can ask, I repeated, and sank into the benison of hot water. Despite his barons rank, Francis dismissed the servants and did for me himself, washing my hair, scrubbing my back and feet. Half-asleep I idled, luxuriating, drinking wine and telling Francis about Burgundy, my wife, the journey home.
Warwick wont accept any offers of pardon, he said when the talk came round to present matters. You know his pride. Hes gambled and lost. Theres no choice now but battle.
After Easter? Tomorrow was Good Friday.
Sooner, I think. Francis, we could still lose.
No, he said with enviable confidence. Martin, about fighting—should I ask Richard?
Ask me what? The man himself entered as we spoke. He was in tearing high spirits. God, Id give an arm and a leg for a bath!
Well send for a narrow tub.
Out. My turn. Why, its Francis Lovell! How are you?
Well, thank you, Your Grace. Gods greeting. I hope you are well?
Richard was flinging off his clothes—he never had any patience with servants undressing him. Id be better if Martin would shift. I want a bath. And you used to call me Richard—why so formal? To the boys delight, he kissed him fondly. What did you want to ask me?
If I could fight for you. Would you take me?
Reluctantly quitting the bath, I said, I told him the Kings rule about being sixteen. But we know hes well-trained, so why not?
Hmm. Hes certainly a good squire. Francis had laid towels over the wooden bath-mat and had more warming by the fire. The servants emptied the tub, cleaned it, re-filled it. Francis wrapped me in my bed-gown and I settled back on the bed with another cup of wine. Watching critically, Richard said, So far as Im concerned, you can. If the King asks, youre near seventeen. You can be one of my squires. And you can start by washing my hair—but watch out, Im sure Im lousy.
Thank you! Francis plied the soap as if charging the enemy colours.
I trust the Queen is well? I didnt like her, but I felt sympathy for that haughty woman crammed helpless into Sanctuary for six months, stripped of her dignities, terrified, no doubt, bearing a baby who might have no future except as a political football.
She is. Richard laughed. Martin, she kissed me! Threw her arms around me and kissed me and called me Richard!
Indeed. And, among ourselves (the servants had gone) for the first time I believed she married Edward for more than ambition. She came running out of the inner room, and saw him, and her face lit up, and she flung herself into his arms and kissed him and called him Ned, which Ive never heard her do. She was crying with delight, and her head-dress came off and her hair fell down and she never minded. She laughed. And then the little girls came out, and Edward knelt down and hugged them, all three of them at once, and he was crying.
And the Prince of Wales?
Skinny, pale, going to be tall. Pale hair, brown eyes—pure Woodville. Healthy, though. Youll see him when we go down, everyones here, its Bedlam downstairs—well, I daresay Edward is upstairs, the way he and the Queen looked at each other therell be another baby nine months from now. Mothers arranged a great feast. Martin, therell be a conference tomorrow, then we march out on Friday.
Northward. Warwicks to the north of London, none too far away. Word is, he has about the same numbers as we do.
His chief captains?
Montagu, of course, and Oxford and Exeter. He grimaced on this last name, for the Duke of Exeter had been married to his eldest sister Anne. After a stormy marriage, Anne had obtained a divorce to marry Sir Thomas St. Leger, and its an understatement to say there was no love lost between the two sides. Martin, the King has given me command of the vanguard.
Leading the vanguard was an honour, but with a chill, I remembered that Richards great-uncle the Duke of York had led the van at Agincourt, and died. It was the most dangerous position.
Sir Martin, all secure?
I think so. Fed and bedded down. They know well move up early.
Good. I wish that damn cannon fire would stop, it shreds the nerves. Warwick likes artillery. It shredded my nerves too, which was probably the idea, or else the enemy didnt know we were out of range.
Frightened? the old man suddenly asked.
Everyone is before a battle. In and out the latrines, shitting blue lights. Some throw up. The ones who dont are the ones with no imagination, and theyre often not the best fighters.
Good. He was looking at me so kindly I told the truth. My lord, its—not death so much as—
The thought of being maimed? Living out your life crippled, blinded, gelded even? Bless you, thats every mans great fear. We put our trust in God and know our souls are safe, we go into battle shriven—but we all fear living on as half-men. He lowered his voice. I speak of what the Church would call a sin—but in my experience many men make a compact with a friend, so that if theyre so gravely wounded life would be unbearable—well, you take my meaning? I did, even without his graphic little gesture. But dont dwell on it, son. Trust God and our cause, trust your good armour and weapons. You fight with the sword? The axe? The mace is best left to big men like the king or when youre fighting mounted.
Sword, mostly; the axe too.
The young Duke uses the axe. If youre handy with it, its useful, providing youve got room for a good swing. Sword and dagger are my preference. If youre in close, remember the two best places, groin and throat, in through the gaps in the armour. Keep your visor down. I didnt want to hear him explain why—I knew. He patted my shoulder, blessed me, and moved on.
Despite the cool night, Richards tent-flap was pinned open. Stripped to shirt and hose, he and the squires sprawled on the floor, scoffing chicken.
Martin, good. Where have you been? I looked for you.
Having a cheering talk with Lord Say. This wasnt sarcasm, for that little conversation, ghoulish though it may sound, had left me in better heart. I did not repeat what he had said about arranging with a friend to finish you off in extremity. The Bible says Thou shalt do no murder, but the rule doesnt hold in battle, where killing is no murder. And afterwards? Richard was devout; how far would love go in conflict with Holy Church? Id often suspected Edward paid no more than lip-service to religious teachings; perhaps I could ask him. Or no, better do it myself. But if one ended handless—blind—Id heard of a man whose neck broke, leaving him paralyzed—
Martin, whats wrong? Are you ill?
Clammy with goose-flesh, retching, I could barely manage the one word. Imagination.
God, yes. Richard took my hand. His was as cold as mine. Imagining the worst. Not death; or not a quick death.
Well, in Christs name, said Francis Lovell, with a sigh that near burst his lungs, I thought I was the only one. Youve had experience, so I thought it was only me.
All of us. I think—Richard gave me an odd slippy glance—one can only trust in ones friends, and in God. And not talk of it, or I for one will go into screaming hysterics. Have a drink, Martin.
We were interrupted by the flare of a torch and the Kings voice. He had Lord Hastings and Clarence with him. Hastings would lead the rearguard tomorrow, with Clarence safely stowed behind the King in the centre, in charge of the reserve.
It looked like a commanders conference, but the King stayed us when we rose to leave. Its nothing you cant all hear. In fact, I wanted to ask you—you trained with Warwick—does he have any tricks up his sleeve? Other than driving me raving mad with his artillery?
John Milwater said, Hes keen on those new-fangled hand-guns. Theyll never be of use in battle, of course. And he always said that being caught flat-footed in St. Albans battle taught him the use of flank attacks.
Hell have no chance of that tomorrow, Clarence said. If that was the extent of his understanding, it was a good thing he wasnt leading his own wing.
Edward made due note. Hes spread out east-west across the road ahead. The land drops away to our right—were on a plateau of level ground. Warwick is tucked away snug behind a lot of hedgerows. Well take up the same formation, three wings abreast. Oxfords got their right, Exeter the left. Richard, the van takes the right so youre facing our dear brother-in-law. Hes a good fighter, hell press you hard. Richard nodded. The thing is, Edward went on, Warwick will press on our centre, therefore I will need you, Richard and Will, to hold as long as you can, and longer, without calling on the reserve. Its a matter of fine judgement, but you can always last that bit longer than you think. So the word is, hold, and spare the reserve for the last push. Be alert for flank attacks—well, you know. Well move up closer near to dawn, right in close so their guns overshoot us. Move up silently so he doesnt know our range, allow us the element of surprise. He broke off, rubbing his hand over his face and through his hair. Those big hands were trembling. Sorry, he muttered. Nerves. Its these last few hours . . .
Youre not afraid! Clarence burst out.
Of course I am. Every sensible man is.
Clarence was almost green, but at this he managed a smile. He was genuinely terrified. Serve him right. What could it be like to know he was as responsible as Warwick for bringing us to this? Twenty-thousand men, twenty-thousand possible deaths, through his hubris. And did he understand that hed been given the reserve because no man would follow him in battle? I wondered, too, if Edward was tempted to put George in the forefront of the battle, for a convenient and blameless death. I wish he had. I would have.
In battle, Edward said, in the thick of it, youve no time to think or be afraid. It is now, the night before, that I think of my responsibility. A king is married to his country, to his people; or, say, he is like a father—responsible—one does ones best, as a father or husband would with his family. You try to govern well—keep the peace—provide—and always the responsibility is yours alone, and the knowledge . . . If it comes to war, you ask men to fight for you—if your cause is just, its no sin. But if sin there be, it falls upon the king—your subjects are masters of their own souls yet the sin is on your head— He spoke as if to himself, or perhaps to George. Suddenly he broke off as if waking. Sorry. Maundering. Im tired. Well—weve covered everything? Then Ill say goodnight. Get some sleep. Eat what you can in the morning, even if you feel no hunger. Dont drink wine or thirst will torture you. Dont drink much water or youll piss yourselves; most unpleasant, and I speak from experience. Be ready by three at the latest, well move up then. God keep you safe tomorrow, my loyal friends.
Richard followed them out, and in the doorway, Edward enfolded him in a hug, kissed his mouth and his brow, and made the sign of the Cross.
We managed some sleep, though wed thought we could not. By three wed heard mass and were armed, and although last nights fear had gone, we were all nervy. Time seemed out of joint, slowing or speeding up. I watched Richard, and hoped I looked as tranquil. We ate without appetite, forcing down bread and cold bacon, and took one cup of watered wine each, for spirit. Then it was time. We made no gestures of affection, spoke no hopes. It wasnt necessary. We went with Gods blessing, and each others.
Fog had fallen in the night, reducing visibility to a few feet. Probably it would lift soon after dawn, but that would be too late. We had to fight now. So, carefully, we moved up as close as we could to the enemy lines. Its no easy task moving an army in silence, and the fog made everything worse. We could hear the enemy soldiers talking as they made their own preparations. I stood beside Richard, Francis behind us, Rob Percy to my left, Parr and Milwater on the right. We crossed ourselves and kissed the earth.
Our trumpets sounded. Warwicks answered. Cannon fired, but the shot passed harmlessly over us. So did their arrows. They didnt know we were so close. Our guns boomed. Our archers fired, and we had the range.
We moved steadily forward, but something was wrong. The ground was falling away before us, we were running into emptiness. Somehow we had overshot Exeters left wing. In the dark we must have formed up too far to our right. No enemy ahead, no visibility, the slope leading us ever downward. I remembered that the hollow was called Dead Mans Bottom. Richards trumpets yelped the order to wheel left. Up the slope we climbed, hard going in armour. I heard some incredible thumping din and thought it cannon, then realized it was my own breath echoing inside my helmet.
Up and up, then level ground underfoot. Wheel further left. And now the enemy was in front, I saw Exeters badge on the men facing me. Then for hours I ceased to think. In battle, your training takes over, and you only act and react, keep your commanders flag in sight, strain your ears for orders.
A man went down with an arrow in the face—the idiot had raised his visor. Christ, was mine down—yes. Noise, its so noisy. Theres Rob. Wheres Richard? Were still moving left.
A blow sends me reeling—someone using a mace. Blood coating my arm, blood all down my armour. Being left-handed is useful, they always cut to my right. My swords too slimed with blood to grip. Wipe it. Press on. Cut, thrust, parry. A man in front of me looks up, the fool, and I see the gap at his throat and in goes my dagger.
Parr beside me, and an axe nearly has his arm off. Move forward, no longer to the left.
Ive lost Richards banner, and risk lifting my visor. There it is, I was straying right. Visor down just in time. Cut a mans throat and my sword sticks in bone. Pull it free. Thirsty, so thirsty. And Edward was right, Ive pissed myself.
A blow across my back sends me staggering forward. Rob rights me. Were moving faster. Thats Richard, using the axe and Christ hes red from head to foot. Hes taken a mans head off with one blow. They rush us, dozens together, theyve been waiting. Were falling back.
The Kings runner tugs at Richards arm and I hear Can you hold?
No, thinks I, but Richard says yes. Spare the reserve. Hold.
Oh, Christ, the White Boar banners down, Richard, Richard, Richard, hes down, hes not moving. Run, Francis with me, and unbidden, he guards my back while I lift the visor. Pure relief. Not Richard. Then sadness. John Milwaters followed the White Boar to the end of his life.
Theres the banner again and Richard by it, using his sword. Francis falls, rises, stabs short-armed and runs on. Good fighter, that boy. Were advancing. Faster. Our pike-men are doing stalwart service. The enemy ranks are thinning before us.
Another runner comes from the King, and now Im so close to Richard I hear the plea and his reply, We can hold. Tell the King I need no reserves. Theres blood coming from under his gauntlet. No time to ask. Advance. Press on.
Back to back with Rob as Exeters men close in, and we fight like that for a while, each protecting the others back. Theyre down. Im winded, I cant go on. Have to. Snatch a breathing space, hands on my knees. Take another blow, a bad one. More of Exeters men.
So noisy. Hot. Thirsty. How long has it been? The suns up—five? Six? Noon?
A blow across my back; I hear my armour crumple. Wheres Richard? Oh Christ, Tom Parrs down. Richard bends over him and shakes his head. Press forward. And were running, Im using my axe now, the enemy are turning, turning, running away, and the grounds clear ahead. No, the enemys reserves come up—no, its the King, see his Sun in Splendour, theyre the Kings men and that great figure is the King himself, drenched in blood. Weve cut through to join up with our own centre. Exeters gone. Press forward, but now theres no-one to resist us.
Im sitting on the ground, my sword stuck upright between my knees, my helmet off. The bliss of cool air on my face. My hairs sopping and sweat has rucked my arming doublet under my mail; agony. I pull off my gauntlets. Am I intact? Seem to be. A great high man, all red, hauls me to my feet and hugs me, kisses me. The King. Whats he saying? Yes—Its over.
Someone shouts that its seven of the clock; the battle took a scant three hours. Weve won. Glory be to God, we won! Exhilaration floods me so that I could run all the way back to London like Pheidippides taking the news of Marathon. Or no I couldnt, Im battered and sore and bruised and tired, so very tired. Wheres Richard? Why wasnt he my first thought? Christ, Lord, Holy Mary Mother of God, wheres Richard? Wheres his banner?
Its there. Richards sitting on the ground and George, of all people, holds him as he bares his arm. Hes hurt, a dagger must have slidden under the wrist join, for a great cut runs from wrist to elbow. George is talking to him, worrying, calling him Dickon and my dear. Its not for George the traitor to do that.
Martin. God be thanked, youre safe. But youre wounded?
Bashed about; its nothing. Richard, thank God youre safe. Let me see that arm. The cut was deep, gaping. There was no jetting blood, however, and he could move his hand; the blade had missed the great blood vessels and sinews.
Hearing me, the King loomed over us. He swore, and told me to take Richard to the surgeons tent. Dickon, you were beyond praise. I knew I was right to give you the van. Thank you. George, my thanks to you, too. Will, you were magnificent. I doubt if Richard heard. Hastings nodded, too exhausted for talk. I bent to help Richard to his feet, but the King said, Martin, youve a whacking bruise on your brow. Go with Richard, be sure the doctors tend you.
Outside the surgeons tent, I recognized Lord Say, lying on a litter. His squire wept beside him, and the question didnt have to be asked. Richard looked down, his face full of sorrow. He was a good man. A good fighter.
Do you know John Milwaters dead?
I saw him go down. And Tom Parr, God assoil them both.
The Kings own doctor, Hobbes, came to help Richard. He had the unusual qualification of being both a surgeon and a physician; after years as surgeon with the army hed managed to get himself accepted for what the profession considered the higher trade of physician. He inspected me, gently moved my head, asked about double vision and nausea, and passed me fit.
I couldnt watch some of the sights in that tent—my worst nightmares. Nor could I look too closely as Dr. Hobbes tweezered shreds of cloth from Richards wound. When he reached for a great curved needle, George turned green and bolted, but I managed to stay, and stay on my feet. Richard couldnt watch it either, so I held his hand and we stared resolutely into each others eyes till it was done. Dr. Hobbes sloshed wine over the wound to cleanse it, and I thought Richard would pass out. I drew his head against my shoulder until the bandaging was done, then we fled as fast as we could.
Outside, Francis said, Theres sad news. Im sorry. Warwicks dead—his brother John, too.
For two years Id schooled myself to think of Warwick impersonally as an enemy, but this news hurt. Warwick had been kind to me, educated me. And Id liked John Neville for his kindness and modesty, his steadfastness.
Richard said dully, Howd they die—in the battle?
Franciss hazel eyes slid sideways. His voice shook. After. Warwick was unhurt. He saw the day was lost and he tried to get to the horses behind their reserve. Impossible to run in full armour. Our men caught him. John tried, I think, to save him. They were both killed. Richard, I used your name, I put men to guard their bodies. Our men were—taking vengeance. Robs there.
Thank you, Francis. I—will you two come with me? It was a request not an order, but we went to where the two bodies lay. The King was there, looking down expressionless. Clarence knelt nearby, vomiting. No wonder, for I wont write details of how best to kill a man in armour once youve got him on the ground and lifted his visor. Richards lips move in prayer, and I tried to pray, too, but all I could think was God have mercy. I suppose it was as good as anything.
Edward stirred. Seulement Un—his motto. Ah well, the wheel turns. George, arrange a wagon. Have them taken with all good care to London, to St. Pauls. Come, my friends.
When they stripped John Nevilles body of his armour, they found hed fought for his brother wearing Edwards badge, concealed.
And that was the battle of Barnet, as it came to be called, fought on Easter Sunday the fourteenth day of April in the year 1471.
As Id thought at the start, we had formed up too far to our right. Warwicks army wasnt evenly across the road; only part of Exeters wing had been to our right. So wed formed up more or less with Edwards centre facing Warwicks left, and our right was way off to the side, on the lip of Dead Mans Bottom. Thus, when Richards wing fought its way back up out of the hollow we made an inadvertent flank attack on Exeters extreme left. Over on our left, Hastings had been attacking, not the enemy right as he thought, but the right part of their centre. Oxford, driving forward, had found, like Richard, no enemy before him and had wheeled left and fallen on Hastings unprotected left flank. And routed it. Hastings men broke and fled, running frantically back through Barnet-town—some got as far as London with the news that the King had been defeated. Then Oxfords men gave up chasing the deserters and charged back into the battle. The two flank attacks, however, had swung the whole battle-line about so that it ran north-south instead of east-west. Thus Oxfords men fell, not on the Kings, but on their own—in the poor light, Oxfords Star-with-Streamers banner was confused with the Kings Sun in Splendour. It seemed like treachery when half of Oxfords force saw the other half attacking it, and they did much damage to themselves before any order could be brought. Then Hastings men rallied, the precious reserve was used, and Edward fought like a lion in the centre. Over on our right, Richards wing savaged Exeters. And so through valiant fight and confusion, the battle went to our side.
The next day, we heard that the Lancastrians had landed at Weymouth. Hearing of Warwicks death, Queen Margaret had been all for returning to France, but her son and advisers overruled her. There was no sure news of their numbers, but over the next day or two, we heard they were apparently marching on London, gathering a sizeable army as they came. Jasper Tudor was in Wales, and he would be able to raise thousands of men there. We had to stop the two forces from merging.
Lady Warwick had fled into sanctuary at Beaulieu when she heard of her husbands death. No-one knew what had become of Anne Neville.
We celebrated St. Georges Day at Windsor, then began the march to meet the Lancastrians. Once started, we set a cracking pace, for word came that men of the west country were flocking in their thousands to the enemy banners. Any venture toward London had been but a feint—Queen Margaret was said to be heading for Wales where she would join with Jasper Tudor and his force. Shed gone to Bristol, I dont know why, but when she heard of our advance, she headed in our direction. Or so we were told. On May the second, they were said to be nearly at Sodbury Hill and ready to meet us in the field. Queen Margarets chief captains were the Duke of Somerset, Lord Wenlock, who two years before had kept Warwick out of Calais, the Earl of Devon. And, of course, her martial son.
The weather was more like high summer than spring; clear and hot, bad weather for moving an army at speed. Gratefully we pitched camp on Sodbury Hill, and the moment wed eaten, the entire army fell into a sleep of exhaustion. Not for long. At three in the morning, our scouts pelted back to tell us wed been fooled and the Lancastrians were racing through the night for Gloucester. They were heading for Wales, as probably theyd meant to do all along.
And were not going to let them, said the King. Weve got to stop them crossing the Severn. Jasper Tudors got thousands of men. Well be outnumbered two to one if he joins that mad bitch. Richard, send Gloucester Herald with mine, tell the Governor of Gloucester hes to keep the enemy out. I dont care what it takes. She wont have time to set a siege, so tell the Governor to bar the gates, fire on her, whatevers necessary. If they let her through, Ill burn that city to the ground and dance in the ashes. Tell the Governor Im not a day away—hes to hold to the last man. Go!
The heralds raced for their horses, and we set about waking our men. Grumbling, hot, foot-sore, the men fell in, and by four, we were on the move. It was a race, you see—the next Severn crossing after Gloucester was Tewkesbury, and we had to reach it first.
I still dream about that days march. Jesu, it was hot. We began in full armour, but by ten in the morning, it was strip or be boiled alive—more literally, die of heat-stroke. Even brigandines were torture enough with their chain-mail sleeves and metal plates between two layers of leather. By midday, we were a motley crew, sleeves rolled up, men marching bare to the waist with their shirts bound around their heads, some stalwart red as a lobster in remnants of mail. One group marched blithely in nothing but boots and braes, and I wished dignity would let me join them. The Lancastrians traveled along the low ground, and foul country it was, all lanes and ditches and woods. But I think they had the best of it, for we took the higher ground with nary an inch of shade or whisper of breeze. There was no water, no fodder for the horses. Once we came to a brook and our horses smelt the water and damn near bolted. So did our poor men, but the baggage wagons churned up the shallow stream so much, that by the time the vanguard had crossed, the water was little more than mud, undrinkable. Men drank it just the same; that or die. Idve sold my soul for a mug of cold ale, a safe offer, for there was no drink but the dirty half-pint in my flask. I should have kept on my gloves, for my hands were so sun-burnt I could hardly grip the reins. We were all burnt red except where sweat mingled with dust.
Gloucester held against the Lancastrians. The scouts galloped back to tell us the Governor had barred the gates and primed his cannon, and from his walls defied Queen Margaret. She couldnt believe it—they say she was near demented, raving in French (a tactful touch that had the townspeople jeering). She was all for besieging the city for daring to defy her, but her captains bundled her onto her horse and dragged her raving away. On to Tewkesbury.
Pushed, an army can do twenty miles in a day, perhaps thirty. We did more than that, in weather more like Spain or France than England in May. Men were shambling with exhaustion, horses dropped in their tracks—but we kept going, for we had the enemy in sight and they were a bare five miles away and clearly in worse state than us. The scent of victory kept us going—and the King. I saw that day why men would always follow Yorks sons, for Edward and Richard (and even, credit where its grudgingly due, Clarence), led their men as if it was the greatest game on earth. The darker Richard suffered less from the sun, but Edward and George were badly burnt, and we all sweated off several pounds. And they kept their spirits up, they laughed and made jokes as they rode (I thought, next itll be a sing-song), they cantered back and forth along the lines cheering the men on with that inspired mixture of praise and wittily foul abuse thatll keep soldiers going. Pull your fucking fingers out! Id do better with convent-girls! was the least obscene of Edwards exhortations, and an archer shouted back that they knew what hed do with girls. Edward roared with laughter and galloped on, and Im not sure he wasnt singing. And it worked, not least because the men saw their commanders sharing every hardship. (The King of England with a wet handkerchief knotted round his head is a picture Ill treasure to my dying day.)
But for all the royal men and we company leaders could do, the army was on its last legs. Wed be lucky to get five more miles.
We didnt have to.
At Cheltenham our scouts reported that the enemy army had closed on Tewkesbury and had given up. Queen Margaret could throw all the tantrums she liked, but her army could go no further. Battle, if battle there were, would be outside Tewkesbury.
Our men took heart. Edward had held back food and drink for precisely this, and once wed refreshed ourselves, we moved on, quite briskly now the end was in sight. We pitched our camp three miles from the enemy. Edward stood high in the stirrups so every man could see him, and shouted, Well done! at the top of his voice. I daresay Harry Five was more eloquent, but no more effective. Then our sun-burnt, tired, filthy King went into his tent and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Same with all of us.
We attacked at first light. Since the vanguard always goes first, we had the fun of discovering just how impossible the terrain was. We couldnt get near the enemy, so we held back and left it to our archers and cannon.
We were facing Somerset on their right, and he made a flank attack, sneaking round under cover to the little hill on our left wing. Damn near took us by surprise, too, but we rallied, re-formed our lines to face them, and fought.
Barnet all over again—press forward, slashing, hacking, making what ground is possible. Time passes—hours? Cant tell. I go down and this time Im dead, I see the axe come down.
Its gone. Richards there, standing over me, and up goes his sword and my killers gone, hes down, bleeding, his head half off his shoulders.
Are you all right?
I shout back, Yes, because I am. Richard hauls me up and Im back into it. Fight on.
Somersets falling back. Then the group of spears-men Edward had hidden on that hill rush down on Somerset, making enough din for an army. It works, Somersets lines break, theyre running. We chase them across that meadow down toward the Avon. Its a massacre.
The King crashes forward with the centre and Richards trumpets order us right, onto the naked right flank of the enemy centre. I see the Lancaster prince—Christ, he must think its a tourney—see his pretty gilded harness and his decorated armour. And whats happening, thats Somerset riding up to him, up to Lord Wenlock, hes screaming in fury that Wenlock should have supported his attack on our left. And Lord Jesu he lifts his axe and hits Wenlock, cleaves his skull with one blow. I see the two halves of Wenlocks head flop apart.
And thats it, the Lancastrians see their leaders butchering each other and theyve had enough. Theyre retreating, running, and now were after them full pelt, our whole army, and the enemy is no longer an army but a fleeing rabble. The Swillbrook ran red, and they call that slope down to the Avon Bloody Meadow.
Many of the rebels took shelter in the Abbey. Still lit with the berserker fury of battle, the King charged after them and pounded on the closed doors. The abbot came out and looked up at his King. Brave man, he said, You will not defile Gods house with slaughter. My son, be merciful. These men within have sought sanctuary here. They are under my protection.
This church has no Papal Bull giving sanctuary rights, father. But I offer pardon to the men within. They need have no fear. Look. He cast aside his weapons, signing to the rest of us to do the same. Father, I seek only to list the men within. There will be no killing in Gods house. Step aside, I pray you.
With a resigned little gesture, the Abbot obeyed. The church held that metallic smell of blood, and in the dim light, we saw hundreds of men slumped in the posture of defeat. Whos that? the King said, and strode forward. Somerset?
And have the rest of your captains scurried here? Ah yes, I see them. Traitors. What of your prince?
Somersets face twisted. Surely you know? Hes dead. Edwards face didnt change. Clarences men overtook him as we fled. Cut him down.
Thats the way of battle. Where is he? Somerset waved a limp hand and we went to where a priest crouched beside a tomb, cradling a dead body. Margarets Edouard wasnt pretty any more.
Is that him? Edward asked Richard.
So, the end of Lancaster. My lord abbot, I pray you see he is given proper burial. He raised his voice to fill the church. For the common soldiers, my offer of pardon stands, you need have no fear. But you, Somerset, and the other leaders, have rebelled against my lawful rule and will pay the penalty. Traitors die, Somerset. With that he turned about and left the abbey.
On the Monday, the sixth day of May, Richard put on his Constables robes and, with the Duke of Norfolk, Marshal of England, proclaimed the death sentence on Somerset and a dozen others. They were beheaded in Tewkesbury marketplace.