The Second Battle of St Albans

Proceedings of a Conference to mark the 550th Anniversary

The conference was held on 26–27 February, 2011, to commemorate the Second Battle of St Albans in the Wars of the Roses on 17 February 1461

Hosted by St Saviour’s Church, Sandpit Lane.
Organized by The Battlefields Trust.


The Trust believed it important to do justice to this important anniversary of what was up to 1461 one of the bloodiest battles in England.  The theme was remembrance, and remembrance though understanding.  The finale to the weekend's events was a Requiem Mass in the church to commend the souls of the 2,500+ dead to God, because they have no memorial, no cemetery and almost certainly enjoyed no proper burial rites after the battle.  This made the event a remarkable collaboration with the Church.

Some 80+ people signed up for the event and about the same number again came to the Requiem Mass.

The event was held in St Saviour's Church (and Church Hall), St Albans, which, although a Victorian building, actually sits on the battlefield.  The Trust also collaborated with the two local amenity societies (the Friends of St Saviour's - FOSS - and the Friends of Bernards Heath - FOBH).  Through our speakers and exhibitors we also collaborated with the Richard III Society, the St Albans City Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and the Medieval Siege Society.  A huge vote of thanks was expressed to all our collaborators who contributed so generously.  By the end of the Sunday, those attending had been entertained, informed and deeply moved.

Speakers, Exhibitors and Facilities

The speakers were:
* Peter Hammond (Richard III Society),
* Martin Madelin and John Terrys (Medieval Siege Society - MSS),
* Harvey Watson and Mike Elliott (Battlefields Trust),
* Jenny Burley (FOBH),
* Alison Turner-Rugg (St Albans City Museum),
* Helen Hales (Pitt Rivers Museum),
* Peter Burley (Battlefields Trust),
* Father Peter Wadsworth (vicar of St Saviour's), and
* Matthew Bennett (Battlefields Trust).

The exhibitors were:
* Battlefields Trust,
* Richard III Society,
* Medieval Siege Society,
* St Albans City Museum, and
* John Dixon, a member of the Trust who set out a wonderful model of the battlefield.

MSS also fielded a magnificent contingent of re-enactors who performed in a conference session, as a standing exhibition throughout the conference, and were in attendance at all the events.

The church was used as the lecture hall on the Saturday and the church hall on the Sunday.  It proved to be a well appointed venue offering all the facilities needed.  The catering was provided by FOSS to an exceptionally high standard at excellent value.  The refreshments truly enhanced the event.  The church hall provided secure and adequate space for exhibitors throughout the event.  Mike Elliott provided the IT support to ensure all presentations worked effortlessly well.  FOBH provided outdoor support.

Conference Sessions and Events

Only Undermighty Rulers fear Overmighty Subjects, Peter Hammond

Peter set the scene for us of the Wars of the Roses and the spirit of the age.  The Wars up to 1485 were a triumph of legitimacy over incompetence.  He took us through Richard Duke of York's career from slighted early years to political vacillation after 1450 and on to his death at Wakefield in 1460.  He was provoked beyond endurance into claiming the throne, but could not then sustain the claim.  He speculated that his son Edward IV did achieve as king what Richard never did.  The story of his life was driven by events and personalities rather than great forces of history.  The scene was now set for the Second Battle of St Albans.

This is one I prepared earlier, Martin Madelin and John Terrys

Martin had spent the previous day creating a replica 1461 hand gun for us and then spoke and re-enacted to it.  Martin and John set out the weapons and tactics of the period and how they would have been used on the battlefield through demonstrating actual combat.  Their practical demonstration of early gunpowder making was a first in the church.

Singing Hymns under a Tree, Mike Elliott and Harvey Watson on the Second Battle of St Albans

Mike and Harvey set out the events of the battle from Warwick's deployments on Bernards Heath, an analysis of the two armies, the approach marches, the Lancastrian outflanking attack via Dunstable and St Michael's and then the dawn attack up Fishpool and George Streets that bogged down under a hail of Yorkist archery at the Clock Tower.  They took us on the second outflanking march up Catherine Street to St Peter's and then onto Bernards Heath.  There the Burgundian hand gunners made their spectacular but brief appearance followed by Warwick's younger brother Montagu's attempt to create a front line roughly along present day Boundary Road.  After Montagu's wing had been destroyed, Warwick finally reacted with a counter-attack by the main battle from roughly where the King William IV pub now stands.  In the confusion of battle Henry VI was left sitting under an oak tree singing hymns to himself until recaptured by the now victorious Lancastrians.  The battle ended in a rout with Lancastrian cavalry spearing Yorkist fugitives, where the most momentous event of the day occurred with Sir John Grey's death - leaving his widow, Elizabeth Woodville, to marry Edward IV in due course.  As night fell Warwick made good his escape with a core of the army, and the vanguard under the Duke of Norfolk, which had never been engaged, escaped to East Anglia.  The Lancastrians thought they had won a decisive victory, but could not capture London and the campaign petered out at Cripplegate.

Battle, What Battle?  Jenny Burley

Jenny started with the developer's familiar refrain.  "No one told us about a battle".  The battlefield falls within FOBH's patch and she outlined the history of the Friends and the various current threats to the surviving open space on the battlefield, which range from soil subsidence to extravagant proposals for superstores.  She then talked about the value of becoming an organisational member of the Trust and the greater gravitas this gave to the Friends' work protecting local heritage.

An Army marches on its Stomach, Alison Turner-Rugg

Alison explained to us what foods were available in St Albans in a medieval winter, how they were prepared and who would have eaten what - from pottage in the humbler dwellings to porpoises in the Abbey.  The sort of cheese the armies would have carried with them was so hard it had to be broken up with a hammer before eating.  On a happier note, the Yorkists billeted on Bernards Heath could have enjoyed the Abbey's carefully protected rabbit meat.  There was a strong archaeological theme to her talk, including period artefacts, which reminded us of how much the battle and battlefield themselves are lacking here.

The Elixir of eternal Life, Helen Hales

Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese as an alchemist's elixir, but Europeans then used it to create missile weapons.  Firearms appeared in England at St Albans at a crucial juncture in their development on the European mainland as they diversified away from cumbersome artillery pieces.

She presented an awesome range of early hand guns, including a revolver anticipating Colt by four centuries.  She drew on some exquisite late medieval and renaissance illustrations to show how the Burgundians were the technologically most advanced military power in the world at the time.   The guns used on Bernards Heath may well have had firing mechanisms, for example.

The gun did not have it all its own way on the battlefield until the mid-seventeenth century, but she ended with a Burmese hand gun of twentieth century vintage created to the same design as the Burgundians' of 1461.

It's just a Field isn't it?  Harvey Watson

Harvey set out the history and aims of the Trust and the sorts of activities it carries out.  He compared and contrasted US and British battlefield heritage.  The vandalism at Naseby (1645) and Newbury (Civil War) looked set to be repeated at Edgcote (1469) with the High Speed Rail link ploughing through another Wars of the Roses battlefield.  Battlefield archaeology creates the thought provoking scenario at Bosworth, for example, that we now know more about the experience of the battle than at any time since living memory of it died.

Social Event  (Saturday evening)

About a quarter of those involved with the conference were able to adjourn to the William IV pub/restaurant to continue the discussion over a drink and a meal through the evening.  A huge table was booked and attendees (and partners) cycled through it spending as much - or as little - time there as they wanted.  The relaxed and companionable atmosphere brought the first day to a most enjoyable close.

Tour of the Battlefield  (Sunday morning)
Peter Burley, Mike Elliott and Harvey Watson (ably assisted by the MSS)

Fifty people took in the Bernards Heath part of the battlefield over Sunday morning and saw the sites they had only heard about on the previous day.  Re-enactors brought the conflict to life as the story was retold in situ.  Surmounting Warwick's field fortifications at the Iron Age earth work of Beech Bottom proved to be an heroic struggle in its own right.

Julius Caesar was here, Peter Burley

Peter led us through the history of the battlefield with the themes of why Warwick chose Bernards Heath for his battle and then what had happened to the land since 1461 to affect its heritage potential.  Julius Caesar had marched across it, it had been pasture - secured in part by the Peasants Revolt of 1381 - for most its history, the Abbey had managed it for game up to the time of the most notorious Abbot (Cardinal Wolsey), it had enjoyed secular owners including the Duke of Marlborough, and had then fallen prey to enclosure and massive excavations for brick making before what remained of its heritage potential was destroyed by a railway line (shades of Edgcote) and Victorian speculative housing.  The (brick) church at St Saviour's was built of the very fabric of the battlefield.

Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, Father Peter Wadsworth

Peter contextualised for us the thousands of deaths on Bernards Heath into the wider religious experience of the middle ages.  Sudden death in battle was the worst death a medieval man could face.  The Yorkists were probably better prepared for this than the Lancastrians, who had marched all night straight into battle with no spiritual preparation. 

Those killed would expect to go to purgatory, but the question was for how long.  A man prepared for death, buried with church rites in hallowed ground and prayed for in his home church would spend a lot less time there than someone killed unexpectedly, far from home, buried unceremoniously in unhallowed ground and perhaps a rootless soldier of fortune.  For the Yorkists, their fate and treatment after death added up to a long time in purgatory.  They would literally be lost and unhappy souls after the battle.

The Day Chivalry Died, Matthew Bennett

Matthew used Hillaire Belloc as our guide into understanding the Wars of the Roses and their milieu.  The Wars were a "feud" between the Houses of York and Lancaster, which took them outside many of the codes of chivalry.  The exaction of summary justice on the battlefield (as opposed to safe conduct under codes of chivalry) dated back to Edward II, but reached a climax with the killings after this battle.  Chivalry died in England at some point in the afternoon of 17 February 1461 here on Bernards Heath.

Requiem Mass  (Sunday evening)

At the close of the conference the church took over to celebrate a Requiem Mass for those who had been killed in the battle, there being no record of such rites at time and the burial ground known to be unhallowed.  The service included period music and liturgy.  It was an eloquent and moving tribute to the men who had given their lives.  Only for five of them had their names even survived. 

The mass attracted much interest in local churches, and the church was full for it.  BBC Three Counties Radio recorded the service for broadcasting.


The Requiem Mass brought to a thoughtful conclusion two extraordinarily full and diverse days.  The church then hosted a reception afterwards where there was a final comparing of notes, reflection and farewells.

For the Trust, the event achieved all its aims of remembrance, education, sharing of ideas, collaboration with partners, raising its profile and also proved to be a great success for recruitment and financially.  It will act as a model for future events, and Flodden's 500th anniversary commemorations now beckon in 2013.

This page was added by Brian Bending on 16/03/2011.

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