The Death of Edmund, Earl of Rutland

One of the most infamous episodes of the Wars of the Roses is the death of the 17-year-old Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the hands of John Clifford following the battle of Wakefield. As depicted by Shakespeare and a number of modern historical novelists (and even historians), Clifford kills the young man, who is unarmed, helpless, and pleading for mercy, with the cry, “By God’s blood, thy father slew mine, and so will I do the and all thy kin!” But is this actually how Rutland died?

The account of Clifford slaying the unfortunate Rutland in this fashion comes from one sixteenth-century source: Edward Hall’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke:

While this battaill was in fightyng, a prieste called sir Robert Aspall, chappelain and schole master to the yong erle of Rutland ii. sonne to the aboue named duke of Yorke, scace of y age of. xii. yeres, a faire getlema, and a maydenlike person, perceiuyng y flight was more sanegard, then tariyng, bothe for him and his master, secretly conueyed therle out of y felde, by the lord Cliffordes bande, toward the towne, but or he coulde enter into a house, he was by the sayd lord Clifford espied, folowed, and taken, and by reson of his apparell, demaunded what he was. The yog gentelman dismaied, had not a word to speake, but kneled on his knees imploryng mercy, and desiryng grace, both with holding vp his hades and making dolorous countinance, for his speache was gone for feare. Saue him saycle his Chappelein, for he is a princes sonne, and peraduenture may do you good hereafter. With that word, the lord Clifford marked him and sayde: by Gods blode, thy father slew myne, and so wil I do the and all thy kyn, and with that woord, stacke the erle to y hart with his dagger, and bad his Chappeleyn bere the erles mother & brother worde what he had done, and sayde. . . . Yet this cruell Clifforde, deadly bloudsupper not content with this homicyde, or chyldkillyng, came to y place wher the dead corps of the duke of Yorke lay, and caused his head to be stryken of, and set on it a croune of paper, & so fixed it on a pole, & presented it to the Quene, not lyeng farre from the felde, in great despite, and much derision, saiyng: Madame, your warre is done, here is your kinges raunsome, at which present, was much ioy, and great reioysing . . .

There are several problems with this account, however. First, Rutland was not barely twelve, as Hall depicts him, but seventeen. As such, he was fully old enough to be fighting, just as seventeen-year-old Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales, was old enough to be fighting at Tewkesbury eleven years later. And just as both young men were old enough to fight, they were also old enough (by the standards of their day) to die. (Edward the Black Prince, it should be remembered, put his life at risk fighting at Crécy when he was just sixteen.) Killing Rutland at Wakefield in 1460 was no more a child-killing than was killing Edward of Lancaster at Tewkesbury in 1471.

Second, Rutland’s age is not the only thing in Hall’s account to be demonstrably muddled: though Hall depicts Margaret of Anjou as “not lyeing faree from the felde,” she was in fact some distance away, in Scotland. (The story of York being given a paper crown, however, does appear in the Annales Rerum Anglicarum, though neither Clifford nor Margaret is mentioned as being involved in the “crowning.”)

Third, no contemporary account of Wakefield relates this pathetic scene, or anything like it. Gregory, who describes Rutland not as a maidenlike person but as “one of the best disposed lords in this land,” simply mentions him as being taken and slain. A newsletter dated January 9, 1461, reports of the battle, “Ultimately, they routed them, slaying the duke and his younger son the earl of Rutland, Warwick’s father, and many others.” The Crowland chronicler in his brief summary of the battle of Wakefield does not even mention Rutland’s death. The English Chronicle states, “When they saw a convenient time to fulfil their cruel intentions, on the last day of December, they fell upon Duke Richard, and killed him, his son the Earl of Rutland, and many other knights and squires.” The Annales Rerum Anglicarum states, without further elaboration, “And in the flight after the battle, Lord Clifford killed Edmund Earl of Rutland, son of the Duke of York, on the bridge at Wakefield.” None of these sources are friendly to the Lancastrian cause or to Queen Margaret, and some are downright hostile; had there been a horrendous story connected with Rutland’s death, it’s reasonable to think they would have mentioned it.

Clifford himself was killed in battle on March 28, 1461, the day before the battle of Towton. Like a host of other Lancastrians, he was attainted by Edward IV’s first Parliament, which met that November. Notably, although the roll for this Parliament refers to the “murders” of the Duke of York, the Earl of Salisbury, and the Earl of Rutland and deplores the beheading of the dead bodies, it does not distinguish Edmund’s death as being more horrid than that of his elders:

Wheruppon, at Wakefeld in the shire of York, the seid duc of Somerset falsely and traiterously the same noble prynce duc of York, on Teuisday the .xxx. day of Decembre last passed, horribly, cruelly, and tyrannyously murdred; and also the worthy and good lordes Edmund erle of Ruthland, brother of oure seid soverayne lord, and Richard erle of Salesbury; and not therwith content, of their insaciable malice, after that they were dede, made theym to be heded with abhomynable cruelte and horrible despite, ayenst all humanite and nature of nobles.

Besides Hall, another sixteenth-century source, Leland’s Itinerary, does mention Rutland’s death. Significantly, though Leland claims that Clifford was known as “the Butcher” because of his part in the battle, he does not connect this epithet with Rutland’s death in particular:

There was a sore Batell faught in the south Feeldes by this Bridge. And yn the flite of the Duke of Yorkes Parte, other the Duke hymself, or his Sun therle of Ruthelana, was slayne a litle above the Barres beyond the Bridge going up into the Toune of Wakefeld that standith ful fairely apon a clyving Ground. At this Place is set up a Crosse in rei memoriam. The commune saying is there, that the Erie wold have taken ther a poore Woman’s House for socour, and she for fere shet the Dore and strait the Erie was killid. The Lord Clifford for killing of Men at this Batail was caullid the Boucher.

If Clifford did indeed kill Rutland, as stated by Annales Rerum Anglicarum, it’s quite plausible that he relished doing so: his father had been killed by York’s forces at the first battle of St. Albans, and he and the heirs to the other lords who had died there were notoriously eager for revenge. And Edmund’s death at seventeen was undeniably a tragedy, as is the death of any young person. But unless one credits Hall’s entire story, which is demonstrably inaccurate in spots and which in its details of Rutland’s death is not corroborated by contemporary accounts except in the particular of Clifford being Rutland’s killer, there is no reason to regard Rutland’s death as a war atrocity.


Keith Dockray, Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses: A Source Book.

Henry Summerson, ‘Clifford, John, ninth Baron Clifford (1435–1461)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 17 Feb 2010]

8 thoughts on “The Death of Edmund, Earl of Rutland”

  1. Thanks, Susan- your interesting post shows just how shortened life expectancies forced many teenagers in the middle ages to take on responsibilities that would be unthinkable in today's western societies. I remember how amazed I was when I read that Edward IV was just eighteen when he successfully commanded the Yorkist armies at Moritmer's Cross and Towton!

  2. Susan – thank you for putting Rutland's death in context. To term it an atrocity, as has been done, one has to shoot a freeze frame of that event and not include its place in the whole mess of the WOTR. If one takes up arms, as he did at 17, well one can be killed. Shakespeare's Clifford highlights the ickiness of the series of battles, the Hatfield-McCoy type feuds within the whole. But he is of course a caricature. If Edmund had lived, he may have committed "atrocities".

  3. Lol, I hope you don't have to type all that olde Englyshe. 🙂

    Edmund comes across as such a whiny whimp in that first source that I can't blame Clifford for putting him out of his misery.

  4. Great post – once again cutting through the propaganda of the time! And reading all that original text was rather fun 😉

  5. Great post, Susan!

    I've been reading up on the Cliffords, and I actually think there may be something to Clifford being behind Rutland's death. Clifford's widow was so terrified when the Yorkists gained the throne that she sent her two sons into hiding. Unlike Rutland, they really were children (both were under ten), so the fact that she felt this was necessary indicates she had reason to believe Edward IV (or, more likely, his mentor, Neville the Kingmaker) was seeking specific revenge against the family.

    There had been a long-standing feud between the Cliffords and the Nevilles, going back to the end of the reign of Richard II. He had made Joan Beaufort's new husband, Ralph Neville, the earl of Westmorland. This despite the fact that Neville had no landed holdings in that county, and that the Clifford family had long styled themselves lords of Westmorland. The Clifford heir was a lad of ten at the time, so was in no position to protest. After Henry IV usurped the throne, he granted young Clifford's marriage to his sister and brother-in-law Westmorland, who were using their sibling status with the new king to snatch up the marriage of every young noble heir they could get their hands on.

    Disgusted with Ralph and Joan, young Clifford's mother and grandmother simply ignored the king's granting of the marriage, and accepted the proposal from the earl of Northumberland (who had his own beef against Henry IV and Westmorland), that young Clifford should marry Northumberland's granddaughter. Maud Clifford, the young heir's aunt, went so far as to have her marriage to Westmorland's younger half-brother, Lord Latimer, annulled, and still managed to retain a lot of his lands. She then married Richard of York, Earl of Cambridge.

    Had Cambridge not been executed for treason in 1415, the Yorks and the Cliffords may have become strong allies. But though Cambridge's son Richard of York was initially assigned to the guardianship of Sir Robert Waterton, an official who was trusted by and close to the widowed Maud (Clifford), Countess of Cambridge, the York heir's marriage was soon granted to, of course, the Earl of Westmorland and Joan Beaufort. They quickly married him off to their last available daughter, Cecily (a pampered, spoiled princess whose extravagance ran up debts of epic proportions for poor York), and history was made.

    As you can see, I'm not much of a Yorkist. And neither was the Bloody Lord Clifford, whose godmother was his great-aunt Maud, Countess of Cambridge. He may have been more tolerant of the York and Neville clans (Westmorland and his wife Joan Beaufort had been dead for decades after all) had his father not been singled out, butchered, and left lying in the streets at the first battle of St. Albans.

    Clifford's actions at Wakefield were no doubt directed against York, and especially Salisbury. Rutland was probably just collateral damage. Still it was wise of Clifford's widow to keep their sons far away from the hands of the new king and Neville the Kingmaker. Clifford had two younger, unmarried sisters when he was killed at Towton. One of them, Margaret, ended up married to Robert Carr, a man in the Kingmaker's household who was far beneath her in station. I always imagined that this was part of the Kingmaker's revenge against the Clifford family.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Brad, that's fascinating about the Cliffords!

    I think too many people tend to gloss over the deaths of Clifford, Somerset, and Percy at the first battle of St. Albans as mere battle casualities, when the men seem to have been, as you say, deliberatly targeted for assassination. Certainly their heirs seem to have regarded their deaths as such!

  7. Gabriele, I would like to mention that your comment about Edmund comes off harsh, given the circumstances of his death!
    If we allow Hall's source to be true, keeping in mind, of course, that Edmund was seventeen rather than twelve, I don't consider his actions befitting a 'whiny whimp' at all… Wakefield, I think, was his first battle, and his terror at the possibility of death (knowing that York had lost and that his father may be dead) was reasonable, thought not commendable. The fact that he fought in the first place leaves him scarcely deserving of the label 'whimp'.
    In any case, I am amazed at the bravery of teengers who risk their lives to fight for a cause, and I admire them, whichever side they are on, for doing something that I honestly would balk at doing!
    Thanks Susan for this wonderful post, as always, I find myself wondering what the 'truth' is…:)

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