The First Battle of St. Albans: From Whethamstede’s Register

Thanks to Hannah Kilpatrick, here’s a translation from the Latin of the account of the aftermath of the first battle of St. Albans given in Registrum Monasterii Sancti Albani, otherwise known as Whethamstede’s Register.

At the battle, which took place on May 22, 1455, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Thomas, Lord Clifford, were killed by the forces of Richard, Duke of York. Historians of the battle tend to believe that the three men were targeted for elimination, rather than simply happening to perish in the fighting. Certainly the subsequent behavior of their heirs, who were eager for vengeance, suggests that they thought so.

The chronicle describes the preliminaries to the battle and the battle itself. For purposes of this post, we’ll pick up the narrative with the hapless Henry VI being told by the Duke of York what a great favor his forces have done him by killing Somerset:

The King, seeing that almost all his men had either turned to flight or were slain in the battlefield, and that he stood with no guard under his own banner, with no hope of relief, at the suggestion of the few men who remained that he should flee before the bows and avoid the peril of the darts and arrows that flew dense as snowflakes around his head, removed himself to the meagre hospitality of a certain [grain merchant?]’s cottage, where he remained with his men, until such time as the Duke of York came to him, and with these words he greeted and comforted him:

“Rejoice, illustrious Prince, and may these men rejoice also who stand about you, all you lords. Now that impious slanderer [i.e., Somerset] has been thrown down, he who night and day would accuse me and my brothers – I mean these lords here present with me – in your sight, your Majesty. And therefore by the grace of God, that man who had a just cause against him has been proven victor, and that impious enemy for his impietas has come to great ruin. Rejoice therefore, for his downfall is like another hanging of Aman in the opinion of the common people. All now rejoice together at this downfall, just as formerly the Jews delighted at the hanging of their greatest enemy. Rejoice further, that this downfall will pacify the common people throughout your kingdom. And indeed he was detested of children and youths, of maidens and wives, and also by all others of all sexes and ages, so that wherever he walked or rode by the common roads in the city of London, or anywhere, they would call down curses upon him, and would curse him according to the imprecation of the Psalm, in this way: ‘May his days be few, may his children be orphans, may his wife be a widow, and may his name be remembered no more’. Rejoice therefore, Prince, rejoice, for that curse has trickled like water into his flesh, like oil into his blood. Rejoice further that this downfall will raise you to the heights of honour, higher than you have ever risen yet while he whispered in your ear. I am, and always was, and all my followers are and were your faithful – indeed, your most faithful – liegemen; and we will always remain, as much as any man, while flesh is wedded to spirit and spirit rules flesh, or if you prefer while will is subject to reason, your most ready servants, in advance or retreat, proceeding at the nod and nomination of your royal self.”

And having said these things, he led him out with all due reverence from that humble cottage, and led him first to the bier [Somerset’s?] then to his chambers, and there made him remain for all that day. And in the morning he led him to London, where in the Bishop’s Palace lodging was prepared for him, and there he made him remain throughout the ensuing Pentecost, continually, for all of that sacred week, attended in all things by the two aforementioned Earls, impeding his obsequies and everential observances. And this was the beginning, middle and end of that Battle.

The following passage describes the “pillage, plunder and rapine” by York’s men that took place after the battle. The fact that Yorkist troops engaged in such excesses tends to be ignored by certain authors, who prefer to give the impression that only the Lancastrians, notably at Ludlow, enjoyed the spoils of victory. Although the chronicle’s anti-northern bias is evident, other accounts confirm that the town was pillaged. (C. A. J. Armstrong in his article “Politics and the Battle of St. Albans, 1455” discusses the aftermath of the battle at length.)

Meantime, while the Duke of York was (as has been told) consoling the King, and comforting him, the victors were left idle, and being too eager and avaricious, passed their time with pillage, plunder and rapine, incapable of restraining their hands either at home among their neighbours or outside among enemies. They were all, for the most part, of the northerly parts of the kingdom; and therefore, although stronger in arms and more ready to war, also to the spilling of blood, according to this metre:

He who is born with the Northern hoarfrost in his veins
[Read ‘is’] Indomitable in war, and Death’s lover.

Nevertheless, because that people are more penurious than pecunious, having more an abundance of peas and barley, wheat and grain, than of rich purple dyes, or ebony, or ivory, or Tyrian cloth, or gold, or silver, upon coming to a place so much more opulent and sumptuous, that is the southern regions of the kingdom, they turned their hands to plunder, their fingers to pillaging, sparing not king nor peer nor pleb nor knight., nor any other man at whose house plunder might be found. And thus one man, robbed of his golden vase, thought like Prince Agathocles to eat from clay plates and drink from earthenware vessels, or from cups of mean price and little renown.

Another man, robbed of his horse and arms, was forced to abandon his own home, weaponless, poor and on foot, miserable less from the theft than from the shame and derision that followed him to his own people.

And a third man, relieved of all the gold and silver in his purse or money pouch, was forced to beg borrowed money to convey him to his people, but he was happy in this: that he had escaped so, with no worse damage in that furious uproar.

And so far increased the strength and violence of this despoliation and rapine, that rumour even reached the Monastery that the thieves would reach there and despoil it. And that voice was true and faithful, and so it would have happened save that Sir Alban valourously donned his arms, and set his shield against the enemies of his church. With that Knight and Martyr defending her, his church remained safe, to the extent that it was later found to be free of any despoliation or heavy cost of goods.

The chronicle then moves on to describe the burial of the dead:

The said battle being over, and the victory achieved through the favour of Mars by the Duke of York’s side having been reported, what followed was dolorous indeed and brought tears to the eyes of the beholders: the corpses of the slain lay scattered about in great number at every street corner; nor did any man wish, for fear of raising the anger of the said Duke, to prepare ditches to bury them.

Among them lay the bodies of three illustrious lords; the body, that is, of Lord Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the body of Lord Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and the body of Lord Thomas Clifford, Earl of Clifford. For fear of the aforementioned duke, no man dared to touch these corpses or to perform pious obsequies over them, because the said lords were so odious to him. The Abbot hearing this, and, remembering well the actions of Tobias, went boldly before the person of the Duke and intrepidly spoke to him in this way:

“Good and illustrious prince. Many and many a quality are laudable in a prince, but it is believed to be no small virtue after victory to spare the vanquished, rather than to wield the sword of vengeance further against them. Trojan Aeneas was certainly praised in these terms, and Achilles the Greek; also the Roman general Julius who, upon seeing the head of Pompei, his enemy, is said to have been moved to compassion, even to tears. Therefore may you too be moved to compassion, good prince, on the vanquished and conquered, or more, the overthrown and the slaughtered. I say not your enemies and adversaries, but indeed, your cousins, your compatriots, your kin; and command their bodies to be gathered away as could not be denied them by the compassion not only of any Christian man, but of the meanest and lowest man of all. To rage further against them after their death is not proper, nor sound, nor the act of a generous mind; rather it is bestial, brutish, or wolfish. We read it written:

Let the wolf and the filthy bear worry the dying,
Just as all the other creatures of the lower orders of beasts.

And also,

The greater a man is, the more his anger may be calmed,
nor is a generous mind easily moved.
For the noble man asks nothing but the palm of victory,
And all his desire is won when his enemy falls

For today, Prince, you have the palm, you have the victory, you have all that your soul desired as regards their persons. For today let your rage be calmed therefore, nor let it vent itself any further against their bodies, when so many men passing by and seeing them lying there in that way are moved to compassion. Indeed they lie now in the most despicable way, despoiled of their arms, denuded of their clothes, with nothing at all to cover them; and to cause them to lie to any longer is not the deed of a pious prince but truly of a tyrant like Creon who, due to a similar deed, was believed by the Duke Theseus to be visiting a similar torture on the dead. Pious victory, Prince, becomes rather impious savagery where it is not followed by compassion. More damnable than laudable is that victor who in triumph persists too far, and knows not afterwards how to return his sword to its sheathe, nor restrain the spirit of vengeance. Therefore, that your victory may be known as pious and your triumph as laudable, in the work of benignity, goodness and clemency, in the work of charity, piety and compassion, in any works that may be pleasing to the angels, welcome to man, and dear to God, in order that it may be worthy of eternal reward may the soul of a prince be touched by that sincere pietas which raises princes above men, that they might aspire to be equal with God, according to this saying,

The great clemency of God raises our lowly clemency.

and, by that same pietas, to the removal of their bodies into their tombs may you graciously give your consent.”

The Duke, moved to pietas by the Abbot’s words, put away the rancour and gall of his disposition, and consented most graciously that their bodies be entombed; and more, he vehemently entreated the Abbot to take special care over the burial. This permission granted, the Abbot quickly sent out monks and servants to bear the bodies back to the church, where they might be received with honour; and later, having performed the funeral obsequies, in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin there was made the place of their tomb.

And therefore the three lords already mentioned were also entombed there, and placed in lineal order of their dignity, according to state, rank and honour; and all men rejoiced together over this who were accustomed to applaud and sing praises to deeds of charity, clemency and pietas; and truly such a scene would sadden only those who are wicked and impious and desire especially to pursue vengeance beyond the natural term of life.

And of these lords, and of their place of burial, there was written a short verse in this way:

Those whom Mars, whom Mars’ savage fate and sister
Struck down through war and slaughtered in the middle of the city
Death has entombed them here like these men;
And after their death he has given them eternal peace.
He is the one who stands in the centre, without whom no man can aspire to rest.
Here a quarrel, there a fight; Death is takes a man’s arms and lays them down.
Death, fate, and Mars, who scattered these lords.

7 thoughts on “The First Battle of St. Albans: From Whethamstede’s Register”

  1. Thanks for this timely post! I have about 70 pages to go with 'The Queen of Lost Hopes' and am enjoying it immensley!

  2. Oh the things one discovers when one’s not looking for them! I’m not surprised ROY took care not to upset the Abbot of St Albans too much. He might not have been as important as the Abbot of Westminster but he was an important cleric and landowner in his own right with lands extending into the neighbouring counties and covered the area known at the Chilterns which includes the Chequers estate now the country residence of the Prime Minister.

    What a haven for historians St Albans is which I know quite well; it’s only just up the road from me. Imagine the thrill of staying in a medieval manor with a view over the old Roman city of Verulamium and plenty of historical goodies nearby.

    Including the place from which the chronicle takes it name, modern day Wheathampstead. Between it and St Albans is a piece of common ground known as Nomansland which saw a pre-WOTR battle of St Albans between the Abbots of St Albans and Westminster who both claimed tenure of the land. Seems they fought for and over everything in the fifteenth century,

    Nomansland was also the haunt of the 17th century highwayman or rather woman known as ‘The Wicked Lady’ aka Lady Kathleen Ferrers. A local lane and pub are both named after her.

    And what would life be for historical researchers without some gold dust amongst so much dross. The trouble is when what glistens turns out to be El Dorado.

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