Battle of Hedgeley Moor

April 25, 1464


Hedgeley Moor

Henry Beaufort, his brother in law, Sir Henry Lewis and Sir Nicholas Latimer had all been attainted in 1461 and all three were in Dunstanburgh when the fortress was surrendered on 27th December 1462. In the circumstances they with Sir Ralph Percy were treated with extreme leniency. Percy was confirmed as castellan of both Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh; on 17th March in the following year he received a commission to accept the submission of other rebels. This clemency reflects an element of realpolitik – Percy was still a name that carried great weight in Northumberland, if Edward could secure their allegiance he effectively kicked away the greatest Lancastrian prop in the north. Somerset fared even better, he appears to have served with some distinction against his former associates, having all the charisma and fortitude of the Beauforts. King Edward made much of him, hunting with his former, mortal foe, who even enjoyed the signal honour of acting as a knight of the bedchamber. The Duke received cash subsidies and the hefty annuity of a thousand marks. Tournaments were mounted in his honour and the King personally intervened to save Somerset from certain death at the hands of an unruly mob in Northampton [1]

The Road to Hedgeley Moor

Why then did the Duke defect and resume his former allegiance? He could, presumably, have accepted a safe conduct and withdrawn north of the border as other members of the Dunstanburgh garrison chose, though whether Warwick would allow the former commander-in-chief this option is uncertain. There is a suggestion he’d already approached the Earl some months beforehand to explore terms. On 10th March, 1463, his attainder was reversed and yet, by December he and Percy had both reverted. Hicks has asserted, probably correctly, that this was not due to hubris or an unwillingness to accept reality, Somerset was neither fool nor dreamer – he must know the odds were long and that no second chances would be forthcoming.

What occurred was, therefore, a crisis of conscience, the pull of his affinity, the oath given to Henry VI was too compelling and triumphed over expediency. The cause might be hopeless but honour outweighed the odds [2]. Possibly both Percy and Somerset regarded their earlier compromise as nothing more than a necessary ruse to gain time whilst matters turned more favourably, having said that there were scant grounds, in December 1463 for imagining the prospects for Henry VI were improving The Duke and Sir Ralph were not alone, both Sir Henry Bellingham and Sir Humphrey Neville subsequently defected. Some commentators, particularly Ross, regard Edward’s policy of ‘hearts and minds’ as naïve and culpable, a political blunder [3]

This may be too censorious. Edward had won the crown by the sword, his affinity amongst the magnates was narrow. To survive and establish a stable regime he needed, urgently, to broaden his platform of support. To achieve this it was clearly necessary to win over former opponents. Simply killing them was not, as recent history, showed an effective policy. The blood spilled on the streets of St. Albans had pooled into a legacy of hate and resentment that had led to the carnage of Towton. The effects of this titanic fight should not be underestimated, the Yorkists had won, but only by a whisker, it was a field that could have gone either way. No Prince would consider having to repeat such an epic campaign, the drain on blood and treasure was simply too great, the stakes too high. Edward had judged that suborning his former enemies not only brought new friends but demoralised the remaining diehards and, by the close of 1462, he could have been justified in thinking that the flames of resistance had guttered out [4]

Edward’s contemporaries certainly took the harsher view. Gregory, no friend to Somerset observed that; ‘the savynge of hys lyffe at that tyme cuasyd mony mannys dethys son aftyr, as ye shalle heyre’ [5]. Hicks views Percy’s defection as the more serious because of the power of his name in Northumberland, notwithstanding the fact the King still held both Somerset’s brother and Percy’s nephew as hostages [6]. Edward’s policy of conciliation was at best a gamble and one which, in these leading instances, clearly failed [7]. At the time it seemed a risk worth taking if the prize was a lasting peace, this was not achieved and the Lancastrian cause in the north was to enjoy a final, brief revival in the spring of 1464 [8].

Early in the year sporadic unrest erupted throughout the realm. In fifteen counties, from Kent to Cornwall and as far north as Leicestershire, the disruption was sufficiently serious for the King to delay the state opening of Parliament. There is evidence from the contemporary record the Somerset might have, mistakenly, perceived that King Henry had received some fresh impetus and supply; ‘herynge y King Henry was comynge into the lande with a newe strength’ [9]. It is uncertain where these fresh troops were coming from and how they were to be paid, perhaps there was a hope the French might intervene or even the Scots. Somerset began his reversion by attempting to seize Newcastle, a considerable prize, being the Yorkists forward supply base. A number of his affinity formed an element of the garrison but the attempt did not succeed, Lord Scrope with some of the King’s household knights frustrated the scheme. The rebel Duke was very nearly taken at Durham where he was obliged to flee from his lodgings in no more than his nightshirt. Gregory reports that a number of his retainers were captured, together with their master’s ‘caskette and hys harneys [helmet and armour]’ [10]. Others attempted to slip through the net and escape Newcastle; any who were caught suffered summary execution.

There is also some further doubt as to fugitive King Henry’s whereabouts. The ‘Year Book’ claims he was at Alnwick, though this may be incorrect for the same source claims Margaret and de Breze were with him when we can, in fact be certain both were in Flanders at this time [11]. NCH still places his diminished court at lordly Bamburgh and this seems more credible, Alnwick was nearer the Yorkists at Newcastle whilst Bamburgh had access to the sea [12]. Somerset may have proceeded directly to Henry or, equally possible, he may have made for Tynedale, where a crop of castles, Prudhoe, Hexham, Bywell and Langley remained staunch. As some point, either in February or March he was joined by his former comrades, Ralph Percy and Sir Humphrey Neville of Brancepeth, with their retainers. With the Duke’s defection a new sense if urgency infuses the faltering cause of the house of Lancaster.

And urgency there was for the Scots were showing willingness to treat with Warwick who had detailed his brother Montagu to march north and provide safe passage through the uncertain reaches of the frontier for a team of Scottish negotiators. These talks were initially scheduled to take place at Newcastle on 6th March, but the increasing tempo of alarums caused the start to be delayed until 20th April and the venue shifted southward to calmer pastures. Edward, on 27th March, announced his intention to travel north and organise s suitable escort for the delegation waiting at Norham [13]. The success of any such mission would be fatal to Lancastrian hopes, so Somerset was placed in a position where he was bound to take the field, with such forces as he could muster and stake everything. Consequently, he dispatched a commanded body of foot, ‘four score spears and bows too’ [14], under Neville, to lay an ambush ‘a little from Newcastle in a wood’ [15]. Forewarned by scouts or spies, Montagu easily avoided the trap and chose a safer route into the city where he was reinforced by ‘a great fellowship’ [16]. He then set out to march northwards to the border.

Somerset’s best chance now lay in forcing a decisive encounter; causing a defeat in the field that would leave the Scots immured and serve to show the Lancastrians still had teeth. By mustering every spear he could find and stripping his handful of garrisons the Duke might, as Gregory suggests have been able to muster 5,000 [17]. This seems a very generous estimate notwithstanding he could count upon his own affinity with those of Percy, Neville, Bellingham, the turncoat Grey, Lords Hungerford and Roos. We have no note of the force Montagu was leading north but it would certainly have been the equal of anything his enemies could deploy. As the Yorkists marched north from Morpeth, the Lancastrians sallied from Alnwick, both sides probing with a screen of light horse or ‘prickers’. Nine miles west of Alnwick Somerset dew up in battle order blocking the way northwards to Norham.

Though the chronicles provide only scanty details of the battle which ensued a careful perambulation of the ground which, save for the spread of cultivation, remains largely undisturbed, indicates the fight took place on the shelf of rising ground just north of where Percy’c Cross now stands. This is the area between, to the south, the stand of timber known as Percy’s Strip Wood and the monument (“Percy’s Leap”). Here, the ground is roughly level, slightly undulating, rising toward the northern flank. In the spring of 1464 the land was not under the plough but an expanse of open moor, largely devoid of trees. With the Lancastrians facing south, in front of Percy’s leap, the Yorkists most probably carried out their initial deployment on the line of the present woodland.

As they approached from the south the main body of the Yorkists would have had no opportunity to view the strength of their enemy until they ascended the slight rise, which swells from the lower ground. The Lancastrians would not have wished to deploy to the south of the position suggested as this would be to lose the advantages the field conferred. Haigh [18] shows the Yorkists drawn up somewhat to the south of this position and indicates the Lancastrians advanced to contact over open ground. I think this unlikely. Yorkist morale was most probably higher and Montagu may have enjoyed greater strength, he was, by nature, a confident and aggressive commander. This is, however, conjectural as the chronicles remain frustratingly silent as to these initial dispositions and the numbers certainly cannot be assessed with any degree of confidence [19]. Somerset may, like Warwick, have been prone to indecision at key moments, (his failure to reinforce Clifford at Dintingdale stands as a clear example), [20].

It could be assumed that the fight commenced with the customary duel of arrows (though there is no evidence) and Yorkist supremacy was swiftly asserted. Before ever striking a blow, the whole of the Lancastrian left or rearward division, commanded by Hungerford and Roos, dissolved in total rout, leaving the centre under Somerset, Bellingham and Grey, together with the right or vaward, under Percy, horribly exposed. Montagu ordered the advance to contact [21]. Most probably the melee occurred in the vicinity of Percy’s Leap, a short, savage and largely one sided encounter. The Lancastrian centre soon joined their fellows on the left in flight, Somerset and his officers swept along, unable to stem the rot. Percy by now was virtually surrounded; fighting bravely, he sustained mortal wounds seeking to break the ring. An enigmatic legend lingers over his last moments – ‘I have saved the bird in my bosom,’ he is said to have uttered as his mount stumbled the dozen yards between two low outcrops. What was meant by this remains uncertain, perhaps he referred to his true loyalty to Lancaster, ironic then, from a man who had changed sides with such facility [22].

Montagu’s victory was complete and, though the chronicles give to hint of losses, probably cheaply bought. Aside from Percy and those retainers around him who held their ground, most of the defeated escaped unscathed. Morale was clearly a major factor in the Lancastrian defeat. Despite his humiliation on the field Somerset was able to rally many of the Lancastrians and retreat, in reasonably good order into Tynedale whilst Montagu was fully occupied with the diplomatic game; King Henry’s kingdom had shrunk further but was not yet extinguished [23].

With the Scots now in negotiations, and the French in talks at St. Omer, (which had begun the previous autumn), the Lancastrians diplomatic isolation was all but complete. As Northumberland was no longer viable as a bridgehead, then there was little incentive for Somerset to disperse his forces in isolated garrisons, simply holding ground was pointless. With the Scots set to change horses bargaining chips, like Berwick and Norham had no further currency [24]. Henry’s prospects appeared brighter in the west, for in March there were some fresh disturbances in Lancashire and Cheshire. Resistance flared briefly in Skipton in Craven, seat of the Cliffords who, with their local affinity, had bled so liberally for Lancaster. None of these alarums developed into a serious threat [25]. However, King Edward continued to feel insecure in the north and west; commissions of array were sent out to the midlands and Yorkshire, no writs were issued in Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire or Cheshire [26].



                                                Yorkists                                                 Lancastrians

Thomas Borough (Brugh) of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset

John Middleton of Belsay, Northumberland

Sir Henry Bellingham

Henry Neville of Heversham, Westmoreland

Sir Thomas Finderne

John Neville of Montague, Durham

Sir Ralph Grey


Thomas Hungerford of Rowden, Herefordshire


Robert Lord Moleyns, Lord Hungerford


Humphrey Neville of Brancepath, Durham


Sir Ralph Percy, killed in battle


Thomas Roos of Rockingham, Northamptonshire


Henry Lord Roos


William Stock of Warmington, Northamptonshire


William Talboys of Kyme, Lincolnshire


Sir Richard Tunstall of Thurland, Lancashire


Sir Thomas Wentworth of Yorkshire


Sir Philip Wentworth

Ó The Richard III Foundation, Inc.



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