Andrew Rylah, from Codicote Local History Society, looks at the First and Second Battles of St Albans during the War of the Roses.


King Charles III’s recent Coronation took place in a timeless ceremony steeped in history and tradition – the seamless transfer of royal power from one ruler to the next.

But that wasn’t always the case. Kingship in medieval times rarely happened without bitter struggles for power. Close to home, Hertfordshire was the scene of not one, but two battles where ‘might is right’ helped shape the history of England.

Let’s cast our minds back to the War of the Roses, that bloody 30-year civil war between warlords in the ruling dynasty in England, at a time of weak monarchy. May 22, 1455 marks the traditional start of the conflict, and the fighting began in St Albans.

A bit of background, the king of England was Henry VI from the House of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose. However, his precarious authority was disputed, especially by Richard of York (white rose symbol, father of the future Richard III), who thought he had a better claim to the throne.

In 1454 when Henry VI was incapacitated by mental illness, Richard took over England and imprisoned his rival, Edmund Beaufort, Henry’s Lancastrian military leader.

The tides changed and by Christmas 1454 Henry VI had recovered, taken back power and released Edmund. Now the scene was set for Richard of York to be taken captive, and he wasn’t going to give in willingly.

Whilst Edmund was marching his Lancastrian army north to a great council meeting at Leicester to determine Richard’s fate, Richard marched his Yorkists down the Great North Road to stop him. The two armies confronted each other at St Albans on 22 May 1455.

Edmund’s Lancastrian army of 2,000 men arrived first. Henry VI positioned himself in the rear, close to what is now the St Albans Museum + Gallery in the town centre; front-line troops were stationed in the Maltings area. Face-to-face across the town ditch were the Yorkists, ready to fight.

Negotiations between the two factions were brief and undiplomatic. Henry wanted Richard tried for treason. Richard wanted Edmund executed.




Suddenly Richard’s soldiers, the Yorkists, raced through the back lanes and gardens, quickly reaching the market square where they attacked the unprepared Lancastrians.

Edmund initially escaped, finding refuge at the Castle Inn - now the Skipton Building Society on the corner of Chequer Street and Victoria Street.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The site of The Castle Inn in St Albans during the 1st Battle of St Albans.The site of The Castle Inn in St Albans during the 1st Battle of St Albans. (Image: Holly Rylah)

Surrounded by Yorkist troops, he decided to fight his way out in a vain attempt to flee. He killed four men before being struck down himself. Yorkist archers then moved forward and fired at the soldiers protecting Henry VI, killing some and injuring the king himself. Realising that the battle was lost, the remaining Lancastrians fled St Albans.

This was a short, sharp, decisive victory for Richard of York. The battle was over in half an hour. The Yorkists had only suffered about 60 casualties; Henry VI had been captured; Lancastrians lords had been slain and Richard had seized absolute power in the kingdom.

Control of England changed back and forth in the following years. And if the locals thought they’d see the last of the warring factions, they were sorely mistaken.

Fast forward to 17 February 1461 and the Yorkists and Lancastrians were back in St Albans, this time for a much bloodier and longer encounter.

The Yorkists, now led by the Duke of Warwick, set up defences facing north across Watling Street to block the Lancastrians. Again, surprise gave a vital advantage, this time to the Lancastrians.

They moved unnoticed through the night from Dunstable to St Albans and stormed past the Abbey into the town centre, where they were finally pushed back. Working their way along Folly Lane and Catherine Street, the Lancastrians fought house to house, attacking the Yorkists from behind, and overcoming them man by man in a bitter struggle.

By early evening the battle was lost, Warwick and his remaining army had fled. And 2,000, mainly Yorkists, lay dead in the streets of St Albans.

What about Henry VI? He was found sitting and singing under a tree, somewhat oblivious to the events around him, his Yorkist captors long gone.

There were many more twists and turns in the War of the Roses over the next 25 years, with power shifting between different protagonists and different kings.

The conflict finally culminated at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, where Henry Tudor defeated Richard III and started the Tudor dynasty… but that’s a different story.


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