The Battle of Blore Heath was the second battle of the Wars of the Roses and it’s bloodiest yet.
Over 3,000 men died viciously fighting in these fields on a cold, late September afternoon, 560 years ago.
Local legend has it that the streams and watercourses around the area ran red with blood for three days following the battle.
The dispute leading up to the battle was essentially an ongoing, medieval game of thrones – a power struggle between noble factions who were fighting for the right to the throne of England.
The Battle was fought on 23rd September 1459 on St Terle’s day at Blore Heath, an area of marshy moorland two miles to the east of the small town of Market Drayton, just outside of Loggerheads on the road to Newcastle-under-Lyme. The modern A53 now runs right through the middle of the site.
Following the first battle of St. Albans, the troubled Lancastrian King, Henry VI had been captured and Parliament had installed Richard, Duke of York as Lord Protector. An uneasy tension spread throughout England during the next few years as both sides became increasingly wary of each other and by 1459 both sides were actively recruiting armed supporters.
Queen Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s influential and powerful wife, continued to raise support for the King’s cause amongst noblemen, distributing an emblem of a silver swan to knights and squires enlisted by her personally, whilst the Yorkist command under the Duke of York was finding plenty of anti-royal support despite the severe punishment for raising arms against the king.
The Grand old duke of york, he had 5,000 men…
The Yorkist force based at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, led by the Earl of Salisbury (Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury) needed to link up with the main Yorkist army at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire (or Salop as it was known back then). Salisbury, aged 60, a distinguished nobleman with substantial estates, principally in Yorkshire, saw military service in France and at the First Battle of St Albans.
As Salisbury marched south-west through the Midlands, Queen Mary ordered Lord Audley (James Tuchet, 5th Baron Audley) to intercept them. Audley was a powerful nobleman with extensive lands in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire including Market Drayton so he was ideally placed to intercept Salisbury’s Yorkist army, as it marched to Ludlow.
Queen Margaret’s orders to Audley were to bring Salisbury to her ‘quick or dead’.
Audley, along with a Lancastrian force of around 10,000 men, halted at Blore Heath. On the morning of 23 September 1459 he took position near the medieval Market Drayton to Newcastle-under-Lyme road, in attempt to ambush Salisbury’s forces. Salisbury and his force were approaching along the road en-route to Market Drayton.
Salisbury, accompanied by force of around 5,000, had been warned of the Lancastrian position by his scouts who had spotted the Lancastrian banners protruding above a ‘great hedge’. These hedges were common in these times and would have flanked the medieval thoroughfare.
Both armies comprised substantial forces of archers, along with knights and men-at-arms (mounted men, but not knights).
On emerging from woodland, Salisbury hastily positioned his troops in battle lines, just out of range of the Lancastrian archers. Fearing defeat, the outnumbered Yorkist soldiers are said to have kissed the ground beneath their feet, in the assumption that this would be the place of their deaths.
After an unsuccessful parley between Salisbury and Audley, battle commenced with archers from both sides releasing a hail of arrows on the enemy, which proved largely ineffectual due to the distance between the two armies.
The (then) steep-sided and fast-flowing Hemphill Brook ran between the opposing sides.
Aware that an attempted attack across the brook would be foolish, Salisbury used a ruse to encourage the Lancastrians to launch just such an attack and ordered the centre of his army to feign to withdraw just far enough to fool the Lancastrians into believing them to be retreating. The ruse worked and the Lancastrians charged. Salisbury then ordered his men to turn back and attack the Lancastrians as they made attempts to cross the brook, resulting in heavy Lancastrian casualties.
The Lancastrians, although initially forced to withdraw, then made a second more successful assault, with many of them succeeding in crossing the brook.
Audley himself was slain in the close hand-to-hand fighting which ensued, allegedly by Sir Roger Kynaston of Myddle and Hordley, who later incorporated emblems of the Audley coat-of-arms into his own.
“The Earl of Salisbury, which knew the sleights, strategies and policies of warlike affairs, suddenly returned, and shortly encountered with the Lord Audley and his chief captains, ere the residue of his army could pass the water. The fight was sore and dreadful. The earl desiring the saving of his life, and his adversaries coveting his destruction, fought sore for the obtaining of their purpose, but in conclusion, the earl’s army, as men desperate of aid and succour, so eagerly fought, that they slew the Lord Audley, and all his captains, and discomfited all the remnant of his people…“
The steepness of the battle site is quite clearly still recognisable today as you look up towards the epicentre of the fighting, imagining men charging up this slope in full chainmail and armour to face their enemy in furious combat
It is said that many further Lancastrians were slaughtered following the battle having been hunted down by Yorkist men. It is said that worst occurred around the approaches to the present Shifford Bridge, where there was a field on the banks of the River Tern known locally as Deadman’s Den.
Salisbury was concerned that Lancastrian reinforcements were in the vicinity and was keen to press on southwards towards Ludlow. He made his camp on a hillside by Market Drayton that later took the name Salisbury Hill. He employed a local friar to remain on Blore Heath throughout the night and to periodically discharge a cannon in order to deceive any Lancastrians nearby into believing that the fight was continuing.
It is said around 1,000 Yorkists lost their lives and over 2,000 Lancastrians met their maker in these fields.
Audley was buried in Darley Abbey in Derby.
Audley’s Cross was erected after the battle to mark the spot where Audley was slain. The Cross was repaired in 1765 and again in 1932. It is a ‘Scheduled Ancient Monument’ and a Grad II Listed Building.
The inscription on the cross reads:
On this spot was fought the Battle of Blore Heath. In 1459 Lord Audley, who commanded for the side of Lancaster was defeated and slain. To perpetuate the memory of the action and the place, this ancient monument was repaired in 1765
Despite being a clear cut victory for the Yorkist camp, the battle was ultimately of little consequence as three weeks later the Duke of York deserted his army at Ludford Bridge. The Wars of the Roses rolled on until the decisive action from the Stanley’s at the Battle of Bosworth field some 26 years later sealed King Richard III’s fate and the Lancastrian Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.
Interestingly, the forces of Thomas, Lord Stanley, (William Stanley’s father) were waiting in the wings during the Battle of Blore heath, with 2000 men on the Maer hills, near Newcastle under Lyme, some 6 miles away. Whilst promising to support both sides, he still hadn’t committed himself to either.
The battle is of interest to historians for the tactics employed by the Yorkists. Their use of a wagon laager (surrounding their right side with their wagons which acted as a shrewd defensive move) revived a tactic exploited by the English at the battles of Verneuil (1424) and Rouvray (1429) during the later stages of the Hundred Years’ War in France.
As you take in the peaceful site and hear the trickle of the small brook still flowing all these centuries later, I could feel the two armies going toe to toe – you can almost hear the clash of swords and the battering of armour amidst the terror, chaos and butchery that unfolded that afternoon.
There must be hundreds, if not thousands of remnants of the battle buried under the earth which is a vast gravesite to so many medieval people. These were men of honour who would have had families and dreamed of great futures.
Under a benevolent sky with snowdrops and daffodils now pushing up the soil it is sobering to imagine the horrors that occurred at this place on that day in late September, 560 years ago.
Queen margaret on anjou at mucklestone
There is a local legend that Queen Margaret of Anjou and her son, Prince Henry, watched the events of that afternoon unfold from the top of the tower of St. Mary’s church in the nearby village of Mucklestone.
The Queen was known to be in the area prior to the battle, at Eccleshall castle, eight miles south east of Blore Heath. The church lies one mile (as the crown flies) from the battle field so it is entirely plausible that this was indeed her vantage point.
It has previously have maintained that it would have been too risky for the Queen to venture to Mucklestone, as this would have been behind Yorkist lines. However, dense woodland separated Mucklestone from the Yorkists at Blore Heath, and Margaret was in a Lancastrian area. Her presence at Mucklestone would indeed have been risky but not impossible. It is also possible that she got lost en route to Blore Heath, and therefore emerged from the Bishops wood at Mucklestone
It has also been noted that Margaret was very short-sighted, which would obviously prevent her from being able to see the action from as far as Mucklestone. However, Margaret is known to have previously used one of her aides to relate information to her from the vantage point of a steeple.
It is said that she fled as soon as she realised that Audley’s men were being heavily defeated. Legend says she ordered the local blacksmith, William Skelhorn to reverse her horses shoes so as to disguise her getaway.
Within the churchyard, the original anvil of Skelhorn’s smithy stands on the edge opposite the site of the smithy. It is fascinating to think of the Queen, stood on this very spot in this remote part of Staffordshire, now in great peril, as her attendants readied her horse and William hurriedly beat his hammer on this very anvil to acquiesce to the Queens request.