The Battle of Blore Heath

In the second half of the fifteenth century there arose a major feud between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, who both believed they had a right to the throne. The period of about 30 years during which this happened is now known as the Wars of the Roses. It was violent, and politically complex.

King Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, had married a French girl, Margaret of Anjou. The Yorkist faction was led by Richard, Duke of York who was a man of experience, both in war and administration. Richard, in fact, had a better claim to the throne than Henry, and expected in due course that he would inherit the Crown. The birth of a son to Henry and Margaret dashed these hopes and Richard decided to resort to force. A street brawl in St. Albans effectively started the Wars of the Roses but there was an uneasy truce for some four years.

However, in 1459, it became clear to both sides that an out-and-out war was necessary. Margaret on her part feared losing all she had - whilst Richard, supported by influential and powerful barons, really had nothing to lose. In 1458/9, Margaret went on a trip around Lancashire and Cheshire to rally support and distributed badges of silver swans to her supporters.

The Battle of Blore Heath arose because of the need for the Yorkist forces to muster in one place. They were fragmented - with Richard Duke of York in Ludlow (his own private seat, which was the headquarters of the Yorkist force), Neville, Earl of Salisbury at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, and Richard, Earl of Warwick in Calais (Richard was later known by historians as Warwick the Kingmaker).

Neville's army set off to join Richard at Ludlow - and the old roads then took the route near to Market Drayton. The Queen, aware of this, commanded John Touchet, Lord Audley to intercept the army. He had had a long fidelity to the house of Lancaster, and also a grudge against the Yorkist leaders who had brought a parliamentary action against his wife (Eleanor, Lady Audley) to deprive her of her lands which she thought were her rightful inheritance.

Thus the scene was set for one of the bloodiest battles of Medieval England to take place at Blore Heath, on the Staffordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire borders.

Audley mustered 10,000 men. He had three castles and estates (in Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Shropshire) and other land in Derbyshire and these estates would be the source of this vast army. It's worth reflecting on the fact that the population of London was only about 50,000 at the time - and here were one-fifth that number! They rallied at Market Drayton, and were not only numerous, but strong in cavalry.

He had to choose a place to stop Neville - and chose Blore Heath, a combination of common cornfields near the hamlets of Blore, Hales and Almington and unenclosed heathland. It also had a pronounced slope down to a hollow called Crumbuldale which would help to conceal the troops. Blore Heath Farm is therefore the site of the Audley army's camp before the battle proper began. The Crumbuldale is still clearly visible, although its originally steep southern slope has been lessened by former gravel extraction.

Salisbury needed to come through a narrow defile along the Hempmill Brook (this was the route of the road from Loggerheads to Market Drayton before the modern road was formed in the 1700s). Audley realised this would make him vulnerable. So he set up his defensive position on the Blore Heath Farm side of the Hempmill Brook and waited. On Sunday September 23 1459 (St. Tecla's Day) the two sides opposed each other either side of the Brook - Salisbury on the slope where the present Audley's Cross Farm stands and Audley on the opposite side. Salisbury had carts, apparently no artillery or firearms and about 7000 men.

The first encounter of the two sides is described by the chronicler Jehann de Waurin:

"Then the Count of Salisbury, the Count of Warwick and their men, perceived directly at dawn the army of Audley and Lord Dudley behind a great hedge of trees, and saw only the tops of their standards."

The psychology of the two leaders appears important in determining the outcome of the battle. According to strategists and historians, what Audley should have done is to have dismounted his troops, and deployed his archers to defend the passage through. Instead, he seemed to be bent on attacking with his cavalry. Perhaps he was over-confident, since he outnumbered the enemy and had a greater strength of cavalry. On the other hand, he should have known that cavalry were no match for archers, as the massive defeat of the French cavalry at Agincourt by a small force of English archers had made clear. And perhaps he wanted to please the Queen by riding down and capturing his opponents.

On the other hand, Salisbury was prudent. He knew that defensive tactics were best and chose a strong defensive position - at the top of a slope with the steep sides of the brook below. They made a laager of wagons, and drove stakes into the ground against the cavalry. Further, they dug trenches behind, possibly fearing the Queen bringing up more forces to their rear. (She was known to be at Eccleshall and must have come behind the Yorkist troops to watch the battle from Mucklestone Church).

Salisbury could not wait indefinitely. The Queen might be bringing up more forces behind him, he had limited food and was in hostile country. It is supposed that he feigned a retreat by withdrawing his pikemen in the front (leaving his archers in place on the flanks) thus encouraging his opponents to attack.

Audley saw his chance for victory, and ordered his forces to assault the Yorkist position. It seems that, in their haste, the Lancastrian forces underestimated the difficulty of ascending the steep, muddy slopes of the brook which separated the two armies, whilst tired and burdened by the weight of their armour and weapons. As they floundered in the brook, the Lancastrians found themselves open and vulnerable to attack. Salisbury's trick had worked, and the Yorkist archers turned back from their false retreat to decimate the struggling Lancastrians.

There were two cavalry charges, Lord Audley being killed in the second (by Sir Roger Kynaston of Stocks, near Ellesmere). Leadership then fell to Lord Dudley who dismounted the cavalry and attacked on foot. In the melee that followed, some Lancastrians changed sides.

The Lancastrians were routed, many of them fleeing towards Market Drayton. Fighting had lasted all afternoon. The flower of Audley's army were either slain or captured. The Lancastrian loss was estimated at about 2,400, that of the Yorkists at around 56. Audley was buried at Darley Abbey in Derbyshire.

Subsequently, the site of his demise was marked by a wooden cross, and later replaced by the present stone one.

The anvil at Mucklestone church."It was said that Queen Margaret watched the defeat of the Lancastrian forces from the church tower at Mucklestone. As it became clear to her that Lord Audley's forces were on the losing side, she feared for her safety, and made plans for her escape. Rumour has it that the Queen instructed the Mucklestone blacksmith, William Skelhorn, to put the shoes on her horse the wrong way round, thus obscuring the route she took to make her escape. Unfortunately for Skelhorn, the Queen had him executed immediately afterward so that he could not reveal the deception. The anvil used by Skelhorn (pictured above) was preserved when the smithy was demolished, and stands in front of Mucklestone church to this day.

Far from being a chivalrous age, medieval battles were often extremely bloody and violent affairs. Blore Heath was no exception to this, and it was said that Hempmill brook, which runs through the centre of the battlefield, ran with blood for three days and three nights.

Remnants of the battle have been found in recent times, especially after the fields have been ploughed. Arrow-heads, coins, spurs, buckles and musket balls are among the items found.