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The Battle of Tewkesbury and the River Avon

Beau exploring the River Avon and a scene depicting the Battle of Tewkesbury from a Ghent manuscript

What do you get when you take one incredibly popular American YouTuber with a penchant for unearthing hidden secrets across waterways, add a British TV star who loves swimming in the wild, and let them loose on the UK’s river system? The answer is River Hunters, a new series which sees Beau Ouimette and our own Rick Edwards exploring the biggest events in our nation’s history by digging up long-lost relics across the country.

Their odyssey takes them to the River Avon, that tranquil waterway that’s synonymous with William Shakespeare. But put aside all thoughts of luvvie actors gadding about in ruffs and tights, because the Avon trip is all about the bloody and brutal Wars of the Roses, with the pair conducting the first ever archaeological river search around Warwick Castle.

This medieval stronghold is notable as the former dwelling of Richard Neville, aka the 16th Earl of Warwick, aka the Kingmaker – a cunning and immensely powerful man who, in this real-life game of thrones, played a decisive role in the lives of two rival kings: Edward IV and Henry VI. The Avon is also fascinating for the River Hunters as the location of the Battle of Tewkesbury, one of the most titanic confrontations of the Wars of the Roses.

What were the 'roses'?

The Wars of the Roses were fought between competing royal dynasties: the House of Lancaster, whose heraldic badge was a red rose, and the House of York, represented by the white rose. The trouble started during the reign of the Lancastrian, Henry VI. Unlike his legendary father, Henry V, he was a weak and indecisive monarch, whose lack of leadership skills meant there was a power vacuum others were eager to fill. It didn’t help that he also suffered from mental illness – it’s been suggested he had a form of schizophrenia. 

The powerful Earl of Warwick and other noblemen turned against Henry, throwing their weight behind the House of York. After a number of violent clashes for supremacy, everything changed with the Battle of Towton in 1461, which saw the Lancastrians crushed by Edward of York. He became Edward IV and Henry was taken prisoner. Henry’s wife, the formidable Margaret of Anjou, went into exile along with their son Edward of Lancaster, posing a threat to the new Yorkist monarchy.

Some time later, Edward had a falling out with the Earl of Warwick – which is putting it mildly. Once a kind of mentor to the king, the Earl turned against him so dramatically that he ended up switching sides to the Lancastrians, helping to orchestrate the restoration of Henry VI to the throne. It wasn’t to last. The exiled Edward IV soon returned to England with an army, killing the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. 

But Edward wasn’t secure just yet. He still had to defeat the Lancastrian forces led by Margaret of Anjou, who were attempting to cross into Wales to join their allies there. The stage was set for a decisive confrontation. The location would be Tewkesbury, where the Lancastrians hoped to cross the River Severn and head into Wales.

The Battle of Tewkesbury

This key battle of the Wars of the Roses unfolded on 4 May 1471, with the Yorkists bearing down on the Lancastrians, who were hemmed in between the rivers Severn, Avon and Swilgate. While Margaret of Anjou was stationed in a farmhouse close by, her troops – including her son Prince Edward – took on the Yorkists. 

The Lancastrians were divided into three swathes of men, commanded by the aristocrats Lord Wenlock, the Earl of Devon and the Duke of Somerset, as well as Prince Edward. Among the combatants on Edward IV’s side was Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would go onto achieve infamy as Richard III. Edward IV himself was also present, hungry to destroy the Lancastrians once and for all.

Weapons-wise, the battle was fought with swords, spears and longbows, as you might expect from that period. But it may come as a surprise to learn early forms of firearms were also used by both sides, the air exploding with the sounds of guns and cannons. Indeed, it’s been argued that the barrage of gunfire from Yorkists at the start of the battle caused the Lancastrians to break their strong defensive position and make themselves vulnerable to the Yorkists.

Edward IV proved himself a cunning strategist, positioning a group of spearmen on a hilly, wooded area to the side of the battlefield, where they could rain down death on the Lancastrians who’d been dispatched to tackle the Yorkists’ flank. As the tide turned against the Lancastrians, many were cut down while trying to flee across the River Severn, in an area that’s still known as Bloody Meadow to this day.

It’s thought that Somerset was so filled with rage at the slaughter of his men that he rounded on his fellow Lancastrian commander, Lord Wenlock, cutting him down with a battle axe. The Earl of Devon was another key Lancastrian casualty. Prince Edward, son of Henry VI, was also cornered and killed – the only heir to the English throne to die in battle. Henry VI himself, who was at this point a captive at the Tower of London, died that same month – possibly murdered on the orders of the triumphant Edward IV.

The Battle of Tewkesbury was a turning point in British history. The Lancastrian heir to the throne was dead, his mother Margaret of Anjou was neutralised as a threat and the Yorkists reigned supreme. Despite the vast stretches of time that have passed, can traces of that battle – from arrowheads to shots – still be excavated from the Avon and the other rivers that ran red with the blood of the dead?