THE WHITE ROSE AND THE RED
A narrative poem about the Battle of Wakefield,
one of the key events in the Wars of the Roses
Bard of Burgh Conan
Copyright © 2017 Christopher Webster
aka Bard of Burgh Conan
All rights reserved.
This poem was written for inclusion in the new edition of [+ Conisbrough Tales+] (forthcoming September, 1917) which I describe as “A Canterbury Tales for Conisbrough”. It consists of a series of narrative poems that tell the story of Conisbrough from Celtic times to the 1980’s. Although this poem focuses mainly on the Battle of Wakefield, the central story of the Wars of the Roses is told by a brief backward glance to the Battle of St Albans, and a brief glance ahead to the Battle of Towton.
THE WHITE ROSE AND THE RED
“Richard of York gave battle in vain”
It had not been an easy journey northwards:
December weather was but half of it.
The roads were quagmires, rutted, waterlogged,
and sometimes flooded deep as a man’s waist.
Fords were impassable, and bridges broken,
forcing a detour to find one that stood.
The other problem was the enemy:
cunning Lancastrians who shadowed their march
and picked off stragglers or scouting parties.
The worst of these attacks took place at Worsksop
where a forward patrol took heavy casualties
thanks to the Duke of Somerset. Now, at last,
they were in friendly territory: Yorkshire,
county of the White Rose, and better still,
within the borders of the Duke’s own Manor
of Conisbrough and not far from the castle.
Richard the Duke of York rode in the van
with Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury
and his son Thomas. All the mud
and blood and turmoil of their journey north
and the dark clouds, threatening another storm,
could scarcely dim the brilliance of his arms:
French fleurs and England’s lions, quarterly,
with Mortimer and De Burgh, and overall
an inescutcheon of three lions, Or;
nor was his harness tarnished, but still gleamed
reflecting the last light of dying day,
as if in token of his dauntless spirit.
Among the knights and squires, and men-at-arms,
forming the army’s centre, and the safest
from skirmishers, rode Richard’s second son,
Edmund the Earl of Rutland – a toy knight,
for he was only twelve, and yet his harness
was every bit as knightly as his father’s.
Each plate was curved and fluted to give strength
and to deflect the blows from swords and glaives.
He should, at his age, have been just a page,
staying at home to practice courtly arts
among the ladies, or at most, a squire
learning the art of war with men-at-arms,
but his indulgent father had allowed him
all of the honours proper to a knight;
and so he rode astride a noble destrier
bristling with arms that he could barely wield.
The one demand his father laid upon him
was that he travel with his priest and tutor,
Sir Robert Aspall. Though in Holy Orders,
he was not dour – rather the opposite.
His heavy jowels often creased with a smile,
and laughter twinkled in his light blue eyes.
He tried, as was his duty, to be strict
with Edmund, but the boy knew him too well.
Sir Robert was attired in an odd mixture
of military and ecclesiastical.
His harness was like any other knights,
except that over it he wore a stole;
nor did he carry weapons, just a buckler,
because, he said, “I am a man of peace,
though needed to confess men before battle
and give them Final Unction in necessity.”
This march was a bold move played on the board
of war, just like a queen in chess which moves
from one side to the other unprotected.
Another queen had also made a move:
Margaret of Anjou, mad King Henry’s wife –
but hers was made with better strategy,
with numberless men-at-arms, her pawns, around her.
They met near Hull, already 15,000,
and many more to come with Exeter.
Lord Roos was there, Lord Clifford, Baron Greystoke,
and the Lord Latimer (all northern lords).
They planned to sieze the north and then the country.
The queen, magnificent in her regalia,
with a Red Rose pinned to her royal mantle,
beautiful, pale, determined, made this speech:
“My lords, supporters of the House of Lancaster,
our cause is just. My son’s the rightful heir,
but is denied by this Act of Accord
which puts York in his place in the succession.
I will not rest until his power is broken
and he is taken to the Tower in chains
or slain upon the bloody field of battle.”
“I too have cause to hate him and his kin,”
said the lord Clifford, jumping to his feet,
his eyes ablaze beneath his craggy brow,
“Did he not slay my father at St Albans?
And did I not vow that I’d be revenged?
If I meet York or any of his kin,
into as many gobbets will I cut him
as my cook, Martha, chops up meat for stew!”
“Calm down!” said Roos, a milder man, and just.
“Remember, we are Christian knights, not butchers.
Our cause is just, and justly we will fight it.”
Latimer said, “This is a civil strife
where Englishman sheds blood of Englishman;
friend blood of friend, and brother blood of brother.
Thus, mercy should always our watchword be.”
“Show mercy to the man who killed my father,
or any of his kin?” stormed Clifford. “Never!”
“But are not you and York kin of a kind?”
said Latimer. “What! Me, kin to that fiend?”
“He is a son of Conisbrough – so are you.”
“It’s true that I was born there, and I bear
De Warenne blood, shown in my coat of arms:
Chequy Or and Azure, a fess Gules.”
“I heard your godmother was Lady Maud,
The second wife of Richard of Conisbrough.”
“There is no blood link.” “But there is a link:
two sons of Conisbrough should fight together.”
Lord Clifford laughed, “Aye, we will fight together –
and I will chop him into little pieces
and all his kin!” “No, I meant side by side.”
“My lords, enough of petty argument!”
the queen cried, “we have business to discuss.
I wish to hear the details of the plan
to march to Pontefract and take South Yorkshire.”
The Duke of York had marched as far as Tickhill,
whose mighty castle frowned an early welcome,
although he had not time enough to stay.
Wadworth was next, and then Old Edlington
whose little church spoke of the things of home,
for Conisbrough was near, where he was born.
A little further on, Sir Robert said,
“Look! There’s the castle – you can see the keep
towering over Conisbrough. Soon we’ll rest –
ah! how my weary bones will welcome it!”
“Sir Robert,” Edmund said, “I heard a story
that Conisbrough was once called Camelot,
and where the great King Arthur held his court.”
Sir Robert laughed. “It’s just a minstrel’s tale
made from the Latin place name, ‘Camelodunum’,
shortened to ‘Camelod’ or ‘Camelot’.
And yet, I have to say that the old place
is suited to the tale – was it not called
“many-towered Camelot”? Look at those towers –
eight, I think – not counting the great keep
and the small towers of the barbican.
“My father told me that the old round table
in the Great Chamber where I used to play
when but a boy, is King Arthur’s Round table.”
Sir Robert laughed again, “If all the tables
throughout England, said to be Arthur’s tables,
were put into a pile it would be higher
than Conisbrough’s church tower! It’s a good story –
to inspire knights to strive for high ideals –
and that’s what counts. A knight is but a butcher
if he’s not also courteous and chivalric.”
Did Edmund hear these words? – for his attention
was focused on the castle, now much nearer.
A swathe of grey cloud lay on the horizon,
but a pale gleam picked out the bone-white limestone
in a stark contrast. Two windows, like eyes,
stared back at him from high up in the keep,
and on top of the roof, a blue-tiled cone,
flew the White Rose on a background of blue.
Edmund’s heart lifted. Here he was again
at Conisbrough, the Camelot of legend,
though now, not as a page, but as a knight,
eager to prove himself in chivalry
and courtesy as his tutor advised.
The garrison were mainly Conisbrough men,
with some from Tickhill, or from Doncaster,
and a few come from much further afield;
just thirty of them, under serjeant Battie
who did guard duty in three eight hour shifts,
one on the outer gate, one at the barbican,
one on the inner gate, one on the keep,
one on the south and one on the north curtain,
and then, in a rotation with the others,
practised at pell and quintain in the bailey.
“They’s ‘ere! A breathless William reported,
having run down the steps from the south curtain.
“What? ‘Ere so soon! We weren’t expectin’ ‘em
until tomorrer at the earliest.
They ‘ave marched mighty quick! Nah it’s our turn
to bustle, so look lively! The Duke’s ‘erald
told us ‘ee ‘ad 5,000 men at least –
though where we’ll put ‘em ‘Eaven only knows!”
The knights, along with servants, squires and pages,
were quartered in the castle, the most senior
in the Great Hall and the buildings beside it,
the others in pavilions in the bailey.
The rest of the great army pitched their tents
on open land as far as Conisbrough brook.
Edward Fitzwilliam, Constable of the Castle,
met Richard and his chief knights in the Hall.
He was a local man who came from Wadworth
and had his fair share of that common sense
that comes with being born in God’s own county,
and it had served him will in his profession.
“Welcome York, welcome to Conisbrough.
Your journey has been hard, I hear, and so
tonight we’ll raise the rafters of this hall
with such a feast as you will not forget!”
“My thanks, Fitzwilliam, and more than thanks
for your good service in the recent battle
fought at Northampton. I heard a report
that the Lancastrians employed artillery –
that must be the first time it has been used –
how was it, tell me?” Fitzwilliam replied,
“They had artillery it’s true, but we had better,
a driving rain that put out all their fuses
and turned their powder into porridge oats –
although the best of it is that we won
by cunning strategem rather than force.
I’ll tell you all the gory details later.”
A hot fire blazed in the great central hearth
driving away the chills of late December.
The tapestries that hung around the walls,
depicting scenes of Arthur and his knights,
stirred in the draft. The torches flared,
casting huge shadows which danced on the wall.
A minstrel sang old roundelays of France,
telling of love and war, but no-one listened,
for every man had stories of his own,
and boasts and jests which he told to his neighbours
in Norman French or in the Yorkshire dialect,
or in that jargon that they speak down south.
“Bring wine ho!” cried Fitzwilliam, “Where’s my squire?
Keep us topped up, my lad, without the asking.
There’s little time for feasting, so tonight
I mean to make the most of it. Now, York,
do you intend to garrison this castle?”
“No, Fitzwilliam, Sandal is much larger,
and a lot stronger too, better designed
to stand against a siege with modern weapons.”
“And yet this keep…!” “‘Tis true, it is the strongest
I’ve ever seen – with walls fifteen foot thick,
and six great buttresses clasped like a fist.
If ever I had to make a last stand
I do it here. Why, man, the very devil
would have his work cut out to breach those walls!
The best modern artillery would fail
to make more than a dent upon the ashlar.
They’d have to starve me out – and even then,
I’ve heard a secret tunnel goes from there
down to St Edmund’s Chapel near the Don –
but the rest of this place is roughly coursed,
and the south wall easy to undermine.
No, Sandal is the best for what I purpose,
a haven safe from the worst storms of war
where I may base my men while I am waiting
for reinforcements from the Earl of March.”
Fitzwilliam frowned, and then voiced his concern.
“But what of Conisbrough? If the Lancastrians
besiege us, with just 30 men we’re doomed,
for they have 20,000, so ‘tis said.”
Sir Richard stroked his beard and then replied.
“I’ll leave 200 men and ordinance.
With that you can hold out till I return –
unless you make a foolish sally – no –
that’s not your way. You always were cool-headed.”
Young Edmund, in the place beside his father
was thrilled to hear this talk of martial matters
and longed to test his mettle ‘gainst the foe.
“When do we ride for Sandal? On the morrow?”
Sir Richard gave him a stern look and said,
“You should say ‘you’, not ‘we’. You are not coming.
You’re too young yet to stain your sword with blood.
You must stay here and keep the ladies company…”
“A page again! No, father! I protest!”
Fitzwilliam intervened to help his friend.
“Edmund, serve as my squire. You’ll like it here,
and there may be hot work, and Sandal Castle,
may very well be quiet as the grave.”
“I would ride with my father…” “You will do,”
Sir Richard answered his son testily,
“what you are told. A knight, before all else,
must learn how to obey his lord. Now go.
Leave us to plan tomorrow’s dispositions.”
Young Edmund went, but did not go to bed,
but instead made a plan all of his own,
and when he’d worked it out he told his tutor.
“No, you will not,” Sir Robert said, “No, no!
If you persist in this I’ll tell your father.”
Edmund just smiled at him mischievously.
“Then I will tell him what I saw last week –
you and that kitchen maid behind the buttress.”
“Heaven forfend!” cried Richard, turning red.
“I am a sinner, and I have confessed!
She was a Jezebel and tempted me
beyond what flesh could bear – no, do not tell!
I’ll go along with it – only because
it may be that the fiercest fight is here.”
That night, Edmund slept badly. A nightmare
troubled his sleep. A queen in a red robe
decreed that every white rose in her garden
be painted red – her gardeners obeyed,
but instead of their usual smock frocks
they wore black harness smudged with paint – or blood.
The morning broke on a hard, bitter frost,
and cold, bleak winds sweeping around the castle
that wailed like spirits prophesying death.
Poor William Webster on the lookout tower
put out his torch, and brushed away the rime
from beard and eyebrows, and looked eagerly
for his relief, longing for the warm hearth
that waited in the guard room. Harry Hurst
arrived at last, and William handed over,
with one last shiver, saying the words: “All’s well.”
By now the sleepers in the tents were stirring –
those that had slept at all. They said their beds
were icier than the grave and made them wish
to feel the fires of Hell about them – almost!
Now they emerged, shivering and complaining,
stamping their feet, hugging themselves and huddling
around the camp fires, while their breaths, like smoke
hung in the freezing air. Breakfast was bolted
there being no time to make a meal of it,
and anyway, the men were just as eager
to march to Sandal as the Duke of York,
for Sandal Castle promised better quarters.
A trumpet sounded and the men rode forth
The Duke and his knights bearing their own arms
while their retainers bore the Rose of York.
Among the middle section of the army
there was an ordinary man-at-arms,
if somewhat short of stature, and though riding
a far from ordinary destrier.
He wore a dark blue jupon like the others,
but kept his visor closed – well, it was cold!
Behind that man-at-arms rode poor Sir Robert,
frowning disconsololately at his back,
and wondering, if the Duke of York found out
would it be worse than if he’d known his secret?
After all, tumbling a willing wench was nothing –
he’d probably just laugh at it – but no!
His reputation as a holy man would suffer.
This was the best – he prayed it would work out.
The Lancastrians had marched to Pontefract.
Pontefract! That is a mighty castle!
The keep is multi-lobed with many tourelles
to command the prospect. Many towers
support the high, extensive walls, and one,
a great square tower, is higher than the keep,
enabling the defenders in a siege
to rain destruction within or without
the inner bailey. Outside the main walls
are two more baileys, guarding the main gate
and giving space to house a mighty army.
With Pontefract as base the queen commanded
all the land for many miles around.
She needed to! – her men fought on their stomachs,
an army swelled by now to 20,000.
Foraging parties went out night and day,
and sometimes paid, and sometimes commandeered,
but stripped the country bare. “Ha ha!” laughed Clifford.
“The Duke of York will find his cellars empty
and have scant cheer at Christmas!” Lord Roos frowned.
“It is a time of Peace, Love and Good Will.
‘Tis meet to put our enmities aside.”
Latimer said, “Indeed, I hear a truce
is being negotiated by both sides.
We will not mock this Holy tide with blood.”
“Then I will fill my belly and rejoice
that Richard and his brood are going hungry,”
snarled Clifford, unreprentant then as ever.
The case in Sandal was not quiet as bad
as Clifford saw it in his wishful thinking.
For though the garrison were not enough
to challenge the Lancastrians in the area
and build up a sufficient store of food
for a protracted siege, they had enough
to feed their visitors for at least a week,
and what was more important, during Christmas.
The Duke of York was in a festive mood,
the more so since more nothern knights had joined him:
Sir Thomas Parre and Thomas Harrington,
Sir James of Pickering and many others.
The hall was decked with holly boughs and ivy,
and trestle tables crammed in every corner,
and in each bailey (there were three at Sandal)
was pitched a huge pavilion for the others –
Sir Robert joked, referring to the Bible:
“A miracle – like feeding the 5,000!”
Pages and servants hurried to and fro
bringing all kinds of food and wine and ale;
even the kitchen maids had to do service,
though Aspall, mindful to avoid temptation,
would close his eyes whenever one came near.
Rebecs and shawms played the old Christmas carols,
such as This is the Truth Come from Above,
What Child is This? and Good King Wenceslas,
The Latin hymn, Adeste Fidelis,
and jolly Yuletide songs like Deck the Halls.
Outside, in a pavilion, young Edmund
was feasting with the common men-at-arms.
He found their dialect was hard to follow,
and said he was from Kent as an excuse.
“What is a youth like thee duin’ in the army?”
said a plump man, known by the name of Porky.
Poor Edmund blushed and knew not what to say.
“Leave ‘im alone,” another said, “in battle,
thy belly fat will be more of a ‘indrance
than this lad’s tender years.” “Ah’m not so fat!
An’ if ah am, ah’m tryin’ ter get fatter!
It’s not so often that ah gets to ate
such victuals as this. Ah’ll stuff mesen
until ah bust – speakin’ o’ which, that maid
‘as gorra bust ah’d love ter busk. Come ‘ere!
Pour us more ale an’ then give us a kiss!”
The maid, whose name was Meg, just poured the ale,
but Porky put his arm around her waist.
She slapped his face and snapped, “Gerroff! Fat pig!”
and his friends laughed. Edmund was laughing too,
and even Porky, rubbing his red cheek,
could see the joke, and said with a wry smile,
“Ee! that’s the girl fer me – ah likes ‘em fiesty,
not meek as lambs – ‘ow dost thou like ‘em, lad?”
Edmund had never thought of girls like that –
he was too young. Porky saw this and laughed,
“Ha ha! ‘Ee’s like a little girl hissen!”
“Leave ‘im alone, will yer?” the other said,
“He’d stand a better chance wi’ ‘er than thee.
Thou art so ugly tha could scare off Satan!”
Porky guffawed, “It’s them Lancastrians
ah want ter scare!”
It was a humbling lesson
for Edmund to sit with these common soldiers
and see himself through their eyes rather than
the eyes of those who saw him as the offspring
of the great magnate, Richard Duke of York,
jumped to his every whim and flattered him.
Nevertheless, he still kept to his purpose.
As for his youth, he knew it was a thing
that time would cure. His girlish face
would soon be gaunt and bearded, and perhaps
display a scar or two, hinting of war.
The main thing was to keep faith with his ideals:
chivalry, courtesy, prowess in battle –
yes, come what may, he’d fight beside his father!
At the high table Aspall waxed poetic,
as he was wont to do on Rhenish wine:
“How strange that the Red Rose, symbol of Love
and Beauty, now should symbolise the opposite:
Blood and Death!” Then Meg brought round the flagon.
Ah! here she is, he thought – what rosy cheeks,
rosier lips, and underneath her gown
two other rosebuds. “Pour me some more wine,”
he said, holding his glass with trembling hand –
and yet, this sin I fight – this rose of passion –
is holier than the rose red with spilt blood!
“Now tell us what you think the White Rose means,”
said Harrington, nibbling a nightingale.
“White symbolises Peace and Holy Love –
for was it not a white dove that descended
on Christ, Our Lord, after his baptism?”
“So we have Love and Beauty fighting Peace
and Holy Love – that is a war indeed! –
These nightingales are excellent, Aspall, try one!”
“We should be fighting for the Heavenly Kingdom
where men and women, free from mortal sin,
strive with each other to love each other best.”
“And not for York? Why, man, you are a traitor!”
“I render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s,”
said Aspall, “and to God that which is God’s.”
“So Richard Duke of York is a new Ceasar?
You are excused of treachery – pass that pie!”
Meg reached across the table for the pie
and Aspall had a view of hills and valley
more beautiful than the landscape near Roche Abbey.
That night he dreamed he was scouting a landscape
full of roses and those roses were hers,
and a bush too, and swelling hills and valley,
but just as he drank at a gushing fountain,
Caesar came and swept it all away.
Young Edmund also had a dream that night,
it was the nightmare that he’d had at Conisbrough,
but this time the small garden had extended,
it seemed for miles, and it was full of roses,
and every rose was dripping with red blood.
Christmas being over, thoughts returned to war,
and in the Great Hall of Pontefract castle
the queen held court. “My lords, give me advice.
We must move quickly. 20,000 mouths
will eat us out of house and home in no time.”
“York is at Sandal. Why not siege the castle?”
Lord Clifford urged, eager for his revenge.
“No,” said Lord Roos. “Sandal, though not as large
as Pontefract is every bit as strong
and our great army would be like a wave
that breaks against a cliff and is thrown back.
Better to lure them out.” “Ha ha, no man
would be so foolish as to match 5,000
against four times the number! No.
We’ll have to starve them out.” “Then we must hurry,
before they send their forage parties out.”
Lord Greystoke said, “Then let’s surround the castle.”
“But keep most of the army under cover,”
Latimer said, “then, if they venture out,
they’ll ride into an ambush and we’ll have them!”
And so it was agreed and the next day
the army rode to take up its positions.
Clifford led the left of light-armed foot,
and on the right, Rosse and the Earl of Wiltshire
with light-armed horse took cover in the woods.
Somerset led the centre, and deployed
his ranks of men in full view of the castle.
Edmund looked anxiously from Sandal’s walls.
“Keep dahn!” said Porky, pushing on his head,
or tha’ll be target practice for Lancastrians!”
“Just look at all those men!” he said, aghast.
“Will they attack the castle?” “Let ‘em try.
They’ve no artillery or mangonels,
and so we can hold aht till kingdom come –
ah wish our stomachs could!” “What do you mean?”
“Ah reckon they will try ter starve us aht –
not that ah care – ah’ve got plenty stored here!”
at this he patted his prodigious belly.
Meanwhile, the Duke was in the council chamber
with Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury,
Sir Thomas Parre, Sir James of Pickering,
and David Hall, the castle’s constable.
A chill was in the air, the fire burned low,
a stark reminder of their low provisions.
“A sally!” cried the Duke. “We’ll sally forth
and sweep them all before us. They’ve more men,
but not so many more – perhaps a thousand.”
That plan was typical of Richard’s boldness,
and his belief that nothing he could do
could fail. “It is too great a risk,” said David.
“Better to wait until the Earl of March,
your son, arrives with mighty reinforcements.
We’re safe within these walls – but sallying
would be more hazardous than… a game of hazard.”
“I must agree,” said Neville solemnly.
“The odds are even – like tossing a coin.”
Sir Richard smiled, his bright eyes glittering
as he decided to take up the challenge.
“Then give me a gold noble and I’ll toss.
King’s head, we sally forth, tails we stay here!”
Neville produced a coin and Richard tossed.
The coin clinked down and spun and then fell flat.
Sir Richard clapped his hand on it and said,
“I saw the king’s head – thus we sally forth.”
“We want to see the coin!” the others cried.
“Ah! Too late now!” said York and swept it up.
“Here, Salisbury, the arbiter of Fate
shall go back in your purse – and so, to arms!”
“What! Sally forth! The man is barking mad!”
Sir Robert ranted when he heard the news.
“What! Sally forth! I like a hearty meal,
but ah’d much rather pull me belt in tight
than suffer them Lancastrians ter belt me!”
moaned Porky to his mates, including Edmund.
“Yes! Sally forth!” said Edmund to himself.
“This is my chance to prove myself at last!”
though inside he was trembling as he thought it.
Sir Robert cursed himself – call himself tutor?
He should protect the lad and give advice,
keep him from harm, teach him the way of wisdom –
and now, because of some past pecadillo,
he’d led the boy into the way of harm.
Well, he must tell all – no, he couldn’t face it,
better to sieze the boy and lock him up.
Yes, that’s what he would do. He’d find him now
and clap him in the dungeon. There at least
the only danger was from rats and lice.
But where was Edmund? Probably with that soldier
who’d taken him in tow – what was his name?
Porky, they called him. Well, he’d find him out,
and soon! There’d be no sallying forth for Edmund!
Edmund, the whiles, was making other plans.
He armed himself, and then put on his jupon,
blazing with colour: Gules, Azure and Argent,
quartered with many different devices:
lions and fleur-de-lys, castles and crowns.
Then over it he put his plain blue jupon
with the White Rose – and once again he was
an ordinary man-at-arms. His plan
was to ride close behind the Duke, his father,
and then, at the right moment, strip his jupon,
revealing his true colours underneath.
But what was the right moment? – time would tell,
and fate. For now, the thing was to get going.
“Stay close ter me,” said Porky, “Ah’ll protec’ yer –
though who’ll look arter me ah hardly know!
That’s a fine ‘oss – yer father must be rich.
Your ‘arness, too – ah’ve scarcely seen the like.
The latest fashion – fluted, curved – Italian,
ah’ll be bound – not like these kitchen pots
of mine – at least they’re strong – though far too ‘eavy!”
“God’s Wounds! I’ve missed him!” Aspall swore out loud,
then crossed himself – it was a venial sin.
“Well, I will find him somewhere in the army.
But how? They’re all alike: harness of black,
a visored helmet and a White Rose jupon –
yet I must try!” He got up on his horse
and joined the flow of men towards the gate.
In a rich tent behind Lancastrian lines,
Queen Margeret held her final council meeting.
Her face was calm, she smiled upon her knights –
for was the battle not already won?
With odds of four to one they could not lose,
and then again, they had good strategy.
No chess Grand Master ever arranged his pieces
better than her forces were deployed.
Her knights, in turn, went up to pay her homage:
Somerset, Exeter, Wiltshire and Devon,
Dacre and Rosse, then Clifford in high dudgeon,
his cheeks burning with mad lust for revenge.
To each she gave a Red Rose from her hand,
Badge of the House of Lancaster. Each bowed
and doffed his plumes and took the rose
and pinned it to his colours and departed
to his assigned position in the army.
A trumpet sounds, and the portcullis rattles,
the drawbridge rumbles, and thuds to the ground,
huge bolts are drawn and the great gates creak open.
The Duke, ready to charge, his eyes afire,
exuding confidence, speaks to his men:
“Today will be just like it was in Normandy,
when I was Regent there. I did not skulk
behind safe walls, but sallied on the foe!
Harried and trampled them until they fled –
as we will do – and so, upon this charge,
cry “God for the White Rose, York and Saint George!”
Neville, the Earl of Salisbury and Pickering,
follow the Duke, each brilliant in his colours,
Neville in Gules and Pickering in Vert.
Behind them ride the men-at-arms in blue,
like a great stretch of sea with White Rose breakers.
Next follow the foot soldiers armed with halberds,
or great two-handed swords, or glaives or maces.
Then come archers and arquebusiers,
and finally a rearguard of light horse.
Before them lie the massed Lancastrians,
headed by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
They stand their ground, not choosing to advance,
and so the Duke rides forward and dismounts
just out of arrow-shot. For in those days
of nearly-perfect harness, when a man
was armoured head to toe and even the joints,
under the arms, at elbows, groin and knees,
were shielded by a gusset of chain mail,
a horse, though armoured, was too vulnerable;
better to save it for the final charge,
or the retreat. Weapons had also changed,
designed to do their worse on modern harness;
the great, two-handed sword, heavy to wield,
but with the force to cut through iron plate,
the war hammer, with strength to bash it in,
the halberd: axe, war-hammer, spear, in one.
The shields of old were clumsy. Now the buckler,
a small round shield attached to a man’s arm,
was used instead, leaving both his hands free
to wield the fearsome instruments of death.
The arquebus was new and slow and clumsy,
and so innacurate that it’s only use
was in a volley, but it showed the way
that things would go, for, at a 100 yards
a ball would penetrate the finest harness.
Fighting was hand to hand, vicious and bloody,
those wicked weapons severed arms and legs,
bashed in steel helmets and the heads beneath,
or pierced a breastplate right through to the heart.
The battle was unusually vicious,
for York fought to preserve his dream of kingship,
threatened now, and hanging on a knife-edge,
while the Lancastrians fought for their survival,
for if they lost, they would be declared traitors
by the new king and not only beheaded,
but suffer disinheritance for their heirs.
But how can I, humble Bard of Burgh Conan,
describe it, when the Great Bard did it best.
(Read Henry VI, Part 3, or go to see it).
Then Leatham, though a poet now forgotten,
described the fight with admirable verve.
I know! – I’ll quote a canto from his poem,
and then describe it in words of my own.
The sun arose o’er helm and shield
And all the pomp of war revealed;
Then fiercely rolled each wakeful eye,
And hearts beat high for victory.
Then loud and dread the clarion pealed,
On – on they rush – like steeds of fire,
A;; aremed with death and quenchless ire:
The fluttering plume – the brandished lance,
Awhile in liquid ether dance,
Then clash with foeman’s deadliest hate,
As steeds with steeds contending meet.
The archer bends his yew-tree bow
and wings destruction on the foe
The matchlock – gun – and arquebus
hurl bolt and ball with thundering voice;
the pelting storm of iron hail
smites pitiless on rattling mail;
Halbert and sword, and battle axe,
Gory and hot in slaughter wax;
The din of arms, the frantic bound,
Of blood-stained hoof on icy ground,
The shriek of death – the victor’s yell,
Mingling in one tumult swell.
It was not as young Edmund had imagined it.
He’d dreamed of knights arrayed in shining armour
and plumage colourful as Birds of Paradise,
dancing, almost, in delicate sword play.
Instead he found himself inside a cockpit
where vicious fighting cocks tore at each other.
He saw now why his father had insisted
that he stayed with the ladies back in Conisbrough –
he was too small! In fighting hand to hand,
size, strength and stamina count more than skill –
and he had none of those – just high ideals –
but ideals won’t protect you from a swordstroke!
Porky was built for this – fought with his belly.
He’d stick it out and barge the foeman down,
a blow into his breastplate was well cushioned,
and if his swordplay lacked Italian elegance,
it certainly made up for it in force:
he lopped off arms just like a forester
lops branches off a tree, and sometimes heads.
Edmund could only follow in his wake,
and if, sometimes, he warded off a blow
at Porky’s back, it was enough for him
to feel that he was playing a knightly part.
Not far behind, Sir Robert hacked and slashed
for very life – he was not used to this,
but sitting on his horse behind the lines
leading the prayers and giving final unction.
Nevertheless, he thought, I have deserved it.
I’ll never kiss a kitchen maid again
(although that Meg who poured the drinks last night
was marvellously buxom). “Ow! That hurt!
Take that, you dog, and learn a just respect
for any man who wears a priestly stole!”
York ran to right and left, his great sword whirling
like the windmill you’ll see on Conisbrough Common,
almost as though he thought to win the battle
with his one sword. If zeal and self-belief
could kill like bolts and balls he would be victor!
“They’re falling back!” he cried. “Just one more push
and we will rout them and I shall be king!”
A trumpet sounds, although not one of York’s.
He looks around and sees to his surprise
the foe on left and right – Clifford and Wilts
pour rank and rank from woods near to the castle.
York wheels around to face the coming blow –
and wheels again – to find himself surrounded!
Back in the ranks, Porky is wheeling too,
this way and that, but there’s no front or back.
“We’re caught,” he wails, “like a fish in a net
or a deer in a buckstall. Come ‘ere, lad,
an’ guard me back – my arse ain’t fat enough!”
Ah wish that tha were bigger. Never mind –
better than nowt – just poke ‘em in the face,
visor or not, an’ that’ll send ‘em reeling!”
The tide is turning, wavering – and lost!
Queen Margaret’s gardeners do their bloody work,
painting white roses red. Clifford, exultant,
revels in the slaughter, crimsoning
his sword and his sword arm, until it matches
the Red Rose at his breast, and the red lust
for vengeance poisoning the heart beneath.
Edmund looks on in horror. He’s awake
but seeing his nightmare vision in the flesh:
a garden of white roses painted red.
Then suddenly, a strong hand siezes him –
he’s taken! Will he be ransomed or slain?
No – it is his tutor, smeared with gore,
but recognisable by his priestly stole.
He drags him, heedless of his questioning,
out of the battle, heading for the town –
others have fled this way, but not so many
as you might think – a traitor’s death awaits them –
hanged, drawn and quartered is a traitor’s fate –
better to die in battle with one blow!
York tries to rally his beleagured troops,
mounts on his horse and rides among his men,
shouting his war cry: “Men of the White Rose!
To me! We’ll beat them yet, but then his steed,
struck by an arrow, falls onto its knees,
and he’s unhorsed. “To me!” he cries again.
They come, but not his loyal men in blue,
just red Lancastrians eager for his blood.
He makes a last stand but his weary arm
can wield the great two-handed sword no longer.
His arm falls. He awaits the final stroke,
but rough hands sieze him, taking him alive –
it seems they have a darker fate in mind.
Lord Clifford, cheated of his planned revenge,
now that the Duke is taken prisoner,
looks round for the Duke’s kin and sees, afar,
crossing the bridge into the town of Sandal,
two men: a knight wearing a priestly stole
beside a man-at-arms – although he seems
more of a boy-at-arms. He thinks it odd,
and so decides to find out who they are.
He rides them down, dismounts and puts the question:
“What men are you? Show me. Raise up your visors!”
They do as they are told and Clifford sees
at once that it is Edmund and his tutor.
Without another word, he draws his sword
and raises it to strike the killing stroke…
My modest muse trembles before this scene!
I lack the words and the dramatic power
to do it justice, so I’ll turn to Shakespeare,
and use his words to give me inspiration:
Sweet Clifford, hear me speak before I die:
I am too mean a subject for thy wrath;
Be thou revenged on men, and let me live.
In vain thou speak’st, poor boy: my father’s blood
Hath stopped the passage where thy words should enter.
Then let my father’s blood open it again:
He is a man, and Clifford cope with him.
Had I thy brethren here, their lives and thine
Were not revenge sufficient for me:
No, if I digged up thy forefathers’ graves
And hung their rotten coffins up in chains,
It could not slake mine ire, nor ease my heart.
The sight of any of the House of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul,
And till I root out their accurs’d line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.
He lifts his hand.
O let me pray, before I take my death!
To thee I pray; sweet Clifford pity me.
Such pity as my rapier’s point affords.
I never did thee harm, why wilt thou slay me?
Thy Father hath.
But ‘twas ere I was born.
Thou hast one son: for his sake pity me,
Least in revenge thereof, sith God is just,
He be as miserably slain as I.
Ah, let me live in prison all my days,
And when I give occasion of offence,
Then let me die, for now thou hast no cause.
No cause? thy Father slew my Father: therefore die.
He stabs him.
Now it’s my turn! But I won’t try to match
the Swan of Avon’s eloquence. Instead,
I’ll tell a plain tale taken from Hall’s Chronicle:
Edmund, dismayed, had not a word to speak,
but kneeled upon his knees imploring mercy,
and holding up his hands with tearful face,
for all his power of speech was gone for fear. “
“Spare him”, Sir Robert pleaded, “You know well
who this boy is. He is a prince’s son,
who may, perhaps, reward you well one day.”
But Clifford only sneered and said to Edmund:
“By God’s blood, thy father slew mine, and I
will do the same to thee and all thy kin!”
and with that word he struck him in the heart.
Then, turning to the priest he said, “Now take
his body to his mother with my vow –
his brother shall be next in my revenge!”
That was no act of war, but bloody murder,
and ever afterwards he was accounted
a tyrant and no gentleman, and called
“John ‘Butcher’ Clifford” – and that was not all
the butchery that Clifford did that day.
Meanwhile, the Duke was taunted by his captors.
They sat him on an anthill like a throne
and on his head they placed a paper crown,
and bent their knees, speaking with mocking words:
“Hail King without dominion or subjects!
Hail King whose throne is nothing but an anthill!
Hail King whose crown is paper!” Clifford came
and stopped the sport and asked them, “What is this?”
The men-at-arms explained themselves at once:
“It’s just bit of fun. His trial will follow.”
“There’ll be no trial! He is a proven traitor!
Now, hold him to that anthill like a block
and I’ll strike off his head with the same sword
that slew his son.” Richard looked up in horror –
he thought his son was safe in Conisbrough.
How Butcher Clifford revelled in that moment,
for this was more revenge than he had dreamed.
“Yea, this thy son’s blood cleaving to my blade
shall rust upon my weapon, till thy blood
congealed with this, do make me wipe off both.”
He showed the bloodly blade, then raised it high,
then with the force of all his pent up vengeance
struck off York’s head. The soldiers cheered.
The deed was done. The head rolled on the ground,
and the poor crown fell off. Then Clifford said,
“Put his head on a pole. Put back the crown
and I will show the false king to the queen.”
He took it to her tent, and with a bow,
said with great pride, “Madam, your war is done,
and here’s your trophy: the White Rose himself,
reddened by the Rose of Lancaster.”
But it was all for nothing; Richard’s son,
his eldest son and heir, the Earl of March
defeated the Lancastrians in Wales,
and with Warwick, known as the Kingmaker,
entered the capital and siezed the throne
as King Edward IV, and the White Rose
did battle with the Red again at Towton
and won an overwhelming victory.
Now the red rose was red with its own blood
and York, and his son, Edmund, were avenged.
Sir Robert, as a priest, was spared the scaffold,
but cast into the prison in York Castle.
He stayed there till the Earl of March released him,
and now he’s back on duty once again,
serving as chaplain, tutoring young lads,
and in remembrance of that bloody battle,
and what it was that got him into it,
praying, “Lord, lead me not into temptation.”
Porky survived the battle with a ruse –
he took a Red Rose jupon from a dead man,
changed it for his, and joined the winning side –
and when they rampaged, looting, through the castle,
he took his favourite kitchen maid as loot.
She cried, “I know it’s thee, Porky, thou traitor!
Just put me dahn, or ah will shout fer ‘elp,
an’ tha’ll be killed!” “‘Ang on a mo’!” he pleaded.
“Ah never meant ter rape yer, cos ah like yer.
Ah want to marry yer!” “Yer do?” “It’s true!”
At that she hugged him – though it was not easy,
his monster belly getting in the way.
They sneaked out of the castle in the night
and went to Conisbrough where they found a band
of other fugitives who’d fled the battle.
After the war they opened a small ale house
down by the Castle Mill near to the brook.
Porky got fatter drinking his own ale,
while boasting in the bar of his brave deeds,
and how he hacked through hundreds of Lancastrians
to make good his escape and get to Conisbrough.
My principle source for historical background is The Battle of Wakefield by Keith Dockray
and Richard Knowles (1992). I also drew upon Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3, and William Leatham’s Sandal in the Olden Time (1839). I have used the words of both Shakespeare and Leatham at various places in my story.
Conisbrough Castle’s involvement in the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) was peripheral, but it was garrisoned as a precaution under the able leadership of its constable, Edward Fitzwilliam, who had recently played an important part in the Battle of Northampton 10th July, 1460). Richard of York (1411-1460 was the son of Richard of Conisbrough, later Earl of Cambridge(1375-1415) and both of them were born at Conisbrough Castle. I was much surprised to find, in the course of my research, that John Clifford (1375-1415) – the villain of the piece – was also born at Conisbrough Castle, and that he bore a coat of arms based on the De Warenne chequers. His godmother was Maud Clifford, the second wife of Richard of Conisbrough, so it appears there is a distant link of kinship between Clifford and Richard of York – in any case, both were what I have called in my story “sons of Conisbrough”, which makes it particularly poignant that a blood fued existed between them, and that Clifford prosecuted it with such vicious vengefulness. Clifford was killed at the Battle of Dittingdale, near Ferrybridge, and the day after, the Lancastrians were decisively defeated at the Battle of Towton (29 March, 1461). Edward, Earl of March, first son of the Duke of York, was crowned King Edward IV On 4 November 1461. At Edward’s first parliament, Clifford was attainted and his estates and barony forfeited to the king.
York’s second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland (1443-1460), was 17 at the time of the Battle of Wakefield (30th December, 1460), but I have followed Hall’s Chronicle (1548), along with Shakespeare, in making him only 12, as this adds to the pathos of the story.
The broad outline of the Battle of Wakefield is as I have described, though Queen Margaret was not present. Hall’s Chronicle, Shakespeare and Leatham all describe her as being there, and as it adds a touch of colour to the story, I decided to go along with it.
There is much discussion among historians about the reasons for York’s sally (see Dockray and Knowles who give a full acount of the different points of view). On the face of it, it seems a rash move, but given that he was short of provisions, and that the bulk of the Lancastrian army was under cover, it appears that he was unware of the greatly superior size of the army he was taking on.
The story of the cold-blooded murder of Edmund and the mocking of York are both taken from Hall, who loved a good story. However, according to Dockray and Knowles, it is most likely that they were killed in the fight or in the flight from battle.
The symbols of the red and white rose were not as developed at the time as they were in later accounts, nor does it seem from contemporary illustrations that men-at-arms wore jupons in this period. They seem to have worn black painted armour – or ‘harness’, as they called it – with few distinguishing marks. My depictions of White Rose and Red Rose jupons, and Queen Margaret handing out red roses to her knights are just story-teller’s elaborations. If you prefer a historically accurate account you could do no better than to read Dockray and Knowles’ essay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bard of Burgh Conan is one of the pen names of Christopher Webster. He was brought up in Conisbrough, went to Station Road School, and has lived at various times on Daylands Avenue, Roberts Avenue and Castle Avenue. The town, with its rich history and magnificent castle, has been an important influence in his life and has inspired some of his best work, hence his pen-name, Bard of Burgh Conan (from a medieval form of the town’s name). He read English at St David’s, Lampeter and Leeds University, and is now a teacher and writer. His first educational publication was Poetry Through Humour and Horror (Cassell, 1987). This was followed by many more educational publications including books for KS3 and GCSE English Language and Literature published by Hodder, and the best-selling 100 Literacy Hours (Scholastic, 1997/2005). He has also published several novels and some volumes of poetry under his own name. His writing about Conisbrough includes Crusader, The Abduction of Lady Alice, Richard of Conisbrough, The Poet and the Castle, Conisbrough Tales, Coal Dust Kisses and three books of short stories.
The White Rose and the Red is a narrative poem in blank verse which describes one of the key battles of the Wars of the Roses, The Battle of Wakefield, from a Conisbrough perspective. Richard, Duke of York, rushes north to prevent the Lancastrian domination of Yorkshire. He visits Conisbrough Castle and then Sandal where he stations his arm of 5,000 men. Unfortunately he is unaware that the Lancastrian army already numbers 15,000 and is growing rapidly.