Author's Note: In the first part of this story, we met John Hand, who fought at Towton in 1461. Some twenty years later, he tries to dissuade his son from joining the Yorkist forces in the last phase of the Wars of the Roses. John Hand's reminiscences are italicised. The words of his son, the principal narrator, are in upright type.
The story continues on the march north from Nottinghamshire to the eventual battle near Tadcaster. Hand has been picked out by a recruiting captain, Brotherton, and will be assigned to the company of William Neville, Lord Fauconberge, one of the key allies of Edward of York.
Pinniped - January 2006
... It would be another three days before my father met Lord Fauconberge. Early in the morning after his encounter with Brotherton, he gathered a few possessions in his satchel and shouldered his bow. Then he took leave of his family and joined the party on the northward road.
Brotherton had stressed the importance of travelling light. This would not be a long campaign; two weeks at most until the battle was his guess. Here in the middle lands of England, support for York was still strong and provisions could easily be procured. The bulkiest part of my father’s load, therefore, was a great sheaf of arrows, each one painstakingly fashioned
during years of long winters' evenings. What arrows they were: not the delicate lances favoured by sportsmen. They were half as long again, tipped with hammered iron and fletched with tanned hide. They were as black as hell and could unseat a horseman by their sheer weight, even if his armour should turn one.
The party that went on from Carlton and the other villages of the Lindrick was sixty strong, and about half of its number were experienced soldiers of one kind or another. Some, like my father, were middle-aged veterans of the French wars. Some had fought at St Albans or in lesser skirmishes of the English conflict. The rest of the party were younger men, mostly strapping and rough-natured serfs, all pursuing a chance to escape their bleak lot. Brotherton and his lieutenants struggled at times to check their ardour, particularly with the womenfolk of the villages they passed. More than once the band was berated over the importance of the goodwill of the populace. This gathering army must be the peoples' salvation, not another source of its torment.
They covered about fifteen miles a day. This was not a forced march, since recruitment was still important. Not everyone possessed strong footwear either, and some beasts of burden refused to be rushed. As a result, my father found plenty of time for practice. Early in the morning of Wednesday the 25th, he rose from the hay-barn near Conisborough where they had all slept with the intention of finding some game. Right outside the barn was a small party of horses in fine livery. It was not hard to guess that the imposing figure at its head was William Neville, Lord Fauconberge.
He asked if I was the bowman Brotherton had spoken of. I began to relate my story, but he stopped me, suddenly fascinated by the bow. He refused to believe that I could draw such a thing to the full and yet still hold it steady.
There were points in his tale where my father seemed lost in reverie. Mostly these were when he described the height of battle, but another such time was this account of his first meeting with Fauconberge. It was always easy to tell that he held the man in the highest esteem.
There was a hayrick at the end of the yard, a little less than a hundred feet off. He told me to shoot into it. I set at half-draw, but he scoffed at that and told me instead to pull the bow full. I did so, held it longer than necessary to prove that I could, and loosed the shot. Another of the horsemen declared that I had missed, but Fauconberge knew I had not. The arrow was entirely buried.
Fauconberge now thought for a moment and commanded me to shoot over the rick, as far as I could. There was a hedgerow beyond, at about my range, and I asked if I should try and clear it. He raised an eyebow and told me that I could try. The wind was a little in my favour, and so the next arrow went some yards over. There was a gasp from the others in the party, but Fauconberge only smiled. He told me to loose a string of arrows at that same range, as fast as I could manage.
I fired off six, in about even time, with the one landing as the next was loosed. I think they all cleared the hedge, all at much the same point. At that moment, Brotherton appeared, grinning hugely. Fauconberge gave him a little nod.
My father revealed a glimmer of pride as he recounted the end of the tale:
'Good man, Hand,' declared Brotherton, clapping my father on the shoulder. 'Now go and fetch them back.'
Fauconberge held up a hand, still smiling. 'I don't think we should tell our new Captain of Bow to gather up arrows,' he said. 'You fetch them, Mr Brotherton, if you please.'
The first consequence of my father's elevation was that he was equipped with a short sword and a horse. The former went straight into the satchel, never to be seriously considered as a useful weapon. The horse, however, worried him greatly. He wasn't entirely new to the seat, but his prior experience was with plough-horses and ponies. Just once before this had he sat astride a warhorse, and then only in a surreptitious act of impertinence during his time in France.
Brotherton gradually persuaded John Hand that a minimum of horsemanship was all that was expected. A steed was a means of traveling fast to reach a battlefield, not a way to navigate one. The beast in question was a bay mare, placid in nature and a steady follower of the van. Even so, my father spent the next few days in fear of falling off.
The importance of horses to the bow squadron was quickly illustrated. During the afternoon of the following day, with Fauconberge and his party already gone on ahead, Brotherton's band met a scout returning south along the Pontefract road.
This meeting marked the moment that the escapade changed. An hour beforehand, they had been mocking my hesitancy in the saddle and regaling me with campaign tales. Now they were silent and earnest.
The scout's news also conveyed a foretaste of the battle to come. Ten miles to the north, the Aire bridges were held against us. The ferry at Pontefract was guarded by Clifford, with perhaps eighty men camped on the northern bank. A few miles to the west, Castleford was occupied by the Lancastrians. These bridges were crucial, since all the fords were impassable with the rivers in spate. This was the end of a brutal winter, and the meltwater was copious.
Fauconberge's nephew, the Earl of Warwick, was already at Pontefract, facing the ferry with a force of nearly a thousand. The main army of York, with Edward at its head, was camped just to the south. The Duke of Norfolk, with a substantial force also committed to York’s cause, was presumed to be close behind us, and it was to find these troops that the scout had been sent.
Brotherton was very agitated by this news. The size of the Lancastrian force at the ferry, he insisted, was a crude deception, sufficient to engage Warwick in the pinch. The ambush would then be sprung from the woods beyond. He then explained that Henry and his queen were already in York and that every hour of delay at the Aire crossings would strengthen the forces at their disposal. Finally, he asked what Fauconberge would have us do. To my great surprise, the scout answered that we were commanded to ride towards Castleford and to make camp at Whitwood village, where we should wait on further instructions.
After the scout had ridden on, I remarked indignantly to Brotherton that I was now bound to miss my revenge. After all, we were hardly likely to be called upon to attack the Lancastrians' southern garrison. He replied simply that I would very soon be proved wrong, and that I had better prepare myself for the thick of the fight. Lancaster was clearly trying to lure us across the ferry. An attack at Castleford, therefore, must already be in Edward's mind.
It was some time after this that I learned what happened at the ferry bridge. It wasn't my father who told me, since he was not there to see it. The story came from another veteran of the campaign and I recount it now for completeness:
Early on Friday, 27 March, Clifford's men began to break up the bridge. This put Edward in a difficult position. He would either have to advance quickly, risking an ambush, or else lose his best option for crossing the river altogether.
Edward elected to send Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter forward with a hundred men-at-arms to seize the bridge. The Lancastrians who were engaged in its demolition retreated without a fight and Fitzwalter struck camp on the north side. Edward had no intention of joining him at this time, since he was sure that Clifford had deployed a battery of archers in the trees beyond
the river. If York's main force were to advance on the bridge, they would be an easy target for the ambush.
Instead, Edward ordered Lord Fauconberge to march his division to Castleford, some four miles upstream, to seize the bridges there. If the bridges could be held against resistance, then Edward would force-march the main contingent west and cross at that point. If, as Edward suspected, the town was only lightly defended, then Fauconberge would ride straight through and fall on Clifford at the ferry from behind.
This westward action would soon involve my father. Back at the ferry, Fitzwalter’s camp was attacked at dawn by the full might of Clifford's force, and it was wiped out almost to a man. The ferry bridge was in Lancastrian hands again, but Clifford did not anticipate that Fauconberge's men, who had already been joined by Brotherton's contingent from Whitwood,
were even now streaming across the river at Castleford.
At about nine in the morning, Edward of York put Clifford in a similar dilemma to the one he had been set himself a day earlier. Edward started to advance on the bridge, knowing full well that the alarm of Fauconberge's sortie would by now have been raised. Rather than being drawn into the trap between two armies, Clifford ordered a retreat to the north. Very soon,
Fauconberge was in furious pursuit.
The advance on Castleford was tense, but the Lancastrians chose to defend the fort rather than the bridges. We rode straight through at a steady canter. On the northern bank, it slowed to a trot as we positioned ourselves for an assault on Clifford's force. Because the enemy was concealed in woodland and consisted largely of bowmen, our own bow squadrons, with me
among them, were held back from the main assault. Instead we would take up positions around the forest margins. Fauconberge planned to ride the enemy down among the trees and flush them out into our sights as they attempted to escape.
The plan was never executed, because instead we heard the blast of horns ahead. Clifford was attempting to escape before our arrival. I had managed the mare all right until then, but now the van took off at a full gallop. We must have ridden five miles in pursuit of Clifford's army, but I remember none of it except the struggle to keep my seat. I did not know its name at the time, but it was at the head of a little gorge called Dintingdale Vale that the horses straight ahead of me wheeled round and I fell off into the bracken.
As I regained my feet, Fauconberge was rallying his bowmen. I could hear the clamour of close-quarter combat on the slopes below and I realised that the Lancastrians had been chased into a blind valley and so were forced to turn and fight. Our enemies were in a hopeless position. With the high ground in our favour and at an easy range, it was simply a matter of a confident aim to pick them off.
I had felled half a dozen when I found Lord Fauconberge at my side. He pointed into the trees opposite and I saw Clifford and a small knot of men about him toiling up the slope. The Lancastrian nobleman was unmistakable, with his singlet in gold and azure check. He wore it over full armour, hence his difficulties in scaling the bank, but the steel would also make
effective protection against arrows. Fauconberge was yelling above the din and struck the edge of his hand across his throat as if in some sort of signal. I looked again, and saw that Clifford wore no gorget. I drew one of the heavy arrows, realising that a near-hit to shoulder or head might slide off and pierce my quarry's throat.
It's a terrible gift given to the bowman, that one can sometimes watch the blow descend. I suppose that a swordsman might feel the quiver of pierced flesh at the end of his thrust, and a mace might echo the breaking of a skull in its wielder's grip. I do not know these things, though, because I have never used such weapons in the heat of battle. All I know is that a
bowman's eye can often follow the arrow down and down onto its target, in a flight made impossibly slow by the tension of the moment. It was like that now. I saw that black bolt arc across the valley in a frozen time all of its own, and I saw it hit him, from behind, just below the nape of his helmet. Clifford was bowled forward by its force, and it pinned him face down into the soil. I knew instantly that he was dead.
I think that my father felt his first qualms about killing in that little dell, even as the victors slapped him on the back and draped Clifford's blood-soaked singlet about his shoulders. He didn't tell me that he felt that way, but there was no triumph in his recounting of this, his most glorious moment...
...to be concluded in the next edition of the Post.
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