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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Debunking myths about the real Battle of Hexham

AS medieval battles went, it wasn’t much more of a skirmish than those which occur in the Bigg Market of a Saturday night.

Indeed, it is said that more people died on the executioner’s block afterwards than on the field in the Battle of Hexham in 1464.

Nevertheless, the set-to in Swallowship Woods is regarded by many as one of the decisive events in the Wars of the Roses.

The significance of the battle and the events leading up to it is the subject of a fascinating new book by the excellent Hexham-based Ergo Press.

Local historians John Sadler and Alex Spiers have delved deep into the complexities of the dreadful power struggle between the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York.

It had dragged on for 14 years before the Battle of Hexham, and would continue for the best part of a quarter of a century before the warring factions were united under Tudor rose.

Although many local residents have heard of the Battle of Hexham, not many know where it took place – and if they think they do they’re probably wrong!

That’s the conclusion of the two historians, who point out: “The Battle of Hexham has never been fully narrated, unlike other, major battles.

“There is no marker to commemorate the fight, and significantly, most writers have placed the action in the wrong location.”

They also debunk the cherished Hexham notion that Queen Margaret and her young son took refuge in a cave in Hexhamshire in the wake of the battle, protected by a noble Robin Hood style outlaw.

The Queen wasn’t even there, having already fled to France, and “The Queen’s Cave” is nothing more than a romantic notion.

The Wars of the Roses were a messy affair, with the main players changing sides regularly to fit circumstances, but Tynedale’s interest comes in 1464.

The Lancastrians had been routed at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor near Wooler, but their leader King Henry VI set up court at Bywell Castle, with the rest of his troops at Hexham.

The Yorkist leader Lord Montague advanced from Newcastle determined to eliminate the Lancastrian presence once and for all.

Some authorities think that the King was present at the battle, but the book concludes it was more likely he had already fled west before the battle started.

After the battle the victors found evidence of a hurried departure from Bywell by the monarch – his helmet had been abandoned.

Montagu crossed the Tyne at either Bywell or Corbridge, leaving only the Devil’s Water between him and the Lancastrian forces at Hexham.

The traditional and long-accepted site for the ensuing battle was Hexham Levels, just south of the present B6306 road, but the book’s authors cast doubt on that. Studies of the ground show this to be hemmed in by water on one side, with steeply rising ground on the other.

“This impedes visibility, inhibits manoeuvre and makes a gift of the heights above to the attacker,” they conclude.

It is felt more likely that while the Duke of Somerset may have camped there, he did not deploy for battle there.

Instead, they feel he drew his forces up on the higher ground along the crest of Swallowship Hill, a much most strategically advantageous position.

Despite the height advantage, the Lancastrians crumbled almost at once and the Devil’s Water ford soon became choked with fleeing men after the briefest of fights.

The real significance of the Battle of Hexham was that it was the end of the road for Henry Beaufort, the third Duke of Somerset.

He was a ferocious supporter of the Lancastrian cause, with honourable scars won at earlier battles at Wakefield and St Albans.

He was a brilliant general who kept the red rose blooming in the North after defeat at the Battle of Towton. However, his forces were swept aside contemptuously at Hexham, and he fled from the field in ignominy.

He didn’t flee far enough, and was captured in a wood close to the battlefield.

There is a suggestion that the arrest took place in a nearby cottage, since replaced by the gothic mansion known as Dukes House in memory of the event.

The authors say: “Somerset could not reasonably have expected any clemency from the Yorkist leader, John Neviile, Lord Montague.

“Montague, like his brother, Warwick the Kingmaker, was not interested in reconciliation; it was time for retribution.”

The authors surmise Somerset was taken to Hexham, with his followers, and probably spent his final night in the forbidding surroundings of the Old Gaol, having been condemned following a semblance of a trial.

They say: “It is likely that a rough dais had been constructed, and an expectant crowd would already have gathered.

“Henry Beaufort, in whose veins was the blood of kings, would be led to the scaffold.

“His hands would be bound after he had been stripped of his doublet, and a priest would be in attendance as he was made to kneel.

“A sombre roll of drums would silence the crowd as the headsman prepared to do his work.”

They point out it was customary for the victim to tip the executioner, to avoid a botched job and to offer forgiveness for the sin to be committed.

As a peer – and a descendant of John of Gaunt – he would be permitted to extend an arm and to dictate the time the blade should fall.

“As his arm fell, the axe would follow, cleaving down in a fearful arc of honed precision, the razor-edged blade lopping off the head in a single, final stroke.”

Somerset is reputedly buried in Hexham Abbey, but his death at Hexham was only the curtain raiser to a full and thorough purge of Lancastrians across the North.

The survivors fled north, finishing up at Bamburgh Castle, which was subject to the only artillery bombardment of the entire war by the mighty siege engined in Newcastle, London and Dijon.

The book concludes with a battlefield tour of where it all happened, as well as a glossary of some of the more bizarre terms of medieval warfare.

* Battle of Hexham in its Place is available from local bookshops, at £8.99, and is printed by Ergo Press in St Mary’s Chare, Hexham.