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The Bombardment of London
By Walter Besant


The Bombardment of London of 1471 is now almost forgotten. It was the concluding scene, and a very fitting end, to the long Wars of the Roses.

There was a certain Thomas, an illegitimate son of William Neville, Lord Fauconberg and Earl of Kent, generally called the Bastard of Fauconberg (or Falconbridge). This man was a sailor. In the year 1454, he had received the freedom of the City of London and the thanks of the Corporation for his services in putting down the pirates of the North Sea and the Channel. It is suggestive of the way in which the Civil War divided families that, though the Earl of Kent did so much to put Edward IV on the throne, his son did his best to put up Henry VI.

He was appointed Vice-Admiral of the Fleet by his cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick 'the Kingmaker,' and in that capacity he held Calais for the Lancastrians and prevented the despatch of Burgundians to the help of the Yorkist Edward IV. He seems to have crossed and recrossed continually.

A reference to the dates shows how slowly news travelled across country. On April 14th 1471, the Battle of Barnet was fought. At this battle, Warwick fell. On May 4th, the Battle of Tewkesbury finished the hopes of the Lancastrians. Yet on May 12th the Bastard of Fauconberg presented himself at the head of 17,000 Kentish men at the gates of London Bridge, and stated that he had come to dethrone the usurper Edward and to restore King Henry. He asked permission to march through the town, promising that his men should commit no disturbance or pillage. Of course, they knew who he was, and he assured them that he held a commission from the Earl of Warwick as Vice-Admiral.

In reply, the Mayor and Corporation sent him a letter, pointing out that his commission was no longer in force because Warwick was dead for nearly three weeks, and that his body had been exposed for two days in St. Paul's. They informed him that the Battle of Barnet had been disastrous to the Lancastrians, and that runners had informed them of a great Lancastrian disaster at Tewkesbury, where Edward, Prince of Wales had been slain with many noble lords of his following.

All this, Fauconberg either disbelieved or affected to disbelieve. It seems probable that he really did disbelieve the story: he could not understand how the great Earl of Warwick could have been killed. He persisted in his demand for the right of passage. The persistence makes one doubt the sincerity of his assurances. Why did he want to pass through London? If he merely wanted to get across, he had his ships with him - they had come up the river and now lay off Ratcliffe. He could have carried his army around in less time than it would take to fight his way through. Did he propose to hold London against Edward, and to keep it while the Lancastrians were gathering strength? There was still one Lancastrian heir to the throne at least.

However, the City still refused. They sent him a letter urging him to lay down his arms and acknowledge Edward, who was now firmly established.

Seeing that he was not to be moved, the citizens began to look to their fortifications: on the river side, the river wall had long since gone but the houses themselves formed a wall with narrow lanes leading to the water's edge. These lanes, they easily stopped with stones: they looked to their wall and to their gates.

The Bastard therefore resolved upon an assault on the City. Like a skilful commander, he attacked it at three points. First, however, he brought in the cannon from his ships, laying them along the shore. He then sent 3,000 men across the river with orders to divide into two companies, one for an attack on Aldgate, the other for an attack on Bishopsgate. He himself undertook the assault on London Bridge.

His cannonade of the City was answered by the artillery of the Tower. However, it is probable that the Lancastrian cannons caused little mischief that could not be easily repaired: the shot either struck the houses on the river's edge or it went clean over the City and fell in the fields beyond. Holinshed says that 'the Citizens lodged their great artillery against their adversaries and with violent shot thereof so galled them that they durst not abide in any place along the water side but were driven even from their own Ordnance.' But the heavy artillery could only damage the enemy on the shore opposite the Tower, not above the bridge.

The three thousand men told of, for the attack on the gates, valiantly assailed them; but they met with a stout resistance. Some of the soldiers actually got into the City at Aldgate, but the gate was closed behind them and they were all killed. Robert Basset, Alderman of Aldgate, performed prodigies of valour. At Bishopsgate, they did no good at all. In the end they fell back. Then the citizens threw open the gates and sallied forth. Edmund Grey, the Earl of Kent, brought out 500 men by the Tower Postern and chased the rebels as far as Stepney. Some seven hundred of them were killed. Many hundreds were taken prisoners and held to ransom, 'as if they had been Frenchmen,' says one Chronicler.

The attack on the bridge also completely failed. The gate on the south side was fired and destroyed. Three score of the houses on the bridge were fired and destroyed. The north gate was also fired, but at the bridge end there were planted half a dozen small pieces of cannon and, behind them, waited the army of the citizens.

The captain, seeing that he had no hopes of getting possession of London, resolved to march westward and meet Edward IV. By this time, it is probable that he understood what had happened at Barnet and Tewkesbury. He therefore ordered his fleet to await him in the Mersey, and marched as far as Kingston-upon-Thames. It is a strange, incongruous story. All his friends were dead: their cause was hopeless. Why should he attempt a thing impossible? Because it was Warwick's order? Perhaps, however, he did not think it impossible.

At Kingston, he was met by Lord Scales and Nicolas Fanute, Mayor of Canterbury, who persuaded him 'by fair words' to return. Accordingly, he marched back to Blackheath where he dismissed his men, ordering them to go home peaceably. As for himself, with a company of 600 - his sailors, one supposes - he rejoined his fleet at Chatham, and took his ships round the coast to Sandwich.

Here he waited until Edward IV arrived. He handed over to the King, fifty-six ships great and small. The King pardoned him, knighted him, and made him Vice-Admiral of the Fleet. This was in May. Alas, in September we hear that he was taken prisoner at Southampton, carried to Middleham in Yorkshire and beheaded, and his head put upon a spike on London Bridge.

Why is unknown. Holinshed suggests that he had been 'roving,' i.e. practising as a pirate; but would the Vice-Admiral of the English Fleet go off ' roving'? It was probably just one more of the thousand murders, perjuries and treacheries of the worst fifty years that ever stained the history of the country. There was but one complete way of safety for Edward IV - the death of every man, noble or simple, who might take up arms against him. So the Bastard - this fool who had trusted the King and given him a fleet - was beheaded like all the rest.

Edited by David Nash Ford, from Walter Besant's South London (1898).

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