John Clifford, aged twenty-one, at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455 buried his father in St Albans Abbey. It was agreed, according to Holinshed, that at the Duke of York, the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury should pay the monastery of St. Albans for masses for the souls of Thomas Clifford and the other notable Lancastrians who died during the battle and that the Earl of should pay a fine to be shared between Thomas’s children – no doubt the Vikings would have recognized it as weregeld. The new Lord Clifford wasn’t particularly interested in gold and John, according to Shakespeare, was much more interested in revenge.
John’s opportunity came five years later on the 30th December 1460. Five years had seen the polarization of England’s nobility while Richard, Duke of York ultimately overplayed his hand. Richard having been named Lord Protector during Henry VI’s illness in 1453 had been sidelined by Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, once Henry regained his facilities. This led to the fisticuffs at St Albans. In the aftermath of the First Battle of St Albans, although the Yorkists had been victorious Richard had reaffirmed his loyalty to the king and an uneasy peace achieved mainly by shipping Richard off to Ireland where he was out of the way.
Relations between the different factions reached breaking point in 1459 when Richard arrived home without asking permission first and the Earl of Warwick arrived in Sandwich from Calais backed up by an army. Without going through the frenetic events of the next twelve months it is sufficient for the purposes of this post to say that Richard eventually rocked up in Parliament and said he wanted to be king. If he’d asked to be made Lord Protector folk might have agreed but Richard was carried away by his own spin and seems to have forgotten that when Henry Bolingbroke did the same thing in order to become Henry IV that not only had the whole thing had been carefully orchestrated but that King Richard II was in ‘safe’ custody. In Richard of York’s case neither of these precautions had been taken and even his closest allies were somewhat taken aback. There was a bit of an embarrassed silence followed by the Act of Accord which essentially said that Henry VI could be king while he lived but his successor would be Richard of York – a resolution which satisfied no one – especially Margaret of Anjou whose son Prince Edward had just been cut out of the succession. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it seems quite obvious that it wasn’t going to end well.
Richard of York took himself North and spent Christmas at his castle in Sandal just outside Wakefield. This was not necessarily the most clever thing he’d ever done as it was in enemy territory. Nor was it very sensible of Richard to emerge on the 30th to give battle to a party of Lancastrians. Sandal was a well-protected castle. All he had to do was sit tight and wait for reinforcements. This isn’t a post about the reasons behind Richard’s decisions to give battle or the rights and wrongs of them but I am finally back on track with John Clifford as he was one of the Lancastrians waiting outside Sandal.
The Battle of Wakefield was a vicious affair. John Clifford is purported to have come across the body of Richard of York, resting against an ant hill, and hacked off the corpse’s head. It was not a very knightly deed. Richard’s head ended up with a paper crown facing into the city of York from Micklegate Bar having first been presented to Margaret of Anjou by way of a gift. Richard’s sons Edward, George and Richard would not forgive the insult.
Even worse, popular rumour stated that John Clifford killed Richard of York’s other son Edmund, Earl of Rutland in the aftermath of the battle. There is no specific evidence that John did the deed, Edmund may have been killed during the battle itself and not by John. History shows the lad was about seventeen. Shakespeare makes him a boy- as illustrated in this picture dating from 1815. Edmund, the son of a nobleman, would reasonably have expected mercy in the event of his capture for two reasons. Firstly and most importantly he could be ransomed and secondly despite the events at Agincourt when chivalry went out the window there was still an expectation of respecting ones opponents. So, to tell the tale, which probably isn’t history but definitely makes a good story; Edmund fled the battle and arrived at the bridge crossing the River Calder at Wakefield. Some versions of the story say that he sought shelter in some nearby houses but that no one would take him in, other versions say that he was captured but anonymous. John Clifford noticed the boy’s clothes and asked who he was. Edmund’s tutor told Clifford adding that he would be well rewarded for keeping the boy safe, thinking that it would ease Edmund’s situation – talk about misreading the situation! John wanted revenge for his father’s death so killed the boy saying ‘your father slew mine so now I kill you,’ or words to that effect. Edmund’s brother Edward, George and Richard would have their own revenge in due course.
John’s actions at the Battle of Wakefield gained him the name “Butcher Clifford” or “Black-Faced Clifford.” The Wars of the Roses became a much bloodier affair thereafter with both sides killing one another in the aftermath of battles reflecting personal feuds running parallel to the desperate power struggle between the various Plantagenet scions.
The rest of John’s story is best summaries by Leland:
Next year he met with his own end. On the day before the Battle of Towton, and after a rencontre at Ferrybridge, having put off his gorget, he was struck on the throat by a headless arrow out of a bush, and immediately expired.
It is thought that his body was thrown into a burial pit after Towton.
Loosely put, my ancestors,bless them,where indeed very bloody. It took skill and courage to live then. If an army could be carefully trained even now,with a suppose monarchy sat with fingers in the pot,a man like them at Towton might just be able to take England back as King. My ancestor Edward had to kill off King Henry V1 and also his son in order to have a clear run as a King. Then we find he was probably the bastard in the family tree. Richard had a hard job but ,missed by Miss Tey ,he was accused by many of the Princes murder during his build up to be King. My book on why Richard had no choice is on Amazon Kindle as the Time Detective and part of it covers just that plot. Shakespeare had to please a relative of the very man who stole the Plantagent throne in Queen Elizabeths order to write the play Richard 111. Or was it the Earl of Oxford he wrote it? History is a mystery and even Croyland and Holinshed may have lied to save themselves from being in the limelight as traitors. Then I find if one gets it wrong the rest soon follow. Pliny said Jesus Barabus was tried by Pilot. Was he mistaken or did Paul divide the names to tell a story? You do see what I mean. We did not live then to be witness and faith is all we have or nay. One of my ancestors died at the battle of Barnet in 1470 yet six accounts of what happened tell slightly different verdicts on how he died. History is mostly on the view of the spectator wrapped up in the speculation of the historian next in line. A fabric of tissue thin truth is all we have then the search begins through recorded record. You did well to illustrate in your own words the life and times of John.
Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.
Your article is very well done, a good read.
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