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Alumni visit to St Albans - report

12 April 2013

On 16 June 2012, 21 UCL History Alumni travelled to St Albans for a historical walking tour. Katharine Housden reports:

Peter Burley (PhD 1981) of the Battlefields Trust proved to be a highly informative and entertaining guide who maintained the spirits of the group on a wet and extremely windy day. St. Albans witnessed the first battle of the Wars of the Roses on the 22nd May 1455, and was then the location of a second battle in 1461.

There were no commemorative signs about the battles which was surprising, especially given the significance of the first clash in 1455 when the Lancastrians were challenged for the first time since seizing power in 1399. During the course of our tour we were taken to several key vantage points, including the top of a multi-storey car park where we saw the narrow passage where the Yorkists amassed their men. We also had a good view of St Alban’s Clock Tower which still houses the Gabriel Bell which tolled to mark the start of the Wars of the Roses. It was fascinating to hear how troops were deployed in a town and the antagonism of the act of putting on your armour, which took a staggering 45 minutes! When the Lancastrians donned this it was seen as a provocative stance!

It was interesting to hear how the troops were too confined to fight a set piece battle and there was no way to use the archers taking away that Yorkist advantage. It was the Earl of Warwick who seized the initiative and made a decisive breakthrough giving the Yorkists the advantage of having stormed the town at three different points. The King was injured and in the force of the Yorkist attack Lancastrians were either killed or fled. It was hard to imagine the carnage and confusion as we walked around St. Albans that Saturday morning.

On a lighter note it was intriguing to hear the story of the ‘Flying Earl’, James Butler the Earl of Wiltshire who had a reputation for escaping from tight situations – at St. Albans he stole a habit from a monk in order to successfully run away! According to one contemporary account he was reluctant to fight because he was "fearful of losing his beauty, for he was named the fairest knight of this land."

The Duke of Somerset was the most important fatality and we were shown the spot on the High Street where he fell. The Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford were also important casualties. They were buried in the Lady Chapel in the Abbey, sadly their tombs were destroyed in the Reformation.

Our group had the added bonus of an extra guide in the form of Harvey Watson who added extra colour and detail to the tour. Many of us completed our trip with a visit to the Cathedral with its beautiful shrine. The peacefulness and serenity of this holy place were in a sharp contrast to the bloody events that unfolded around it over 500 years ago!

Thanks to Peter Dawe for organising this event.

Page last modified on 12 apr 13 09:02 by Neil Matthews