Fighting in the Market Place –
the First Battle of St Albans
Today marks the 560th anniversary of the first battle of St Albans (22 May 1455), which is generally taken to be the first battle in what later became known as the Wars of the Roses. A lot has been written about the battle itself and its effects on national politics. However, knowing St Albans well, I was more interested in its perspective from the side of the town.
Looking at the layout of St Albans today the medieval layout can be clearly detected. The plan of the medieval town actually goes back to the days of King Offa II, who founded St Albans Abbey in 793, or so it is said. The town itself is much older, but the Roman city was to the west of today’s Cathedral and city centre. The abbey is to the south of the medieval town, on top of Holywell Hill, from where there is a steep decline down to the river Ver, but to the north the landscape is more level.
Medieval St Albans was bustling town with the market in its centre. The triangular market was bound by the abbey to the south, with access to lay people via the Waxhouse or Pilgrims’ Gate. Opposite this is the Eleanor Cross and the Clock Tower (built 1403-12), possibly in defiance of the abbey, as relations between abbey and town were not always amicable. A bit further north was the Moot Hall (where the Town Hall from 1830 now stands, not the building occupied by W.H.Smith as sometimes asserted). To the east, the market was bound by what is now Chequer Street and to the west by French Row. To the north, it extended to St Peter’s Church.
From at least the 13th century, weekly markets were held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as they are to this day. Originally the market was occupied by stalls, which by the fifteenth century had been started to be replaced by more permanent buildings. The little alleyways between Chequer Street and Market Place remind us of the original market and the names hint at what was sold there, there is. for instance, a Lamb Alley.
The town had many inns and served not only as a site for pilgrimage but also as major staging post between London and the Midlands, the north-west counties, and on one route to Ireland.
The main north – south through fare was along St Peters Street, the Market Place and then Holywell Hill. There was no east – west equivalent. Coming from London, travellers entered the town via Sopwell Lane (today’s London Road was only built in the 19th century), which ended at Holywell Hill opposite the abbey precinct. Further north, Newlane (or Cock Lane, now Hatfield Road) lead into the town from Hatfield and Hertford. Between the two was Shropshire Lane (now Victoria Street). In between the marketplace was lined by houses, with gardens at their back. There were at least three inns, the Chequer, the (Cross) Keys (where London Road is now) and the Castle (at the corner of St Peter’s and Victoria Streets).
On 22 May 1455, the Lancastrian army with King Henry VI arrived in the early morning and took position in the town itself, making the Moot Hall their headquarters. The Yorkist army came from Ware in the east along Hatfield Road and camped in Keyfield, behind the townhouse gardens. The three access roads to the town centre from the east were barred and were defended by the Lancastrians. When negotiations failed, the Yorkists attacked. The inhabitants of the town probably had either fled, if they could, or barricaded themselves in their homes.
The Yorkist attack on the bars showed little initial effect, until Warwick’s men (part of the Yorkist army) managed to break through into Holywell Hill between the Keys and the Chequer. At this time the alarm was rung from the Clock Tower. The actual battle was over very quickly, possibly within half an hour.
This was when the problems for the townspeople began, with looting, pillaging and sacking, carrying on for several hours. Doubtlessly they heaved a sigh of relief when the armies left for London. However, six years later they found themselves in the firing line again when the second battle of St Albans engulfed the town. The second time round, the Lancastrians were victorious. After the battle, abbot Whethamstede asked Henry VI to forbid his army to loot and pillage the town. Unfortunately for the inhabitants, the king’s proclamation was ignored and the town was brutally sacked. The effects of the two battles led to a brief period of urban decline.
In memory of the first battle of St Albans, the Boot in Market Place, parts of which date back to the time of the battle, was the first pub to be “adopted” by the Battlefields Trust as a “Battlefields Pub” – a public house that is on or near the site of a British battlefield in July 2013.
Boardman, A., The First Battle of St Albans 1455. Tempus, 2006, pp.67-84
Burley, P., Elliott, M. and Watson, H., The Battles of St Albans. Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2007
Freeman, M., St Albans – A History. Carnegie Publishing Ltd, 2008, pp.119-121
Slater, T. and Goose, N. (eds.), A County of Small Towns: the Development of Hertfordshire’s Urban Landscape to 1800. Hertfordshire Publications, 2010 (original work published 2008), pp.301-332
‘The city of St Albans: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 469-477. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp469-477 [last accessed 22 May 2015]
http://www.salbani.co.uk/ [last accessed 22 May 2015]
White, D., ‘Boot Inn marks Battle of St Albans’, The Herts Advertiser (29 July 2013). URL: http://www.hertsad.co.uk/news/boot_inn_marks_battle_of_st_albans_1_2302481 [accessed 30 July 2013