www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
It's St Albans and Saturday shoppers are battle weary from the unseasonal May heat - dodging the crowds to find a shop stocking an outfit that fits or a welcoming inn. In queues, dressing rooms, near shade there's someone on the mobile doing battle. How can you tell that on this day five hundred plus years ago history was being made? Well the road layout is pretty much the same...
The York (white rose) and King Henry VI's Lancaster (red rose) troops meet up at St Albans about 7am. Both have had a long march. York is allegedly ever so contrite, trying to get a guarantee that the man who wants to be king, Richard, Duke of York, isn't about to be put to death. But King Henry's (or his advisers) are not in a trusting mood. They don't accept any grovelling note, but rather foolishly delay putting on their armour... So when York gives up suing for peace and decides to fight it out the Lancastrians aren't battle fit and are polished off by archers.
Those arrows came at 100mph, with armor on it was an arrow in the eye that was the danger. Without the full protective metal kit you hadn't a hope - especially if there were enough arrows "to block out the sun" shot at you by the York's force. I'm pretty certain this super successful part of the battle was organised by Warwick (who had to break through the walls of a pub, now a building society) to join the fight. Warwick goes on to have extreme influence in the Wars of the Roses - except crucially who his boss Richard's son Edward marries.
Back on 22 May, 1455 it was a straight York-Lancaster fight. The residents scatter. The villagers coming into town for market day get windy about St Albans (a fear rightly borne out as some years later in 1461 at the 2nd battle of St Albans, also during the Wars of the Roses), which seems a place where trouble is always brewing. For the next 400 years those villagers market in Harpenden, in the opposite direction...
Winner takes all, almost
The first battle of the Wars of the Roses is over in less than two hours with York the winner. As it turns out the Duke of York doesn't ever get crowned, but two of his sons do - Edward VI and his brother Richard III. His great grandaughter goes on to marry Richard III's successor, Henry VII and thus becomes the mother of Henry VIII.
And we know all about it because the abbot at St Albans wrote an eye-witness account of the battle. An early blogger?
History's so simple when you walk around the streets with a guide like Peter Burley (ex York) who knows exactly what happened - where the Duke of York's horse was killed (just by the traffic lights), which pubs and shops the two sides made their HQs (The White Horse Tap for York and Boots the Chemist for Lancaster).
As I'm an alumnus of York it seemed like a fun idea to join this tour for former York or Lancaster uni students, not least because Pete (my husband) graduated from Lancaster so we can do our own Wars of the Roses re-enactment if we want.... Our 11 and 13 year old daughters came too and to their suprise enjoyed seeing the narrow streets where you could only fit three abreast in a fight. Everyone else had to queue up behind. We were soon imagining the misery of the Duke of Somerset (a king's man) who'd avoided castles for years thanks to a prophecy in his youth from a sorcerer, Roger Bolingbroke who said (paraphrased!) "Stay away from castles," but then discovered he'd taken sanctuary in The Castle Inn. Once discovered he was killed by York men.
Ice cream top ups and a punnet of the first strawberries of the year, off a market stall near the clock tower, kept the kids going when horrible histories and stupid deaths can't.
Good job we had such an expert guide as there is still no signage, or even a battlefield tour despite this fascinating battle taking place in the centre of St Albans in streets we know and use today. But you can self-guide yourself using the book, The Battles of St Albans, co-authored by Peter Burley, who is also national co-ordinator for the UK Battlefields Trust.
Verdict: great day out
Where did you go: St Albans, Herts - for a histronaut walk to the Wars of the Roses 1455.
USP - Britain's oldest pub, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks - building been there since 14th century, and a pub been on the site, just by the river, since the 8th century.
Too busy to mention: the Romans! St Albans is also all about the hypercourse, Verulamium etc.
Learn anything else: Yes Shakespeare, he really gave the York side a bad time in his history plays. For instance it's unlikely that the three year old infant Richard (who would become "evil" Richard III who we know as the one who manages to kill his cousins, the two little princes in the tower) would have been at the battle, let alone killed the full-grown castle-fearing Duke of Somerset.
Over to you
Where's your favourite place to go to get a sense of history?