The white rose and the r.., p.1
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       The White Rose and the Red, p.1

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The White Rose and the Red


  A narrative poem about the Battle of Wakefield,

  one of the key events in the Wars of the Roses

  Bard of Burgh Conan

  Copyright © 2017 Christopher Webster

  aka Bard of Burgh Conan

  All rights reserved.




  Historical Note

  About the Author


  This poem was written for inclusion in the new edition of Conisbrough Tales (forthcoming September, 2017) which I describe as “A Canterbury Tales for Conisbrough”. It consists of a series of narrative poems that tell the story of Conisbrough from Celtic times to the 1980's. Although this poem focuses mainly on the Battle of Wakefield, the central story of the Wars of the Roses is told by a brief backward glance to the Battle of St Albans, and a brief glance ahead to the Battle of Towton.


  “Richard of York gave battle in vain”

  ―Old Memnonic


  It had not been an easy journey northwards:

  December weather was but half of it.

  The roads were quagmires, rutted, waterlogged,

  and sometimes flooded deep as a man's waist.

  Fords were impassable, and bridges broken,

  forcing a detour to find one that stood.

  The other problem was the enemy:

  cunning Lancastrians who shadowed their march

  and picked off stragglers or scouting parties.

  The worst of these attacks took place at Worsksop

  where a forward patrol took heavy casualties

  thanks to the Duke of Somerset. Now, at last,

  they were in friendly territory: Yorkshire,

  county of the White Rose, and better still,

  within the borders of the Duke's own Manor

  of Conisbrough and not far from the castle.

  Richard the Duke of York rode in the van

  with Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury

  and his son Thomas. All the mud

  and blood and turmoil of their journey north

  and the dark clouds, threatening another storm,

  could scarcely dim the brilliance of his arms:

  French fleurs and England's lions, quarterly,

  with Mortimer and De Burgh, and overall

  an inescutcheon of three lions, Or;

  nor was his harness tarnished, but still gleamed

  reflecting the last light of dying day,

  as if in token of his dauntless spirit.

  Among the knights and squires, and men-at-arms,

  forming the army's centre, and the safest

  from skirmishers, rode Richard's second son,

  Edmund the Earl of Rutland – a toy knight,

  for he was only twelve, and yet his harness

  was every bit as knightly as his father's.

  Each plate was curved and fluted to give strength

  and to deflect the blows from swords and glaives.

  He should, at his age, have been just a page,

  staying at home to practice courtly arts

  among the ladies, or at most, a squire,

  learning the martial arts with men-at-arms,

  but his indulgent father had allowed him

  all of the honours proper to a knight;

  and so he rode astride a noble destrier

  bristling with arms that he could barely wield.

  The one demand his father laid upon him

  was that he travel with his priest and tutor,

  Sir Robert Aspall. Though in Holy Orders,

  he was not dour – rather the opposite.

  His heavy jowels often creased with a smile,

  and laughter twinkled in his light blue eyes.

  He tried, as was his duty, to be strict

  with Edmund, but the boy knew him too well.

  Sir Robert was attired in an odd mixture

  of military and ecclesiastical.

  His harness was like any other knights,

  except that over it he wore a stole;

  nor did he carry weapons, just a buckler,

  because, he said, “I am a man of peace,

  though needed to confess men before battle

  and give them Final Unction in necessity.”


  This march was a bold move played on the board

  of war, just like a queen in chess which moves

  from one side to the other unprotected.

  Another queen had also made a move:

  Margaret of Anjou, mad King Henry's wife –

  but hers was made with better strategy,

  with numberless men-at-arms, her pawns, around her.

  They met near Hull, already 15,000,

  and many more to come with Exeter.

  Lord Roos was there, Lord Clifford, Baron Greystoke,

  and the Lord Latimer (all northern lords).

  They planned to sieze the north and then the country.

  The queen, magnificent in her regalia,

  with a Red Rose pinned to her royal mantle,

  beautiful, pale, determined, made this speech:

  “My lords, supporters of the House of Lancaster,

  our cause is just. My son's the rightful heir,

  but is denied by this Act of Accord

  which puts York in his place in the succession.

  I will not rest until his power is broken

  and he is taken to the Tower in chains

  or slain upon the bloody field of battle.”

  “I too have cause to hate him and his kin,”

  said the lord Clifford, jumping to his feet,

  his eyes ablaze beneath his craggy brow,

  “Did he not slay my father at St Albans?

  And did I not vow that I'd be revenged?

  If I meet York or any of his kin,

  into as many gobbets will I cut him

  as my cook, Martha, chops up meat for stew!”

  “Calm down!” said Roos, a milder man, and just.

  “Remember, we are Christian knights, not butchers.

  Our cause is just, and justly we will fight it.”

  Latimer said, “This is a civil strife

  where Englishman sheds blood of Englishman;

  friend blood of friend, and brother blood of brother.

  Thus, mercy should always our watchword be.”

  “Show mercy to the man who killed my father,

  or any of his kin?” stormed Clifford. “Never!”

  “But are not you and York kin of a kind?”

  said Latimer. “What! Me, kin to that fiend?”

  “He is a son of Conisbrough – so are you.”

  “It's true that I was born there, and I bear

  De Warenne blood, shown in my coat of arms:

  Chequy Or and Azure, a fess Gules.”

  “I heard your godmother was Lady Maud,

  The second wife of Richard of Conisbrough.”

  “There is no blood link.” “But there is a link:

  two sons of Conisbrough should fight together.”

  Lord Clifford laughed, “Aye, we will fight together –

  and I will chop him into little pieces

  and all his kin!” “No, I meant side by side.”

  “My lords, enough of petty argument!”

  the queen cried, “we have business to discuss.

  I wish to hear the details of the plan

  to march to Pontefract and take South Yorkshire.”


  The Duke of York had marched as far as Tickhill

  whose mighty castle frowned an early welcome,

  although he had not time enough to stay.

  Wadworth was next, and then Old Edlington

  whose little church spoke of the things of home,

  for Conisbrough was near, where he was born.

  Edlington Woods, the last of Sherwood Forest

  gave way to scattered copses and broad fields,

  and in the distance, Conisbrough could be seen.

  A little further on, Sir Robert said,

  “Look! There's the castle – you can see the keep

  towering over Conisbrough. Soon we'll rest –

  ah! how my weary bones will welcome it!”

  “Sir Robert,” Edmund said, “I heard a story

  that Conisbrough was once called Camelot,

  and where the great King Arthur held his court.”

  Sir Robert laughed. “It's just a minstrel's tale

  made from the Latin place name, 'Camelodunum',

  shortened to 'Camelod' or 'Camelot'.

  And yet, I have to say that the old place

  is suited to the tale – was it not called

  “many-towered Camelot”? Look at those towers –

  eight, I think – not counting the great keep

  and the small towers of the barbican.

  “My father told me that the old round table

  in the Great Chamber where I used to play

  when but a boy, is King Arthur's Round table.”

  Sir Robert laughed again, “If all the tables

  throughout England, said to be Arthur's tables,

  were put into a pile it would be higher

  than Conisbrough's church tower! It's a good story –

  to inspire knights to strive for high ideals –

  and that's what counts. A knight is but a butcher

  if he's not also courteous and chivalric.”

  Did Edmund hear these words? – for his attention

  was focused on the castle, now much nearer.

  A swathe of grey cloud lay on the horizon,

  but a pale gleam picked out the bone-white limestone

  in stark contrast. Two windows, like skull's eyes,

  stared back at him from high up in the keep,

  and on top of the roof, a blue-tiled cone,

  flew the White Rose on a background of blue.

  Edmund's heart lifted. Here he was again

  at Conisbrough, the Camelot of legend,

  though now, not as a page, but as a knight,

  eager to prove himself in chivalry

  and courtesy as his tutor advised.


  The garrison were mainly Conisbrough men,

  with some from Tickhill, or from Doncaster,

  and a few come from much further afield;

  just thirty of them, under serjeant Battie

  who did guard duty in three eight hour shifts,

  one on the outer gate, one at the barbican,

  one on the inner gate, one on the keep,

  one on the south and one on the north curtain,

  and then, in a rotation with the others,

  practised at pell and quintain in the bailey.

  “They's 'ere! A breathless William reported,

  having run down the steps from the south curtain.

  “What? 'Ere so soon! We weren't expectin' 'em

  until tomorrer at the earliest.

  They 'ave marched mighty quick! Nah it's our turn

  to bustle, so look lively! The Duke's 'erald

  told us 'ee 'ad 5,000 men at least –

  though where we'll put 'em 'Eaven only knows!”

  The knights, along with servants, squires and pages,

  were quartered in the castle, the most senior

  in the Great Hall and the buildings beside it,

  the others in pavilions in the bailey.

  The rest of the great army pitched their tents

  on open land as far as Conisbrough brook.

  Edward Fitzwilliam, Constable of the Castle,

  met Richard and his chief knights in the Hall.

  He was a local man who came from Wadworth

  and had his fair share of that common sense

  that comes with being born in God's own county,

  and it had served him will in his profession.

  “Welcome York, welcome to Conisbrough.

  Your journey has been hard, I hear, and so

  tonight we'll raise the rafters of this hall

  with such a feast as you will not forget!”

  “My thanks, Fitzwilliam, and more than thanks

  for your good service in the recent battle

  fought at Northampton. I heard a report

  that the Lancastrians employed artillery –

  that must be the first time it has been used –

  how was it, tell me?” Fitzwilliam replied,

  “They had artillery it's true, but we had better,

  a driving rain that put out all their fuses

  and turned their powder into porridge oats –

  although the best of it is that we won

  by cunning strategem rather than force.

  I'll tell you all the gory details later.”

  A hot fire blazed in the great central hearth

  driving away the chills of late December.

  The tapestries that hung around the walls,

  depicting scenes of Arthur and his knights,

  stirred in the draft. The torches flared,

  casting huge shadows which danced on the wall.

  A minstrel sang old roundelays of France,

  telling of love and war, but no-one listened,

  for every man had stories of his own,

  and boasts and jests which he told to his neighbours

  in Norman French or in the Yorkshire dialect,

  or in that jargon that they speak down south.

  “Bring wine ho!” cried Fitzwilliam, “Where's my squire?

  Keep us topped up, my lad, without the asking.

  There's little time for feasting, so tonight

  I mean to make the most of it. Now, York,

  do you intend to garrison this castle?”

  “No, Fitzwilliam, Sandal is much larger,

  and a lot stronger too, better designed

  to stand against a siege with modern weapons.”

  “And yet this keep...!” “'Tis true, it is the strongest

  I've ever seen – with walls fifteen foot thick,

  and six great buttresses clasped like a fist.

  If ever I had to make a last stand

  I do it here. Why, man, the very devil

  would have his work cut out to breach those walls!

  The best modern artillery would fail

  to make more than a dent upon the ashlar.

  They'd have to starve me out – and even then,

  I've heard a secret tunnel goes from there

  down to St Edmund's Chapel near the Don –

  but the rest of this place is roughly coursed,

  and the south wall easy to undermine.

  No, Sandal is the best for what I purpose,

  a haven safe from the worst storms of war

  where I may base my men while I am waiting

  for reinforcements from the Earl of March.”

  Fitzwilliam frowned, and then voiced his concern.

  “But what of Conisbrough? If the Lancastrians

  besiege us, with just 30 men we're doomed,

  for they have 20,000, so 'tis said.”

  Sir Richard stroked his beard and then replied.

  “I'll leave 200 men and ordinance.

  With that you can hold out till I return –

  unless you make a foolish sally – no –

  that's not your way. You always were cool-headed.”


  Young Edmund, in the place beside his father

  was thrilled to hear
this talk of martial matters

  and longed to test his mettle 'gainst the foe.

  “When do we ride for Sandal? On the morrow?”

  Sir Richard gave him a stern look and said,

  “You should say 'you', not 'we'. You are not coming.

  You're too young yet to stain your sword with blood.

  You must stay here and keep the ladies company...”

  “A page again! No, father! I protest!”

  Fitzwilliam intervened to help his friend.

  “Edmund, serve as my squire. You'll like it here,

  and there may be hot work, and Sandal Castle,

  may very well be quiet as the grave.”

  “I would ride with my father...” “You will do,”

  Sir Richard answered his son testily,

  “what you are told. A knight, before all else,

  must learn how to obey his lord. Now go.

  Leave us to plan tomorrow's dispositions.”

  Young Edmund went, but did not go to bed,

  but instead made a plan all of his own,

  and when he'd worked it out he told his tutor.

  “No, you will not,” Sir Robert said, “No, no!

  If you persist in this I'll tell your father.”

  Edmund just smiled at him mischievously.

  “Then I will tell him what I saw last week –

  you and that kitchen maid behind the buttress.”

  “Heaven forfend!” cried Richard, turning red.

  “I am a sinner, and I have confessed!

  She was a Jezebel and tempted me

  beyond what flesh could bear – no, do not tell!

  I'll go along with it – only because

  it may be that the fiercest fight is here.”

  That night, Edmund slept badly. A nightmare

  troubled his sleep. A queen in a red robe

  decreed that every white rose in her garden

  be painted red – her gardeners obeyed,

  but instead of their usual smock frocks

  they wore black harness smudged with paint – or blood.


  The morning broke on a hard, bitter frost,

  and cold, bleak winds sweeping around the castle

  that wailed like spirits prophesying death.

  Poor William Webster on the lookout tower

  put out his torch, and brushed away the rime

  from beard and eyebrows, and looked eagerly

  for his relief, longing for the warm hearth

  that waited in the guard room. Harry Hurst

  arrived at last, and William handed over,

  with one last shiver, saying the words: “All's well.”

  By now the sleepers in the tents were stirring –

  those that had slept at all. They said their beds

  were icier than the grave and made them wish

  to feel the fires of Hell about them – almost!

  Now they emerged, shivering and complaining,

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