This weeks blog. Northamptonshire’s part in the sealing of the Magna Carta.
A lead ball, believed to be the oldest surviving cannonball in England, has been found at Eagle Drive on the site of the Battle of Northampton.
The battle was fought between Yorkists and Lancastrians on 10 July 1460 in the area now known as Delapré Park and the 50-60mm diameter ball was originally found on farmland in the area of Eagle Drive, Northampton, part of the English Heritage registered battlefield.
The ball was actually found several years ago by the late Stuart Allwork, but had been believed lost until last year. Since its rediscovery the cannon ball has been subjected to detailed analysis by Dr Glenn Foard, one of the UK’s leading experts on medieval artillery and noted battlefield archaeologist from Huddersfield University.
Dr Foard also led the team that found the true site of the Battle of Bosworth. A programme of research and scientific testing of the ball is ongoing, Dr Foard has concluded that “It is highly likely that the projectile was fired during the battle in 1460”.
The Eagle Drive Cannon Ball itself has suffered massive impact damage from at least two bounces, and one gouge still contains small fragments of Northampton Sand and Ironstone. A testimony to the immense forces in play as the shot ricocheted across the battlefield.
Other damage may have been caused by the cannon ball hitting a tree. But whatever caused the damage it is a vivid reminder of the dangers of a medieval battlefield which could at any moment maim or kill without favour the lowliest peasant conscript, one of the most powerful nobles in the Kingdom or even a King. In August the same year James II of Scotland was killed by an exploding cannon at the siege of Roxburgh Castle.
The whole area in which the cannon ball was found is of immense archaeological importance.
Not only is it part of the 1460 battlefield, which contains large and well preserved areas of the medieval field system over which the battle was fought, it is also the site of a Roman villa or settlement. A possible Neolithic cursus of national importance and evidence of ancient trackways criss-cross the site of the find, showing the importance of the area during even earlier periods. Indeed, a number of other important finds from the Stone Age have also been found in the area.
The Battle of Northampton itself is also unique in British military history.
It was the only time a fortification was assaulted, the last time protracted negotiations proceeded a battle, and the only time a whole army was excommunicated during the Wars of the Roses. In its aftermath, Richard of York, the father of Richard III, laid claim to the throne for the first time, setting in train the series of violent and tragic events which eventually saw his son die on the field at Bosworth twenty five years later.
Contemporary accounts suggest as many as 12,000 men could have been either killed during the battle, or trampled to death or drowned in the rout as the defeated Lancastrian Army tried desperately to escape.
Both the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies are known to have had artillery available during the battle, although some contemporary accounts suggest that the Lancastrian guns failed to fire because of the rain. Therefore, the ball most likely originated as the Yorkist gunners targeted Lancastrian troops in their defences.
Thus the find of the Eagle Drive Cannon Ball supports current theories about the position and orientation of the battle which form the basis of Northampton Council’s Conservation Plan for the site which was adopted in 2014.
The 1460 Cannonball
In 1173 Henry II’s sons Henry and Richard (future Richard the Lionheart) rebelled against their father, supported by Louis, King of France.
Major baronial revolts broke out in England, Brittany, Maine, Poitou and Angoulême. In Normandy some of the border barons rose up and, although the majority of the duchy remained openly loyal, there appears to have been a wider undercurrent of discontent.
In May 1173 Louis and the Young King probed the defences of the Vexin, the main route to the Norman capital, Rouen; armies invaded from Flanders and Blois, attempting a pincer movement, while rebels from Brittany invaded from the west.
In July 1173, Henry secretly traveled back to England to order an offensive on the rebels, meeting his Barons at Northampton, giving them instructions and then returning. Chief Justicar, Richard de Lucy captures the town but not the castle of Leicester.
In September, Earl Robert of Leicester lands with an army of Flemish mercenaries and meets with Earl Hugh Bigod at Framlingham, intending to relieve Leicester. They capture the royal castle at Haughley.
On 17 Oct 1173, Royal forces under the command of Richard de Lucy, the Chief Justiciar surprise the rebels at Fornham as well as Humphrey de Bohun Lord High Constable, Reginald de Dunstanville, the Earl of Cornwall, William of Gloucester, the Earl of Gloucester, and William d’Aubigny, the Earl of Arundel, the Earl of Norfolk’s son, Roger Bigod intercept the rebels fording the River Lark about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Bury St Edmunds.
The rebel forces numbering around 3000 mercenaries were caught fording the River Lark about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Bury St Edmunds. With his forces split, Leicester’s cavalry was captured and his mercenaries were driven into nearby swamps where the local peasants killed most of them. Leicester was captured, as was his wife, Petronilla de Grandmesnil, who had put on armour herself. She is said to have fled from the battle, only to be found in a ditch wanting to drown herself, Leicester remained in captivity until January 1177 when some of his lands were returned to him.
David, Earl of Huntingdon, brother of Scottish King William goes to the relief of Leicester. Simon de Senlis III, Earl of Northampton, is told by King Henry he can have Huntingdon – if he can capture it so promtly lays siege to it. To draw the royal army away from Huntingdon, on May 1174, an army led by Ansketill Malory, Constable of Leicester attacks Northampton. Although details are scant, it appears a battle took place under the walls of the town (possibly outside the north gate). The Burghers of the town are beaten with 200 killed and 200 taken prisoner. The victors then assault Nottingham.
Then on 8 July 1174, Henry arrives in England, first travelling to Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, where he announced that the rebellion was a divine punishment on him, and took appropriate penance. On 13 July, King William was defeated and captured by local forces in a short battle at Alnwick, crushing the rebel cause in the north. He is taken to Northampton, his feet tied under a horse, where he is brought before King Henry. Eventually King William is transferred to Falaise where he is forced to sign a treaty renouncing Scottish claims on Northumberland.
Henry then marches to Huntingdon which surrenders. The remaining English rebel strongholds quickly collapse and Henry accepts the rebels surrender at Northampton.