Battle of Ferrybridge

The Battle of Ferrybridge took place on 27/28th March 1461. It was part of a series of clashes that formed the Towton Campaign. Ferrybridge was a significant location in later Medieval northern England. It was the site of a stone bridge that crossed the River Aire, providing the only flood proof crossing in the region. As such it was strategically important and guided troop movements in the area. 

Wars of the Roses
Infographic: Wars of the Roses

Context: The Importance of Ferrybridge

Following the Battle of Wakefield the Lancastrians had moved north to York. Here they had consolidated their position and gathered additional forces. Overall command of the Lancastrian force was taken by Somerset.

Edward, Earl of March, had defeated Lancastrian forces at Mortimer’s Cross and met up with the Earl of Warwick at the River Trent. The Yorkist leaders were now after revenge. Edward had lost his father and brother at Wakefield and taken up the claim to the throne.

The Yorkist army had to cross the River Aire. The only places where this could happen were at Ferrybridge as it was a flood proof 13th century bridge, or at Castleford which was the site of the old Roman crossing of the river. The limited options, further west meant marching a baggage train through the hills of the pennies, meant that the Lancastrians could defend themselves at arms reach by making the crossing difficult. This is exactly what happened at Ferrybridge.

Lord Clifford takes Ferrybridge

Lancastrian troops led by Thomas Clifford launched a dawn raid of Yorkist troops at the bridge. This small Yorkist advanced party were easily overwhelmed. Most were killed, others, bloodied, made their way back to the main Yorkist camp. Edward ordered that the bridge be taken and the Battle of Ferrybridge turned from a small skirmish, into a bloody struggle to gain the bridge.

Clifford used the bridge and its surroundings well. His men damaged the structure of the bridge. This made it harder for attacking yorkists to cross. The walkway was narrowed, bunching attacking forces closer together. His own defending archers would be able to loose at incredibly close range, almost certain to kill or seriously injure. The Yorkists attempted to send men in rafts over the river, easily picked off by Lancastrian defenders.

Yorkist attack on Clifford at Ferrybridge

The ease at which Clifford held the bridge was concerning for the Lancastrians. They were losing lots of men, an estimate in one chronicle is 3000 dead or wounded. The best chance of overcoming Clifford was to attack from his flank. This meant sending a cavalry detachment to Castleford, fording the river, then returning on the other bank to attack. Clifford was prepared for this. The riverbank had lots of marshland between Castleford and Ferrybridge. An account suggests that many Yorkists died in these marshes, whether that is through Lancastrian ambushes or misfortune is a little unclear. Clifford, an expert horseman, was well aware of how long a cavalry unit would take to get to Castleford and back though. He used this time to maximise the damage done to the Yorkist assailants and to the bridge itself.

Clifford retreated along the road towards Castleford. Yorkist forces caught up with him at Dintingdale. Another, connected, battle was fought here in which Clifford was killed.

Views on the place of Ferrybridge in the context of the Towton Campaign

Ferrybridge is often described as being a small preliminary battle that led into Towton. The chronicles that suggest 3000 casualties make it clear that it was more than a mere skirmish. For context, 3000 casualties places it within the 20 most bloody battles recorded in England and more deadly than battles such as Bosworth. The traditional view was of a battle that saw a struggle on the bridge with weight of numbers overwhelming the Lancastrians and gaining a small pathway across the bridge. This view of the battle has been challenged by the work of Tim Sutherland. His view, one that I tend to agree with, is that the Battle of Ferrybridge and Dingtindale ought to be looked at as part of a wider campaign. The deployment of forces was not as narrow as some suggest. It has quite elaborate and utilised a wide range of skills, many acquired by the light cavalry of the northern nobles who were well used to warding off raiders at rivers (Scottish reivers were often fought off by light cavalry).

The Battle of Ferrybridge enabled the Yorkists to cross the River Aire in the numbers required for the following day. On the following day the massed forces of the two factions met at Towton. This became one of the most significant battles of the Wars of the Roses as it saw a large number of leading Lancastrians killed in an overwhelming victory for Edward, who was recognised as king following that battle.

Causes of the Wars of the Roses – Course of the War of the Roses – Events of the War of the Roses

Battles in the Wars of the Roses

First Battle of St. Albans  – Battle of Blore Heath – Battle of Ludford Bridge – Battle of Northampton – Battle of Wakefield – Battle of Mortimer’s Cross – Second Battle of St. Albans Battle of Ferrybridge – Battle of Towton – Battle of Hedgeley Moor – Battle of Hexham – Battle of Edgecote Moor – Battle of Losecote Field – Battle of Barnet – Battle of Tewkesbury – Battle of Bosworth – Battle of Stoke Field

Documents, Maps and Evidence

The Rous Rolls – Paston Letters – Edward IV Roll

People and periods

British History – The Wars of the Roses – The Plantagenets – The Tudors – King Henry IV – King Henry V – King Henry VI – King Edward IV – King Edward V – King Richard III – King Henry VII – Margaret of Anjou

Schoolshistory – teaching resources for Key Stage 3, GCSE and A Level history