The Percy–Neville feud was a series of skirmishes, raids and vandalism between two prominent northern English families, the House of Percy and the House of Neville, and their followers, that helped provoke the Wars of the Roses.
The original reason for the long dispute is unknown, and the first outbreaks of violence were in the 1450s, prior to the Wars of the Roses. The antagonists would later meet in battle several times during the war.
The Neville and Percy families were the two most important families in the north of England. In the early 1450s, both families were led by men in their fifties, who both had violent and hotheaded sons. Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, was the brother-in-law of Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, son of Henry 'Hotspur' Percy.
In 1452, William Percy was made Bishop of Carlisle, a title long held by the Nevilles. The obvious displeasure of the Nevilles at this act induced many people who were anti-Neville to look to the Percys as their leader, especially Northumberland's younger son, Thomas, Lord Egremont.
When Lord Egremont started to issue his red and black livery to more and more supporters, Lord Salisbury informed King Henry VI that trouble was afoot. The King in turn summoned Egremont to London three times, but he never came. Part of the reason was fear of moving from his hiding place, as John Neville, Salisbury's third son and an experienced soldier, had been hunting him for nearly a month. The two had fought skirmishes back and forth across their northern estates, which, in places, were perilously close geographically. Each side's retainers did their best to wreck their opponents' property, smashing windows, writing on walls, evicting tenants, and breaking and entering each other's houses.
In Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, only a few miles from the Neville estates, John Neville arrived, three days after receiving an official warning from the King to desist, and threatened to hang all the tenants if they did not tell him where Egremont was hiding. Henry VI then sent several letters telling the Earls of Salisbury and Northumberland to stop their sons' illegal actions, to no avail.
Skirmish at Heworth Moor
On 24 August 1453, two years before the first Battle of St Albans, the forces of the Nevilles and the Percys met for the first time. The attack was led by Lord Egremont against the bridal party of Thomas Neville (John's brother). It appears that Lord Cromwell had obtained some Percy estates some years ago, and now Thomas Neville was going to marry Cromwell's heir, Maude Stanhope. The prospect of Percy manors passing to the Neville family was too much for Lord Egremont, who spent days fiercely recruiting in York and ambushed the Nevilles on their way home to Sheriff Hutton. He no doubt intended to assassinate the Nevilles, but all of the family were there with their own retinues, so they probably had a larger force than Egremont expected (as earls, Salisbury and Warwick were entitled to at least a hundred soldiers each in their retinues).
Still, the Percy force was almost certainly larger in size (though 710 names have been preserved, they probably numbered over a thousand). Mutual fear of fighting a pitched battle meant there was little if any bloodshed, and the Nevilles were able to retreat swiftly to their stronghold in Sheriff Hutton. There is an alternative view; the evidence for this is found on legal rolls and nowhere else. As not a soul is recorded as being injured in the skirmish, it is possible that the Nevilles used this incitement of violence as an excuse, an early example of a legal fiction, to take the matter to the royal courts, resolving the legal case and thereby stating whose land this skirmish took place on. This view has been suggested after studying the Kings Bench lists (now withdrawn from the public), where a number of skirmishes such as this are recorded but the only injuries or casualties found are a hen and occasionally a dog.
In retaliation, Sir John Neville raided the absent Earl of Northumberland's house at Catton, in Yorkshire, and all but ruined it. The next day, Richard Percy attacked a house on Neville property.
The danger of civil war was intensified when both sides began summoning their retainers to strongholds in the north. On 20 October, the Percy clan had gathered 10,000 men at Topcliffe. Only four miles away, the Neville force was stationed at Sheriff Hutton. After several threats from the king, both sides reached a truce and disbanded their men. However, one chronicler said, "There was no reconciliation, the day of reckoning had merely been postponed."
Despite these precautions, it is probable that a few hundred men clashed at Stamford Bridge on 31 October or 1 November 1454, resulting in hundreds dead and more wounded. Lord Egremont was then captured and imprisoned by John Neville.
In a great diplomatic move, the Nevilles joined forces with their relation Richard, Duke of York. They were to help him against his enemy, Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, and, in return, he would aid them in their own feud. When the king became ill, they quickly outmaneuvered Somerset and appointed the Duke of York as Protector of England.
During York's Protectorate, Somerset was imprisoned, and the Percys suffered greatly at the hands of the Nevilles. When the king recovered from his illness, York was relieved of power, and Somerset was released and was quick to ally himself with the Percys.
Six months later, Henry VI, Somerset and the Percys (the Lancastrians) met the Duke of York and the Nevilles (the Yorkists) in the First Battle of St Albans, where the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Northumberland were slain.
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