When Sun Dogs Changed England

On the morning of 2 February 1461, as two armies prepared to fight the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in the Wars of the Roses, three “suns” appeared in the sky. The extra suns were obviously the astronomical phenomena known as a sun dogs, caused by light refraction off particulate ice crystals in the air. However, to the medieval troops looking upward, they were clearly a sign from God. But what did they portend?

Vädersoltavlan_cropped 1535 painting of sun dogs in Sweden

The royalist forces of the House of Lancaster, loyal King Henry VI, his Queen Margaret of Anjou, and their seven-year-old son Edward, Prince of Wales, were led by Jasper Tudor and his father, Owen Tudor. Opposing them was the army of the attempting Yorkist usurper, Edward, Earl of March, and his greatest ally, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Naturally, the rebel forces were afraid that three suns were a sign of Divine displeasure that they were attacking the anointed king.

Edward of York, however, had a tongue more golden than even three suns. He managed to convince his followers that the three suns were a sign of God’s favour to the Yorkist cause.  Some reports say he claimed the sun dogs represented the three remaining sons of his recently deceased father, the 3rd Duke of York, while other tales say he claimed the sun dogs “represented the Holy Trinity and that therefore God was on their side.” Regardless of how Edward did it, his troops were bolstered by this ‘evidence’ of God’s favour, and York won the day.

William Shakespeare described the sun dogs and the awe they inspired in Act Two Scene One of Henry VI, Part 3:

Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun;
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But sever’d in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, see! they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vow’d some league inviolable:
Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun.
In this the heaven figures some event.

This victory allowed Edward of March and Warwick to make haste to London while the Lancastrians retreated. The entered the capital on 2 March, and once in possession of the Tower, Edward was quickly proclaimed King Edward IV of England. Afterwards, the new king took the “sun in splendour” as well as the white rose of York as part of his heraldry. The son of York had become the glorious sun of York.

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