Great events fall upon people and places, sometimes without warning. But time takes everything out of focus until there’s nothing obvious to show that anything ever happened there, and no trace of the people who took part. For example, take the peaceful, and fairly nondescript, farmland south of the little Yorkshire village of Towton: here, thousands of souls passed into the otherworld, prematurely and violently, on Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461. A weathered, modest, old cross stands by the side of the busy B1217; to many, if they notice it at all, it’s simply another memorial to something-or-other. What it commemorates is the Battle of Towton, one of 16 major armed encounters that punctuated the fifteenth-century dynastic struggle between the great families of England, known as the Wars of the Roses.
This was the real Game of Thrones, without the dragons and with marginally less gratuitous sex and violence. Just like the fiction, the story is immensely complicated, with a confusing dramatis personae whose members further obfuscate matters by personal feuds, intermarrying and confusing titles. The chief protagonists were the descendents of the sons of Edward III, who died in 1377. The immediate causes of the war stemmed from dissatisfaction with the administration of the country’s affairs by the principal councillors of the Lancastrian King, Henry VI, a pious and kindly man who was also slightly bonkers. By the 1450s, England was dividing into two armed camps: in the Red Rose corner, the supporters of the king and the Lancastrians; in the White Rose corner, the supporters of the ‘we can do things better party’, the Yorkists.
The two sides agreed an Act of settlement in 1460, which transferred the right of succession from Henry’s son, Edward, to Richard, Duke of York. Henry’s Queen, the fierce and proud Margaret of Anjou, was unsurprisingly not happy about that and set about raising a substantial force in the north, including a large contingent from Scotland. The Yorkists were defeated at Wakefield on 30th December 1460. Richard, Duke of York, was killed and his head was displayed, together with those of his 17-year old son, Edmund, Duke of Rutland, and Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, over Micklegate Bar in York. A paper crown was placed, mockingly, on the Duke of York’s head. His eldest son Edward defeated a Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross in February, but the Lancastrian victors of Wakefield, with much looting and plundering on the part of an unruly component who considered anything south of the River Trent to be foreign, headed toward London and defeated the Yorkists at the Second Battle of St Albans. Edward, however, reached the capital first and was proclaimed king in March. England now had two kings. The Lancastrians retreated north, ravaging towns and homesteads as they went, pursued by a Yorkist army whose numbers were allegedly swelled with southerners indignant at the excesses of Margaret’s northerners.
Edward IV (as he now was) reached south Yorkshire, where he received news that the Lancastrian army was gathering ahead of him, north of the river Aire. There were preliminary skirmishes at Ferrybridge (now probably better known as a particularly tawdry motorway service area) and Dintingdale near the village of Saxton. The Duke of Somerset, commanding the Lancastrian army, drew his forces up on 28th March atop a small plateau, right wing roughly where the monument stands, the left extending eastward over the A162. The Yorkists under Edward and the Earl of Warwick (‘the Kingmaker’) formed their battlelines along a small ridge facing their enemy across a shallow depression. The terrain today is much as it was five and a half centuries ago, except that the land then would have been uncultivated. By all accounts it was a wild and bitter night; we can only imagine the thoughts running through the heads of the men of both armies, as they lay down to rest on the cold, exposed, ground.
Edward was still waiting the arrival of his ally, the Duke of Norfolk, but it is generally thought that proceedings began at around 9am the following morning with a volley of arrows from the Yorkist archers. It was snowing and a strong southerly wind blew into the Lancastrians’ faces. Returning fire into the blinding snow, their arrows fell short yet they continued to loose off until they ran out; whereupon the Yorkist archers stepped forward with a murderous cascade that included returning many of their enemy’s spent missiles. Maddened, the Lancastrians advanced into the depression, up the slope and closed on the Yorkist knights and men at arms. Fearful, savage, hand-to-hand fighting ensued. It is said that in places men had to stumble across a slippery carpet of bodies to reach their opponents. The battle raged for hours until slowly, but surely, the Lancastrians began to gain ground. Then, around midday, through the slush and gloom, the banners of the Duke of Norfolk appeared from the south. The right wing of the Yorkist army was immediately reinforced and both sides grimly continued the bloody slog. Gradually, the Yorkists retook lost ground; the Lancastrians began to give way and, by late afternoon, their army was streaming from the field.
It is believed that many of the defeated Lancastrians retreated toward Towton at the bottom of a steep slope on the north west of the field, through marshy ground and across a swollen river, Cock Beck. Chroniclers describe a ghastly scene of slaughter and drowning, as men attempted to escape being cut down by the victorious Yorkists through this bottle-neck. Many survivors crossed the river over the pressed bodies of their comrades and the water ran red for miles downstream. After the battle, Edward replaced his father’s and brother’s heads over York’s Micklegate Bar with those of senior Lancastrians.
Towton has the dubious honour of being the longest, largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. It lasted about 10 hours and the numbers thought to be involved are staggering – anywhere between 75-90,000 combatants, with the Lancastrians having a slight advantage in numbers. The figures for the dead are obscene: estimates vary wildly, but the lowest is in the region of 20,000 and highest 38,000; many sources suggest losses of 28,000, of which 20,000 were on the Lancastrian side. This would exceed the losses for the first day of the Somme in 1916, often quoted as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Most of the participants were English and Welsh; if these statistics are true, you’re looking at a death-toll roughly equivalent to 1% of the population – which would correspond to about 561,000 fatalities today.
There’s a small pull-in by the monument, Towton Cross, which is possibly part of a chapel erected nearby by the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, to commemorate the men that perished. The Cross is often called Dacre’s Cross, after Lord Dacre, who some say was killed or buried nearby but who is in fact interred, with his horse, in Saxton churchyard a few miles to the south.
Informative notice boards guide you round much of the battle site, which was the graveyard of so many. For those 10 hours in 1461, the noise of men shouting, screaming, crying, slashing, the crash and thump of steel, must have been deafening as well as frightening. The killing fields are quiet today, apart from birdsong, the immediate traffic and the distant hum of the A1. You can look to the south across the fields from the cross, the Lancastrian positions, and take a path to the opposing the lines for Edward’s view of the field. Bloody Meadow and Cock Beck, scenes of so much slaughter, look tranquil. You’ll see ghosts if you want to. The day I visited I spotted abundant sloes and suspiciously blood-red hawthorn berries in the hedgerows. There were also rose hips, perhaps the fruit of the legendary Towton Rose, a symbolically white flower with pink splashes.
Finds on the battlefield, including a mass grave uncovered in 1996, have provided an insight to medieval warfare in general and the exceptional brutality of Towton in particular. Many of the skeletons show previous wounds and bone structures suggesting they were professional veterans, but they had also been hideously mutilated at or shortly after time of death by pole-axes, war-hammers and swords. Primitive handguns were also employed at Towton – apparently, it was the first battle in Europe where they were used.
Most of us have never experienced a battle; we can only shudder imagining the sheer terror and confusion of medieval fighting, where it seems to me that the manner and variety of a man’s wounds and ends were probably only exceeded by the very worst of 20th century trench warfare. It’s pointless to judge history with modern eyes, but it is hard to avoid the futile reflection of what might have been achieved by all those dead men had these great lords not gathered their vast resources to kill one another merely for the sake of power. The Wars of the Roses lurched on for another 25 years or so. Poor, confused, Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London in 1471. Edward IV died in 1483 and the defeat of his young brother, Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, ushered in the game-changing Tudor dynasty.
The website of the Towton Battlefield Society offers further information, as well as details of guided walks around the site.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s Attraction Directory to find more battlefields.