Digging up past to bury villainous reputation of Yorkshire king

PETER ALGAR: Author and historian who is searching for a lost chapel at Towton Battlefield.
PETER ALGAR: Author and historian who is searching for a lost chapel at Towton Battlefield.
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A NEW campaign has been launched to find the lost chapel of Towton. Martin Hickes reports on the historic search.

Somewhere beneath the green fields of Towton lies the remains of a chapel. No one is quite sure where, but if a group of historians and archaeologists have their way, its location will eventually be pinpointed. When it is another piece of the Towton jigsaw will fall into place.

In 1461 the rival armies from the Houses of York and Lancaster clashed and Towton became the scene of the bloodiest battle in English history.

What happened next is well documented. The Yorkist troops, led by Edward IV, crushed their enemies, but with thousands dead the victory was a hollow one. The bodies from both sides were hastily buried, but the massacre at Towton was not so easily obliterated and when in 1483 Edward’s brother Richard III became king, the events of 20 years earlier were still a very visible blot on the landscape.

“When Richard III ascended the throne, there was unfinished business to attend to,” says Peter Algar, an historian and an associate of Towton Battlefield Society. The adult male population of entire villages had been wiped out, defeated nobility had been brutally executed and the stench of methane from the grave pits was overwhelming.

“Twenty years on the north of England was still reeling from the Battle of Towton and the mass graves there were a grim reminder of both man’s inhumanity to man and the Civil War which had torn England asunder. Newly crowned, Richard set about exhuming the grave pits and the following year and gave the bodies a decent Christian burial.

“He also granted money to re-edify the chapel, which had been originally raised by his brother Edward VI in atonement for the massacre. A permanent chaplain was appointed and in Richard’s mind if the land was turned back to pasture and the plough, the encounter would be a distant memory and the nation would be great once again.”

Two years later Richard was killed at Bosworth and work on the chapel was never finished. A cross from the original building was found and now provides the focal point for the annual memorial service each Palm Sunday. However, now military enthusiasts are renewing a campaign to find the rest of the chapel.

“The chapel’s exact location has not been fully established and more research needs to be conducted,” says Dr Philip Morgan of Keele University. “The chapel is a particular symbol of Yorkist piety and what Richard III set out to do, the members of the Towton Battlefield Society aim to preserve.”

An excavation of the site, near Tadcaster, 15 years ago failed to unearth the chapel buildings, but if this new search is successful it would represent one of the most significant finds in years and perhaps spark a new debate about the true nature of the House of York’s infamous king.

“It is easy to think that Richard gloated over his victory and the idea of Towton simply as a ruthless bloodbath created by merciless ambition has persisted,” says Professor Francis O’Gorman, head of the school of English at the University of Leeds. “But that image of Richard may not be accurate. New evidence has emerged which shows he was actually immensely penitent and the bloody rout was a stupefying embarrassment for his administration.”

Finding the lost chapel will be visible proof of both Edward and Richard’s efforts to give Towton the memorial it clearly deserved.