Search for the Towton Rose stirs echoes of carnage

In a curious hybrid twist of history and botany, the search is on this summer for living proof of one of the county's most potent symbols.

While many Yorkshire people will have heard of the infamous Battle of Towton, the bloodiest battle in the nation's fractured history, fewer will perhaps know of the Towton Rose, which has been a subject of poetry and mythology since those times.

But for years, the search has been on for the elusive flower, a curious bloom which reputedly flowers only on the spot where thousands fell on Palm Sunday 1461.

Even more spookily, the bloom exhibits red and white petals, exactly mirroring the emblems of the combatants from the Houses of York and Lancaster later symbolically united in the

Tudor Rose.

For years the flower has been thought to be extinct, only existing in handed-down historical reports, in legend and poetic verse – and circumstantial reports of sightings in or close to the "Bloody Meadow" and hedgerows of the famous battleground.

This summer, a group of devotees from Yorkshire will be scouring the site near York in the hope of spying the elusive bloom.

Peter Boyd, curator of Shrewsbury Museums and an expert on wild and cultivated forms of the Scots Rose, asked for the help of historians and others in Yorkshire to search for surviving examples both on the original site or in people's gardens to allow it to be sampled for DNA analysis.

"The rose was identified in the 19th century as a form of the native Scots Rose (Rosa spinosissima), also known as the Burnet Rose," he said. "There is no doubt that it did exist but it is said that it has not been seen for over 70 years."

Businessman Peter Algar, from Horsforth, Leeds, author of The Shepherd Lord, set during the aftermath of Towton, said: "I think there will be a concerted effort by many this summer, as we approach the 550th anniversary of the battle, to seek out the truth behind the history of the elusive Towton Rose – and maybe – just maybe – find a surviving specimen."

The last recorded sighting of the flower was in the 1940s. A 79-year-old farmer, Albert Bailey, described 20 years later a field overrun with "battle roses" which became a nuisance because people would sneak in if the gates were open and dig them up. Eventually, fed up locals dug them all up.

"I haven't seen one now for over 20 years," he added. "It is a funny thing. Scores were dug up by visitors but, as far as I know, they would never grow away from Towton."

Towton proved a disaster for the Lancastrians and was the location for horrific casualties.

Mr Algar said: "Some of the worst slaughter was seen at Bloody Meadow, where it is said Lancastrians crossed (Cock Beck], which reputedly ran red with blood, over the bodies of the fallen.

"The rout lasted all night and into the morning, when remnants of the Lancastrian army stumbled into York in total panic.

"Historians often speak of a wall of piled dead building up in fields around the so-called 'Bloody Meadow', while those that did manage to escape the swollen Cock Beck – weighed down with armour and through exhaustion – were killed trying to ford the River Wharfe at Tadcaster.

"The battle took place in a snow shower, and in the aftermath of the carnage, in solid fields, there was little time or ease with which to dig deep graves. As a result, thousands were buried in shallow graves, and it is upon such graves that the Towton Rose is said to have flourished.

"I've already started the search for the Rose which is curious in that, according to various literature, it cannot be successfully transplanted from the soil where it was, in legend, 'enriched' by the fallen.

"There are quite a few roses which are coming into bloom in the hedgerows and ditches of Towton – and on the fringe of the Bloody Meadow. I'm hoping one of these might just prove to be the Towton Rose, but that's where our colleagues and botanical experts come in."

In 1995, in an effort to recreate a white rose, tinged with red, Towton Battlefield Society member Peter Hetherington transplanted cultivated specimens of Rosa spinosissima around the battlefield but they did not flourish.

Mr Boyd said: "The Towton Rose is supposed to be a variant of Rosa spinosissima (old name Rosa pimpinellifolia). This species flowers in late May or June depending on the latitude and altitude. If it still exists, it will be flowering about now at Towton or in someone's garden.

"It is possible that the colour in the Towton Rose is due to some genes from the Dog Rose Rosa canina or another native species but this is part of the mystery that would be solved by DNA analysis.

"Forms of Rosa spinosissima with red markings on the otherwise white petals have been recorded from various places in Britain for over 400 years so that the Towton case is not unique – it is probably merely coincidence that it occurred on the site of a bloody battle – but it is a compelling story."

Many are hoping the most beguiling of Yorkshire symbols will one day flower again, from the heart of the bloody battlefield.