Towton... the bloodbath of a battle that shattered the myth of English kingship

The Monument at Towton, between Tadcaster and Garforth, commemorating the Battle of Towton on Palm Sunday 1461.
The Monument at Towton, between Tadcaster and Garforth, commemorating the Battle of Towton on Palm Sunday 1461.
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there is little in Towton today to remind people of its infamous place in English history.

A solitary stone crucifix which reads “Battle of Towton Palm Sunday 1461” is the only memorial on the site of what is thought to be the biggest, longest and most murderous battle ever fought on English soil. This quiet North Yorkshire village, a few miles south of Tadcaster, was the scene of a gruesome battle which not only settled the first War of the Roses, but left nearly one per cent of the country’s population dead.

The battle was the appalling climax of the disastrous 40-year reign of England’s youngest king, Henry VI, and changed the notion of kingship in England forever. But there were no machine guns to mow down soldiers at Towton as there were at Ypres and the Somme. Instead, men bludgeoned, hacked and chopped one another to death, or they succumbed to the tens of thousands of arrows unleashed by the two warring armies.

Historian George Goodwin has written a new book, Fatal Colours – Towton 1461: England’s Most Brutal Battle, which not only marks the 550th anniversary of the battle, but sheds light on a tumultuous period in English history, a stepping stone between a medieval and a modern Britain.

For Goodwin, it is a chapter of English history that is too often overlooked. “I’m passionate about English history and believe the late Middle Ages should be far better known. Traditionally they have been viewed as alien and shadowy and in complete contrast to the brilliance of the Tudor reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I,” he says. “But that’s nonsense, the War of the Roses contain the most dramatic turns of fortune in all English history. We are told about Agincourt and the Tudors, but there’s this big gap in between and I think that’s a great shame particularly for schoolchildren because they are missing out.”

At the heart of the War of the Roses was a power struggle created by concern over Henry VI’s unstable reign which led to some of his magnates and his increasingly powerful queen jostling for control of the kingdom. In the early 1450s, the king fell into what Goodwin calls a catatonic trance that rendered him unable to communicate, let alone rule.

With Henry effectively out of the picture, two branches of the royal house of Plantagenet, the Yorkists and Lancastrians, clashed. “By the time we get to Towton, the war is evenly poised with both sides each having won three battles,” he says. “Towton is an incredibly important battle because it shattered the whole concept of medieval kingship.

“Up to that point if you were the crowned and anointed king, you had been chosen by God and to attempt to replace the king was an act against God.” So why, given its significance, doesn’t it have a more prominent position in our history? “Towton was an incredible Yorkist victory and the idea it was the judgment of God in battle and that Edward IV should replace Henry VI as king didn’t sit well with the Tudor narrative, which was that the Lancastrian dynasty was the natural dynasty.”

Although the white and red roses are recognised as emblems of Yorkshire and Lancashire and the rivalry between the two counties, as any cricket fan will tell you, continues unabated. The opposing armies who fought at Towton weren’t drawn from the specific geographical boundaries we recognise today. As Goodwin explains, they were based around complicated and ever-changing alliances. “At the time of Towton there was a civil war between two parts of the country, with the Lancastrians basically from the North and the Yorkist armies largely from the South and Wales. However, by the time of the Battle of Bosworth the position had reversed with Richard III, the last Yorkist king, very much loved in the North.”

One of the reasons Goodwin, a history graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, wanted to write his debut book about Towton was to remind people of its importance in shaping modern Britain. “In terms of documental records those relating to Towton are quite thin, whereas with a battle like Marston Moor there are much better records, so as a result there was a lot of detective work involved.” But with the help of the Towton Battlefield Society, the Battlefields Trust and the Royal Armouries, he pieced together events leading up to the battle.

“By the time of Towton, England had gone back 1,000 years to the old boundaries of the kingdom of Mercia. In other words, it went tribal. It’s a bit like what is happening in Libya where the country has been split between the east and west, with Gaddafi relying on his tribal links to keep him in power,” he explains. “Most of the nobility were on the side of Lancastrians who were able to put greater numbers in the field, while the Yorkists paid for mercenaries and also had the support of the Pope who didn’t want the queen, Margaret of Anjou, to have power in England.”

The battle itself took place on March 29, 1461, and was both long and brutal. “Both sides knew they needed a decisive battle that had to be fought to the finish. During this period the ransoming of nobles captured in battle was common between England and France because your opponent was worth more alive than dead – but at Towton the opposite was true,” says Goodwin. “The sense of alienation between the two armies was whipped up by people on both sides. Those in the south drank beer while people in the north drank ale, they were different, they ate differently and spoke differently.”

But why did the two armies end up facing one another at somewhere as seemingly insignificant as Towton? “Edward had to take the northern capital York and the Lancastrians knew this, so they positioned themselves on the highest plateau in front of York.” Which happened to be Towton. “It was the ideal ground because it meant the Yorkists couldn’t outflank them and they had marshes on one side and the Cock Beck behind them, so they had a very strong position.” The odds were stacked in the Lancastrians favour, they had a larger force, about 40,000 men compared to 35,000 Yorkists, who were exhausted after their arduous march north and, most importantly, they had the higher ground. However, as Goodwin points out, there was another crucial factor when it came to medieval battles, the direction of the wind. “Crucially, the wind changed blowing a blizzard into the faces of the Lancastrians. So not only couldn’t they see where they were firing but their arrows were falling short. The Yorkists on the other hand were unleashing volley after volley into the Lancastrian lines. We are talking about tens of thousands of arrows hitting men at around a hundred miles an hour.”

This forced the Lancastrians forward into hand-to-hand combat. “The two armies were wedged together fighting in the most appalling conditions, there was driving snow and it was slushy underfoot with men struggling to stay on their feet.”

After hours of fighting it appeared the Lancastrians were gaining the upper hand but the Yorkists, with 18 year-old Edward in the thick of the action, held firm. The usurper king was ably supported by the flamboyant Earl of Warwick while the Lancastrians lacked such inspirational leaders.

The battle finally swung in the Yorkists favour with the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk whose men smashed into side of the Lancastrians breaking their line and causing panic as soldiers attempted to escape. But the fleeing soldiers became bogged down and were massacred in the fields and marshes, or drowned in the overflowing beck. The final death toll is believed to be about 28,000, higher even than the number of British dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. “If you look at the records there’s a real drop in the population which can’t simply be put down to an outbreak of disease, it was caused by the slaughter at Towton and what happened there created a scar between the North and South that you can still see today.”

Fatal Colours – Towton 1461: England’s Most Brutal Battle, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £20. The author will be talking with Towton Battlefield archaeologist Tim Sutherland at York Mansion House on April 10.