Why site of key Yorkshire battle is far more than shrine to history

PIC: Simon Hulme
PIC: Simon Hulme
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It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on England’s soil, and changed the course of history.

The Battle of Towton, on Palm Sunday 1461, saw as many as 28,000 men killed in eight hours of brutal hand-to-hand combat in the War of the Roses’ fiercest fight.

For years, this battlefield has been protected by a society set up in its name and today, as the man at its helm prepares to stand down, it is a changed place to that which it was.

For such sites of worldwide significance, says Mark Taylor, inset, of the Towton Battlefield Society, can only be protected by changing perceptions about their everyday use.

“Battlefields aren’t about numbers and dates,” he said. “They are about people – and getting them engaged.

“There are lots of parts of our country that are very historically important that aren’t protected – unless we stand up and doing something about it.

“The best way to do that is to make them relevant to the time we’re in.”

The society, led by volunteers, was set up to protect this rural landscape near Tadcaster.

The unique soil conditions make the fields a treasure trove for archeological finds, and it was here that England’s oldest known handguns and bullets were discovered.

There are arrowheads, spurs, belt buckles and strap ends, and in the 1990s a soldiers’ mass grave was found in the foundations of Towton Hall.

But rather than attempting to create a sheltered sanctuary to protect this space, the society has attempted to bring it into public use.

First came the Globe Theatre and Henry IV, bringing Shakespeare’s plays to the grounds on which they were set.

On a sunny day in 2013, hundreds of people had watched as actors turned the quiet fields into a stormy re-enactment of this brutal battle.

Then there were the 
formal commemorations, on Palm Sunday every year. Historians and villagers would recreate the medieval encampment, with soldiers and craftspeople, falconry, archery, gunnery and sword combat demonstrations.

By 2015, this had proved so popular it had to be scrapped. The society couldn’t safely house 3,000 people in such a small space, and the re-enactments were called off.

But since that time, the battlefields have become more about wider use, encouraging visitors from around the country, dog-walkers and guided tours.

There are archery classes, guided walks and tapestry groups. This, the retiring chairman believes, is the only way to ensure that the significance of this site is here 
to explore in another 500 
years.

“Towton is in a beautiful part of the world, a remote part of the world,” said Mr Taylor, 51.

“It is used every day. And that’s what will make battlegrounds sustainable, by putting them to proper use. That alone will protect them.

“Towton has transformed itself, galvanized by volunteers. The battlefield has grown, from something of an enigma, to one that is understood, which is vibrant, protected, and captures people’s imagination.

“For battles to be alive and relevant, they have to fit the times. What we have secured is a really significant site for future generations to enjoy.

“Towton courses through my blood fighting, but now I can sit back and enjoy it. It’s time to let someone else take it in a new direction.”