Thursday, March 7, 2013

Towton, the bloodbath that changed the course of our history

The Wars of the Roses was a civil war fought in England between 1455 and 1487, between the House of York (Yorkists) and the House of Lancaster (Lancastrians). These Houses were both members of the Plantagenet royal dynasty.

The Yorkists were supposedly represented by a white rose and the Lancastrians by a red rose, hence the name of the war. In 1487, the victorious King Henry VII (the father of Henry VIII) united the red rose with the white rose to form the Tudor dynasty, represented by a red and white rose.

The Battle of Towton, which took place in 1461, was the largest, longtest, and most murderous battle ever to have taken place on British soil.

At the time, English archers were probably the best in the world, using their longbows with devastating effect against the French several times. Half a million arrows may have been fired in 10 MINUTES that day - the largest longbow shafting in history.

The Yorkists even made a bridge over a river out of the corpses of the Lancastrian dead.

In this epic article for The Times, AA Gill tells us the story of Towton.....

This Yorkshire field of ruffled corn is where the most gruesome battle ever fought on English soil took place in 1461.Why, have so few heard of Towton

AA Gill. 
The Times
24th August 2008 








The Battle of Towton, 1461. The deadliest battle ever to have been fought on British soil.

Get onto the B1217 – the Ferrybridge-to-Tadcaster road – just after the M1 joins the A1M, and you’ve crossed that unmapped line where the north stops being grim and begins to be bracing. Go through Saxton, past the Crooked Billet pub, and on your left you’ll see rising farmland, green corn and copses – an old landscape, untroubled by poets or painters or the hyperbole of tourist boards, but handsome, still and hushed. The road is straight; it knows where it’s going, hurrying along, averting its gaze. Through the tonsured hedge you might just notice a big old holly tree on the side of the road. It seems out of place. 

Get out of the car, adjust to the hissing silence and step behind the tree. Hidden from the road you’ll find a gothic stone cross of some age. Nobody knows who put it here or where it’s from. For centuries it lay in the ditch. A date recently inscribed on its base, March 28, 1461, is wrong. It should be the next day: the 29th, Sunday. The movable feast – Palm Sunday. 

This oddly lurking crucifix is the only memorial on the site of the largest, longest, 
bloodiest and most murderous battle ever fought in Britain – Towton. Bloodiest not just by a few hundred, but by thousands. Its closest home-grown mortal rival is Marston Moor, fought 200 years later with a quarter of the casualties. 

By all contemporary accounts, allowing for medieval exaggeration, on this one Sunday between 20,000 and 30,000 men died. Just so that you grasp the magnitude, that’s a more grievous massacre of British men than on the first day of the Somme. Without machineguns or shells, young blokes hacked, bludgeoned and trampled, suffocated and drowned. An astonishing 1% of the English population died in this field. The equivalent today would be 600,000. 

King Edward IV, the only English king, other than Henry VI, to reign twice

Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place.

It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.

Back down the road at the Crooked Billet, in the car park you’ll find a caravan on bricks that is the headquarters of the Towton Society. The pub is happy to have them here; the council has given them temporary permission. Most weekends this is a visitors’ centre, if there’s someone to volunteer to open it.

I’m met by a band of enthusiasts: an amateur historian, an archeologist, a metal-detector, a supermarket manager, a chemical engineer, teachers, a printer, a computer technician, a schoolboy and his dad. They are a particularly ordinary English gaggle – the sort of men and occasional woman you’ll find in huts and garages or rummaging in car boots and boxes on any weekend. Keen but defensive, proud and embarrassed, inhabiting that mocked attic of England’s hobbyists, aware that their interest tiptoes across the line between leisure activity and loopy obsession, they are instantly attractive. Enthusiasm is always likable.

English enthusiasm, so shy and rare, is particularly winning. The men are beginning to wiggle into leggings and jerkins of boiled wool and linen, belting on purses and daggers, stringing bows, filling quivers from the boots of Japanese 4x4s, slipping back across the centuries with apologetic grins. I’m handed a skull. It wears the mocking expression common to all skulls and has long forgotten the fear and agony of its traumatic wound: a double-handed hammer blow to the back of its helmeted head so fearful, it split the base of the bone and disengaged it from the spine.

The chances are you’ve never heard of Towton. The most fatal day in all of English military history has been lost, left to be ploughed under by the seasons of seed-time and harvest.

It is as if there was a conspiracy never to mention it. There are surprisingly few contemporary accounts of the battle, and they are sparse, though all agree on the overwhelming size and mortality.

The reason Towton hasn’t come down the ages to us may be in part that it was in the middle of the Wars of the Roses, that complex internecine bout of patrician bombast, a hissy fit that stuttered and smouldered through the exhausted fag end of the Middle Ages like a gang feud.

The Wars of the Roses have no heroes; there are no good guys and precious little romance. They’re as complicated and brain-aching as Russian novels and pigeon-breeding.

To begin with, every protagonist has at least three names – family, county and title. Their wives and mothers are just as bad, and almost everyone is called Henry or Edward at some point in their lives, and it’s all about heredity and family trees. There are feuds and alliances that have precious little to do with the commonweal of peasants and citizens.

The Wars of the Roses aren’t taught as history in schools any more, only as literature, as Shakespeare’s great canon of regicide and revenge that can be seen as our nation’s Iliad.

And though Harry Hotspur, Warwick the Kingmaker, John of Gaunt and Bolingbroke pass across the stage bawling stentorian English, still bloody Towton is absent, silent as a mass grave. Briefly, just so you get a feel for the threads that come together to weave the shroud of Towton, here are the basics.The Wars of the Roses kick off in 1455, though they’re not called the Wars of the Roses (the Victorians made that up). It begins with the eight sons of Edward III, possibly the best king we ever had. One of them’s called Lionel – I thought I’d mention that, because I’d have liked us to have a King Lionel. Edward started the Hundred Years’ War, and his eldest son was the Black Prince.

The problems, the pushing and shoving in the royal queue, arise from here. It’s a power struggle between Plantagenets, except they don’t call themselves that. They think of themselves as Angevins, descended from Jeffrey of Anjou, whose symbolic flyer is the yellow broom, the Latin for which, Planta genista, gave us Plantagenet.

After a bit of argy-bargy, happy slapping, black dungeon-work and a couple of on-your-toes to the Continent, we get Henry V – cocky sod and, more important, lucky sod – who wins Agincourt but unluckily is then killed by the ****s while his son is still a nipper.

Henry VI is a sorry excuse for a monarch. Even by the standards of the inbred, pathetically inept medieval court, Hal Six should never have been put anywhere near a throne. It was said he would have been better suited to sainthood. Obsessively religious and miserable, he probably suffered from catatonic schizophrenia, inherited from his grandfather, the French king. He was incapable of governing a truculent and bitter nation. And he had that other curse of medieval monarchs: a ruthless, scheming and vindictive wife, who produced a very suspect heir, considering Henry had never shown anything other than disgust and incomprehension at the idea of hiding the pink sceptre. For long periods he would retreat into vegetative states. England had a cabbage as a king. That’s the Lancastrians.

On the York side we have Edward, Earl of March, who is everything the fairy tale demands: 6ft tall, handsome, dynamic, smart, sensual and brutal. After his father was executed and his head displayed on Micklegate Bar with a mocking paper crown, Edward had himself tentatively proclaimed Edward IV, and the sickly Plantagenet Henry went north to raise an army.

York and Lancaster imply that these wars were a northern spat between round vowels. In fact, they weren’t geographically specific, though they were, roughly, North vs South.

Edward marched north with his supporters. One of the reasons Towton had such a bloody cast of thousands was that it was one of the few British battles that had two legitimised kings fighting each other. Both Edward and Henry used the decaying system of hierarchical obligation to raise their forces.

By the time Edward had got to Pontefract, Henry and the Lancastrians had moved from York to this broad ridge of farmland. At the dawn of Palm Sunday – the day Christ entered Jerusalem – Edward’s army arrived on the rising land above Towton to find the Lancastrian hosts awaiting him. Across a valley, on a ridge, their flanks protected by the River Cock and woodland, things didn’t look too good for Edward’s Yorkists. If you were a betting man, and he was, you’d put your house on Henry taking the day, rested, fed, with more men. Half the Yorkist army, captained by the Duke of Norfolk, still hadn’t arrived, was out there to the south, trudging the muddy arteries of England. And it was snowing – great howling, razoring gusts of snow.

Medieval English battles, like the dirges that commemorate them, tend to follow a set course. The aristocracy dismount; they fight on foot. There are mounted prickers roaming around the rear of the army to discourage the deserters. It is the English way to slug it out, toe to toe, get stuck in, show iron faith. They stand with their men, except for Henry, who is too frail and dotty – he’s back in York telling his rosary, chewing his nails, being nagged by the missus.

The armies face each other, an arrow’s length apart, perhaps 300 yards. The archers step forward, communion wafers still stuck to the roofs of their mouths, muttering prayers to St Sebastian, patron saint of archers. The order “Knock, draw, loose!” sends a hissing curtain of iron-tipped splinters high into the white air.

English archers have attained a mythic status down the ages because of the showy underdog victories at Crécy and Agincourt. They were nation-specific – only the English and the Welsh took on the discipline, the plebeian odium and the round loathing that came with a bow. None of the continental countries deigned to partake, preferring to be nobly kebabbed. They relied on specialist Genoese crossbowmen – the Polish plumbers of medieval battlefields. Not even the bellicose Scots and Irish could be bothered with bows, but when used in sufficient numbers and with discipline, the longbow was the lethal arbiter of battlefields for 300 years.

It was slowly replaced by gunpowder . Any terrified peasant could point and pull a trigger, but it took a lifetime of aching, deforming practice to muscle up the 100lb of tug needed to draw a yew bow to dispatch a cloth yard of willow-shafted, goose-feathered, bodkin-tipped arrow 200 yards through plate, through chain, through leather and linen and prayers, into a man’s gizzard. The longbow was the most lethally efficient dealer of death on European battlefields until the invention of rifling and the Gatling gun.

The archers stepped forward and together chucked up what they call the “arrow storm”.

An English archer could fire 15 to 20 arrows in a minute – that’s what made the opening moments of battle so horrific. The eclipse of arrows would have crossed high in the frozen air, and in that moment Edward and the House of York had their touch of luck. The thick, stinging curtain of snow slashed the faces of the Lancastrian line, making it difficult to aim or judge distance, pushing their arrows short. And it carried the arrows of York further and deeper into the Lancastrian line. God howled and cracked for Edward that morning, searing the cheeks and freezing the eyes of Lancaster.

The metal-detectors have found the long, broad trench of bodkin points, showing where the first appalling fusillade was loosed. Emptying their own quivers, they began firing back the arrows wasted by their enemies. There may have been half a million arrows fired in 10 minutes that day – the largest longbow shafting in history.

Organised ranks of men standing under an arrow storm can do one of three things. They can take it, the steepling hysteria, the terror, the incessant keening of the goose feathers, the thud and grunt, the screaming and pleading, the smell of **** and vomit and split gut; they can stand with their skin prickling in mortal expectation. Or they can retreat – get out of the rain, give ground, lose form and purpose, and run. Or they can attack – move forward, confront the butcher, the bloody, unmanly, unarmoured, jeering peasant bowmen. This is what Lancaster did.

Heads down, slipping and sliding down the frozen incline, they moved across the short valley and crabbed up the other side. All the while the arrows came, flatter and harder. A glum statistic of medieval battles is that the host forced to move first usually loses. But Lancaster had the advantage of numbers; they were on home ground.

As they approached, Edward shouted above the wind to his men that there was to be no quarter given, no ransoming of fat earls and mercantile knights. This battle had been a long time coming. There was a black litany of insults and humiliation, of murder and summary execution, a debt to be underwritten in blood and tears. As the army crossed the valley, there will have been the harbinger noise, the crack and boom of early firearms. York’s Burgundian mercenaries detonate their pieces. The oldest bullet in the world has been found in this valley.

So the two armies, screaming obscenities or just howling like mad dogs, slithered together and joined one of the most hellish experiences of human ingenuity: a medieval battle in the snow.

At the front line there is little room for swashbuckling or dainty footwork. This is a match of thud and stab. The weapons of choice are daggers and maces. Men with iron sallets buckled to the backs of their necks, so they can’t be yanked forward to offer a spine stab, stare wide-eyed through slits, straining and flailing with short, maddened blows and ache-tensed muscles into the faces of men inches in front of them.

There was a lot of armour about in 1461.

Most men would have had some form of head protection and bits of plate, but the most common protection was a stab vest made from layers of linen sewn together that might deaden the blow, absorb a spent point or a fisted poniard. But this wasn’t about killing the opponent. It was about putting the man in front of you down – on the ground. He’d be dead in seconds. 

The Rout 

The most common injuries are to the head and neck, and death must often have come by way of suffocation – the air squeezed from your body under the weight of men behind you, jammed in the mangle of battle. The pressure and the impetus came from the army that wasn’t yet fighting shoving and heaving.

Lancaster begins to get the best of it. The battle line expands into a vale now called Bloody Meadow. Most medieval battles have an allotted time. Perhaps because the armies at Towton were uncharacteristically large, and perhaps because for so many of the men this was not their first fight, Towton went on way beyond its span into extra time, gasping and heaving, sick with gore, men expiring of dehydration. On into the afternoon, Edward ever more desperate as his army gave, inch by inch, across the plain. And then, up the B1217, came the banner of the white boar – Norfolk, with the rump of the army.

Edward’s relief must have been seismic. They wade into the Lancastrian flank. It’s the turning point: the line shudders and stalls. And then the movement is back. Lancastrians catch their heels on the bodies of their own dead. The line falters, bends, bunches and breaks. In moments, an army unravels into a rabble, and the rabble runs. And it’s time for lunch.

Back at the Crooked Billet we sit in the snug. Some of the Towton Society are dressed in the burgundy and blue of the House of York, with its badge not of a rose but of a sun in splendour; some are kitted in the no-less-risible leisurewear of Argos. We eat roast beef as tough and tasty as an archer’s glove and Yorkshire puddings the size of breastplates. It should seem odd, but it isn’t. The rest of the pub barely gives them a second glance. And they talk with glee about this place, this patch of earth, this battle, and the clotted, internecine politics of the Roses. It’s easy to mock re-enactors, dressing up and empathising like clairvoyants. We are taught that history comes in books, not fields, to be seen like a court case, with facts and evidence, to be measured against precedent and doubt, to be unemotional, reasonable and forensic. But that’s not how it was.

There is another history here. A story handed down that has grown fluent and smooth and rhetorical, that expands and shrinks with the needs of the moment. It is a story of belonging, the events that stitch us into this landscape and in turn sew this landscape into a country. It is the tapestry of us. These are people who can still raise lumps of emotion over the misrepresentation of Richard III, which may well be mildly bonkers but is also endearing, and as valid and important as anything done in a university library.

After lunch we troop back to walk the rout of Towton. The wind is up; the clouds spit gusting drizzle. Behind us is Ferrybridge and the massive Drax power station. In front, caught in a shaft of sunlight, is York Minster, whose towers were still being built when Towton was fought. We step through the corn that grasps at our legs, sighing and whispering. The retreat was where the real killing happened, the slaughter that put Towton in a league of its own, over and above the Somme.

The Lancastrians ran. The army of York, the fresh men from Norfolk and the prickers on their horses, harried them, whooping with relief and the anger that comes after fear. This was the moment when they made their bounty, the coins and rings and rosaries, the badges and lockets and hidden purses that would pay for the farm, for the cow, for the wife. They moved down into the valley of the River Cock and thousands drowned, their linen jerkins soaking up the frozen water, pulling the desperate men under.

We follow up the old London Road. Before the A1, this rutted, overgrown track was the aorta of the nation. We get to the river, now little more than a stream, dodging rocks and fallen logs. Here, hidden in a swaying copse of ash trees, was the Bridge of Bodies, built of Lancastrian dead to form a dam, the spume running with crimson gore. This was the final horror of Towton. We stare onto the dark water in silence.

“You know, this is the bit I can’t imagine,” says the printer, “what it must have felt like to be hunted down, hundreds of miles from home, to have been through that day, to be wounded, terrified, desperate – what was that like?” And we fall into silence again.

And then, because we’ve been talking of many things, he says he’s got a son all set to join the army, keen as a greyhound for some soldiering. Standing in this awful, overgrown secret morgue, he says he’s proud but terribly worried – it frightens him, the thought of his boy. And there, in those words and in that silence, is the thing that history does when you meet it halfway. It bends in on itself and folds the run of years to touch the present, not with a cold hand but with the warm breath of a moment ago.

It snowed all that Palm Sunday. The thick snow deadened the noise of dying whimpers and cawing crows, the shocked and exhausted soldiers too stupefied or disgusted to pursue the rout, the carters and baggage-train servants, the prostitutes and local peasants scuttling up the ridge to harvest the dead, fires being lit for porridge and to mull wine, the breath of the living pluming in the crepuscular white light like small, ardent prayers of gratitude.

Towton gave Edward the throne for a time. Henry fled to Scotland, his wife to France. Ultimately he was imprisoned in the Tower, and finally, 10 years after Towton, murdered, possibly by starvation, a means that avoided the sin of regicide. The House of Lancaster died with him. Edward snuffed it in 1483 – of indulgence, obesity and a cold. He left his young sons in the care of his brother Richard. Bad choice. The house of York perished at Bosworth, making way for the Tudors and the New Age.

Towton was the last great explosion of the dark and vicious Middle Ages. It comes at the end of the bleakest of centuries: the war with France, the civil war, the Black Death. It was the last time the old Saxon-Norman system of obligation would be used with such catastrophic effect.

The dead of Towton are buried all over here, in mounds and trenches, in pits, in Saxon churchyards and the deserted hamlet of Lead. They are both history and landscape. They make up the most perfectly preserved great battlefield in the country. If Towton were a grand house, it would be nannied by dozens of quangos and charities, patronised by posh interior decorators, fey historians, titled ladies, Anglophile Americans and the Prince of Wales. But it isn’t. It’s kept by the quiet, respectful community and by this small band, this happy breed of marvellously eccentric enthusiasts, who, as we walk through the corn, I see are the yeomen of England walking back through our history, through Cobbett and ****ens, through Shakespeare to Chaucer and down the years to Domesday. They honour this blessed land, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

With thanks to the Towton Society ( (external)), and to A W Boardman for his invaluable book The Battle of Towton

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