The Battle of Towton

The ‘biggest, bloodiest and longest battle on English soil’ was fought at Towton in Yorkshire on Palm Sunday 1461. Its brutality was a consequence of deep geographical and cultural divisions which persist to this day.

Battle of Towton, as depicted by Richard Caton Woodville (1856–1927)

In his article Barriers to the Truth, published in the December 2010 edition of History Today, Ian Mortimer elegantly explained the difficulties caused by the fragmentary nature of medieval sources. However there are some vibrant gems from the later medieval period which instantly propel you back to the age of their creation. One such is William Gregory’s 15th-century Chronicle, full of the type of barbed jest that would please a newspaper columnist today. Take for instance his sneer at James Butler, 1st Earl of Wiltshire (1420-61) for deserting the Royal Standard at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455: ‘He fought mainly with his heels for he was called the most handsome knight in the land and was afraid of losing his beauty.’ In contrast to such jocularity there is the spiritually transcendent tone of John Blacman’s first-hand account of Henry VI (r. 1422-61; 1470-71), capturing, if unintentionally, the full extent of the king’s troubled mind.

The celebrated Paston Family Letters contain many vivid descriptions and one in particular attracted my attention when researching the disastrous first reign of Henry VI and its effective end with the slaying of most of the Lancastrian nobility at the Battle of Towton. In a letter to his elder brother John on April 4th, 1461, less than a week after the battle of March 29th, William Paston writes:

Please you to know and have wisdom of such news as my Lady of York has by a letter of authority, under the sign manual of our Sovereign Lord King Edward, which letter came to our said Lady this very day at 11 o’clock and was seen by me, William Paston.

Initially there was the thrill of knowing that here was a first-hand observation of a letter sent immediately after the battle by the victorious Edward IV newly acclaimed on March 4th, 1461 but not yet anointed and crowned, to his mother, Cecily, Dowager Duchess of York; but this was many times magnified when Paston goes on to reveal its contents. For he tells us of the fates of some of the enemy commanders: ‘is dead Lord Clifford, Lord Neville, Lord Welles ...’ and many more, including, by supposition, the Earl of Northumberland and the Lancastrians’ master tactician, ‘Sir’ Andrew Trollope. Paston then crucially reveals the full extent of the Lancastrian catastrophe: ‘with many others, gentle and commons, to the number of 20,000’. As a nugget of evidence it is pure gold. It not only ties in with surviving letters from Chancellor Bishop George Neville and two of his fellow bishops, which give the figure of 28,000 dead at the battle, but also with a despatch from Prospero di Camulio, the Milanese Ambassador to France, sent to his duke a mere fortnight after the event. In this he gives the figures for the dead Lancastrians as 20,000, matching the Paston Letter; and for the Yorkists, mistakenly still described as ‘Warwick’s side’, he gives 8,000.

English longbow archers in action, from the Beauchamp Pageant, contemporary with Towton

It all fits together and points to two possible explanations. Perhaps the 18-year-old Edward IV (r. 1461-70; 1471-83) was running a concerted propaganda campaign to inflate the figures, for reasons we can scarcely conjecture. If so, this was coordinated to such an extent that even Peter Mandelson might purr with admiration. Or perhaps the explanation is simpler: this was the accepted figure on the basis of being ‘as counted by the heralds’, the official appointees for such a role. It was also a figure given first-hand, or at least second-hand by notable people of the day, not by monastic chroniclers away from the action and out of context.

Is it credible? After all, with an estimated Anglo-Welsh population of around three million, such casualties would represent almost one per cent of the populace, or perhaps four per cent of males between 16 and 60, the normal expected ‘fighting age’ of men at the time. A total of 28,000 killed is far greater than for any other battle during the Wars of the Roses and more even than the 19,000 British troops who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st, 1916. Bearing in mind that at Towton medieval and not modern weapons were used, the death toll denotes an extraordinary number on the battlefield, in excess of the 75,000 – itself 10 per cent of the ‘fighting age’ men – that many historians claim as the likely upper figure? And, if 75,000 were to have fought, made up perhaps of 40,000 Lancastrians and 35,000 Yorkists, how is it possible that one side could see half its men killed?

For 75,000 men to fight and 28,000 to die on one day the two armies would have needed to be locked together for an exceptional amount of time and fighting with weapons of deadly efficiency. Both of these factors were present. Chroniclers are in agreement that this was an action of many hours from the early morning to late afternoon followed by a pursuit and rout off the battlefield – from Towton to Tadcaster and ten more miles to York – running into the night and through it. As for the weaponry, the devastating effectiveness of Anglo-Welsh archers, so successful at Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), was now being used against their own countrymen. And many of these were ‘naked men’, so called because of their lack of effective defensive equipment and thus completely vulnerable to the razor-sharp arrowheads raining down on them. The devastation of the opening arrow storm was joined in the engagement itself by the ferocious power of the weapons of the trained men-at-arms – such as the hand-and-a-half sword and the poleaxe – and in the rout by the mace and well-named horseman’s hammer which were used on the unprotected heads and backs of men trying in vain to run for their lives. 

There had to have been some additional elements in order to create such losses. How was it possible for one army to lose such a proportion of its men? Particularly as the Lancastrian army had all the advantages at the battle’s outset: it was on home ground and well provisioned from nearby York (then the second city of the country); it was against an enemy forced to march hundreds of miles towards it and with all the problems of movement and supply in hostile terrain, during the final week at least. More than that, the battlefield was on a plateau at the highest point between the Yorkists’ difficult crossing over the River Aire and their target city of York, thereby providing the Lancastrians with a seemingly invulnerable position. According to the theories of the greatest military writer of the Middle Ages, the Italian-born Frenchwoman Christine de Pisan (1363-c. 1430), they had one of the three chief requirements for success in battle and the one that was usually decisive – that is ‘high ground’: their opponents had to attack up the slope. It gave the Lancastrians all the advantages of movement, manoeuvre and visibility.

Furthermore, the Lancastrians had, in Sir Andrew Trollope (d. 1461), a great military mind directing operations. He had been knighted only a month previously by Henry’s VI’s seven-year-old son, Prince Edward, after the seemingly decisive Lancastrian victory at the Second Battle of St Albans. The delay was merely due to his humble birth, for he was described by the near-contemporary Burgundian, Jean de Waurin, as ‘un très soubtil homme de guerre’ and by another chronicler as ‘Magno capitaneo et quasi ductore belli’. Trollope was such a key member of the Lancastrian inner command that he felt able, as he was being dubbed for his knighthood, to joke with the little prince that, because he had been immobilised by a wound: ‘My lord I have not deserved it for I slew but 15 men, for I stood still in one place and they came unto me, but they still bode with me.’ He was the military adviser to the Duke of Somerset, the Lancastrian commander at Towton and his was the first name on the pre-battle Yorkist proscription list of those they wished to ‘effectually destroy and bring out of life’. The Yorkists knew his potential: as well as his contribution to victory at Second St Albans he had played a critical role in their rout at Ludford Bridge in October 1459 and in the defeat and death of their titular leader, Richard, Duke of York, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460.  

It cannot be doubted that the Lancastrians intended to hold up an exhausted and starving Yorkist army on the River Aire, about eight miles to the south, and that they then expected to fight the major battle at Towton in the place of their choosing. It is thus understandable why they would have protected their rear from an outflanking manoeuvre by destroying the bridges over the River Cock north-west of Towton and over the River Wharfe at Tadcaster. Certainly they had the advantage of ‘ground’.

They did not, however, have the second key factor of de Pisan’s criteria for battle success: the advantage of ‘wind’. A fierce wind, for or against, could make a difference of scores of yards in terms of a longbow’s range. Even the advantage of height favouring archers at the top of a slope shooting downwards could be negated, indeed reversed, by a gale. Such a reversal took place shortly after 9am, just before the battle’s opening archery duel. In addition, the storm blew stinging sleet into Lancastrian faces. Under the calm, professional command of Edward IV’s maternal uncle, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg (c. 1410-63), the Yorkists sent arrow after lethal arrow into the opposing ranks, while their blinded opponents shot volley after volley short of the enemy; only for their missiles to be picked up from the ground by the intended victims and shot back again. The Lancastrian forces could not withstand such slaughter: they were forced to lose their commanding position in order to engage the enemy and end the onslaught.

The third and last of de Pisan’s key attributes for battlefield success was ‘sun’. On such a ghastly English day of sleet and snow – which made conditions underfoot a combination of ice, slush, blood and bodies – there was no sun. Not in a literal sense, at least, but symbolically, for England had its own ‘Sun King’. He is known to us through the first lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III as ‘this sun of York’, Edward IV. The ‘sun in splendour’ was to become Edward’s favourite badge and it referred to a phenomenon just before his first great victory at Mortimer’s Cross in February 1461: one that showed this 18-year-old to be more than merely the new titular leader of the Yorkist cause following the death of his father, but rather a commanding figure blessed by providence. For on that February day in the Welsh Marches not one sun was seen in the sky but three. This was a parhelion, where the sun shining through ice crystals created the effect of a mirror and those below saw it twice reflected. The unexplained can cause dread but Edward, then known as the Earl of March, provided an explanation: the three suns represented the blessing of the Holy Trinity upon another trinity, that of himself and his two young brothers, George, later Duke of Clarence (1449-78) and Richard, later Duke of Gloucester and, later still, Richard III (r. 1483-85). It seems there was no such equivalent for the Lancastrian forces, commanded by Jasper Tudor (c.1431-95), Jasper’s father Owen (1400-61) and chronicler Gregory’s despised Earl of Wiltshire, who this time fled the field even before battle was joined. They were routed by their inspired Yorkist opponents.

Victory at Mortimer’s Cross had enabled Edward to take over command from his older more experienced cousin, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, ‘the Kingmaker’, who had been so badly mauled at Second St Albans. He had also been able to relieve London and had there been acclaimed as king at the beginning of March. Within days the small Yorkist army had split into three separate forces and left for the north. It may have been small on departure from London, but it was vast on arrival a few weeks later at Towton. The increase was due to the authority of a recognised king, who could recruit under Commissions of Array; to refuse the call to colours was treasonable, punishable by death. The recruitment could be extremely effective through its apparatus of administrative enforcement, from the great lords of the realm down to the humblest local official and by its physical enforcement by captains riding vast distances to call in subordinates who themselves recruited on a ‘pyramid’ basis that rippled across the counties. For the first time during the Wars of the Roses two competing kings were recruiting. They were each also, ironically, taking short-term advantage of their magnates’ power in the regions, because the official ‘crown down’ feudal system had been distorted by defensive baronial alliances into ‘bastard feudalism’, a system of retainers which encouraged the raising of armed men by the nobility and gentry. The numbers recruited on both sides were huge.

However, mere numbers at the battle do not explain its casualties. This was where the ‘Sun’ was so crucial, both for the length of the battle and for its horrific denouement. The Lancastrians may have been forced to leave their positions and advance on the Yorkists but their forces were still larger. The Yorkist lines buckled but they did not break. This, the chroniclers agree, was due to Edward. Every inch a king at 6ft 4ins and charged with vibrant energy, he was an imposing figure who now rallied the line at its weakest point. The battle continued for hours until, in early afternoon, desperately awaited Yorkist reinforcements under the Duke of Norfolk smashed into the left of the Lancastrian line. Both lines turned. Yet even now the battle was not over; much later, perhaps near dusk, one line broke. Soon the Lancastrians were, first in pockets and then in a free for all, trying to escape. Trying but, in vast numbers, failing. Their commanders’ opening position, protected to flank and rear, now in these unimagined circumstances made it incredibly difficult to get off the battlefield. Either the men were funnelled westwards in a sliding, slithering mass down Towton Dale into what is now known as Bloody Meadow and further down into the fast-flowing swollen waters of the River Cock; or they sought to flee up the slope, through their opening position and into open, cavalry country.

As the majority of the common soldiery struggled on, weighed down by ineffective and saturated ‘protective’ clothing, they were targeted by vengeful opponents, themselves exhausted but surging towards the Lancastrians at the direction of their leader, their adrenalin levels charged by the scent of victory. Years later Edward IV told the chronicler Philippe de Commynes that:

In all the battles he had won, as soon as he sensed victory, he mounted his horse and shouted to his men that they must spare the common soldiers and kill the lords, of whom few or none escaped.

Only the latter part of the statement had an element of truth; the first part was a lie. A later chronicler was in no doubt about Edward’s intentions of giving no ‘quarter’: ‘He [Edward] made proclamation that no prisoner should be taken, nor one enemy saved.’ Thousands died by arrow, hand-weapon or horseman’s hammer or by drowning in the rivers Cock or Wharfe. In place of the broken bridge over the River Cock arose another from the depths: a ‘bridge of bodies’, after which the spot is still named today.

This combination of strategy and circumstance can explain why so many may have fought and died at Towton. But it does not provide an adequate explanation for the appalling brutality of the ‘biggest, longest, bloodiest battle on English soil’.

The causes of the brutality were many and deep, but fundamental to it was the failure of Henry VI to fulfil his duties as a medieval monarch. The problem, as David Starkey puts it, was one of ‘kingship – or rather, as the king in question was Henry VI, its very present absence’. The adult medieval king had an array of institutions at his disposal to assist him in his responsibilities: for the waging of war, the administration of justice, the distribution of offices and patronage and the maintenance of the proper state and estate of a monarch. But the personal intervention of the king provided the oil that lubricated the machinery of government. Under commanding figures such as Edward III (r. 1327-77) and Henry V (r. 1413-22) the system worked well; vast areas of France were secured and, for a time, Henry ruled over the larger part of the kingdom itself. Even under poor active rulers such as the deposed ‘seconds’, Richard II (r. 1377-99) and Edward II (1307-27), there could be no civil war in England, as the nobility remained largely united against the ‘tyranny’ of monarchs who were perceived to have broken their coronation oath and thus to have offended against God. The problem with Henry VI was that, as a ‘nullity’, he was not considered to have broken that oath until just a month before Towton, when after Second St Albans he fell out of Yorkist hands and into Lancastrian ones: before that point he could not be removed.

Though it was believed that only Henry could reign, others could rule. After the pivotal year of 1450 – which had seen the effective loss of the English kingdom of France, the collapse of the Duke of Suffolk’s regime that had run the country on Henry’s behalf and a popular revolt that sacked London – there were two potential sources of effective administration. One centred around first the Duke of Somerset and then Henry’s French queen, Margaret of Anjou (1430-82); the other around Richard, 3rd Duke of York (1411-60), the country’s leading magnate. Both York and Margaret sought to act, in fact, if not in title, as regent with full kingly power. Margaret, following French rather than English precedent had assumed the role by 1459, though effectively acting on behalf of her son Prince Edward rather than Henry. After open warfare had broken out and following the Yorkist victory at Northampton in 1460, York, who was to die in the Battle of Wakefield in December that year, believed that he had been granted kingly power by Parliament’s Act of Accord, by which he, and not the prince, became Henry’s heir. Neither York nor Margaret, however, had a monarch’s authority and the nobility were split, if rather in Margaret’s favour. The vendettas resulting from six bloody battles and routs within the previous 18 months explain the merciless treatment of the Lancastrian knights and nobles at Towton. They do not account for the brutality of the predominantly southern Yorkist soldiery against their northern Lancastrian opponents, however.

Edward unleashed his troops with his command of ‘no quarter’ and they answered his call with a vengeance. Before 1996 their action was the stuff of folklore. But in that year a mass grave, just off the battlefield, was uncovered during building work and the skeletons within revealed a horror greater than any legend. The multitude of injuries inflicted on the skulls of disarmed Lancastrian men revealed a frenzy of blows that had smashed and distorted them. They were dehumanised in death because they had been dehumanised by Warwick’s Yorkist propaganda in life. Warwick, seeking desperately to rouse London and neighbouring counties against Margaret’s all conquering army in January and February 1461, had propagated the belief that the men from ‘north of the Trent’ were bent on rape and destruction. The message was taken up through word of mouth, song and parish noticeboard. It was highly effective, as shown by this letter home written by Clement Paston, a student in London:

In these parts, every man is well willing to go with my Lords here and I hope God shall help them, for the people in the north rob and steal and are set to pillage all this country and give away men’s goods and livelihoods.

Differences in dialect and diet – for instance Warwick’s Kentish ‘shock troops’ drank beer rather than ale – were magnified. By the time the two armies met in what was designed to be the decisive battle, each saw the other as composed of aliens. The actions that day helped to make the Trent a cultural as well as a geographical dividing line: one that, periodically highlighted by events as far removed as the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 and Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of the 1980s, has never fully disappeared.

After Towton there was a fundamental change in attitudes at the top of society as well as at the bottom. Henry VI, the broken old unworldly king ‘anointed by God’, had at last been replaced – and by a vigorous all-too-worldly young king ‘blessed by providence’. Yet the collective cohesion of the nobility was also shattered. Whereas Edward II and Richard II had been dethroned with near unanimous noble agreement, Henry VI’s incapacity had eventually caused a schism among powerful royal and baronial subjects who, for their own ends, had diverted the crown’s powers for the recruitment and maintenance of troops. As the final fate of Henry VI and those of Edward V (1470-83) and Richard III were to demonstrate, right of succession and/or divine anointment and coronation were no longer enough to maintain life, let alone position. It was a lesson that was still slow to be learned. But not by the adroit, rigorous and lucky Henry VII (r. 1485-1509). Richard II attempted to secure his throne through, in David Starkey’s words, ‘making himself the biggest bastard feudal lord of them all’. He failed. A century later Henry VII succeeded. The ceremonies of monarchy continued, indeed increased under the Tudors. Yet rites, even a king’s rights were no longer enough; they now had to be underpinned by raw power and, with that, England moved towards a new, imperial monarchy.

George Goodwin is the author of Fatal Colours: Towton 1461, England’s Most Brutal Battle (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011).