nation in Conflict - The Battle of Towton

Posted on Thursday 28th March 2013

The Battle of Towton in Yorkshire on 29 March 1461 was the largest, longest fought and bloodiest day in English medieval history. In terms of the number of troops involved, the ruthlessness of the fighting, the quantity of casualties and the decisive nature of its outcome, Towton stands out from the long sequence of battles fought for control of England in the fifteenth century. This bitter contest of arms was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses.
The number of combatants and casualties at the Battle of Towton exceeded the combined total of Hastings, Bosworth and Culloden. Towton was a famous Yorkist victory, but Edward IV had more battles to fight before he could sit securely on his throne. Nor could the Yorkists really claim to be the outright winners, any more than the Lancastrians.
The ground past Towton rises gently to form a low plateau, the climb barely perceptible except to the west, where there is a steep decline into the valley of the Cock Beck. This dale was probably densely forested in the fifteenth century – a tangle of scrub, alder and birch, poorly drained. To the south-west, up beyond Bloody Meadow, the rise becomes more noticeable, still topped by the stand of timber named Castle Hill Wood. The swell is neatly bisected by the lateral depression of Towton Dale, which itself slopes into what was, at that time, a marshy gully. The accepted position adopted by the Lancastrians on the day of the battle was along the crown of the ridgeline, north of the dale, immediately to the south of the present monument. It was necessary, therefore, for the Yorkists to deploy on the higher ground to the south.
The obvious strength of the Lancastrian position may explain why Edward was in no hurry to unleash an offensive. His men were almost certainly outnumbered with the Duke of Norfolk’s division still some distance behind. It is likely that Edward, surrounded by his household men, formed a strong company that moved across the field to shore up the line wherever pressure was greatest. Lord Fauconberg’s was the first Yorkist division to sight the enemy, strongly posted in front to cover the deployment of the main battle and rear.

the archery duel
As the hosts were marshalled into line, between ten and eleven in the morning, a brisk shower of dense rain and sleet gusted over the field, chased by a strong southerly wind. This blew hail directly into the faces of the Lancastrians, obscuring their vision. Fauconberg, his veteran’s eye quick to discern possibilities, bade his bowmen advance and loose, shooting at extreme range but with the scurrying wind to lend wings to their flights. The shafts found their mark and the Lancastrians shot in reply, but they loosed into empty ground some 40 metres short, the Yorkist archers having now smartly stepped back. Capitalising on his success, the wily Fauconberg repeated this tactic, returning his adversaries’ shafts back into their own ranks.
Such an exchange of missiles frequently dictated the outcome of the fight for the losing side: that suffering the greatest loss was left with no alternative but to advance to contact. The arrow-storm was the very essence of terror on the field. As one volley struck home another was whistling behind. Somerset’s divisions were deployed for defence – to advance now would be disadvantageous.
Fauconberg had the inestimable advantage of the wind but the Yorkists’ shooting demanded a very high degree of skill. Happily for Edward, his archers were equal to the task. Fauconberg’s canny tactics and the fortune of the weather gauge ensured the result of this opening exchange of missiles was swiftly and surely decided in the Yorkists’ favour, conferring a crucial advantage.
The Battle of Towton.

the lancastrian advance
A great shout of ‘King Henry!’ burst from thousands of throats, rolling over the windswept ground as the Lancastrians surged forward. The tramp of armoured men, slogging over wet slush, drowned the keening of the wind – a great, rolling crash as the opposing ranks collided. The biggest and bloodiest fight in the history of these islands was now fully under way. It was probably sometime before noon.
King Edward would shortly send his horse to the rear, showing he would stand the full hazard of battle with his retainers and live or die accordingly. This was the battle for England. It would appear that the Lancastrian left was the first division to engage, Northumberland, on the flank, lagging somewhat behind. Quite why is uncertain. It is possible his companies had suffered worst from Fauconberg’s deluge and he may have needed more time to order his ranks and files. The subject of the Percy’s apparent failure on the right to match the momentum of the left would continue to dog Lancastrian deployment on the field. For the whole of their advance the attackers would still be subject to a hail of arrows.
With the order to advance, surviving Lancastrian archers from the van would have fallen back upon their main body, commanded ostensibly by Trollope and Northumberland. With last-minute adjustments to harness, a final mouthful of water and doubtless many a quick prayer, the ranks stepped out. In such conditions the advance would be sedate rather than rapid. The line was long and the going treacherous, ground already carpeted with dead and dying from the opening exchange. Snow was falling steadily now, casting a thickening blanket over corpses. It was essential to maintain cohesion – no easy matter in the dire conditions, and Somerset had hoped to fight on the defensive. Yorkist success in the initial round had robbed him of this advantage and his men were left fully exposed to the deluge of missiles still spitting from Fauconberg’s division. The cunning Yorkist, working his advantage to the last, ordered his archers to leave a hedge of arrows still sticking in the ground, an impromptu abattis. The closer the men-at-arms drew, the more galling the bowmen’s shooting.
The stage was set for a clash of armoured foot. Until now both sides had seen their enemy at a distance. Now, with the Lancastrian host advancing up the slope towards them, the Yorkists steeled themselves for close combat. But it is unlikely – though the chroniclers are silent on this – that the Yorkists continued to wait passively. As the bows withdrew, the bills would step forward to meet the foe with momentum of their own. Now a murderous, hacking mêlée of points, poleaxes and swords would ensue. The greatest loss of life in such a fight occurred when one side dissolved in rout and became easy prey for the victors. In spite of the terrible pounding and losses the Lancastrians had endured, the advance allowed them to shake out their line and deploy in such a manner as to bring their greater numbers to bear. Despite the killing done by Yorkist bows, King Henry’s men remained far more numerous and there was no sign of Norfolk and his much-needed reinforcement.

the dogfight
In the dense fog of battle men would stand with comrades in their companies. Telling who was friend and who was foe was no easy matter and there was no recourse to polite enquiry. Men might wear livery jackets, emblazoned with their lord’s badge, but this would do little to avert confusion. The standards provided the main anchor and rally point as the mêlée pounded. Commanders would be able to exercise a diminishing level of control, the fight taking on its own momentum. The roar and fury of the red mist were further obscured by the slanting showers that swept over the field as the afternoon wore on. If the Yorkists enjoyed the considerable advantage of having the inspiring persona of their youthful king on the field, they lacked numbers and as the fight continued, this began to tell. At one point Edward was saved by the swift action of a Welsh retainer, Davyd ap Matthew. In recognition of this, and in addition to material reward, the king granted his saviour the honour of standard-bearer and the insertion of ‘Towton’ into his family arms.
We know that medieval captains studied their art with care and both factions employed seasoned professionals such as Trollope and Horne. That the battle would be confused is inevitable, but not all was disorder, else the fight could not possibly have lasted. While a commander-in-chief might have limited control over events once the die was cast, it is not entirely true to say he had none at all. This was an enormous battle but it was fought in a relatively confined space. Edward, having harangued his men, sent his horse to the rear, as was his custom, for we know he fought most of his combats on foot.
It seems probable Edward would use his own household men as shock troops to bear the brunt wherever it fell hardest and wherever it seemed the pressure was greatest. Fighting in the mêlée was not confined to men-at-arms. Archers could play their part as they had amply demonstrated in earlier battles such as Agincourt in 1415 where they broke ranks to fall upon the flanks of the French stumbling through the mud. Lightly harnessed, strong and agile, these formidable men made deadly opponents wielding sword or falchion and buckler. Two or three would target an armoured foeman, one would engage his point, the other might seek to hook behind the knee to bring the armoured enemy crashing and floundering onto the slick slush where a dagger thrust to the eye or genitals would suffice.
There is the commonly held view that both sides had given the order that there should be no quarter and, if so, this would add to the terrific fury of the contest. One who cannot hope for safety in surrender, and where no retreat is possible, is bound to fight to the death. And death there was aplenty. It is not possible to assess how many men died in the opening duel, the Lancastrian advance or the initial clashes. That the field was soon congested with piles of dead and dying clearly attests that casualties by this time were already substantial. Although the Yorkists might have had the better of their opponents at the outset, the subsequent balance in that dismal cauldron would have been far more even.

the lancastrian ambush
Somerset may have chosen this crucial moment to spring his ambush from Castle Hill Wood – the blow falling on the left of the Yorkist line. Evidence for this is largely anecdotal but the lie of the ground admirably suited such a tactic and the frequent snow squalls would act as a further screen. If such an attack could be successfully launched, then the Yorkists would find themselves assailed on two flanks and would very likely give ground – a potentially fatal scenario. Quite possibly, indeed probably, the Lancastrians had retained their mounts and charged as cavalry, adding to their enemy’s discomfiture.
It may well have been the case that Lord Rivers (Edward’s future father-in-law) and Trollope led the ambush party. The latter was a tried exponent of such handy surprises. Once successful, some of the attackers pelted off in pursuit of their beaten opponents, the advantage gained thus diluted. Castle Hill Wood, as any perambulation will show, is still a dense and somewhat tangled tract of woodland. It would simply not be possible to conceal a large force of mounted men-at-arms there, much less launch a cohesive charge. The ambush party must have been concealed in the lee of the trees on the flank, where they would still have been invisible to the Yorkists. That complete surprise was possible seems underlined by the fact there is no suggestion in any of the chronicles that the Yorkists sought to further anchor their flank by occupying this feature. To do so would have conferred no tactical advantage and the potential for ambush seems to have been overlooked. This failure would bear bitter fruit.
What must follow, if we accept that the ambush developed as suggested, is that Edward would shift any available reserves – and likely his household men – to stem the rot and contain the attack. These measures were clearly effective, for the line did not fold. The very size of his army helped. Edward sustained casualties and sections of his rearward division – the mounted contingent – dissolved in rout, but the line held. It was battered and bent but not fatally fractured.
What appears certain is that, for some hours, the outcome hung in the balance, but with the advantage shifting inexorably to the more numerous Lancastrians. Edward may have been saved from a worse catastrophe by a possible failure of command in his enemy’s ranks, with Northumberland pushing on too slowly to capitalise on the success of the ambush party. Indeed, his division may have been forced to give ground with Northumberland himself, at this critical point, being struck down.
If Northumberland suffered his fatal wounds at this point, then his wing may have lost momentum. Percy’s failure was York’s salvation. Had the whole line pushed forward the Yorkist position would have been graver still. If the Earl of Northumberland had indeed been incapacitated at this point, his fall would result in a lowering of morale among his affinity. This may have given the Yorkists on that flank fresh heart and enabled them not just to stabilise their position but to win some measure of ground, pushing their opponents back.
If Edward’s right was holding and, indeed, getting the better of their foes on that flank, the situation on the left remained desperate. The Lancastrian ambush had hammered into the rearward division, occasioning some panic and leading certain mounted elements to rout.
As this dreadful day wore on, Edward’s men were steadily pushed back towards the lip of the escarpment: disaster loomed. The Yorkists had been shaken and depleted on the left even if they had more than held their own on the right. As the left stumbled the right would have to conform and, in so doing, surrender the momentum they’d briefly enjoyed.
The arrival of Norfolk was now crucial to Yorkist survival. Without his fresh men to redress the balance defeat appeared inevitable. We can only speculate why the duke’s progress was so tardy, and it seems reasonable to suppose his deteriorating health was a factor. Edward and his household men would be shoring up the line wherever a fracture seemed imminent but the Yorkists would sense that time was running out – without Norfolk they appeared doomed.

turn of the tide
At some point during the afternoon Norfolk’s men began arriving on the field, deploying on their comrades’ right flank, propping up the faltering Yorkist line and providing greater parity of numbers. The enormous impetus of fresh men bolstering the line – permitting surviving Yorkist officers to extend past and overlap their opponents – conferred a significant advantage. This came at a time when those who had been battling so desperately for several hours were utterly exhausted.
Somerset may now have sensed the victory slipping from his grasp, though there was no immediate intimation of panic in the Lancastrian ranks. The duke moved men to shore up the left while trying to maintain pressure on the centre and right. For the moment there was stalemate. Slaughter continued into the wet afternoon, scudding cloud driven by the sharp-edged wind, scattering of hail and snow blinding the combatants and settling a pall over the rising mounds of dead and wounded. Somerset had been within an ace of winning the battle. But now the Yorkists had stopped retreating: it was now their turn to exert pressure, to build up the steady momentum of the advance, fresh blood and untried muscle swelling their ranks. Pressure from Norfolk’s fresh troops was causing Somerset’s line to bend backwards in response, curving like a flexed bow, but in good order. At some point, however, the Lancastrians began to give way: at first a trickle from the rear that swelled into a stream, then a river in spate – unstoppable. How and precisely when this took place is difficult to assess. Even with Norfolk’s men deploying on the right flank of the Yorkist line and the consequential pressure exerted against the Lancastrian left, there was no immediate collapse. Both sides had sustained heavy casualties and these would likely have fallen heaviest on the officers of both sides. Lord Scrope, Sir Edward Jenny and the Kentishman Horne were down on the Yorkist side; Northumberland and Dacre certainly, Trollope perhaps, on the Lancastrian. As they faced stiffening odds and a surge of fresh troops, Somerset’s army would need its best men to keep heart in the ranks.
It is thus possible that, at this juncture, Lancastrians from the right began to waver. Not all, certainly not a flood, but perhaps a significant defection. The line did not fold but must have given ground, back over the corpse-infested mire of blood-red slush – a withdrawal, fairly steady, over space so dearly gained. At this point the honours were probably fairly even, the Lancastrians’ overall loss probably greater, their early advantage in numbers dramatically reduced by casualties and offset by Norfolk’s arrival.
Stalemate was something Edward could not afford. It was time for one last effort. If we seek a definitive answer as to why the Yorkists, at this juncture, were able to win so decisively, then the answer, as the chronicles do not assist but as IMP would dictate, has to lie in superior leadership. Edward and Warwick drove their men forward, ordered their lines, and by personal example and exhortation, led them on for the decisive push. Norfolk’s arrival, however belated, gave them a platform to press home the attack. Ramsay cites Edward’s superior leadership as the prime factor in the Yorkist victory: ‘Henry’s presence usually entailed failure wherever he went.’ Somerset was not cast in the same mould as his opponent. Put simply, Edward was the better man.
Once morale was gone, rout was inevitable, the collapse swift and terrifyingly sudden as the thinning ranks at the front found themselves deserted.

It was on the rim of Towton Dale that the Lancastrian line finally fractured. A few hardy souls determined to form rally points around their banners and sell their lives as dearly as possible, but most joined the deluge. Many scrambled or slid down the slush-covered gradient towards Cock Beck. Bloody Meadow became a vast killing field. Panicking survivors fought each other to gain the narrow span of the bridge – swirling waters below swollen with the frequent downpours. Exhausted men were dragged down by the weight of harness and sodden jacks. It was said the waters were so clogged with corpses, men could cross dry shod over a ‘bridge of bodies’. As survivors pelted through the narrow lanes of Towton and on to Tadcaster, they were harried and hacked by cavalrymen, who carried the slaughter virtually to the gates of York.
Edward remained with strong forces on the field while flying columns of pursuers mercilessly harried the fleeing Lancastrians. Very likely the king was sincere in his wish to avoid unnecessary bloodshed – even the most fearsome would surely have had his fill that day. Besides, the commons were Englishmen too and did no more than follow their lords. The real quarrel lay between their respective masters and here none could expect quarter. In any rout, terrain dictates the direction of flight plus the impetus and direction of the pursuers. To escape, the Lancastrians would have to overcome three obstacles: the slope of Bloody Meadow, Cock Beck, and perhaps worst of all, the River Wharfe. None would prove easy and each would become a focus for carnage.
As the armies skewed around and the Lancastrians echeloned backwards the slope proved treacherous, the rout spilling in mad confusion. As Andrew Boardman points out, the narrow gutter of Towton Vale was a perfect killing ground. Given the relatively gentle decline here, Yorkist knights and prickers, well mounted on fresh horses, could easily deploy, shepherding their victims towards Cock Beck. Swollen waters, a miry bottom and quick current sucked men to their deaths even before thrusting spears and hacking blades could do their work. Fanning out from the mouth of Towton Vale the Yorkists could cover the banks with ease. Many hundreds would suffocate in the press, so thick that legend insists the beck was spanned by a ‘bridge of bodies’.

The Battle of Towton
the wars of the roses
Clearly, even today, there seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the use of the names Yorkist and Lancastrian in context with the Wars of the Roses. Unlike the modern day cricket match, the term ‘Wars of the Roses’, does not reflect a geographical conflict between the County of Yorkshire and the County of Lancaster. In fact, the term ‘Wars of the Roses’ refers to a dynastic struggle between the House of Lancaster – the supporters of Henry VI and his heirs – and the House of York – the supporters of Richard, Duke of York and his heirs. Indeed, the reference to roses refers to the symbols that Shakespeare (in Henry VI) would have us believe (and now immortalised in the painting by Henry Payne), that each side chose as their emblems a rose – that is a white rose for the Yorkists, and the red rose for the Lancastrians. It was only after the event that the conflict was credited with the title the ‘Wars of the Roses’.
However, if the ‘Wars of the Roses’ is to be given any sort of geographical boundaries, then it could, loosely, be described as a north/south conflict. The reason for this is due to the fact that the supporters of the House of Lancaster held lands predominately to the north (including the majority of the County of Lancashire and Yorkshire and Northumberland) while the supporters of the House of York held lands along the south coast, Kent etc, East Anglia and in the Midlands.
This was to be a particular problem for the Duke of York during the Wakefield Campaign, due to the fact that while he owned Sandal, the surrounding lands were predominatly held by supporters of the House of Lancaster.

The only visible memorial to this great battle, the cross possibly incorporates the Dacre Cross, which itself may have been originally mounted on the vanished chapel. (Rachel Tan)

henry beaufort, 3rd duke of somerset (1436-1461)
Previously Earl of Dorset, Henry was wounded at the First Battle of St Albans. A prime mover in the Lancastrian revival after the constitutional settlement of 1460, Henry fought at Wakefield and Second St Albans, where his generalship proved superior. Defeated at Towton, he maintained the war in the north, and although he capitulated in 1463, reverted the following year, and was executed following the debacle at Hexham.

Edward, earl of march (1442-1483)
King of England 1461-1470 and 1471-1483. ‘The Sunne in Splendour’, eldest son of the Duke of York and Cicely Neville (‘The Rose of Raby’), victor of Mortimer’s Cross, Towton, Empingham, Barnet and Tewkesbury. He secretly married Elizabeth Woodville on 1 May 1464. Courageous on the field with a flair for both strategy and tactics, he was rightly regarded as the leading captain of his day.

'Edward remained with strong forces on the field while flying columns of pursuers mercilessly harried the fleeing Lancastrians... Very likely the king was sincere in his wish to avoid unnecessary bloodshed – even the most fearsome would have had his fill that day... To escape, the Lancastrians would have to overcome three obstacles: the slope of Bloody Meadow, Cock Beck, and perhaps worst of all, the River Wharfe. None would prove east and each would become a focus for carnage.'

The slope down to Cock Beck Valley. (Rachel Tan)

Further Reading

(Hardback - 224 pages)
ISBN: 9781844159659

by John Sadler
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The battle at Towton in Yorkshire on 29 March 1461 was the largest, longest fought and bloodiest day in English medieval history. In terms of the number of troops involved, the ruthlessness of the fighting, the quantity of casualties and the decisive nature of its outcome, Towton stands out from the long sequence of battles fought for control of England in the fifteenth century. This bitter contest of arms was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses and - as a result of the discoveries of modern archaeological…
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