On a bleak, windswept plateau in Yorkshire, on Palm Sunday 1461, two Medieval armies clashed amidst a snowstorm; brutally hacking-and-slashing with sword, halberd and bill in what was to prove the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be the decisive battle in the dynastic struggle known to history as the War of the Roses; establishing the House of York on the throne of England, and all but ending the reign of the Lancastrians.
The War of the Roses was a 30 year long conflict between adherents of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty: the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, whose device was the red rose. The roots of the conflict lay partially in the competing claims of these royal cousins; and can be traced back to the deposition of King Richard II by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, Early of Derby and Duke of Hereford; who took the throne as King Henry IV. While Henry was able to hold onto his usurped crown and pass it to his son, the heroic warrior king Henry V; the legitimacy of Lancastrian rule came into question in the reign of his grandson, Henry VI.
Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness”; in which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI. Control of the kingdom during the king’s periods of mental infirmity was granted by Parliament to his cousin Richard, the powerful Duke of York.
Under English succession laws, York’s claim to the throne was superior to that of the Lancastrian’s. As Protector of the Realm, Richard of York was too close to the throne for the liking of the adherents of the House of Lancaster; particularly the king’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou. When the king temporarily regained his senses in 1454, the Lancastrians used the opportunity to call a new Parliament; to which the Duke of York and his supporters were not invited. Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Roses began with the First Battle of St. Albans.
The battlefields of the War of the Roses
The fortunes of war shifted back and forth; the Yorkists gaining the advantage till at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his 17 year old second son, Edmund of Rutland.
The late Duke Richard was succeeded both as Duke of York and leader of the Yorkist cause by his able eldest son, Edward of March. Just over a month after his father and brother’s defeat and death, he routed a Welsh force led by Owen Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross. It was before this battle that Edward’s army beheld a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion; in which the rising sun appeared to be flanked by two lesser suns and a bright halo. From this he took his personal standard, the “Sunne in Splendour“.
Despite a second Lancastrian triumph at the Second Battle of St. Albans over Edward’s ally, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick; Edward was able to join up with Warwick in London. There, on March 4, 1461, Warwick proclaimed Edward king. (Warwick would ten years later break with Edward and proclaim Henry VI once again king. From these acts he came to be known as “the Kingmaker“.)
The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. (Oddly, at this time in the war the Lancastrians were strongest in the north, with York a Lancastrian stronghold. Despite so many of their lords having titles in the south, such as Somerset and the Earl of Devon, the Lancastrians were detested south of the Midlands.) Edward led a Yorkist army northward to bring the Lancastrians to battle.
The Yorkists moved along three routes. John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east of the main body, with orders to raise forces and rejoin Edward before the battle. Warwick’s group moved to the west of the main body, through the English Midlands, gathering men as they went. Warwick’s uncle, the very capable Lord Fauconberg, led Edward’s vanguard; clearing the direct route to York for the main body, led by Edward himself.
Bloody skirmishes occurred at Ferrybridge and at Dinting Dale; in which the Lancastrians led by Lord Clifford attempted to harass the Yorkist’s advance. Clifford, who was thought to have personally killed Edward’s younger brother, Edmund of Rutland after Wakefield and was called “the Butcher”, was killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow; a loss for the Lancastrians of a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.
On Palm Sunday, March 29, under a glowering sky and amidst a snowfall, the armies of York and Lancaster met between the villages of Towton and Saxton; about 12 miles southwest of York and 2 miles south of Tadcaster.
This was perhaps the largest Medieval battle in English history, and the numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number to actually deploy that morning was much less, with as much as a third under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the some 25,000 to 30,000 Yorkists began the battle outnumbered by Somerset’s Lancastrians, who are variously estimated to number between 40,000 and 60,000 (almost certainly an exaggeration). Total number of combatants likely numbered 80,000. Approximately three-quarters of the Peerage of England fought in the battle, with twenty eight Lords of the Realm present (the majority on the Lancastrian side, only eight fighting for the Yorkist cause). Skeletons found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed that the soldiers came from all walks of life; were on average 30 years old, and averaged 5’7″ tall and very strongly built. Bone scaring shows that many were veterans of previous engagements, and bore the scars to prove it.
Both armies were deployed largely on foot, even the knights (men-at-arms) sending their horses to the rear. The primary tactics of the War of the Roses had armies deploy in three “battles” (divisions), each composed of archers and melee-troops. Most men wore some armor, the knights being encased in fine plate armor from head to foot. Because of the ubiquity of good armor, the primary weapon tended to be the pole axe (halberd) or heavy bill. War hammers were also popular with the chivalry. The long sword was common to all soldiers, high-born and low.
Battles were usually proceeded by exchanges of arrows, followed by a fierce melee at close quarters. Sometimes a reserve of cavalry would attempt flanking maneuvers; though how seldom even such elementary tactics were employed throughout the war is striking.
The snowy battle ground, as it might have looked on the day of battle
The Lancastrians were the first to deploy. Somerset started the day in a strong position, on rising ground with his flanks protected where the plateau dropped off; most steeply on the western flank, where Cock Beck creek flowed in an S-shaped course around the plateau from the north to west. This flanks also had thick stands of woods growing up to the edge of the battlefield. Somerset took advantage of this feature to conceal a body of troops; ready to fall upon the Yorkist left once they were engaged.
The Lancastrian position was sound, and blocked the road to York. The only drawback was that the narrowness of the plateau didn’t allow the larger Lancastrian forces the opportunity to bring their numbers to bear against the flanks of the Yorkists. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief advisor, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to take the offensive and defeat him.
View from Yorkist starting position. Across the low ground in the center is the high ground upon which Somerset’s Lancastrian forces were deployed.
Edward’s forces after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the two forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers arrived. Norfolk was nowhere in sight, and would in fact arrive many hours after the battle began. Despite his troop’s fatigue after their long march to the battlefield, and his inferiority in numbers, Edward ordered his vanguard to begin the battle.
The Yorkist cause was well served in Edward’s vanguard commander, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. With a change of wind now blowing the snow heavily into the faces of the Lancastrians, he ordered his archers (armed with the famed English longbow) to advance to range and loose a single volley. He then ordered them to retire.
Finding themselves under fire, the Lancastrian archers returned fire. However, as the wily Fauconberg foresaw, with the snow in their eyes and the wind in their face they blindly fired volley after volley; all falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line! They loosed until their quivers were exhausted, leaving the ground in front of the Yorkist line a porcupine quilt of spent arrows.
Fauconberg now once again ordered his archers forward.
Drawing their heavy yew bows, they now loosed volley after volley of clothyard shafts. The wind in their favor, these fell like in a withering hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, they gleaned arrows from those spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender! As casualties mounted, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.
Fauconberg recalled his archers, but not before they refilled their quivers from spent Lancastrian arrows still protruding from the ground. Though their is no clear record, it is safe to assume they continued firing over the heads of their comrades, into the melee that would soon develop.
The two main forces now clashed together, in bloody and fierce melee. Edward and Warwick were everywhere, encouraging their outnumbered soldiers. The eighteen year old Edward was particularly conspicuous, 6’3″ tall and imposing in his splendid armor; the quartered leopards-and-lilies of the Plantagenet kings on his surcoat, the Sunne-in-Splendour banner waving above him. This strong young warlord must have made a stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!
As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left; where the Lancastrian forces hiding in the woods above Cock Beck now sprang out and fell upon the Yorkist flank. That flank gave ground, and some began to flee in panic. Edward rushed to the threatened sector, rallying his soldiers and setting a personal example of valor in stopping the enemy’s progress.
The battle raged at close quarters for an exhausting three hours. Bodies piled so high that breaks had to be taken, in order to remove the dead separating the combatants. The Lancastrians continuously threw fresh men into the fray and gradually the Yorkists were forced to give ground and retreat up the southern ridge. On their left they gave the most ground, so that the western end of the line was pushed furthest back, and the Lancastrian position now had its back to the steep slopes above the Cocks Beck creek.
At last, Norfolk arrived from the southeast, marching up the Old London Road, with the remaining Yorkist forces. These now joined the battle, pushing back the Lancastrian left. The Lancastrians fought on for a time, but momentum had clearly shifted to their opponents. Then, as happened in ancient and Medieval battles, the line suddenly gave way as men began to flee in panic.
The bloodbath now began in earnest.
The Lancastrians were pursued closely, their vengeful Yorkists enemies hot on their heals. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow; in remembrance of the slaughter there, where the pursuit began. Down the steep slopes of the Cock Beck, the fleeing Lancastrians tumbled into the icy creek. Here, and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, exhausted and panicked men, most still wearing their armor, plunged forward and falling, drowned. This continued until enough of them were dead to form bridges of human corpses across which their comrades could cross. At Tadcaster a wooden bridge broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. At these crossing points the slaughter was greatest; as men in despair of crossing attempted to stand and fight; and were overwhelmed and slaughtered. At Tadcaster, others were hunted down and killed trying to hide in buildings and cellars.
The icy Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrian soldiers drowned or were cut down while attempting to cross.
Many apparently had thrown off their helmets as they ran, and the ghastly damage seen on the skulls recovered in mass graves show just what happens when poleaxe, war hammer or longsword strike naked heads. The number of wounds (one victim’s skull displays eight separate wounds) speak to the frenzy of killing that overcame the pursuing Yorkists.
From Bloody Meadow to Tadcaster, the snow-covered fields were littered with bodies. The total dead were estimated by heralds to be 28,000; all by 8,000 being Lancastrian. The disparity can be explained easily, in that in all pre-modern battles the worst of the casualties were inflicted during the pursuit of a defeated enemy.
Many of the great lords of the realm were either slain here or executed shortly thereafter. These included the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord Dacre and Sir Anthony Trollope. Another prominent Lancastrian, Lord Clifford, had been killed just prior to the battle; at the skirmish at Dinting Dale. The Lancastrian cause was decimated, and would never recover. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed of their titles were forced to make peace and acknowledge their enemy’s leader as King Edward VI.
The War of the Roses was all but over. Though it would continue to flare up over the next 20 years, these were short brush fires, not major conflagrations. Edward’s reign would last 21 years (“the Sun of York”). He would prove an able if not always wise king.
Bloody Towton, a most sanguine affair, assured his reign.
For more, go here to see a marvelous video by the Towton Battlefield Society.