Palm Sunday, 1461: On a bleak, windswept Yorkshire plateau 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.
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 overthrow 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 kingCharles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of “madness”. Control of the kingdom during King Henry’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 his Lancastrian cousin’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 Henry 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. (In Medieval England, Parliament was called and dissolved by the King; and its members there at his invitation.) Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Rosesbegan with the First Battle of St. Albans.
The fortunes of war shifted back and forth; the Yorkists gaining the advantage till atWakefield, 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 asparhelion; 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“.
Edward IV’s banner, the Sunne in SplendourDespite 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.
The stage was set for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle in English history.