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 be the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be a 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 a red one.
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, Earl 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.
The white rose of the Yorkists, the red of the Lancastrians.
Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness” during which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of just such 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 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; until at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his second son, Edmund of Rutland, who was only 17 year old.
The Duke’s eldest son, Edward of March, succeeded Richard as both Duke and leader of the Yorkist cause. 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. Taking this as a good omen, he adopted this symbol as his personal standard, the Sunne in Splendour.
Edward IV’s “Sunne in Splendour” banner
Despite the defeat of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, by Lancastrian forces at the Second Battle of St. Albans , 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 once again proclaim Henry VI king. From these acts he came to be known as “The Kingmaker“.)
Yorkist soldiers, the “Sunne in Splendour” banner behind
The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. Curiously, despite so many Lancastrian lords holding titles in the south, they were detested south of the Midlands. Lancastrian loyalty was strongest in the north. Edward, then, led the Yorkist army north bringing the battle to the Lancastrians.
The Yorkists moved along three parallel routes: with Edward marching directly north; Warwick leading a group several miles west, covering the left flank of the main force; while John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east 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 was a bitter enemy of the House of York. He was thought to have personally killed Edward’s 17 year old younger brother Edmund of Rutland after Wakefield; and was called “the Butcher”. Clifford killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow; a blow to the Lancastrians, who lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.
The fight at Ferrybridge was a bloody prelude to what was to come at Towton
On March 29, Palm Sunday, 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.
The numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number that actually deployed upon the field that morning was somewhat less, with as much as a third of the Yorkists under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the Yorkists began the battle outnumbered; their 25,000 to 30,000 facing Somerset’s estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Lancastrians (the latter figure 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). Skeletal remains found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed evidence 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.
Exactly what one would expect in a Medieval army!
Equipment and armor of a Man-at-Arms of the period.
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 preceeded 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 west side of the plateau. This flank 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 their enemy’s flanks. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief adviser, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to attack them in a brutal, frontal engagement.
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 took the field after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took up position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the opposing forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers continued to arrive. 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 in a deadly hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, the archers gleaned the spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender!
As casualties mounted from this one-sided exchange, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.
Fauconberg then recalled his archers, and though there 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.
Now came the main event, as the opposing lines clashed together in fierce and bloody close quarter combat. 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 striking young warrior-prince stood in stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, King Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!
As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left. There, 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.
Now the bloodbath began in earnest.
Fleeing Lancastrians were closely pursued closely by their vengeful Yorkists foes. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow in remembrance of the slaughter there. The fleeing Lancastrians tumbled down the steep slope of the Cock Beck, into the icy creek. Here and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, panicked and exhausted men still wearing their armor, plunged forward, and falling into the water, drowned. This continued until there were enough dead to form a bridge 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, choked with refugees, the slaughter was greatest, as the congestion allowed the pursuers to catch those attempting to cross. At Tadcaster, 2 miles to the south, other Lancastrians, trying to hide in buildings and cellars, were hunted down and killed.
Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrians drowned or were cut down 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; of which all but 8,000 were Lancastrian. The disparity in number of dead can be explained easily: in all pre-modern battles the worst 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 IV.
The War of the Roses was all but over. Though it would continue to flare up over the next 20 years, these were small brush fires, not major conflagrations. Edward’s reign (“the Sun of York”) would last 21 years. He would prove an able if not always wise king; his crown assured by Bloody Towton: a most sanguinary affair.