Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461 - Described as one of the bloodiest, largest and longest in our history the battle of Towton was one of the many battles fought between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses. This civil war started in the reign of King Henry VI, whose family had themselves taken the throne from the last Plantagenet King, Richard II. Henry IV had deposed him in 1399 and was able to pass the throne on to his son Henry V. His heir Henry VI had come to the throne at the age of 9 months after his father had died suddenly in France, possibly from dysentery. Henry was not the man for this time and was also prone to a psychiatric disorder, possibly inherited from his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France. Richard Duke of York was persuaded to come back from Ireland and help run the country and in the Act of Settlement of 1460 Henry transferred power to Richard and his heirs.
His wife, Margaret of Anjou, was not going to give up her son’s rights quite so easily and in the space of 3 months 3 battles were fought. The first one at Wakefield in December 1460 led to the death of both Richard, Duke of York, and his second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland. The Yorkists hit back at Mortimer’s Cross on 2nd February 1461 led by the new Duke of York Edward, the future Edward IV. However two weeks later at St Albans the Lancastrians triumphed again led by the Duke of Somerset, Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford. Henry was released from captivity but instead of going for the jugular Henry went north. The Earl of Warwick, the powerful noble known as the “Kingmaker”, saw to it that Edward was crowned and England had two kings.
Edward now went north himself seeking out Henry’s army. The night before the battle was freezing cold and snowy. The armies were roughly of equal size with the Lancastrians perhaps holding a small advantage having up to 35,000 soldiers. Initial skirmishes around the river Aire led to the death of many of Lord Clifford’s men in sight of Henry’s army, led again by the Duke of Somerset, who did nothing to help him. Instead he waited for the advance of the main section of the Yorkist army. The Lancastrian position was sound. Their flanks were protected by marshes and their right was defended by the steep banks of the Cock Beck.
Lord Fauconberg, the Earl of Warwick’s uncle, gave the instructions for the Yorkist archers to unleash a volley against the Lancastrians which inflicted great damage. The snow and wind driving into the Lancastrians made it hard for them to return the compliment which led to the Duke of Somerset to order his men to advance. Yard by yard the Lancastrians pushed their foe back in bloody hand to hand fighting that took all day. Bodies were piling up and the fresh troops had to clamber over the bodies to get to the opposition. Edward’s army looked beaten until the late arrival of the Duke of Norfolk with 5,000 troops changed the course of the battle. Gradually the momentum shifted and now the Lancastrians were being pushed back. The scene, at what is now called the Bloody Meadow, was carnage as these two armies showed a real, bitter hatred of each other.
Eventually the forces of the Duke of Somerset could take no more and started to turn and run. Some contemporary sources say that more were killed fleeing than fighting. They also recount the bridges over the river breaking as they could not withstand the weight of the armoured soldiers running away so that knights fell into the icy waters and drowned. Locals said that the river ran red with blood for many days. Estimates say 28,000 died that day and recent finds show some of the skeletons of soldiers who almost certainly fought in the battle. Their ages range from 15 to 45. Their heights from 5 foot 4 inches to 6 foot. There is severe damage to their upper torsos and arms. Skulls are cracked or shattered. There are serrated marks in the region of the ear lobes which suggest that many had their ears cut off. The remains of some of the archers show how their spines had become twisted and deformed with the constant pulling of the bow string, one leg shorter than the other. These archers had massive upper body strength.
Although this was not the knockout blow Edward had hoped for it did provide him with the time to prepare for his coronation. Henry, his wife and son had escaped further north. Nearly nine years later he would come back from exile in France, this time with the support of Warwick and regain his crown. It wasn’t to last however as he would remain on the throne for only six months. Edward would defeat the Lancastrians at Barnet, where Warwick was killed, and then decisively at Tewkesbury on May 4th 1471. Henry was taken prisoner in the Tower of London where he was, in all probability, murdered.
Edward would himself reign until 1483 when his untimely death aged 40 led to the overthrow of his son, Edward V, by the boy’s uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. This has led to much speculation about how Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, died.
Finally on 22nd August 1485 Richard himself was killed at Bosworth Field, the last English King to die in battle, and the Tudors emerged to become one of the strongest ruling families this country has ever seen uniting the two houses in both marriage and roses.