The Battle of Towton

Towton Cross

The Battle of Towton was a decisive battle between the armies of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses.

The battle took place on 29th March 1461, Palm Sunday, on a plateau between the villages of Towton and Saxton, about 12 miles southwest of York and about 2 miles south of Tadcaster.

Towton was the largest and bloodiest battle ever to be fought on British soil. It is thought that about 50,000 combatants were involved, and casualties are believed to have been in excess of 20,000.

Background

The Wars of the Roses had broken out in 1455 between the supporters of King Henry VI (the Lancastrians), and those of the rival claimant for the throne, Richard, Duke of York (the Yorkists).

Henry was a pious and peace-loving man, and unable to control his feuding nobles. He was also afflicted by bouts of insanity and his Queen, Margaret of Anjou became the most determined opponent of York and anyone else who threatened the birthright of her son, the infant Edward of Westminster.

At the Second Battle of St Albans on 17th February 1461, Margaret's army had defeated the Yorkist army of the Earl of Warwick, known as "the Kingmaker".

The Lancastrians were unable to enter London because the mayor and citizens refused them entry. While negotiations continued, Margaret learned that Edward, Earl of March - York's eldest son - had destroyed another Lancastrian army on the borders of Wales and had linked up with Warwick's surviving forces. With this threat to the rear of her army, Margaret began to retreat northwards.

Warwick now proclaimed Edward as King Edward IV. On 4th March, Edward was crowned in a hasty ceremony in London. The next day, Edward himself decided to take the military initiative and march north in the hope of inflicting a final defeat on Henry's supporters.

The Battle of Ferrybridge

The Lancastrians had fortified the bridge over the River Aire at Ferrybridge and had placed light forces on the south side of the river to delay the Yorkist advance.

When Edward arrived with the main body of the army, they were unable to recapture the crossing despite a heavy battle in which it was said that 3,000 men died. The Yorkists were eventually able to force the Lancastrians to withdraw when a detachment under Warwick's uncle Lord Fauconberg went about three miles upstream and crossed the Aire by a ford at Castleford.

The Battle of Towton

On 29th March the Yorkist army began pressing forward across the Aire at Ferrybridge. The weather was very bad, with cold winds and snow showers. Edward led the Yorkist centre, Warwick the right and Fauconberg the left. A further Yorkist contingent from the Eastern counties under the Duke of Norfolk had been delayed and was still approaching the battlefield.

The Lancastrian army occupied a plateau of high ground, with its right flank covered by a stream, the Cock Beck. The army was led by the Duke of Somerset, who commanded the centre himself, with the Earl of Northumberland commanding the right and the Duke of Exeter the left.

Although the Lancastrians occupied a strong position, with good fields of fire for their archers and with the Yorkists forced to advance uphill to attack them, they had not bargained for the foul weather. The Yorkist archers had the wind behind them, and therefore outranged their Lancastrian foes, who were also blinded by the snow. Several companies of archers loosed volleys into the Lancastrian ranks, and then fell back out of range when the Lancastrian archers tried to reply. They then advanced again and gathered up the enemy arrows which had fallen short before repeating the manoeuvre. In several places the Lancastrian men-at-arms advanced to seek hand-to-hand combat rather than endure the showers of arrows, losing the advantage of the high ground.

Once close-quarters fighting began, it was intense. Several times, the combatants had to pause and pull the dead bodies out of the way before they could get at their opponents. Fighting swayed back and forth for several hours, with neither side gaining any decisive advantage, until the early afternoon, when Norfolk's contingent arrived, and extended the Yorkist right flank. The Lancastrian left was outnumbered and outflanked, and the rout began in this section of the battlefield. Some Lancastrians tried to flee north to Tadcaster, but most of the Lancastrians were now pushed to their right into the Cock Beck.

The Rout

It is believed that far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Several bridges over neighbouring rivers broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. Some of the worst slaughter was seen at Bloody Meadow, where it is said men crossed the River Cock over the bodies of the fallen. All the way from Towton to Tadcaster the fields were full of bodies. The fleeing Lancastrians made easy targets for Yorkist horsemen and footsoldiers, who killed many men who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breathe more freely as they ran. At Tadcaster some men made an unsuccessful stand and were killed.

The rout lasted all night and into the morning, when remnants of the Lancastrian army stumbled into York in total panic. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed were forced to make peace with Edward IV.

The Battlefield Today

The land on which was fought the bloodiest battle in English history now appears as a tranquil agricultural landscape. The only indication that a battle took place here is a plain stone commemorative cross by the side of the road.

Every Palm Sunday the Towton Battlefield Society organises a memorial day with guided walks etc.

External Links

Towton Battlefield Society

Wikipedia article on the Battle of Towton - from which some of the material on this page has been excerpted.

Wikipedia article on the Wars of the Roses

"Our most brutal battle has been erased from memory" - a Guardian article by Martin Kettle about the battle.





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