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Thursday, 6 July 2017

Battle of Towton 29th March 1461


The Game of Thrones TV series is great entertainment but in my opinion the fictitious struggle for power it depicts pales in comparison to the drama of the exploits of the characters that led the factions in the bitter struggle that characterised the Wars of the Roses and that created the inspiration for the fiction.

There were perhaps no more bitter encounters and probably no larger, than the dramatic clash between the houses of York and Lancaster on the bloody, snow-covered field of Towton on Palm Sunday 1461.


The battle is billed as the largest and bloodiest fought on English soil and certainly during the Wars of the Roses with modern estimates of around 25,000 combatants on each side and a death toll estimated at around 28,000 men.

As outlined in my post about Marston Moor, Carolyn and I are enjoying a week's holiday in York and, as part of that time, I planned to take a look at some nearby battle sites of which there are several in this historically important strategic part of the country and Towton is one of them.

In 1461 the conflict between the two Royal houses of York and Lancaster was entering the sixth year of a bubbling war that had effectively kicked off into open hostilities with the Yorkist victory at the First Battle of St Albans in May 1455, another six significant actions followed over the intervening years with the score running at four victories to the Yorkists and three to the Lancastrians culminating in their victory at the Second Battle of St Albans on 17th February 1461.


The conflict was starting to polarise areas of the country in support of one faction or the other and so when Edward Earl of March and the Earl of Warwick entered London two weeks after St Albans they were welcomed enthusiastically and Edward was offered and accepted the title of King of England.


However Edward did not take the crown, being well aware that King Henry VI and his determined Queen, Margaret of Anjou were still very much in the game and needing to be dealt with before he could feel secure on the throne.

Thus Edward quickly prepared his campaign to confront his enemies in the north, ordering the Duke of Norfolk to raise his forces and meet him on the road together with Warwick's forces, at Coventry, eventually bringing his army together at Doncaster.

The map taken from the information board showing the approach marches taken by the armies to Towton.

Following their victory at St Albans, but knowing that Warwick had escaped the battle with most of his army, and regrouped in London where, with the support of Norfolk and Edward and a leaning towards the Yorkist cause in the south east generally, they faced a powerful Yorkist threat that required a large Lancastrian army to be created to deal with it.

They naturally fell back to York and the area that offered the best support for their cause, with King Henry and Margaret taking up residence in the city whilst their army was built.

Meanwhile Edward marched his combined army to Pontefract Castle some twenty miles from York, detaching John Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter to seize and secure the crossing point on the River Aire at Ferrybridge, just a couple of miles away.

As Edward moved on Pontefract Castle, The Duke of Somerset led out the Lancastrian army from York heading to Tadcaster and then down the London Road to the little village of Towton, picking the area of high ground just south of the village as a good area to make a stand whilst ordering Lord Clifford to take his force to scout down to the River Aire and the crossing point at Ferrybridge.

The air photo of the battlefield on one of the information boards provides a good map for the route we took and the positions where we photographed the battlefield - north is the top of picture.

In essence the Battle of Towton began at the Ferrybridge crossing as the two sides encountered each other there and with the Yorkists eventually turning the Lancastrian position on the river, began a rapid pursuit back to Towton with many of the Lancastrians being cut down on that pursuit.

Point 1 -The Rockingham Arms is the first significant building seen on entering Townton from the north and York just as the Lancastrians under Somerset would have done - I wonder if he called in for a quick half!

By mid morning the two armies faced off on the high plateau that forms the Towton battlefield dropping away on the eastern and western flanks and with a shallow valley separating the northern and southern heights. On the western edge the plateau drops away more sharply leading down to the steep banked stream, Cock Beck.

Point 1 - When Carolyn and I first saw this we both exclaimed "that looks old!" - The stable block at Towton Hall

The battle was fought out on a cold windy winter day with snow falling and with the wind blowing it into the faces of the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists took full advantage of the weather to make up for the fact that they were slightly outnumbered and still waiting the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk's contingent left behind at Pontefract castle, when their leader developed a sudden illness. He was to follow on as soon as he could bringing forward any late reinforcements.

Using the snowfall and wind to cover their approach and extend the range of their bow fire the Yorkists are said to have loosed of one volley of arrows that stung the Lancastrians into a full on response back.

Point 1 - I hope the owners didn't mind a photo of this now famous landmark - Towton Hall

The Lancastrians were unable to judge the distance accurately and could not tell that the bulk of their arrows were falling short.

When their firing subsided due to their use of arrows, the Yorkists returned the fire in full measure advancing to collect the Lancastrian arrows and return them with interest. The damage caused had the effect to cause the Lancastrian line to move forward rapidly in the hope of settling matters close up and hand to hand.

Towton Hall was the scene of discovery of several skeletons relating to the battle now interred in Saxton Chuch. It may also be the site for Richard IIIs lost chapel dedicated to the battle.

The two sides came to grips along the Towton Vale with the Lancastrian right flank having the initial success in driving the opposition back up the slope. This is where the controversy over the possible Lancastrian ambush party joining the fight on this flank comes into the story, although modern accounts seem to dismiss this event happening at all.

Point 2 - Lord Dacre's Cross, acts as memorial marker for the battle alongside the B1217

However the battle deciding event was the arrival of Norfolk's troops who reinforcing the Yorkists right flank drove in the Lancastrian left flank and caused the two lines to almost rotate anticlockwise pushing the Lancastrians back on a line leading to the Cock Beck.

28th March 1461

The Yorkist push continued and when the collapse came the rout down to the stream heralded the mass slaughter that this battle is infamous for and seems confirmed by the burial mounds discovered in the field known as Bloody Meadow.

The head of the cross lay for many years in the nearby hedgerow
but was finally put back as it is today in 1928

The battle saw the characteristic brutality of nobles murdering one another that so typified this conflict and although the senior Lancastrians made good their escape to Scotland, many of the others were lost in and after the fighting including leaders such as the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Dacre.

Point 2 - The view out to the south and south east from Dacre's Cross, The Lancastrian line was set up from the road in front out to the left of picture 

The description of Lord Dacre's death describes the Lancastrian leader exhausted by the fight taking off his helmet to take a drink. Close by ran a line of elder trees from which a youth in the Yorkists ranks fired his bow putting an arrow through Dacre's neck and killing him.

The story includes tales of revenge on Dacre for having already killed the young man's father, which seems fanciful but it seems that Dacre was killed by an arrow.


Point 2 - Looking to the south west from the cross towards Castle Hill Wood where the Lancastrian ambush party lay in wait 

The other interesting aspect of this story is that Lord Dacre was said to have been buried upright astride his horse.

Poppies on a battlefield as we headed across the fields to Point 3

In the middle of the eighteenth century his tomb was partly opened and Lord Dacre's skeleton was discovered to have been buried in an upright position. In 1861 the ground adjacent to the tomb was disturbed revealing the skull of a horse and vertebrae in situ and extending downwards towards the Dacre burial. Great story! What did I say about this being more interesting than all that dragon stuff!

The view along the track to Dacre's Cross as we walked to Point 3 on the map

The battlefield of Towton is not the easiest to get access to and the Towton Battlefield Society, Natural England and the Royal Armouries are to be congratulated for having created a walk with some excellent guide panels illustrated in this post.

There was nothing like this when I visited over thirty years ago and it was a pleasant surprise.

Point 3 - In recent times these very helpful and interesting information boards have been set up around the field. Many however are not in parts of the field most of us would want to head for!

I guess my criticism, and I am sure the ridiculous laws we have in England restricting access to so much of our countryside by the public, that would like to enjoy it, probably has something to do with this, has the walk taking you away from the area of the fighting with a route along the Cock Beck back towards Towton and along the road to the Dacre monument!!

Point 3 - The view from here shows the dip in the ground known as Towton vale, to the centre right and it opening out to the Cock Beck

So as before I have adapted the information panel map and given you the route I chose to follow that led across the battlefield from Towton to Saxton taking in viewing points that allowed me to get the pictures illustrated with a description of what you are looking at.

Point 3 - Here the escarpment is quite clear as it drops off to the south west and the Cock Beck below. Point 4 or  'Bloody Meadow' is visible centre right of picture with a close up in the next but one picture below.

The features described in the accounts of the battle are easily discernible and the nature of the ground easily explains why the battle was fought the way it was, excepting that I wasn't standing on that plateau in a blinding blizzard thank goodness.

Point 3 - Looking west down the steep slope to the Cock Beck

The strongest impression I got was the steep fall away from the high ground down to Cock Beck and indeed the steep banks along the stream, all of which would have made desperate men in a hurry to get off the battlefield many clad in gear not exactly suited to rapid mobile movement more likely to be caught and butchered or be killed in the shallow water falling and being trampled on by their comrades not in the mood to stop and help.

Point 4 - With the arrival of Norfolk's force reinforcing the right flank of the Yorkist line, the effect was to turn the battle anticlockwise causing the broken Lancastrian army to flood down the slopes from left of picture in a desperate attempt to put the Beck between them and their pursuers. No quarter was given .

The other impression is that the open plateau was a perfect place to run a battle making full use of the longbow, with excellent views of the opponents lines from one side of the Towton vale to the other.

Thus we come to the deciding effects of visibility, wind velocity and direction that made the key difference between the two sides before Norfolk's fresh reinforcements arrived to seal the fate of the Lancastrian army.

Point 5 - Looking north, north-east from the Yorkist line with the Lancastrians coming over the ridge-top left to right centre.
Extreme right is where Norfolk would have arrived to reinforce the Yorkist line

I walk battlefields to inform my hobby and I have a mind to play Wars of the Roses scenarios going forward and it seems to me that a rule set that captures and models these aspects that typified Towton and other battles of this period are key to getting that simulation aspect into the game.

Point 5  - Looking east along the field line along  which the Yorkists would have met the Lancastrians

Point 5 - Looking out from the western end of the Yorkist line towards Castle Hill wood and the direction from which the Lancastrian ambush party attacked, if it actually did!

Towton battlefield is one of those battle sights that carries a gloomy aura about it and I was certainly conscious of it whilst walking among its fields.

Point 5 - Looking north up the road towards Towton with the Towton vale clearly visible leading down to the Cock Beck on the left of picture

In recent times more has been discovered about the battle with a forensic look at the effects of battle on the skeletons of men killed in the fighting together with a better understanding of the ages and health of those men up to the time they died. Having seen the pictures and descriptions of the horrific wounds they suffered the descriptions of the brutal nature of this battle really don't do the nature of these soldiers deaths full justice.

Point 6 - Lord Dacre's tomb at All Saints Church, Saxton

Some of those soldiers remains were newly discovered and were later interred in the cemetery of All Saints Church in Saxton alongside the tomb of Lord Dacre

The Dacre coat of arms barely visible after the intervening centuries

Dacre's Tomb is badly eroded by the centuries of weather, but some of the Latin inscription is still visible and because my Latin is a little rusty I understand it to be;

"Here lies Ralph, Lord of Dacre and Gilsand , a true soldier, valiant in battle in the service of King Henry VI, who died on Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461, on whose soul may God have mercy."

A more recent burial from the battle marking the interred remains of the dead discovered at Towton Hall in 1996

"Here lie the remains of unknown soldiers found at Towton Hall and killed at the Battle of Towton
Palm Sunday 29th March 1461 erected by the Towton Battlefield Society 23-4-2005.
Remember and pray for all those who died."
So next up we are off to the tumultuous campaign of 1066 and the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge, before moving on to look at some of the great things to see in York.

5 comments:

  1. Very interesting post, one of the most 'rewarding' battlesites in England. After visiting it's quite easy to follow the actions of the day in your mind's eye.

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  2. Good job JJ.

    I've never been to Towton, but I mean to correct that oversight.

    The pictures show that the whole battlefield is longbow territory. Add in a snow storm and it must have been a terrible place to be, all those years ago.

    The picture of "Bloody Meadow", with the adjacent beck, screams "killing ground" to a wargamers eye. You can easily see how men would bunch up by the the beck and below the rise and be cut down by their pursuers.

    The Wars of the Roses knocks the intrigue in "Game of Thrones" into a cocked hat. Take William Catesby for instance. The only man of quality to be executed after the battle of Bosworth, when Henry Tudor was handing out pardons to all and sundry. Not so for the loathed Catesby, whose actions, aggrandisement and double dealing earned him a date with death. Few mourned his passing. His descendent, Robert Catesby, carried on the family trait and became even better known to history. Who needs dragons when you have all those twists, turns and betrayals ?

    Vince

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  4. Thanks for your comments chaps, glad you enjoyed the read.
    Towton really has a gloomy feel about it. An interesting battlefield to visit, especially if you are interested in the period, but one I was happy to move on from.
    JJ

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