Archive for March, 2017

Towton, 29th March 1461: The Bloodiest Battle in English History?

March 30, 2017

towton 1

Towton is regarded by many historians as the worst battle to ever be fought on English soil in terms of the number of combatants, casualty figures, conditions on the day and treatment of those captured during the rout.

It is always extremely difficult to gauge the reality of the medieval battlefield due to a number of factors. There were other, more ancient battles that were recorded in annals and chronicles which talk of massive numbers of combatants and bloody routs – Boudicca’s last stand on Watling Street in 60-1 AD, the Battle of Brunanburgh in 937 AD and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 for example but how reliable were the figures recorded at the time or later by chroniclers and historians?

Without reliable eye witness accounts and archaeological evidence of mass grave pits, it is difficult to establish exactly how many troops were present, how many were actually killed or maimed in the fight and how many got away or whether the sources were writing from a particular bias – inflating the figures of the enemy to make victory all the more impressive or over-exaggerating casualty figures and atrocities for political ends. This applies to Towton as  much as any other battle, recorded as it was, largely by second-hand sources and in a highly politically charged atmosphere.

In comparison with other battles fought during the Wars of the Roses, the accounts of the battle suggest substantially larger numbers of combatants than any of the other large engagements and massively larger than some of the more well-known battles such as Tewkesbury or Bosworth.

The political situation in the lead up to the battle had seen an escalation in hostility between the two warring factions at court. The Lancastrians, nominally headed by King Henry VI, but more realistically by his queen, Marguerite of Anjou and various high ranking noblemen were pitted against Richard, Duke of York and his allies, Salisbury and Warwick. There had already been several pitched battles between the two sides, with periods of stalemate and faint-hearted reconciliations over a period of six years. Neither side could achieve a decisive result either politically or militarily and the country was falling apart due to poor governance, instability and factional disputes between the great landowners.

The reasons for the much larger numbers probably comes down to time factors – both sides had time to recruit large bodies of men and the importance of recent political events. The Duke of York and his younger son had been killed at Wakefield in December 1460 which was a major blow to the Yorkist cause and also seen as an outrageous act during a period of truce over the Christmas period. York’s eldest son, Edward, now Duke of York, had been proclaimed as king earlier in March 1461 and therefore the country had two rival monarchs and a decisive showdown was brewing which would decide the fate of both claimants to the crown.

Edward wanted revenge for the death of his father and younger brother, Edmund. The circumstances of their deaths added to this desire and made it deeply personal. York’s body had been treated dishonourably after death. He’d been slumped on a ant hill and crowned with a paper crown in mockery of his ambitions to become the next king and their heads had been stuck on spikes on Michelgate bar in York. Lord Clifford had been responsible for the ‘murder’ of Edmund, who had been fleeing with battle with his tutor when he was cornered on a bridge. Despite begging for mercy, the 17 year old had been stabbed in cold blood. The Yorkists were in no mood to offer mercy to their enemies.

Both sides had spent weeks recruiting from their estates. The Lancastrian forces were mostly from the Duchy of Lancaster lands in the north of England and Percy held territories in Northumbria whereas the Yorkists drew their forces from their Southern estates, the London area and retainers in the Welsh marches. There was a real North/ South divide between the opposing forces.

The propaganda war which continued to rage around the two causes also emphasised this geographical divide, playing on the wildness of the northern troops and their atrocities against the civilian population on one side and the treachery and presumption of the rebels against their anointed king on the other. This may be another factor in the treatment of prisoners caught in the rout after the battle and the suspension of mercy shown to the defeated enemy.

How many men fought at Towton?

Several contemporary sources mention the figure of 50,000 combatants in total on the field of battle and possible casualty figures of up to 26,000 which was supposed to have been given by heralds shortly after the battle, who were assigned with the grim task of counting the bodies of the dead on both sides although some degree of estimation must have taken place.  This would equate to 1% of the entire population of the country at this time and is truly shocking.

Edward IV, writing to his mother, Cecily Neville, stated that 20,000 of the dead were Lancastrian which would have been a completely devastating result for their cause, including many leading aristocrats such as Lord Clifford and John Neville, Baron Neville and a bitter blow to the royal party, anxiously awaiting news in York.

The specific mentioning of these two names was no accident. Lord Clifford had been on Edward’s personal hit-list, in revenge for the death of his brother and John Neville had switched sides at Wakefield and perhaps been the cause of Edward’s father’s decision to engage the Lancastrians which had cost him his life. Neville was supposed to be bringing reinforcements but instead joined his enemies. Towton settled many old scores!

Of course, he may have been inflating the scale of his victory, and the account written by the Yorkist George Neville is also at pains to describe the personal bravery and leadership qualities displayed by the young king and his fellow commanders on the field, as you might expect. Nevertheless, the presence of the king on the field and the military skill of Warwick and Salisbury were important factors in the Yorkist victory and should not be under estimated at a time when the rank and file were inspired and encouraged by the example of their field commanders and warfare was up-close and personal.

Edward’s personal military renown was enormously strengthened by the success of Towton and King Henry VI’s weakness and absence from the field only thrown into starker contrast by the day.

Historians continue to debate whether 26,000 can possibly be the correct figure for the number of dead. Calculating the numbers of fighting men that could have been raised in levies and retained by the great noble families it might just be possible for both armies to have reached something like 50,000 in total but it is unheard of for over half the total number of combatants to die on the day and this doesn’t even cover those injured but not killed outright.

We do have some hard physical evidence in the form of the Towton burial pit excavations, undertaken by archaeologists at the University of Bradford. A pit containing the remains of 37 men and boys was discovered under land next to Towton Hall during building work in 1996.

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Towton Hall stands about one mile away from the centre of the battlefield. Metal detector finds show a concentration of small finds like buckles, rings, horse harness and spurs in the valley area where contemporary sources said the main engagement took place. The pit at Towton Hall may suggest that the men were either caught fleeing from the battle at that point or taken to the site after death. They were piled into the grave, one on top of the other, packed in tightly and hurriedly with little care and had been stripped naked, either before or immediately after death.

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Witchcraft and Royalty: The Cases against Eleanor Cobham and Joanne of Navarre

March 30, 2017

Fake news – smearing the opposition

With the current interest in the media about the spread of ‘fake news’ and misinformation, it seems appropriate to reconsider the cases of two royal ladies who were both accused and found guilty of witchcraft during the early C15th. Were these simply cases of politically motivated ‘fake news’ stories? It is clear that in both cases that their enemies stood to gain by their fall and that witchcraft was an easy accusation to bring against any woman in an age of superstition and bigotry.


La Pucelle – Joan of Arc was brought down by accusations of heresy and witchcraft

They were also not the only women in the public eye to be brought down using similar methods – we have the very public example of Joan of Arc who was contemporary with Eleanor of Cobham and accused of heresy and witchcraft and burnt at the stake and the later accusations made against Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville of ensnaring Edward IV into a bigamous marriage by means of witchcraft and in Elizabeth’s case of conspiring against Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector of England by means of the dark arts.


Jacquetta of Luxembourg

Influence and power – A woman’s lot in C15th England

You could argue that in a society where women could often only achieve any real power through marriage, where retaining power depended on retaining their husband’s affection and providing male heirs and where political influence was largely due to their abilities to persuade and negotiate behind-the-scenes, that witchcraft was an effective tool and equally effective accusation, whether based in reality or no.

Of course it wasn’t only women who were accused of using dark arts to influence politics – The finger of suspicion hung over Eleanor’s husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester too, regarding his ambitions for the throne.

Joan of Arc’s contemporary and comrade in arms, Gilles de Rais was brought down by accusations of necromancy and unnatural practices with small children and later in the century, George, Duke of Clarence was also implicated in using astrology to predict his brother’s death in order to achieve the crown for himself.

In a world of dog-eat-dog political jockeying, accusations of witchcraft mixed with treasonous designs against the monarch were an easy way to undermine anyone who might be considered a rival or an inconvenience between you and power but also, it is worth asking just how much of a role astrology and the dark arts played in the pursuit of power as well?

Was there any truth in the accusations?

Just how widely were these practices used and by whom? How much did astrological or supernatural forces appear to influence people’s decision-making processes and could there have been more than a grain of truth in some or indeed all the accusations against these individuals?

We know that there was no ‘stigma’ against casting astrological predictions, even among the very pious. Henry VI immediately consulted his own astrologers when Eleanor Cobham ‘s case arose to refute any suggestion that he might be likely to die in the near future, in order to ally public rumour or give heart to his political opponents.

Many ladies of the court were known to visit women like Margery Jourdemayne for readings and love potions or in the hopes of conceiving or ridding themselves of unwanted pregnancies. The church may have pronounced against such practices but it seems likely that they were often passed off with a few Hail Mary’s after confession or brushed under the carpet for the ‘greater good’.

The problem came when astrology or necromancy involved the royal succession or those close enough to it to constitute a real threat to the regime or those surrounding the monarch.

How to bring down a royal woman?

Witchcraft was a very useful tool for removing an inconvenient person when you couldn’t attack them on the battle field or discredit their office. Where mismanagement of funds or poor performance in warfare could be used against a man; a royal lady was harder to get at by straight-forward means.

Witchcraft was a much harder accusation to fight, indeed, almost impossible to prove because there would always be someone who could be tortured or manipulated into implicating the woman in their practices and furthermore, it played to the bigotry of the age. Women were naturally seen as temptresses, eager for sexual gratification and ambitious to further their position by underhand means. There was a natural compact between women and the dark arts because they could use sorcery instead of physical strength to beat down their opponents and because there were so many biblical examples of women who posed a threat to male power and authority. Women were society’s healers – the old women who mixed herbal remedies to cure the sick and attended births and deaths with their potions and incantations. It didn’t take very much in the way of hard evidence to condemn a woman for poisoning rather than curing, for failing to save a life or failing to save a harvest through her arts and society likes to find a scapegoat in any age!

Fear as a means of control

Looking at the women who were accused of using dark arts to secure power and influence or to further their personal ambitions there is another striking factor – they were all vulnerable in some way. They were either foreigners, without the protection of a family or more specifically a male relative to secure their interests or they were without a husband – widows who needed to be removed from influence and who held significant property or titles which someone else coveted or wanted them to be deprived of. This suggests that much, if not all, of the accusations were just convenient propaganda but might also equally well explain why they might turn to the dark arts in desperation to order to try and leverage some control over their lives and destinies.

Fear was a powerful tool by which to control how a person was viewed within the wider social order and hierarchy as well as how association with someone touched by accusations of witchcraft might impact on your immortal soul. Many people would back away from anyone tainted in such a way and withdraw their assistance, regard and compassion. Perhaps Humphrey’s reaction to Eleanor’s fall from grace contained elements of all this as well as a pragmatic realisation of her fate.

Feminism – fear of female power

Yet another aspect of these cases is how contemporary society both in their lifetimes and in how their cases have been received through the historical record to the present day, views women and their roles. Once an accusation is made against a woman it is very difficult to throw off. That applies to men too, but there is something particularly insidious and pervasive about a woman’s reputation which haunts her memory forever. Once tainted with witchcraft or meddling in the dark arts it is impossible for a woman to shake off the association, even in a rational age like our own, it colours the historian’s view of them and is felt, even subliminally, through the historical record. For their opponents it was not only a way of removing someone from public life and disgracing them and stripping them of their status and holdings or even resulting in their long-term imprisonment. It was actually a way of destroying their reputation forever and could be seen as a particularly masculine weapon against a woman.

The cases:

Let’s consider the cases against two specific royal woman and unravel the fact from the fiction, the truth from the ‘post truth’ and the reality from the layers of historical staining, if we are able to.


joan of navarre.jpg

Joan of Navarre


Joan or Joanna of Navarre – had nine children from her first marriage to the John IV, Duke of Brittany. She appears to have married Henry IV due to a natural attachment between them as much as for dynastic reasons. She came to England with her daughters and was not particularly greeted with open arms. She preferred her Breton advisers and servants to English company and gained a reputation for being stingy and possibly taking bribes for influence.

She had no children with Henry IV but appeared to have formed a good relationship with his heir. Henry Vth made her regent during his Agincourt campaign which no doubt put several noses out of joint in England! The capture of her son, Arthur of Brittany and failure to set him free caused a rift between her and Henry Vth which enabled her enemies to lever a chink in her armour.

In 1419 she was accused of trying to poison the king through witchcraft ‘of compassing the destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised.’

The accuser was her father confessor, John Randolf, a Franciscan friar, and two others of her household, Roger Colles and Peronell Brocart.  Father Randolf was said to be the one who had lured the Queen Dowager into witchcraft yet he seems to have escaped prosecution for this. Sounds a lot like entrapment, doesn’t it?

Her sizable fortune was confiscated. She was imprisoned at Rotherhythe and then at Pevensey Castle and Leeds Castle and only freed three years later when Henry ordered her release on his deathbed.

So we have an unpopular, foreign queen with no children by her last marriage and a sizable fortune, left without a husband’s protection and given limited political power yet unable to fully exercise that power due to circumstance and her gender. She is accused with two others of attempting to poison her step-son, who despite being a military hero has no heir and is in poor health due to the dysentery he contracted during the Agincourt campaign and therefore insecure about the succession.

If we compare this with the case of Eleanor Cobham, some striking similarities present themselves.


Eleanor Cobham and Humphrey of Gloucester

Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester – first the mistress and then later wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of Henry Vth and after his premature death, Protector of England and the young Henry VI.

Eleanor rose through her marriage to become one of the most wealthy and prominent ladies of the court, no doubt causing resentment along the way. She was tainted with her prior adultery and therefore unpopular and also disliked for parading her wealth and newly-acquired status in public and living an extravagant life at La Pleasance where they set up a rival court during Henry VI’s minority.

Despite some rumours about Humphrey’s two illegitimate children, Arthur and Antigone, being Eleanor’s children before their marriage, they had no legitimate offspring together and she was vulnerable because of this failure to provide an heir and may have worried that he would desert her, as he had his previous wife and her mistress, Jacquetta of Hainault.

She was accused in 1441 of conspiring with two astrologers and necromancers, Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, to predict the early death of Henry VI and of using a witch to procure potions which she said were to make her conceive a child by Humphrey but which the prosecution alleged were to harm the young king in order to place her husband on the throne. She was divorced and made to do public penance before being imprisoned for life, being moved from various locations to Beaumaris Castle where she died in 1452.

Eleanor’s accuser seems to have been John Hume, one of the number who got cold feet and went to the authorities and named her physician and astrology as her accomplices.

In Eleanor’s case, we see again a woman who was already unpopular and wealthy with no children by her husband and who was vulnerable because of this. Whilst Eleanor did have a living and powerful husband who might have afforded her some protection form prosecution, she was abandoned to her fate by him and he was shortly also dragged down and disposed of by Henry Beaufort.

Henry Beaufort is an interesting presence in all this – a power behind the throne for so many years and a Machiavellian figure who presided over some of the heresy trials of Joan of Arc and was politically active during the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI – he seems rather close to the action in both cases.


Cardinal Henry Beaufort

Although both seem to have been accused by someone who was directly involved in their witchcraft, it is hard not to suspect that they were motivated by less than ‘Christian’ virtue into destroying these women’s lives and reputations. They may well have been bought off by another interested party who needed a witness in order to start the ball rolling and, in both cases, the accusers seem to have got off any punishment for their initial involvement in the crimes which were allegedly committed by the other parties.

So there could an element of entrapment and ply-bargaining in both cases, managed by someone powerful and respected who wanted these women discredited and out of the political arena and who was prepared to play a cat and mouse game to get the end result they wanted.

A climate of suspicion?

All this rather begs the question of how much people at the time really believed in supernatural forces and necromancy as a real means of trying to alter the course of events? Were the public all really convinced in supernatural agents? Did the kings involved in such cases really hold so much store by astrological charts and horoscope predictions or fear poisoning or physical harm from their female relations through the agency of witchcraft?

It’s, of course, impossible to say with absolute accuracy what was generally believed and how much force wider public opinion carried in these cases. Most people were so far removed from the elite that they could have formed all kinds of wild suppositions about how they behaved and what was going on within the rarefied atmosphere of the court.

Despite the obvious comparisons to be made with current affairs and the role of the media in stirring up hatred or irrational fears among the public, we must remember that news travelled much slower and that rumour and gossip were more often spoken than written down, except by chroniclers.

We might cite cases where supernatural forces were considered to have played a decisive role in political events – such as the appearance of the ‘Parhelion’ or ‘Three Suns’ in the sky at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross which was viewed by the Yorkists as a sign of God’s favour on their cause and which just might have spooked the Lancastrians sufficiently to lose them the battle.

Weather conditions like the driving blizzard of snow that blinded the Lancastrians at Towton, or the mud that assisted the English at Agincourt were read as signs from above, bestowing advantage on whichever side the almighty favoured.

Physical deformity, most infamously manifested in the Tudor propaganda against Richard III, was seen as a sign of divine judgement on sin. Failure to produce a child was likewise seen as a mark against a couple for some perceived fault and especially so for the woman who remained barren.

The church played such a crucially important role in everyone’s lives, forming their world view, dictating their beliefs and mores, guarding the virtuous from sin and devils and leading the righteous to eternal bliss that its teachings would have had an incredible hold on people’s mental processes and reaction  to anything which smacked of the devil or perversion in any form.

People believed in devils and malign spirits, in the air, in their homes and even in their heads – like Margery Kempe – who put her post-natal depression down to the torments of demons raging inside her body.

So, against this social background of superstition and prejudice, it was a damning accusation and almost impossible to deny. If people wanted to believe ill of someone they had a multitude of means at their disposal to convict and punish. Even if people didn’t universally believe in the real existence of devils and necromancers, they might be persuaded to hold that opinion by the church or by the elite.

The term ‘witch-hunt’ is still used today in a variety of contexts, from the workplace to politics, which perhaps goes to show that human nature may not change that fundamentally, despite the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason or our modern scientific explanations for the supernatural. We are as much driven by illogical urges and rumour as we ever were, even if we employ different language and methods in order to drag someone off fortune’s wheel.