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

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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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The remains show the sheer brutality of the carnage at Towton and are thought to be evidence of what we would now class as ‘war crimes’ most probably committed against Lancastrian troops during or after the battle. The skeletal remains show massive trauma injuries, especially to the head, with the victims having been literally bludgeoned to death. One skeleton had thirteen head injuries.

Archaeologists have speculated that these bodies could have been executed after they were captured and may have been tortured prior to their death. Some show marks which suggest that ears and noses had been cut off around the time of death and cut marks on forearms are consistent with wounds found on stabbing victims and suggest attempts to raise their arms to protect their faces and heads or grab at a blade after protective clothing had been removed.

The skeletal remains also indicate the fighting ages of these men – from 16 to 50 years old approximately. Clearly youth was no protection against the application of the pre-battle order that no mercy was to be shown to the defeated.

About one third of the remains were of men who had already experienced battle wounds and indicates the presence of veterans and experienced military professionals. The archaeologists were surprised at the extent of the healed injuries and the skill with which they had been treated which has lead to speculation that some of them men might have been liveried retainers of a noble household who had been trained for many years in the arts of war. (See the evidence of skeleton 16)

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About a quarter of the men had highly developed muscles in their backs and shoulders and bone development in their left arms which indicated that they were archers. We know from contemporary source evidence that both sides employed large numbers of archers who were extremely important in the initial stages of the engagement. The Yorkists were said to have used the cover of falling snow to sneak their archers closer to the Lancastrians and began the battle with a volley of arrows into their ranks, particularly targeting the opposing archers who were usually more lightly armoured than men-at-arms and more vulnerable to arrow wounds. A ten minute arrow storm could have killed between 8,000 – 10,000 and forced the Lancastrians to advance their men-at-arms into the valley.

The grave pit evidence is also complicated by later exhumations of bodies, on the orders of Richard III, who set up a chantry chapel near the site of the battle to pray for the souls of the dead and had many of the bodies removed for re-burial. It would be fascinating if other, undisturbed pits were found to add to our knowledge of what occurred at Towton in the future.

Dr James Ross’s talk (see links at the bottom of this blog) in 2011 describes how the Lancastrian army broke under the pressures of the day despite being larger in number than the Yorkists and on home turf. The Lancastrians even had the advantage of the terrain but as the battle lines swung around 90 degrees during the course of the engagement, they found themselves with the steep slopes of the hill running down to the swollen stream at their backs. This meant that escape was virtually impossible and many drowned in the Cock Beck stream or trying to cross the bridge further North of the battlefield.

Casualty figures might not have been anything like so high if the terrain had been different or the weather conditions not so favourable to the Yorkist forces. The driving sleet and strong wind severely hampered the initial Lancastrian archery volleys, blinding their archers and also hampering their ability to effectively hit targets within range.

Why is Towton relatively unknown compared with other battles fought on English soil?

It seems strange that a battle with such high casualty figures should not be better known to the general public. The site is not well marked – no visitor centre and shop, no café or banners on the hill and not generally marked as other such anniversaries by re-enactments although there is a cross which commemorates the site of the battle and which provides a focus for those who visit.

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Compared to the Medieval Festival weekend at Tewkesbury every year, the anniversary of Towton is only marked by stalwart Wars of the Roses enthusiasts and a small ceremony. Maybe the English climate is partly responsible for this? The battle itself was fought is sleet and snow on a bleak hillside after all!

Perhaps there is also a desire to bury the memory of so great a slaughter of Englishman by fellow Englishman though it does seem strange that it is not more widely known and talked about, especially on the anniversary week.

Andrew Boardman: Towton, The Bloodiest Battle, 2008

George Goodwin: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461, England’s Most Brutal Battle



One Response to “Towton, 29th March 1461: The Bloodiest Battle in English History?”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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