Post-classical history


TOWTON, 1461


During the last days of February 1461 Dr Morton was riding north from St Albans with the Lancastrian army, no doubt muffled in furs against the bitter cold. We know it was a hard winter and a man as successful as John Morton could well afford a fur coat.

Only recently Morton had been celebrating a victory. Gregory’s chronicle gives us a glimpse of him at St Albans which resembles a passage from the Morte d’Arthur. ‘And at the night after the battle the king blessed his son the prince, and Dr Morton brought forth a book that was full of orisons, and there the book was opened, and blessed that young child . . . and made him knight.’

But now the capital had been snatched from the Queen’s grasp. The Lancastrians were marching away on empty stomachs without the ‘bread and victual’ they had expected to find in London. They had no commissariat while it was difficult to live off the country in winter.

Even so, they had won a great battle at St Albans, and two-thirds of England’s magnates were still loyal to Henry VI. Like Morton they were shocked by the legal chicanery in Parliament of the Act of Accord during October, when the Duke of York’s claim to the succession had been forced through, disinheriting the Prince of Wales. A sound lawyer, the doctor agreed with the peers’ initial response before they were overruled: Acts of Parliament counted for more than descent, and conferred on King Henry and on his son an inalienable right to occupy the throne of England – ‘the which Acts be sufficient and reasonable to be laid again[st] the title of the said duke of York’.

An army’s horses and carts made winter roads worse than usual. Since it was Lent, the troops’ staple diet was meant to be salt-herrings washed down by small beer – like ‘mild’ diluted with water. (The luxury tipple was strong ale or a pale, thin claret.) But after plundering their way south they found little food or drink of any sort on the way home.

To make matters even worse, the bridges had been broken down and the rivers were in spate. Although no records survive, one may guess that this was a wretched trek back to the north through drenching rain and snow.

Dr Morton must have been very glad indeed to reach the warmth and the fleshpots of York, the Lancastrian headquarters. The northern capital was a thriving metropolis with 12,000 inhabitants, rich from trade across the North Sea; its imposing walls sheltered not only the vast minster but sixty parish churches together with a Benedictine abbey and several other monasteries. The royal party installed themselves in the castle; only a shell keep remains today, Clifford’s Tower, but in the fifteenth century the castle was a great walled complex which brooded over the city.

It had made strategic sense for Henry VI’s army to retreat from London. Nearly all the great lords north of the River Trent and their affinities – virtually the entire northern gentry – were faithful to Lancaster. They would be able to fight on their own ground and they had formidable commanders. Meanwhile, reinforcements were flooding into York. According to Waurin, Queen Margaret spent everything she had on hiring troops, ‘gold, silver, rings and jewels’.

News came of a proclamation sent by Edward on 6 March to all counties south of the River Trent. In it, he explained that he had taken the Crown to remedy the wrongs suffered by the people of England under ‘our adversary, he that calleth himself King Henry the Sixth’. Inspired by the Devil, the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter and others were riding through the realm and destroying it; they were robbing, raping and murdering ‘in such detestable wise and cruelness as hath not been heard done among the Saracens or Turks to any Christian men’. The proclamation forbade anyone to ‘pass over the water of Trent’ without a permit, and claimed that the Lancastrians were recruiting Frenchmen and Scots.

Margaret retaliated by circulating a rumour that ‘our great traitor the late earl of March hath cried in his proclamation havoc upon our true liege people and subjects, their wives, children and goods’. This piece of counter-propaganda insinuated that the north was facing a southern invasion.

As one of the Queen’s most valued advisers, Dr Morton must have helped to shape her diplomacy. Secret envoys were sent to Charles VII of France, begging for troops. One envoy took a message that was too dangerous to put on paper; the French King was warned to be careful about his letters to the Queen, because if her plans were discovered her own supporters would kill her. (She was offering him Calais.) Although ready to help, Charles would be overtaken by events. Another envoy was dispatched to Pope Pius II, to complain of the encouragement that his legate Francesco Coppini had been giving to the Yorkists. Despite all the hard work, presumably Morton was grateful for the comfort of a royal palace after that march from St Albans, but he would not have long to enjoy it.

Edward IV had not been idle. His biographer, Charles Ross, says it is an exaggeration to call him ‘the greatest general of his age’, yet he never lost a battle, his outstanding qualities being swiftness on campaign and boldness in attack. Firmly in command though only nineteen, the new King was determined to find and destroy the Lancastrian army as quickly as possible, regardless of the terrible winter. On 5 March he sent the Duke of Norfolk to East Anglia to raise troops, Warwick going up to the Midlands on the same errand. On 11 March Lord Fauconberg (Warwick’s uncle) rode out from London at the head of the billmen and bowmen, most of whom came from Kent or Wales. Two days later, King Edward himself led his men-at-arms northwards, leaving the City through Bishopsgate. The Londoners cheered his army as it marched off to war.

There are accounts in chronicles or letters of the campaign, and of the slaughter in which it culminated, but none by an eyewitness. However, the Sieur de Waurin, who speaks of ‘ceste horrible bataille’, had obviously spoken with men who took part.1 Edward Hall’s Union of the two Noble and Illustre families of Lancastre and York contains details that are found nowhere else. It is treated with caution by historians since it was written eighty years later. Nevertheless, Hall was unusually well informed; his grandfather had been in the campaign, while he had access to sources that are now lost. There is enough evidence therefore to reconstruct what happened with a fair degree of accuracy.

Edward arrived at Pontefract on Friday the 27th or at about dawn on Saturday, 28 March, having sent an advance party ahead under Lord Fitzwalter to seize the crossing over the River Aire at Ferrybridge, which was swollen by snow and rain and supposedly unfordable. Early on Saturday morning, led by Lord Clifford, a party of Lancastrian mounted archers – these carried lances but dismounted to shoot – attacked, seizing the bridge. Thinking that the noise was a quarrel among his own men, Fitzwalter grabbed a poleaxe and rushed out from his billet without bothering to put on armour; he was cut down immediately, together with Warwick’s half-brother, the bastard of Salisbury. Wounded by an arrow in the leg, the Earl of Warwick lost his head, killing his horse with his sword and shouting, ‘Let him fly that will, for surely I will tarry with him that will tarry with me.’

Fortunately for the Yorkists, the King arrived to restore morale, ordering anyone afraid of fighting to leave the field but offering rewards to those who stayed – adding that there would be double pay for killing men who tried to desert during the engagement.

Clifford was formidable. Some Yorkists remembered him from Wakefield where ‘for slaughter of men he was called the butcher’. He broke down the bridge across the Aire, but left a few timbers. ‘Eventually our men forced their way over by the sword,’ wrote Bishop Nevill, Warwick’s brother. ‘Finally the enemy took flight, and very many were slain.’ Hall (whose testimony on this point is accepted by most historians) says that the fierce little Lord Fauconberg succeeded in crossing the river at Castleford four miles upstream, trapping the Lancastrian archers in a small valley, Dintingdale, and then wiping them out. Lord Clifford, ‘either for heat or pain putting off his gorget’, was shot in the throat by a stray arrow.

The main body of the Lancastrian army was now within sight of the Yorkists. It was positioned on a low plateau about a mile wide between the villages of Towton and Saxton, eight miles south-west of York; its right was guarded by the steep bluff of the Dintingdale valley at the bottom of which flowed the Cock Beck, a humble tributary of the River Wharfe. This is very flat country and Henry’s commanders had been unable to find higher ground to defend; firepower meant arrow-power and a defensive position gave a slight advantage in battle – no doubt the Dintingdale bluff to their right decided them.

The Yorkists stationed themselves on a ridge opposite the plateau, only the gentlest of hollows separating the two armies. However, by now it was twilight and many of Edward’s troops had not arrived. He would have to wait until the next day before attacking.

Both sides slept in their ranks, on the ground in the open. ‘It was very cold, with snow and hail, so much so that men and horses were in a pitiable state,’ Waurin tells us, ‘and what made it worse was that there was no food, yet they stayed there all night nonetheless.’

Although a road runs through it, the battlefield is miraculously unchanged. The two ridges on which the opposing armies faced each other can still be seen, together with the gentle dip down which the Lancastrians were going to charge, as well as the road along which Yorkist reinforcements would march from Ferrybridge – to roll up their left flank. One can see too that the bluff was steep enough to make the Lancastrian flank impregnable, though the Cock Beck looks surprisingly shallow.

There are no reliable figures for the number of combatants. Gregory claims wildly that there were 200,000 ‘knights, squires and commons’ on the Yorkist side alone. Hall (who may possibly have seen the muster rolls) is more convincing in stating that the Lancastrians had 60,000 men and the Yorkists 48,650 – ‘they that knew it, and paid the wages, affirm’. Charles Ross thinks that 50,000 took part in the battle, a plausible estimate if camp followers are included. We only know for certain that the Lancastrians outnumbered the Yorkists, and that over twenty peers were there with their affinities.

Why were all these men going to fight? There is ample evidence to show that most of the noblemen (more than a third of the English peerage) and gentry who were at Towton had been most reluctant to take up arms. A few may have been at each other’s throats, like the Nevills and the Percies, but not enough for the country’s entire ruling class to plunge into a civil war. Not until 1460 had anyone taken the Duke of York’s claim to the throne seriously, not even the Nevills. No historian has been able to explain why so many magnates decided to support him in the months that followed the Parliament of Devils; presumably they were convinced that chaos would continue unless Henry VI was replaced or, more cynically, that York and his son were going to win. Some Lancastrians must have been there from simple loyalty and others from conservatism, a reluctance to overthrow the established order.

No doubt there was an element of regional hostility. Abbot Whethamstede writes that ‘the realm of the North had risen against the realm of the South’, and Gregory of how ‘the king [Edward] met with the lords of the North’. As has been seen, there was no liking between those living on different sides of the Trent.2 Yet even though some areas tended to be for York and others for Lancaster, what really held each army together was a patchwork of personal loyalties; whether retainers, levies or volunteers, men had come to fight on one side or the other because their local magnate had done so. There was nothing that can be remotely described as a political motive for most of these troops. Nonetheless, English stubbornness ensured that those present would go on killing each other all day long.

Next day was 29 March, Palm Sunday. Edward IV’s men approached within bowshot of their enemy on the plateau. The Lancastrian commander who led from the centre was the Duke of Somerset, supported by the Duke of Exeter; his wings were under the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Dacre of Gillesland. The Yorkist commanders were King Edward himself, Lord Fauconberg, and the Earl of Warwick. The battle did not start for some hours. The Yorkists stood waiting in the icy cold for the arrival of their East Anglian contingent, which had been delayed by the Duke of Norfolk falling sick at Pontefract. Meanwhile the Lancastrians saw no reason to abandon the plateau which gave them a marginal advantage.

Judging from John Morton’s behaviour after the battle, it is more than likely that he was present. Understandably, he wanted to learn the result as soon as possible and, since Towton was so near York, he could have ridden over with ease. A man of the cloth, no doubt he kept well away from the fighting, but he was able to watch the most savage battle in English history.

This is what he saw. At about 11 a.m., after it had begun to snow, King Edward told his men to engage the enemy, giving orders that no quarter be given or taken. The noblemen commanding his advance guard knew just what to do. A contemporary ballad calls him ‘little Fauconberg, a knight of great reverence’, meaning that he had a name for being a fine soldier, while Hall says he was ‘a man of great policy and of much experience in martial feats’. He brought his archers within range of the plateau, ordering them to shoot one arrow each and then to withdraw out of bowshot. The wind blew snow and arrows into the faces of the Lancastrians, who shot blindly till their quivers were empty, hitting no one – ‘they came not near the southern men by forty tailors’ yards’. Lord Fauconberg then marched his archers forward, to fill their quivers with the spent arrows, and also to leave some sticking point upward in the ground to impede any attack.


Sir John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, a staunch supporter of his patron Richard III. From a window once at Tendring Hall, Suffolk.

Led by Somerset and Sir Andrew Trollope (a veteran of the French wars with a fearsome reputation), the Lancastrian men-at-arms launched a mounted charge down the slope through the snow storm into Edward’s horse, which broke. But a less determined attack by Northumberland on the other Yorkist wing was beaten back. The combat became a murderous mêlée of dismounted men-at-arms, billmen and bowmen, the Lancastrians shouting, ‘King Henry! King Henry!’ Hacking and hewing, neither side dared give ground, knowing that to do so meant being slaughtered. ‘This battle was sore fought, for hope of life was set on side on every part and taking of prisoners was proclaimed a great offence.’ Afterwards, survivors said they had felt as though they had been fighting with hangmen’s nooses round their necks, ‘the one part sometime flowing and sometime ebbing’.

But during the afternoon, commanded by Sir John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk’s men began to arrive along the road from Ferrybridge, falling in beside their Yorkist comrades. Even so, the Lancastrians went on fighting till long after dark. ‘And all the season it snew.’ (Some locals still say ‘snew’ for ‘snowed’.) As it was snowing there was no moon. In the pitch darkness it was almost impossible for the commanders to see just what was happening. But whenever he appeared through the gloom, Edward IV was an inspiration to the Yorkists, a giant in gilt armour with a jewelled coronet on his helmet – in contrast to Henry VI who, according to plausible legend, spent the battle in prayer. Fighting like a lion, Edward still found time to help his wounded.

Enough of the Duke of Norfolk’s men came up for Edward to outflank and then overwhelm his opponents’ left wing. The Lancastrian army gave ground increasingly, until at about 10 p.m. it disintegrated. Its remnants fled west, towards Tadcaster. Many drowned trying to ford the Cock Beck, which ran red with blood; muddy banks are hard to climb for men in armour and Yorkist bills and axes hacked at them from above. The pursuit continued all night and most of the next day; occasionally fugitives turned and fought, with further slaughter. Some sources say 28,000 men died, though the real figure was probably nearer 20,000.3 An area of bloodstained snow six miles long and three miles wide was covered in corpses, among them those of the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Egremont and Sir Andrew Trollope.

Dr Morton realized Lancaster had been defeated when he saw men stumbling back in the dark. Cut off from York and from the royal family – many were killed trying to reach the city – he rode away through the West Riding into Westmorland and then into Cumberland. He was with a party of fugitives who were making for the great Percy stronghold of Cockermouth.

Here, as its members were trying desperately to find a boat to take them to Scotland, the party was arrested by the Sheriff of Cumberland, Richard Salkeld. Besides Morton, it included that seasoned fugitive, the Earl of Wiltshire, Sir William Plumpton, and Morton’s colleague, Dr Ralph Mackerell (parson of Risby in Suffolk). All were taken to King Edward at Newcastle. He had already executed 42 captured Lancastrian knights on the battlefield at Towton and gave orders for Wiltshire to be beheaded, the Earl’s luck having finally run out, but Plumpton managed to buy a pardon. On 10 May a commission under ‘William Hastynges, knight’ was appointed to investigate ‘treasons’ committed by Dr Morton at York. He was sent with Dr Mackerell under guard to London where they were imprisoned in the dungeons at the Tower.

Meanwhile, the wondering Paston family in Suffolk – whose letters so often preserve contemporary rumour – heard how ‘King Harry, the queen, the prince, duke of Somerset, duke of Exeter, Lord Roos, be fled into Scotland, and they be chased and followed.’

Although no eyewitness description of the flight of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, with their son and accompanied by their court, has survived, there is quite enough evidence with which to reconstruct one of the most dramatic scenes in English history. Within two hours of the Lancastrian army’s defeat at Towton, they had hastily ridden out from York at midnight by the light of flaming torches – their wardrobes, jewel-boxes and money-bags, their seals and documents, strapped on to pack-horses – a panic-stricken, shivering party of bewildered gentlemen, ladies, clergy and servants nearly a thousand strong, which galloped north into the snowy darkness. They had left the city at midnight, when King Edward IV’s victorious troops were already storming into it from the south.

Conflicting rumours ensued. The Milanese envoy to France was told that the royal party had been caught and Somerset beheaded; the Duke of Exeter had been spared because he was King Edward’s brother-in-law, but ‘since he is fierce and cruel, it is thought they will put him to an honourable death’. However, they had succeeded in crossing the Scots border safely. ‘And King Henry lost all,’ says a chronicler.

* * *

Dr Morton’s time at the Tower cannot have been pleasant. A man who went to a fifteenth-century gaol ‘seeth many prisoners sore punished’, we are told by the doctor’s near-contemporary, John Fisher. They are ‘set in a stinking dark dungeon, bound with fetters of iron and for lack of meat like to die for hunger, naked without clothes, in the sharp cold winter no fire to succour them’.4

Few men have ever escaped from the Tower of London. Nonetheless, ‘he ’scaped away a long time after,’ Gregory recorded, ‘and is beyond sea with the Queen.’ In fact, it is likely that Morton did so before the end of 1461.

John Morton might easily have made his peace with the new Yorkist regime. So able a man would soon have received preferment. When Bishop Booth of Durham, a longstanding friend of Queen Margaret, went over to Edward IV after Towton, he was rewarded by being made the King’s ‘bishop confessor’ – the highest clerical appointment at court. But the doctor chose to forfeit all his fat livings and become a penniless exile. ‘He had been fast upon the party of King Henry while that party was in wealth, and nevertheless left it not nor forsook it in woe’ is Thomas More’s comment.

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