There was no time to waste; the Yorkists set to work almost immediately. Edward was already in command of an army, but a much greater force would be required if the Yorkists were to confront and defeat the vast Lancastrian host to the north. On 6 March, two days after Edward became King, proclamations were issued explaining Edward’s claim to the throne and calling for support.1 The Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Norfolk set out to raise forces in their own ‘countries’. Presumably lesser captains such as John Fogge were also sent into the regions to raise troops. Meanwhile, Edward remained in London, the hub of Yorkist activity. One of Edward’s most important tasks was to raise funds. The mayor and aldermen of London had already advanced £4,666 to the Yorkists since July, but in the first three days of Edward’s reign they were prevailed on to loan a further £4,048.2 Individuals also contributed further sums.3 The merchant Hugh Wyche, for example, who was soon to become Mayor of London, loaned Edward £100. Bishop George Neville contributed to the war effort by pawning some of his jewels to a grocer. Sadly for Bishop Neville, he was never to see the jewels again: the grocer intended the jewels to be delivered to Calais, but the ship in which they were stowed, as it lay in the harbour at Sandwich, was captured and plundered by pirates.
The money raised by the Yorkists was required to pay soldiers, but also to buy equipment and supplies. The town records of Lydd, for example, note payments received ‘for victuals sent to London, to the journey of York’.4 It was, of course, a major undertaking to feed an army on the march. As John Gillingham suggests, in the fifteenth century an army consisting of 10,000 soldiers would have been the equivalent of one of the country’s major cities on the move.5 Presumably armies would also have been followed by a multitude of non-combatants, including priests, merchants, even prostitutes. On this occasion Edward’s administrators appear to have done their work thoroughly – Wavrin writes of the large number of wagons stuffed with supplies and ordnance gathered in the fields outside the city – but it was simply not practical for an army to carry all the supplies it required.6 Otherwise we must assume part of the wagon train would have lagged several days behind the vanguard. Commanders therefore expected to replenish their supplies en route. During the campaigns of 1460–1, however, the commanders of both sides struggled to find adequate provisions for their armies. It was rare for medieval campaigns to take place during the colder months. Seasonal shortages, in a particularly hard winter, made life hard for both men and animals. Prior to the second Battle of St Albans, for example, the large army raised by the Earl of Warwick is said to have suffered from hunger, which led to desertions. The sarcastic comments made by ‘Gregory’ about the Yorkist ‘spears’ suggest the army was forced to rely on daily foraging: ‘spearmen they be good to ride before the footmen and eat and drink up their victuals’.7
The Lancastrian army must also have suffered during the winter campaigns. They would have been well supplied in the north from their bases at York and Hull, but as they moved south they may have found provisions harder to come by.8 If they resorted to increasingly brutal expedients in order to acquire food and other supplies then this may, at least in part, explain the stories that appear in several chronicles of Lancastrian atrocities. Whethamstede, for example, compared the northerners in the Lancastrian army to Attila’s Huns; the first Crowland Continuator described the Lancastrians as a ‘whirlwind from the north […] a plague of locusts covering the whole surface of the earth’.9 But the chroniclers’ accounts are generally rather vague, and it has been suggested that behind the high-flown rhetoric we may glimpse nothing more than the usual activities of an army on the march.10 Even so, perhaps we should not belittle the experiences of local communities that found themselves in the Lancastrians’ path. Moreover, although it is clear that reports of Lancastrian activities may be exaggerated, some evidence does exist which implies the Lancastrian commanders struggled to maintain discipline. After the Battle of Wakefield it is said that the Duke of Somerset agreed to ransom the Earl of Salisbury, ‘but the common people of the country, which loved him not, took him out of the castle by violence and smote off his head’.11 Lancastrian successes in the field may be attributed to a disciplined core made up of the aristocratic retinues and the soldiers of the Calais garrison. As ‘Gregory’ noted of the second Battle of St Albans, ‘the substance that got that field were household men and feed men. I wene [sic] there were not 5,000 men who fought in the Queen’s party, for the most part of [the] northern men fled away’.12
Edward’s clerks, in the proclamations noted above, made an appeal for popular support, exploiting the fears caused by the Lancastrian advance. The civil war was characterised as a battle between north and south, with the dividing line at the Trent. The first of Edward’s proclamations was sent out to the sheriffs of thirty-three counties: with the curious exception of Northumberland, all were in the south. It was said that the Lancastrian leaders, ‘moved and stirred by the spirit of the Devil’, had permitted acts ‘in such detestable wise and cruelness as hath not been heard done among the Saracens or Turks to any Christian men’. It was alleged that churches had been plundered and desecrated; women, including nuns, raped; men murdered or maimed. Edward commanded that no man in his own army should act thus, on pain of death, and he called on every man between the ages of sixteen and sixty to help him resist the depredations of the Lancastrians. Incentives were also offered. A second proclamation stated that any supporter of Henry VI who submitted within ten days would be given a full pardon. Significantly, however, this offer was not extended to anyone with an income of over 100 marks a year, which meant that Henry’s aristocratic supporters were excluded. Presumably the intention was to disturb the relationship between the Lancastrian lords and their more humble supporters – an extension of the Yorkist policy at Northampton.13 Rewards of £100 were placed on the heads of a number of notable Lancastrian leaders. These included Andrew Trollope, who had been knighted as a reward for his services to the Lancastrian cause.
On 11 March Lord Fauconberg marched out of London, in command of the Welsh and Kentish foot. Edward followed two days later. From London Edward’s progress north was slow, presumably in order to allow recruits to join the army en route. Edward received reports that the Lancastrians were based at Nottingham, although he soon discovered they had withdrawn across the Trent to York. This gave Edward a chance to join forces with Warwick, somewhere in Yorkshire, although the Duke of Norfolk appears to have remained at least a day’s march behind. By now Edward must have been in command of a truly substantial army, although both sides’ forces must have been huge by the standards of the time. Everyone understood how much was at stake; most people must have assumed the coming battle would settle the quarrel once and for all. The Lancastrian army included at least nineteen peers.14 Men had joined the Lancastrian army from all over England, not just from the north as Yorkist propaganda would suggest.15The burghers of York, who usually sent contingents of 400 men to join campaigns, are said to have sent 1,000 men to join the Lancastrian army at Towton.16 Bishop Richard Beauchamp of Salisbury and the author of Benet’s Chronicle both believed that Edward’s army consisted of 200,000 men, although this figure is surely exaggerated.17 Most modern historians have accepted a more plausible estimate of 50,000 men to account for the numbers on both sides,18 but it is impossible to give an exact figure.
It is usually assumed the Yorkists were outnumbered during the Towton campaign, although if Norfolk’s forces are taken into account this is uncertain. Only eight peers are thought to have joined the Yorkist army,19 although the personal resources of Edward and Warwick equated to those of several earls. Large numbers of gentry joined the Yorkists, including Edward’s supporters from the Marches such as Sir William Herbert. Others included Walter Blount, William Hastings, John Howard and Humphrey Stafford, all of whom were knighted after Towton and were to become important members of the Yorkist regime. A contemporary poem, The Rose of Rouen, which pays tribute to Edward’s prowess during this campaign, suggests that Edward also succeeded in attracting substantial urban support.20 Contingents are said to have been sent from London, Bristol, Canterbury, Coventry, Gloucester, Leicester, Nottingham and Salisbury.
On Friday 27 March Edward was based just south of the River Aire, probably at Pontefract. From here the Yorkists planned to advance north, crossing the Aire at Ferrybridge, although the Lancastrians were now moving south to meet them. Over the next two days there were to be two substantial engagements, at Ferrybridge and Towton, although there may also have been a number of other smaller skirmishes. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the written sources are limited. Historians will always be indebted to the experts who worked on the Towton Project, although naturally it is not possible to provide an account based on archaeological evidence alone. Of the most contemporary written sources, the most detailed account is provided by Jean de Wavrin.21 Wavrin’s narrative may be supplemented by two letters sent to Coppini after the battle (both dated 7 April), written respectively by Bishop George Neville and Bishop Richard Beauchamp.22 Several contemporary English chroniclers, including ‘Gregory’, Whethamstede and the author of the ‘Brief Latin Chronicle’ provide short accounts of the two battles.23 With the exception of Wavrin, however, none of the contemporary sources offer many useful details about the fighting itself. Most previous historians have therefore been influenced by the substantial narrative provided by Edward Hall, who was writing in the 1530s.24 But since Hall was writing many years after the events he describes, his account must be used with care. Yet just as we cannot take his word as a sure guide to events, it is too simplistic to dismiss his account as ‘unreliable’. Rather, we should regard Hall as an early interpreter of the Wars of the Roses. He evidently took a keen interest in the mentality of fighting men, as well as the course of events. Moreover, Hall was a thoughtful and industrious scholar; it is clear that Hall had immersed himself in the sources, some of which may now be lost. Hall also appears to have drawn on local oral traditions, although how he acquired all of this knowledge is unclear.
Hall provides the most vivid account of the events at Ferrybridge. Lord FitzWalter is sent to guard the crossing at Ferrybridge, in order to secure the passage for the Yorkist army. This presumably takes place towards the end of the day on Friday 27 March. Secure in the knowledge that the great Lancastrian army is still some way off to the north, making its ponderous way south from York, FitzWalter and his men settle down for the night. However:
after many comparisons were made between the Earl of Northumberland and the Lord Clifford, both being lusty in youth, and of frank courage, the Lord Clifford determined with his light horsemen to make an assault [on] such as kept the passage of Ferrybridge, and so departed from the great army on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and early before his enemies were awake, got the bridge, and slew the keepers of the same, and all such as would withstand him.
Lord FitzWalter is hastily aroused from sleep:
The Lord FitzWalter hearing the noise, suddenly rose out of his bed, and unarmed [i.e. without armour], with a poleaxe in his hand, thinking that it had been an affray amongst his own men, came down to appease the same, but before he could say a word, or knew what the matter was, he was slain.
The news quickly reaches the Earl of Warwick:
When the Earl of Warwick was informed of this feat [Clifford’s assault] he, like a man desperate, mounted on his hackney, and came blowing [in tears] to King Edward, saying ‘Sir, I pray God have mercy on their souls, which in the beginning of yourenterprise have lost their lives, and because I see no success of the world, I remit the vengeance and punishment to God our creator and redeemer,’ and with that he alighted down and slew his horse with his sword, saying ‘let him fly that will. For surely I will tarry with him that will tarry with me,’ and he kissed the cross hilt of his sword.
Warwick’s bravado has the desired effect, and the Yorkists are moved to avenge their fallen comrades. However, Clifford and his men are equally determined to defend the bridge and the Yorkists sustain heavy casualties. Edward, despairing of the possibility of success through a frontal assault, sends a substantial body of men to cross the river further downstream at Castleford. This force, under Fauconberg, Robert Horne and Walter Blount, is therefore able to attack Clifford’s flank, and the Lancastrians are forced to retreat. Clifford and his men withdraw several miles to the north, but are pursued by the Yorkists. A further skirmish takes place at Dinting Dale, to the north-east of the village of Saxton. Clifford removes his ‘gorget’ (throat protection),25 either through ‘heat or pain’ and he is shot and killed by an enterprising Yorkist archer. The Earl of Westmorland’s brother, Lord John Neville (from a different branch of the Neville family), is also killed.
Hall’s account of the action at Ferrybridge is packed with colourful, plausible details. Warwick’s stirring speech has become famous, but it is not so well known that Hall almost certainly derived this anecdote from Continental sources: the same story appears in the work of both Jacques Duclercq and the Monstrelet-Continuator.26 Not all of Hall’s sources can be traced, although some of his stories might have been inspired by other accounts of battles. For example, Clifford’s boldness calls to mind Thomas of Clarence at Baugé, who met his death because he was desperate to prove himself in battle.27 Other sources do confirm that a serious engagement took place at Ferrybridge, although they invariably offer fewer details than Hall’s account. ‘Gregory’, for example, tells us that the Battle of Ferrybridge was fought on ‘Palm Sunday Eve’, that Lord FitzWalter was killed, as in Hall’s narrative, and that Warwick was wounded by an arrow in his leg. According to Bishop Neville:
Our adversaries had broken the bridge, which was our way across, and were strongly posted on the other side, so that our men could only cross by a narrow way, which they had made themselves after the bridge was broken. But our men forced a way by the sword, and many were slain on both sides. Finally the enemy took to flight, and very many of them were slain as they fled.
Wavrin tells us that a skirmish involving the Duke of Suffolk’s scouts escalated into a more substantial encounter in which 3,000 men were killed. In this account the fighting lasts several hours before the Yorkists eventually gain control of the crossing. But it remains unclear what exactly the Lancastrians were trying to achieve, and what proportion of their army was committed. Was the Lancastrians’ intention merely to hinder the Yorkist advance, or was control of the bridge originally conceived as part of a larger plan?
Bishop Neville’s account implies that the battles of Ferrybridge and Towton took place on the same day, although this is difficult to understand. If the bridge was indeed broken it would have taken considerable time for the whole Yorkist army to cross the river, even though Edward had now secured the passage. Although the ‘narrow way’ made by the Yorkists would have allowed men to cross it would not have been sufficient for horses, nor for the carts that carried the crucial supplies and ordnance. Perhaps the Yorkists made hasty repairs to the bridge, or constructed a pontoon,28 although it is possible that some of the army was forced to take a detour via Castleford. This would have taken up much of the day, whichever solution to the problem was chosen. Wavrin tells us that, having crossed the river, Edward and his army made camp for the night. Edward might have secured lodgings at Sherburn-in-Elmet, although it is doubtful that the small town could have provided shelter for the whole army. Many of his soldiers must have camped in the open, spending a miserable night. The weather was unseasonably cold – there was snow and hail – and provisions were now running short. According to Wavrin, both men and horses suffered terribly. Moreover, although the Yorkist soldiers would have been exhausted, their minds must have remained active, thinking of the fight to come. Somewhere to the north, their Lancastrian enemies endured a similar experience.29 On the next day Edward received reports from his scouts that the main Lancastrian army was taking position nearby, and that the fields were filling with armed men. At this news Edward was ‘overjoyed, because he wished for nothing more than to fight them’, even though the Duke of Norfolk’s forces had still not joined him. The Yorkist army prepared for battle.
Contemporaries referred to the Battle of Towton by a number of names. It was also known, for example, as Palm Sunday Field or the Battle of Sherburn. However, the location of the battlefield is unusually well defined. In the Act of Attainder passed by Parliament later in the year the battle is said to have taken place ‘in a field between the towns of Sherburn-in-Elmet and Tadcaster […] called Saxtonfield and Towton-field, in the Shire of York’.30 Wavrin’s account suggests the Lancastrians chose the ground. We may therefore presume the Lancastrians took a position somewhere between the villages of Saxton and Towton, which are roughly 1½ miles apart.31 To the south of Towton there is a plateau that rises to an average height of 150 feet; a wide, windswept plain. To the west is a steep-sided valley, through which flows the Cock Beck; to the east the plateau descends more gently towards what, in 1461, would have been heavy, sodden ground. In the fifteenth century there would have been substantial woods on both sides.32 The plateau is bisected by a shallow depression at North Acres; this becomes progressively deeper to the west, as Towton Dale intersects with the Cock Valley. At the time of the battle the plateau is likely to have been unenclosed agricultural land, crossed by roads and tracks – much, indeed, as the landscape is today. It is generally accepted that the Lancastrians ‘took their field’ overlooking North Acres, on the line marked by the present-day monument: a relatively strong position with well protected flanks. The Yorkists took position on a ridge to the south. The extent of their line is probably marked by a hawthorn tree, which serves today as a trigonometric point.
Wavrin depicts Edward acting as an inspirational leader prior to the battle, attempting to give heart to his cold and hungry men:
When the said earl [Edward] was informed by his men of the disposition of his enemies he went along the length of his battles until he reached his horsemen, which he had placed on his wing, and he said to them with a smile, ‘My children, I pray you that today you will be good and true to each other, because we are fighting in a good and just cause!’ And then each of them replied in a loud voice that they wished to do this.
This emphasis on Edward’s leadership is suggestive, not least because his opponent, Henry VI, was not at the battle in person. It is doubtful that anybody ever expected him to fight, but Henry had been present on the field, as a figurehead, at the first Battle of St Albans, Ludford Bridge and Northampton. Henry’s presence, as rightful king, was intended not only to inspire his own men but also to deter his opponents. In the early battles of the Wars of the Roses, rebels may have experienced a genuine feeling of anxiety when opposing the royal banner. But now that Edward had claimed the throne, this latter advantage was lost to the Lancastrians, and Henry would have become a primary target for elimination. It therefore made sense, in purely pragmatic terms, for Henry to remain behind at York, where he was accompanied by his wife and son. Henry’s royal banner would still have flown on the field at Towton, but one of the most important uses of a banner in battle was to signify the position of its owner. There were, though, a number of brave and experienced noblemen on the Lancastrian side, whose banners would have provided rallying points for their own troops. It is usually assumed the Lancastrian commander was Henry Duke of Somerset, on account of his rank and because he appears relatively prominently in the sources.33 However, it is uncertain which of the Lancastrian leaders, if any, was acknowledged as overall commander in Henry’s absence.34 At Towton, men on both sides would have been acutely aware that Henry VI wasnot present, and this surely means that his banner would have lost some of its power. Conversely, when Edward’s banner advanced, this would be a sign to the Yorkist army that their leader had thrown himself into the thick of the fray.
None of the sources refer to gunpowder weapons at Towton, although the bad weather may again have rendered them useless.35 We may assume the battle would have begun with an archery duel. In Hall’s account Lord Fauconberg once again commands the vanguard, including the Yorkist archers, as he had done at Northampton. Fauconberg draws upon his intelligence and vast experience to turn the bad weather to the Yorkists’ advantage:
The Lord Fauconberg, which [sic] led the forward [foreward] of King Edward’s battle, being a man of great policy and of much experience in martial feats, caused every archer under his standard to shoot one flight and then made them stand still. The northern men, feeling the shot, but by reason of the snow not perfectly viewing the distance between them and their enemies, like hardy men shot their sheaf arrows as fast as they might, but all their shot was lost, and their labour in vain, for they came not near the southern men by forty tailor’s yards. When their shot was almost spent the Lord Fauconberg marched forward with his archers, who not only shot their own sheaves, but also gathered the arrows of their enemies and let a great part of them fly against their own masters, and another part they let stand on the ground, which sore annoyed the legs of the owners when battle was joined.
This has become one of the best-known elements of the Towton story. Hall’s account has been followed by many previous writers without question, even though Fauconberg’s quick-witted actions are not recorded in any contemporary sources. However, the importance of the weather was noted in a more strictly contemporary account, the Registrum of Abbot Whethamstede. Whethamstede tells us that at a crucial moment the wind changed – he ascribes this to divine grace – by which means the Lancastrian archers were ‘nullified and frustrated’. Although it cannot be proved that Hall read Whethamstede’s narrative, it is possible, as on other occasions, that Hall amplified his original sources in order to create a more dramatic and convincing account.
Most sources suggest that the Lancastrians abandoned their defensive position and attacked. According to Wavrin, the Duke of Somerset, accompanied by Trollope, Lord Rivers and Rivers’ son, Lord Scales, led a furious charge and routed part of the Yorkist army. A tradition has arisen that some of the Lancastrian forces had been concealed in Castle Hill Wood, to the west of the battlefield, although there is no direct evidence for this.36 As Edward’s ‘horsemen’ are said to have been put to flight – and pursued for 11 miles – this suggests that at least some of the Lancastrians must also have been mounted. It is generally accepted that light cavalry had a valuable role during the Wars of the Roses as scouts; we may also safely assume that men mounted to pursue their enemies, as, indeed, we have already seen.37 Later there will be some discussion of how, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, a small group of mounted ‘spears’ could wreak havoc against demoralised men on foot. Nevertheless, few historians have been willing to consider the possibility that cavalry frequently played an important role during the battles of the Wars of the Roses.38 Perhaps this is strange, because cavalry, presumably employed in flanking attacks, would have provided a useful option to a commander facing large numbers of archers. Yet in the absence of more substantial evidence it is difficult to pursue this argument any further.
We cannot be certain of the Lancastrians’ tactics, therefore, although a number of sources do support Wavrin’s view that the Yorkists came under serious pressure. The ‘Brief Latin Chronicle’ tells us that many of Edward’s soldiers ‘turned their backs’. According to Bishop Beauchamp there was ‘a moment when […] almost all our followers despaired […] so great was the power and impetus of the enemy’. The Yorkists would surely have been defeated had not Edward, ‘with the utmost of human courage’, thrown himself into the fray. Wavrin also stresses the importance of Edward’s personal role. In his account Edward rallies the troops, riding up and down his lines, reminding them of his right to the crown. This done, Edward ‘dismounted his horse, saying to them, sword in hand, that this day he wished to live or die with them, and so he gave them greater courage, and then he placed himself in front of his standard’. It is quite possible, of course, that Edward’s personal role has been exaggerated. But other sources suggest that leaders could inspire their men by ostentatiously choosing to fight on foot. Commynes, writing of the Battle of Montlhéry in 1465, at which he was present, describes the behaviour of Sir Philip de Lalaing:
Sir Philip de Lalaing dismounted because it was then the most honourable practice amongst the Burgundians that they should dismount with the archers, and always a great number of gentlemen did so in order that the common soldiers might be reassured and fight better. They had learnt this method from the English, with whom Duke Philip had fought in his youth for thirty-two years [sic] in his youth.39
Most English noblemen fought on foot, of course, but we may assume it remained a symbolic moment when a commander dismounted from his horse. It is not difficult to imagine how a charismatic leader such as Edward could have exploited this to his advantage.
From this point the mêlée was long and bitterly contested. Wavrin tells us the fighting at Towton was fiercest in the quarter of the Earl of Warwick, notwithstanding his wound.40 Medieval sources often claim that battles lasted for hours, and Towton was no exception. But of course, the warriors at Towton could not have fought continuously for such a length of time. Fatigue and dehydration would have made this impossible. As Anne Curry points out, chroniclers’ accounts of battles do not often record repetitive actions; they are usually episodic, focused on the most crucial details.41 They rarely provide details of the waves of attacks, withdrawals, regroupings, and lulls in the fighting, although these must have taken place. Strange as it may seem, there may even have been periods of respite agreed by both sides. At the Battle of Neville’s Cross, for example, fought in 1346 between the English and the Scots, it was said of the two sides that ‘three times they drew apart from one another for rest so as to fight again more strongly’.42 Yet it is difficult to understand how such agreements were made, because the fighting in a mêlée was chaotic. A major problem was the extremely close nature of the fighting, because men were invariably tightly pressed together; warriors in the front line would often be put under pressure by the forward momentum of the men following.
Weapons and fighting techniques needed to be adaptable, in order for men to cope adequately with a range of combat situations.43 The poleaxe was a particularly versatile weapon. It was at its most deadly when used with two hands, like a woodsman’s axe, although this required a warrior to have space of at least 3 feet behind him and to either side. In a tight press, therefore, the top spike would become most useful. It would be used like a bayonet and thrust into an opponent’s face or perhaps into the armpit, where armoured protection would be limited. A sword could also be adapted if space was limited. When warriors were fighting shoulder to shoulder one hand would be placed on the blade, which would be used to thrust at opponents, whereas the crossguard and pommel could be used like a club. We have seen that common soldiers might use staff weapons such as the glaive, which could be used to hook an opponent to the ground. English archers became renowned in the French wars for their quick and nimble fighting,44 and we may presume they also displayed these skills in the Wars of the Roses. During the mêlée they used a variety of arms including hatchets, the maul and a range of bladed weapons. The narrative accounts of the Battle of Agincourt suggest most wounds in the mêléewere suffered to the head, and this is borne out by the archaeological evidence from Towton45 (most of the men from the mass grave appear to have been killed during close quarter fighting; evidence of wounds caused by projectiles is limited). The majority of wounds were inflicted by bladed weapons, although the use of other weapons has also been identified. Towton 41 received three wounds to the back of the head that are consistent with the top spike of a poleaxe, presumably delivered after the victim was lying face down and immobilised. Towton 16, an experienced soldier who may have been singled out for special attention, received no fewer than eight wounds to the head. One blow from a blunt object, perhaps a mace or a maul, had crushed his skull. The skeletons from Towton Hall provide graphic testimony to the bloody reality of medieval combat.
For a long time the battle was evenly poised, but then, suddenly, the Yorkists gained the advantage. According to Hearne’s Fragment, the arrival of John Duke of Norfolk, ‘with a fresh band of good men of war’, was crucial. Edward must have been hoping and praying that Norfolk would arrive in time; the duke and his men gave renewed drive to the Yorkist assaults. The exhausted Lancastrians began to give ground and finally their lines were broken. Now the battle became a rout, although according to the Crowland Chronicle Edward did not share in the pursuit. Now secure in his victory, Edward remained on the field, surrounded by the heaps of dead. This is an arresting image, although there were sound practical reasons for Edward to stay on the battlefield. Although the Lancastrians had been defeated, Edward could not have been sure their army had been destroyed. Henry VI had stayed away from danger, at York, and could continue to act as a focus for resistance. Somerset, for instance, who survived the battle, might have rallied some of his men in order to continue the fight, as Warwick had done after St Albans. Edward needed to maintain a base to which his men could bring news. Edward may also have presided over the execution of Lancastrian prisoners. According to ‘Gregory’, forty-two Lancastrian knights were despatched on the field. Thus the brutal work continued, even after the battle was won.
The Yorkists offered no quarter to their enemies at Towton, regardless of rank. Some writers, notably Andrew Boardman, have argued for a sharp distinction between the conduct of warfare during the Wars of the Roses and that of the Hundred Years’ War.46For the aristocracy, so the argument runs, the Wars of the Roses were brutal, merciless conflicts, whereas, in the French wars, defeated noblemen could expect to be treated with respect. There was, of course, a crucial difference between the two conflicts: it could be argued the suppression of rebellion was not war at all, strictly speaking, but justice. Now that Edward claimed to be the rightful king, anyone who resisted him could be deemed a traitor. But some qualifications are required because the picture is complex. Noble prisoners were not always slaughtered without mercy during the Wars of the Roses. For example, Warwick’s brother, John Neville, was captured twice and still survived.47 It must also be stressed that the ‘chivalric code’ did not always save as many noblemen in France as is sometimes assumed – and not only because French noblemen were mown down by arrows. Many captured nobles in France were spared, of course, and they were often forced to pay large ransoms to their captors, although it was unusual for there to be a large numbers of prisoners after a pitched battle. The Battle of Poitiers, fought in 1356, was a notable exception. Françoise Bériac and Chris Given-Wilson have surveyed the experiences of defeated armies at a number of other fourteenth-century battles, and their conclusions are stark:
The predictable fate of a soldier, noble or otherwise, who, finding himself on the losing side of a fourteenth-century battle, failed to make good his escape, was not to be taken prisoner. It was to die.48
Fifteenth-century battles were usually no different. At Towton, a high proportion of the defeated army failed to make good their escape. On this occasion it appears no orders were given to ‘spare the commons’, and they died alongside the aristocratic leaders. Some of the men from the mass grave had suffered blows to the head from bladed weapons that were delivered from above or behind. This may suggest they were killed in flight – probably by mounted opponents.49 If we may assume Norfolk smashed into the Lancastrian left flank then this would have turned the battle lines, pushing the Lancastrians back towards the steep slopes of the Cock Valley. In the snow, the slopes must have been slippery and treacherous. Some of the Lancastrians may have fallen to their deaths; others would have suffered terrible injuries that were to leave them at the mercy of their pursuers. Towton Dale offered a safer entrance to the valley. Presumably some of the Lancastrians sought to put the river between themselves and the Yorkists, and then to take shelter in the woods to the west. But it appears the river was not easy to cross, and there were few safe places to ford. Today the Cock Beck does not appear the most formidable of obstacles, although there has been considerable silting and it remains deep in parts. On the day of the battle, moreover, it is possible that the river was in spate. Towton Dale would have provided easy access to the Cock Valley for Yorkist horsemen, who relished the opportunity to ride down the desperate Lancastrians. The meadows beside the river became a killing ground. One of the fields has become known to this day as ‘Bloody Meadow’. Deep into the sixteenth century local people remembered the slaughter that took place. Hall wrote of the carnage at the Cock Beck, where ‘the common people there affirm that men alive passed the river upon dead carcasses, and that the great river of Wharfe, which is the great sewer of the brook, and all the water coming from Towton, was coloured with blood’. This, presumably, is the source of the infamous legend of the ‘bridge of bodies’. Writing slightly later than Hall, John Leland claims to have seen the five large pits in which a great number of Lancastrian casualties were originally buried.50
Many died on the battlefield. Others were trapped and butchered in the Bloody Meadow. Yet we must assume that many of the Lancastrians escaped successfully from the battlefield, taking the road north towards Tadcaster, although the Yorkists continued to pursue them.51 Bishop Neville claimed that ‘so many dead bodies were seen as to cover an area six miles long by three broad and about four furlongs’. For those that fled towards Tadcaster, the River Wharfe – much deeper and wider than the Cock – now provided a barrier to safety. Here, as at Ferrybridge, Bishop Neville tells us that the Lancastrians had deliberately broken the bridge before the battle, although it is difficult to understand what advantage they would have gained from this. Another possibility is that the bridge may have been damaged by the pressure caused by unusual levels of traffic. Gravett suggests the bridge might have been sabotaged by Lancastrian fugitives seeking to hinder the Yorkist pursuit.52 But, if so, they condemned many of their comrades to death, either in the icy waters of the Wharfe or at the hands of their enemies. The pursuit was relentless.
On the Yorkist side, the only casualties of note were Lord FitzWalter and the Kentish captain, Robert Horne. Naturally the Lancastrian casualties were much higher. A number of the Lancastrian leaders were killed, including the Earl of Northumberland, and Lords Clifford, Dacre, Welles and Neville. Sir Andrew Trollope, who may still have been suffering from the wounds he received at St Albans, was also slain. We cannot know for certain how many others died. Several chroniclers assert that over 30,000 men were killed, although it is well known that medieval writers often exaggerated the numbers of dead at a battle.53 A figure of 28,000 reached the Pastons.54 Apparently this estimate was based on the reports of heralds who were present on the field, and this figure was widely circulated. Nevertheless, most modern historians remain sceptical. The figure quoted in Annales – 9,000 – is regarded as being much more credible, although there is no particular reason to assume the author was better informed than other writers. Perhaps it is enough to say that thousands died at Ferrybridge and Towton, when the casualties on both sides are taken into account. It is also necessary to consider those who died afterwards of their wounds, or possibly due to exposure in the bitter cold. We should also not forget those whose lives were ruined by the injuries they received. Indeed, some wounded men may have been killed by their own comrades, as ‘mercy killings’ were a feature of medieval battles.55 The famous Amboise Paré, writing in the sixteenth century, was at first appalled by this practice when he was a young surgeon. As the French army approached Turin, in 1536, Pare encountered three men who had been badly burned:
Beholding them with pity there came an old soldier who asked me if there was any means of curing them. I told him no. At once he approached them and cut their throats gently and, seeing this great cruelty, I shouted at him that he was a villain. He answered me that he prayed to God that should he be in such a state he might find someone who would do the same for him, to the end that he might not languish miserably.56
If such actions did take place at Towton, then perhaps we may glimpse a rare moment of charity on this most brutal and bloody of fields.
The Battle of Towton will continue to provoke vigorous debate. But all those who have written about Towton throughout the ages have agreed that something terrible happened on 29 March 1461. Contemporaries were appalled. Wavrin wrote that ‘the battle was furious and the slaughter great and piteous, because the father did not spare the son, nor the son the father’. Bishop Neville similarly lamented the tragedy of civil war:
O miserable and luckless race and powerful people, would you have no spark of pity for our own blood, of which we have lost so much of fine quality by the civil war, even if you have no pity for the French!
If it [Towton] had been fought under some capable and experienced captain against the Turks, the enemies of the Christian name, it would have been a great stroke and blow. But to tell the truth, owing to these civil discords, our riches are beginning to give out, and we are shedding our own blood copiously among ourselves […] But the limitations of writing do not permit me to state my mind on all these things.
The last sentence speaks volumes. It is difficult for a writer to convey, in any real sense, the horrors of Towton. One of this period’s most skilful writers, who was deeply interested in warfare, barely even tried. Yet ‘Gregory’ was clearly moved, observing that few men understand the realities of war ‘until the thought be tried out’. His terse account of the battle concludes with a simple prayer for the dead: ‘Jesu be thou merciful unto their souls. Amen.’
Ludlow Castle, Shropsire, where Edward IV spent his youth. (Geoffrey Wheeler)
Micklegate Bar, York, where the heads of defeated commanders were displayed. (Rae Tan, Heritage Image Studio)
Facsimile by Geoffrey Wheeler from British Library MS Harley 7353. Edward IV witnesses the triple sun phenomenon before the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. Edward speaks the words ‘Domine quid wis me faceré’: ‘Lord, what would you have me do?’(Geoffrey Wheeler)
The Coventry Sallet, C. 1480. (Geoffrey Wheeler)
A view across North Acres, from the monument to commemorate the Battle of Towton. The tree on the horizon marks the extent of the Yorkist lines. (Rae Tan, Heritage Image Studio)
The infamous Cock Beck. It is difficult to imagine this was a scene of slaughter in March 1461. (Rae Tan, Heritage Image Studio)
Edward IV, adapted from a representation in the Rous Roll (British Library). (Geoffrey Wheeler )
Late medieval polearms. (Geoffrey Wheeler)
Edward IV. Detail from fifteenth-century glass in the 'Royal' Window, Canterbury Cathedral. (Geoffrey Wheeler )
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland. (Rae Tan, Heritage Image Studio )
Middleham Castle, Yorkshire. The Earl of Warwick’s most favoured northern residence. (The Richard III Foundation, Inc.)
The palatial home of Louis de Gruuthuse, where Edward stayed during his exile of 1470–1.
(The Richard III Foundation, Inc.)
The Battle of Barnet. Fifteenth-century illumination from Ghent MS 236. (Geoffrey Wheeler )
The Gastons. View from the Duke of Somerset's lines at the Battle of Tewkesbury. (Steven Goodchild)
Lincoln Green Lane, the ‘secret way’ used by the Duke of Somerset at the Battle of Tewkesbury. (Steven Goodchild)
Tewkesbury Abbey. (Steven Goodchild)