Military history


A Country at War – North vs South

The march north to Towton

MARCH 1461

During February and March 1417, life for geese in twenty southern English counties suddenly got colder.1 By command of the Crown, three primary feathers from both wings of every goose were to be plucked and sent to the Tower of London.2 In theory at least, using feathers from the same goose would help balance the arrow in flight. This was not a one-off command: it was one that was regularly issued in times of war. Indeed, at the end of the following year, sheriffs were expected to supply a further 1,190,000 goose feathers by Michaelmas.3 Why goose? Because in the words of the sixteenth-century author Roger Ascham, ‘the goose is the best fether [sic] for the best shooter’, a feather that ‘hath all commodities in it’.4 The reason for this intensity of effort was that the longbow was devastatingly effective, having been chiefly responsible for England’s great fourteenth-century victories in the Hundred Years War at Crécy and Poitiers and its fifteenth-century triumphs at Agincourt and Verneuil. An insistence on quality did not just extend to the flights, but to the arrow shafts made from the finest possible ash and poplar and to the bowstaves made of yew. Not English yew, but that of continental Europe, which was denser and grew straighter. As for the bow strings, these had to be made from finest cannabis sativa. All these elements together made an extremely powerful weapon.

Just how powerful has been underlined by the research on bows recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, now encapsulated in The Great War Bow by Professor Matthew Strickland and Sir Robert Hardy, the actor and world authority on the medieval longbow.5

Though millions of bows were created, scarcely any have survived. The study of longbows produced less than a hundred years later than Towton and with no major change of design show a weapon of devastating power at 100 yards, an effective range of 200 yards and an extreme range of 300.6To reach these upper distances a pulling power of at least 100 pounds, perhaps reaching up to 150 pounds, would be required. To attain that strength in adulthood, archers would have started building up their technique from childhood. On reaching the age of sixteen, the common man was expected, by decree of successive kings, to practise every Sunday and feast day until the age of sixty. The strength of the average archer was prodigious, it came from a body that had been shaped, in fact distorted, by the repeated effort required;this can be seen in the skeletons found at Towton. It made the Anglo-Welsh archer devastatingly effective, forcing the French to adopt the counter-measures and organization which would at length win them the Hundred Years War.

During the Wars of the Roses, archers were to be employed, for the first time in two generations, by Englishmen against Englishmen in battles on English soil. They had shown their power at the beginning of the Wars when, from close range, they rained their steel-tipped projectiles down on the market place of St Albans. Again at Towton they were to prove deadly against any combatant, and especially against the vast majority, who lacked the protection necessary to resist their arrows.

These razor-sharp, four-ounce projectiles rotated through the air at around a hundred miles an hour.7 When one of these missiles struck, the energy retained in the wood of the arrow from the enormous compressive force of its launch would be released on impact, not just once but repeatedly, with the percussive power of a hammer drill. Aside from the obvious more general threat of death from all types of arrow, as they struck organ, artery, an unprotected neck or head, different effects were obtained from the various arrow-head designs: the broadhead would slice through flesh, while the bodkin was capable of piercing all but the best armour plate over a short distance. There was also a dual purpose, with elements of both,8 and the arrows might also be barbed.

The initial threat of being injured on impact, with many thousands of archers shooting arrows at a rate of around twelve per minute per archer, was bad enough. Injuries could be compounded by the burning power of copper sulphate, a compound used to help firm the glue used on the flights, which often leaked down the shaft and on to the arrowhead itself. Beyond that was the more insidious danger of tetanus. As can be imagined, archers would be interested in keeping their arrowheads sharp, but they would have no particular interest in keeping them clean. The French, naturally, claimed that English archers deliberately sought to introduce the disease.9 However, it is probable that the reason an archer might take his arrows from his quiver before a battle and push them head-first into the ground would be to make them easier to retrieve and thus speed the rate of shot. Whatever the reasoning, untreated tetanus is horrific. After an incubation period of anything from four to twenty-one days, symptoms include muscle spasms such as lockjaw, with death occurring due to septicaemia, asphyxiation, cardiac arrest or kidney failure.10

Last, but not least, there was the possibility of gangrene.

Those who could not afford protection, ‘the naked men’ of the muster with little or no equipment, were exceptionally vulnerable and thus ineffective. Hence, if a large number of troops was not required, these were the men who would be left behind. (They were not left behind before Towton: every vaguely viable man was needed.)

Of course, the most effective defence against an archer was the attacking prowess of another archer, but there were also means of deflecting or even absorbing an arrow’s impact.

For absorption there was the ‘jack’, a padded jacket shaped like a jerkin. Despite the fact that it gave no protection to the arms and legs, it was described approvingly in the 1480s by Dominic Mancini, a visiting Italian cleric: ‘Only the wealthy wear metal armour;ordinary soldiers prefer comfortable tunics (stuffed with tow) which reach down to their thigh. They say that the softer they are the better they withstand blows; besides which in summer they are lighter and in winter more useful than iron.’11 Iron perhaps, but not tempered steel. That said, these jackets, which as well as having the tow – rough flax – would have layer upon layer of wool or linen material which, packed tightly together, could prove effective both against arrows shot from a distance and against some blows from hand weapons close up. But not against arrows from close up: from one hundred yards or so there was nothing a jack could do. Moreover, as happened at Northampton, when faced with retreat through deep water, the wearer of a jack faced an unenviable choice: strip it off and be completely vulnerable to arrows, or keep it on and feel the materials become saturated with water rendering death by drowning almost inevitable.

On their heads, both archers and soldiers wore the sallet or helmet. Some preferred to forgo head protection, particularly some of the archers themselves, for a helmet would interfere with their ability to get the hand which drew the bowstring closer to the eye, and thus hinder their accuracy. For others, the decision not to wear one was a matter of finance: a sallet or helmet would cost the equivalent of many days’ wages. Of course, a victorious army would have access to many newly available ones in the aftermath of a battle.

The position of the wealthy aristocracy was altogether different. The greatest artillery threat to the medieval knight on the field of battle had been the longbow. But by the 1460s, full armour had evolved to defend against it. At first glance, this armour gives the impression that every possible surface is covered. Almost as if it is a self-standing, fully enclosed ceremonial suit. In fact it was composed of many different pieces, all with their own individual names, mostly of French derivation. The interconnecting plates of the best armour, measured exactly to the requirements of its wearer, moved smoothly together. They were attached to a quilted doublet underneath with ‘arming points’ or laces. There might be an upper and lower breast plate, a separate plate for the back, a skirt, different sections to enable the flexing of limbs with reinforcement over knees and elbows and specific pieces for the feet. The head was protected by a sallet with a visor and with a bevor for the lower part of the face and a gorget for the neck. Or instead of having sallet and bevor, the knight – for it is likely that he would be at least a knight or an esquire – might have an all-in-one bassinet. Whatever the headwear, when the visor was closed there would be holes at eye level to provide a limited degree of vision.

The armed man had to have the ability to move, and if his armour fitted well and the weight was properly distributed, he could do so, even though the armour weighed anything between fifty to seventy pounds. Areas such as the inner arm, the inner leg, the armpit and the groin were covered by the less protective but more flexible mail, which allowed running, jumping and, most importantly, riding a horse. But even these more vulnerable mailed areas might have additional protection such as the besagews (discs overlapping the armpits), with the left-handed – the one thought more likely to be facing an opponent – often being larger in continental armours, though English-made armour tended to more symmetrical.

Some of the elements of armour might seem to be merely decorative – none were. For instance, the little wing of metal attached to the poleyn, which protected the knee, might look like an adornment, but it was essential in preventing an opponent from slashing the vulnerable back of the leg with an angled weapon. Similarly, lines of fluting were not there to create a pleasing pattern but to deflect arrow tips and blades.

All this protection came with some disadvantages: vision and hearing were impaired and full armour made the wearer extremely hot. It would also be advisable for its owner to keep to a reasonably constant weight. Some adjustment, through the laces, was possible, but there was only a small degree of tolerance. If the pieces did not fit smoothly together, the wearer’s movement, as well as his protection, would be compromised.

The very best armour at this time was thought to come from Italy, particularly Milan, and from Germany. But English armour was also well established12 and the bulk of the armour in use on England’s battlefields was English made.

As for cost, armour was extremely expensive. An account bill for a Sir John de Cressy, a commander in the Hundred Years War, survives from 1441. He ordered three suits, the most expensive for himself and two others for members of his retinue, at a total cost of over £20, or more than 800 times the day rate of an archer.13

Depending on their position or military expertise, a noble’s own household retainers would have anything from full armour down to just necessary elements of it: for instance a mounted man-at-arms might compromise on protection to give him the advantage of speed. Further down the social chain, the ordinary billman would wear whatever he could grab or afford. Helmets and pieces of armour were a precious commodity and were endlessly recycled to their eventual destruction. Some protective equipment was still being used in the Civil War, two centuries later. Mark Taylor, Chairman of the Towton Battlefield Society, identified one such helmet on display with a skull at Jedburgh Castle Museum. The fate of its last user could be deduced by the hole made by a seventeenth-century musket ball and confirmed by a matching piece of sallet metal embedded in the skull.14 Military technology had moved on.

The very best archers were greatly prized. A noble house who had such a man in its service would take pains to ensure his loyalty. He would have been very well fed and rewarded with presents. The Duke of Norfolk handed down one of his own second-best coats to such a man.15 This was no small prize at a time when the wealthiest would have replaced rather than washed clothes that were dyed with non-colour-fast natural dyes, so this coat would have been of high quality and in good condition.16

However, exceptional cases apart, most of the military members of a noble’s household would have been men-at-arms, the men who fought in a group around their lord on the battlefield. As these were the men on whom the lord would depend for his life, his bodyguard in fact, they were highly trained. They would be noticeable for the badges they would wear on behalf of their lord, but also for their height. Like professional boxers today, those who most effectively used weapons in medieval hand-to-hand combat needed ‘reach’ as well as strength and dexterity.17 Should the lord require it, these men were always to hand;most would have been well used to accompanying their lords in London during the uncertain periods of the 1450s. It was assumed by some doom-laden Victorian historians18 that the country was impoverished by the great magnates permanently employing many hundreds or indeed many thousands in this way. In fact, these men should be numbered in some dozens per household rather than many hundreds. It is likely that the average size of an earl’s household in the 1450s would have run to about two hundred,19 and although it would have been almost exclusively made up of men,20 they would not all have been military men.

However, the magnates were able to call upon many hundreds of reinforcements at speed in time of need. The Black Death may have ended pre-existing forms of economic feudal obligation, but it had not done away with social and military obligation. The men who ate at the great lord’s table – gentry, esquires, even lesser lords – together with the yeomen and husbandmen who rented the lord’s land, were all expected to come to his aid in time of trouble. In return, he was expected to come to theirs. This process could be informal or formal. For the lord’s own household there was no need for a formal arrangement;with those less attached, it could be under terms of indenture, whereby the indentured man would contract for a fixed time and an agreed sum to be of service: the indenture referring to the contract being torn in two, with half being given to each party. With no tear being exactly the same, the two pieces could, if required, be exactly matched.21

How Bastard Feudalism worked in practice can be extrapolated from the records on the 710 indictments brought by the Nevilles against the Percy adherents after the confrontation at Heworth in 1453. Of the Percy followers who can be identified, 6 were knights, 32 esquires, 26 gentlemen and 24 clerks (including parish priests);with the majority consisting of 330 yeomen and 44 husbandmen, all of whom would have been Percy tenants.22 There were also about 100 from the city of York, demonstrating the ability of the local magnate to dominate neighbouring towns and cities as well as the countryside.23 These retainers could be supplemented by short-term measures to bring in hired mercenaries – professional soldiers with the requisite skills – as Sir John Fastolf did to protect his London house against Cade’s mob in 1450.

Bastard Feudalism was a highly effective means of raising men, but as its name implies, it was a distortion. The raising of large numbers of troops for service through livery and maintenance – the wearing of a lord’s colours and badges, and being maintained in cash or kind by him – had, by the 1450s, been diverted from the intended purpose of military recruitment for the monarch. Livery and maintenance was intended to provide protection for the king against rebellion and with troops for foreign wars. Through the formal process of Commissions of Array, this had been the means by which a nation of around three million had, from the time of Edward III onwards, been able to go to war against the French – with a population upwards of seven and a half million – and to do so without the expense of a standing army. It was not intended for other purposes.

But at this juncture massive recruitment served faction rather than repressed it. At the local level, force or the threat of force had replaced the King’s justice as the means of a nobleman advancing his cause. In the 1440s, Suffolk had maintained a semblance of order with a policy of seeking to support the stronger of two parties in a dispute. By the 1450s there were two centres of national authority: one based on Queen Margaret, acting in the name of King Henry and Prince Edward;and one on the House of York and their allies. To gain predominance or indeed satisfaction against a local rival, landed men who were not already tied into the system of mutual obligation would look to the principle of ‘The Lord who is the enemy of the Lord of my enemy, should be my Lord’. National authority, under a strong king, was designed to resolve disputes. But with two factions of comparable strength themselves competing for national authority, combatants would look to the leadership of their faction for support. It also meant that these same combatants would be ready to flock to the banner of their leader in time of emergency. By this means, landed society could be split from top to bottom.

In March 1461, the final layer of bastardization was added. After the acclamation of Edward IV, there were now two kings of England issuing Commissions of Array against rebellious subjects. To refuse such a commission was treason. In any event it was difficult to avoid. The apparatus of enforcement was policed by the great magnates themselves,24 who directed the lower level of royal officials, be they sheriffs, mayors, bailiffs or village constables to muster all sound men between the ages of sixteen and sixty. They used royal command to bring to their forces those who were not already part of their ‘affinity’. The distortion was complete: two kings were using the accepted forms of military recruitment at time of national emergency to suppress a rebel. But which was the true king and which was the rebel?

The means that had served England in war against its great neighbour France and its lesser neighbour Scotland had become warped to become the means of mobilizing the fighting nation for Civil War. It helps to explain the enormous numbers at the battle of Towton.

From the age of seven, a medieval boy of noble birth would be sent away from home and brought up for some years in the household of a great man, perhaps even the superior lord of his father. Here the boy would be taught good manners: the conventions of etiquette, how to carve and serve at table, together with the arts of music and dancing. He would receive scholastic tuition in Latin and grammar and learn the practicalities of estate management and law.25 He would also receive professional instruction from an experienced soldier, on fighting and on the rules of strategy and command;there were, in the age just before printing, widely circulated manuscripts on both. One of the most respected commentaries on strategy was written by a Roman of the fourth century called Vegetius.26 The fact that it was over a thousand years old at this time was of no account, because many of his strictures on campaigning were still valid, in fact they were acted out over the winter of 1460–61. Vegetius’s Epitoma Rei Militari contains a series of aphorisms, one that is striking when applied to that winter is ‘the single most effective weapon is that food should be sufficient for you while dearth should break the enemy … for armies are more often destroyed by starvation than battle, and hunger is more savage than the sword’.27

As well as those of Vegetius, the words of other great ancients were included in The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry, together with its author’s own more contemporary wisdom.28 The author was an Italian-born noblewoman, Christine de Pisan, who, unusually for the time, had received a quality of education normally reserved for boys.29 The deaths of her father and husband in the 1380s, both formerly well connected at the French court, forced her to make her living by her pen and she was extremely successful, with a range of ballads and religious poems to her name, as well as the Feats of Arms and a final ‘Ditié’, a paean of praise to Joan of Arc, written just before De Pisan’s own death in 1430.30 Manuscripts containing Feats of Arms were greatly prized, with Margaret of Anjou being presented with one by Talbot, England’s great warrior, as a wedding gift;and there was also a later magnificent Yorkist copy. But however fabulous their decoration, these books were valued for their words. And sensibly so, for what De Pisan described as the three most important elements of securing the ‘advantage of the field’ all played a role at Towton.31

She quoted Vegetius directly on food supplies. Though the competing armies had not exactly suffered famine, they had certainly paid the price for being found wanting in terms of provisions. Their shortage had led to the pillaging carried out by Margaret’s army on the march south, which, amplified by Warwick’s propaganda, had ensured the gates of London would be shut against her. Prospero di Camulio, writing just after the collapse of Warwick’s army at the Second Battle of St Albans, described how desertions ‘for lack of victuals’32 had contributed to defeat. Finally, Margaret’s army had been forced to abandon London and turn back north for a secure supply base.

What seems surprising is that the army should have retreated so far north. Passing through the Leicestershire heartlands of the Duchy of Lancaster, centred around Kenilworth, which Margaret had made her centre of power in the 1450s, the Lancastrians finally based themselves just north of the Trent. There, in the totally friendly territories of the Percys, they had access to provisions and to possible French and Scottish reinforcements through the port of Hull. They also had York, the second most populous city of the kingdom. Micklegate Bar still held the heads of the fathers and a brother of both Edward IV and of Warwick, as testament to the disastrous foray north of less than three months before; and the Lancastrians knew that this would serve as a spur rather than a deterrent to the two Yorkist cousins. Even more importantly, they knew that Edward would be forced to follow his father’s example and march north in order to assert his authority. Strategically, Edward would have to bring Margaret’s forces to the battlefield and tactically he would try do so by threatening their centre of operations at York. They knew that geography would dictate the route he would take and when and where he would be most vulnerable, constrained by the needs of a huge army making its way up the country.

Edward may have been acclaimed king, but he had not been anointed and crowned. He may have won his army’s confident loyalty through a gift of providence in the form of the parhelion and subsequent victory at Mortimer’s Cross, but he would need confirmation of his royal legitimacy through ultimate victory in battle. This was where Edward departed from the advice of Vegetius to do everything to avoid the hazard of battle. Just as the Lancastrians knew he would. For, as the diplomat Philippe de Commynes later commented: ‘Of all the people in the world [the English are] the most inclined to give battle.’33

The mechanisms of Commissions of Array might enable the extremely rapid recruitment of men, but they also required that the men be speedily deployed and then disbanded, because English troops expected to be properly provisioned and paid. The challenge to Edward, as described inKnyghthode and Bataile, a contemporary poetic translation of Vegetius, was to ‘have purveyance of forage and victual for man and horse; for iron smiteth not so sore as hunger doth if food fail’,34 particularly bearing in mind that the last sixty miles or so would be in enemy territory. This was a test indeed for the teenage King.

Two days into his reign, Edward’s denunciation of his enemies was accompanied by his issuing Commissions of Array for thirty-two counties – only one of which, surprisingly Northumberland, the Percy heartland, was north of the Trent. For the first time in nearly forty years, an army of England, or part of it at least, was being personally commanded by someone with the title of King.


It was not until the Victorian era that the Wars of the Roses became established as the generally accepted, all-encompassing name for the series of English battles that took place between 1455 and 1487.35 During the wars themselves, the red rose and white rose badges were amongst a great number employed by the two sides. Edward IV’s own favourite badge, in honour of the parhelion at Mortimer’s Cross, was the ‘Sun in Splendour’;that of the Beaufort Dukes of Somerset was the Yale, a mythical beast rather like a ferocious-looking tusked antelope;36 that worn by the adherents of the young Prince of Wales was a white swan. That said, the two roses were being singled out as badges and conjoined for propaganda purposes, both in writing and in pageantry, within a few months37 of Henry VII’s 1485 victory at Bosworth.38

The first major association of Edward IV himself with the rose as a badge was in the context of the Towton campaign, and in the verse and song that also commemorated his birthplace. This was the ‘Rose of Rouen’.39 Running to fifteen verses with a chorus, it is obviously far more complex than the battlefield chants of ‘A Warwick’ or ‘A Harry’ and, indeed, the football and rugby songs of today which are its distant successors. Taken as a whole, it might be tedious to the modern ear, but it is a valuable resource in as much as it establishes, through the images of badges, the peerage and important gentry that came to Edward’s support and the cities that were major centres of supply for the Yorkists.

It is also at one with the proclamations to the sheriffs. The Yorkists were promoting this as a war of South against North: as captured in the following, non-consecutive, verses:

Between Christmas and Candlemas40 a little before lent,
all the lords of the North they wrought by one assent.
For to destroy the south country they did all have intent.
Had not the Rose of Rouen been, all England had been shent.


The northern men made their boast when they had done that deed,
‘we will dwell in the south country and take all that we need.
These wives and their daughters our purpose they shall see …’

The areas that were first singled out for praise were the core areas that had supported the 1460 invasion and continued to do so:

For to save all England the rose was intent.

With Calais and with lone London with Essex and Kent and all the South of England up to the River Trent …

The Yorkist leaders such as Warwick, Norfolk, Fauconberg, Lords Grey of Ruthin, Scrope of Bolton and Viscount Bourchier were all identified by their badges, as were major cities. One can also detect separate routes: Canterbury, Windsor, Salisbury, Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester; and Northampton, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham. To that can be added another route, that of the Duke of Norfolk and, most likely, the young Duke of Suffolk too, through their East Anglian territories.

The challenge of Queen Margaret and the Lancastrians was to draw Edward and his allies into what was becoming increasingly perceived as alien territory. Bearing in mind how many troops Edward would need to bring with him and the mammoth task of provisioning them, the Lancastrians sought to force their opponents into battle on vastly unequal terms, with regard to the crucial elements of numbers, provisions and morale. In line with the principles of Vegetius, these were textbook tactics.

In order to have any chance of victory, Edward would have to mobilize all the resources of his new half-kingdom. Though, like the rest of Europe, England might suffer financial crises, it was in essence a wealthy country.41 Rich enough that thirty years of intermittent fighting over the course of the Wars of the Roses did not destroy its economy. In fact, the country was to be rarely despoiled. Yet, had there been other months like the one between Edward’s acclamation as king and the battle at Towton, it might have been a different story. That brief period was unique in terms of the number of nobles involved. Through a complete vacuum of authority, three-quarters of the peerage had become ensnared in disputes that were now national as well as local. And their only hope of resolution seemed to be by victory in battle. Thus, for the first time, England saw mass recruitment on behalf of two kings as, using the effective mechanisms established by Bastard Feudalism, the nobles assembled vast retinues to join them in battle. In this urgent activity they were spurred on by the knowledge that defeat would in all likelihood mean death in battle or execution for themselves and disinheritance for their families. Never again would the number of nobles embroiled in the conflict reach such a level – the traumatic outcome of the Battle of Towton saw to that.

With the bulk of the peerage still loyal to Henry and the House of Lancaster, the numbers were in the Lancastrians’ favour. And even though Margaret’s army had needed to march north, it had benefited from more time to prepare and provision while based in friendly territory.

The Yorkists realized that they had been saved from losing London – and most likely the war – through portraying Margaret’s army as pillagers. They would not make the same mistake themselves. Instead, they followed the approach which would, a few years later, be set out in De laudibus legum Angliae, Sir John Fortescue’s book of instruction for Edward, Prince of Wales:

The king, by his purveyors, may take for his own use necessaries for his household, at a reasonable price, to be assessed at the discretion of the constables of the place, whether the owners will or not: but the king is obliged by the laws to make present payment, or at a day to be fixed by the great officers of the king’s household. The king cannot despoil the subject without making ample satisfaction for the same.42

With funds advanced from London and Calais, the Yorkists acted swiftly. Norfolk left London for East Anglia on 5 March. Warwick, just two days later, with a large body of troops, headed for the West and the Midlands, where he raised very many more. On 11 March, Fauconberg set out with the advanced guard of the main army. Edward himself followed on 13 March with a great train of supply wagons.43 Ahead of them, both before departure and on the march, went hordes of messengers on horseback, taking demands to supporters and potential supporters in the towns and the country ahead, helping to stimulate recruitment and arranging the provisions necessary to satisfy an army on the march. Professional soldiers such as the Kentish captain Robert Horne were there to organize, assemble and guarantee payment.44 With the ability of horsemen to ride great distances, captains could very quickly activate subordinates in an ever-increasing network of engagement of troops.

Not all went smoothly, John Paston III tells us in the Paston letters that: ‘Most people of this country (district) have taken wages saying they will go up to London;but they have no captain, nor ruler assigned by their commissioners to await upon, and so they straggle about by themselves, and likeliness are not like to come to London half of them.’45

The ‘Rose of Rouen’ gives hints to Edward’s progress – but there are more substantive sightings too. We know that Edward proceeded by way of St Albans – there was to be no third battle there – and by the seventeenth he was already in Cambridge. Here he was met by Sir John Howard, who brought the extremely large and welcome sum of £100 from the abbot and convent of Bury St Edmunds.46 There would be a lot of contact with monasteries on this journey; they could be exceedingly wealthy institutions and were great producers of ale – so necessary for armies on the march.

As well as those horsemen who would ride ahead to give warning of the requirements for the coming troops, there were others, known as scourers, who would advance in great numbers to secure the supplies for men and for horses. William Gregory of Gregory’s Chronicle had a typical infantryman’s low opinion of these cavalry troops: ‘As for spearmen they be good to ride before the footmen and eat and drink up their victuals and many more such pretty things they do … For in the footmen is all the trust.’47 This view was not shared by commanders, because these horsemen, also called aforeriders, were paid 12 pence per day, twice the pay of archers. They were seen as essential, most of all as procurers, which role might even eclipse their use on the battlefield.

When one sees the amount of food and fodder they were expected to secure, their importance is unquestionable. Napoleon’s dictum ‘an army marches on its stomach’ was as true in 1461 as it was at the time of Austerlitz. The fare on offer was not of the standardized nature of the seventeenth-century English Civil War, where the staple was cheese and biscuits – or rather a crumbly weevil-infested Cheshire-type cheese with hard tack. For a short campaign, it would have been whatever could be gathered, with the difficulties of provisioning highlighted by its unseasonal nature. Military campaigns were supposed to take place in the summer months, when food was being produced; not at the very end of winter when stores of preserved supplies would be severely depleted.

For the ordinary soldier, the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables would not have been a problem. They would have been naturally suspicious of anything that absorbed water, as contamination of water and waterborne diseases were rightly feared, even on such a short campaign. What they looked to for their staple was bread – made, of course, with well-boiled water. The bread would most likely have become coarser as they travelled further north, thanks to the use of wheat substitutes such as maslin (a wheat and rye mix) or mixtil (wheat and winter barley). Finally, with supplies diminishing, any fresh bread would probably have been made of plain barley or oats. The quality, as with all war supplies, would have been distinctly variable: some poorer quality bread would contain very fine grit from the miller’s wheel, which grinds down the teeth. One of the Towton victims shows just such a pattern of wear.

As for sources of protein: it must be remembered that it was now Lent. The devout man was supposed to abjure meat. It is likely, however, that Yorkist priests would have given absolution to men of troubled conscience unable to get the meat of water animals that were classified as fish. For the absolved meat eaters, much of what they obtained at this time of year would have been dried or cured, such as bacon, but there would also have been some fresh mutton or even beef on the hoof. In these circumstances, nothing would have been wasted: for instance, a horse that broke its leg would be rapidly killed and butchered. Fish would have been dried and or salted, including cod, skate, eels, pilchards and herring – the latter possibly pickled. Eggs and cheese would also provide protein and were acceptable on fish days.

One cannot know how much the Yorkists were able to find to eat on the march – probably far less than their Lancastrian counterparts. It is possible that, on occasion, the men marching from the south and west would have been forced to return to the diet of their more impoverished forefathers from that time before the Black Death had thinned out the population. This would have consisted of bread made from the poorest quality cereals and from dried beans and peas. In such cases also, these peas and beans would have been boiled up in clean water with oatmeal and scraps of bacon to make the earlier medieval staple of pottage.

A supply of clean water would have presented the biggest challenge: it much needed to be boiled for greater safety. But the soldiers would not have been expected to drink this: for liquid intake they would have been looking for water which had been purified through being brewed with malt to form ale.

The exertions of the march would have expended far more energy than that required by a static force. The rate of progress at the end of winter was staggering. To arrive close to the Towton battlefield by the night of the twenty-eighth, Edward’s main force would have to have travelled 180 or so miles in sixteen days: it is likely that there would have been rest days for re-provisioning, perhaps at Cambridge and certainly at Nottingham, a perfect supply base, with its castle and large walled and fortified outer bailey. Assuming the army left on the twenty-third, that would have meant travelling the best part of twelve miles per day, which, encumbered with supply wagons, was at breakneck speed, even approaching that of Edward III’s famous advance towards the Somme in 1346.48 Much of the last part of the march was through what could be considered to be enemy territory. On the twenty-seventh the Yorkist main army had reached Pontefract, dominated by its castle, the place of imprisonment and slow death of Richard II. But an advance guard under Lord Fitzwalter was well ahead, for it was absolutely essential to secure a river crossing over the River Aire, either the bridge at Ferrybridge or the ford at Castleford, three miles upstream.

The army had grown steadily en route as allied lords joined with their retainers and the Commissions of Array did their work. The main army under Edward, including Fauconberg’s advance guard, had been joined by Warwick. The last part, under John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, was, it was thought, just a short distance behind. Even without Norfolk it was a vast force of twenty thousand or more. Norfolk himself had in the region of five thousand men. Yet it did not compare with the greater forces that the Lancastrians were able to bring to bear: their own Commissions of Array, their magnates and their affinities, had collected a force closer to thirty thousand, possibly well on the far side of it.49 It must be remembered that the vast majority of the peerage, who acted as the fulcrum of the entire recruitment process, were involved in fighting in 1459–61. Of the total 68 members of the peerage, 53 – or perhaps 54, according to some sources – fought. Of these, a clear majority of 31, which included most of the higher ranks from viscount upwards, fought for the Lancastrians.50 Absence, it seems, could only be excused on grounds of old age, infirmity, idiocy or being abroad.

The Lancastrian plan was to hold the Yorkist army at the River Aire for as long as possible, in the hope that the difficulty of finding provisions in enemy territory would induce the Yorkist troops to start melting away. Edward would be short of food for men and horses. It was hoped that he would be forced into a retreat, where his disordered army would soon become a rabble and, as at 2nd St Albans, would begin to break up. He, Warwick and all of the Yorkist leadership would have to flee. Except, unlike at 2nd St Albans and, indeed, Ludford Bridge, this time they would be in enemy territory. But the plan may have had an additional dimension: it may have factored in the possibility that the Yorkists would be able to fight their way across the Aire through the shallow waters of the ford after which Castleford was named and then continue their march towards York.51Or, alternatively, it may have been to hold the Yorkists with dismounted troops before withdrawing these at nightfall and allowing the enemy across. It may have been a complicated feint. It would have drawn the Yorkists towards the battlefield at Towton, because the Saxton–Towton plateau blocked the only obvious route to the target of the Yorkist advance: the city of York, which commanded the North of England, and was effectively its capital.

Perhaps it was a complicated plan for the time, but Somerset and Edward were of a new young generation of commanders, uncluttered by the memories of the Hundred Years War. Somerset had Sir Andrew Trollope as his military adviser, whose name was the very first on the Yorkist proscription list issued in London. It was for good reason that the Burgundian near-contemporary Jean de Waurin was to describe Trollope as a ‘tres soubtil home de guerre’.52

For a complicated plan to succeed, all its elements have to come together in the right order. The Lancastrian commanders were surprised in one crucial respect: the speed with which the Yorkist advance guard under Fitzwalter arrived at Ferrybridge. Sources differ at this point, but working with the new thesis of battlefield archaeologist Tim Sutherland, the following seems likely, and it includes elements of the accounts of both the chroniclers Jean de Waurin and Edward Hall.53

Fitzwalter arrived late on 27 March, probably in the dark, and found the bridge partially destroyed, perhaps even in the actual but dilatory process of being dismantled. If so, this would explain the presence of a small number of Lancastrian troops on the southern bank. There was a very short engagement, but with insufficient troops to hold the south bank, the remaining Lancastrians attempted to flee back across the bridge. Some of them were picked off by Yorkist archers;some made it back to the north bank, from where they fled on horseback to make contact with their commander Lord Clifford, who was just a few miles away. At this point Fitzwalter ordered a picket to patrol the north bank and sent back messengers to the Yorkist main army for reinforcements. But the Lancastrian army was much closer to Ferrybridge than the Yorkist one, so it was Clifford with at least five hundred mounted men who got to the bridge first, swiftly overcame the picket and caught Fitzwalter – not in his night shirt, as has been supposed, but certainly unarmoured and off-guard. Both Fitzwalter and Warwick’s half-brother, the Bastard of Salisbury, were killed and the bridge retaken.

It may have been when Fitzwalter’s initial messengers arrived at Edward’s camp, or more probably when men fled there after Clifford’s attack, that the decision was taken by the Yorkist leadership to risk splitting their forces. Fauconberg was sent with mounted troops to the secondary crossing at Castleford in order to seize it at daybreak from any Lancastrian defenders, while Warwick set off for Ferrybridge.

One can assume that, with Ferrybridge and Castleford just three miles apart, the two mounted Yorkist forces would have attacked around the same time. But inexplicably Castleford was undefended, and this is where Tim Sutherland’s thesis is compelling.54 He believes that when Waurin wrote ‘the [Percy] Earl of Northumberland … failed to attack soon enough’, he was referring to Castleford rather than Towton. And this would indeed have been staggering because these were mainly Percy-dominated lands, like the battlefield at Towton itself. It seems impossible that the Lancastrians, when we see the care they took to select what might have been the secondary point of conflict at Towton, would neglect to defend one of the primary points of entry to north of the Aire – the crossing at Castleford. We can only speculate on the reasons for Northumberland’s delay, but for Clifford they were catastrophic.

The action at Ferrybridge began successfully for Clifford. The narrow defile of the partially repaired bridge meant Yorkists trying to cross could be picked off with ease by archers using the longbow or, particularly useful for close sniper work – the crossbow. The Yorkists were at bay. Gregory tells us that Warwick was himself wounded in the leg by an arrow.55 Yet without the protection to his flank that would have been provided by Northumberland holding Castleford, Clifford was completely vulnerable. Perhaps Fauconberg sent a horseman back to Ferrybridge to check the position, or perhaps, due to the close proximity of the two crossings, Fauconberg rode to Ferrybridge to confer with his nephew, Warwick. Whichever, the result was that Fauconberg felt able to risk a charge along the north bank of the river with fast mounted troops, to attack Clifford and trap him. Clifford and his mounted horsemen, the ‘Flower of Craven’ were soon in full flight north, with Fauconberg’s own aforeriders in hot pursuit.

What would have made strategic sense for Fauconberg, of course, would have been to make Clifford not just the potential prey of one group of horsemen, but of two. The first to flush out Clifford;the second, with a head start, to charge along the old Roman ridge road four miles to the west of the established main road north, with directions to strike east across the moor, back on to the main route, there to cut off Clifford’s forces. A risky strategy if there were signs of the Lancastrian army moving into position. But there were no such signs. Clifford’s forces were blocked and engaged by the forward group. Caught by the second of the pursuing forces and encircled, Clifford, either through heat or exhaustion, removed his helmet and was killed by an arrow – possibly a ricochet, as this was an arrow that had lost its head.

Common sense, even custom, dictated that when the lord was killed, his affinity might be allowed to disengage. This practice suited both defenders and attackers: the leaderless and no doubt unpaid troops of the dead man could seek greater safety: and the victors could, unmolested, strip the dead lord of anything of value. A case of ‘spare the commons’. But this was a different type of war. The Flower of Craven were annihilated. This happened, at Dintingdale, to the east of the village of Saxton and just to the south of the Towton battlefield plateau itself.

Clifford’s death was a further act in the cycle of killing and revenge that began at 1st St Albans. In terms of the fate of his troops, it was to presage what was to come the following day.


The pursuit of Clifford and area map for 27–29 March 1461

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