Military history

10

Towton – Palm Sunday 1461

The most brutal day in English history

It is just possible that the main Lancastrian army had already arrived on the battlefield while Clifford’s debacle unfolded out of sight from them. If the wind was blowing in the other direction they might have heard nothing. Even so, it is scarcely credible that they would have missed all signs of a melee involving two large detachments of horsemen. Given any indication at all, Somerset would have risked sending forward reinforcements from the main army to investigate; but there is absolutely no indication that he did so. One explanation put forward is that there was jealousy amongst the commanders and the remainder were happy enough for Clifford and the Flower of Craven to be killed to a man by their Yorkist opponents.1 This seems inconceivable. A far better explanation is provided by Andrew Boardman, the first Chairman of the Towton Battlefield Society, who believes that the Lancastrian army were at the town of Tadcaster, two miles to the north, and only came to the battlefield early on the day of the battle itself.2 And that was most likely just the main part of it. With the city of York only a few miles further away, the substantial extra billeting there would also have been used.

Anyone visiting the battlefield can see immediately why it is so implausible that the Lancastrian army would have wanted to be in position the night before the battle. The reason lies in geography and topography. The villages of Saxton and Towton stand about a mile and three-quarters away from each other, broadly on a north–south axis. There has been some recent building development, but not a great deal. They remain small villages. Between them lies a plateau on top of rising ground. This was to be the scene of the battle. In spite of its protection on one side by areas of woodland, likely to have been rather greater in 1461 than now, it would have been a very exposed, windswept place in which to spend the night. Whereas, in contrast, Tadcaster and York had superior billeting for the Lancastrian leaders.

From Tadcaster the Lancastrians could not have seen Clifford’s desperate retreat. What is more, they would not have perceived a need to be in position, as they had no expectation that the Yorkists would be in the vicinity so quickly. Certainly they would not have anticipated Fauconberg’s crossing the river so soon. All the indications are that the Lancastrian plan was to block, weaken and demoralize the Yorkist army, which they expected to be low on supplies. It was in the Lancastrians’ interest to keep their opponents south of the Aire for as long as possible. That the position of the battlefield adjacent to the main route north and the nature of its terrain made it the most suitable place for a massive confrontation cannot be doubted; but this would have been one of several possible alternatives.

As for the Yorkists on the night before the battle, according to Waurin they were indeed low on supplies.3 It is likely that the main army had not been fully re-provisioned after they left Nottingham, almost a week before. Individual soldiers carried food in bags they attached to themselves, but probably only had enough for a few days at a time. When it came to billeting for the night, the Yorkists would have established themselves at the larger settlement of Sherburn in Elmet, three miles from the battlefield. Although they surmised that the main Lancastrian force was near, they did not know its exact whereabouts. Another reason for deciding on Sherburn is that Edward’s main army was well behind Fauconberg and that distance, six miles from Ferrybridge, would have represented a stiff enough march, complete with baggage. It is possible that, as with the Lancastrians and the city of York, some with the advantage of horsepower would have stayed in the more comfortable conditions of Pontefract, just south of the newly consolidated bridgehead over the Aire.

Warwick’s whereabouts that night are also uncertain, but we have a tantalizing clue. A short distance to the west of Saxton on the B1217 is a pub named The Crooked Billet: an exact synonym for Warwick’s Ragged Staff emblem. Research by Graham Darbyshire, a local historian and the Secretary of the Towton Battlefield Society, has revealed that this was for centuries the site of a farmstead and brewhouse and was probably one as far back as 1461. That would have made it an attractive spot for positioning troops. In any event, even if Edward and the main force were not yet in the vicinity of Saxton, Warwick’s uncle Fauconberg was already there, following his defeat of Clifford.

Regardless of their exact whereabouts on the night of the twenty-eighth, the commanders of the two sides anticipated a major battle on the morrow. Successive engagements having been fought during the day, each side knew that the other was close. It was probably at this point that the Lancastrian commanders under the leadership of Somerset decided to break the bridge over the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, in order to protect themselves against the same type of night attack that had been perpetrated so successfully by Clifford the night before.

In the expectation of further fighting, the camps of both sides were a hive of activity.4 Armourers would have been busily preparing the armour of their masters and principal retainers. This was an intensive job. In order to provide the maximum possible protection, the plates of armour had to move smoothly together. One factor inhibiting this was, as has been said, changes in the weight of the wearer. Another crucial factor was the weather. These suits of armour were made of tempered steel. Kept inside in careful storage they needed little maintenance. However, worn outside in damp conditions they rusted quickly. They needed to be treated with a mixture of sand and vinegar, and depending on the conditions this might need to be done on a daily basis. Once the coating of rust was removed, the armour would be rubbed with olive oil. This intensity of preparation was, of course, the preserve of the very wealthy and those they chose for special treatment. The others did as much or as little as they saw fit.

Weapons would be sharpened. Nobles and men-at-arms carried two major weapons and a dagger. Defensively, good armour made a shield unnecessary. Armour’s hardness and weight also gave its wearer a tremendous potential forward momentum as well as protection, transforming him into a one-man medieval tank. Considered in these terms, it is less surprising that Edmund of Somerset killed four men at 1st St Albans before he himself was taken down. It also gives complete credibility to Trollope’s boast that he was able to dispatch fifteen men at 2nd St Albans, even when wounded by a caltrop.

The extra protection of the vulnerable armpit area, introduced by the middle of the century, gave the armoured man the opportunity to exploit the full potential of the most powerful hand-weapon on the battlefield: the poleaxe, rightfully described as ‘the preferred staff weapon of the knightly classes’.5 This was five weapons in one and would have made short work of an unarmoured man. Its different elements were mounted on a solid wooden shaft, made even sturdier by metal reinforcers called langets, running down from the head. Generally around five feet long, the poleaxe had a sharpened point at each end. The top point formed part of the head, which might have an axe on one side and a hammer head like a sledgehammer across from it, though there was no uniformity as these weapons were customized to the owner’s requirements. The head might also have three spikes of different shapes, with one on each side of the pole at right-angles to the axe and the hammer, with a third beak-like recurved spike mounted on the hammer itself. Some had a hand guard, but many did not, depending on whether the knight preferred to rely on his gauntlets to protect him as he slid his fingers up and down the shaft, shifting his grip to adapt its workable length and to change the type of blow and its force. Specifically weighted in order to maximize impact, in powerful hands with a full swing, the poleaxe delivered a blow that could decapitate an unprotected neck with ease.6

A poleaxe used against armour was more of an equal competition. The ridges that deflected arrows were also designed to turn a lethal blow into a glancing one. Even a full-on strike would not cut through well-cared-for metal. That said, a particularly well-timed and heavy blow could send shock waves through the body, with a force to break bones on top of its impact in buckling and distorting the plates. Once in that state, further pounding blows with axe or beaked hammer would cause additional damage, through the blows themselves and through pushing the warped plates on to the body underneath it. Even though a padded jacket was worn between armour and body, such blows would create much more than superficial bruising. An assault of this type could result in massive organ damage, or deliver further shocks to the victim so great that they could trigger a heart attack or stroke, or, potentially as deadly in a battle situation, a fatal loss of consciousness. With the victim on the ground, an assailant could finish off his victim with a dagger thrust through an unopened visor, or prise it open and stab him through the eye and straight into the brain.

Of course, a wise knight would not finish off a seemingly grievously injured man himself – he would get his men to do it. A man on the ground might be badly wounded or he might just be temporarily unconscious. Someone leaning over to inflict the death blow would himself be vulnerable, offering the completely unprotected area of his groin to his grounded knightly opponent, who, if he was able to gather his wits, could stab upwards – or his own men would attempt to strike in another area dangerously left open by the raising of arms and leaning forward: the inner arms and armpits.

If, however, the victim of the initial hammer blows was, miraculously, still on his feet, using his own poleaxe to defend himself, what then? Where would the assailant look to strike and which of the deadly poleaxe components would he use? Success usually depended on spotting a gap between the different pieces of armour, which the knight would then attempt to widen by smashing it with the spikes. As soon as the opening was wide enough, he would finish off his opponent with a fatal thrust of the topmost spear point – or look to his men to move in for the kill. There would be danger all the while from the defender’s men-at-arms, who would not be standing idly by if they saw their man in trouble, but would try to interpose themselves and enable him to be pulled away.

As for the knight’s second weapon, this would most likely be a sword. In the struggle for supremacy between the defence provided by armour and the offensive weapons designed to penetrate it, the shape of the sword and its use had changed. The ability of the large two-handed broadsword, with both edges sharpened, to smash and slash through mail had been negated by the end of the fourteenth century through the development of plate. Thus the shape of the blade changed to take this into account. No longer of uniform width down its length, the blade now tapered to a sharp point. No longer so broad, the sword was consequently lighter, which accounts for the sword’s name: the ‘hand-and-a-half’. Both edges were still sharp and held in both hands and used in a stabbing action, the sword could probe for vulnerabilities in the same way as the end point of the poleaxe, rather like a long two-handed bayonet. Alternatively it could be used with one hand in sword play.

The protection of hands by steel gauntlets also enabled the sword to be employed in a rather unexpected manner. As we can see from illustrations in the Fight Books,7 it could be grasped at the blade end, with the pommel, the weighted end of the hilt, effectively serving as the end of a club. This could be brought down with impressive force on an opponent. Evidence of its effectiveness remains in the verb still in use today: to pummel.

The knight’s third weapon was his dagger. He would have used the rondel, named after the rounded disc which served as a guard for the hilt, and which was designed specifically for military use. Yet daggers were scarcely the preserve of the knightly class. Everybody had a dagger. They were an essential everyday tool, used for cutting up food and for the myriad other tasks that required a sharp blade. They were worn attached to the belt and being on show, some had highly ornamented hilts, to demonstrate the wealth and social position of their owners. The most common type was the ballock, its name deriving from a resemblance between the shape of the hilt and male genitalia. The use of a dagger in battle was straightforward: grasped in the fist and brought down with force, it was ideal for finishing off an opponent. The blade was reinforced so that it would not break off when hitting metal or bone.

If all else failed, and the knight was completely disarmed, he had one last weapon: his armoured body. Not just his gauntleted fists, but every hard surface and every edge of the metal that encased him.

Archers, the type of men who had used the dagger so effectively at Agincourt, were lightly clad. They had another means of defence in hand-to-hand combat. This was the buckler, a light circular shield of beaten iron plate or of leather stretched over wood. An archer’s main side-arm was a sword, slightly shorter than the hand-and-a-half. This made him quick and nimble in close fighting, but a sensible archer would remain on the periphery of the separate skirmishes of battle. He would have spent the night before Towton waxing and polishing his bow and waxing and oiling his bowstring. It was essential that both were maintained so that the bow did not dry out and crack and the string could withstand difficult weather conditions.8

Swords and poleaxes were the weapons of the professionals. Those who were mustered from their traditional peacetime roles in town or country brought an array of pole-mounted weapons, which were used to slash and stab. Most common was the bill hook, an agricultural tool designed for chopping hedges and brushwood, which, with small adaptations for military use, became a weapon resembling the continental halberd in appearance. Its hook could be used to reach around the back of the opponent’s leg and then be pulled back. If the sharp blade hit largely unprotected flesh, it could cut through the tendons. If it hit an area that was padded, the force of the pulling motion could be enough to knock the man off balance. In addition, the bill had a stabbing spike like a bayonet on its top end and a shorter spike on the reverse of the head. The latter might be recurved for pushing into gaps between plates of armour, or when shaped like a lozenge tapered to a point, it might even punch through poorer quality plate.

Another weapon was the glaive, effectively a sharp knife mounted on a pole: this was primarily used for slashing, though some also had a back spike for stabbing. There were spears, cheap to produce, simple to construct, and of course axes: brought by woodsmen who only needed to change the shaft length of the tool to transform it from wood axe to battle axe.

Also there was the mace: this, like all battlefield weapons, was massively varied in form. It could be mounted on a shaft of any length, but it was probably most effectively used as a one-handed club, tightly gripped within the fist with the aid of a leather strap.With its lead-weighted and spiked or multi-bladed head it would have distorted overlapping plates of armour and caused horrific injuries on the unprotected.9 The higher quality maces used by nobles were composed of broad-bladed segments, or flanges, designed to administer maximum force but not to stick into the victim; these could be deployed in a frenzy of repeated sharp percussive blows.

And there were also hand gunners. Discoveries in 2010 proved for the first time that mobile field artillery was in use at the Battle of Bosworth, fewer than twenty-five years after Towton. No shot from field artillery – as opposed to hand cannon – has, as yet, been found at Towton. If, as seems likely, field artillery did not feature at the battle, this may have been for one of two reasons: firstly, that the speed of the Yorkist advance and their crossing of the Aire at Castleford did not give the Lancastrians time to prepare the necessary fixed positions. Secondly, that the commanders had learned from experience. After all, during the previous battles of the war, field artillery had proved at best ineffective, at worst counter-productive. At Ludford Bridge, it was used only to fire warning shots. It slowed the Duke of York’s march north in 1460 and was sent back to London. At Northampton, the guns in the Lancastrian emplacements had become waterlogged and unusable. At 2nd St Albans, the disorder of the artillery redeployment was one of the factors that created the chaos leading to Warwick’s defeat. Perhaps its use by the Austin Friar after Blore Heath was its only positive contribution.

This is not to say that artillery was ineffective per se. It had been usefully deployed for decades; cannons could fire cannonballs of prodigious size with impressive effect. When Henry IV besieged Berwick in 1405, such was the effect on the town walls of one shot from his cannon, that the town surrendered immediately.10 Its effects could be very gruesome indeed. The last Montagu Earl of Salisbury – the Kingmaker’s maternal grandfather – was one of the earliest high-ranking casualties of artillery fire: at the siege of Orleans, a ricocheting stone ball embedded an iron bar from a window frame in his face. The gentleman who was killed by the stone ball with its next bounce was fortunate in comparison; the poor earl lingered in agony for eight days.11 Effective cannon could indeed be decisive in a war of sieges: as Charles VII showed when reducing the towns of English Normandy.

But the Wars of the Roses were wars fought through battles, not sieges. This was partly cause and effect. England’s towns were either not fortified or their fortifications were neglected, making sieges and the use of siege cannon unnecessary. England may have been long at war with the French, but there had been no real fear of invasion until the 1450s. The earlier use of guns, at Northampton and 2nd St Albans, consisted of an attempt to recreate the fixed positions of siege warfare within the context of a battlefield by building fortified earthworks and firing guns from them. The fiasco for Warwick at 2nd St Albans was partly due to his being caught between one such position and another. By Towton, it seems that lessons had been learned on both sides.

In any case, practical considerations dictated that the English should ignore the cautionary words of Vegetius and of Christine de Pisan ‘not to risk all in battle’.12 The dynamic of having large armies of paid troops in a civil war meant that campaigns had to be extremely swift. For although punishment for deserters could be brutal, the worry of desertion by unpaid and unfed troops was a real one for a commander.

Some gunnery artefacts have, however, been discovered at Towton and they are remarkable. The hand cannons fired by individual gunners were long tubes designed to project an explosive force from the far end. It is amazing that these were able to fire at all at Towton, given the conditions on the battlefield. But European specialists did so for both sides. Yet for all the sound and fury, it is extremely unlikely that many of the opposition were killed. The greatest effect would have been in the noise and smoke, which would have impressed one’s own troops rather than the enemy’s. And not necessarily positively: the barrel itself could explode – as shattered fragments from two separate guns found recently at Towton bear witness – and kill the gunner and those around him. These weapons were still at the experimental stage. So was the ammunition they used and an artefact found at Towton is, like the guns themselves, historically important. It is shot of an impressive three centimetres in diameter, not of stone but of iron encased in lead. It is, at the time of writing, the oldest ‘composite’ lead shot ever found on a European battlefield.

Handguns were partly taking over the role of crossbows on the battlefield; both could be penetrating, but both were very slow to reload in comparison to the longbow. The crossbow was at its most effective when the rate of shot was not so important; they also required less in the way of strength and technique from the user. Women and young boys were known to have used them from continental castle walls to resist sieges. Once the crossbow was loaded, the only skill required was to point and aim. It was the perfect weapon for a sniper: one such had killed Richard the Lionheart, another was to achieve immortality at Towton.

Finally, what of the horsemen and their horses? Far more horsemen travelled to the battlefield than fought there. The nobles and their men-at-arms travelled by horse, as did some of the mustered men. Some did, but not all. For one thing, the amount of feed necessary to maintain tens of thousands of horses was prohibitive; for another, the mustered men were expected to bring their own equipment, and horses were expensive. Their use on campaign and in battle had become more restricted with the advent of the longbow, the devastating effect of the latter having drastically changed the nature of warfare. By the time of Towton, horses for the knightly class were often most valued as conveyances to and from the battlefield. As in Shakespeare’s Richard III, ‘My kingdom for a horse’, they were essential in dire emergency – the getaway cars of the fifteenth century. With that potential purpose in mind, the role of the groom, who might be little more than a child, was extremely important. He was expected to remain on standby at his post. Any desertion was liable to be severely punished, for instance with the loss of an ear.13 The phrase a clip around the ear denoted a lasting punishment in that period.

On the march, horsemen, as described earlier, were sent ahead to secure food and supplies. They could be used away from the main army to gather intelligence, though, as we have seen, they were not necessarily effective in that role. They could be deployed – as they were the day before Towton – in cavalry confrontations against enemy horsemen. Chillingly, in set-piece battles, they could be placed at the back of their own lines for potential use against their own troops. In this role, as ‘prickers’, they would run down and kill anyone trying to desert during the battle; the ‘pricking’ being accomplished with the aid of the ten-foot lance they carried.

The cavalry were most deadly in pursuit of enemy soldiers fleeing from the field. Frantically tearing off jacks and helmets in an effort to run more quickly, these would be completely vulnerable to horsemen equipped with sword, axe and mace, or the specialist weapon of the horseman’s hammer. This last, otherwise known as a warhammer, came with sledgehammer and beaked spike. In this context the horseman took on the role of the hunter.

Returning to the eve of battle and the billeting of troops, it would have been the case that if the commanders of the two armies found themselves sheltered billets of reasonable comfort, the common soldiery would not have done. The medieval man was far hardier, far better able to withstand the rigours of the outdoors than we are today. There was no problem sleeping under the stars in the spring, summer and autumn months – the normal period for military campaigning. But though the calendar showed the first days of spring, the weather itself was decidedly wintry. It would have been an uncomfortable night, sharpened on one side by pangs of hunger; on the other by the fate of Clifford and the Flower of Craven.

At daybreak on Palm Sunday morning, both sides began to prepare for battle. The weather was stormy,14 but that was not the only reason the day was inauspicious for battle. For medieval man, ‘the solemn feast of Palm Sunday’15 signified more than just the beginning of Holy Week; it was a day when peace was particularly venerated. In addition to risking their lives, the men who fought on that day would be jeopardizing their chances in the hereafter. It was therefore considered vital to attend Mass and receive absolution for their sins in preparation for the coming battle. Should they be killed, their best hope of salvation was to be buried on a west–east axis, with head to the west and feet to the east, preferably within a consecrated church and as close to the altar as possible. Thus when the resurrection came, the soul clothed in new flesh would be best placed for the second coming, the new dawn of life. This manner of burial, for the Church of England at least, remains the custom to this day.16

In reality, this option would only be available to a few. For the rest, if they were lucky they would be buried in the correct position in consecrated ground. The unlucky would be thrown into a pit in unconsecrated ground, to lie in haphazard fashion with their bones jumbled up with fellow unfortunates; their expectation, at best, would be everlasting purgatory. The position was not irredeemable, however, provided you were disinterred and reburied in the correct manner within consecrated ground. For some at Towton, this occurred as recently as 1996.

Occasionally, consecrated ground could come to you. This happened at the battlefield at Shrewsbury, when the troubled King Henry IV sought to give himself peace of mind by commissioning the beautiful memorial church of St Mary Magdalene over the grave pits and having the surrounding ground specially consecrated. It also happened at Towton, where the victor likewise commissioned a memorial chapel, to be completed by Richard III. The Towton Chapel was a victim of the vicissitudes of history. In contrast to Shrewsbury where a Battlefield Church remains to this day, the Towton Chapel all too quickly became a memorial to an event that a new dynasty, the Tudors, wanted to forget. The building materials decayed; they were removed for other purposes. The memorial was lost, though it may now be in the process of being rediscovered.17

While accepting that he could not control the treatment of his body after death, there were other ways a soldier could protect his soul in the afterlife and the means were readily available. Pardoners sold indulgences under special licence to reduce the time spent in purgatory,18 though the nature of the licences and therefore the pardons given could be distinctly dubious. Impoverished men who had been disfigured in warfare did well to approach an army before battle, as an act of charity towards them would figure in the calling of accounts after death and also give the donor some faith that such an act of compassion to the afflicted might forestall a similar fate for him.

There was another potential cause of damnation: that of opposing the rightful king. Henry VI might still be in York with Queen Margaret and Prince Edward but he remained an anointed and crowned king: his Standard would be raised in battle, and to oppose it even in his absence was treason. Few of Henry’s men would have met their sovereign and, in view of the King’s broken condition, it is probably as well that they had not done so. But they revered him as God’s ordained ruler and viewed Edward as a traitorous insurgent.

Edward was not a crowned and anointed king, merely an acclaimed one. He was, however, present on the battlefield.

Henry just may, in his own mind, have once seen himself as the embodiment of the very ancient role of priest as king, but Edward was obviously the incarnation of the warrior lord. The roles that Henry V had been able to combine, through his piety and through his conquest, were now split between the two contenders. The Lancastrians would be reassured by Edward’s lack of legitimacy, but his own troops would be inspired by his charisma as they made their final preparations for battle.

Whether the armies were close enough for the heralds to travel to and fro is not known. If they were, it is likely that a ‘parlay’ was attempted merely for form’s sake. Ahead of a battle it was the heralds’ role to act as messengers between the two sides to settle the rules of engagement. When it was over, they had the grim task of noting those of quality19 who had perished, as well as estimating the overall number of dead. At Towton, however, their work would begin at the end of the battle. There was no need to discuss rules of engagement for the attitudes of the nobles on both sides were well known. The Somerset and Northumberland heirs sought revenge for 1st St Albans, and the York and Neville heirs looked to avenge Wakefield – these grievances alone would have ensured that there would be no mercy, ‘no quarter’ for the defeated.

As for the soldiery on each side, there was also a sense of alienation, of an acute antipathy. Only this and the particular strain of the battle can explain the events that followed. For one thing, each regarded the other as being in league with a foreign enemy: the Lancastrians had French and Scottish troops and the Yorkists Burgundians. For another, there was a basic regional difference between the two sides: the Lancastrians were mainly from the North with some from the Midlands; the Yorkists were mainly from the South and West, including Wales, and again with men from the Midlands. The River Trent was the dividing line. Certainly there would have been some Yorkists north of the Trent, for example from the Duke of York’s own territories and those of the Nevilles; similarly the Earls of Wiltshire and Devon and others like them would have been able to draw on some of their affinities from further south. But recruitment would have been more difficult. As for the areas in between, they competed under the Commissions of Array, which would have meant that those who, for instance, arrived first in towns were able to recruit ‘unattached’ townsmen.

The troops of the two sides sounded very different, both in terms of their accents and in their phraseology and use of language. Some, mainly Yorkists, would have been Welsh speakers. Even their bread, the staff of life and a major part of the diet of the common man, was different. Due to the shorter growing season in the North, the bread there was based on rough barley and oats – something that would have caused grumbling amongst the Yorkist troops as they travelled northwards. In the case of the men from Kent, it is likely that their drink of choice was different, as Flemish weavers had brought hops and hence beer to Kent in around 1400. Hops were important as a preservative, beer keeping far longer and far better than the unhopped ale. But it was an acquired taste, one that would have been adopted in Kent, London and other parts of the South East – but certainly not north of the Trent, where the sweeter taste of ale would have still held sway.20

There was a definite sense of cultural difference, as reflected by John Benet’s Chronicle, which noted an Oxford student riot between Northerners and Southerners earlier in Henry VI’s reign, leaving many injured; followed the next day by a battle between Northerners and the Welsh.21 In a riot, such a sense of difference can cause injury; in the extremities of warfare, as the world’s experiences of more recent times can testify, it can engender massacres.

Before moving up to the battlefield, ale would have been consumed by both sides, with the nobles probably drinking mulled wine. Because of the numbers involved, preparations began well before dawn. These numbers were huge indeed – as would be the losses. Even if the Towton Battlefield Archaeological Survey were able to excavate every inch of the battlefield, their sterling work would still not give us the exact number of the dead, because huge grave pits were cleared, for extremely strong political reasons, in the 1480s. However, we can attempt to deduce the numbers from other evidence. This we can also do for those who moved into position at the beginning of the battle. Indeed, we come back first to the figure, widely reported immediately afterwards, which placed the number of dead at 28,000. This total may include the figures for the subsidiary battle the day before at Ferrybridge and the pursuit and annihilation of Clifford and the Flower of Craven; it may also need to be reduced slightly for the manner of counting by the heralds. Even so, it is enormous. Even if we go for a lower figure such as 20,000 for the battle and the rout,22 this is the largest one-day death toll on British soil. That in itself is due to the nature of the battle and the recruitment for it.

As discussed, Commissions of Array, effectively an order to mobilize for the King, were not easily avoided. Even less avoidable were they now when issued by two competing kings and enforced by men such as the Earl of Warwick, with an urgency created by the expectation that this would be one last desperate effort in order to secure their own and their families’ survival. As the generators and enforcers of this recruitment the great majority of the active nobility were present; as has been stated above, a greater percentage were at Towton than engaged in any other battle during these wars.23

In these circumstances they did not just enrol well-armed and well-protected men between sixteen and sixty. There were many who were less well-suited, particularly in terms of their defensive equipment; men who at any other time would have been disregarded as ‘naked men’. From this perspective, figures such as 50,000 seem probable, and even the 75,000 quoted by one military historian, representing 10 per cent of available men, is not impossible.24

These figures would also make sense in terms of the terrain. Across a potential battlefront of up to half a mile, it would take these numbers to spread across the ground in significant depth of ranks to prevent the threat of either gaps being punched through the line or of being outflanked. With such numbers, they could stay engaged, as we shall see, for many hours.

In the early morning, the Lancastrians moved into position first and awaited their opponents, a council of war having previously decided their exact positions on the field. Somerset, advised by Trollope, was in command. He was not the most senior Lancastrian – that was Henry, Duke of Exeter – but Somerset had a record of victory at Wakefield and some, if partial, success in Calais. Whereas the kindest word to describe Exeter would be ‘reckless’;25 his actions in the 1450s had been a record of desperation and defeat. It seems that Exeter, therefore, commanded the Lancastrian reserve, with Northumberland taking responsibility for the left and Somerset the right.

It was appropriate that the blood feud which began with the skirmish at St Albans in 1455 should be settled by the direct heirs of its initial protagonists, Somerset and York. For the Yorkists also looked to the younger man. Edward was no longer in Warwick’s shadow as he had been at Northampton. He had been successful in his own independent command at Mortimer’s Cross and, more importantly, he had become King – or, at least, a king. Warwick, the hero of Calais, had lost both the battle and Henry VI at 2nd St Albans. Though he had blamed, caught and executed the errant Kentish Captain Lovelace,26 and though the remainder of his men from Kent still revered him, his authority had dimmed just as that of his young cousin had risen. And there was a further cause for Warwick to be overshadowed at Towton: the arrow wound he had received at Ferrybridge.27 The third Yorkist commander was Fauconberg, fresh from the destruction of Clifford, with command of the vanguard and responsibility for the archers.28 Yet the Yorkists had been waiting frantically for a fourth – Norfolk – of whom, and his troops, there was still no sign.

The terrain of the battlefield at Towton in March 1461 is clearly recognizable from the topography today. It is agricultural land, as it was then, and has not been built upon. The nature of the farmland in 1461 was different, some pasture, some arable, some managed woodland. Trees and bushes were probably individually dotted around the plateau, but woods in any profusion were to the west, that is to the right and rear of the Lancastrian position. The Lancastrian position itself was ideal. For though it is accurate to describe the entire area between Towton and Saxton as a plateau, in so far as it was raised above the surrounding countryside – indeed marking the highest point between Ferrybridge and York29 – the land was not flat. It consisted of undulating ground, the sort of landscape which in other times and other places might be considered for a racecourse, for an Epsom or a Doncaster, and then rejected due to its more extreme features. From the highest point of the northern part of the plateau, the ground slopes down more steeply from north to south for around 400 yards. The top of this incline corresponds to the very point where the Cock Beck, down in the valley below, snakes sharply inwards before snaking out again (see map, p. 175). An army on top of the ridge would have a commanding position. In fact its complete protection from flank attack on a narrowed front made it extraordinarily strong. On their right, the land dropped precipitously to the Cock Beck – shallower today but still likely to flood in winter – with the stream arching around to the back of their position. To their left the ground fell away towards marshland. Unable to outflank them, the hungry and numerically inferior Yorkist army would have no alternative but to attack up the rising ground.

There was only one conceivable area of weakness. Should the Yorkists make the same manoeuvre as they did at Castleford and get behind the Lancastrian army, they could strike at the rear. This they could do by crossing the west-to-east stretch of the Cock Beck a mile and a half to the west at Aberford,30 then cutting across country three and a half miles to the north-east, and recrossing the river at the bridge on the London road between Towton and Tadcaster. However, as at Tadcaster, the Lancastrians could, if necessary, destroy the bridge.

The speed of Edward’s advance, the delay of Northumberland in meeting it, and the annihilation of the Flower of Craven was, of course, unexpected. It would have shaken the Lancastrian leadership. That said, the Lancastrians had established what seemed an unassailable position and Edward would have to attack them, both to get to York and to obtain fresh supplies. Battle would be joined, because the Yorkists required it and because the Lancastrians now sought it, having engineered it on terms and territory of their choosing.

For the Lancastrians, Towton was the best ground on the direct route between the River Aire and York. We cannot know whether it was always the Lancastrian commanders’ intention to lure a weakened Yorkist army across the River Aire and deeper into alien territory and thus to destruction at Towton, or whether this was a secondary position, based on the assumption that the forces of their ‘treasonous upstart’ enemy would dissolve at the River Aire just as those of his associate Warwick had done at 2nd St Albans. If it was a secondary choice, it was still one chosen with extreme care. And it offered the potential to double the role that might be played by the Aire; for, with the Yorkists broken on the battlefield and in headlong retreat to the south, the river would again become a substantial barrier. This time it would not be used to prevent entry to the North, but to bar escape.

Thus Somerset and his fellow commanders had every reason for confidence as the Lancastrian forces raised their highly coloured and decorated banners: those of Somerset with the quartered arms of England and France within a blue-and-white chequered border; Northumberland’s with the blue lion rampant on a yellow background and three lucies (river pike) on bright red.31 The badges on the surcoats of the men of each affinity matched the banners. There was no uniformity of colour for the contending sides, and no uniform as such. But there was little chance of confusion for an army all facing the same way and organized in blocks of affinity which operated all the way up from the lowliest soldiers to the commanders: Somerset, Northumberland and Exeter. Thus Northumberland’s block would naturally contain the northern Lords Dacre, Fitzhugh, Mauley and Lord John Neville; Somerset’s would take in Devon, Wiltshire, and the Lords Hungerford, Rivers, Scales, Rougemont-Grey and De La Warre – and of course, to the fore, Sir Andrew Trollope; finally Exeter would naturally have Lords Welles, Willoughby and Grey of Codnor.32

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Opening positions – the archery duel

All gathered together, they began to move forward – being in position on the ridge by around 9 a.m.

The only thing, of course, for which they could not plan was the weather, which continued cold, blustery and threatening.

When the Yorkists were sighted, a resounding shout went up from both armies, the acclamation of support for their respective kings. As the Lancastrians had the commanding position, Fauconberg was forced to move the Yorkist archers to the foot of the far slope of Towton Dale, giving the advantage of height, thus distance and killing power, to the Lancastrians. But the sixty-year-old, physically unimpressive ‘little Fauconberg’ was a seasoned soldier of vast experience and he knew how to read the weather.

As the archers of the two sides set up position, a storm of biblical proportions broke out.33 Sleet and snow were to alternate during a day of appalling conditions. At this critical moment, according to Hall’s Chronicle, it was sleet.34 The wind direction was crucial: it came directly from the south and recent scientific tests on the battlefield in extremely blustery conditions have shown what a difference this would have made. Heading into such a wind, the Lancastrian arrows would have lost range; by the same token, the Yorkist arrows would have gained it. The Yorkists now had the advantage of distance – probably more than fifty yards – of impact and of visibility. The Lancastrian archers were blinded by sleet being driven directly into their faces. They could not see where their arrows were landing and began to shoot volley after volley at an enemy flickering in and out of vision in the distance, hoping to best their opponents through quantity of shot – but their arrows were falling short.

Fauconberg knew that his Yorkist archers had to measure the wind, to gauge its effect on distance and to adjust their shooting angle. This would not have been a simple matter. Frantic hand signals down the line directed the men to try one ranging volley. Then they were able to put their experience, based on years of practising on Sundays and festival days, to good use. Unencumbered by the hazard of enemy arrows and with the wind in their favour, the Yorkist arrows began to find their targets with sickening effect. The Lancastrian archers started to fall, pierced in a fusillade lasting perhaps seven or eight minutes and involving hundreds of thousands of arrows, which, even considering the appalling conditions, would have been shot at a rate of around ten per minute.35 Some Yorkists, their own arrows spent, moved forward and began to pick up the Lancastrians’ arrows and shoot them back into the now advancing soldiery. For under such unrelenting arrow attack, the Lancastrian infantry had no alternative but to abandon their strong position and to move forward to halt the Yorkist archers and prevent the annihilation of their own men.

As the enemy closed, the Yorkist bowmen were forced to turn and, facing the storm of sleet, run back to the protection of their lines. Yet the Lancastrian advance would have been unsteady. In poor visibility, tripping over and through the wasted arrows of their own side, they eventually arrived at the flatter ground at the bottom of the slope.36 The advantage of position had been lost.

In these conditions, it would have been remarkable if Somerset’s advancing men had not missed the end of the Yorkist line, possibly overlapping it. Thus with the Yorkists themselves surging forward some yards to resist the momentum of the enemy, and with those on the Lancastrian right engaging more quickly, this in itself would have caused the two lines to start pivoting from facing roughly south/south-west and north/north-east now towards south-east/ north-west, particularly if the reserve of each side was thrown in haphazardly, with the Lancastrian right reinforced. Had this happened, in the chaos of battle, that in itself would have been enough to swing the battle line forty-five degrees.37

The skewing of the line so early on would give credence to accounts of Edward’s crucial role at this stage of the battle.38 Under the banner of the arms of the King of England, Edward’s own position on the battlefield would have been obvious. At nearly six foot four inches, his height would have made him stand out; so also would his killing potential. As children at Ludlow, he and Rutland had had the best available tuition in combat from the best available fight masters. They had access in manuscript form to the fight manuals of the day. They would have mastered combat techniques through constant practice. At nearly nineteen, with a good diet and a body able to burn up calories through rigorous daily exercise on foot or on horseback, Edward would have been exceptionally fit. His size gave him that essential advantage for the armoured knight at this period: reach. In addition, he had exceptional self-confidence; after all, at Mortimer’s Cross he had seemed blessed by providence.

These attributes stood Edward in good stead now, for the still superior numbers of the Lancastrians, magnified in this part of the line, started to push him and his men back in the ‘press’ of the battle. And ‘press’ was the word: the space required for the full flourish of poleaxe and sword would have been denied.

Despite their own hours of fighting practice – training with staves to deflect the long shafts of their opponents’ weapons before following through with the dagger – the common soldiery, as men with no armour, would have found the conditions horrendous. Just the act of keeping their feet must have been difficult: the ground under their loose leather boots was becoming increasingly slippery, particularly with sleet becoming snow, with blood and dead bodies underfoot. And with a sudden stumble there was always the risk of lurching forward and exposing the neck and back to an opponent’s spike.

This was the general manner of battle. It would have been punctuated along the line by demonstrations of far greater destruction from men who, better armed and fully armoured, could risk much more. Not that they, in the front line, would have had the room to swing the full weight of their poleaxe. Some might have tried the tactic of standing one line behind their own men to give protection to their inside arms and armpits as they brought the hammerhead down; this would have been difficult but not impossible amongst troops fighting as a unit. And each lord’s men would have been a unit, with him as the spearhead, and his trusted personal household men and closest retainers around him. It was a formation that reflected a relationship of mutual advantage: the lord depended on his men for his life; the men on their lord for preferment, lifestyle and livelihood.

Writing about 2nd St Albans, Gregory had said that the men who won the day were the officers of the royal and noble households and those on permanent pay, ‘the household men and feed men’,39 and in the close hand-to-hand fighting of these battles, they were always likely to have a major advantage. In the press of battle, the better fed, the better trained and maintained, the better armed and the better protected were bound to be more effective. Quantity of manpower was important, but so was its quality. The requirement was for men for whom the preparation for war was a matter of honour, opportunity, or just a very good living; men for whom combat was a full-time job.

These were the men that Edward now relied upon as the Lancastrians, having overcome such a disastrous start to the battle, began to claw back the advantage. With their greater destructive power, generated by having more nobles and their attendant professionals and fortified by a higher head count, they began to push the Yorkists in Edward’s sector backwards. Under immense pressure the line buckled – but it did not break. This was the second event that could have shifted the battle line on its axis to north-west/south-east.

The third came in early afternoon when Norfolk’s forces at last arrived. Rather than coming over the back of the plateau to form a new reserve, as might have been expected, they continued north at the far right of the battlefield and on a lower level along the side of it. This may have been due to the lie of the land and the poor visibility obscuring the true disposition of the troops; the dreadful weather conditions may, if anything, have worsened, and the howling wind could have ‘thrown’ the sound of battle. But the choice of deployment might, conceivably, have been due to the genius of its commander. It brought Norfolk’s troops around the base of the plateau, into the flatter ground known as North Acres, and into the side of the Lancastrian line. Suddenly the pressure was on the Lancastrians.

But it was their turn not to buckle. That the two armies held firm under such pressure was partly due to bravery, leadership and determination. It was also due to the nature of the terrain. The area that saw the bulk of the fighting, that of North Acres and Towton Dale, is lower-lying area ground bordered by slopes. This was the area in which the tens of thousands of troops were jammed.

Towton had become a long battle, a far cry from the short skirmish of 1st St Albans. It was kept going through the men’s ability, in spite of the restrictions of space, to move from front rank to back. This was vital for the shock troops of the battle, the men in full armour. Fighting in full armour was hot and, with visor down, airless. In one sense, the cold of the day at Towton was helpful, though some parts of the body, those protected only by mail, would have felt the chill. It was essential to take quick breaks, perhaps to risk taking off the helmet and, as Clifford had done so fatally the day before, to remove the gorget that protected the throat, in order to have a sip of wine. This is exactly what the Lancastrian Lord Dacre of Gilsland did. Dacre was a soldier experienced in the harsh clashes of raid and counter raid in the Scottish borders; he had organized the Lancastrian Commission of Array in Cumbria in 1459 and had probably done so again in 1460–61.40 Having pulled back from the front line, he would have felt safe. What happened next was formerly marked by a Bur or Elder Tree, one of many successors on the battlefield, as succeeding human generations have continued the link with the past stretching back five and half centuries. Legend has it – and it is a legend – that Dacre was deliberately targeted for assassination from the original bur tree by a sniper with a crossbow, a young lad who hated Dacre for treatment his father had received. In reality, as Andrew Boardman concludes, it is unlikely that someone could have been stalked in this way on a medieval battlefield, particularly one involving so many thousands of troops in such ghastly conditions.41 Whatever the motivation and the means, Dacre was struck in the throat or the head with a crossbow bolt or an arrow. His tomb, remarkably for a noble, and due to special circumstances, is not in a church but in the churchyard at nearby Saxton.42 Many more nobles were to die that day.

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The battle lines turn

At last, in the late afternoon, one of the lines broke. We do not know how and under what circumstances; perhaps a lord was killed, and his men, having lost their paymaster, lost the reason for fighting. Perhaps an outflanking manoeuvre succeeded and allowed the end of the line to be attacked from three sides. In such circumstances, ones and twos making a fateful decision can, in a matter of minutes, even seconds, turn into dozens, then hundreds, until the coherence of the Lancastrian army began to dissolve. This was the moment when the young grooms caring for the horses of the great magnates and their most important men-at-arms held the power of life and death. The higher peerage took flight. Wiltshire, the ‘flying earl’, was on this occasion joined by Somerset, Exeter and Devon. For some it was to be a brief respite. Northumberland got away, but he was mortally wounded and was to die within hours at York. Of the lesser peerage, Lords Welles, Mauley and Lord John Neville – the betrayer of Richard of York at Wakefield – joined Dacre amongst the Lancastrian dead. So did Andrew Trollope, who this time was overwhelmed on the battlefield. No fewer than forty-two captured Lancastrian knights were summarily executed on Edward’s orders.43

This, in comparison to the previous battles, was a staggering number of lords and knights. But they formed a mere fraction of the overall death toll. The appalling weather that continued all day, the treacherous conditions underfoot, the lie of the land, all combined to engender a disaster. The forty-five-degree turn of the armies, combined with the necessity of the Lancastrian advance, had transformed their seemingly insuperable battle position into a death trap. The fleeing troops had two main escape routes from the battlefield. If they were on the left of the line, they could try to climb back up the slippery slope and make their way on to the northern part of the plateau. But this brought them into open country – cavalry country. And their immediate exit route away from the cavalry was to the right, down a vertiginous slope to the sodden ground leading to the icy waters of the overflowing Cock Beck below. The other alternative for the soldiers was to join, in individual panic, their thousands of slipping and sliding brothers-in-arms who were being funnelled down from the flat ground of the battlefield, down into the area of Towton Dale, down into what opened out to become the wider open space of what would become known as Bloody Meadow and then down further towards the Cock Beck. Many must have died in the tripping, trampling crush. And as the Lancastrians struggled, they were being targeted.

In later years and quieter times, Edward IV told Philippe de Commynes that: ‘In all the battles he had won, as soon as he sensed victory, he mounted his horse and shouted to his men that they must spare the common soldiers and kill the lords, of whom few or none escaped.’44 This statement befitted a man of imperious charm that could turn to sudden violence within the flicker of an eye:45 a man who, with every justification, felt blessed by providence and whose reality could, to a great extent, be what he wanted it to be. The latter part of his statement to Commynes was only partially true. The first part was a blatant lie. It is doubtful that Edward could have reined in his exhausted but vengeful army, even if he had wanted to do so. He did not. Edward had been in the Yorkist camp at 1st St Albans, six years before;46 though too young to fight, he had seen the complete lack of mercy of those who did. The chronicler Edward Hall was in no doubt of Edward’s planned intention, that ‘he made proclamation that no prisoner should be taken, nor one enemy saved’.47 His army, primed to expect and to give no quarter, was surging forward with the adrenalin levels produced by victory and pursuit.

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The rout

Some of the fleeing Lancastrians desperately pulled off clothing, including jacks, to speed their attempted escape. Others sacrificed speed for protection. All were at the mercy of Yorkist pursuit troops on horseback. Some of these may have been mounted archers, but most would have been mounted men-at-arms, including the prickers. Cavalry, so vulnerable facing the longbow, was brutally effective in its use of the horseman’s hammer on the heads and backs of men running away.

Some of the ‘Northern men’ nevertheless managed to reach the swift deep waters of Cock Beck, perhaps trying to make for the bridge across it – not knowing that it had already been destroyed. What then? The answer lies at the far end of Bloody Meadow as it bends around the side of the northern plateau and as Cock Beck itself snakes to the east. Today it is secluded, tree-lined and shaded, but in the late afternoon gloom of Palm Sunday 1461, it bore a very different aspect. In place of the bridge that the Lancastrians, to protect the rear of their position, had themselves destroyed before the battle – just as they had at Tadcaster – another one began to rise from the depths to the top of the waters. This was a bridge formed by men who had been dragged under the surface, whether by the press of their comrades or because their multi-layered jacks continued absorbing water until they became as heavy, perhaps heavier than the armour of the horseless, stranded men-at-arms flailing through the water. It was also partly formed by others, who, slowed to a standstill in the crush of crossing, had proved easy targets for arrow or hammer. It now became a horrific lifeline as the men struggled over their dead comrades. Its name survives to this day: the Bridge of Bodies.

The pursuit was relentless. Some Lancastrians who fled due north and over the back of the escarpment then crossed Cock Beck further to the east and succeeded in reaching Tadcaster. Here they faced the fate intended by their own commanders for the enemy. Instead of the Yorkists being caught and slaughtered at the broken bridge over the River Aire at Ferrybridge, many Lancastrians died on the banks of the River Wharfe or drowned trying to cross it. The scale of the killing is captured in Lord Chancellor George Neville’s letter to Coppini, written just days after the battle, in which he reports that so many were slain ‘dead bodies were seen as to cover an area six miles long by three broad and about four furlongs’.48

The chase did not stop at Tadcaster, it continued into the night and on another ten miles to York itself. The soldiers hunted down en route were ‘small change’ in comparison to the big prizes of the ‘ex-royals’, Henry, Margaret and young Prince Edward, but hunted down they were.

Somerset reached York before the pursuers and he, with Henry and his family, ‘with such small company as they had’,49 desperately fled northwards.

That night Edward stayed close to the battlefield. A field of war where only the wealthiest of the wounded could have any chance of being tended, only the more illustrious of the dead any hope of being buried in consecrated ground. The heralds began their duty of counting and the victorious troops the work of stripping corpses. Reusable armour and weapons were recycled. The dead were relieved of valuables and money that they would have taken into action as an emergency fund, perhaps to enable instant hire of new bodyguards or a horse. The strings that attached purses to belts were cut, fingers with stubborn rings cut off to remove them. The following day Edward moved to York. The Earl of Devon was captured. He had got to York but was, it seems, too badly injured to go any further.50 He was executed and his severed head joined those of the other Lancastrian lords on Micklegate Bar, as rapid replacements for those of York, Salisbury and their sons. As for Wiltshire, he got away yet again. But the wings of the ‘flying earl’ were to be clipped at last: he was eventually captured at Cockermouth, taken to Newcastle and decapitated in front of King Edward on 1 May, with his head being sent south to decorate London Bridge.51

With a battle of such size, such duration and so momentous an outcome, ensuring the destruction of a dynasty, it would have been surprising if a myriad of myths and legends had not grown up around the events of Palm Sunday 1461.52 Was the whisper of massacres just another of these? Was the recorded volume of deaths merely the result of the sudden collapse of one army in circumstances that left it little room for escape and trapped it on the battlefield? Or was there something more sinister: the killing of disarmed men who were not allowed to surrender? Without evidence, this idea would remain a myth. Then, in recent times, some disturbing evidence came to light.

Builders working on an extension at Towton Hall in 1996 unearthed a mass grave to the north-east of the battlefield. Within it were packed the skeletal remains of thirty-eight people.53 Some were buried west to east, as if care had been taken to prepare them for the next world, though some of these were, unusually, face down; but others, on top of them, lay packed together in the opposite direction. The only consideration had been to fill the grave with as many bodies as possible before covering them with earth.54 However, it was only when the skeletons were professionally and reverentially removed by a specialist team of archaeologists from Bradford University that the horrific nature of this find began to emerge.55

There was no doubt that these were soldiers from the battle. They were men between the ages of seventeen and fifty,56 all of whom had died violent deaths; and the date of the bones tied the event to 1461. From the geographical location and the nature of their burial, these were obviously Lancastrian troops. Some of the remains bore signs of single massive injuries that were commensurate with death on the battlefield. The marks on others were far more sinister. Trauma on the arms showed that they had been raised to protect the head from repeated blows delivered by sharp, heavy objects. Injuries to the skulls were also significant: they bore the signs of blows, some obviously administered from behind that would have killed. There were not one or two, but many. Some skulls had sustained so many injuries that they had become distorted. Here were men, who just possibly might have begun the encounter with weapons, but certainly ended it weaponless and unprotected. They had been dealt a multitude of blows, and this was made clear through the forensic skills of the archaeologists.57 How many of these blows were delivered before and how many after death we cannot know, but either way the implications are horrendous. These were Englishmen – we can be almost certain that these were Englishmen from the nature of the bones themselves58 – who had been treated without any trace of humanity at all. If the blows had been administered before death, then they were delivered in a frenzy, making sickening sport of unarmed men. If afterwards, then, according to the beliefs of the time, it was with the intention of obliterating the identity of the men in order to deny them the afterlife.

The massacre of unarmed Frenchmen by Englishmen at Agincourt and that of unarmed Englishmen by Frenchmen at Formigny were atrocities of war, though the first at least had the shred of justification of dire military necessity. But this, at Towton, was something of a different order, both in its nature and in its participants. These were Englishmen treating fellow Englishmen, albeit from a different part of the country, as alien and dehumanized. Of course, one cannot specifically lay the blame for this on Warwick and on Edward. Yet in order to secure their own survival, they had amplified the regional nature of the conflict; Warwick had stressed the uncivilized nature of the men coming down from the north before 2nd St Albans, and he had made himself the ‘captain’ of his own ruthless men from Kent. This demonization was the final element towards making this the most brutal as well as the bloodiest day in English history. A low point of barbarity had been reached.

As for the long-term causes of Towton, these did not stretch back to the deposition of Richard II in favour of Henry IV, as Shakespeare and even some twentieth-century historians have surmised.59 The shadow of that event had been lifted within one generation by Henry V. The removal of kings, or their restraint just short of removal, had happened often enough before. Rulers who had alienated and tried to outmuscle significant sections of the nobility, including those close to them, had often paid that price. The problem darkening the reign of Henry VI was Henry VI himself, and it was a problem of a completely novel nature. This was not a strong king but an irrevocably weak one; a monarch who, at a time when England operated as a personal monarchy, would not personally rule. A united nobility could replace an ‘overmighty’ capricious king, as they had shown with Richard II. Yet it showed no desire to remove a distinctly ‘undermighty’ one. Then cracks in the cohesion of the nobility appeared after 1450 with the ramifications of the loss of France and the fears produced by Cade – cracks but not a break. To the bulk of the nobility, the nature of York’s personality was thought to be even more troubling than Henry’s lack of one. In consequence, had the rebellious Yorkists not diverted the financial resources of the Merchants of London and the Staplers of Calais from the Crown to themselves, they would not have survived. It was the same desperate aim that led Warwick, having stirred the forces of popular revolt, to set one region against the other – South versus North – with horrific consequences at the point of victory and afterwards.

In the modern-day world, where something has to be the biggest, longest, even bloodiest, in order to be remarkable, then Towton has many claims to be that singular event on English soil. Yet it is its brutality, its final casual indifference to the rules of war and of humanity that should mark it out.

Edward stayed in the North until June, when he was to return to the capital. On 28 June, King Edward IV was anointed and crowned at Westminster with all the pomp and ceremony of his predecessor, the boy king Henry VI, over thirty years before. Yet the perception of the monarch and of the monarchy itself had now changed for ever.

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