Military history

In Memoriam

1461–2011

It was through an ill wind that the Lancastrians lost Towton. Without it they would almost inevitably have won. Sound strategy, as described by Christine de Pisan and Vegetius,1 dictated that they take up the best ground with a larger force and secure themselves against flank attack. This they did. Without the blizzard, they would, from their superior position, have rained down their arrows on the Yorkists at the bottom of the slope. The Yorkists would have been forced to leave their position and, at most medieval battles, as at Towton, it was the side that first abandoned their starting position that lost.

One could understand it if the Yorkists were somewhat conflicted as to how they might present their victory. On the one hand a true account of their good fortune could be represented, just as with the parhelion at Mortimer’s Cross, as having derived from the benevolence of God acting on their behalf; on the other, their victory might be seen as a fluke.

Legate Coppini, safe in Flanders after his difficult voyage, received letters from at least three different sources that were written within days of the battle. In the Milanese state archives are letters from Chancellor Bishop George Neville; from Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury;and from Nicholas O’Flanagan, Bishop of Elphin in Ireland. All three stressed the difficulty of the battle; Beauchamp referred to the result being ‘doubtful the whole day, until at length victory declared itself on his [King Edward’s] side, at a moment when those present declared that almost all on our side despaired of it, so great was the strength and dash of our adversaries’.2 All agreed on the figure of twenty-eight thousand killed – in the words of Beauchamp, ‘a number unheard of in our realm for almost a thousand years’,3 though he did then embroider by saying that these did not include those ‘wounded and drowned’. The trio of Bishops either gave absurdly low figures for the Yorkist dead or did not differentiate. However Prospero di Camulio, Milanese Ambassador to France, offered different details when writing to his Duke on 12 April, giving the figures for the fallen, on what was interestingly still referred to as ‘Warwick’s side’ as eight thousand, compared with twenty thousand on ‘King Henry’s side’.4 He wrote from Bruges in Burgundian Flanders, where he and Coppini would have conferred. Di Camulio went on to confirm these figures in a further letter to Duke Francesco on the eighteenth, with the addition of the telling phrase ‘all counted by heralds after the battle’.5 His letter crossed with one written to him by Duke Francesco: ‘Letters have arrived to-day from Bruges of the 10th inst., stating how the new King of England and the Earl of Warwick have routed the Queen’s army, and doubtless the new king will obtain the state. That being the case, we desire you to take leave of the dauphin [who was at loggerheads with his father Charles VII and thus at Bruges] and go to the said king, offering your services and commending yourself to him as you think most fitting, consulting my lord, the Legate [Coppini], and informing yourself fully of all the affairs of those parts, sending us a full account of everything immediately, and you shall return to us as soon as possible.’6 Duke Francesco Sforza was in no doubt that it had been Margaret who was the prime enemy; matters in England were of very great interest–but most particularly for their impact on France.

If these figures seem to be suspiciously consistent, with the exception that, depending on audience, the eight thousand Yorkist casualties might shrink to eight hundred, then we have one additional source. King Edward may later have had a well-deserved reputation for mendacity, but if there was one person to whom the eighteen-year-old King was unlikely to write a lie at this stage, it was the redoubtable Duchess Cecily of York. That we know of the King’s letter to his mother, written immediately after the battle, is due to the Paston Letters. Better than that, in this particular case we have a first-hand witness as to its contents. The excitement of William Paston writing to his elder brother John on 4 April leaps off the page:

Please you to know and have wisdom of such news as my Lady of York has by a letter of authority, under the sign manual of our Sovereign Lord King Edward, which letter came to our said Lady this very day at 11 o’clock and was seen and read by me, William Paston.

In it we have the figures for the Lancastrians:

Is dead Lord Clifford, Lord Neville, Lord Welles, Lord Willoughby, Anthony Lord Scales [though that was mistaken – he later became the King’s brother-in-law], Lord Harry [Stafford], and by supposition the Earl of Northumberland [who died of his wounds in York], Andrew Trollope, with many others, gentle and commons, to the number of 20,000.7

However, with so many dead, why is there no absolutely conclusive archaeological evidence? The answer for that is simple and the reason was highly political. As shown in the final Dramatis Personae (see page 196), Edward IV died in 1483, when the succession was again usurped. His sons Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, best known to history as the Princes in the Tower, were probably killed in the same year by order of Edward’s younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, crowned as Richard III.8 From 1471 onwards, Richard had been an authoritative and successful ruler of the North on behalf of his brother;after his usurpation, the area north of the Trent was his power base. But there was a problem that needed to be resolved and that was Towton. Edward IV never returned to Towton, nor did he show any great verve in following the example of Henry IV and creating a memorial chapel. Plans for converting an existing chapel were drawn up, but were not taken forward. This was something Richard sought to remedy. He also dealt with the unconsecrated grave pits. Cavernous and filled with methane gas, they were a reminder of the genesis of Yorkist rule; of the defeat of a large army of the North by an ‘invader’ from the South. Richard was keen to present Towton as finished business and, to the satisfaction of the landholders who would have undertaken the bulk of the work, returned to farmland. Richard’s action was prescient, because after his usurpation the pattern of power was reversed; it was from the South and Wales that the threat of Henry Tudor would come; it was on the North that Richard relied. The consequence of what may have become an urgent process of exhumation and reburial is that we do not know with what degree of care the exhumed bodies were treated or exactly where they were all reburied. It is certain that this action removed much of the archaeological evidence that is one important source for uncovering the detail of a battle.9

Thus, with this resource depleted, it is even more imperative to protect today’s battlefield from the depredations of night hawkers. When material is arbitrarily removed from a battlefield, important evidence is lost. Recent excavations by Tim Sutherland and the Towton Battlefield Archaeological Survey, with their discovery of lines of arrow heads, have completely changed the accepted opening position of the Yorkist battle lines. More excavations are planned, once funding is gained, but the artefacts have in the interim to be safeguarded from being removed under non-archaeological conditions and that has to be strongly sanctioned by law. The Towton Battlefield Society and the Battlefields Trust, working with local landowners, the police and other agencies have themselves led the way in 2010 with the country’s first accreditation scheme for metal detectorists on an historic battlefield. It is hoped that this type of initiative will extend around the country and become statutory.

Fortunately the fifteenth century can no longer be described as it once was by McFarlane, one of its greatest historians, as ‘the Cinderella Century’.10 McFarlane himself was one of the first to undertake detailed research of records and this has been followed and built upon by what is now many successive generations of academic historians. Their recovery of detail has served to sharpen the importance of personality and most importantly of all in a personal monarchy, the personality of the King.

One cannot make the claim that Henry VI was the last medieval king. David Starkey has, with supreme authority, shown that this role belongs to Henry VIII, placing him at the pivotal point of English history as both the last medieval king and the first modern one.11 However the life and reign of Henry VI does see the beginnings of significant change: he was the last English king, in fact if not in aspiration, who had an Anglo-French empire. He was the last monarch whose personal rule was so completely dependent on the sanctity of his position as the anointed and crowned king that, even as a cipher, no government could operate without him. In the absence of any personal direction from him and with the collapse of substitutes for his authority, other forces bubbled to the surface, those that spoke of the rights of the ‘commons of England’ including the right to complain against injustice and to petition the King in defence of the common weal;forces that were exploited by Warwick the Kingmaker, whether cynically or not, with a genius for propaganda and a political organization that seem chillingly modern.

There was to be a future point when events were to echo back to 1450, that crucial year of Henry’s reign, and it was through attempts to sanction arguably the most dramatic event in English history – the trial of Charles I. King Charles, from his coronation onwards, tried to dress himself with the semi-divine status of a medieval king; in their turn, the Rump House of Commons of 1649, denied the traditional authority of the monarch himself, needed a new one with which to try him. The phrase they used was ‘An Act of the Commons of England Assembled in Parliament, for Erecting of a High Court of Justice, for the Trying and Judging of Charles Stuart, King of England’.12 It was the final, logical extension of the language of the first, nonviolent, part of Cade’s rebellion.

As for King Henry VI himself, his life was brutally ended during the night of 21/22 May 1471 – very probably by a mace in the hands of Richard of Gloucester – when praying at the tiny oratory at Wakefield Tower within the Tower of London. Every year on 21 May, there is a moving and dignified private service in the Presence Chamber of the Plantagenet Kings, which houses the Oratory. There the Provosts of Henry’s two great foundations, Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, lay flowers on the spot where he was killed. The service is called the Ceremony of Lilies and Roses after the flowers used, which are those respectively in the arms of the two foundations. The lilies in Eton’s arms are white. So, ironically, are the roses of King’s.

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