Battered remains of medieval knight who died in bloodiest battle of England go on display
Long live the king, but which king? In March 1461, England had two men that had been named king, and the houses of Lancaster and York went to war (again) over who would reign. Thousands of people died in the Wars of the Roses, but one 10-hour battle was particularly deadly. Now archaeologists have done a post-mortem of a man, believed to have been a mounted knight, who fell in the Battle of Towton, the largest, longest battle on English soil, and have put his skeleton on display in York.
“The skeleton shows some extensive injuries,” Sarah Maltby, director of the York Archaeological Trust, told Culture 24 . “He has a stab wound to his left foot, which shattered one of the bones and cut two more. Does this mean he was on horseback and combatants on the ground were slashing at him from below or was this an injury caused by downward blow of a sword? None of his injuries show any evidence of healing, so we can assume all these wounds took place on the battlefield.”
Armored men on horses and on foot attack each other with swords and polearms ( Wikimedia Commons )
But what probably killed him was blunt force to the back of the head, she said. His lower jaw also has a cut mark. Archaeologists speculate the injury to the back of his head came from a war hammer or mace or possibly a sword or poleax if he was wearing a helmet.
“It is interesting to note that the cut he has on his jaw matches other individuals found at Towton. Was there a practice of forcibly removing helmets on the battlefield?” Maltby asks.
The man was about 6 feet 1 inch tall and was between 36 and 45. Archaeologists think he had high status in society. His remains have been pieced together by researchers from the Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project and put on display in York's Richard III Experience. His remains were under Towton Hall, apart from the battlefield's mass graves.
Video of a researcher piecing together the fallen knight's skeleton
There was a series of battles to decide whether the house of York or Lancaster would reign. The dispute over succession had been roiling since 1454, when a rival to the Lancastrians, Richard, Duke of York, was named protector of the realm and heir to the throne. He had been named protector because Henry VI had lapsed into insanity.
Henry VI later recovered and rescinded the Act of Settlement that transferred succession to Richard of York and his heirs. Henry VI and his wife, Queen Margaret, wanted the Lancasters in the person of their son to take the throne. The two houses, who had warred already, went to war again over which house would rule. Eventually the Duke of York was ambushed and killed. Nevertheless, his son Edward was proclaimed king, so England then had both King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster and King Edward IV of the House of York.
War of the Roses. Illustration of the Battle of Barnet (14 April 1471) on the Ghent manuscript, a late 15th-century document ( Wikimedia Commons )
Edward raised a large army and marched north to establish his monarchy. Medieval claims were that he had 40,000 men, but historians say that is an exaggeration. The Lancasters, though, had an army at least equal to Edward's.
On March 28, 1461, the Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians' vanguard at the river Aire by outflanking them. This set the stage for a Palm Sunday battle in a field between the villages of Towton and Saxton.
“It is said that Towton was the largest and longest battle fought on British soil, though it seems likely that, even more than usual, the medieval chronicles grossly exaggerate both the numbers engaged and the casualties incurred at Towton,” says the website UK Battlefields Resource Centre . It was claimed 30,000 men died that day, but modern historians say this is an exaggeration.
Engraving of Edward IV extolls his troops to fight their Lancastrian foes at the Battle of Towton, 29 March 1461 ( Wikimedia Commons ).
The article at the center says it was still an extremely significant battle in political, social and military terms. The Yorkists secured the throne for Edward IV at the Battle of Towton, but Henry, Margaret and their son escaped to Scotland.
In 1470 Henry's VI's supporters overthrew Edward and restored Henry to the throne. In 1471 Edward IV came back from exile in the Netherlands, defeated Margaret’s forces, imprisoned Henry and killed their son, the heir apparent. Henry VI was later murdered in the Tower of London. Edward IV ruled until he died in 1483, and his young son was crowned King Edward V.