England's Bloodiest Battlefield: The Battle of Towton and the Battered Remains of a Medieval Knight
The Battle of Towton was the largest, longest battle on English soil. Thousands of people died in the Wars of the Roses, but this10-hour battle was particularly deadly. It’s believed the day of fierce fighting in the mud destroyed a generation, leaving a longer list of the dead than any other engagement in the islands’ history. Evidence for the terrors of this event were brought to light again in a 2015 post-mortem of a man, believed to have been a mounted knight, who died in the battle.
Post-Mortem of the Mounted Knight
“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. (Public Domain)
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 poleaxe 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 asked.
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The man was about 6 ft. 1 inch tall and was between 36 and 45 years old at his time of death. Archaeologists think he was of high social status. His remains have been pieced together by researchers from the Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project and put on display in York's Richard III Experience. He was found under Towton Hall, apart from the battlefield's mass graves. One of those graves, found in 1996, contained more than 40 bodies killed in the 1461 battle.
Backdrop for the Battle of Towton
Long live the king they said...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 rule. There were a series of battles to decide whether the house of York or Lancaster would reign. The dispute over succession had been boiling 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, now wanted their Lancastrian son to take the throne. The two houses, who had warred already, went to war again over which 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 (April 14, 1471) on the Ghent manuscript, a late 15th-century document. (Public Domain)
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. UK Battlefields Resource Centre explains that, “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. What cannot be disputed is that Towton was of huge significant in both military and social terms.”
The Bloody Battle of Towton
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 during an icy cold blizzard in a field between the villages of Towton and Saxton.
Engraving of Edward IV extolls his troops to fight their Lancastrian foes at the Battle of Towton, March 29, 1461. (Public Domain)
BritishBattles.com provides a list of the weapons used on the battlefield, stating that commanders and the nobility wore armor and had shields and rode into the fight on horseback (though they soon gave it up); they used swords and lances for their weapons. Their immediate entourage consisted of foot soldiers who were similarly armed and protected. Longbows were also used by soldiers on both sides of the battlefield and some handheld firearms were present, thought the weapons were still considered unreliable and dangerous for the men holding them.
The Battle of Towton began with a flurry of arrows sent by the Yorkists, who were advancing in three lines. The Lancastrians were facing down the snow and were slow to respond, but they eventually sent a barrage of arrows back at their enemies. Their efforts fell short and the Yorkist archers supplemented their arrow supply with some of the Lancastrian arrows that had embedded themselves in the ground. Then things really got out of hand, as BritishBattles.com explains, “Fighting in the snowy fields, the armies dissolved into struggling mobs, hacking at each other, as the corpses piled up in the snow. The hard-fought battle lasted ten hours, from around 10am to 8pm, with neither side giving quarter.” But as dusk fell the Lancastrians began to fall back and their side started to break.
Historic UK describes the final scenes:
“The fierce fighting continued for several hours with neither side gaining the upper hand until towards the end of the day, the Lancastrian line finally crumbled. Prior to the battle, both sides had been issued with the order to give no quarter and the Yorkists were intent on following this instruction to the letter. The fleeing Lancastrians were cut down from behind as they fled the battlefield; many were killed after they had surrendered including, according to one source, 42 knights.”
Casualties and Results of the Battle of Towton
Although the results were probably unclear for the few survivors at the end of the day, the Yorkists victory at the Battle of Towton secured the throne for Edward IV. Henry, Margaret, and their son escaped to Scotland. But 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.
Enough intrigue? Not quite. Edward IV's brother, Richard the III, imprisoned Edward V and his younger brother in the Tower of London, where they, still children, are believed to have been murdered. Richard III was later killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the hands of the Lancastrians under Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII, the first Tudor King. He married a daughter of Edward IV to unite the houses of York and Lancaster and end the Wars of the Roses.
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“The War of Roses left little mark on the common English people but severely thinned the ranks of the English nobility,” says History.com. However, The Conversation describes the impact the Battle of Towton had on Medieval English society:
“Osteo-analysis suggests that Towton was fought by grizzled older veterans. But in the small society of the 15th century, this was no less of a demographic shock. Most would have protected and provided for households. Their loss on such a scale would have been devastating for communities. And the slaughter went on and on. The Lancastrians were not only defeated, they were hunted down with a determination to see them, if not wiped out, then diminished to the point of no return.”
No matter what the numbers really were, the battle’s prominence in literaure shows that it was seen as warfare at a whole new terrifying scale. “There was no be no surrender, no prisoners. The armies were strafed with vast volleys of arrows, and new and, in a certain sense, industrial technologies were deployed,” The Conversation states. And the sad story stayed fresh in people’s minds for years to come, as Shakespeare reflected on the battle in his play Henry VI and Sir Thomas Malory, of Arthurian legend fame, may have used the Battle of Towton for inspiration when he created the final fight between Arthur and Mordred.
Top Image: Three key players in the Battle of Towton, the Earl of Warwick, Edward IV and Richard III are depicted in a painting by John Augustus Atkinson (1775-18833). Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller