Battle in a Blizzard?

Fought in Blizzard conditions the Battle of Towton was the bloodiest Battle to have taken place on English soil. Estimates suggest in the region of 28000 lost their lives in this turning point in the Wars of the Roses. A pitched battle in such adverse weather conditions is quite unusual. How would the blizzard conditions impact on the way that the battle was fought? Did the weather influence the outcome? Did it contribute to the huge number of dead?

William Neville directing archers in the snow and blizzard at the Battle of Towton
William Neville directs soldiers in the early stages of the Battle of Towton. Source: Wikimedia

Blizzard Conditions: What do we know about the weather on the day of the Battle of Towton?

We know from Edward Hall’s chronicles that a blizzard broke out at the same time as the first exchanges occurred. The timing, ferocity of the wind and it’s direction are all commented on. George Goodwin describes it wonderfully in his book Fatal Colours.

As archers of the two sides set up position, a storm of biblical proportions broke out. Sleet and snow were to alternate during a day of appalling conditions. At this critical moment, according to Hall’s Chronicle, it was sleet. 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 Yorkists arrows would gave 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.

George Goodwin, Fatal Colours. W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. ISBN 978-0-393-08084-1

How would the weather affect movement around the battlefield?

Whilst most of the fighting in the Battle of Towton was conducted on foot there was a detachment of Cavalry situated in woods adjacent to the main battlefield. Horses were also important for both armies as a means of getting men, armour, weapons, provisions and the baggage train to the vicinity of the Battle. So, how does snow affect the use of horses in combat?

Jason Kingsley OBE runs a Vlog on the Medieval Knight. One of his posts addresses this issue. In this short Vlog Jason outlines the way in which the cold weather affects his armour. He then goes on to see how the snow affects the ability of one of his horses, Warlord, to function effectively.

Credit: Modern History TV Youtube channel run by Jason Kingsley OBE. With thanks to Jason for his comments in correspondence regarding Medieval Warfare.

Could archers be effective in the wet and windy conditions?

The blizzard conditions had a huge impact on the effectiveness of archers. The wind was strong swirling and driving snow around the battlefield. Shooting into the wind meant that arrows could be blown off course; may fall short or the snow may simply make it impossible for the archer to know exactly where to aim. For those loosing their arrows into the wind there was an advantage. The wind helped to carry arrows further meaning that there could be a devastating advantage applies. With the wind behind you there is also a lower chance of the arrow being blown totally off course.

At Towton this worked to the advantage of the Yorkist force. They had the wind behind them so could fire into the heart of the Lancastrian force whilst their foes struggled to return fire into the Yorkists. This advantage was hammered home through the decision to order archers to fire from an advanced position then return to the lines. In combining this tactic and the weather a significant advantage in range was achieved.

Medieval battles such as the Battle of Towton typically began with an exchange between the archers before the main body of the armies engaged in hand to hand combat. Losses could be high. At Towton, it seems quite likely that a higher than usual proportion of casualties were inflicted by archers: who were also deployed in later stages of the battle as the Lancastrians were routed around Cock Beck.


How did the weather affect the deployment of forces and reserves?

Remember that only a small number of people would be able to afford full suits of armour. These men had a large retinue who would fight around them and so they would receive assistance should any problem weather or otherwise, arose. The retinue would be men-at-arms. These men would have some armour but not a full suit. Both the knights and men-at-arms were much more mobile than you may think: the armour was designed to enable movement as well as provide protection.

Nevertheless anybody fighting in blizzard conditions will have problems. The weight of armour and the exhaustion caused by fighting would no doubt make the adverse weather a dangerous obstacle to overcome. Men are more likely to lose their footing and in the midst of battle it is difficult, even more so in mud, to return to a standing fighting position. Gripping weapons that are wet is by its nature harder than gripping ones that are dry. On an individual basis, the poor weather quite simply makes it harder to stand, move, see fight. However, that is true for both sides, the advantage for the Yorkists being that the snow was driving into the faces of the Lancastrians, giving them an edge. That is evened out by the fact that the Yorkists were advancing up the hill, in muddy conditions.

Where weather does make a difference is in deployment, particularly of the forces that arrived late to the Battlefield. The Duke of Norfolk arrived with around 5000 men. Fighting had already been going on for hours. His men were deployed and the course of the battle quickly swung in favour of the Yorkists. Why was the deployment so effective? The Lancastrians didn’t see his force until it was too late, you cannot see very far when looking into a Blizzard. The Yorkists simply identified the area where his men would make the greatest impact and deployed there achieving an element of surprise.

Weather and the Medieval World

It is easy to think that the blizzard conditions only impacted on the fighting on the actual day of the battle. This wouldn’t have been the case. The series of battles that ends with the Lancastrian defeat at Towton are quite unusual in that they take place before the traditional campaigning season. It’s the end of winter. Provisions would have been running low, people would have been getting hungry, society would have been waiting for spring to kick in and allow crops to be grown. Both factions have large armies to feed. That is hard at the height of the campaigning season, it is harder still when the weather in general is not suitable for growing crops.

Jason Kingsley has covered the impact of weather on Medieval Society in this Vlog.

With thanks to Jason Kingsley OBE. Jason runs Modern History TV and is CEO of Rebellion.

3 thoughts on “Battle in a Blizzard?

  • March 21, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    Have had difficulty finding a book on war and weather, how the latter affects the former. Can you please recommend one if it exists? Thank you.

    • April 2, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      The Tide of War by David Petreillo examines the impact of weather on warfare. I haven’t read all of it but the sections I have looked at are very good. For more recent conflicts there are numerous resources on Operation Popeye, a US scheme to affect climate for military benefits. The UK Met office has articles on weather forecasting in the two world wars and linked to that is the importance of forecasts for the D Day operations. Earlier conflicts such as the Wars of the Roses have occasional academic articles and there are references in chronicles.

  • February 27, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Hall’s Chronicles were written 70 years after the event. He may have invented the snowstorm as a literary device. The 28,000 dead is the number written in a letter, one letter, by Bishop Neville to the Pope to impress upon him that this was a decisive battle. Actual totals were at most 9,000, quite horrific enough. It would have been lobsided against the Lancastrians, as typically the losers lost more people in flight than in battle. Huge numbers of troops cited by Hall would have been impossible this time of year, the worst for forage and for wagon trains of supplies. The speed at which these armies moved in this campaign militates against great numbers of troops.
    Decisive it was. Massive it was not.

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