The Battle of Towton took place on 29th March 1461. Two of the largest armies ever raised on English soil fought the battle. It resulted in huge casualties and remains the bloodiest battle to have taken place in England. At the Battle of Towton the Yorkist forces won a decisive victory over the Lancastrians. The battle was fought in blizzard conditions. During the battle and in the executions that followed many leading Lancastrians were killed. It led to the exile of Margaret of Anjou and a period in which Edward IV’s rule became secure.
Background to the Towton Campaign
In 1459 tension between rival factions in court turned into war. On one side the Lancastrians. They were loyal to the rule of King Henry VI, or to his wife, Margaret of Anjou and the Prince of Wales. On the other side, the Yorkists. Initially they claimed that they were opposed not to the king but to his incompetent and evil counsellors. England’s political and economic woes drove the two parties apart. Henry VI was a feeble king who did little to stop the tension mounting. In 1459, the Yorkists chose to take action. Fighting broke out at Blore Heath. Attempts to reconcile the parties was doomed to failure. The Yorkists fled after a rout at Ludford Bridge.
War came quickly. In 1460 the Yorkists invaded. At the Battle of Northampton the Earl of Warwick masterminded a victory that saw Henry VI captured. The two sides looked to consolidate their positions. In the north, the Duke of York was lured into Battle. Leaving the safety of his castle at Sandal, he entered the field of battle against a Lancastrian force. Without reinforcements that were on their way, he was overwhelmed and killed at the Battle of Wakefield. His head and that of his son, Edmund, and the Earl of Salisbury were displayed on poles at Micklegate in York. This loss triggered what became the Towton Campaign.
Edward’s preparations for Towton
As the Lancastrians had failed to gain entry to London they headed north and consolidated their position in Yorkshire. Edward, having won a battle at Mortimer’s Cross, raised a large army estimated to be 20-25000 strong by the National Archives (pdf here). These forces were drawn from Edward’s lands in Wales and the Midlands and the Neville’s estates. Edward’s cause now had the support of some other nobles, though most of the nobility were either neutral or remained loyal to Henry and the Queen. This army headed north and recruited along the way. Prior to the battle there was a small clash at Ferrybridge. Upon reaching Towton, Edward’s force was equipped with cannon and handguns, and highly motivated. Not all of the Yorkist army were at the site of the Battle when hostilities began. The Duke of Norfolk had not yet arrived with his men.
Lancastrian preparations for Towton
The Lancastrian army had marched north following it’s failure to take London. Much of Yorkshire was actually held by lords sympathetic to the Lancastrian cause, the factions names mean little in terms of political geography. Here the army had been bolstered by men from Henry Percy’s retinue. The nobility was there in large numbers with the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter at the fore with the Earls of Devon and Wiltshire also taking command positions. Estimates for the size of the Lancastrian army vary a lot. All sources agree that the Lancastrian force outnumbered the Yorkists. English Heritage estimate that 100000 men fought in the battle. With their estimate of Yorkist troops being slightly higher than that noted by the National Archives (pdf here), it would leave an estimate of 55-60000 Lancastrian troops present.
Choosing the Battlefield
The Lancastrians had the advantage of choosing the site of the battle. They knew that the Yorkists were heading north and could manipulate them into fighting where it suited themselves the most. The approach to York would require the Yorkists to cross the River Aire. Here the Lancastrians could hinder Yorkist progress and inflict casualties. This led to the class at Ferrybridge. Once any Yorkist force had crossed the River Aire, it would have to march along a route that took in Towton. It was here that the Lancastrians set up camp.
Towton was ideal. It wasn’t flat pasture land but undulating land. This meant that there was a high point and the Lancastrians chose it as the position from which they would start the battle. Armies hate the thought of being outflanked. Surprise attacks like this can cause chaos. At Towton there was a fast flowing stream, the River Cock, along with Marshland to the rear of the ridge on which the Lancastrians had formed up. The stream cut off flanking on both sides. Trees too stopped any large force from approaching in formation.
Battlefield Archaeology has identified the exact starting positions of the two armies. Research by Sutherland and Richardson has painstakingly worked through all evidence of arrowheads on the Towton battlefield. It presents a clear picture of where both lines formed and what the range and likely impact of each volley of arrows would have been (Paper here).
The Battle of Towton
Contemporary sources on the Battle of Towton are surprisingly low in number. Historians have just a few eyewitness accounts to go by and the chronicles that follow a decade later, then in the Tudor period, are somewhat unreliable given that they are justifications of reigns.
The generally accepted consensus is that the battle began in the traditional manner. This was an exchange of volleys between the archers, attempting to inflict damage to the infantry prior to an attack. At Towton, the battle was fought in Blizzard conditions. This had an impact on the effectiveness of the archers. The Lancastrians loosed their arrows into the wind. Their vision was impaired and the range lowered by conditions. It is thought that a large proportion of Lancastrian arrows simply fell short of the target. Yorkist archers had the advantage of the wind behind them. They could fire further and into the mass of infantry. Casualties are thought to have been high as a result.
Some accounts suggest that Lord Fauconberg was incredibly clever in his deployment of the Yorkist archers. It is suggested that they advanced to loose their arrows then withdrew to ensure their safety. This left Lancastrian arrows falling well short. In doing so it gave additional arrows for the Yorkists to pull from the ground and simply fire back into the ranks of the Lancastrians. Those that they left in the ground became an obstacle for the Lancastrian infantry when it advanced. Wikipedia cites Ross and Gravett. The contemporary account puts it slightly differently but along the same lines:
The Lord Falconberg, which led forward…of… much experience… caused every archer unde his standard to shoot one flight [of arrows] and then made them stand still. The northern men [The Lancastrians] feeling the shot, but by reason of the snow not knowing the distance between them and their enemy, like hardy men, shot their sheaves of arrows as fast as they might, but all their shot was lost [fell short due to the head wind and their labour was in vain. When their shot was almost spent, the Lord Falconberg marched forward with his archers, which had not shot their own sheaves, but also gathered the arrows of their enemies and let great part of them fly against their masters. Edward Hall
Following this exchange there was an attack by the Lancastrian Cavalry. Here the sources give slightly different accounts. However it appears that the Yorkist cavalry was beaten back by Sir Anthony Trollope’s command. In retreat the Yorkists ransacked their own baggage train. This account is noted by two near contemporary accounts, those of Hall and Waurin. There is a legend that says Lancastrian forces emerged from trees on the Yorkist left (west). This may explain the success of Trollope’s charge. Sources do show that this flank was an area in which the Lancastrians had the most success.
The main battle was fought with the troops in close quarters. The tight melee was quite the norm for pitched battles of the day. Men pressed tightly together using hacking and chopping motions to maim. Hooks on poles being used to drag men to the floor. Towton had a new addition to the English battlefield. Evidence shows that handguns were used in the fighting (Article here). How many there were, or the effectiveness of them, is unknown but the smoke and sound of even an early handgun would have been confusing at best in the midst of battle.
The accounts suggest that this close quarters combat lasted for much of the day. Fighting in any kind of armour is exhausting. Even the lighter armour and padded jackets are heavy. In blizzard conditions they would have faced treacherous conditions underfoot as well as becoming wet and slippery. The Lancastrians, having a larger force, are believed to have had the better of exchanges in the first few hours of fighting. This changed when the Duke of Norfolk arrived with his men.
Tide turns and Yorkist victory
Fresh legs gave fresh impetus to the Yorkist cause. The Lancastrians were eventually pushed back and forced into retreat. It is at this point that the casualty figures begin to make Towton stand out as being by far the bloodiest encounter fought on English soil. The Lancastrian force found itself retreating down slopes into the river. Here, as the troops found themselves in a bottleneck by the River Cock, they were cut down and slaughtered in their thousands.
Academic Talk by Dr James Ross about the Battle of Towton. Recorded as part of the 550th anniversary and available on the National Archives website.
Post Battle Executions
Following the Battle of Towton, Edward IV ordered the execution of 42 captured knights. This was a large proportion of the Lancastrian nobility. The executed included senior nobles such as the Earls of Wiltshire and Devon. This is in addition to the loss on the field of Battle of men such as Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.
Consequences of the Battle of Towton
The Battle of Towton led to the majority of Lancastrian nobles being killed. Their heirs were inexperienced or young. It rendered the Lancastrians unable to wage a full scale war for quite some time. Queen Margaret and the prince of Wales escaped into exile. Henry VI hid before being taken into captivity. Such was the scale of the victory that it seemed improbable that the wars of the roses would erupt again.
Francesco Copino, Bishop of Terni, Papal Nuncio, to Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. (fn. 25)
I have sent your lordship word of the events of England by a footman of my own, who should reach you in 12 or 14 days. I now enclose copies of letters from England, principally from this Chancellor, brother of the Earl of Warwick, and from two other bishops, from which you will learn of the final and marvellous victory of the Earl of March, who is made the new king, of Warwick and the cruel battle, in which the total loss amounted to 28,000 men, including ten of their greatest lords, truly our king only lost one baron and 800 others.
Copino was the Papal Nuncio in England at the time of Towton. This is from a letter he sent to the Duke of Milan shortly after the battle. His estimate for the overall dead is similar to figures suggested by other sources and modern historians. It is unlikely that Yorkist losses were as low as 800.
The University of Bradford have undertaken an investigation into a mass grave found near the Towton Battlefield. The research shows the level of brutality involved in this battle. The research combines academics from several fields and experts from the Royal Armouries, Leeds. It matches wounds to the types of weapon held in the collections at the Royal Armouries. The grave gives clues about the ages and health of the men on the battlefield. Blows to the bodies that punctured the skin often leave marks on the bones. These have been analysed to show the types of weapon used, the number of such blows incurred and the consequences of these types of blow. The evidence shows that, for the bodies in this grave, the wounds were largely to the head. They suggest that the people found in the mass grave were unable to defend themselves. The research is accompanied by a Battle of Towton Landscape Project.
Documentary including the historian Philip Haig talking about the Battle of Towton.
ResearchGate provides an overview of the Archaeological research into the Towton Battlefield.
Historic England – (pdf file) English Heritage Battlefield Report.