When we think about medieval warfare we often forget that it had an impact at manorial level. In the case of England’s bloodiest battle, The Battle of Towton, this is very much the case. A wealth of research exists into the order of battle, the weapons, the campaign in general and the broader political changes that resulted from the Yorkist victory. So too, are those who fell in battle studied in depth. The stories of survivors and the impact of battles such as Towton on manors and regions can be easily overlooked.
Towton was a bloodbath. Estimates vary greatly but the figure of 28000 is the most frequently cited as the number who died. That makes it by far the most deadly battle fought on English soil since the Roman era. Most of the dead came from the ranks of the defeated Lancastrian army, cut down around Cock Beck as they sought to flee the battlefield.
With a high number of dead, 28000 represents roughly 1% of England’s population in 1461, from such a concentrated area, it would be expected that the impact was catastrophic for the economy of the region.
Furthermore, the fate of survivors was largely tied to their allegiances. The victors expected to be rewarded. The defeated, nobility at least, faced attainder(1), exile and the prospect of a struggle to make ends meet. For the ordinary soldier there was the prospect of further campaigning; a harsh environment in which to recover from wounds; uncertainty over livelihoods as control of land changed and the uncertainty that any civil unrest bestows upon the general populace.
Here we will explore one example. Robert Bolling fought at Towton in the Lancastrian ranks. As a kinsman of the Clifford household it is feasible that he was among ‘The Flower of Craven’ who fought and were defeated at Ferrybridge. Robert was a relatively minor noble. He was Lord of Bolling, in Bradford, where he held modest estates and the ancestral home, Bolling Hall.
Bradford in general at this time was a relatively small town by the standards of the day. Dependant upon the wool trade a number of manors fed into the market and contributed to the towns wool based economy.
As a landowner Robert was one of the knights on the battlefield at Towton. On the losing side, and missing, he was posthumously attained by the newly crowned Edward IV. Bolling, however, was not dead. Stripped of title, land and income he was in a precarious position. This is also a situation in which the crown faces something of a dilemma.
For Robert the aim was the recovery of his ancestral titles, home, land, income and status. Achieving this would be time consuming, require excellent diplomatic skills and be incredibly risky. As an attained man he was what we may term an outlaw. If found, he may be in danger. If found after making a diplomatic error of judgement, the risk is multiplied.
The crown too has a dilemma here. A man of Bollings status was not going to pose a major risk, directly, to the crown. However fair treatment, even of the defeated, was by and large expected after the battlefield had been left. To excessively punish would foster resentment. The loyalties of the ordinary men who fought were still to those who had led them in battle, their lives had revolved around these leaders, to anger these men simply increased the risk of rebellion. But Bolling had been presumed dead. He had fought against the Yorkists and his property seized and granted to others.
On a local level this must cause problems. In the manor the systems themselves may remain virtually the same but the manner of executing those tasks and the individuals involved could be very different. As a landowner, there were numerous tenants to manage and much of the local economy to oversee. Again, new people and ways are introduced. Its unsettling for the ordinary folk.
In this situation Bolling adopted a careful and considered approach to his claims. He is known to have petitioned Edward IV on the matter. He also made use of his contacts to make enquiries and, presumably, make his peaceful intentions known. Bollings attainder was not reversed though. Indeed it was reconfirmed in 1468. 7 years of uncertainty for himself and different land management for his estates.
He was not put off though. Once attained you have nothing to lose. So he continued to use whatever means he could to wrestle back control of his lands. This saw him communicate with Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord of the North and the future King Richard III. The result was another petition, as below:
One would assume that Bolling Humbly beseeching your Highness, your true liegeman, Robert Bolling, in the Shire of York, gentilman, sheweth , that in the Parliament holden at Westminster, the 4th November, in the first year of your Highness’s reign, the said Robert was attainted of high treason, and that his lands were forfeited from the 4th March preceding; that suppliant was never against your Highness in any field or journey, except on Palme Sunday, in the first year of your most noble reigne, whereto he was dryven, not of his oune proper wille, nor of malace towards your Grace, but oonly by compulsion, and by the most drad proclamations of John, then Lord Clyfford, under whose daunger and distresse the lyvelode of your suppliant lay.would enjoy more luck in the brief period of Henry VI’s readeption. That wasn’t the case though. The restoration of the Lancastrians to the throne in 1470/71 was brief and no significant changes were able to be made to issues of land or attainder. So Thomas Radclyfe continued to hold the lands as granted to him by Edward IV after Towton. This doesn’t stop Bolling from agitating for changes though. People within the nobility had a range of contacts on both sides of the wars of the roses. Bolling used his to gain the ear of the Duke of Gloucester. Through him, a new petition was made.
This petition was more successful. Robert Bolling’s attainder was overturned and following the death of Thomas Radclyfe, who had been granted the lands as a reward for service, Bolling was again master of his manor. The process lasted from the defeat of the Lancastrian force at Towton until 1475 when the lands were back in his control. In achieving this he had negotiated with the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and remained a kinsman of the Clifford family of Skipton, who themselves had been attained following Towton. This is a remarkable series of alliances. Gloucester is as Yorkist as imaginable; the Clifford’s were renowned for their blood letting in battle, one Lord Clifford from the wars of the roses being known as the Butcher for his personal slaughtering of senior Yorkists.
Why is this important?
It shows that whilst rare (2), Edward IV was willing to overturn an attainder. Robert’s diplomatic methods illustrate that despite sides being taken, there remained open the possibilities for parties to discuss issues, at the highest levels, with people in the other faction. For ordinary people this has consequences in terms of their masters. Control of tenancy, tolls, law making was in the hands of the lord. There was uncertainty about the future of Bolling as a manor for some 14 years. Men from the manor, the Lord included, had fought. It is likely that some perished, or at the very least were wounded.
These ties held by the nobles had consequences both during the wars of the roses and these continued into the Tudor period. The methodology applied to management of districts was based largely upon ideas that spread from the various courts. As the Tudors gained control the management of the Bolling manor and neighbouring ones had longer lasting consequences. In 1502 the relationships forged in the aftermath of Towton led to the tax collection methods of Bradford being discussed by the Duchy of Lancaster (PDF File, Duchy of Lancaster Pleadings. Towton Battlefield Society)
(1) Attainder. This is an act of Parliament used to effectively outlaw somebody. They were used to legally strip traitors of their titles, lands and rights. They were issued in very famous cases, such as to the Gunpowder Plotters and William Wallace but also to members of the nobility involved in rebellion or on the losing side in key moments of civil wars against the crown.
(2) I am not aware of another Towton attainder being overturned by Edward IV.