Towton: the Medieval Battle of the Somme

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At Towton (1461), in a matter of hours, more English soldiers were butchered than Tommies who fell on the first day of the Somme in 1916. That these young men were bludgeoned, stabbed or drowned rather than machine-gunned made the carnage even more ferocious. Towton remains the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.

The Wars of the Roses

Mid-15th century England was in turmoil. Hostility between rival claimants to the throne had deteriorated into all-out war. While 19th-century romantic novels sentimentalised this period, introducing the poetic title ‘Wars of the Roses’ (imagining protagonists plucking different colours of roses to display their allegiances, red for the House of Lancaster, white for the House of York) the reality was less flowery. The Wars of the Roses had little to do with pretty floral embellishments to costumes; it involved a series of mercilessly bloody battles.

Towton, fought on Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461, was by far the war’s greatest bloodbath. It resulted in such unprecedented slaughter that by the time the 70,000 combatants had called it a day, around 1% of England’s total population lay dead.

Who fought in the rival armies?

Due to England’s feudal system, those bickering nobles could call upon large peasant armies to do their dirty work. Naturally, these common soldiers had nothing whatsoever to gain from the outcome. Their fate would hinge on whether their lord and master had sided with Lancaster or York.

Which particular noble rallied to which cause depended on complicated, dynastic factors: blood ties, who’d married into which family, who’d been granted feudal titles and lands by whom. Naturally many of these loyalties were conflicting. With the ebb and flow of allegiances, nobles often switched sides; sometimes half-way through a battle.

Each army consisted of men-at-arms, archers and foot-soldiers. Nobles would offer ‘protection’ to men-at-arms for rallying to their standard. Sometimes European mercenaries got involved. As professionals, these soldiers of fortune were often armed with advanced weaponry: cannons or handguns. Cavalry were generally restricted to scouting and foraging. Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), English victories during the Hundred Years War with France, had demonstrated mass cavalry charges were no match for ranks of well-drilled longbowmen.

How did Towton come about?

In 1460 the mentally unsound Lancastrian King Henry VI had been captured by Yorkists, demanding an end to his weak rule. Although power had shifted to Richard Plantagenet, the third Duke of York, Henry’s wife and other Lancastrian supporters refused to renounce their claim on the throne. Armies were raised to settle the score once and for all.

The morning of the battle was miserable for the common soldiery, regardless of whose colours they found themselves sporting on their tunics. Unrelenting snow and sleet poured from dark skies, driven by strong winds. The outnumbered Yorkist army moved first. Their target was a bridge at the base of the ridge they were positioned along. Weighed down with swords, shields, chain mail and metal helmets, they trudged down the heavy ground.

Lancastrians disadvantaged by the extreme weather

The Lancastrians were standing shivering on much higher ground, and their right flank was covered by a stream. But this strong defensive position was hampered by the weather: in particular, one crucial aspect. The driving wind was coming from behind their enemy.

The Yorkists unleashed volleys of arrows. Proficient bowmen could fire an arrow every 6 seconds and achieve a range of 275 yards. With the wind in their favour, the archers fired upwards, adding gravity to the trajectory. When these missiles arrived at their targets, they were travelling 30 feet per second. Their sharpened metal tips scythed through chain mail.

This one-sided struggle invoked the wrath of the Lancastrian men-at-arms. Elbowing past the archer companies, they broke ranks rather than remain as arrow-fodder.

The horror of hand-to-hand combat

With the sleet making the identification of banners impossible, chaos ensued. It is difficult for civilized 21st century minds to visualise how horrific this close quarters medieval brawl must have been. Adversaries spent hour after hour hacking at whoever happened to be within range of sword, mace or axe, stumbling over mutilated bodies, often with no room to manoeuvre as the momentum of the heaving ranks behind forced the armies together. Several times the combatants had to pause and pull corpses out of the way so they could continue the melee. Fighting swayed back and forth for several hours, with neither side gaining any advantage until the early afternoon, when Yorkist reinforcements arrived. The Lancastrians were outflanked and began fleeing.

Yorkists take no prisoners

What generally happened in medieval battles was that the army that stood its ground won. Once soldiers began taking flight, discipline would dissolve. Thousands of terrified Lancastrian troops turned tail and headed north through the blizzards, making for Tadcaster.

Several bridges broke under the weight of the panicked men, plunging many into the freezing water to drown. Others were cornered by pursuers. Some of the worst slaughter took place in a field that became forever known as Bloody Meadow. Here it was said the River Cock was so swollen with butchered Lancastrians the pursuing Yorkists used them as a human bridge.

The fleeing Lancastrians made easy targets for Yorkist cavalry and footsoldiers. Many of their victims had dropped weapons and cast aside helmets to make flight easier. The rout lasted all night and into the morning. The remaining Lancastrians staggered into the town of York.

Historians have estimated more died during this rout than the battle. Prior to the battle, the rival nobles had decided this fight would decide the outcome of the war. No quarter would be given. This has been chillingly confirmed after modern archaeological investigation of mass graves at Towton. Evidence was uncovered of mutilation of corpses; sometimes ears or noses were hacked off.

Aftermath

Towton did not prove to be the war’s decisive battle. Hostilities raged for a further two decades. Ordinary Englishmen continued shedding blood in order to decide which particular despotic dynasty would rule over them.

Victory finally went to a remote Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, when he married Elizabeth of York, daughter of the late Yorkist King Edward IV. The houses of the red and white rose were finally reconciled. The new dynasty became the House of Tudor and went on to rule England and Wales for the next 117 years.

A simple stone cross commemorates the 30-40,000 who were killed at Towton.