On Palm Sunday 1461, in atrocious weather – howling wind, driving sleet and snow – the armies of two disputing Kings of England fought all day on a plateau of land in North Yorkshire. Chroniclers then and historians now dispute the numbers involved in the Battle of Towton, but it is most likely that up to seventy-five thousand fought and as many as twenty-eight thousand died in the battle itself,1 and in the rout and massacres that followed.
In terms of loss of life, Towton was the costliest encounter ever fought on English soil. The number of those who died is comparable with losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but this was from a combined English and Welsh population of around three million2 rather than the over thirty-six million at the time of World War I.3
It was not merely a military engagement – it was a national catastrophe. Professor Charles Ross, one of the most eminent historians of the period, estimated that of all Englishmen and Welshmen eligible to fight (those aged between sixteen and sixty) one-tenth were present on the battlefield that day.4
Though singular, Towton was not an isolated event but the culmination of a campaign of seven military engagements over the preceding eighteen months. The final four were major battles fought in just ninety days with dizzying reversals of fortune. Towton resolved, at least for a time, a desperate fight for survival within a small group of powerful personalities. All were connected by ties of position or blood to the weak and uncomprehending king of an otherwise well-favoured country.
And Towton was significant not just for the sheer numbers involved, or for the scale of fatalities, but for the ferocity with which it was fought. A ferocity that was based on the suspension of the normal rules of war and any concept of chivalry, on a tacit agreement that this confrontation should be the decisive moment when the leaders of both parties could finally avenge ‘wrongs’ stretching back decades. The vicissitudes of war and the bloodlust of victory brought a conclusion to the struggle, but one so horrific that its true nature was to be actively and skilfully denied. It did not suit any of a long line of successive monarchs and magnates to remember Towton and thus its significance was muted for centuries afterwards. Any echoes that remained were treated as rumour or folklore, ghost stories to entertain imaginative minds on dark nights. But in 1996, through the most commonplace activity of domestic building work, a mass grave was discovered close to the battlefield. That its human remains dated back to 1461 was in little doubt. The haphazard and irreverent nature of the burial was initially surprising. Then intensive forensic study by a specialist team of archaeologists and related experts showed that these were not men who had been cut down in the chaos of the main battle itself. The type and repeated nature of the cuts and abrasions on their skeletal remains clearly pointed to the brutal and frenzied dispatch of men who had been disarmed and were defenceless. It proved that the rumours of the appalling nature of the battle and of the rout that followed were not based on myth: they were based in fact.
The battlefield has never been built upon and its topography is still clear: it is possible to envisage where the two armies prepared for battle, where they engaged, where the lines broke and where flight and massacre began. It has not been ‘misplaced’ like Bosworth, and, just a couple of miles away from the busy A1, it is hardly off the beaten track. Yet, until recent years, it was neglected. That is no longer the case. Through a network of dedicated and enthusiastic experts, both amateur and professional, the political and military significance of the battle in the history of England is now emerging once more. Towton will no longer be noted just as a bloodied marker post in what has become collectively known as the Wars of the Roses, but as the bitter conclusion of a distinct and dramatic period of English history, the product of a politically troubled country and of one man’s troubled mind.