The battle of Towton: did the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil take place during the Wars of the Roses?
Julian Humphrys explores the Battle of Towton, a brutal clash between the armies of Lancaster and York that saw thousands fight, and die, in howling winds and driving snow
Some battles shocked even contemporaries by the intensity with which they were fought. Towton was such a battle. Regional hatreds and family vendettas ensured it was fought with a ferocity that, together with the large size of the armies involved, made it one of the bloodiest battles on English soil.
Fought on 29 March 1461, the battle of Towton was the bloody culmination of a series of military engagements in the early part of the Wars of the Roses, the clash for the English throne between the houses of York and Lancaster – with the ultimate victors being the Tudors.
Battle of Towton facts
Fought on: 29 March 1461
Location: North Yorkshire
Forces: Lancastrians 25,000; Yorkists c20,000 – though Tudor historian Edward Hall estimated that the combined strength of the two armies was 100,000. This would have been about 15 per cent of England’s adult male population, and is almost certainly an exaggeration
Outcome: Decisive victory for Yorkists
Casualties: Some contemporaries estimated that around 28,000 men were killed at Towton. Although almost certainly an exaggeration, losses at the battle were considered unusually high
What happened at Towton?
The Lancastrians must have felt confident of victory as they bellowed insults at their Yorkist opponents on the bitterly cold Palm Sunday morning in 1461. They had already beaten their enemies at Wakefield and St Albans, occupied a strong position, had the advantage of numbers and, in their minds at least, were fighting for the rightful king of England.
Like many battles of the period the fighting began with an archery duel, as Lancastrian longbowmen responded to a single volley of Yorkist arrows by shooting thousands of their own arrows across the shallow valley that separated the two armies. But with a strong wind blowing bitter snow into their faces, the Lancastrians couldn’t see that their arrows were falling harmlessly short.
When the Lancastrians had used up all their arrows, the commander of the Yorkist vanguard, Lord Fauconberg, seized his opportunity. Tudor historian Edward Hall later commented: “The Lord Fauconberg marched forward with his archers, who not only shot their own whole sheaves [of arrows], but also gathered the arrows of their enemies, and let a great part of them fly against their own masters…”
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With thousands of arrows now falling on their men and casualties mounting by the minute, the Lancastrian commanders had little option but to order an advance. The massed ranks of Lancastrians left their defensive position and headed off into the blizzard shouting “King Henry! King Henry!” The Yorkist line initially gave ground as the Lancastrians crashed into them but Edward IV’s personal leadership proved crucial. Whereas Henry VI had been packed off to the safety of York, the tall figure of Edward could be seen fighting in the front line, encouraging his men.
The Yorkist line held and the battle developed into a long, vicious, hand-to-hand struggle with men laying about each other with swords, maces and polearms. Some accounts claim the battle lasted 10 hours, but this may have included earlier fighting at Ferrybridge. In any event, no one in armour could have fought for that long without a number of breaks.
The deadlock was finally broken when reinforcements turned the tide in the Yorkists’ favour. Faced with these fresh troops the Lancastrian line slowly began to crumble. Many Lancastrians fought on, either because they were unaware of what was happening or because the crush meant they had nowhere to go, but the trickle of fugitives eventually became a flood and the Lancastrian line broke.
Edward had ordered his troops to take no prisoners and, pursued by Yorkist horsemen, many Lancastrians clambered down the steep slopes of the valley, only to be cut down as they struggled to cross the river, staining it red with blood. Others slipped in the water and were trampled underfoot. Contemporary claims that 28,000 men died that day are almost certainly an exaggeration, but Towton was highly unusual in terms of the intensity of the fighting and the number of casualties suffered.
Why was the battle of Towton important?
Towton was a disaster for the Lancastrians: thousands of their soldiers were killed. Their commander, the Duke of Somerset, managed to escape, as did Henry VI, but five leading Lancastrian nobles were killed, including Northumberland and Clifford.
The Earl of Devon was captured and later beheaded in York. Dozens of Lancastrian knights had also fallen or been executed and Edward wasted no time in replacing the severed heads of his dead father and brother on York’s Mickelgate Bar with those of some of his enemies.
The battle had been a personal triumph for Edward. It had confirmed his kingship and although some Lancastrians fought on in the north east for three years, their cause had been fatally weakened. Their last army was destroyed at Hexham in 1464. Henry VI was captured in the following year and was tucked away in the Tower of London.
The Earl of Warwick later rebelled against Edward IV when the king favoured the family of his new wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and tried to reduce Warwick’s influence on political affairs. Warwick briefly restored Henry VI to the throne but was killed by Edward at the battle of Barnet in April 1471.
In May 1471, Edward IV once again defeated the Lancastrians, this time at the battle of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire where Henry VI’s son-and-heir, another Edward, was killed. Henry himself was then quietly put to death and Edward IV reigned unchallenged until his death in 1483.
Shakespeare and Towton
The battle is a key episode in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3. Some of the action is seen through the eyes of the weak and unwarlike Henry VI who watches events unfold while sitting on a molehill.
Shakespeare uses the scene to show the evils of civil war as a father discovers he has killed his son and a son his father. The war’s vicious cycle of reprisal and revenge is illustrated through Lord Clifford, whose Lancastrian father was one of those killed by the Yorkists at St Albans: Shakespeare has him take revenge by killing the Duke of York and his young son at Wakefield. York’s son, the future Richard III, tries to kill Clifford at Towton, but Clifford dies before Richard can find him.
Shakespeare gives Richard a prominent part in the action, but it should be noted that in 1461 he was actually only eight years old.
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