We caught up with historian George Goodwin to find out what we can expect from his talk, Towton 1461: The First War of the Roses and England’s Bloodiest Battle, at our Winchester History Weekend 2018…


Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk at our Winchester History Weekend 2018?

Lots of colour slides, a bit of humour (some of it on the ‘black’ side) and some pathos as we move from the triumphs of Henry V to the tragic reign of Henry VI. It takes in the loss of the English kingdom of France and the first War of the Roses, with a climax in the Armageddon of Towton – when the armies of two kings of England fought the bloodiest battle on English soil in the most appalling wintry conditions.

An illustration of the battle of Agincourt. By attacking over unsuitable ground, Charles d’Albret “doomed his army”, says Rupert Matthews. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Q: Why are you so interested in this period of history?

The sheer drama of its constant and completely unpredictable changes of fortune, plus the wealth of extraordinary characters involved – warrior queen, vengeful nobles, cunning churchmen (and even the Pope).

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…

Henry VI was kneeling in private prayer when he was murdered through a savage blow to the back of his head.

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

The course of the French Revolution would have been completely different if the French royal family, in their flight to the frontier, had not stopped for a breakfast picnic to add to other delays. Through a whole chapter of accidents, the plan unravelled and they were arrested just a few miles from the border.

King Louis XVI bids farewell to family and Marie Antoinette before being led to a guillotine.(Photo by Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
King Louis XVI bids farewell to family and Marie Antoinette before being led to a guillotine.(Photo by Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

Nell Gwynne, Benjamin Franklin and Oscar Wilde. That they came from three different centuries would be interesting, but I also think that they might get on very well. They would certainly have subjects in common: Nell and Oscar through the stage; Ben and Oscar through printing and publishing; Nell and Ben through court gossip and politics – not to mention that the latter’s love of the theatre would enable him to tell Nell and Oscar about what it was like in the age of playwright David Garrick. I would act as host and listen, but I would ensure that they were kept in good humour by getting the Prince Regent (George IV) to provide the booze and lend us his French chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, for the evening. Would it be cheating for Carême to leave the kitchen for a few minutes, just to check that we were enjoying the meal and also to give us a few anecdotes about the prince, as well as French diplomat Talleyrand and Napoleon?

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Oscar Wilde. (Getty Images)

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

I rather like my present lifetime. Aside from that – and assuming health, reasonable wealth and security – a nice estate, located a day’s journey from Rome in the 2nd century AD and run by happy freed men and women, would be a pretty good place to be sitting down and writing history books.

Q: Which history book(s) would you recommend (excluding your own)?

Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s multi-prize-winner on the War of Independence, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2014). Without wanting to reveal my own views on Brexit, I do believe every current MP should have a copy of Professor O’Shaughnessy’s book. Historical comparisons are always fascinating!


George Goodwin will be speaking about the battle of Towton at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend on Sunday 7 October. To find out more about his talk and to book tickets, click here.