Battle of Towton

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Towton in the Wars of the Roses was the bloodiest ever fought on British soil, with casualties believed to have been in excess of 20,000 (perhaps as many as 30,000) men. The battle took place on a snowy 29 March 1461 on a plateau between the villages of Towton and Saxton in Yorkshire (about 12 miles southwest of York and about 2 miles south of Tadcaster).

Part of the reason so many died is perhaps because in the parley before the battle both sides agreed that no quarter would be given or asked, as they hoped to end it there and then.

At this point in the civil war, the Lancastrians were on equal terms with the Yorkists, having eliminated York and Salisbury from the scene at the Battle of Wakefield, and been victorious at the Second Battle of St Albans. However, Richard Neville, "the Kingmaker", controlled London and had proclaimed the eldest of York's sons as King Edward IV. It was Edward himself who decided to take the initiative and march north in the hope of inflicting a final defeat on his rival, King Henry VI. Henry, a pious and peace-loving man, and by many reports mentally feeble, took no part in any military decisions, but allowed his queen, Margaret of Anjou, complete freedom to employ her battle commanders, chief of whom was Henry Beaufort the Duke of Somerset, on his behalf.

It is thought that 50,000, or perhaps even 100,000 men fought, including 28 Lords (almost half the peerage), mainly on the Lancastrian side. The numbers often given are 42,000 for the Lancastrians and 36,000 for the Yorkists. This is one of the few battles in English history, perhaps the only, where the fighting was so violent that the front lines were frequently forced to stop and remove the bodies to be able to get at each other.


The Battle

Both armies were divided into three battles (divisions), four hours were spent as the huge masses of men lined up in the blizzard conditions and awaited the final stragglers. Finally Lord Fauconberg took the initiative as the wind changed direction and blew the snow into the Lancastrians' faces. He led his archers forth and sent a rain of arrows into the massed Lancastrian ranks. Visibility was bad and with the wind blowing in their faces the returning volley of Lancastrian arrows fell way short of their targets. As casualties mounted the Lancastrian army knew the only way to stop the slaughter was to engage the enemy (in Towton 1461, the author calculates that Fauconberg would have been sending about 120,000 arrows a minute into the enemy ranks). In a last clever move, Fauconberg ordered his men (who had loosened all their own arrows by now) to retrieve some of the enemy shafts in the turf before them, while leaving some as obstacles for the oncoming Lancastrians.

Weight of numbers pushed the Yorkists back initially, but the Earl of Warwick and Edward both fought in the front ranks to encourage their men. As the hours passed the Yorkists found themselves giving more and more ground until they came close to Castle wood. From here two hundred spearmen launched a surprise attack on the Yorkist left flank. Hundreds of men fled and Edward was forced to use his whole reserve to stop it breaking up.

In the middle of the afternoon the elderly John Mowbray, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, arrived with several thousand fresh men. The Yorkists fought on with new determination for about an hour, when very suddenly the Lancastrian line broke and thousands of men fled the field.

The Rout

It is supposed that far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Several bridges over neighbouring rivers broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. Those stranded on the other side either drowned in the crossing or were cornered by the pursuers and killed. Some of the worst slaughter was seen at Bloody Meadow, where it is said men crossed the River Cock over the bodies of the fallen. All the way from Towton to Tadcaster the fields were full of bodies. The fleeing men made easy targets for horsemen and footsoldiers who killed many men who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breath more freely. At Tadcaster some men made an unsuccessful stand and were killed.

The rout lasted all night and into the morning beyond when remnants of the army arrived at York in total panic. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed were forced to make peace with Edward IV.


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