The Battle of Towton 1461 - A Re-Assessment
© by John Davey
Why should we even think that Towton’s history may need any rewriting? Well quite simply, the modern image of that battle has too many questions, all of which doubt the present-day ‘historical’ picture of that bloody event.
Let us first take a look at the supposedly cast-iron picture that is broadly presented to us today, at the beginning of this twenty first century. This basic view of the historical explanation of the battle tells us how the Lancastrian forces had to pull back from London to York where their main, basic support was to be found. Yorkist Edward advances himself northward from London gaining men as he goes and comes along to Pontefract Castle. He has the nearby crossing at Ferrybridge secured and prepares for the advance into ‘enemy’ territory.
The Lancastrian faction sends Lord Clifford rushing south to Ferrybridge from their powerbase at York while they move their equally immense forces south of Tadcaster to Towton to take up a strong position there upon the plateau north of Saxton. Lord Clifford successfully takes over the bridge at Ferrybridge and destroys it.
Lord Warwick slays his horse and tells anyone who wishes to leave to do so now. The Yorkists then cross the river upstream at Castleford, thus outflanking Clifford and causing him to retreat back north to the main Lancastrian force‘s position.
The Yorkists, foreseeing this possibility, send a detachment of mounted archers to ambush him at Dintingdale between Towton and Sherburn-in-Elmet, and he is killed. They then advance their main force to Dintingdale and Saxton and there take up their own position upon the plateau, with the woods to their left.
The next morning, Palm Sunday, the main battle begins. Yorkist Lord Fauconberg launches an arrow storm into the Lancastrians backed by a snowstorm and supporting wind. There is devastation within the Lancastrian ranks. The Lancastrians counter attack with foot soldiers up the slope which is on their right flank. The slaughter then begins that names the area ‘Bloody Meadow’ to this day.
The Lancastrians seemingly hid a detachment in the woods to the left of the Yorkist upon the previous day and these troops lunge upon the Yorkist lines at the same time.
The fight goes on most of the day until Yorkist Lord Norfolk, having repaired the crossing at Ferrybridge, comes onto the Lancastrian east flank with 6,000 fresh men.
The Lancastrians are pivoted and they panic. Their retreat is a massacre as they try to cross the flooded Cock Beck. It is a clear victory for Edward and the new Plantagenet regime takes the crown.
So what is wrong with this picture? Let us look at where it all seemed to come from. We have various Victorian writers who take up the story. The one who seems to have been adopted by modern writers is Leadman in 1891. He tells us of the Old London Road being the entry for the Lancastrians and of how Warwick made his speech about anyone wanting to leave at Pontefract after the Ferrybridge set back. He gives the starting lines as being upon the site that modern writers now have them.
Bogg almost copies this in the last years of that century, though he indicates the battle was started in Dintingdale. Apart from that it is much the same and it has come down to us in that manner and style ever since. But what of other Victorian writers?
Langdale wrote his version in 1822, with no position given as to where battle commenced, with no reference to the Old London Road and no comment as to the speech.
Grainge was writing in 1854 and only mentions the battle positions as at Grimston. He gives no mention to Old London Road and puts the speech in the mouths of both Warwick and Edward at Pontefract.
In 1882, Wheater puts the starting lines at Dintingdale. There is no mention of any Old London Road and the speech down to Edward while upon the field.
In 1891, we have Lamplough placing the starting lines at Dintingdale and the speech being made by both Edward and Warwick at Pontefract, yet with no mention, again, of Old London Road.
Bulmers came out in 1892, but does not mention the Old London Road, nor the speech, nor the starting lines.
Speight went to press in 1903 with the starting lines between Saxton and Towton, but with no mention of the speech nor of Old London Road. Not very consistent.
What can we, in this 21st century, gather from these few articles of the mid 19th to early 20th Century and how should we compare them with today’s published view of the battle? There are quite a few views given of the battle and of that bloody day in these descriptions, but, little, if any, information as to where this information came from. Even then, most of this selection of ‘historic’ reports manage to contradict each other and differ, in no small part, with the picture that today’s supposed history tells us of this action.
Reading most of these articles, it has to be noted that the battle is not even initially set upon the plateau where modern day descriptions put it, but instead to the north and south of the slightly more southerly placed Dintingdale valley. Leadman, in 1891, tells the world of the importance of the track heading west out of Towton called ‘Old London Road’. This seems to have been picked up by Edmund Bogg a few years later. He very firmly states as to how this was the main northern entry to the battlefield site from Tadcaster due to no other road, such as today’s modern road line, having existed until some 300 years after the battle, which would mean the late 1700’s. Today’s views of the battle in many ways also seem to mirror Leadman’s and Bogg’s writings.
Is the Leadman and Bogg picture to be regarded as correct? Perhaps not, it certainly has no merit in any of the other written views of that period, but let yourself be the judge of that. First let us consider their ‘Old London Road’ as being the only highway from Towton to Tadcaster.
The map of the late 1700’s, which perhaps was the earliest one available to be used in forming Leadman’s and thus Bogg‘s articles, may well only show the local area as it was during the enparking of Grimston Hall. That narrow period of British history saw the local gentry of all regions putting their money and efforts into grand parks around their houses and halls while moving the previously connected villages and their people to new sites beyond the walls and hedges of this expanded new park’s boundary. World famous Harewood is an example, and in the local area of Towton, Parlington and Lotherton embody the same layout. The present day hall at Grimston was also built in that same enparking period and developed to suit that grand-scale parking theme.
The only map that was available to them, from that narrow period in time, was somewhat erroneously used by Leadman to conclude his ‘Old London Road’ comments and perhaps led to Bogg’s presumption about no other Tadcaster to Towton road until some 300 years after the battle. The map they may well have seen shows that the present day road line north from Towton finished just north of Grimston where the lane to Stutton links in, again at 90 degrees. This map was the work of Mr. Jeffries, published in 1770. Edmund Bogg was, however, most certainly, and totally wrong in saying that the present-day road line from Towton to Tadcaster was not available until the late 1700’s.
If we may, let us now look a little further back than these Victorian writers could see. They were not blessed with having today’s Internet and other forms of media to find and view extra evidence; the evidence that comes from the records of the other earlier maps of that self-same road dating back, as they do, as far as 1765, 1744 or 1720 and even to 1675. What do we find that these earlier maps now show us? The road maps from this earlier period cannot be viewed as perfectly as those of today. They were shown as long lines with side roads and towns marked upon them, ribbons almost, each of which came with a compass rose to show the direction in which each ribboned panel was heading. They were more of a route map than a district road map. A road map of this region by Cary in 1794 shows the road as it is today.
A route map published in Gentleman’s Magazine and dated 1765, which is five years before Jeffries, shows the same route we have today, with the milestones noted and details of all road junctions, major and minor, that were connecting to the main highway. It does not give any indication of an ‘Old London Road’ even existing at that time.
Cowley’s Map of 1744 also shows a similar straight through roadway, though it’s detail is not clear enough for our argument.
The 1720 map of Mr. Lumby has similar details to 1765. This touring map again passes directly south out of Tadcaster and shows the side road link to Sutton, the present-day Stutton Road as already mentioned. It also shows the side road link to Ulleskelf, the side road link to Leeds, past today’s memorial Cross, the side road to Fenton directly opposite, the roads to Saxton, Barkston, Huddlestone and many more very small country lanes as it continues further south. It does not even give today’s so-called Old London Road a mark nor a mention.
The 1675 map by John Ogilby shows that the road through Ferrybridge and Sherburn-in-Elmet comes up to Towton and then carries straight on as with today’s road line. It then crosses the Cock River at the stone bridge, which is now part of the south bound slip road of the Tadcaster By-pass, and carries on into Tadcaster. Grimston is specifically shown to the east of it and Stutton to the west. Virtually mirroring, once more, that of today’s road line. All side roads are marked, but no indication of the Old London Road is given.
Since there was no earlier local road maps on record then, could it be perceived to mean that the present day road was not in use before 1675? Not really, it is just simply that the map of 1675 was actually the first published map of this area that specifically showed the road lines, while any previous maps we know of today only showed the towns, villages and rivers.
Three maps by Gentleman‘s Magazine, and Mssrs. Lumby and Ogilby, herein mentioned, are drawn at one inch to the mile and, as stated, also show all the constructed milestones that were alongside the road. It would appear that these milestones and the self-same road line must have been already in place much earlier than that initial map of 1675 and most of the mile stones are, indeed, still there alongside the road today. The maps gave mileages from the stones that, to be accurate, must indicate the use of the exact line of the present-day road. If the longer Old London Road we are debating about was the earlier route then they would all be wrong all the way south! These milestones go straight through Grimston Park, north of Towton and south of Tadcaster, on today’s road line. The only one that is missing alongside today’s road in this area is the one which would likely have been removed when Grimston was enparked because it was ON the then temporarily defunct roadway in the new park, if that was what was happening in 1770. There is always the other possibility that the Cock Bridge was down and awaiting repair. But, keep in mind, that not one map is available that shows the Old London Road as existing before the enparking period.
Yet, the title ’Old London Road’ is there beside the lane adjacent to the present-day road. Let us look more closely with the problems of the Old London Road. Heading out of Towton, it leads first west and then generally north from Towton, while London is obviously to the south. So when was it given the name ‘Old London Road’? It would not have been known thus by the people of Towton because to them, it headed in the opposite direction. It is fairly safe to assume that it would be named this way at it’s more northern end in-or-near Tadcaster. However, this track’s 'the Old London Road’ name only runs as far as Stutton. Afterwards it was called Stutton Road, from Stutton to Tadcaster for the simple reason that is where it went from Tadcaster. Therefore, the folks of Stutton may well have called it Old London Road because, at least to them, that is where it eventually went.
This is all well and good, but if the earlier road, on today’s line, was removed for any reason whatsoever, then why did it soon return afterwards and was used, and remains so all the way till today? Could it be that the nation came up with this great idea of toll roads? There was money to be made and here was an obvious old-time main road route. It was re-instated as a highway and to its south, a toll bar was put across it as it entered Grimston Park, at the previously mentioned Ulleskelf turnoff and this location is still known today as Towton Bar. Or was it simply a temporary situation while the bridge was being repaired?
Now we must look at the layout of where the Old London Road meets the main road at Towton. It is a 90 degree connection and on the route from London to York we do not find any other 90 degree, not then, and not now. Mile after mile the London road heads north towards Towton, and from Ferrybridge upwards it winds north in a consistent width and form, all the way to Tadcaster. If the present historic view of the road line is accepted, it supposedly turns onto the Old London Road, where it then changes from a main, wide, usable highway into a mere narrow track, which is less than a quarter of its previous consistent width. Does this Old London Road theory really add up in the whole scheme of things?
Added to all that is where the Old London Road has it’s crossing place over the Cock River. The slope of the road’s track upon the Towton side is much too steep for any sizeable or weighty cart to use making heavy transport usage virtually impossible; something that such a main highway would be most often used by. A steep slope would show deep wear from heavy use and from erosion, and indeed the track leading up from the bridge towards Towton is quite deep with use. But, this wear is only three feet wide indicating single foot or horse traffic. It hardly gives the signs of any main north-south highway.
Today’s road line was obviously there in the 1600’s, and most likely even earlier, while the so-called Old London Road was little more that a track that was used during that ‘glitch’ of the enparking rage that swamped England in the late 1700’s, or perhaps as no more than a way for light traffic to avoid the toll road through Grimston Park. However, despite this, who is to say that the present and 1600’s road line was there, one hundred and fifty years or more earlier, back in the late 1400’s?
This is not an easy question to answer by any means, with the maps of earlier periods not showing any road lines. But, between Sherburn-in-Elmet and South Milford a major Roman road has recently been discovered which leads due north to south - with Ferrybridge to the south and Tadcaster to the north. Also in the early 1900’s the old bridge on the present road-line crossing over the Cock Beck near Tadcaster by the modern-day by-pass (mentioned above) was also found to have been built upon Roman foundations.
This direct Ferrybridge to Tadcaster route was certainly in use some 1000 years before the Battle of Towton. It was in use on the self-same line less than two hundred years later than the battle, as it shows on maps from 1675, 1720, 1744, 1765, 1794, 1831, 1849 and it still is in use today while there is only one map of 1770 that shows any differing route. There is no certain proof from all this of its use in the fifteenth century, but the odds in favor of the present road line being in use in 1461 must now be 10 to 1 in favor while the odds for the so-called Old London Road being the main roadway at that time would appear to be nearer 50 to 1 against.
Do not forget though that we are told in the modern published versions of The Battle of Towton’s histories that the Lancastrians were slaughtered around Cock Bridge and that was, according to the likes of Edmund Bogg and those who came after, on today’s Old London Road’. This is most certainly a very big point in its favor. But was the said Cock Bridge actually upon Old London Road? The problem for this modern school of thought being that the said title only appears on that self-same map of 1770, while the last bridge over the Cock (the one with the Roman foundations), which is on the more modern-day route to Tadcaster, was the crossing point which was actually known as ‘Cock Bridge’. It says so even on the 1849 Ordnance Survey map where its then current 19th century name was ‘New Bridge’ but ‘Cock Bridge’ is shown clearly as its much earlier title. This is also a possible indication of it having been lately repaired and re-instated.
So either we have a wide, continuous and consistent roadway from the south to only just past Grimston. The road width shows that it is a consistently wide and well used ancient way along its whole route, but it then slips into a mere track way at Towton which joins it at an unacceptable 90 degrees to its main course. It then has milestones upon the road south of Towton are all incorrect in their distances to Tadcaster.
It is also far too narrow and too steep in certain sections to have been anything more than a country track and the only map which calls this track Old London Road is of the enparking period.
Or, we more likely have a 1600 year old through way with consistent road width, consistent milestones and all the features that argue in its favor and with the earliest road map of 1675 showing that it was indeed so. It has continuous milestones from earlier than 1675. It has a Roman road mirroring it between Sherburn-in-Elmet and South Milford. It has a bridge just outside Tadcaster with Roman foundations. Certainly all the other maps of both later and earlier than the enparking period show it near exactly ‘as-is’ today.
If, by some weird case of distorted imagination, this Old London Road track could have been the main road at the time of the battle then its steep incline and its narrow bridge would likely have not allowed the battle to take place at Towton anyway. To put such a large Lancastrian army on the field by this route would have required nearer to five days than the seemingly one day that was available. It would most certainly appear that either the idea of this being the main Tadcaster to Towton road is wrong or all else of the battle’s history is wrong.
But what of other problems with today’s picture of that battle? As already mentioned it would seem that the majority of Victorian writers put the start of the battle in a different place to where today’s battle maps put it. And in their option they do at least seem to pick the more militarily obvious site. The slope to the north of Dintingdale, and thus Saxton, would be a far more obvious place for the Lancastrian force to await the enemy, especially given the strategy of warfare in that period.
Likewise, should the battle lines have indeed been drawn up upon the higher plateau, the idea of thousands of Yorkist soldiers spending a freezing night alongside the ‘ambush’ party in the wood to their left without ever checking it or even simply going in there for their firewood is a little too far fetched to be believed.
Then we also have the famous references to the ‘bridge of bodies’ over the Cock river by Cock Bridge and the said waterway to be later seen ‘running red with blood‘. A far from impossible situation given the numbers who died. But, and it must be a big ‘but‘, we find we have exactly the same description given of Penda’s defeated army’s retreat further up the Cock river in the 7th century. Exactly the same description, virtually word for word. Bridge of bodies, river running red with blood? A possible coincidence? Or could it just perhaps be a case of local legends becoming mixed up over time?
And, finally we have the story of Warwick at Pontefract exclaiming that any man who would rather leave him should do so now, while we also have a very similar statement being made by Edward upon the battlefield. Hardly is it likely that this offer was made twice within twenty four hours.
There are certainly many questions that need to re-asked. But, I conclude from this evidence that the present-day road route was the self-same route that was open to the warring factions back in 1461 and thus the search for bodies should be directed to the region due north of Towton as much, if not more, than around the Old London Road’s smaller bridge.
Minor details perhaps, but details that could mean a total re-think on the Battle of Towton, and, if this is indicative of history in general, then many other ‘accepted’ facts may need some serious rethinking.