Towton - The Approach to Contact

by John Sadler

 Having seized the initiative handed to him Edward, after being acclaimed by a great gathering in St. John’s Fields, suitably orchestrated by Warwick, did not dally. John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk was sent into the eastern counties to raise his affinity, whilst the Earl carried his mission into the midlands. On 11th March, Fauconberg led the van northwards from London, the King, as we may now style him, with the main body, followed two days later. In Yorkshire, Somerset was making his dispositions to meet the onslaught: Northumberland, Clifford, Trollope and Randolph, Lord Dacre of Gilsland were under his command with a total force of perhaps 40,000 soldiers, a most formidable array; the largest to take the field thus far. The Royal Family were safely lodged in York, the severed heads and twisted faces of their former adversaries grinning down from Micklegate Bar.

The Duke of Somerset had his muster on the gentle plateau that swells between the villages of Towton and Saxton, tents and bothies crowding behind the formidable barrier of the River Aire. It can hardly have been a congenial billet, the bare upland cut by the icy winds of a lingering medieval winter. The King, however, obliged, by moving with speed and decision. Once across the Trent he continued on the march north, even though Norfolk’s division had not yet come up; bad roads and the Duke’s rapidly failing health impeded their deployment. Safely across the Don, the Yorkists, by Friday, 27th March, were drawing close to Ferrybridge. The weather continued inclement but it was imperative to seize a bridgehead over the Aire, John Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter attempted to take the crossing by a bold coup de main. His assault drove back the defenders and though the bridge was slighted it was not completely destroyed; by the end of that wet, blustery Friday, the planks had been replaced and the Yorkists gained a foothold on the farther bank. Seemingly secure on the northern side, the attackers were themselves vigorously assailed, in the pallid light of dawn, by a commanded party of their enemies, led by Clifford himself with half a thousand picked troops. Fitzwalter together with Warwick’s bastard brother, Sir Richard Jenny, was cut down in the melee. Hall provides a vivid account of the fray:

‘The Lord Fitzwalter hearing the noise, suddenly rose out of his bed, and unarmed, with a poleaxe in his hand, thinking that it had been an affray amongst his men, came down to appease the same, but before he could say a word, or knew what the matter was, he was slain, and with him the bastard of Salisbury, brother to the Earl of Warwick, a valiant young gentleman, and of great audacity’ [3].   

Gregory’s Chronicle has Warwick himself in the thick of the fight, leading the rearguard and wounded in the thigh by an arrow. The tactical success, however, rested with Clifford and by noon the Earl, with the battered survivors, was explaining the debacle to Edward at Pontefract. It is possible the Kingmaker was distinctly ‘wobbly’ at this point, suffering one of those crises that beset him when confronted with the unexpected. It is probably at this moment that Hall accredits the Earl with the histrionic gesture of killing his horse to indicate there would be no further retreat, this smacks of theatre, though Warwick knew well how to pull an audience. If his lieutenant did waver, the young monarch was made of sterner stuff. Edward’s instinctive and sure grasp of tactics, presumably boosted by sage advice from the veteran Fauconberg, dictated an immediate riposte. Hall recounts the Earl’s conduct in a suitably melodramatic passage:

‘When the Earl of Warwick was informed of this feat [the destruction of Fitzwalter by Clifford], he like a man desperate, mounted on his hackney, and came blowing to King Edward saying ‘Sir I pray God have mercy on their souls, which in the beginning of your enterprise hath lost their lives, and because I see no success of the world, I remit the vengeance and punishment to God our creator and redeemer’ and with that he alighted down and slew his horse with his sword, saying ‘Let him fly that will, for surely I will tarry with him that will tarry with me’ and he kissed the cross hilt of his sword’ [4].

Warwick was to return to Ferrybridge and pin Clifford to the crossing whilst Fauconberg led a strong flanking movement, bolstered by the support of fellow veterans, Sir Richard Blount and the Kentishman, Robert Horne, splashing through the swollen but passable ford, four miles upstream at Castleford. Clifford was, in turn, surprised when the Yorkists descended on his right flank. The Butcher was disconcerted but not dismayed, leading the ‘Flower of Craven, in a fighting withdrawal. Somerset’s inertia, at this juncture, is hard to fathom, bad weather and poor communications played their part but it was clearly vital to deny the Yorkists passage of the Aire, his failure to reinforce Clifford is unexplained.

At Dinting Dale, the Westmorland men made their stand, Clifford fell to an archer when, it is said, he injudiciously removed his bevor to slake a raging thirst. Many of his fellowship died with him, (the dead Lancastrian left a young heir, barely seven years of age and who lived to fight against the Scots at Flodden over half a century later). Sir John Neville, brother to the earl of Westmorland, (who, according to Davies, was credited with misleading the Duke of York prior to the Battle of Wakefield) perished in the extended skirmish. 

‘[Clifford’s force] met with some that they looked not for, and were attraped before they were aware. For the Lord Clifford, either from heat or pain, put off his gorget, was suddenly hit by an arrow, as some say, without a head and was stricken in the throat, and incontinent rendered his spirit. And the Earl of Westmorland’s brother and all his company almost were slain, at a place called Dintingdale, not far from Towton’ [5].

Andrew Boardman, in his excellent and definitive study of the battle, comments on the difficulties over these actions, lumped together as the ‘Battle’ for Ferrybridge. The fight has two distinct stages – an attack upon Fitzwalter’s Yorkists, ostensibly guarding the secured crossing place, seen off with loss then the second phase where Fauconberg completes the destruction of Clifford. The latter has not enjoyed a good press, a fearless fighter he is known to history by the unfortunate epithet of ‘The Butcher’, his affinity, the Flower of Craven’ appear to have been something of an elite, infected by their Lord’s uncompromising ardour.

Jean de Waurin gives a somewhat different view of the battle. He describes Edward, from Pontefract, dispatching John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk to scout the Lancastrians at Ferrybridge. This commanded party comes under attack and is duly reinforced so the fight develops as an encounter battle. With the position now a stalemate Edward himself, comes up to assess the prospects and, fearing the enemy must now be further reinforced, orders an immediate assault. The fight raged from noon until nearly dusk, some 3,000 casualties on both sides – a significant encounter in itself [6].

The facts, as Andrew Boardman concludes, after a detailed analysis of the sources, are that the bridge was broken down by the retreating Lancastrians and left unguarded. Fitzwalter’s pioneer company seized the ruined crossing and repaired, at least in part, the damage. They in turn were taken unawares the next dawn by Clifford. After Warwick, learning of the reverse, had confirmed the loss to Edward the King immediately moves strong forces to wrest back the contested crossing. What then ensued was a desperate and hard fought encounter wherein Warwick and the King both fought in the melee, the former being wounded in the thigh by a chance arrow. Clifford, with the narrow ground in his favour, denied the attackers any advantage for several hours. Realising that his head on assault was at risk of proving a costly failure, Edward orders Fauconberg to mount his flank attack via Castleford. Clifford then attempted to disengage, retreating back to his own lines but was overwhelmed by the Yorkists’ mounted van.

A question arises as to whether Clifford was simply abandoned by his comrades who, depending upon the exact location of the Lancastrian encampment at this stage, may have had a grandstand view of his destruction or whether his force was wholly out of view. It seems incredible that, whatever jealousies may have obtained between the headstrong Clifford and his fellow commanders, they would allow him to be decimated in front of their lines without raising a finger, the effect on morale may easily be imagined. It seems more likely that, in the fog of war, the danger to Clifford and ‘the Flower of Craven’ was not immediately obvious to their comrades and that the rout was accomplished before a relief could be mounted. For the trapped Lancastrians, harried virtually to within sight of safety, this must have been a bitter conclusion. They had fought all day against great odds and held their ground with honour but now, as the freezing blanket of darkness arrived to cloak their retreat, the Yorkist prickers and mounted archers were swarming around them like vengeful hornets. We may assume the Flower of Craven sold their lives dearly, bunched around the body of their revered leader like the housecarls of old.

With the way cleared, his enemies discomfited and motionless, Edward led the bulk of the army toward Castleford and the crossing there. By dusk on that day in a cold, northern spring, the Yorkists were safely over the last major obstacle between them and the Lancastrians; a major trial of arms was now imminent and unavoidable. Edward’s prickers were as far forward as Saxton but the baggage was left behind at Ferrybridge, so the Yorkist army, as it straggled in tired columns, would be faced with a cold and hungry bivouac. One of the more contemporary accounts of the battle comes from the pen of Warwick’s brother, George Neville, who wrote in the immediate aftermath to the papal legate, Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni:         

‘The King, the valiant Duke of Norfolk, my brother aforesaid and my uncle, Lord Fauconberg, travelling by different routes, finally united with all their companies and armies near the country round York …Our adversaries had broken the bridge which was our way across, and were strongly posted on the other side, so that our men could only cross by a narrow way which they had made themselves after the bridge was broken. But our men forced a way by the sword, and many were slain on both sides. Finally the enemy took to flight, and very many of them were slain as they fled’ [7].

Moving large bodies of foot over wet, miry ground, the lanes a nightmare of slime would constitute an NCO’s nightmare. Encumbered by harness and personal weapons, the weary men slithered, stumbled, plodded and cursed toward the higher ground, the keen edge of a biting wind freezing their sweat, tempers frayed, nerves taut and bellies empty. They finally stood on the rim of ground that would become legendary as England’s bloodiest field; they could have been forgiven had the significance of the moment eluded them. Somerset had elected to fight south of York, with the Wharfe running behind and the Ouse flowing to the east. York, the northern capital, could not be easily given up, tantamount to an intimation of defeat. A further withdrawal over the harsh sweep of the North Yorkshire Moors and into the poorer districts of Durham or even Northumberland was out of the question, the land too bare to support so great a host, damage to morale considerable.

Battle

Past Towton, the land rises gently to a low plateau, the climb barely perceptible except to the west where there is a marked decline into the Cock Burn. The valley below was more densely forested in the fifteenth century, a tangle of scrub, alder and birch, poorly drained. To the south-west, up beyond Bloody Meadow, the rise becomes more noticeable, still topped by a stand of timber named Castle Hill Wood. The swell is neatly bisected by a lateral depression, known as Towton Dale, which slopes into what was, at that time, a marshy gully in the west. The generally accepted position, taken up by the Lancastrians on the day of the battle is spread along the crown of the ridge line, north of the dale, immediately to the south of the present monument. It was, therefore, necessary for the Yorkists to deploy on the higher ground lying to the south. It has, nonetheless, been suggested that Somerset’s men might have advanced some 300 metres southwards with Towton Dale in their rear. The Duke was certainly not blind to the potential for ambush offered by Castle Hill Wood and concealed a strong, commanded party beneath the trees, still bare and stark against the leaden skies.

It was now dawn on the 29th March, Palmsunday; as the priests moved before the lines, habits as black as crows, men knelt to take a scrap of earth in their mouths: the imminence of mortality is a powerful incentive to piety and no medieval soldier would draw before making due and proper obeisance. Waurin again provides a distinct view of the events which occurred in the run up to the battle. The chronicler asserts that it was only after the army had broken camp that the Yorkist scouts reported the enemy’s advance:

‘When the [King] and his lords were told that King Henry was nearby in the fields they rejoiced, for they wished for nothing more but to fight him. The [King] called for his captains and told them to put their men in formation and to take their positions before the enemy came to close. And so it was he organised his battles, and he sent some men to look around the area because they were only 4 miles from the enemy’ [8].

As the Yorkists toiled up the slope from Saxton they would have been out of sight of their enemies deployed on the farther ridge [9]. Not till they had ascended to this lip of the plateau would they have glimpsed the formidable array that faced them. Even with the biting wind and driven flurries the strength of their opponents would have been immediately obvious. Now there was the bright panoply of war, the silken banners unfurled and harness gleaming, breaks in the sleet showing the massed rows of bills. It would have been a daunting sight, the most crowded field in England’s long catalogue. It was to be a battle, yet also it was a vendetta, a blood feud between the scions of the noble families on both sides of the dale. All had lost fathers, brothers, cousins and friends to the blood lust of the other. The rotting skulls of York, Salisbury and Rutland still fed the crows, the blood of St. Albans and Northampton heavy on the minds of the Lancastrian lords. The commons took their cue from the magnates – many of lesser blood might also have left family dead on earlier fields.

Edward was in no hurry to unleash the offensive; his men were almost certainly outnumbered as Norfolk’s division still lagged some distance behind [8]. He himself seems to have taken station in the centre with Warwick whilst his uncle Fauconberg led the right. The Yorkist rearguard or left wing would comprise a substantial reserve and the cadre of mounted skirmishers. Facing them, Northumberland and the experienced Trollope had the Lancastrian right or van, Somerset and Lord Welles the main body, King Henry’s banner flowing above with Exeter on the right. It is almost certain that Fauconberg’s Yorkist van (the right) was the first division to sight the enemy, strongly posted to cover the deployment of the main battle and rear. Whether the advancing columns, as they marshalled into line, comprised companies of bows, bills and men at arms placed alternately or whether the archers stepped to the front as distinct missile troops is unclear. Andrew Boardman suggests the van was entirely comprised of a mass of bowmen and the subsequent fall of events would tend to support this view.

As the hosts were marshalled into line, about ten in the morning, a brisk shower of dense rain and sleet gusted over the field, chased by a strong southerly wind. This blew hail directly into the faces of the Lancastrians, obscuring their vision. Fauconberg, his veteran’s eye quick to discern the possibilities, bade his bowmen advance and loose, shooting at extreme range but with the scurrying wind to lend wings to their flights. The shafts found their mark and the Lancastrians shot in reply, but they loosed into empty ground some forty metres short, the Yorkist archers having now smartly stepped back. Capitalising on his success, the wily Fauconberg repeated the tactic, returning his adversaries shafts back into their own ranks. Hall describes Fauconberg’s initiative:

‘The Lord Fauconberg, which led the forward of King Edward’s battle being a man of great policy and much experience in martial feats caused every archer under his standard to shoot one flight and then made them stand still. The northern men, feeling the shoot, but by reason of the snow, not perfectly viewing the distance between them and their enemies like hardy men shot their sheaf arrows as fast as they might, but all their shot was lost and their labour in vain for they came not near the southern men by 40 tailors yards’ [10].

Such an exchange of missiles frequently dictated the outcome of the fight for the losing side, that suffering the greatest loss, was left with no alternative but to advance to contact to avoid the cascade of death. An arrow does not bring the merciful, numbing shock of a high velocity rifle round and the arrow storm must have been dreadful to endure. The shafts, hissing like a crescendo of vipers, would deluge the Lancastrian ranks and whilst a man at arms in full plate might escape injury the lesser protection worn by the commons would leave them horribly exposed. Men snatched from the ranks to writhe and shudder on the snow, their lifeblood spilling copiously  onto the white, the screams of men struck down, some riddled with shafts, stuck like porcupines through their bodies, limbs and faces. Fauconberg had the inestimable advantage of the wind but the shooting demanded a very high degree of skill, happily for Edward his archers were equal to the task.

A great shout of ‘King Henry’ burst from thousands of throats, rolling over the windswept ground and the Lancastrians surged forward. The tramp of armoured men, slogging over the wet slush, drowned the keening of the wind, the great, rolling crash as the opposing ranks collided like breakers on the shore. The biggest and bloodiest fight in the history of these islands was now fully underway. It was probably sometime before noon. King Edward had pointedly sent his horse to the rear, showing he would stand the full hazard of battle with his retainers and live or die accordingly. Such gestures were important, none of the young monarch’s fellowship need doubt his seriousness; this was the battle for England. It would appear that the Lancastrian centre was the first division to engage, Northumberland, on the flank, lagging somewhat behind; quite why is uncertain, it is very possible his companies had suffered worst from Fauconberg’s deluge. For the whole of their advance the attackers would still be subject to a hail of arrows, men marking targets more closely as the gap narrowed, the popping of handguns heralding their imminent approach. It seemed that Northumberland’s blow must fall against the King’s division, as Waurin confirms:

‘At that moment … [the King] saw the army of the Earl of Northumberland coming for battle carrying the banner of King Henry. [The King] rode his horse along his army where all the nobles were and told them how they had wanted to make him their king, and he reminded them that they were seeing the next heir to the throne which had been usurped by the Lancasters a long time ago. He suffered his troops and knights to help him now to recover his inheritance and they all assured him of their desire to help and said that if any wished not to fight they should go their own way’ [11].

As the Yorkist archers fell back fighting burst fierce along the line, a murderous, hacking melee of bills, poleaxes and swords. In such combat the number of fatal casualties would be perhaps less than might be expected, the greatest loss of life occurred when one side dissolved in rout and became prey for the victors. Many would suffer wounds, cuts to the head, body and lower limbs, if a man fell he was lost, snuffed out by a flurry of blows. The noise would be terrific, a lunatic cacophony of grinding blades, shouts, exhortations, curses, screams of injured and dying men. The mounds of dead which contemporary illustrators show piling on fields of battle [12] would build up as the fight burned brightly in various sectors. It would not be at all tidy, the neat precise coming together of opposing lines. Knots of men would eddy and swirl as with the ebb and suck of the tide, temporarily disengaging as the ranks were thinned or disordered, the very press of dead forming a considerable barrier so that the living must fight atop the heaps of slain, adding their blood and entrails to the score.

In the dense fog of battle men would stand with comrades in their companies, telling who was friend and who was foe was no easy matter and there was no recourse to polite enquiry, men might wear livery jackets, emblazoned with their lord’s badge but this would do little to avert confusion. The standards provided the main anchor and rally point as the melee pounded. Commanders would be able to exercise a diminishing level of control, the fight taking on its own momentum, the roar and fury of the red mist further obscured by the slanting showers that burst over the field as the afternoon wore on. If the Yorkists enjoyed the considerable morale advantage of having the inspiring persona of their youthful king on the field, they lacked numbers and, as the fight continued, this began to tell, the Lancastrians steadily gaining ground, the landscape behind this slow attrition spewing a carpet of horrors, a banquet of unquiet death and mortal pain, the keening of the wounded whipped and eddied by the fitful wind. At one point Edward was saved by the swift action of a Welsh retainer Davyd ap Mathew. In recognition of this and, in addition to material reward, the King granted his saviour the honour of standard bearer and the insertion of ‘Towton’ into the family arms.

Somerset may have chosen this potentially crucial moment to spring his ambush from Castle Hill Wood; the attack falling on the left of the Yorkist line. Evidence for this is largely anecdotal but the lie of the ground admirably suited such a tactic and the frequent snow showers would act as a further screen. If such an attack could be successfully launched then the Yorkists would find themselves, at this point, assailed on two flanks and would very likely give ground. This was potentially fatal, just such a blow delivered from the flank, had contributed greatly to the Scottish victory at Otterburn in 1388, quite possibly the Lancastrians had retained their mounts and charged as cavalry, adding to their enemies discomfiture. The assault may well, as Andrew Boardman convincingly asserts, have been of sufficient weight to cause the entire line to alter its alignment; the left flank of the Yorkist army being pushed some way down the line of the present B1217. Part of the army may even have routed, provoking a crisis for the young King and his senior officers, Waurin appears to support this possibility:

‘When Lord Rivers, his son and six or seven thousand Welshmen led by Andrew Trollope, following the Duke of Somerset himself with seven thousand men, charged his cavalry who fled and were chased for about eleven miles. It seemed that Lord Rivers’ troops had won a great battle, because they thought that the Earl of Northumberland had charged on the other side, unfortunately he had not done so and this became his tragic hour for he died that day. During this debacle many of [King Edward’s] soldiers died and when he learned the truth of what had happened to his cavalry he was very sad as well as very annoyed’ [13].

It may well have been the case that Lord Rivers (Edward’s future father in law) and Trollope led the ambush party. The latter was a tried exponent of such handy surprises; once successful the attackers pelted off in pursuit of their enemies so the effect of the advantage gained was thus diluted. One is reminded of Prince Edward’s (Longshhanks) horsemen at Lewes in 1263 and Prince Rupert’s squadrons at Naseby, nearly four centuries later. Andrew Boardman point out that Edward, a decade later at Tewkesbury, was very aware of the risk and potential of the woods on his flank; this may have represented knowledge dearly bought. What appears certain is that, for some hours, the outcome hung very much in the balance, but with the advantage shifting inexorably to the more numerous Lancastrians. Edward may have been saved from a worse catastrophe by a possible failure of command in his enemies ranks with Northumberland advancing too slowly to capitalise on the success of the ambush party, indeed his division may have been forced to give ground with the Earl himself, at this critical point, being struck down.

Lord Dacre was also amongst those who fell, like Clifford, overcome with thirst he removed his sallet, only to be transfixed by an arrow. No man, encumbered by full or part harness can fight indefinitely without relief, quite the contrary, an armoured man, however fit, will tire after no more than a few moments of combat. Exhausted men have to be rotated and they need water, dehydration and heat, trapped within the carapace of steel, can be as debilitating as wounds. Dacre probably died in North Acres [14] but despite this loss of a senior officer the juggernaut pressed on, forcing the Yorkists to give ground, as yet there was no rout but perhaps an intimation of panic, a tremour ran through the ranks.

The crisis was now at hand. All of the Yorkists reserves, under Wenlock and Dinham, would have been long since committed, very likely the whole of Exeter’s rearward division would be in the Lancastrian line. Once King Edward’s men were pushed to the lip of the escarpment disaster loomed. If the Lancastrians could maintain this steady pressure they would sweep their battered enemies from the field and win the day; the stakes could not have been higher. Edward, his Black Bull banner streaming in the wind, performed prodigies of valour, a paladin and inspiration to his bone weary soldiers. George Neville, admittedly partisan, refers to the courage and leadership of not only the King, but of his brother and uncle. Personal leadership was the vital element of medieval generalship – the magnate was always a knight, expected to find his place in the thick of the press and there to accomplish chivalric feats. Edward of York perfectly filled this role, his great height, commanding physique, skill at arms and personal courage formed the very stuff of legend.   

Desperately ill, the exhausted Norfolk may have been at Pontefract on the evening of 28th March, [15] (he was to die in November); despite this he had his men on the move next morning. Following the old London road through Sherburn-in-Elmet, past the corpse strewn field at Dinting dale where the stiffening remains of the fallen stayed frozen in the sacklike postures of death, his men began arriving on the field, deploying on their comrades right flank at some point in the early afternoon. Such much needed and fresh reinforcements were able to shore up the Yorkist line and provide a greater parity of numbers. Though Somerset may have sensed the victory slipping from his grasp there was no panic in the Lancastrian ranks, the Duke moved men to shore up the left whilst trying to maintain pressure on the centre and right.

For the moment there was stalemate, the slaughter continued into the wet afternoon, scudding cloud driven by the sharp edged wind, scattering of hail and snow, blinding the combatants and settling a pall over the rising mounds of dead and wounded. Nonetheless the arrival of Norfolk’s division may finally have been the decisive factor. When the fighting was of such long duration and the mettle of the parties so finely balanced, any fresh reinforcement at the crisis point must have a telling effect. Somerset was within an ace of winning the battle when his ambush party crashed against the Yorkist left; dire as this was the line was not completely fractured, nor was it rolled up in the classic manner. Most probably by a mix of Edward’s generalship, shoring up the weakened front, and by the folly of those Lancastrians who succumbed to the lure of pursuit and plunder, the crisis was averted. Norfolk’s reinforcement, less dramatic, may have achieved the greater tactical advantage. 

Those struggling in the line would have little sense of events beyond their immediate periphery. Pouring with sweat in clammy harness, their vision restricted to the narrow opening of the visor, disorientated by a constant, relentless crescendo of noise, it would be impossible to gain a meaningful insight into the shifting fortunes of the armies. But the Yorkists had stopped retreating; it was now their turn to exert pressure, to build up the steady momentum of the advance, fresh blood and untried muscle swelling their ranks. Pressure from Norfolk’s fresh troops was causing Somerset’s line to bend backwards in response, curving like a flexed bow, still, however, in good order. At some point in the long, blood soaked afternoon, the Lancastrians began to give way. At first, a trickle from the rear, that swelled into a stream, then a river in spate, now unstoppable. Once morale was gone, rout was inevitable, the collapse finally swift and terrifyingly sudden as the thinning ranks at the front found themselves deserted. Vergil’s account, though it postdates the battle by half a century, does suggest that the collapse, when it came, was swift:

‘Thus did the fight continue more than 10 hours in equal balance, when at last King Henry [by whom he surely means Somerset] espied the forces of his foes increase, and his own somewhat yield, whom when by new exhortation he had compelled to press on more earnestly, he with a few horseman removing a little out of that place, expected the event of the fight, but behold, suddenly his soldiers gave the back, which when he saw this he fled also’ [16].

It was by the rim of Towton Dale that the line finally fractured, a few hardy souls determined to form rally points around their banners and sell their lives as dearly as possible but the rest joined the deluge. Many scrambled or slid down the slush covered gradient toward the Cock River, Bloody Meadow became a vast killing field, panicking survivors fought each other to gain the narrow span of the bridge, swirling waters below swollen with the downpours. Exhausted men were dragged down by the weight of harness and sodden jacks; it is said the waters were so swollen with the tide of corpses men could cross dry shod over the ‘bridge of bodies’. As men pelted through the narrow lanes of Towton and on to Tadcaster, they were harried and hacked by swirling knots of cavalry who carried the slaughter virtually to the gates of York.

That night the victors would camp on the field, numbed by exhaustion, beset by the icy keening of the wind, around them the moans of the wounded and dying, the surgeons busily at their trade, the stink of blood and ordure in their nostrils. On the field those piles of stiffening bodies would shift and shudder as some desperately wounded wretch fought a last struggle for survival. For the defeated there were no comrades to lift them from the ground, no medical attention, however crude by our standards, just the cold and the blood soaked ground. In the bitter dark the jackals would come, the untouchables of medieval society, stripping the bodies of everything, picking over the carcasses of battle, knives and clubs settling the final fate of many who still lingered.

Quite how many men died on the field and in the rout cannot be clearly ascertained, Polydore Vergil later assessed the total as 20,000. Hall gives a more precise but unsubstantiated figure of 36,776. The Paston correspondence mentions a toll of 28,000. Whatever the exact level of mortality, the butcher’s bill was very high indeed, England’s bloodiest day before 1st July 1916 on the Somme. Of the total number of dead the majority were Lancastrians; besides Clifford and Dacre, Northumberland died of wounds, Lords Neville, de Mauley and Welles with the redoubtable Trollope fell on the field. Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon was taken and executed, Micklegate Bar was soon to host a whole new array of heads. The Yorkists had escaped with remarkably few gentry casualties, only Lord Fitzwalter and Robert Horne. George Neville summed up the day in his correspondence with Coppini:

‘That day [Palmsunday] there was a very great conflict, which began with the rising of the sun, and lasted until the tenth hour of the night, so great was the pertinacity and boldness of the men, who never heeded the possibility of a miserable death. Of the enemy who fled, great numbers were drowned in the river near the town of Tadcaster, eight miles from York, because they themselves had broken the bridge to cut our passage that way, so that none could pass, and a great part of the rest who got away who gathered in the said town and city, were slain and so many dead bodies were seen as to cover an area six miles long by three broad and about four furlongs. In this battle eleven lords of the enemy fell, including the Earl of Devon, the Earl of Northumberland , Lord Clifford and Neville with some cavaliers; and from what we hear from persons worthy of confidence, some 28,000 persons perished on one side and the other’ [17].

Lest he be thought too enthusiastic over the copious shedding of so much Christian blood, the Bishop concluded his missive with a suitable exclamation of piety:

‘O miserable and luckless race and powerful people, would you have no spark of pity for our own blood, of which we have lost so much of fine quality by the civil war, even if you had no compassion for the French’ [18].

If up to twenty thousand men died then twice as many would be wounded. Every dwelling, every cottage and bothy in the area would be crammed with hacked and bleeding men, the roads for days, even weeks after the fight crammed with walking wounded and men carried on carts. In a savage close quarter fight, most of the combatants would expect to sustain some injury, Warwick, as has been noted, was struck in the thigh by an arrow. It was the Duke of Wellington who commented on the field of Waterloo that apart from a battle lost there was no sadder sight than a battle won. The grim field of Towton would have been a very dolorous sight indeed

Notes:

[1] Attributed by Hall to the Earl of Warwick, prior to Towton and after the Yorkist reverse at Ferrybridge.

[2] ‘The Rose of Rouen’ p.p. 343 – 347.

[3] Hall, p.p. 254 – 255.

[4] Ibid., p. 255 – the Earl had taken care to mount a hackney, far less valuable than his destrier; the melodrama would be equal but the cost more bearable!

[5] Ibid., p. 255.

[6] Waurin p.p. 237 – 238.

[7] George Neville’s correspondence to Coppini; quoted in Lander, op. cit., p.p. 92 – 93.

[8] Waurin p.p. 330 – 340.

[9] Hall places the Yorkist camp around the village of Saxton and thus the army’s advance would be concealed until they ascended the southern plateau, very roughly between the present B1217 to the west and the A 162 to the east. Hall appears to make it quite clear that the two hosts marshalled out of sight of each other and that it was only when the Yorkists attained the rim that each could perceive the other’s array – see A. Boardman, The battle of Towton (England 1994), p. 108.

[10] Hall, p.p. 255 – 256.

[11] Waurin p. 340.

[12] Many contemporary illustrations show the field piled with great masses of dead .

[13] Waurin p. 340.

[14] Dacre is said to have been struck either in the throat or head whilst taking refreshment, a legend persists that he was sniped by a youthful archer who had hidden himself in a nearby bur or elderberry – see Boardman, op. cit., p. 133..

[15] Norfolk was, as we are aware, a very sick man, his exact movements remain unclear, Boardman concludes, and this must be right, that the Duke was probably, something in the order of a full day’s march behind the main body of the Yorkist army during the march north; see Boardman, op. cit., p. 77 – 78.

[16] Vergil p. 111.

[17] Neville’s correspondence, quoted in Lander, op. cit., p.p. 92 – 93.

[18] Ibid., p.p. 92 – 93.

                         

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