On Palmsunday 1461, in a field near the village of Tadcaster half an hours drive from my door, upwards of 50000 men fought to the death for 10 hours in a blizzard. When it was over 28000 lay dead and many more died later of their wounds. It was the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.
Without going into too much detail, the battle was fought for the English Crown between Edward IV (The Grand Old Duke of York’s son) and the Lancastrian Henry V1 (Henry V’s son). Henry was a very weak and pious King, and suffered from mental illness, possible catatonic schizophrenia, and with England constantly at war with the French it needed a strong capable King. Edward was young, brave and strong and had a good claim to the throne through his bloodline, and after his father was killed by Henrys forces, decided to take the Crown for himself.
So on a bitterly cold morning and with a blizzard howling, the two sides met. Henrys Lancastrians started proceedings by shooting tens of thousands of arrows at the Yorkists, but the wind was against them and the arrows fell out of reach. The Yorkists gathered them up and with the wind behind them fired them into the Lancastrian line with devastating consequences. Then the Lancastrians charged and battle was commenced. They fought for 10 hours, hacking stabbing and slashing.
Towards late afternoon the Lancastrians seemed to be getting the upper hand, then the Duke of Norfolk arrived with his army and joined Edwards men. The Lancastrians outnumbered routed but the flooded Cock Beck was in the way and the Yorkists picked them off, fighting in the dark and snow. So many were killed that a bridge of bodies was formed and the river Wharfe, which Cock beck drains into, ran red for 3 days.
Until very recently the only sign that the battle had taken place was an old stone cross at the side of the road. Few had ever heard of the battle – Shakespeare briefly mentions it in Henry V, and unless you were a historian you probably never knew about it.
I first visited Towton 25 years ago with a friend. At that time you could walk around the battlefield at will and go down the ‘Bloody Meadow’ at Cock beck. It was very silent, no one was about and you could get a real feel of the place. Now Cock beck is fenced off and you aren’t allowed down there any more.
Towton Battlefield Society have done a good job, they have put up walk ways and information boards around the site, and as people are starting to become more aware of the battlefield (some skeletons were unearthed a few years ago and the BBC did a documentary about the site) the little layby near the cross is starting to get full. But it is still little visited and still little known.
And to really get the feel of the place it is best to visit when no one is there, preferably on a cold winters evening when there is snow on the ground and just imagine the horror, bravery and carnage which happened here 550 years ago on a cold Palmsunday when England’s Crown changed hands.
Edward reigned for for 22 years, although he fought more battles to keep his Crown – mostly against Henrys widow and his cousin, he died in 1483. His brother Richard 111 took the Crown for himself and (supposedly) murdered Edwards children – the Princes in the Tower, but that is another story.
The English Wars of the Roses are very complicated, and nothing is taught in schools. But it was a very important time in Englands history when the Crown changed hands several times and many battles fought. You can read more about Towton here.