Towton in Verse

The Battle of Towton, and particularly the legendary Towton Rose, has inspired many people to verse.  Here are just a few examples of the poems gifted to us down the centuries.

Towton Field
Palm Sunday: 1461

Love, Who from the throne above
Cam’st to teach the law of love,
Who Thy peaceful triumph hast
Led o’er palms before Thee cast,
E’en in highest heaven Thine eyes
Turn from this day’s sacrifice!
Slaughter whence no victor host
Can the palms of triumph boast;
Blood on blood in rivers spilt,–
English blood by English guilt!

From the gracious Minster-towers
Of York the priests behold afar
The field of Towton shimmer like a star
With light of lance and helm; while both the powers
Misnamed from the fair rose, with one fell blow,
–In snow-dazed, blinding air
Mass’d on the burnside bare,–
Each army, as one man, drove at the opposing foe.

Ne’er since then, and ne’er before,
On England’s fields with English hands
Have met for death such myriad myriad bands,
Such wolf-like fury, and such greed of gore:–
No natural kindly touch, no check of shame:
And no such bestial rage
Blots our long story’s page;
Such lewd remorseless swords, such selfishness of aim

–Gracious Prince of Peace! Yet Thou
May’st look and bless with lenient eyes
When trodden races ‘gainst their tyrant rise,
And the bent back no more will deign to bow:
Or when they crush some old anarchic feud,
And found the throne anew
On Law to Freedom true,
Cleansing the land they love from guilt of blood by blood.

Nor did Heaven unmoved behold
When Hellas, for her birthright free
Dappling with gore the dark Saronian sea,
The Persian wave back, past Abydos, roll’d:–
But in this murderous match of chief ‘gainst chief
No chivalry had part,
No impulse of the heart;
Nor any sigh for Right triumphant breathes relief.

–Midday comes: and no release,
No carnage-pause to blow on blow!
While through the choir the palm-wreathed children go,
And gay hosannas hail the Prince of Peace:–
And evening falls, and from the Minster height
They see the wan Ouse stream
Blood-dark with slaughter gleam,
And hear the demon-struggle shrieking through the night.

Love, o’er palms in triumph strown
Passing, through the crowd alone,–
Silent ‘mid the exulting cry,–
At Jerusalem to die:
Thou, foreknowing all, didst know
How Thy blood in vain would flow!
How our madness oft would prove
Recreant to the law of love:
Wrongs that men from men endure
Doing Thee to death once more!

Francis Turner Palgrave (1788 – 1861). Submitted by Professor Francis O’Gorman, Head of English Studies at Leeds University

 

From “A month in Yorkshire”

Palm Sunday chimes were chiming
All gladsome thro’ the air,
And village churls and maidens
Knelt in the church at pray’r;
When the Red Rose and the White Rose
In furious battle reel’d;
And yeomen fought like barons,
And barons died ere yield.
When mingling with the snow-storm,
The storm of arrows flew;
And York against proud Lancaster
His ranks of spearmen threw.
When thunder-like the uproar
Outshook from either side,
As hand to hand they battled
From morn to eventide.
When the river ran all gory,
And in hillocks lay the dead,
And seven and thirty thousand
Fell for the White and Red.

* * * *

When o’er the Bar of Micklegate
They changed each ghastly head,
Set Lancaster upon the spikes
Where York had bleached and bled.

* * * *

There still wild roses growing,
Frail tokens of the fray -
And the hedgerow green bear witness
Of Towton field that day.

Walter White. Published by John Pickford M.A. of Bolton Percy, in 1870

 

The Flowers of Towton Field
A Ballad of Battle Acre

“There is a patch of wild white roses that bloom on a battle-field,
Where the rival rose of Lancaster blush’d redder still to yield;
Four hundred years have o’er them shed their sunshine and their snow,
But in spite of plough and harrow, every summer there they blow;
Though rudely up to root them with hand profane you toil,
The faithful flowers still fondly cluster round the sacred soil;
Though tenderly transplanted to the nearest garden gay,
Nor cost, nor care, can tempt them there to live a single day!
I ponder’d o’er their blossoms, and anon my busy brain
With banner’d hosts and steel-clad knights repeopled all the plain.
I seem’d to hear the lusty cheer of the bowmen bold of York,
As they rnark’d how well their cloth-yard shafts had done their bloody work;
And steeds with empty saddles came rushing wildly by,
And wounded warriors stagger’d past, or only turn’d to die,
And the little sparkling river was cumbered as of yore
With ghastly corse of man and horse, and ran down red with gore.
I started as I ponder’d, for loudly on mine ear
Rose indeed a shout like thunder, a true old English cheer;
And the sound of drum and trumpet came swelling up the vale,
And blazon’d banners proudly flung their glories to the gale ;
But not, oh! not to battle did those banners beckon now —
A baron stood beneath them, but not with helmed brow,
And Yorkshire yeomen round him throng’d, but not with bow and lance,
And the trumpet only bade them to the banquet and the dance.
Again my brain was busy: from out those flow’rets fair,
A breath arose like incense—a voice of praise and prayer!
A silver voice that said, ” Rejoice! and bless the God above,
Who hath given thee these days to see of peace, and joy, and love;
Oh, never more by English hands may English blood be shed,
Oh, never more be strife between the roses white and red.
The blessed words the shepherds heard may we remember still,
Throughout the world be peace on earth, and towards man goodwill.”

James Robinson Planché, 1872


The Towton Rose

“Oh, the red and the white Rose, upon Towton Moor it grows,
And red and white it blows upon that swarthe for evermore -
In memorial of the slaughter when the red blood ran like water,
And the victors gave no quarter in the flight from Towton Moor:
When the banners gay were beaming, and the steel cuirasses gleaming,
And the martial music streaming o’er that wide and lonely heath;
And many a heart was beating that dreamed not of retreating,
Which, ere the sun was setting, lay still and cold in death:
When the snow that fell at morning lay as a type and warning,
All stained and streaked with crimson, like the roses white and red
And filled each thirsty furrow with its token of the sorrow
That wailed for many a morrow through the mansions of the dead.
Now for twice two hundred years, when the month of March appears,
All unchecked by plough or shears spring the roses red and white;
Nor can the hand of mortal close the subterranean portal
That gives to life immortal these emblems of the fight.
And as if they were enchanted, not a flower may be transplanted
From those fatal precincts, haunted by the spirits of the slain;
For howe’er the root you cherish, it shall fade away and perish
When removed beyond the marish of Towton’s gory plain”.

Edmund Bogg, Leeds, 1902

 

ADVICE FROM THE ONE PER CENT

Whether you sport the badge of Lancaster,

rather than that which marks the house of York,

should you spit on both their martial causes or,

keeping your head down like a cloistered clerk,

do what those well-fed scribblers call work,

remember the unlucky one per cent

still quartered amongst Towton’s fields, who won’t

be giving evidence, except to God,

in this, their sacrificial testament,

the living fought on the ramparts of the dead.


Folk talk about the heat of battle, but

those who gab aren’t those who go to war.

We who were destined to experience it,

hour on mutually murderous hour

of hand to hand brutality are here

to tell you warmth was absent from the scene,

a freezing gale that numbed us to the bone,

cold steel, cold comfort, killing in cold blood,

snow flurries, arrow hail, relentless pain.

Survivors fought on ramparts of the dead.


Some of us succumbed to suffocation,

our breath squeezed from us in the ruthless press,

Still more from exposure, dehydration,

than those who felt a blade’s releasing kiss.

Earth became mud-bath and the trampled grass

absorbed the residue of flattened flesh,

our forms dismembered in the mangled crush

which rats and ravens subsequently made

a banquet transcending the devilish,

as vermin fought on ramparts of the dead.


The favoured ninety-nine per cent of you

whom helpful destiny provided with

something more satisfactory to do

on this Palm Sunday, draw the grateful breath

denied us in the slaughter’s aftermath,

accept the counsel of our shattered skulls

broadcast across now silent Yorkshire hills,

settle dynastic differences indeed,

but not like us ungovernable fools.

Don’t ever fight on the ramparts of the dead.


Peter Wyton