The Exceptional Importance of the Battle of Towton – A Major Turning Point in English History
On Palm Sunday 1461, in atrocious weather – howling wind, driving sleet and snow – the armies of two disputing Kings of England fought all day on a plateau of land a dozen or so miles south-west of the great medieval city of York in the North of England. Chroniclers then and historians now dispute the numbers involved in the Battle of Towton, but it is most likely that up to seventy-five thousand fought and as many as twenty-eight thousand died in the battle itself and in the rout and massacres that followed.
Towton was an event of the greatest importance for England. It was the bloody culmination of a campaign of seven military engagements over the preceding eighteen months and the final and decisive battle in the first of a series of English civil wars, collectively known as the Wars of the Roses, that took place between 1455 and 1487. When the wars began, England was a medieval country, but after their conclusion, the victorious Tudor dynasty would make England a distinctly different nation state.
The two rival Kings were Henry VI of the House of Lancaster and Edward IV of the House of York and on that day the future of their dynasties would be decided. The magnitude of the battle was reflected by the proportion of the population involved: Professor Charles Ross, one of the most eminent historians of the period, estimated that of all Englishmen and Welshmen eligible to fight (those aged between sixteen and sixty) one-tenth were present on the battlefield.
Towton may not have been an isolated event, but it was certainly unique. As well as its claims to be the biggest, longest and bloodiest battle on English soil, it was probably the most brutal. Such had been the length and exceptional uncertainty of the First War of the Roses that the size of the two forces had expanded exponentially. So had their viciousness, which by the time of Towton had moved beyond victorious nobles taking swift revenge on defeated rivals and expanded to encompass retribution amongst the common soldiery. By Towton, the two armies had become regional in nature: the Lancastrians being stronger in the North, whilst the Yorkists had found it easier to recruit in the South, the West and Wales. They had one thing in common: the soldiers now demonised their opponents as alien, different, even sub-human. A struggle of factions had become a race war overlaying a civil war. Thus when one side, finally and after many hours of fighting, broke in flight and found itself trapped on the battlefield, there was little chance of escape and none of surrender. That, taken with the killing power of the medieval longbow at the onset of the battle helps to explain such extraordinary casualty figures; it also explains the resonant names of places on the battlefield today – names such as Bloody Meadow and the Bridge of Bodies.
Singular in its excess, Towton was also singular in its import. The challenge to Henry VI by a victorious minority of the peerage against the wishes of the majority was something that undermined the model of English medieval monarchy itself. And it came just four decades after the untimely early death of England’s greatest medieval king, Henry V.
Almost seventy years after it first appeared in 1944, Laurence Olivier’s wartime film of Shakespeare’s Henry V remains the most famous modern representation of that great warrior. It was essential for its first release that the film end on an upbeat note, so that it chimed with the Allies’ invasion of Nazi-occupied France; and so it did, by neglecting to include the final sixteen lines of the play. As a result, the audience was able to savour a glorious victory and gained no hint of the story’s less than triumphant denouement in four further plays – the Three Parts of Henry VI and Richard III. Shakespeare himself knew exactly how it would unfold, as his Henry V was a ‘prequel’, written in the late 1590s a few years later than the others. The excluded doom-laden sixteen lines are a reference by Shakespeare to this earlier work, but it is quite understandable that Olivier did not include them– for they tell of ‘Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king of France and England, did this king (Henry V) succeed; whose state so many had the managing that they lost France and made his England bleed.’
France was certainly lost and England did bleed; although these extraordinary crises did not occur until Henry VI had been King for over a quarter of a century and had been notionally in power as an adult ruler for more than a dozen years. The core problem, however, was not that ‘so many had the managing’, but that for the Anglo-French dominions to be well-governed under an adult medieval English king, it was only the King himself who could do the ruling effectively. From the time of the Norman Conquest onwards, successful administration, justice, taxation and war were all possible for those kings who combined intelligence, energy and willpower. Only kings who could overawe and inspire the administrative class of nobility and higher clergy could then enforce their commands throughout the land. William the Conqueror, Henry I, Henry II, Edward I and Edward III had all been successful at their peak, as had Henry V. But there were two kings, Edward II in 1327 and Richard II in 1399 – though King John, had he lived, might have joined them – who visibly failed : their alienation of their nobility was so complete that that they were considered to have broken their coronation oaths, and to have offended against God. They had both been deposed, before meeting agonising deaths in secret. But the basic model of government was not broken, for each of these failures was soon followed by two exemplars of kingship. These were Edward III and Henry V. It was Edward III who in 1330 mounted a coup against his mother and her lover to take control as a seventeen-year-old. It was Henry V who first, still almost a child, directed armies to assist his tormented, usurping father Henry IV in maintaining his throne, before becoming king himself at the age of twenty-six. The two exemplars had more in common than youthful verve and vitality; they had extraordinary powers of command mixed with exceptional judgment and were able to unite their nobility to fulfil their traditional role as warriors against France, the traditional foe. Edward III began the long 100 Years War, Henry V reignited it. The victories of Edward III at Crecy, of his son Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers and of Henry V at Agincourt are amongst the most famous in English history. They showed what could be achieved by a great king harnessing a bellicose nobility. Unfortunately only a great king could keep the warrior nobles in harness. And, if the lines between royalty and nobility became blurred, as was the case with the descendants of Edward III’s five surviving sons, what might happen at times of crisis?
With the displacement and death of Richard II, Edward’s III’s grandson and heir, the line of the first son ended, to be succeeded by Henry IV via the Lancastrian line of the third son, John of Gaunt. There was no claim at that time from the heirs of the second son, because that son had only a daughter, and direct line of male succession was in this instance taken as the norm. There were certainly other possibilities – after all, Edward III’s claim to the throne of France was through his mother – but Henry V’s success was sufficient to reinforce the settlement and make it endure. But in the decade after 1450 the collective cohesion of the noble class was lost and with murderous results during the First War of the Roses. The highpoint of atrocity was reached amidst the bloody carnage at Towton and it was Towton that sounded the death knell for English medieval kingship. The system was broken, though it has to be said that the lesson was slow to be learned; the Second War of the Roses between 1469 and 1471 and the third between 1483 and 1487 are testament to that. But the consequences for the monarchy were deadly: between Towton and Henry Tudor’s decisive victory at Bosworth in 1485, not only did three out of four successive English kings die violent deaths, so did four current or former heirs to the throne.
The smaller engagement of Bosworth may have ushered in a new dynasty, as Henry Tudor became Henry VII, but it was the cataclysm of Towton that was the game changer.
The great Tudor monarchs learned the lesson neglected by their Plantagenet predecessors and thus survived: Henry VII through luck and guile; Henry VIII in his last years through tyranny and bile; and, not least, Elizabeth I through her extraordinary political dexterity. They adopted a more imperial style of monarchy, but though they continued to make great claim for their personal inviolacy as rulers, they knew that the surer way to secure survival was not by expecting their nobility to respect ‘God’s anointment’, but rather through their own personal control of raw, naked power.
This is an adapted version of the PROLOGUE for the US edition of George Goodwin’s Fatal Colours: Towton 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle (to be published by W.W Norton in April 2012). For further details of this and of the UK edition – out now – please go to www.georgegoodwin.com or purchase at towton.org.uk shop.
The Battle of Towton then, cannot be looked at in isolation. The conflict was precipitated by events leading up to 1461, which explain why inevitably, it became Britain’s bloodiest battle. We have honed in on two of these events, and consulted subject matter experts to provide a detailed build-up to what happened on that fateful day on Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461.