Putting Things in Perspective … the Battle of Towton
Ah, the battle of Towton. One of my favourite battles of all time, and likely the bloodiest battle ever fought in England. And as might be expected, probably the largest battle ever fought in England. Upwards of eighty thousand men met in battle that day, including about half of the Lords in England at the time. Towton was a decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, an on again and off again war over the crown of England that lasted some 30 years, 1455 to 1485.
So, the battle. 29 March 1461. Palm Sunday in fact. It was a bitterly cold snowy windy day, and most of both armies had spent the night camped in the open. And few of them had any tea, let alone breakfast that morning. No one was in a particularly good mood in other words, and both sides agreed that no quarter would be given. That means this was a fight to the death. On one side, the larger force, the Lancastrians, deployed on a low hill. Facing them, the smaller army of Yorkists, though they had the advantage in that their King, Edward, was young and valliant and led his troops into battle. Henry, the Lancastrian King, while popular, was also sickly and wasn’t at the batttle.
The Lancastrians had the better position, but they hadn’t counted on the weather. A strong cold wind was blowing right into their faces. So when the Yorkist archers advanced and fired, the wind carried their arrows deep into Lancastrian lines. Lancastrian attempts to return fire were described as “laughable,” the headwind meant few of their arrows even reached Yorkist lines. In fact the Yorkists would simply fall back while the Lancastrians fired, then walk up, pick up the Lancastrian arrows, and shoot them back.
This obviously couldn’t go on, so the Lancastrians charged and the battle was joined. And a battle is was. This was sword and armour fighting at its best, while guns existed, none are known to have been used at Towton. England’s wet crappy weather meant that the sword and the arrow reigned there long after guns had become common in warmer drier climes. Well, the hammer and the arrow. Late medieval armour was pretty much immune to slashing and piercing weapons, so the hammer was the preferred weapon of most knights, special war hammers designed to damage armour. Because once a knight’s armour was damaged, their ability to fight was reduced, and usually that was that.
Fighting was so thick that sometimes the men at the front couldn’t even get at the enemy because dead bodies kept erect by the press of fighters got in the way and had to be removed before fighting could continue! And through it all both sides fired hundreds of thousands of arrows, with as many as twenty thousand arrows sometimes being in the air at the same time! Not everyone had full body armour, and even the ones that did had to take off their helms occasionally to cool down. At least one of the Lords that died that day, Lord Dacre, was struck down by an arrow while his helm was removed.
The fighting lasted till early afternoon, when Yorkist reinforcements arrived and attacked the Lancastrian flank. And that did the trick, the Lancastrians began to fall back and then they began to run. And then the true slaughter began, virtually all sources (not to mention archaeological evidence) agree that most of the killing took place during the rout. Most prominently at a place called “bloody meadow” where the fleeing Lancastrians were trapped against a river. Some were eventually able to escape as the river literally became clogged with dead bodies, and others escaped across a few bridges before the bridges collapsed from the weight of all the people on them. Most Lancastrian Lords escaped, but for the most part their army was slaughtered.
And that, basically, was that. Edward was able to rule England in relative peace for ten years after Towton. For centuries afterwards people picked up armour and other neat stuff from the battlefield. In the nineteen twenties someone found a “brass” collar that they put on a dog until they noticed in was encrusted with jewels. Apparently it wasn’t a dog collar after all. In the nineties a mass grave from the battle was discovered, much was learned from it.
There were likely a lot of mass graves after the battle, chroniclers describe bodies everywhere. The best modern guess is that about 28,000 people died that day. Even in an absolute sense that may be the bloodiest day of war deaths in British history. The relative sense is what interests me, and I why the title says putting Towton in perspective. 28,000 dead would mean that in this battle … about one percent of the population in England died. Yerp, on a snowy Palm Sunday in 1461 … one out of every fifty Englishmen was slain. Likely every living person of English descent lost ancestors at Towton.
Fortunately, humans are far smarter than they were in 1461, and a slaughter of this relative magnitude could never happen today.
(The above image is used legally: Jan Kops et al. – Flora Batava – Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber. Source: http://www.biolib.de – Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”. It’s a mysterious rose related to the Battle of Towton, the story of which I will relate tomorrow. I used it because I couldn’t find an image of the battle that didn’t have layers of copyright protection. Even images from 1754. Yes, corporations are not only perverting the law to steal everything we own, they are stealing our past as well.)