The Battle of Towton

29 March 1461 was Palm Sunday, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before Easter Sunday. It was bitterly cold, and sleety snow was driven by swirling winds. It was also to see a cataclysmic event in English history. Although often overlooked, that bleak day saw the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. For over a decade, pressure had built until an explosive release became inevitable.

King Henry, along with his wife, son and allies, withdrew all the way up to York after their victory at St Albans. Perhaps more decisive action in the opposite direction would have served their cause better, but they chose instead not to poke the frightened beast that was London, for fear of its rage. In the north they could regroup, gather more men and refresh the cold, tired soldiers who had done them sterling service at St Albans.

With London left open, Warwick met up with his cousin Edward outside Oxford and the two were welcomed into the capital in triumph. Edward, along with Warwick, set about engineering a repeat of recent history, but the duke stage-managed the affair far better than his father had. Gregory recalled the city’s anger toward King Henry, with chants in the street of ‘He that had London forsake; Would no more to them take’. In contrast, Edward was being hailed in the same streets. He retired to Baynards Castle and waited patiently. On 1 March, George Neville addressed a large gathering to extol Edward’s claim to the throne. It was so warmly received that by 3 March, a council gathered at Baynards to ask Edward to take the throne in Henry’s place. The king had violated the Act of Accord by attacking York and his family, an act expressly marked as treason. His unpopularity and ineffectualness had plumbed new depths and there was no end to the conflict in sight under Henry’s kingship. A new direction was needed.

On 4 March Edward attended Mass at St Paul’s Cathedral where he was publically proclaimed King of England. He would not consent to be crowned, though, as long as Henry was at large with an army at his back. He resolved to break his opponent before even attempting to enjoy his new position. Edward left London just over a week later on 13 March with a large army, swollen by men unhappy with King Henry and keen to see the Duke of York’s death avenged. Between London and York, Edward, Warwick and Fauconberg recruited heavily, increasing the horde that followed them.

The armies of York (white) and Lancaster (red) move towards Towton.

As news reached the Lancastrian forces of the Yorkist approach they broke several bridges to slow their enemy’s progress. The River Aire crossed the Yorkist route and Fauconberg, who was ahead of the remainder of the army, sent his scouts in front to examine the road ahead and to find signs of the enemy. Led by Lord Fitzwater, the scouting party began to repair the bridge for the rest of the approaching army. The use of scouts and outriders was the only way for any force in the field to secure solid information about the strength, position and setup of the enemy. Only with this information could commanders decide upon their own tactics for a forthcoming battle.

As Lord Fitzwater and his men began their repairs, a Lancastrian force, sent out from York to scout the enemy and to harass them if possible, watched on. Lord Clifford, who had taken his own vengeance at Wakefield, led his 500-strong crack cavalry force, known as the Flower of Craven. Dark was falling as they set up camp, their Yorkist counterparts doing the same, the light guard they set suggesting that they were unaware of Clifford’s force on the other side of the river. At the crack of dawn, Fitzwater’s camp was rudely awoken by Clifford’s mounted force thundering over the repaired bridge. Lord Fitzwater emerged from his tent to be struck down by a blow that would later see him dead. His men were caught unawares and slaughtered. As those lucky enough to escape fled back to the safety of their main force, Clifford’s squad crossed back over the river, pleased with their morning’s work.

When those stragglers reached the Yorkist army the news of the attack caused panic. There is a legend that Warwick took his men to clear the bridge but found that Lord Clifford had set himself up perfectly to defend the narrow bottleneck. Warwick was struck in the leg by an arrow as his assault failed and returned to the main army, trying to quell the growing concerns of the men there by dismounting and promptly killing his horse, swearing that he would fight and live or die beside the rest of them now.

The main body of the Yorkist army now pressed on to the crossing. Clifford still held firm as the huge bulk of men tried to repair the bridge and cross the river. Eventually Lord Fauconberg took a detachment of cavalry to ride down to the next bridge and drive Clifford’s men away. The Flower of Craven and their leader saw the threat, fending off the Yorkist army for as long as they could. Dusk was closing in as they began their ride back, with Fauconberg in hot pursuit, toward their base at York. Clifford’s men and their horses were tired after almost a full day of fighting. Jean de Waurin claimed that 3,000 of the Yorkist men lay dead in the river and on its banks, so Clifford’s 500 had done their work well, buying the Lancastrian forces, led by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, another twenty-four hours to prepare.

Just south of his target Clifford was ambushed, possibly by a Yorkist scouting force. The delay they caused allowed Fauconberg to catch up and in the fighting Clifford was killed by an arrow to the face after taking off his helmet. The rest of his crack force was crushed and the Flower of Craven were utterly destroyed. It has been suggested that Somerset left Clifford to this fate because he was jealous of a rival’s success and close relationship to the king, though it seems more likely that the ambush took place out of sight and beyond earshot of Somerset’s position. The trouble that was brewing had claimed its first high-profile victim and Edward had seen his younger brother avenged.

As night fell on the 28 March Edward’s army set up camp a few miles away from Somerset’s position, near the village of Towton. They must have struggled to get any rest, tired from a long march and the melee at Ferrybridge, exposed to the biting cold and icy winds. They rose early the next morning, Palm Sunday. Polydore Vergil, writing at the beginning of the next century, claimed that Henry tried to do all that he could to avoid any fighting on that day, wishing to spend it in prayer instead. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility for a pious man averse to violence, but Vergil was writing for King Henry VII, who actively sought to have Henry VI beatified so had an interest in presenting his religious devotion. Pleading for a delay in the unavoidable violence that would decide the fate of the crown of England to make room for prayer is, though, a fitting summary of Henry’s rule.

Warwick’s uncle Lord Fauconberg, by far the most experienced commander on the Yorkist side of the field, and probably on either side, led the main body of Edward’s army. The night had been harsh but the dawn showed the benefits of the position they had taken up. The armies lined up opposite each other in the swirling snow, wind whipping their faces, unable to see their enemies clearly. Fauconberg had one huge advantage and he meant to make the most of it. The wind was behind the Yorkist force, extending the range of their huge longbows. They opened fire upon the enemy, causing chaos in the Lancastrian ranks as an arrow storm fell out of the white sky, unseen until it was too late. The Lancastrians returned the barrage but Fauconberg had judged his distances perfectly in the difficult conditions. Their arrows fell short. The Yorkists continued to shoot, wreaking havoc as men screamed and fell in the snow on the other side of the field. When they had spent all of their arrows, Fauconberg had his men step forward, pull up the Lancastrian arrows that had fallen harmlessly into the mud and fire them back at their owners.

Somerset realised that he could not keep this up and ordered his men to advance against the Yorkists. Sir Andrew Trollope led the assault with 7,000 men, joined also by Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, and his son Anthony, who had received the dressing-down from Edward, Warwick and Salisbury in Calais the previous year. The Duke of Somerset took another 7,000 men, according to Waurin, and together they charged the Yorkist lines. They thundered into the Yorkist cavalry with such force that Edward’s mounted men fell back and began to flee. Waurin says that the Lancastrians chased the Yorkists for eleven miles, believing that the battle was won. Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, was meant to charge at the same time. If he had it is likely that the strike would have resulted in a swift victory for the Lancastrians. The delay allowed the battle to become even again.

Fighting persisted for hours; Polydore Virgil later stated that there were ten full hours of slaughter. With the advantage passing to and fro and the outcome impossible to predict, the turning point arrived late in the day, when the Duke of Norfolk arrived to reinforce the Yorkists. Fresh soldiers were too much for the exhausted Lancastrians to face and they began to flee, mercilessly chased and cut down by Edward’s army. The white snow was stained red and innumerable corpses littered the field.

Estimates of the numbers on the field that day vary but around 100,000 men probably came together there, with a light advantage in numbers on the Lancastrian side. Edward’s heralds, a letter he wrote to his mother and a report sent by George Neville to Bishop Coppini all place the number of dead at around 29,000 men, with more injured who would never recover. Waurin placed the final number at 36,000 dead. With so many dead in wintery conditions it was not feasible to individually bury all of the bodies. Great pits were dug to act as mass graves. These have since been discovered and excavated, some of the skulls exhumed displaying savage wounds. Facial reconstruction has been carried out on one soldier, who was in his late thirties or early forties and displayed healed wounds from previous battles. Obviously a veteran, the man would have borne deep scars when he took to the field at Towton. It was to be the last in his experiences of battles. Gregory lamented that ‘many a lady lost her best beloved in that battle’. Waurin coined a phrase that came to sum up the period of bitter fighting in his account of Towton, complaining that ‘father did not spare son nor son his father’.

As well as Lord Clifford, the Earl of Northumberland lay among the dead. The sons of St Albans had obtained their revenge but had in turn been slain by the sons of Wakefield. Lord Neville, who had supposedly contributed to the tricking of the Duke of York at Wakefield, perished on the Lancastrian side and Sir Andrew Trollope, perhaps one of the most accomplished soldiers of his day and whose star had risen so high in service to King Henry and Queen Margaret, had also fallen. Somerset, Henry, Margaret and Prince Edward along with any other nobles able to escape the field rode north and rode hard, heading to Scotland.

Edward tarried in the north a while to try and see the region settled. The Lancastrians were only in Scotland and his departure might be all that was needed to bring them back south into a region traditionally sympathetic to them. There was more to concern the new king now, though. The rest of his kingdom held its breath, and upheaval, though raw and open in the far north, was not restricted to that region alone. Wales was destabilised, with Jasper Tudor resiliently holding on to his castles and showing no sign of leaving nor of bowing to the new king. Edward needed to get back to the capital, arrange his coronation and summon a Parliament that would recognise and legitimise his title.

Finally, on 12 June, Edward could wait no longer and marched south. He was again received in triumph by London. Writs had been issued the previous month summoning Parliament, which opened but was adjourned immediately until November. The first item of business was naturally the declaration of Edward’s right to the throne. The change in tone is striking but perhaps not surprising. Gone was the deference to Henry VI and careful laying out of the Yorkist lineage. The Commons requested that Edward take the throne because during the ‘usurped reign of your said adversary Henry, late called King Henry VI, extortion, murder, rape, the shedding of innocent blood, riot and unrighteousness were commonly practised in your said realm without punishment’. The right of the House of York to the crown was rehearsed as it had been in 1460, though now Henry IV’s seizing of the throne was an illegal act offensive to God for which England had been punished ever since. The House of Lancaster had persecuted the House of York but now Edward had acted decisively to save the country from God’s ongoing wrath. Parliament was quite clear that Edward had only resorted to arms after Henry had breached the Act of Accord, thereby excusing Edward from his oaths under its provisions.

Parliament undid many of Henry VI’s grants, bringing valuable lands and income back to a crown that had haemorrhaged money for decades. From the outset, though, Edward was clearly utterly realistic about what had gone before. Many had flitted from one side to the other but plenty had remained resolutely loyal to one party or the other throughout. If Edward was to be king of a united England he knew that he would have to deal with the situation that he found and he elected to seek an end to the circular conflicts of the last decade. The new regime welcomed any who would reconcile themselves to Edward now, whatever their previous allegiances. Among those keen to take advantage of the king’s offer were Lord Rivers and his son, who had received short shrift at Calais and fought for Henry at Towton. Warkwoth wrote that Edward aimed by the provisions of his Parliament to ‘have the more good will and love in his lands’.

Henry, however, was attainted for high treason but treated by the Act as though he had never been king. His treason lay in leading an armed force against King Edward and his punishment was forfeiture of his lands and titles as Duke of Lancaster. The remainder of the royal estate was Edward’s now anyway. Parliament had jettisoned the country’s king of thirty-nine years as though he had been an imposter all along. Henry had been a weak and ineffectual ruler who had watched as his country had careered headlong into civil war. Residual affection for him, his father’s memory and the royal authority that he held had been stretched thinner and thinner until it had become transparent and men could see through it to another option.

Richard, Duke of York, had been a stark contrast to Henry. He was a man experienced and proven in government, who understood what the country wanted and needed. His family was large, his children growing strong. His wife was a model of a medieval noble woman, happy to live in her husband’s shadow. Henry had not acquitted himself well as a governor. He had only one son and showed no sign of producing more. His wife had disrupted the political fabric of the country, stretching it further still. At six foot four inches, Edward IV is the tallest king ever to rule England, taller than Edward I, known as Longshanks, and taller even than his grandson Henry VIII, who bore a striking resemblance in looks and personality to Edward. Described universally as incredibly good looking, athletic, a fierce warrior and committed womaniser, he was also prone to laziness and happy to allow others to deal with issues that did not grasp his attention.

The new king took the opportunity now presented to him to reward his closest allies and his family. His remaining brothers George and Richard were retrieved from their exile in Burgundy and created dukes. George was made Duke of Clarence, a title that had belonged to the second sons of Edward III and Henry IV, and Richard was created Duke of Gloucester, a title granted to the youngest sons of Edward III and Henry IV. Warwick’s uncle William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, was created Earl of Kent in recognition of his invaluable contribution. Edward’s close friend William Hastings became Lord Hastings and William Herbert was given Jasper Tudor’s title of Earl of Pembroke, the incentive of winning his lands serving to meet Edward’s need to be rid of Henry’s half-brother. John Howard was created Lord Howard and Sir Thomas Blount became Lord Mountjoy. Finally the Yorkist party was reaping the rewards of its commitment to the House of York.

Prominent Lancastrian nobles who refused to be reconciled were charged with treason. Notable among their number was John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford. In his mid-fifties, he appears to have initially been excused attendance before Parliament in 1461, perhaps on grounds of ill health, but he was arrested in February 1462 along with his oldest son, Aubrey de Vere. John had been slow to declare his hand in the previous troubles, sitting on York’s Council during Henry VI’s illness but arriving too late to participate in the First Battle of St Albans, meaning it was left unclear which side he might have taken. By 1460 it was clear that he had thrown his lot in with the Lancastrian camp. His son Aubrey married Anne Stafford, daughter of Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, and the family were now firmly Lancastrian. Tried and convicted before John Tiptoft, Constable of England, Aubrey was executed on 20 February and John followed him to the block at Tower Hill six days later. John’s second son and namesake became his heir and in 1464 Edward allowed him to succeed to his father’s lands and titles as 13th Earl of Oxford.

Edward was afforded little time to enjoy his new status. Towton had been a crushing victory but it had not eradicated the Lancastrian threat, nor would Margaret rest while another took what belonged to her husband and son. She had visited the widowed queen of the Scots, Mary of Guelders, to ask for more assistance. With the Scottish coffers habitually empty, Mary had no money to offer, but she was not short of men willing to cross the border on a mission to kill Englishmen. Margaret and her allies drove hard into Northumberland and swiftly captured Alnwick Castle, the ancestral seat of the Earls of Northumberland, Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and Walworth Castle.

Edward sent commissions into the southern and western counties, raising men and money to head back up north. The king laid siege to all of the castles and much of 1462 was spent in renewed conflict. Towton is often understood to be a watershed, an end to the conflict that had divided England, but Towton ended nothing other than Henry’s rule. War, faction and fracture continued. As King Edward besieged the castles in which the Lancastrians had embedded themselves, another force from Scotland set off to reinforce Margaret, Somerset, Exeter and their allies. An anonymous report dated December 1462 described the state of the sieges far in the north. Warwick and the lords Cromwell, Grey of Codnor and Wenlock were at Walworth. Fauconberg, now Earl of Kent, was at the siege of Alnwick Castle with the new Lord Scales and ‘many other knights and squires’. Dunstanburgh Castle sat under the watchful pressure of the Lords Fitzhugh, Scrope, Greystock and Powis. John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, Warwick’s brother-in-law, oversaw the siege of Bamburgh Castle aided by Warwick’s other brother John, Lord Montague, and Lords Strange, Say, Grey of Wilton, Lumley and Ogle. It was at Bamburgh that Somerset had installed himself. According to the writer, Edward’s forces in the north were estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000 ‘without the King and his host’.

A French knight named Sir Peris le Brasylle was in Scotland at the time, possibly to assist Margaret, though Scotland and France were old allies anyway. Warkworth, in his Chronicle, described le Brasylle as ‘the best warrior of all that time’ and reports that when news of the French legend’s approach, heading toward Alnwick and the other castles with a force of 20,000 men, reached Edward’s forces ‘they removed from the siege and were afraid’. The Scots apparently feared that this was some trick on the part of the king’s forces and hung back. Warkworth also believed that the Scottish forces were not keen to venture too close to the stoutly defended castles for fear of being perceived to be attackers rather than a relief force. Those within the castles took the opportunity of the stand-off to slip away, clearly unconvinced that they could prevail in the confusion.

Edward achieved something of a coup at this point. Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, surrendered Bamburgh Castle and went before the king. The two men made their peace, with Edward agreeing to pay Somerset a pension of 1,000 marks per year. Somerset was, without doubt, the military leader of the Lancastrian party, having commanded at the victories of Wakefield and St Albans and overseen the close battle (but ultimately, crushing defeat) at Towton. Somerset had also spearheaded this new Lancastrian drive into northern England, allowing Edward no time in which to enjoy his new throne. To have welcomed the enemy’s foremost general into the fold not only continued Edward’s efforts to reconcile the country to his rule but was a huge victory against Henry and Margaret, a blow to their frantic efforts without swords even being drawn. Six months later, though, his pension unpaid, finding himself impoverished and outside the halls of power, Somerset fled back into Scotland to be re-united with the Lancastrian royal family. Edward had failed to maintain his upper hand and capitalise on great opportunities and it would not be the last time.

The Battle of Towton was apocalyptic for all involved and for the country. It was a watershed moment in history, yet it changed almost nothing. The balance of power swung to the Yorkists as it had done before. Edward was king, proclaimed, crowned and confirmed by Parliament, yet recent experiences would have left most unconvinced of the finality of his victory while such strong enemies watched from just across the border, their menacing presence like the bright eyes of hungry wolves glinting in the dark forest of an uncertain future. King Edward IV is remembered fondly by history, a jovial giant with an eye for the ladies. That was a man yet to emerge, softer than the visceral, angry youth who had snatched the throne. In one hand he held out an olive branch to those willing to take it. For those who would not, his other hand held the sharp, swift sword of cruel, uncompromising justice. England was still divided but now had a king willing to act against his enemies. Peace was not won yet, and some of Edward’s decisive actions merely left him more time to rue them later. Towton did not end the strife; it merely closed one chapter, only for another to follow.