Battle of Towton


Battle of Towton

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Towton
partof=the Wars of the Roses


caption=
date=29 March 1461
place= Near Towton in Yorkshire, England
result= Decisive Yorkist victory
combatant1=
combatant2=
commander1=Edward IV of England
commander2=Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset
strength1=20,000-36,000
strength2=25,000-42,000
casualties1=5,000-12,000
casualties2=8,000-20,000

The Battle of Towton in the Wars of the Roses was the largest and bloodiest ever fought on British soil, with casualties believed to have been about 28,000 [ [http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/archsci/depart/resgrp/towton/ Towton mass grave project] ] (perhaps more) men. Roughly 1% of the entire English population at the time died at Towton. The battle took place on a snowy 29 March 1461 (Palm Sunday) on a plateau between the villages of Towton and Saxton in Yorkshire (about convert|12|mi|km southwest of York and about convert|2|mi|km south of Tadcaster).

It is thought that 50,000, or perhaps even 100,000 men fought, including 28 Lords (almost half the peerage at that time), mainly on the Lancastrian side. The numbers often given are 42,000 for the Lancastrians and 36,000 for the Yorkists.

Part of the reason that so many died is because both sides resolved that no quarter would be given. [Gravette, Christopher, "Towton 1461", at 50, Osprey Publishing Oxford, UK ISBN 1-84176-513-9]

Background

The Wars of the Roses first broke out in 1455, between the supporters of King Henry VI (the Lancastrians), and those of Richard, Duke of York (the Yorkists), who was out of favour with the court and had been seeking a role in government for the preceding five years. Henry, who had been an infant upon ascending the throne, placed all his reliance in his majority on a clique of nobles, leading to severe inequity of government even by the standards of the age. He was also afflicted by bouts of insanity. His Queen, Margaret of Anjou became the most determined opponent of York and anyone else who threatened the birthright of her son, the infant Edward of Westminster.

In the year 1460, the war intensified, and there were several rapid reversals of fortune. At the Battle of Northampton, a Lancastrian army had been defeated and Henry had been captured on the battlefield. In the aftermath, Richard had attempted to gain the throne, but his supporters were not prepared to take this step, and instead they enforced the Act of Accord, by which Henry's son was disinherited, and Richard would become King on Henry's death. In response, Margaret began gathering an army of York's opponents in the north of England. York took an army to the north to deal with this threat, but fatally misjudged the strength of his enemies. At the Battle of Wakefield he was killed and his army was destroyed.

Margaret's large army began marching south, looting as it went. At the Second Battle of St Albans, they defeated the Yorkist army of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (later known as "the Kingmaker"). Warwick had brought the captive King Henry to the battlefield, and in the aftermath of the battle, Henry was recaptured by the Lancastrian army.

Margaret now had a chance of entering London, the capital, but the mayor and citizens feared being plundered by her undisciplined army, and refused her entry. While negotiations continued, Margaret learned that York's eldest son Edward, Earl of March, had destroyed another Lancastrian army at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross on the borders of Wales, and had linked up with Warwick's surviving forces. With this threat to the rear of her army, Margaret began to retreat northwards.

Warwick now proclaimed Edward as King Edward IV. On March 4, Edward was crowned in a hasty ceremony in London. The next day, Edward himself decided to take the military initiative and march north in the hope of inflicting a final defeat on Henry's supporters.

The prelude to the battle

Edward's forces moved north, from London to St Albans, in three detachments, under the Earl of Warwick, Warwick's uncle Lord Fauconberg and Edward himself. Warwick and Fauconberg reached St Albans on March 11, 1461. Warwick then marched northwest towards Coventry and Lichfield, and Fauconberg marched northeast towards Royston and Cambridge, thereafter turning north and northeast towards Peterborough, Stamford, Grantham and then Nottingham, which they reached on March 22. Edward reached St Albans on March 12 or 13, and followed the same route as Fauconberg. [Gravette, at 30]

Battle of Ferrybridge

In late March, scouts of the Yorkist army under John Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwater occupied Ferrybridge, where a bridge spanned the River Aire. [Gravette, at 36] The Lancastrian army had passed over this bridge on their way north along the Old London Road, and apparently had either destroyed or damaged the bridge to prevent its use by the Yorkists, so that when Fitzwater's men did arrive, they had to build temporary passage across the Aire, probably on the piles of the old bridge.

On March 28, a Lancastrian mounted force of about 500 men under John Neville and Lord Clifford attacked Fitzwater's men at Ferrybridge, took them by surprise and defeated them. Fitzwater himself was taken by surprise, and killed before he could don armour. Another prominent Yorkist, the Bastard of Salisbury, Warwick's half brother, was also killed.

Supposedly Warwick himself communicated the news of the defeat to Edward, possibly when Edward was at Nottingham, but whether true or not, Edward quickly organised a counterattack. By the time Edward arrived however, the Lancastrians, under the command of Somerset and Earl Rivers (Lord Scales) had fortified the bridge and had placed light forces on the south side of the Aire to delay the Yorkist advance.

When Edward arrived with the main body of the army, they were unable to recapture the crossing, despite a heavy battle that lasted from noon to 6:00 p.m., in which it was said that 3,000 men died. Edward himself fought on foot in the battle, and it was said that Warwick was slightly wounded. The Yorkists were eventually able to force the Lancastrians to withdraw when a detachment under Fauconberg went about three miles (5 km) upstream and crossed the Aire by a ford at Castleford. [Gravett, at 34-38]

Pursuit to Dinting Dale

Learning that the Yorkist army had outflanked the Lancastrian position at the bridge, Clifford retreated back up the Old London Road towards Sherburn-in-Elmet and Towton. As Clifford and his men rode north along the road, they were pursued by Fauconberg's Yorkist horsemen, who caught up with them in a stream valley named Dintingdale, just two and a half miles south of Towton, and the main Lancastrian army. Clifford himself was killed, it is said by an arrow in the throat, (although his body was never identified, being hacked to pieces by vengeful Yorkists). [Gravett, at 36-38]

The battle

On March 29, the Yorkist army began pressing forward across the repaired bridge at Ferrybridge. The weather was very bad, with cold winds and snow showers.

Edward led the Yorkist centre, Warwick the right and Fauconberg the left. A further Yorkist contingent from the Eastern counties under the Duke of Norfolk had been delayed and was still approaching the battlefield.

The Lancastrian army occupied a plateau of high ground, with its right flank covered by a stream, the Cock Beck. The army was led by the Duke of Somerset, who commanded the centre himself, with the Earl of Northumberland commanding the right and the Duke of Exeter the left.

Although the Lancastrians occupied a strong position, with good fields of fire for their archers and with the Yorkists forced to advance uphill to attack them, they had not bargained for the foul weather. The Yorkist archers had the wind behind them, and therefore outranged their Lancastrian opposite numbers, who were also blinded by the snow. Several companies of archers loosed volleys into the Lancastrian ranks, and then fell back out of range when the Lancastrian archers tried to reply. They then advanced again and gathered up the enemy arrows which had fallen short before repeating the manoeuvre. In several places the Lancastrian men-at-arms advanced to seek hand-to-hand combat rather than endure the showers of arrows, losing the advantage of the high ground.

Once close-quarters fighting began, it was intense. Several times, the combatants had to pause and pull the dead bodies out of the way before they could get at their opponents. Fighting swayed back and forth for several hours, with neither side gaining any decisive advantage, until the early afternoon, when Norfolk's contingent arrived, and extended the Yorkist right flank. The Lancastrian left was outnumbered and outflanked, and the rout began in this section of the battlefield. Some Lancastrians tried to flee north to Tadcaster, but most of the Lancastrians were now pushed to their right into the Cock Beck.

The rout

It is supposed that far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Several bridges over neighbouring rivers broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. Those stranded on the other side either drowned in the crossing or were cornered by their pursuers and killed. Some of the worst slaughter was seen at Bloody Meadow, where it is said men crossed the River Cock over the bodies of the fallen. All the way from Towton to Tadcaster the fields were full of bodies. The fleeing Lancastrians made easy targets for Yorkist horsemen and footsoldiers, who killed many men who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breathe more freely as they ran. At Tadcaster some men made an unsuccessful stand and were killed.

The rout lasted all night and into the morning, when remnants of the Lancastrian army stumbled into York in total panic. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed were forced to make peace with Edward IV.

Most of the senior Lancastrian commanders managed to escape the battlefield, although the Duke of Northumberland and one prominent commander from the borders, Ralph, Lord Dacre, were killed.

Notes

References

*"Towton 1461 England's bloodiest battle" Christopher Gravett
*"The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses" Philip A. Haigh (Chap. 8)
*"The Battle of Towton" Andrew W. Boardman
*"British Battlefields - the North", Philip Warner, Osprey Publishing, 1972, ISBN 0-00-633823-2

External links

* [http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/archsci/depart/resgrp/towton/ The Towton Mass Grave Project]
* [http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/TowtonBattlefield The Towton Battlefield Archaeological Survey]
* [http://www.awboardman.co.uk/ The Battle of Towton and Wars of The Roses]
*cite news |first=Martin |last=Kettle |authorlink=Martin Kettle |coauthors= |title=Our most brutal battle has been erased from memory |url=http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2155965,00.html |work= |publisher=The Guardian |date=2007-08-25 |accessdate=2007-08-26 Speculates on the reasons why such a significant battle has been largely forgotten.
*cite news |first=Adrian |last=Gill |authorlink=A A Gill |coauthors= |title=Towton, the bloodbath that changed the course of our history |url=http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/destinations/england/article4572704.ece |work= |publisher=The Sunday Times |date=2008-08-24 |accessdate=2008-08-29 An article, by A. A. Gill, from The Sunday Times Magazine which captures the drama of the battle as well as outlining the tactical and strategic considerations and its historical context.


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