Battle of Towton

John Florens | Jan 30, 2023

Table of Content


The Battle of Towton took place during the War of the Two Roses on March 29, 1461, southwest of York, between the villages of Towton and Saxton. It was the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil and the deadliest day in English history. According to medieval chronicles, more than 50,000 soldiers from the houses of York and Lancaster fought on Palm Sunday for several hours in deplorable weather conditions, and a proclamation issued a week after the battle reported that 28,000 men died on the battlefield. This engagement brought about a monarchical change in England, with Edward IV replacing Henry VI on the throne and forcing the main Lancastrian supporters to leave.

Henry VI had a weak character and was not in full possession of his mental faculties. His ineffective government encouraged the nobles to plot to manipulate him and the situation degenerated into a civil war between supporters of his house and those of Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York. After the capture of the king by the Yorkists in 1460, the Parliament of England passed an Act of Agreement that Richard and his line would succeed Henry VI to the throne. Margaret of Anjou, the king's wife, refused to accept that their son Edward of Westminster would be dispossessed of his rights and raised an army with the help of disgruntled nobles. Richard of York was killed at the battle of Wakefield and his titles and claims to the throne passed to Edward, his eldest son. Some of the nobles who had been reluctant to support Richard's claims considered that the Lancastrians had violated the act of agreement, and Edward found enough support among them to proclaim himself king. The battle of Towton was to give the victor the right to rule England by force of arms.

Upon arriving on the battlefield, the Yorkist army was outnumbered because part of its forces, commanded by the Duke of Norfolk, had not yet arrived. But the Yorkist commander, Baron Fauconberg, ordered his archers to take advantage of the favorable wind by raining down volleys of arrows on their opponents. The Lancastrians then abandoned their defensive positions because their archers did not have sufficient range to reach the enemy lines. The hand-to-hand combat that followed lasted several hours, exhausting the combatants. The arrival of Norfolk's troops invigorated the Yorkists who, encouraged by Edward, routed the enemy army. Many Lancastrians were killed during their flight, some were trampled by their own comrades and others drowned. Many of those taken prisoner were executed.

The power of the House of Lancaster was severely weakened by the battle. Henry VI fled the country, many of his strongest supporters died or went into exile, and Edward IV ruled England uninterruptedly for nine years, before hostilities resumed and Henry VI briefly returned to the throne. Subsequent generations remember the battle as described by William Shakespeare in the final part of his dramatic trilogy Henry VI. In 1929, a cross was erected on the battlefield to commemorate the event. Several mass graves and other archaeological remains related to the battle were found in the area centuries after the battle.

Beginning of the war

In 1461, the kingdom of England has been embroiled for six years in a civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster, both of which claim the throne. The House of Lancaster supported Henry VI, the incumbent king, a man of indecisive character who suffered from bouts of madness. Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, led the House of York at the beginning of the war; he believed that the king was leading the country to ruin by over-favouring incompetent courtiers. Feeding on the rivalries between influential supporters of the two houses, the Duke of York tried to remove the Lancastrian courtiers from power, which led to open conflict. After the capture of Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, Richard, who was of royal blood, claimed the throne. But even the strongest supporters of his house were reluctant to overthrow the royal dynasty, and instead the nobles passed a deed of agreement on October 25 by a majority vote that established that the Duke of York and his heirs would ascend the throne upon the death of Henry VI.

The queen of England, Marguerite d'Anjou, refused to accept this arrangement which deprived her son, Edward of Westminster, of his birthright. Having found refuge in Scotland following the battle of Northampton, she raised an army there, promising her troops that they would be free to pillage as they marched south. The Lancastrian supporters, preparing for her arrival, gathered in the north of England. Richard led his army to confront this threat but was lured into a trap and killed at the Battle of Wakefield. His second son, Edmund, was also killed and both of their heads were put on pikes and displayed on the western gate of the walls of York. Edward, the Duke of York's eldest son, succeeded his father as head of his house.

Marguerite d'Anjou joined her army, which headed south, pillaging several villages along the way. Henry VI was released following the Lancastrian victory over Richard Neville's army at the second battle of St. Albans and the looting continued as the Lancastrians marched on London. The people of London refused to open the city gates, fearing a sack, as Henry and Margaret's army began to run out of supplies and could not afford to resupply. When Marguerite learned that Edward of York and his army had won the battle of Mortimer's Cross and that they were heading back to London, she retreated to York with her troops. Neville and the remnants of his army joined Edward's forces and the Yorkists were greeted with glee by the Londoners. Having lost custody of the king, they nevertheless needed justification to continue to take up arms against him and his supporters. On March 4, Neville therefore proclaimed the young Duke of York king under the name of Edward IV. This proclamation was much better accepted than Richard's earlier claims, as many of the nobles who had opposed them saw the Lancaster actions as a betrayal of the deed.

The country now had two kings, a situation that could not last, especially if Edward wanted to be officially crowned. He therefore offered amnesty to every Lancastrian supporter who renounced to support Henry VI. This gesture was intended to win over the commoners because the offer did not extend to the wealthy Lancastrians (mostly nobles). The young king summoned his supporters and ordered them to march on York to retake the city from his family and officially depose Henry VI by force of arms. The Yorkist forces advanced along three different routes. Lord Fauconberg, Richard Neville's uncle, led the advance guard ahead of the main body, commanded by Edward IV himself, and arrived at St Albans on March 11. The Duke of Norfolk was sent east to raise troops and join Edward before the battle. And an army led by Neville advanced west of the main body, through the Midlands and towards Coventry, rallying all the volunteers it could find. Fauconberg marched northeast and reached Nottingham on March 22. Edward IV, for his part, arrived at St Albans on March 12 or 13 and then took the same route as Fauconberg.

Battle of Ferrybridge

At the end of March, the first detachments of the Yorkist army occupied the village of Ferrybridge, where a bridge crossed the Aire. The Lancastrian forces destroyed it to prevent the Yorkists from crossing. The Yorkists therefore built a temporary bridge. On March 28, a Lancastrian troop of about 500 horsemen under Lord Clifford took them by surprise and routed them. When Edward IV heard the news, he organized a quick counterattack, but by the time he arrived, the Lancastrians had fortified the bridge and placed forces on the south bank of the Aire to delay him. Despite their numerical superiority, the Yorkists were unable to retake the bridge, which formed a bottleneck where they could not take advantage of their superior numbers. In the course of the fierce battle, Neville was wounded by an arrow in the leg. Nevertheless, the Yorkists were finally able to force the Lancastrians to retreat when Fauconberg's cavalry found a ford three miles upstream and crossed the river. On learning this, Clifford retreated but his troops were pursued by Fauconberg's cavalry who eventually caught up with them four kilometers south of Towton. The Yorkists triumphed over their enemies after a hard fight in which Clifford was killed by an arrow in the throat.

Having cleared their surroundings of all enemy forces, the Yorkists repaired the bridge and continued their march to Sherburn-in-Elmet, where they encamped for the night. The main Lancastrian army had arrived at Tadcaster, a little over two miles north of Towton. At dawn on March 29, both armies broke camp under threatening skies and strong winds. Although this day was Palm Sunday, the armies were preparing for battle. Some documents refer to the battle as the Battle of Palme Sonday Felde but this name has not survived. Popular opinion preferred to name the battle after the village of Towton because of its proximity and because it was the most important village in the area at that time.

Sources of the time state that both armies were immense and that over 100,000 men fought at Towton. In William Gregory's Chronicle of London (15th century), the account of a soldier who fought in the battle claims that the Yorkists had 200,000 men and that the Lancastrians were even more numerous. But later historians believe that these figures are exaggerated and that a figure of 50,000 combatants is more likely. In any event, the two armies at Towton were among the largest of the period. An analysis of skeletons found in a mass grave in 1996 shows that the soldiers came from all walks of life; they averaged about 30 years of age and some were veterans of earlier battles. Many nobles and knights, about three-quarters of the English peerage at the time, fought at Towton. Eight of these peers had sworn an oath to Edward IV while the Lancastrians had at least nineteen in their ranks.

The battle would decide which of the two kings would rule England, but while Edward IV fought among his men, Henry VI remained at York with Margaret of Anjou. The Lancastrians saw their king as his wife's puppet and worried about his mental instability. By comparison, Edward IV was very charismatic; he was 18 years old, 6 feet tall and imposing when in armour. Young and muscular, he looked more like a king than his frail, poorly built rival. A skilled fighter, Edward IV led his soldiers from the front lines, inspiring them to do their best. His taste for daring offensive tactics dictated his army's plan for this engagement.

The Yorkists had other very capable leaders. Richard Neville fascinated his men. Edward Hall, a sixteenth century chronicler, attributed to him a strong gesture just before the battle. He wrote that Neville, wounded the day before at Ferrybridge, killed his horse in front of his troops and exclaimed, "Spread this will, I will stay with him as sure as this will stay with me," thus daring any man to abandon the fight. This scene is probably apocryphal, but historian Christopher Gravett believes that this story demonstrates Neville's loyalty to his king and to his men. Neville held his uncle, Lord Fauconberg, in high esteem, and Hall describes Fauconberg as "a man of high principles, as well as much martial experience. Small in stature and a veteran of the Hundred Years' War, Fauconberg was recognized by his peers as a man of great military ability. He was quick to adapt to unforeseen situations and in the past had administered Calais, led several piracy expeditions and commanded the vanguard at the battle of Northampton. The Duke of Norfolk was probably the only one of the Yorkist commanders who did not take part in the engagement due to his advanced age, as the knights Walter Blount and Robert Horne certainly led his contingent. Considered an "unpredictable ally," he joined the Yorkist cause to secure a power base in eastern England and his support was very tentative on several occasions.

The Lancastrian army was commanded by Henry Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset, a man of some military experience who had led skillful maneuvers in the victorious battles of Wakefield and St. Albans. Some historians, however, believe that the real Lancastrian strategist was Andrew Trollope. Trollope served under Neville at Calais before switching sides early in the war. His change of allegiance was a blow to the Yorkists because he knew their men well and played a key role in their victories in France. Other Lancastrian commanders were Henry Holland, the Duke of Exeter, who had a reputation for being a violent and stupid man, and Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, whom Gravett described as lacking intelligence. The last important Lancastrian leader, Lord Clifford, was killed the day before at Ferrybridge.

Very few detailed accounts of the battle exist, and none describe the exact deployment of the armies. This dearth of primary sources led early historians to adopt primarily the chronicle of Edward Hall, although it was written more than 70 years after the event and the origin of the information it provides is unknown. The Burgundian chronicler Jean de Wavrin, a contemporary of the battle, also gives his version of the events, but his work has only been available to the public since 1891, and several errors scattered throughout it have discouraged most historians from using it. The reconstructions of the battle are therefore based on Hall's version with minor details from other sources (the Wavrin chronicle and short accounts in other chronicles and letters).

The battle took place on a plateau between the villages of Saxton (south) and Towton (north). This is an agricultural area with many wide open spaces and small roads on which armies can maneuver. Two roads are located in the combat zone: Old London Road, which connects Towton to the English capital, and a road that runs from Towton to Saxton. The Cock Beck, a steeply banked stream, follows an "S" shaped course to the north and west of the plateau. The plateau is bisected by Towton Dale, a valley that runs from the west of the plateau to North Acres in the east. Wooded areas are located along the Cock Beck; Renshaw Woods to the northwest of the plateau, and Castle Hill Wood to the southwest of Towton Dale along a bend that the creek follows. The area northeast of this wood became known after the battle as Bloody Meadow.

According to Christopher Gravett, Henry Beaufort's decision to fight on the plateau made sense. Defending the ground just before Towton would block any enemy advance towards York, whether they followed Old London Road or the old Roman road further west. The Lancastrians deploy to the north of the valley, using the valley as a "protective moat," the disadvantage of this position being that they cannot see beyond the southern edge of the valley. The Lancaster flanks were protected by marshes, with their right wing additionally secured by the steep banks of the Cock Beck. The width of the deployment area did not allow for a very long front line, which deprived the Lancastrians of the opportunity to use their numerical superiority. The Wavrin account has given rise to the hypothesis that Beaufort ordered a troop of mounted lancers to hide in Castle Hill Wood in order to launch a charge against the Yorkist left flank at the most opportune moment. The Yorkist army appeared just as their opponents finished deploying. The Yorkists formed their ranks on the southern edge of the valley as the snow began to fall. They are outnumbered and the Duke of Norfolk's troops have not yet joined them. They are also tired after their long march to the battlefield, while the Lancastrians have had to travel only a short distance from York.

Edward IV placed himself in the center of the Yorkist army while Neville commanded the left wing and Fauconberg the right wing. Henry Beaufort occupied the center of the Lancastrian army while Henry Percy led the right wing and Holland the left. While Beaufort was content to wait and let his opponents come to him, the Yorkists took the initiative. Fauconberg, noticing the strength and direction of the wind, ordered his archers to move to the front and unleash a volley of arrows on the enemy lines, which were beyond the usual maximum range of their bows. The arrows are carried by the wind and fall on the Lancastrian soldiers amassed on the other side of the valley. Many arrows have bodkin points that can pierce plate armor. The Lancastrian archers retaliate but their shots fall too short as the wind blows snow in their faces, making aiming and judging distance very difficult. Unable to judge the results of their shots, the Lancastrian archers let loose until they had used most of their arrows, leaving a thick carpet of projectiles on the ground in front of the Yorkist lines.

Fauconberg, who had ordered his archers to fall back just after their initial volley, had them move forward again to resume firing. When the York archers had used up all their ammunition, they picked up the opposing arrows strewn before them and resumed firing. Forced to endure this shower of projectiles without being able to retaliate, the Lancastrians left their positions to engage their opponents in hand-to-hand combat. Seeing their enemies advancing towards them, the Yorkist archers let loose a few more volleys before retreating behind their lines, leaving thousands of arrows on the ground to impede the Lancastrians' progress.

The Yorkists reformed their ranks to prepare for the enemy charge, but their left wing was attacked by horsemen coming from Castle Hill Wood. The soldiers were thrown into confusion and many began to flee. Edward IV then moved to his left wing to rectify the situation. He plunged into the heart of the fighting and exalted his supporters, his example encouraging his men to keep on fighting. The confrontation became general and the archers fired into the fray at close range. As soon as the close quarters fighting began, the battle became very intense, with the fighters having to take breaks to drag the accumulating corpses out of the way. The Lancastrians had fresh men constantly throwing themselves into the middle of the fighting, and the outnumbered Yorkist army gradually had to give ground and slowly retreat. Christopher Gravett believes that the Lancastrian left flank was gaining less ground than the rest of the army, tilting the battle line until its western side was directed toward Saxton.

The battle continued for three hours, according to research by English Heritage, the government agency responsible for the preservation of historic sites. It was indecisive until the Duke of Norfolk's contingent finally arrived in the early afternoon. Advancing along Old London Road, it remained hidden from view until it reached the top of the plateau and reinforced the Yorkist right wing. The advantage then shifted to the Yorkists, who enveloped the Lancastrian left flank, which eventually routed, with most of the Lancastrians being driven into the creek and small groups of soldiers fleeing for their lives. Polydore Virgil, the chronicler of Henry VII of England, claims that the battle lasted ten hours, but this is probably an exaggeration.

The Lancastrian soldiers throw off their helmets and armor to run faster, but this makes them more vulnerable to Yorkist attack. Many were slaughtered across Bloody Meadow by the cooler, faster Norfolk troops. Before the battle, both sides had given orders to show no mercy and the Yorkists were determined to spare no one, not even those who surrendered, after the long and grueling battle, not to mention that a number of their opponents, like Andrew Trollope, had substantial bounties on their heads. William Gregory's chronicle states that 42 knights were killed after their capture. The rout claimed more casualties than the battle itself; men trying to swim across the Cock Beck were swept away by the current and drowned, those who waded were pushed and trampled by their comrades behind them. Yorkist archers riddled the fugitives with arrows from the shore. The bodies began to pile up and chronicles claim that the Lancastrians eventually fled on "bridges" of bodies. The pursuit continued north and a bridge over the Wharfe River collapsed under the weight of the men trying to escape, many of them drowning in the icy waters.

A text dated April 4, 1461, reports a total of 28,000 dead, a number that Charles Ross and other historians believe to be exaggerated. This is, however, the number proclaimed by the heralds' estimates and cited in letters from Edward IV and the Bishop of Salisbury. Other sources from the same period give even higher numbers, ranging from 30,000 to 38,000, with Edward Hall putting forward the very precise figure of 36,776. The exception is the Annales rerum anglicarum, which states that 9,000 Lancastrians perished, an estimate that Ross finds more feasible. The nobility loyal to the House of Lancaster suffered greatly from the battle, with Andrew Trollope and Henry Percy being killed. Ralph Dacre, a close friend of Henry VI, was killed by an archer ambushed in a bush. Conversely, only one important member of the nobility supporting the House of York, Robert Horne, was killed at Towton.

The rout continued throughout the night, before on the morning of March 30 the remnants of the Lancastrian army reached York in total panic. On hearing the news of the defeat, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou fled to Scotland, where they were later joined by Henry Beaufort, Henry Holland and a few other nobles who had survived the battle. This battle seriously weakened the power of the House of Lancaster, as its main supporters at court died or fled the country, and put an end to its domination over the north of England. Edward IV made the most of the situation by proclaiming 14 peers of England loyal to Lancaster as traitors. Some 96 Lancastrians of knightly rank and below, 24 of whom were members of Parliament, were also declared traitors. The new king, however, preferred to rally his enemies to his cause because those who were deposed were those who had died in battle or refused to submit. The estates of some of these nobles were confiscated by the crown but the majority were left to their families. The king later pardoned many of those he had declared traitors after their submission.

Although Henry VI and his son fled to Scotland, the battle put an end, for a time, to the struggle for the throne that had been going on since the act of agreement, with Edward IV now ruling England uncontested. The new king now set about consolidating his power by rallying the population to his cause and putting down the rebellions started by the few remaining Lancastrian stalwarts. He elevated several of his supporters to the rank of knight or peer of England; Lord Fauconberg was named Earl of Kent and Richard Neville was the greatest beneficiary of the royal largesse, receiving part of the estates of the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford and being named "the King's Lieutenant in the North and Admiral of England. Edward IV also granted Neville several other prestigious positions, further increasing his considerable influence and wealth.

In 1464, following the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham, the House of York destroyed the last Lancastrian resistance in the north of England. Edward IV reigned uninterruptedly until 1470 but his relations with Neville gradually deteriorated, with the latter eventually joining the House of Lancaster. Neville forced Edward IV to flee England and restored Henry VI to the throne. This restoration was short-lived, however, as Edward IV regained the throne after defeating Neville and the Lancasters at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471.

In the late 16th century, William Shakespeare wrote several plays centered on historical figures and set against the backdrop of English history in the previous two centuries, making these plays more realistic. Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, a three-part play that relied heavily on the chronicle of Edward Hall. His vision of the Battle of Towton, presented as the bloodiest engagement of the War of the Two Roses in Act II, Scene 5 of Part III of Henry VI, became an anthology piece on the "terror of civil war, a national terror that is essentially familial." Historian Bertram Wolffe writes that it is because of Shakespeare's depiction of the battle, in which Henry VI longs to have been born a shepherd rather than a king, that the memory of the weak and incompetent monarch has not faded from the English collective memory.

The Shakespearean version of the battle has one notable scene that comes immediately after Henry VI's monologue. In it, the king witnesses the lamentations of two soldiers who have been in battle. One of them has killed an enemy in the hope of booty and discovers that his victim is his son, while the other realizes that he has killed his father. Both have acted out of greed and are overwhelmed with grief after discovering their wrongdoing. Shakespeare scholar Arthur Percival Rossiter considers this scene to be one of the most remarkable theatrical "rituals" followed by the author. The scene follows the model of an opera; after a long speech, we follow two actors who take turns declaiming a line to the audience on their own. Shakespeare departs from the current practice of using historical figures to expound themes while their actions are meditated upon through fictional characters. Here, by contrast, anonymous fictional characters illustrate the sufferings of the Civil War while the king ponders their fates. Professor Emeritus of English Literature Michael Hattaway comments that Shakespeare's intention is to show Henry VI's sadness more than the war itself, in order to achieve the same emotion from the audience and expose Henry's incompetence as a king.

The Battle of Towton is also examined by Geoffrey Hill in his poem Funeral Music (1968). Hill presents the event through the voices of the combatants and contemplates the turmoil of the period through their eyes. The common soldiers lament their physical discomfort and the sacrifices they made in the name of the ideas glorified by their leaders. Yet they share the determination of their leaders to destroy their opponents, even at the cost of their lives. Hill depicts as a farce the soldiers' belief that the battle was predestined and of the utmost importance; the world moves on without regard to the Battle of Towton. Although impressed by the number of casualties the engagement caused, Hill believes that it did not bring about great change for the English people.

In 1483, Richard III, the younger brother of Edward IV, began to build a chapel to commemorate the battle. But the monarch died at the Battle of Bosworth two years later and the construction was never completed. Left to decay, it eventually collapsed. The ruins of this structure are still visible five centuries later. In 1929, a stone cross supposedly from the chapel was used to erect the Towton Cross (also known as Lord Dacre's Cross) in memory of the victims of the battle. It is possible that some of the mounds on the battlefield contain the remains of casualties, although historians believe that these are older mounds. Other burial sites related to the battle are found on Chapell Hill and around Saxton. Ralph Dacre is buried at the Church of All Saints in Saxton and his grave has stood the test of time relatively well. The shrub on which the archer who killed Ralph Dacre stood was cut down in the late 19th century. Relics of the battle such as rings, arrowheads and coins have been found in the area centuries after the event. In 1996, workers at a construction site near Towton discovered a mass grave that archaeologists believe contains the remains of men killed during the battle. The skeletons reveal severe injuries, with broken or shattered arms and skulls. One specimen, known as Towton 25, had the front of his skull cut in half by a stab wound. The skull also has another wound, made horizontally by a blade from behind.

The English population of the Elizabethan era has kept the memory of the battle as it was staged by Shakespeare, and its image of a mass grave where many Englishmen were slaughtered has remained for centuries. Nevertheless, in the early twenty-first century, the "bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil" has faded from the collective consciousness. Several British journalists have lamented the fact that most people know nothing about the Battle of Towton and its significance. According to English Heritage, the battle was of "the greatest importance," having been one of the largest, if not the largest, ever fought in England and resulting in the replacement of one royal dynasty with another. The frequently quoted figure of 28,000 casualties from the battle is equivalent to about 1% of the English population at the time and makes it the bloodiest day in English history.

The battle is associated with a tradition that has endured for centuries in the village of Tysoe, Warwickshire. On each anniversary of the battle, the villagers would clear the hill of the Vale of the Red Horse to display the geoglyph of a horse carved from the red clay that gave the place its name. They claimed to be doing this to honor the memory of Richard Neville and the resolve to fight alongside his men that he had shown by killing his horse. Mary Dormer Harris, a local historian, believes that the villagers modified the original red horse, which dated from prehistoric times, to resemble a medieval horse. The tradition ended in 1798 when the enclosure movement turned the communal land on which the geoglyph was located into private property. The cleaning was briefly revived in the early 20th century before it was stopped again. The Towton Battlefield Society is an organization created to care for the preservation of the battlefield and to promote the memory of the engagement to the public. It also organizes an annual re-enactment of the battle on Palm Sunday.

Works :

Online sources:


  1. Battle of Towton
  2. Bataille de Towton
  3. a b c et d (en) George Goodwin, « The Battle of Towton », History Today, no 61,‎ mai 2011 (lire en ligne).
  4. Wolffe 2001, p. 289.
  5. Ross 1997, p. 11-18.
  6. Carpenter 2002, p. 147.
  7. Hicks 2002, p. 211.
  8. ^ Contemporary sources claim over 100,000 on each side, modern estimates suggest 75,000 in total as the upper limit, over 3% of the English population at the time [1]
  9. ^ Based on total casualties of 9,000 to 13,000, 1/3 Yorkist [1]
  10. Wolffe (2001), p. 289
  11. Ross (1997), p.11-18
  12. Carpenter (2002), p. 147
  13. Hicks (2002), p. 211
  14. Вероятно, цифра завышена

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