Guest Post: 7 things you may not know about the Battle of Towton by Dan Moorhouse

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author and historian Dan Moorhouse to the blog with an article on the Battle of Towton, which was fought during the Wars of the Roses, on this day in 1461. Dan’s latest book, On this Day in the Wars of the Roses, is a fabulous read, looking into the Wars of the Roses in a whole new way. Over to Dan…

7 things you may not know about the Battle of Towton

The Battle of Towton is often described as being the biggest, bloodiest battle of English history. Heralds at the time suggested 28,000 dead. Towton established Edward IV as king. His coronation was shortly afterwards. Yet much of what is known about the Battle of Towton is not well known. Dan Moorhouse outlines 7 areas that help to put the battle into perspective.

  • Battlefield Executions
The Battle of Towton by Richard Caton Woodville Jr

In the aftermath of the battle, several of the defeated Lancastrians were rounded up and summarily executed. Evidence for this comes in the form of human remains excavated near Towton Hall. The bodies bore wounds to the head, neck, shoulders. But none to the arms, indicating that these men had been unable to defend themselves. 42 such executions are known to have taken place on the battlefield. This is not the only example of summary justice being meted out following Towton. In York, the victorious Yorkists discovered more Lancastrians. In the days that followed, other men were executed on Edward IVs orders, including the Earl of Devon. A grave pit has been excavated on the Knavesmire, where public executions took place outside York, which contained the remains of bodies that had been beheaded. These have been carbon dated to the period.

  • Survivors

Whilst there is much speculation about the number of Lancastrian dead, there is less said about those who survived. The Royal family had been in the relative safety of York. Most leading nobles escaped the battlefield. With so many dead, many fleeing and wintery conditions, the survivor’s stories varied greatly. Robert Bolling (Bradford, Yorks.) was believed to have died. This remained the case in November when he was posthumously attained. However, he had survived and spent the next 14 years trying to overturn the attainder. Thomas Denys wrote that ‘There I lost £20 worth, bone, harness and money and was hurt in divers places.’ In other words, he was injured, without transport and had lost or spent all his money.

  • Hiding

It is well known that Henry VI went into hiding and was eventually captured near Clitheroe several years later. That other non-combatants did the same is less well known. Henry Clifford was the son of John 9th Baron Clifford. Following his father’s death (at Dintingdale), he too went into hiding. Legend has it that he hid with Shepherd’s in the Yorkshire Dales until after the Battle of Bosworth! This stems from an account written by Lady Anne Clifford in the 17th century. The story seems more myth than factual, though. Though still a child, he is known to have signed charters just a few years later. During the readeption, Lord Montagu was granted the wardship of Henry Clifford.  Edward IV pardoned him in 1472, and he was permitted to access his inheritance from his maternal grandfather at that point. However, he did not receive his Clifford inheritance until 1493.

  • Death toll
Engraving of the Battle of Towton, showing King Edward IV in the thick of the fighting

The Battle of Towton was big, of that there is no doubt. What there is doubt over is how big. Figures for medieval battles vary significantly in their accuracy. For campaigns in the Hundred Years War, there are centrally held records, many of which survive. These make numbers reasonable accurate. For battles in the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, this is not the case. Sources include Heralds, various chronicles, letters, muster rolls and ambassadorial dispatches. Archaeological analysis provides further evidence, as does an examination of logistics. The problem is, none are definitive, and they vary greatly. Chroniclers were prone to exaggeration, as seen by numbers that run from 9000 to 120000 Lancastrian dead. Heralds suggested 28000 dead. Letters and dispatches also disagree. Modern analysis suggests an upper figure of 10000, based on the battlefield’s size, number of nobles and knights known to have fought and the logistics involved in the campaigns. An analysis by The History of Parliament shows that of the peerage and members of Parliament known to have fought, as little as 20%, mainly Lancastrian, perished. With estimates suggesting around 55000 participants, this would be consistent with a death toll of around the 10000 mark. 

  • Finds

It may seem strange that there is no extensive collection of finds from such a significant battle. This is because most substantial items would have been scavenged in the hours, days and weeks following the clash. Battlefield Metal Detector Simon Richardson worked on the Towton battlefield for 32 years. His collection of finds does amass to over one thousand items. Primarily these are small items such as buckles and straps. However, he also discovered fragments of the ‘Towton gun’, the oldest handgun to have been excavated in the British Isles. Sections of a brass cannon were found. Evidence suggests that it exploded on being fired with the probable loss of life of those around it. Richardson also aided in the excavation of a memorial chantry built in the reign of Richard III.

  • Pursuit

The rout at the Battle of Towton is well recorded. Cock Beck was awash with blood. Bodies were used as a bridge by men fleeing the hail of arrows. Those fleeing in a different direction were prone to being run down by Cavalry. As the Lancastrian lines broke, the Yorkists could simply pick off those in flight. Whilst there is ample evidence of slaughter at these places, it is often forgotten that the rout went on for some distance and time. George Neville, in his letter to Francesco Coppini, placed more emphasis on slaughters away from the battlefield than in the immediate rout:

“At the town of Tadcaster, eight miles from York, very many of the fugitives were drowned in the river, the enemy having themselves broken the bridge in their rear beforehand. Of the remainder who escaped for the moment a great part were killed in that town, and in the city [of York]; and quite lately one might have still seen the bodies of these unfortunate men lying unburied, over a space nearly six miles in length and three or four furlongs broad”. [British History Online: Calendar of state papers relating to English affairs in the Archives of Venice, vol 1: 1202-1509]

  • Memorials
Dacre Cross, memorial at the Towton battlefield

Many of the men who died were local and on the losing side. Despite the new regime, there is evidence that their loss was memorialised at the time, under the victors’ watchful gaze and in rather lavish or unusual fashion. The unusual is the Tomb of Lord Dacre. The tomb itself looks unremarkable. It is close to the battlefield and in keeping with tombs of the period. What is odd is the story that he was buried on his horse. Perhaps a legend, it has not been disproven. Lionel, Lord Welles, was one of the most senior Lancastrians to die in the battle and married to Margaret Beauchamp, mother by her first marriage to Margaret Beaufort. Despite his links to the Lancastrian line, his body was interred at Methley, Yorkshire, with an ornate alabaster effigy. Other memorials were added during the Wars of the Roses and in later centuries.

My thanks to Dan for an interesting and entertaining article, and my congratulations of the release of On this Day in the Wars of the Roses. The book is out now and available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

*

About the author

Dan Moorhouse’s interest in history initially led him into teaching, and writing about the history of Medicine for Hodder Murray, an imprint of Harcourt. His work includes contributions to numerous print and online publications, including for the BBC, Guardian, Times, and a range of national and local museums. As a member of the Historical Association, Dan served on the Education Committee for a decade and helped to re-establish the society in West Yorkshire. Dan is also a keen member of the Battlefields Trust and Richard III Societies. Dan’s interest in the Wars of the Roses was sparked at an early age. He grew up close to the seat of the notorious Clifford family and several major battlefields. He has studied the Wars of the Roses to Masters Degree Level and writes regularly about the subject for a general audience via his website and social media channels.

Links:

Website – https://schoolshistory.org.uk/

The Battle of Towton – https://schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/british-history/wars-of-the-roses/battle-of-towton/

*

My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Dan Moorhouse

Walking Bosworth’s Battlefield

“Two Kings – One Battle”

062
The standards of Richard III and Henry VII

Last year I took my 9-year-old son and 40-something husband to visit their first battlefield. We were holidaying in Derbyshire and decided to drive down to Leicestershire and visit Bosworth. With all the hype around the discovery and re-burial of Richard III, it seemed a great way to show a 9-year-old the story of a battle.

He, of course, knows a little of the Richard III story. He can identify the king’s portrait and knows he was involved in the Wars of the Roses, but we don’t linger on the Princes in the Tower too much. I don’t think he is as familiar with Henry VII, but he can tell you all of Henry VIII’s queens, in order, and tell you their fate. So taking my son to the battlefield was a way of giving him a place and time where he could visualise the events and the people.

It worked.

However, what I found surprising was the effect it had on my husband. Hubby is a bit of a computer geek and into all the mod cons. He never had an interest in history before he met me, and even now I can see his eyes glossing over if I talk too much about the past – 15 minutes a day is usually all he can take!

065
The Sundial on Ambion Hill

I have visited battlefields before; Waterloo, Stamford Bridge, Hastings and a few others. The calm serenity always amazes me. I expect to hear the echoes of battle, the cries of the wounded, clashes of arms and the shouted orders of the battle’s commanders – and the thunder of the horses hooves during the cavalry charge. At Bosworth, if you close your eyes tight, and listen intently, you can almost hear it…..

071
The Battle of Bosworth Trail

The Battlefield trail is a wonderful leisurely walk. It’s not the actual battlefield; they found that a short distance away a few years ago, but it is Ambion Hill. And standing at the memorial you have a panoramic view of the area; you can  imagine the 2 sides facing each other, troops in the thick of it and those waiting to engage. My son listened in awe as I described the death of Norfolk and the final, desperate charge of Richard III; and Percy’s men standing, watching and waiting – possibly very close to where we were stood at that moment.

064
View from Ambion Hill

As you walk round the hill and through the woods, there are markers, pointing the way; and viewpoints and information posts telling the story of the battle and explaining the technology and tactics used. One marker explains the use of the longbow, how it dealt death from afar. The marker explained where the archers were positioned during the fighting; you almost expected to look to your right and see them raising their bows to the air.

My son was fascinated by the idea that children as young as he was had already started their knightly training, that there were only about 1,000 knights in the whole of England. And I was amazed to discover that many who could be knights chose not to, in order to avoid the duty and responsibility that came with knighthood; these men were simply called esquires or gentlemen.

081
Information post explaining the use of cannons in the battle

It amazed my husband to discover that cannon and handguns were in use in the battle. 1485 seems to be too long ago for men to have used gunpowder. The handguns were large and cumbersome weapons, too large for one hand to use; guns were still very much in their infancy. However, it was a scattering of cannon balls and other small metal objects (such heraldic badges, spur rowels and coins), found by metal detectors, which finally meant the location of the battlefield could be confidently identified.

091
Battle standards in Ambion Wood

Although the general battlefield has now been identified, we still don’t know where individual parts of the action took place. We can’t say for certain where the action between Norfolk and Oxford took place, nor where Norfolk fell. We can’t tell where Stanley and his men were standing, watching for that turn in the battle that made him decide to join Henry Tudor’s forces.

But the specifics don’t matter as much as I expected they would. The battlefield provides its own story. And the fact you can’t say exactly where each part of the action happened serves to highlight the confusion of a battle. When you’re on the ground, in the thick of it, fighting for your life and your king, you wouldn’t be looking round to see where on the field you were. You would be looking to your own survival, fighting the man in front of you while watching your back.

095
King Richard’s Well, cairn built close to where it is thought the king fell

So the locations of events are vague, but that they are remembered and commemorated is what matters. Whether the marker is where Richard fell matters less than that there is a marker to the fallen king.

And once you have walked the Battlefield Trail, there is the Heritage Centre to visit. The Centre offers wonderful background to the battle, told through the voices of those involved: a serving girl at a local inn, a mercenary’s wife, an archer. The 2 armoured kings stand watch over you as you view artefacts found on the field of battle and study maps and videos explaining the battle and the troop movements.

057
Henry VII

The Heritage Centre is very hands-on; children can try on the armour and test out the helmets. You can test your ability to draw a longbow; it’s not as easy as you think. By far the most dramatic display is the little corner dedicated to the Barber-Surgeons. The tools of his trade are displayed and a skeleton depicting the wounds of one soldier from the battlefield. Given the recent discovery of Richard III, and the detailed descriptions of his wounds, this seemed a particularly poignant display.

060
Richard III

Walking the battlefield is a humbling experience. So little is known about the men who fought and died in these fields on 22nd August 1485. And, yet, the date marks so much change in English history: the end of one the Plantagenet dynasty and the start of Tudor rule; the end of the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance. Just around the corner were the marital problems of Henry VIII and the English Reformation and the subsequent, glorious reign of Elizabeth I. But the men who fought that day would know nothing of the significance of the battle beyond that moment.

*

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

*

Article and all photos © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

*

Article originally published on The Review on 19th August 2015.