Today I am honoured to welcome author Catherine Hokin to the website for a guest article about the Battle of Towton. Catherine is the author of Blood and Roses, a novel about Queen Margaret of Anjou.
The Bloody Battle of Towton
“That day there was a very great conflict, which began with the rising of the sun and lasted until the tenth hour of the night, so great was the pertinacity and boldness of the men, who never heeded the possibility of a miserable death”.
So George Neville, Archbishop of York and brother to Richard Neville ‘The Kingmaker’, described the Battle of Towton, fought during heavy snowfall on Palm Sunday in March 1461, in letters written in its immediate aftermath to the papal legate Coppini. In more recent times, historian Dan Jones has described the conflict as “a long and fierce battle, which would turn out to be the bloodiest ever fought on English soil”. The outcome of the battle (the defeat and chase into exile of the Lancastrian King Henry VI by the soon to be King Edward IV of the House of York) was not a foregone conclusion. The Yorkist army was formed of three prongs which were scattered and the Lancastrian commanders were confident they could ambush and contain their enemies, particularly as they held a strong defensive position above the river. The combination, however, of a thick blizzard and a stinging onslaught by the Yorkist archers sent commanders into disarray and made a nonsense of strategies. As the key protagonist Margaret of Anjou puts it in my novel Blood and Roses: “And yet we did not win. If battles were fought on figures and plans, on paper not on battlefields, then the world would be a very different place but they are not: they are at the whim of weather and stray arrows and men’s fear or belief or lack of it. And a battle once begun is a beast run out of control.” Some of the details of the battle itself remain in dispute, in particular the numbers involved. Estimates vary from a probably exaggerated 100,000 soldiers and 40,000 deaths (twice the number killed by machine-gun fire on the first day of the Somme to give some context) to a more probable 60,000 soldiers and upwards of 25,000 deaths. One thing, however, is inescapable: this was a battle and a slaughter on an unprecedented scale. One of the reasons for this was the startling change to the position normally taken regarding prisoners and fleeing troops: Edward of York, in all probability seeking revenge for the slaughter of his father at the Battle of Wakefield, issued the unprecedented command that no prisoners should be taken or enemies saved. As the battle continued towards the afternoon and the Yorkists unleashed their cavalry, this command was a death sentence for the thousands of Lancastrians mired down fighting in the water-logged fields around Cock Beck. So many corpses piled up in the river that the bodies dammed it and became a bridge for the fleeing soldiers.
Towton SkeletonsTowton Field
Not only was the slaughter on a massive scale, but the injuries inflicted during it were also ferocious. Towton has given up its secrets in the form of mass graves which have enabled archaeologists to gather a considerable amount of information about the way the soldiers died. In 1996, 40 bodies were recovered from a grave at Towton Hall, their ages ranging from 17 to 50: 28 of these were complete skeletons and all showed a disproportionate amount of head trauma. The Towton bodies are numbered in the order they were taken from the ground: bodies 16 and 25 were struck on the head eight times, body 10 six times and body 32 had thirteen blows plus other mutilation, including a sliced-off ear. Analysis by the archaeologists at Bradford University of body 25 reveals a gruesome attack: the first five hits were made by a bladed weapon to the left side of the skull (suggesting the blows came from the front); this was followed by a strike from behind onto the top of the victim’s head which split the skill open and sent bone fragments into his brain; finally another blow to the right side which would have turned body 25 on his back before his face was bisected by another blade. Body 25 is typical of the wounds inflicted: many of the skulls show that the battle’s victims had been clenching their teeth so tight during the onslaught parts had splintered off. This was a killing frenzy and, whether these were routed Lancastrians being chased and mown down on Edward’s orders (highly likely in my opinion) or men who had fallen in the fighting itself, these soldiers died horrific deaths at the hands of their fellow-countrymen. A sobering thought made even more so when you consider that medieval weapons were built to decapitate in one stroke: another twelve really wasn’t needed. Perhaps the exhausted men had removed their helmets as they ran, perhaps the slaughter was a pure act of revenge and obliteration as Professor Christopher Knusel (one of the original archaeologist team) put it: “it’s almost as if they were trying to remove their opponent’s identities.” Whatever the truths still to be uncovered, the Battle of Towton was a turning point in the fortunes of the House of Lancaster and a stain on both sides. I shall leave the final words to my protagonist Margaret: “I have lost the battle and so much more. How can the people not hate me for this? Every woman who lost a husband, a son, a father; every man who lost his child. How can they not hate me for this?”
Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories - she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine - and regularly blogs as Heroine Chic.