On a cold, snowy Palm Sunday in 1461, the biggest and bloodiest battle ever to take place on British soil was fought between the forces of York and Lancaster. Vast armies sought brutal vengeance amid a dynastic struggle for the crown of England. On 28 March 1461, the Battle of Towton raged in a blizzard, thousands lost their lives and the fate of the English crown was settled.
Ultimately, the battle ended with a Yorkist victory, paving the way for King Edward IV to be crowned as the first Yorkist king. But both sides paid dearly at Towton: it’s thought that some 3,000-10,000 men died that day, and the battle left deep scars on the country.
Here’s the story of Britain’s bloodiest battle.
The Wars of the Roses
Today, we describe the opposing forces at Towton as representing the houses of Lancaster and York during a civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. They would both have characterised themselves as royal armies. Although roses were associated with the conflict from the early Tudor period, Lancaster never used a red rose as a symbol (though York did use the white rose), and the name Wars of the Roses was grafted on to the conflict later. The term Cousins’ War is an even later title given to the infrequent and sporadic fighting that played out over decades in the second half of the 15th century.
Towton, in particular, was about revenge, and the scale and bloodshed reflected the heightened conflict at that point. The First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455 is often cited as the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses, though at this point the conflict was not for the crown. During that fight in the streets of St Albans, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset was killed. His son Henry was injured, and the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford were also amongst the dead. Even King Henry VI himself was wounded by an arrow in the neck. The Duke of York and his Neville allies, the Earl of Salisbury and Salisbury’s son the famous Earl of Warwick, later dubbed the Kingmaker, were victorious.
By 1459, tensions were rising again. York was driven from England into exile in Ireland, and returned in 1460 to claim the throne through a line of descent from Edward III senior to that of the Lancastrian Henry VI. The Act of Accord that passed through Parliament on 25 October 1460 made York and his line heir to Henry’s throne, though Henry would remain king for the remainder of his life.
The Battle of Wakefield
One person unwilling to accept this compromise, which in reality suited nobody, was Margaret of Anjou, queen consort to Henry VI. The arrangement disinherited her seven-year-old son, Edward, Prince of Wales. Margaret made an alliance with Scotland and raised an army. As they moved south, York headed north to block their path and the two forces engaged at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460.
York was killed by an army led by Henry Beaufort, now Duke of Somerset. Salisbury was captured and beheaded, avenging the death of his rival Northumberland. York’s seventeen-year-old second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland was also caught and killed by John, Lord Clifford, the son of Lord Clifford killed at St Albans.
This left York’s oldest son, the 18-year-old Edward, Earl of March as heir to the throne, and triggered a clause in the Act of Accord that had made an attack on York or his family treason. Edward defeated a Lancastrian army heading out of Wales at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross and then made his way to London. There, he was loudly proclaimed king in place of the ineffectual Henry VI. The London chronicler Gregory recorded chants in the street of “he that had London forsake, would no more to them take” as the capital’s residents railed against Henry’s fleeing north.
On 4 March, Edward attended Mass at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was proclaimed King of England. He refused to undergo a coronation, though, while his enemy still had an army in the field. Gathering reinforcements, including his cousin the Earl of Warwick, Edward set out to exact revenge for his father, his brother, and his uncle Salisbury. The sons of St Albans had their vengeance, but had, in turn, unleashed the sons of Wakefield.
The Flower of Craven
On 27 March 1461, Edward’s outriders, led by Lord Fitzwater, reached the River Aire. The bridge had been smashed by the Lancastrian forces to prevent a crossing, but the Yorkist forces set about repairing it. They set camp on the edge of the river as darkness fell. Little did they know that a crack cavalry squad, known as the Flower of Craven, and led by none other than John, Lord Clifford, was watching them take to their beds.
At the crack of dawn, Lord Fitzwater was rudely awoken by Clifford’s cavalry crashing over the repaired bridge and through his camp. Fitzwater himself emerged from his tent to be struck by a blow that killed him. As the bulk of the Yorkist army arrived, Lord Clifford positioned himself to defend the narrow crossing.
During the Battle of Ferrybridge that ensued, Warwick was struck in the leg by an arrow. Eventually, Warwick’s uncle, the experienced Lord Fauconberg, no doubt keen to avenge the death of his brother Salisbury, found a crossing downriver and appeared on the opposite bank to chase the Flower of Craven away. Clifford was caught and killed before he reached the safety of the Lancastrian army.
On the following day, Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461, snow was lashed through the air with high winds. Fighting began with an archery duel, but the Lancastrians found themselves firing into a strong wind. As their arrows fell short, the Yorkist ones hit home. When the Yorkist archers ran out of ammunition, they stepped forward, collected the Lancastrian arrows, and fired them back. Realising they couldn’t just stand there and take volley after volley, the Lancastrian commanders gave the order to charge.
Hours of brutal hand-to-hand combat ensued. Edward’s presence, leadership and terrifying ability on the battlefield kept the Yorkists in the fight. Eventually, the Duke of Norfolk arrived, late, possibly ill, and almost certainly having got lost in the bad weather. His reinforcement of the Yorkist army swung the tide of the fighting. The Earl of Northumberland was killed, as was Sir Andrew Trollope, a professional soldier and a fascinating character during these years. The sons of St Albans had fallen to the sons of Wakefield. The rest of the Lancastrians fled, trying to cross the Cock Beck, a small stream said to have run red with the blood of those slain that day.
Modern estimates suggest between 3,000 and 10,000 died that day, but they have been revised down from several contemporary sources. Edward IV’s herald, a letter the young king sent to his mother and a report by George Neville, Bishop of Exeter (Warwick’s youngest brother) all give around 29,000 dead. Jean de Waurin, a French chronicler, placed it at 36,000. If those numbers were wrong, or exaggerated, it was to reflect the horror witnessed that day. It was an apocalyptic battle by medieval English standards.
Grave pits were dug in the frozen earth. Some of the casualties have been found, and facial reconstruction done on one soldier. He was in his late thirties or early forties when he was killed. He was clearly a veteran of previous battles, having deep scars from healed wounds on his face before taking to the field at Towton.
The chronicler’s lament
The London chronicler Gregory lamented that “many a lady lost her best beloved in that battle”. Jean de Waurin coined a famous phrase about Towton that is often applied more widely to the Wars of the Roses: “father did not spare son nor son his father”.
Returning to London after trying to settle the north, King Edward IV, the first Yorkist king, was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1461. Lancastrian resistance would continue through the 1460s, but only when Warwick fell out spectacularly with Edward was the crown threatened again. Towton was not the end of the Wars of the Roses, but it was an apocalyptic moment that left deep scars on a nation.