Medieval Battles > Wars of the Roses
BATTLE OF TOWTON (1461)
Fought in the middle of a snow storm with perhaps as many as 100,000 men in the field, the Battle of Towton (1461) was the largest and bloodiest military engagement on English soil. In a bitter melee that lasted many hours, it saw the fall of the Lancastrian dynasty and heralded the start of the reign of the Yorkist Edward IV.
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In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke had overthrown the unpopular Richard II and taken the throne as Henry IV. Widely supported by the nobility at the time, the usurping of the normal line of succession was sustained as both Henry and his son, Henry of Monmouth (later Henry V), were effective Kings. However by the 1450s the government of Henry's grandson, Henry VI, was deeply unpopular. His periodic mental illness, coupled with the dramatic defeats of the English in the Hundred Years War, provided the backdrop for the ambitious Richard, Duke of York to make a bid for the crown. Richard claimed descent from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III's second son, whereas the three Henrys were from the line of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster who had been the third eldest. Richard, prompted by rivalry at Court, pressed his claim with initial skirmishes dovetailing into the first Battle of St Albans (1455). Although a truce quickly followed, the bitterness with which that battle was fought - resulting in the deaths of several prominent Lancastrian supporters including Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland - set the tone of the subsequent dynastic struggle (which became known to history as the Wars of the Roses).
In 1459 the fragile peace between the Lancaster (Henry VI) and York (Richard, Duke of York) factions broke. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and a prominent Yorkist supporter, defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Northampton (1460) and captured Henry VI. The Yorkists, after having failed to secure backing for an immediate coronation of Richard, settled for the Act of Accord; an agreement instigating Richard as Lord Protector and heir to the King whilst disinheriting Prince Edward, Henry VI's natural son. Unsurprisingly Henry's Queen - Margaret of Anjou - opposed this move and raised an army at Pontefract Castle to reverse the coup. Richard deployed to intercept but the Lancastrians defeated and killed him at the Battle of Wakefield (1460).
With Richard dead his son - Edward, Earl of March - rallied his forces successfully defeating a Lancastrian army at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross (1461). Despite a subsequent Lancastrian victory at the second Battle of St Albans (1461), in which the captive Henry VI was freed, Edward won the support of the political establishment in London and was proclaimed King Edward IV. England now had two Kings and Edward mustered his forces and headed north to settle the succession.
Ferrybridge and Dintingdale
The Lancastrian forces were centred around York where the King and Queen were resident. As Edward approached from the south, the Lancastrian Lord Clifford was dispatched with a small force to frustrate his crossing of the River Aire at Ferrybridge. He destroyed the bridge and when the Yorkist Vanguard under Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick arrived on Friday 27 March he set upon their forces as they attempted to repair it. Through weight of numbers Warwick's men forced a crossing but early next morning were again attacked by Clifford's soldiers. Perhaps as many as 3,000 men were killed in the skirmish and the Earl himself was injured by an arrow in the leg.
Despite the success Clifford had to withdraw. Upon Edward's arrival, with the main body of the army, he diverted his forces to cross the River Aire at Castleford, a short distance to the west. The Lancastrian intent was that this crossing would have been guarded by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland but he failed to deploy in sufficient time. Accordingly the Yorkist army crossed unopposed. With his opponents now threatening to envelop him, Clifford withdrew north to rendezvous with the main Lancastrian army. Edward's advance forces intercepted him near Dintingdale, less than two miles from the main Lancastrian army, where his forces were annihilated and Clifford himself killed by an arrow. The Yorkist Rearguard was left to rebuild the crossing over Ferrybridge for the benefit of the baggage train and cannons whilst the Yorkist Vanguard and Middle-guard established a camp just south of Saxton at Sherburn-in-Elmet. The Lancastrians established their camp at Tadcaster. The two armies then spent an uncomfortable night just a few miles apart.
The Lancastrian army was possibly 50,000 men strong and under the command of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Henry VI may have been present but, if so, played no part in the command decisions. The army was divided into three battles; Somerset led the right wing whilst Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter led the centre and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland the left. His cavalry was placed on his right. Some accounts suggest a small Lancastrian force was hidden in Castle Wood on the left flank of Yorkists.
The Yorkist army was under the effective command of Edward IV and probably had similar numbers to the Lancastrians. Edward split his forces into two main battles - the left wing he commanded himself and the right under Sir John Wenlock representing the Earl of Warwick (who had been injured at the previous day's engagement). The Yorkist Rearguard under John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk was still at Ferrybridge and was yet to arrive on the battlefield.
The battle was fought on Sunday 29 March 1461 in freezing temperatures.
- Stage 1: Deployment
The two armies deployed facing each other on a plateau between the small villages of Towton and Saxton. Somerset had the slightly higher ground but the cold wind was blowing in the faces of his forces. A sharp scarp, which descended to the fast flowing Cock Beck, protected his right flank.
- Stage 2: Yorkist Artillery Attack
Shortly before the battle commenced the weather closed in and it started snowing heavily with the prevailing conditions blowing the snow directly at the Lancastrians. This advantage was not lost on Edward; he initiated the battle with an artillery (arrow) attack. Lord Fauconberg advanced the Yorkist archers, fired a single volley and then retired thus maintaining the bulk of the Yorkist force in relative safety just beyond effective enemy arrow range.
- Stage 3: Lancastrian Attack Falls Short
The Lancastrians, whose vision of the battlefield was now severely restricted due to the weather, assumed the enemy must be in range and fired a continuous volley of arrows but the Yorkist withdrawal meant the vast majority of their ordnance fell short.
- Stage 4: Yorkists Collect Lancastrian Arrows
As Lancastrian ammunition ran low, Edward advanced his forces around 50 metres to collect the spent Lancastrian arrows which his archers returned with more accuracy.
- Stage 5: Somerset Orders Advance
With Lancastrian casualties mounting, Somerset commenced an assault against the Yorkist line. His cavalry, headed by Sir Andrew Trollope, charged and broke their counterparts who fled the field disrupting their own baggage train in their retreat. However, the presence of a dip in front of their position, meant the Yorkists had to charge downhill and then uphill taking heavy casualties in the process. Some authors suggest there was a small Lancastrian force concealed in Castle Wood. If so, it would have been at this point when they were utilised and would perhaps explain why the Yorkist cavalry broke so easily.
- Stage 6: Infantry Battle
The two vast infantry forces now met in a bloody hand-to-hand fight. Sources vary as to the length of this stage of the battle with some suggesting the conflict lasted as long as ten hours whilst others say this figure includes the earlier engagements at Ferrybridge and Dintingdale plus the later retreat. Regardless it was a prolonged and bitter fight with the greater numbers of the Lancastrians initially pushing the Yorkists back.
- Stage 7: Norfolk Arrives
Around midday the Rearguard of the Yorkist army finally arrived injecting fresh troops into Edward's line. Although the effect was not immediate, the extra troops gave the Yorkists the upper hand and eventually the Lancastrian forces started to waiver and fall back.
- Stage 8: Lancastrian Line Collapses
As the Lancastrian line withdrew its structural integrity started to disintegrate into isolated groups. Retreat turned into a general rout as the Lancastrian forces desperately attempted to withdraw and get across the freezing waters of the Cock Beck to safety.
As with other battles of the Wars of the Roses, Towton was a vicious fight with no quarter given. As the Lancastrian line broke the Yorkist forces pursued and massacred the retreating troops. With the Cock Beck swollen due to the weather, the Lancastrians retreated north towards a ford just to the west of Towton. They were pursued all the way by the Yorkists and, at the bottleneck created by the ford, they were slaughtered. The massacre was on such a scale that the bodies formed a bridge enabling the pursuers to continue onwards to Tadcaster. Perhaps as many 28,000 men were slain on the Towton battlefield - two-thirds of whom were from the Lancastrian faction.
The battle was a decisive Yorkist victory and in the immediate aftermath Edward entered York, England's northern capital, where he removed the head of his father which had been placed on a spike on Micklegate Bar. On 28 June 1461 he was crowned as Edward IV and in the immediate term had eliminated the Lancastrian threat. However Henry VI and Queen Margaret - along with Edward, Prince of Wales and the Duke of Somerset - all fled to Scotland where they were given shelter by James III. They would return and briefly restore Henry VI in 1470-71 although Edward would reclaim the throne. When he died unexpectedly though, he left two young sons who would be deposed (and possibly murdered) by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and whose subsequent defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) marked the end of the Yorkist era. Edward's only lasting legacy was through his daughter - Elizabeth of York - who would marry the Lancastrian Henry VII effectively ending the Wars of the Roses.
A Note on Numbers
The headline figure of 100,000 men at arms is often questioned by historians who suggest that the English population of 1461 would have been insufficient to muster such a large force. The numbers are drawn from contemporary chroniclers but such individuals were prone to inflating army sizes. However, it should be noted the same chroniclers had also recorded details of the other recent battles in the Wars of the Roses and universally they all agreed that Towton was the largest of the contests by far.
In determining numbers Edward Hall, writing in 1809, cites the pay-roll of the Yorkist force which suggested they fielded an army of 48,640. Various authors have suggested modifications on this - A. H. Burne for example accepts Hall’s figure but suggests this was the total army and perhaps only 36,000 were present in Edward’s force. For the Lancastrians there are no formal records of numbers but the general consensus seems to be the army was of equivalent size, or slightly larger, than the Yorkists.
Finally numbers present can be inferred from the casualties. Estimates, both contemporary and modern, range from “over” 20,000 to 38,000 with most suggesting the figure of 28,000 dead. Even in rout it would be expected that a significant portion of a defeated army would escape and therefore if this figure is to be believed then the total numbers present can comfortably be placed in the region of 70,000 to 100,000.
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The battlefield remains undeveloped enabling the general terrain to be appreciated - particularly the steep scarp on the Lancastrian right. A battlefield walk enables the visitor to walk the route of the Lancastrian retreat
Monument. The monument is found on the roadside near the Lancastrian position.
Battlefield. Two views of the battlefield from the Lancastrian position.
Steep Scarp. The western side of the battlefield was constrained by a steep scarp that descended into the swollen waters of the Cock Beck. The battle was fought on the plateau in the left of this picture.
Bloody Meadow. So called as the Lancastrian cavalry and infantry took heavy casualties as they traversed the steep scarp.