And today, 554 years ago, Lancastrians and Yorkists met at the battlefield of Towton in Yorkshire. This is said to have been the bloodiest battle in English history and when the arrows stopped falling from the sky, the swords, axes and hill bards stopped crossing each other, approximately 28 000 men lay dead in the snow.
When the forces arrived at the battlefield to be, it was by no means a given that the Yorkist would win, fact is that it seemed likely that the outcome would be quite the opposite, as the Yorkist forces was heavily outnumbered by the Lancastrians, a fact underlined by the late arrival of John de Mobraw, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and his forces on the “scene”.
It was the sixth year of the Wars of the Roses, and in command of the Yorkist forces was Edward, Duke of York who had been proclaimed king in the beginning of March but not yet crowned, together with the Earl of Warwick, the future Kingmaker. Someone who wasn´t participating in this battle, however, was the recently reinterred Richard, who at this time hadn´t yet turned 9.
Chronicler at the time claimed that both forces where huge, but recent historians has claimed that a total of 50 000, the majority Lancastrians, is more believable. The battle took place on a plateau between the two villages of Saxton and Towton, in a landscape that was, and still is, agricultural with open areas and small roads where the armies could be manoeuvred. Around the plateau flowed the stream Cock Beck from north to west, and the ground was also divided by the Towton Dale, running from west to the east and into the North Acres. At a bend of the beck, on the west side of the plateau, Castle Hill Wood grew, and it was the area north-east of this forest that after the battle was to become known under the name Bloody Meadow after the battle and the people who lost their lives there.
When the Lancastrians had deployed their forces and the Yorkists had just arrived at the plateau, snow began to fall, and this was one important reason to why the outnumbered Yorkists still won the battle. The Yorkists also had the advantage of being on the ridge, firing their arrows downhill against their enemies. The Yorkist commander, Lord Fauconberg, uncle of Warwick, also used the winds to the advantage of his men.
The falling snow blinded the Lancastrians to the falling arrows, while they themselves soon had fired all the arrows they had, against the wind and against the falling snow. The Yorkists on their part, collected the Lancastrian arrows shot in vain and returned them with deadly accuracy. The Lancastrians moved forward up towards the ridge to engage the Yorkists in close combat. As a result of an attack on their left flank by horsemen from Castle Hill Wood, the Yorkist left wing became disorganised and men started to flee, but Edward soon took command over the situation and made the men instead stand their ground. The following clash between the armies and the Lancastrians superior number however forced the Yorkists to retreat up the southern ridge. If there was any way to speculate of an outcome, it might have been that the victory was about to go to the Lancastrian forces, but when the fighting had been going on for three hours according to research done by English Heritage, Norfolk´s forces finally arrived.
Norfolks contingent was out of sight for the Lancastrians as they moved up the Old London Road, and was thereby given the chance to attack the Lancastrian left flank. They continued to fight, but the Lancastrian line was eventually broken up and the men began to flee. According to the Tudor chronicler Polydore Vergil, the battle lasted for 10 hours.
The fleeing Lancastrians were cut down from behind, and it was then the name Bloody Meadow was born. Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and their son who had been waiting if York during the battle sought refuge in Scotland, and England who at the beginning of the battle had had two kings now had only one.
In 1483, more than 20 years after the battle, Richard III started to build a chapel for the fallen at Towton, but it was never finished before he himself was killed at Bosworth in 1485. Today a cross stands at the site, believed to be from the chapel which no longer exist. The cross is called the Dacre cross, after the Yorkist Lord Dacre who lost his life during the battle.
In 1996 a mass grave was found in York, believed to contain bodies from the battle.
Sources: Edward IV – Charles Ross
Henry VI – Bertram Wolffe
The Crowning Victory at Towton – Clements Markham