The brutality of Towton

Scene of archers from the Battle of Towton, painted by Graham Turner
The Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, marked a turning point in the Wars of the Roses. But it was a big and brutal fight, with around 50,000 soldiers, a huge number when the population was only five million, slugging it out in snow and high winds. 

At this time the country had two kings. Henry VI was weak and ineffective, and under the influence of a small group of Lancastrian lords. 

Yorkists resented this control and Richard, Duke of York, had won the right to be named Henry's successor. However the king's wife fought against the displacement of her own son, and raised an army in Scotland that marched through England, killing Richard at the Battle of Wakefield and reaching London, before heading back to York to replenish their supplies. 

Richard's successor was his son Edward, who defeated a Lancastrian force in Herefordshire and made his own way to London. The city, which had kept its gates closed to the Lancastrians, welcomed Edward in, and he was proclaimed as King Edward IV by the Earl of Warwick. 

To cement his status Edward needed to defeat the Lancastrians and depose Henry, so he marched his army towards York. 

Battling his way north, Edward settled outside the small village of Towton, where he faced a similar sized force of Lancastrians. The latter had time to choose a well-guarded defensive spot, but when the fighting started on 29 March, the Yorkists had a strong wind at their backs. 

Edward's archers stepped forward and unleashed a volley of arrows that were given extra distance by the wind and landed deep in the ranks of their foe. 

The Lancastrian archers fired back, but with heavy winds and snow in their faces their arrows fell short. The poor visibility meant they could not see what had happened and they continued to fire volleys, each failing to find its mark. 

Knowing they could cover a longer distance, the Yorkist archers caused havoc, and when their own supply of arrows had run out, they stepped forward to collect the Lancastrian weapons on the ground ahead of them. 

Eventually the Lancastrians realised the ineffectiveness of their tactics and they left their defensive stronghold to fight Edward's army hand-to-hand. 

The left wing of the Yorkists began to crumble after an attack by horsemen so Edward, a tall and fearless 18 year old, waded in to rally his troops.

Inspired by their leader's heroics, and bolstered by the arrival of reinforcements, the battle turned for the Yorkists and after 10 hours of exhausting fighting the Lancastrians began to flee. 

The Yorkist soldiers who had arrived late were fresher than the retreating Lancastrians and followed swiftly to cut down the escaping soldiers. 

The rout was so complete that some chroniclers said more Lancastrians died while trying to flee than in the battle. The stretch of land where many fell was known as Bloody Meadow, and the River Wharfe was said to run red for days. 

In 1996 workmen discovered a mass grave near Towton filled with the bodies of troops from the battle. Most were aged 24 to 30 with horrible injuries including cracked and shattered skulls, and slash marks across their heads and bodies. 

The brutality of a Medieval battle was laid bare. 

Edward's victory at Towton was complete and many of the Lancastrian lords were dead, had defected to the Yorkist side, or fled to exile in Scotland with Henry and his family. 

King Edward IV was now free to focus on uniting his kingdom and asserting his right to rule, although there would be plenty of challenges along the way. 

Want to know more? Join our tour, Wars of the Roses in the North, with expert Julian Humphrys, to explore the battle sites of Towton, Wakefield and Stoke Field, plus the childhood home of Edward's brother and future king, Richard III. Click here to see the tour details

About the picture: The image at the top of this page was painted by Graham Turner, an artist specialising in medieval history, and shows the Yorkist archers at Towton. You can buy prints and canvases of this painting, and more, at the Promenades Travel shop. Click here to see the art shop