Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Ghosts of Towton

Not much has changed since that bleak Palm Sunday long ago. The land between the villages of Saxton and Towton in Yorkshire is still largely open country, just as it was on 29 March, 1461. It was here, on a day churned with driving snow and freezing winds, that Englishman faced Englishman in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, though the event is now largely absent from popular imagination. Even the battlefield memorial, a fifteenth century stone cross, is easy to miss, situated behind a hedge just off the B1217, a minor road leading from Towton to Garforth.

The Battle of Towton was part of the dynastic struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York that we now refer to as the Wars of the Roses. The origins of the conflict go back to 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster, deposed his cousin, Richard II, ruling in his stead. It was an act that broke established notions of primogeniture and legitimate, divinely ordained, succession, with consequences that were still being felt deep into the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

The immediate cause of the struggle was the complete incapacity of Henry VI, Bolingbroke’s grandson, for government. A rival party grew up headed by Richard, duke of York, whose claim to the throne was as strong, if not stronger, than that of Lancaster. The war began as a kind of aristocratic family quarrel. The early battles had really been no more than a series of skirmishes: the casualties had been modest and the rank and file largely spared.

All this changed in December 1460. Richard of York, who had previously been proclaimed as Henry’s heir, an uneasy political compromise, was killed in battle at Wakefield. Not just that but his head was then removed and, adorned with a paper crown, displayed in the city of York. His eldest son then threw off all pretence of loyalty to Henry VI, taking the crown as Edward IV and marching north in pursuit of the Lancastrian army, finally intercepted at Towton. There would be no quarter that day.

Towton was a crushing victory for the Yorkists, a battle fought with murderous bitterness. If the fighting, which lasted all day, was bad the pursuit was even worse, little more than a bloody slaughter. In the late 1990s a mass grave was discovered at Towton Hall, whole skeletons, in some cases. Subsequent investigations have shown how these men died. Details are given of the findings in the December issue of The Economist (Nasty, brutish and not that short). One soldier, known simply as Towton 25, suffered eight head wounds from a variety of weapons. The details are truly grisly;

The precise order can be worked out from the directions of the fractures on his skull…the first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

The next one almost certainly was. From behind someone had swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head – picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of the skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced into Towton 25’s brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of his head may have been enough to turn him over on to his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached the back of his throat.

The conclusion is simple enough: this was a methodical slaughter, far too sustained and systematic to be mere battlefield blows. Towton 25 and his comrades are almost certainly a party of Lancastrians on the run from the battle, intercepted and massacred in the vicinity of the Hall and then buried in a mass grave. Even at this distance the violence is shocking – “It’s almost as if they were trying to remove their opponents identities”, one of the field archaeologists said of the attacker’s savage assault.

Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close;
And let us all to meditation.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I should hope so!

    Actually, I think that point is substantive rather than metaphysical. The dynastic wars, involving so many ordinary citizens, helped develop an idea of England as a nation (a continuation from the Hundred Years War), not simply defined by the royal house. The Paston Letters are a wonderful insight both into the period and to the rise of a new ‘middling’ sort.

  3. There in Gods hands now, and nothing can be done to strip them of the identity they have in God.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hmm. Aren't we really eulogizing a gangland turf struggle, like Crips v. Bloods or Capone v. Nitty? I doubt any of the participants entertained modern notions of 'nation-building' or any such abstract conceit. I think the Wars of the Roses were fought by power-hungry thugs determined to exterminate their rivals. Supporters on each side may have been motivated by fealty or by the promise of preferment, but I see little evidence of virtue in these brutal encounters.

  6. This would be a good remedy for a present day bunch of imported ingrates.

  7. Calvin, absolutely not, but history has a tendency to work through people rather than with them, even bloody thugs! Taken together the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses brought some fundamental changes to English society and politics. In battle the plebeian archer replaced the mouinted aristocrat as the decisive weapon. In politics parliament became ever more demanding in its scrutiny of royal finances. In the dynastic struggle itself the old ruling class was decimated, allowing for the steady rise of those with more modest backgrounds, people like the Pastons, more English, if you like, less French. Henry Tudor himself had relatively modest origins when set against the traditional great aristocratic houses. His claim to the throne was weak, obliging him to build up the state as a counterweight to the traditional modes of rule. So I think I am right to suggest that this whole time was one of transition, away from fragmented feudalism towards a more complete sense of a single nation.

  8. I believe those social changes were unintended consequences of generations of strife, rather than the object of conflict. The ruling families depleted their numbers fighting one another, and wasted their fortunes making them dependent on funds from "inferiors," who thereby gained influence over the ruling elite. Once the power monolith fragmented, opportunists were able to exploit that disunity: hence the rise of institutional power supplanting individual power.

    Some time I hope to have leisure to examine parallels in other parts of europe, and in different cultures.

  9. It may not be neccesary after all, soon enough the world will be made anew as there are cosmic events in progress.The problem is most people do not see it coming and go about their lives as usual and will be taken unaware.

  10. My hunch is the nightmares the Tony Blairs and G.W. Bushes of the world create haunt others far more than them.

  11. Calvin, yes, absolutely. I did not mean to imply that these changes were intended. My apologies if there was any confusion on the point.