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By the somnolent banks of the Dordogne on a hot day in July 1453, England’s septuagenarian paladin, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, his son and several thousand soldiers died at Castillon in the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War. Times had changed since English archers had routed the French at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt — now belching cannons and French professionals swept the English invaders from the field. The echoes of that gunfire proved to be an overture for a series of troubles that would plunge England into internecine strife for the next 30 years.

The seeds of the discord that William Shakespeare would later give its romantic if inaccurate name, the Wars of the Roses, could be traced to the overthrow in 1402 of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster and self-proclaimed King Henry IV. The usurper’s son, Henry V, was a ruthless, dynamic ruler who won undying fame at Agincourt in 1415 and had the French crown all but within his grasp when he suddenly succumbed to dysentery in 1422. His son, Henry VI, was a pious, decent man who was prone to spells of mental instability, ill-suited to the rigors of campaign or the intrigues of a succession of opportunistic court favorites. A predatory and fractious regency council ruled on Henry’s behalf until 1436, by which time the war in France degenerated from an English triumph to a doomed rear-guard action.

Disloyalties and private feuds pervaded England at that time, as the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk openly warred against each other, Devon fought Wiltshire, and the Percies clashed with the Nevilles. In 1450 popular unrest exploded in Kent as rioters, led by Jack Cade, plundered their way to London and the government crumbled. Richard, Duke of York, descended from the disinherited line of the Plantagenets, had to be recalled from Ireland to help deal with this state of near anarchy. Endowed with vast estates though usually in debt, York was embittered by the government’s failure to repay 30,000 pounds sterling that he had spent in France. Now, seeing his opportunity, he confronted the king’s forces at Blackheath, but a truce was reached that postponed an outbreak of war for the time being.

In August 1453, however, Henry seemed to lose his tenuous grip on reality. The barons backed Richard of York to rule as the incapacitated king’s regent. But Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, along with Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, whom many suspected was her paramour, squabbled for the reins of power until York imprisoned Somerset in the Tower of London.

Early in 1455, Henry recovered his wits, and one of his first acts was to free Somerset from the Tower. A disappointed York, his father-in-law, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and the latter’s son, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, left London to rally supporters. On May 22, Yorkists clashed with royalists in the streets of St. Albans.

The opening round of the Wars of the Roses was won when 600 Yorkists chopped a hole through a wooden wall to enter the town and split the royalist forces. Among the royalist dead were Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and the Duke of Somerset. After capturing Henry VI in the market square, York and Warwick pledged their loyalty to him, then took him to London.

Half a year of queasy calm followed while York, assuming his late rival’s office as constable of England, ruled as virtual dictator. The king reigned impotently as York’s puppet, but his fiery consort, Margaret, had no intention of surrendering the patrimony of her child, Prince Edward, and began assembling a coalition to oppose York. John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, eager to avenge the death of his father, Edmund, and the Percies, rivals of the Nevilles in the north, rallied to Margaret’s side.

In January 1456, King Henry relieved the Duke of York of his positions as protector and constable, then announced before Parliament that he was fit to rule. York and Salisbury retired to their castles, and Warwick fled to Calais, France.

On September 29, 1459, James Tuchet, fifth Lord Audley, tried to intercept Salisbury at Blore Heath. Outnumbered but more cannily led, the Yorkists emerged victorious, leaving Audley and some 2,000 of his followers dead. A subsequent confrontation at Ludlow Bridge saw the Yorkists disintegrate, however, as one of their supporters, Anthony Trollope, defected to Henry’s side. York fled back to Ireland, while Salisbury, Warwick and York’s eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, withdrew to Calais.

That debacle did not spell the end of Yorkist hopes, however. Warwick maintained an aggressive stance across the English Channel, and by June 1460, he had secured a beachhead at Sandwich. From there, he and Salisbury, with swelling support, marched on the capital. Caught unprepared, Henry scurried southward from mustering in the Midlands while the Yorkists came north to force an encounter at Northampton, which ended with the hapless king again becoming a prisoner.

The Duke of York returned to England on October 10 to find himself again de facto ruler of the realm. By a swiftly engineered Act of Settlement, the young Prince of Wales was excluded from the royal succession and York instated as Henry’s heir. That was too much for Queen Margaret. Retiring northward, she summoned her supporters. York and Salisbury pursued her, celebrating Christmas at Sandal Castle, near Wakefield. On December 30, York came out to fight, but he died in the ensuing battle; Salisbury was captured. On York’s order, Sir Robert Aspall tried to take the duke’s young son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, to safety, but Lord John Clifford broke away in pursuit, capturing them at Wakefield Bridge. Clifford then killed them both, allegedly saying as he butchered Edmund, ‘By God’s blood thy father slew mine and so will I do thee and all thy kin.’ York’s, Rutland’s and Salisbury’s heads were subsequently mounted on the wall over Micklegate, and legend has it that Margaret ordered that room be left there for the heads of the earls of March and Warwick.

Edward, Earl of March, was at Shrewsbury when he learned of his father’s death. Though still in his teens, he showed the mettle of one of the great commanders of his age. Hearing that the earls of Wiltshire and Pembroke were advancing through Wales, he moved to intercept them. At Mortimer’s Cross on February 2, 1461, he routed the Lancastrians and killed 3,000 of his enemies.

Meanwhile Margaret swept southward, reaching Dunstable by February 16. Warwick, leading forces drawn from the south and East Anglia, advanced to engage the queen at St. Albans, scene of his earlier triumph, on the 17th. The Second Battle of St. Albans, however, had a disastrously different outcome than the first. Overextended and overconfident, Warwick had failed to properly deploy his levies when Trollope struck his army in the rear. Amid the rout, King Henry was recovered and reunited with his strong-willed royal consort.

Edward was, to say the least, critical of his cousin’s failure. On the other hand, Margaret had an able joint commander in the 24-year-old John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, and his adviser, the veteran Trollope. When the Council of London refused to let his army in, Henry VI, indecisive to the last, was unwilling to hazard a final advance on the capital, thus robbing the Lancastrians of the prize for which they’d fought so hard. Margaret was trying to negotiate entry into the city when word arrived that Edward had joined Warwick near Oxford and was marching on London. On February 26, Henry’s army began a long retreat, apparently with the intention of establishing a defensible line on the north bank of the Aire River and await reinforcements from the north.

Warwick had failed as a general, but he was a skilled politician and diplomat, immensely wealthy, yet popular with the masses. Long the guiding hand behind York, he now led Edward across the fateful Rubicon. There would be no more pretense of fighting to rescue Henry from evil counselors. On March 4, the Earl of March rode to Westminster, where his supporters publicly proclaimed him Edward IV, King of England. His older cousin, Warwick, would be known thereafter as ‘the Kingmaker.’Edward IV, 6 feet 4 inches tall, dazzling and charismatic, was a peerless knight even at age 19, though given to indolence when not steeled for war. He was cool and incisive under pressure and had already demonstrated a consummate understanding of strategy at Mortimer’s Cross. Warwick had proved to be a flawed tactician at the Second Battle of St. Albans, but William, Lord Fauconberg, who was uncle to both men, was an experienced and able commander.

Having seized the initiative — or rather having it handed to him — Edward, after being acclaimed by a great gathering in St. John’s Fields orchestrated by Warwick, wasted no time. He dispatched John Mowbry, Duke of Norfolk, to the eastern counties to raise his tenancy and adherents while Warwick went to the Midlands to recruit. On March 11, Fauconberg marched northward with a strong vanguard, followed two days later by Edward.

Leaving King Henry, Queen Margaret and Prince Edward in York, Somerset had been making his dispositions for battle. In addition to the doughty Trollope, he had fiery Clifford, Henry Percy and Randolph Lord Dacre of Gilsland. Perhaps as many as 40,000 Lancastrians were massing on the gentle plateau that swells between the villages of Towton and Saxton, crowding behind the formidable natural barrier of the Aire.

Unwilling to keep them waiting, Edward gathered his divisions and crossed the Trent, although he lacked Norfolk’s eastern contingent, which lagged behind, probably because of the earl’s failing health. Edward stormed across the Don River and on the cold, blustery Friday of March 27 approached Ferrybridge. It was plainly vital to secure a bridgehead across the Aire, and Edward sent out a party commanded by John Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, to secure it. After driving back the Lancastrians, Fitzwalter found the bridge broken up, but his men had replaced the planks by the end of the day.

With Ferrybridge seemingly secured, the Yorkists camped on the north bank that evening, perhaps lulled into a sense of well-being by the lack of enemy activity. That complacency cost Fitzwalter his life, along with that of Warwick’s bastard brother, Sir Richard Jenny of Salisbury, and numerous others, when a 500-man raiding party led by Lord Clifford attacked his headquarters at dawn on the 28th. Chronicler William Gregory placed Warwick in the thick of that action, wounded in the thigh by an arrow as he rallied the survivors, then retreating back across the river. Joining Edward at Pontefract Castle, Warwick delivered a histrionic report of the debacle.

Undismayed, the young king elected to retaliate by sending Warwick back to Ferrybridge at noon, but only as a feint. While Warwick kept Clifford engaged, Fauconberg led a strong party that included the veteran captains Sir Richard Blount and Robert Horne of Kent across the swollen Aire, four miles upstream at Castleford, to fall upon Clifford’s right flank. A sprawling, untidy melee spread northward from the river’s banks as Clifford sought a fighting withdrawal, noticeably unaided by the main Lancastrian force, which could scarcely have been unaware of what was happening. Fauconberg attacked the retreating Lancastrians in Dinting Dale and overwhelmed the survivors. Clifford, it was said, had injudiciously chosen to remove his neckguard, or bevor, and an arrow ended his life. His 7-year-old son, who may have been present, survived to fight at Flodden more than half a century later. John Neville, a knight from the Lancastrian side of that clan, also fell in the skirmish.

Somerset has been censured for not supporting Clifford and for subsequently remaining inert while the Yorkist forces were still vulnerably strung out along the line of march. Edward, in the meantime, had no intention of fighting anymore that day. Capitalizing on Fauconberg’s victory, he led the main body of his army north again, probably crossing at Castleford, rejoining his uncle later in the day.

By the time darkness fell, Edward’s vanguard had moved up as far as Saxton, but the rest still struggled behind. He had left his baggage train at Ferrybridge, so his army spent the night with neither food nor protection. Both armies were to spend an uncomfortable night in the open in freezing wind laced with snow, their pickets probably only half a mile apart.

The ground on which Somerset elected to make his stand, and from which he seemed so unwilling to budge, lies south of York, with the Wharfe River running behind and the Ouse to the east. York itself, capital of the north, could not be surrendered, and to retreat farther would mean crossing the windswept barrier of the north Yorkshire moors — an admission of defeat.

Past Towton, the land rises gently to a low plateau. The climb is barely perceptible except in the west, where there is a sharp fall toward the Cock Burn. The valley below was more densely forested in the 15th century than it is today with scrub, alder and birch, and was less well drained than it is now. To the south, west up beyond Bloody Meadow, the rise is more noticeable, still topped by a stand of trees at Castle Hill Wood.

The rise is neatly bisected by a lateral depression known as Towton Dale, which falls to what was then a marshy gully in the west. The generally accepted position for the Lancastrian line is along the crown of the ridge north of the dale, immediately to the south of the present marker. The Yorkists inevitably came to deploy over the higher ground to the south. It has been suggested that the Lancastrians might in fact have been positioned some 300 yards farther south, with Towton Dale to their rear. In any event, Somerset was too bright to neglect the possibilities of Castle Hill Wood, and he is credited with concealing a strong command party there.

Edward was in no hurry to begin the fight. His forces may still have been in disarray, and he lacked Norfolk’s division, leaving him at a distinct numerical disadvantage. It was March 29, Palm Sunday, and the chaplains would have been busy on both sides. Religion and superstition were important in the medieval mind, and the imminent prospect of battle tended to concentrate men’s thoughts on the question of whose side God favored.

It is possible that Fauconberg commanded the Yorkist van, with Edward on the left and Warwick on the right. For Lancaster, Somerset and Exeter led the right battle, Northumberland — who carried King Henry’s banner — and Trollope commanded the vanguard, and Dacre the left. As the Yorkist battles jostled along the ridge, at about 10 a.m. a strong southerly wind brought the first of several brisk showers of snow and sleet, driven over the exposed heath into the faces of the waiting Lancastrians. Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury, wrote that the outcome remained long in doubt.

The veteran Fauconberg was quick to discern the advantage that the elements had conferred. He advanced his archers from their usual position on the flanks of his column to the fore. They loosed their arrows at extreme range to spit their wind-assisted shafts into the enemy flanks, then fell back. The ruse worked, as the Lancastrians responded with a volley of their own, unaware that they were out of effective range. That error was compounded by a lack of discipline, as Somerset’s archers kept shooting, their arrows falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line, until their quivers were empty.

Again Fauconberg advanced his bowmen, whose next volley struck with lethal effect. Many Lancastrians fell to their own arrows, which had been retrieved by the Yorkist archers. The deluge of missiles proved unbearable, and Somerset saw no choice but to close with the enemy or lose the battle before it had rightly begun. With a cry of ‘King Henry!’ the Lancastrian line surged forward. Although the Yorkist arrows continued to exact a toll, the Lancastrians crashed into their opponents’ ranks. Fauconberg ordered his archers to fall back behind the foot soldiers, where they exchanged their bows for swords or axes and formed a reserve. With his own division bearing the brunt of Somerset’s charge, King Edward dismounted and told his men that he would live or die fighting at their side. At some point thereafter Somerset’s ambush party sprang from Castle Wood, and Edward had to commit his reserves to prevent it from rolling up his beleaguered left flank.

Step by step the Lancastrians pushed their foes back up the northern slope of the southern plateau. Edward’s division was near collapse, but the young king was everywhere, his great height a noticeable advantage and his conspicuous valor an inspiration as he rode along the lines extolling his men to fight, occasionally dismounting to join the battle. At one point, Welshman Davydd ap Mathew saved Edward’s life. After the battle, the king appointed him standard bearer of England and gave him a land grant, and the word ‘Towton’ was added to the ap Mathew family crest.

The casualties mounted, and the weather deteriorated. Both sides declared brief truces to clear the field, so they could continue fighting without tripping over the dead and wounded. At one point Lord Dacre removed his helmet to get a drink, only to be shot dead by a Yorkist archer. By midday, the outnumbered Yorkists were in serious trouble, though there is some suggestion that Northumberland had been slow to engage, and thus the pressure on them was uncoordinated.

Deliverance for the Yorkists, in the form of Norfolk’s long-awaited banner, appeared through the swirling snowflakes. Norfolk himself had fallen ill at Pontefract Castle on the evening of March 28 (he would die in November). But he marched his division across the Aire on the morning of the 29th and followed the old London road through Sherburn in Elmet, past Dinting Dale, and finally deployed on the Yorkist right. Outflanked, Somerset had to redeploy men from his center and right battles to counter the threat to his left. For Edward, the crisis had passed, though he might be excused if he did not immediately notice. Somerset still had plenty of fight left, and his men battled on.

As the greater numbers of Norfolk’s fresh troops forced their line to curve backward, the weary Lancastrians began to give way. By the rim of Towton Dale their line finally broke, though a scattering of diehards, clustered around their banners, sold their lives dearly. Most, however, fled — or slid — down the snowy, icy slope toward the Cock River, with the Yorkists in murderous pursuit. Bloody Meadow and the miry ground around it became a killing field. To the north, survivors fought each other to reach the narrow timber bridge over the Cock, which the day’s precipitation had changed from a fordable stream to a raging torrent. Armor or water-soaked padded garments dragged men under to drown.

Some Lancastrians reportedly crossed the Cock on a ‘bridge of bodies’ and fled through Towton to Tadcaster, where further fighting in the streets was reported. Edward sent a body of horsemen in a pursuit that strewed the road with corpses virtually to the walls of York. King Henry, his queen and threadbare court were hustled away to the relative safety of Northumberland, where they separated, with Margaret going to France, hoping to get help from its king. Henry spent the remainder of his life as a prisoner of King Edward.

Somerset and Exeter escaped, but the toll on Lancastrian gentry was high. Besides Clifford and Dacre, Northumberland succumbed to his wounds, and Lords Neville de Mauley and Welles also died on the field. Thomas Courtney, Earl of Devon, was taken prisoner, and his head soon replaced that of Edward’s father on Micklegate.The Yorkists lost Lord Fitzwalter and Robert Horne. Overall casualties are impossible to confirm, but 16th-century historian Polydore Virgil estimated them at 20,000. Chronicler Edward Hall gave the precise but unsubstantiated figure of 36,776. The Paston letters, apparently written by another contemporary chronicler, mentioned 28,000 casualties, of which two-thirds or more were Lancastrian. A reasonable assessment might be 12,000-15,000 of Somerset’s men, dead or wounded, either on the field or in the rout, while Edward lost about 5,000.

What is certain about Towton is that the victory assured Edward’s crown and ruined his enemies’ cause, though hostilities, mainly in Northumberland, dragged on for another three years. The battle also established the young king’s reputation as a brilliant commander. In the long run, however, York’s triumph would only be temporary. The civil war would last another quarter century, ultimately ending in the destruction of both rival houses of York and Lancaster, and the emergence of the Tudors.

This article was written by D. John Saddler and originally published in the March 2006 issue of Military History magazine.

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