Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

The Battle of Towton - 550th anniversary

Today is the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday 1461, and probably the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.

Last year I posted about the battle, and you can read, or re-read, those posts at Palm Sunday Field 1461 and Towton links.

The following piece is adapted from the RichardIII Society website:

The Opening Barrage at Towton by Graham Turner
Reproduced by kind permission of the artist

Following their success at the second battle of St Albans the Lancastrian army moved south towards London but the city was chary of opening its gates to Queen Margaret’s army despite the fact she was re-united with the king. Margaret decided not to press the matter and withdrew with her army to the north. Meanwhile Edward, the new Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick, following their respective victory at Mortimer's Cross and defeat at St Albans, were reunited at either Chipping Norton or Burford and marched on the capital. The young duke felt sufficiently secure in his position to take the crown and on 4 March 1461 he was declared king as Edward IV. He knew that to make good his claim he had to defeat the Lancastrians once and for all. On the 5th the Duke of Norfolk left London to raise an army in his base of East Anglia and on 7 March Warwick left for the midlands to the same end. Edward remained in London for another week and then marched north.

By 27 March Warwick, leading the vanguard of the new royal army, reached Ferrybridge, the crossing for the river Aire and just eight miles south of the Lancastrians who were encamped and preparing for the battle. The bridge was badly damaged but repairs were made and Warwick crossed and made camp. Early on morning of the 28th Lord Clifford led a surprise attack on the Yorkists, who were driven back across the river and Warwick’s lieutenant, Lord FitzWalter, was killed and the earl was wounded in the leg by an arrow. Meanwhile King Edward advanced from Pontefract to find the bridge once again seriously damaged. Lord Fauconberg was sent westwards along the river to Castleford, three miles away, where he successfully crossed the Aire. He immediately marched north, caught up with Clifford, killed him and scattered his force. By the evening of the 28th the Yorkist host had crossed the river Aire and moved northward to meet the Lancastrian army.

The 29th March 1461, Palm Sunday, was a bitterly cold windy day with snow on the ground. The Lancastrian army, under the command of the 24-year-old Duke of Somerset, may have been 30,000 strong, and was drawn up on heathland north of a ridge between the villages of Towton and Saxton. His two main ‘battles’, one under his own command and the other under the command of the Earl of Northumberland, were side by side with archers to the front and a small rearguard behind them. King Edward, south of the ridge, ranged his archers, under the command of Lord Fauconberg, across the width of his two ‘battles’, one commanded by himself and the other by Warwick. As with Somerset, he had a small rear guard but the young king’s major worry was the non-arrival of the Duke of Norfolk and the East Anglians. To the left of the northward-facing Yorkist army was the river Cock which meandered westwards and surrounded Castle Hill Wood on three sides. North and south of the wood, the heathland fell sharply to the river and to the right of the Yorkist army was a plateau. The battlefield was anything but spacious. There has been speculation that the Lancastrians hid a force within the woods to ambush the Yorkists but this has not been substantiated.

The battle began mid-morning and the first Yorkist volleys of arrows were aided by the wind to find their mark within the Lancastrian ranks. The Yorkist archers immediately moved back and the Lancastrian response fell on empty ground. Fauconberg’s archers were then ordered forward to retrieve the spent missiles. The first advance probably came from the Lancastrians with Somerset’s ‘battle’ moving towards King Edward at a greater speed than Northumberland upon Warwick’s ‘battle’. The clash between the armies was intense within the restricted arena of battle, the fighting was hand to hand and the whole battle became a melée. The turning point was probably the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk and his men who flung themselves onto the left flank of the Lancastrians. Gradually the Lancastrian line gave way until late in the day it eventually broke and the troops fled towards the river, their pathway becoming known as Bloody Meadow. The river Cock was in full flood, and hundreds were drowned. So ended one the longest and bloodiest battles fought on English soil. As many as 28,000 may have been killed, the Yorkists possibly losing 8,000. Amongst the Lancastrians the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Dacre, Lord Welles and Sir Andrew Trollope were killed and the Earls of Devon and Wiltshire were captured and executed shortly afterwards although the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Exeter escaped. The dethroned King Henry and his Queen and son, who had stayed in York during the battle, fled with them to Scotland. The victorious young King Edward was now free to return to London and his coronation.

The Rout
Artwork from 'Campaign 120: 'Towton 1461: England's bloodiest battle' by Graham Turner
© Osprey Publishing Ltd.

The livery is that of the Earl of Northumberland and the Percy family

I would add the thought that Towton wasa decisive battle, which made the Yorkist seizure of power effective, even thought the 1460s were punctuated by attempts to restablish the Lancastrians, as did happen in 1471. Not until after the battle of Tewkesbury that year was King Edward IV secure. Whether the change of King and royal house solved anything is difficult to tell. What it did do was make a complex situation more so, and the fighting and deaths of 1460-61, and of the following decade made for greater division, and created new individuals and groups with much to lose or gain. Moreover by changing the dynastic line and succession, removing not a few potential heirs along the way the continuing issue of the sixteenth century monarchy was to come to the fore - just who was, or was not, the heir apparent or presumptive?

As with my post last year I will end by asking the prayers of my readers for all those slain at Towton or in its aftermath, and for all the combatants.

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