Reiver by David Pilling

Monday, 22 June 2015

The murder of Towton



Towton. No fun at all. 
For the third and last of my blogs concerning the lives of ordinary soldiers in the medieval period, I have arrived - perhaps inevitably - at the Battle of Towton. Fought in a snowstorm on Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461, Towton is reckoned to be the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, with the possible exception of the massacre of Boudicca's forces by the Romans.

Towton was fought as part of the dynastic conflict remembered as The Wars of the Roses. Put simply, the House of York, led by the teenage giant Edward, Duke of York, fought against the House of Lancaster, led (in name only) by the insane King Henry VI. Henry was too mentally fragile to fight, and on the day his army was commanded by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. The two sides brought some 50,000 men to the field, and for hour after dreadful hour they slugged it out amid the snow and ice until the Lancastrians finally broke and fled. Once the rout began, the real butchery could begin as men were cut down from behind as they ran or killed when they surrendered. Many Lancastrians were caught as they tried to escape across a field that later became known as Bloody Meadow, and slaughtered without mercy.

There is something different about Towton. The other battles of the era were bloody enough, but at Towton a kind of madness was unleashed. Civil conflicts are always the worst, and the nobles of both sides had a great deal of bad blood to avenge: the Lancastrians, for instance, had killed Edward's father, the old Duke of York, at Wakefield, and set up his head on Micklebar Gate at York wearing a paper crown, in mockery of his ambitions.

Exhibit A
Edward therefore had his own private scores to settle, and the lesser knights and barons on both sides also had debts of blood to avenge. The usual rules of chivalry were cast aside, and the mutual hatred of the nobles seems to have infected their soldiers. It was claimed afterwards that over 30,000 men died on the field, though this was probably an exaggeration. Even so, it was clear that the Lancastrians at least suffered horrific casualties.

The true extent of the carnage only became clear to modern eyes in 1996, when workmen uncovered a mass burial pit while doing building work on the site. A team of osteoarchaeologists and archaeologists were called to the scene, and set about excavating and studying the remains of 43 individuals discovered in the pit.

It's hard to describe the evidence of battle-injured on the skeletons without a sense of revulsion. Most of the wounds were to the face or head, and caused by a terrifying variety of projectile and close-combat weapons: war-hammers, swords, daggers, battle-axes, maces, pole-axes and all the other killing tools of the era. Hideously, the pattern and distribution of the wounds suggests that most of them were inflicted on men already dead or unable to defend themselves. In other words, they were run down and mutilated with an almost ritualistic savagery, eyes gouged from their sockets, noses and lips cut off, faces smashed in, vertebrae crushed, and other horrors best left to the imagination. The images I have posted here should give an adequate impression.

Exhibit B

The study of the remains, which is ongoing, has yielded other, less grisly results. It seems the men in the pit were in generally better health than many people of the era, and more robust and well-built, with evidence of high muscle development due to constant physical exertion. In contrast to the average peasant, these soldiers were strong and athletic, and enjoyed a better diet. This suggests that their lords and masters knew the value of keeping one's fighting retainers in good condition, and made sure they were well-fed, housed and exercised, like prize animals. Some of the skeletons bore the marks of previous wounds that had healed, such as the cleft jaw of one specimen. Many of the soldiers at Towton, then, would have been old campaigners, veterans who had escaped death in the past only to find him waiting for them on a snowbound field in Yorkshire.


Reconstruction of a soldier's face. Note the scar to the jaw
The raw, vivid awfulness of what happened at Towton is almost beyond comprehension. It wasn't fought over some especially high or noble purpose - the Wars of the Roses were a purely dynastic quarrel, fought between inbred cousins over which of them got to wear the crown.  The whole thing might have been easily settled by a dozen picked champions from either side having a duel, or maybe a game of dice.

Instead we got a mass slaughter, and one that didn't even have the virtue of permanence. A few years after Edward's victory the wars started up again, and more battles had to be fought, and yet more battles, until the entire bloodstained circus finally juddered to a halt at Stoke Field in 1487, 26 years after Towton. Stoke was a Lancastrian/Tudor victory over the last fag-ends of the House of York, not that the men lying quiet inside their pit at Towton were in any position to appreciate it.




2 comments:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete