Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Unearthing the Secrets of the Battle of Towton

by Catherine Hokin

“That day there was a very great conflict, which began with the rising of the sun and lasted until the tenth hour of the night, so great was the pertinacity and boldness of the men, who never heeded the possibility of a miserable death”.

So George Neville, Archbishop of York and brother to Richard Neville ‘The Kingmaker’, described the Battle of Towton in letters written in its immediate aftermath to the papal legate Coppini. Or, to use the description from The Economist, this was a battle that was “nasty, brutish and not that short.”

The Battle of Towton, fought on a snowy Palm Sunday in March 1461, has been described as the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. While the outcome of the battle is well-known – the defeat and chase into exile of the Lancastrian King Henry VI by the soon to be King Edward IV of the House of York – some of the details of the battle itself remain in dispute, in particular the numbers involved. Estimates vary from a probably exaggerated 100,000 soldiers and 40,000 deaths (twice the number killed by machine gun fire on the first day of the Somme to give some context) to a more probable 60,000 soldiers and upwards of 25,000 deaths, one thing is inescapable: this was a battle and a slaughter on an unprecedented scale.

One of the reasons for this was a change to the way war was customarily fought on English soil: Edward, in all probability seeking revenge for the slaughter of his father at the Battle of Wakefield, issued the unprecedented command that no prisoners should be taken or enemies saved.

How can we substantiate this? One of the fascinating things about Towton is that, although contemporary accounts are few, the battle has left modern scholars huge clues through the scale of the archaeological finds unearthed around the battle site.

We know, for example, that some of the earliest handguns found in England were fired during this battle. The gun fragments found had a barrel diameter of around 2cm and gunpowder tracings were found inside, a lead bullet with an iron core was also discovered. Although the availability of a gun at a time when arrows and hand-to-hand weaponry were the norm might sound like it would confer easy victory on the holders, the opposite was unfortunately more likely - early guns had the nasty habit of blowing up on firing so were of little real use.

In addition to the guns, Towton has given up its secrets in the form of mass graves which have enabled archaeologists to determine far more about the causes of death among soldiers than it is suitable to detail here. In 1996, 40 bodies were recovered from a grave at Towton Hall – their ages ranged from 17 to 50, many had been clenching their teeth so tight that parts had splintered off and all of them had in excess of 20 head injuries. Investigations into the skeletons are continuing and there are a number of excellent accounts – I would recommend the Economist article cited earlier as a starting point. What has already been deduced is the sheer ferocity of the ten long hours of that battle – whether these were routed Lancastrians being chased and mown down on Edward’s orders or men who had fallen in the fighting itself, these men had died horrific deaths at the hands of their fellow-countrymen. A sobering thought.

The Battle of Towton has an undeniable fascination and a resonance that carries it across 500 years of history and different disciplines – Professor P.J.C Field has done studies, for example, that link Sir Thomas Malory’s description of King Arthur’s last battle in Morte d’Arthur to Towton. As the battlefield continues to shed its secrets and our view into the past widens, its story can only grow.


Blood and Rosesa novel of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses by Catherine Hokin.
The English Crown – a bloodied, restless prize.
The one contender strong enough to hold it? A woman. Margaret of Anjou: a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, shackled to a King lost in a shadow-land.
When a craving for power becomes a crusade, when two rival dynasties rip the country apart in their desire to rule it and thrones are the spoils of a battlefield, the stakes can only rise. And if the highest stake you have is your son?

You play it.

Catherine is a Glasgow-based author with a degree in History from Manchester University. After years of talking about it, she finally started writing seriously about 3 years ago, researching and writing her debut novel, Blood and Roses, which will be published in January 2016 by Yolk Publishing. The novel tells the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, exploring the relationship between Margaret and her son and her part in shaping the course of the bloody political rivalry of the fifteenth century. About a year ago, Catherine also started writing short stories - she was recently 3rd prize winner in the 2015 West Sussex Writers Short Story Competition and a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history, popular culture and life in general.

Social media links:

Twitter @cathokin


  1. Fascinating. Love these glimpses into the past, even if they are brutal and bloody. Your book also sounds like something I would enjoy. History is absorbing and understanding it, vital.

    1. Thank you, this was a wonderful period to reserach and write about.

  2. Wow, I had not idea of the scale and carnage involved. Both saddening and fascinating, thanks for sharing:)

    1. Some of the reports are breath-taking in their horror - I had to hold back a bit here!

  3. The British Museum has the Earl of Norumberland's signet ring, lost at the battle and found centuries later by a farmer plowing a field near Towton. The story of that ring haunts me.
    Great entry! Thanks!

  4. That's something I didn't know and would love to see


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