March 29, 1461 - The Wars of the Roses & the Battle of Towton
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
March 29, 1461. At a tiny village called Towton, the armies of two noble houses – Lancaster and York – duke it out for the English throne. The largest battle ever fought on English soil, it is also the bloodiest day in England’s history. It is one of the most savage medieval battles and perfectly encapsulates the horror and fratricide of the Wars of the Roses.
Most Americans know the Wars of the Roses as the inspiration for Game of Thrones. Others may have picked up tidbits from Shakespeare’s plays. The “Roses” of the name were the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster, symbols for the two sides of the civil war. The struggle was the result of a weak king, his domineering wife, and ambitious nobles.
Note: Wars of the Roses are REALLY COMPLICATED. I will give a general overview.
In 1422, the brilliant young King Henry V died early, leaving an infant son – Henry VI – to rule England. This sort of thing happens in monarchies, and things wouldn’t have been so bad, except that as Henry VI grew up he never exactly, well, grew up. He was a weak and fickle ruler, totally dominated by his wife Margaret of Anjou. They failed to produce an heir, which meant that if Henry died the throne was up for grabs between the Beaufort clan led by Edmund, Duke of Somerset, and the House of York led by Richard of York.
After a lot of political maneuvering that would take too long to describe (if you want a depiction, refer to Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 and Part 2), Richard was appointed the Lord Protector and guardian of Henry VI. The Somersets revolted, and the result of this breach was open conflict at the First Battle of St. Albans in 1455. Edmund Duke of Somerset and many of his highest nobles were killed, and Richard seemed to have assumed total control. Margaret of Anjou was now firmly determined to rid her husband Henry VI of the scheming, ambitious Lord Protector, who she suspected of attempting to steal the throne. She had finally given birth to a healthy son, which complicated the succession crisis.
The conflict between Margaret (the Lancasters) and Richard (the Yorks) came to a head once again in 1459, when the fighting spiraled completely out of control. Vicious battles, invasions and counter-invasions, and hard and bloody fighting resulted in Henry VI falling into Richard of York’s hands again. At the point of a sword, Henry was forced to proclaim Richard as his heir. Margaret of Anjou was still at large, though, and was gathering her army in the north of England to come home, free her simple husband, and reassert the Lancaster control of the throne.
With the matter finally settled, Richard rode north to engage and defeat Margaret’s army. Richard had four sons – Edward, Edmund, George and Richard (Richard Jr., let’s call him to avoid confusion). These were all important people eventually, but Richard Sr. only took Edmund north with him. He was ambushed, though, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. Richard was captured and forced by Margaret to humiliate himself. He was given a mocking crown of weeds, forced to plead for his son’s life and beheaded. Edmund, a 17-year old boy unarmed and fleeing, was run down by John Clifford and executed as vengeance for the death of Clifford’s father at St. Albans five years before. Richard’s head was placed on a pike with his fake crown and paraded around northern England.
You can already sort of see George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones inspirations here. Richard resembles Ned Stark in his regency against a “wicked queen” and a weak king. Cersei Lannister is basically taken whole cloth from the most blatant Yorkist depiction of Margaret of Anjou as a conniving wicked queen. Richard’s death and mutilation has a lot in common with Robb Stark’s death, though the Red Wedding is a reference to a different historical event in Scotland. Let’s see if you can spot the other inspirations.
The Lancastrian army, flush with victory after the defeat of their main enemy Richard, moved south to free Henry VI. They managed to rescue him at the Second Battle of St. Albans, but failed to occupy London. Richard’s oldest son, the 19-year old Edward, rallied the Yorkist troops and defended London, driving off the Lancastrians. The two younger brothers George and Richard (later Richard III) were sent into hiding and didn’t take part in the rest of this post’s events. Edward was proclaimed King Edward IV. There were now two kings in England, and this was not a situation that could last. One of them would have to go.
Edward IV led his forces north, intent on forcing a collision with the Lancastrians. This Yorkist force was a great medieval host of about 25,000 men, knights and archers and spearmen in heavy armor. This would be a medieval ruckus par excellence. Margaret’s army, also 25,000, was led by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, son of Duke Edward of Somerset who had been killed at St. Albans. He was 25 years old. Both armies were led by boys barely men, trying to avenge their dead fathers.
On March 28, Edward IV ran into the advance guard of the Lancastrian army and killed John Clifford, his brother’s murderer. The two armies were about to collide, but Edward only had part of his army. The rest was marching as fast as it could, but when March 29 dawned, Edward was greatly outnumbered by the Lancastrian force. Margaret and Henry VI were not present at the battle; Henry VI was weak and frail, and remained in York with his wife. Edward, though, was a tall and imposing young man on horseback, a born leader.
On March 29, 1461, Edward IV and the Duke of Somerset met at a place south of the village of Towton. Winter was late that year, and there was a raging blizzard when the two armies faced each other on the open plateau, agricultural land bounded by the River Wharfe to the north. The armies must have been shivering as they squared off, in nothing but poor homespun cloth and iron armor. Around 50,000 men were gathered together on the field – almost 2% of the whole English population. For equivalent numbers today, that would be 6.5 million Americans.
Somerset assumed a defensive position, but Edward had the wind to his back. With this advantage, Edward realized his archers could outrange the Lancastrian bowmen. His Yorkist archers began firing at a distance that would normally be beyond their maximum range, but the shrieking blizzard wind carried their arrows farther, plunging into the Lancastrian ranks. With the cold wind and snow in their faces, the Lancastrians could not return fire. Somerset gave the order to charge.
Depleted by the fire, the Lancastrians nevertheless slammed into the Yorkist force and a ferocious melee ensued. Edward led his men from the front, the teenager galloping around with his horse and leading counterattacks whenever it looked like the battle was turning against him, but slowly the Yorkists began to be overwhelmed. The melee had been going on for three hours, and Edward was still looking for his reinforcements.
Marching up from the south, Edward’s ally the Earl of Norfolk suddenly unleashed his Yorkists into the Lancastrian flank, shattering them and starting an immediate rout. The rout turned into a slaughter as Norfolk ran the Lancastrians down, sparing none and accepting no surrenders. The field soon turned into a mass of blood. As the Lancastrians tried to withdraw across the Wharfe River but the collapse of its bridge caused hundreds to drown, and many more were speared by the Yorkist cavalry or torn away in the freezing, rushing water.
The carnage was unbelievable, and shocking for a medieval battle. As many as 28,000 troops are alleged to have been killed in action; though that number is contested, it is actually far lower than the numbers given at the time. The Yorkists lost 8,000 in the terrible carnage, but the Lancastrians lost 20,000, mostly in the retreat. This would make it by far the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil and the highest loss ever suffered by England in any war. The numbers amount to something like 1% of the English nation dying in a single day at Towton.
Towton is depicted in Act 2, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III. Shakespeare depicts Henry VI lamenting two of his soldiers in the battle. One kills his opponent in the hope of plunder, only to find that it’s his son; the other kills his opponent in hope of glory, only to find that it’s his father. Such fratricide became the everlasting hallmark of the brutal, terrible, unending Wars of the Roses.
The Lancastrian nobility was almost beheaded – almost three quarters of all England’s nobles were at the battle, and most of Margaret’s and Henry VI’s supporters were slaughtered at Towton. Edward IV’s dearly bought victory forced the Lancastrians to flee Britain. The great blood field at Towton would be enough revenge for the death of Richard, Edward’s father. He could finally be confirmed as King Edward IV of England…
…for now. The Wars of the Roses were not done. Tune in on May 4 for the climax of the terrible, fratricidal tale of Lancaster and York. There will be an end to everything at Tewkesbury.
Book Recommendation: There are a metric crapton of books about the Wars of the Roses, and it’s hard to point to the best one. For a popular history, try the very accessible Dan Jones, The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors (New York: Viking, 2014). For a more scholarly edge, seek out Michael Hicks, The Wars of the Roses (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).