Ed­ward IV claims vic­tory at the bat­tle of Tow­ton

Twenty thou­sand men die in the blood­i­est clash ever to take place on English soil

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

On Palm Sun­day 1461, the weather was hor­ren­dous. Even though it was late March, it was bit­terly cold, the heavy winds whip­ping sleet and snow into peo­ple’s faces. For the ri­val armies camped out­side the vil­lage of Tow­ton, 12 miles from York, it must have made for a wretched morn­ing. And worse, of course, was to fol­low.

The clash be­tween the armies of York and Lan­caster on 29 March 1461 is of­ten re­ferred to as the blood­i­est bat­tle on English soil, al­though his­to­ri­ans still ar­gue about the num­bers.

An es­ti­mated 50,000 men took the field that day, fight­ing for one of two ri­val kings: ei­ther the strap­ping 18-year-old Ed­ward IV, of the House of York, or the pi­ous Henry VI, of Lan­caster, who was al­most 40. This, the blood­i­est stage of the first War of the Roses, had al­ready lasted 18 months. But many of the sol­diers must have sus­pected that, given the sheer num­bers, Tow­ton would be de­ci­sive – as in­deed it was.

Like most me­dieval bat­tles, it was a con­fused, bloody, muddy af­fair. Af­ter the two sides ex­changed ar­rows, the Lan­cas­tri­ans charged, and for a time it seemed as if their nu­mer­i­cal ad­van­tage would win the day. But Ed­ward, fight­ing bravely in the front line, ral­lied his men, and at the cru­cial mo­ment, with the snow­storm at its zenith, his ally the Duke of Nor­folk threw in fresh troops.

The fight­ing went on for hours but, by late af­ter­noon, the Lan­cas­tri­ans’ spirit was bro­ken. Ex­hausted, many threw off their hel­mets and fled the bat­tle­field. Some were cut down as they ran; oth­ers drowned, weighed down by their ar­mour in their des­per­a­tion to cross the stream at Cock Beck.

In the re­gion of 20,000 men died that day amid the snow and the mud. But for the York­ist vic­tors, it prob­a­bly seemed worth it. With Henry flee­ing into ex­ile, Ed­ward IV stood al­most un­chal­lenged as mas­ter of Eng­land.

This skull – one of a num­ber re­cov­ered from a mass grave near Tow­ton – re­ceived eight head wounds. One deadly blow, vis­i­ble in this im­age, opened a crevice that ran from the left eye to the right jaw

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