Edward IV claims victory at the battle of Towton
Twenty thousand men die in the bloodiest clash ever to take place on English soil
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