Thursday, 21 February 2013

Towton Battlefield

A field 
 After battle utters its own sound 
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.

Funeral Music by Geoffrey Hill

The snow came a few hours after we left Towton battlefield, the skies promised downfall all day. The battle, on 29 March 146, was fought in equally bitterly cold conditions, with the driving snow assisting towards a Yorkist victory against the odds. The landscape is beautifully evocative as, unlike other battlefields from the War of the Roses such as the rather featureless plains of Blore Heath, the Towton geography defined the way battle was fought and won.

We started our walk near the Crooked Billet pub, walking over the field to Lead Church, near where the Yorkist encampment would have been. The church dates back to the 14th c, with monuments to crusading knights inside. 

The door has beautiful lettering detailing the restoration work on the church over the years, a group of ramblers were the catalyst for the 1930's restoration work and the church remains in lovely condition today. 

Behind the church the ground shows the lumpy evidence of an accompanying medieval settlement, and the footpath leads through this up onto a farm track. I found a small piece of broken pottery on the side of a ploughed field but I don't have any idea of it's age! 

Crossing back over the Cock Beck onto the road, we continued up to the commemorative cross, near where the Lancastrian lines were formed. The Dacre cross is probably an earlier roadside monument, now restored and engraved with the date of the battle. 

Walking down the new battlefield trail towards the Cock Beck the view overlooks Bloody Meadow, where the burial mounds are said to flower with the Towton rose. 

The Lancastrian army marched up from Towton, ending up with the valley of the Cock Beck to their right. 

The wind was against them and hindered their archers, the Yorkist arrows flying with the wind to reach their targets whilst the Lancastrian arrows fell short. The battle was alleged to have been fought for 8 hours, with huge casulties on both sides, and by late afternoon seeming to be swinging in the Lancastrians' favor. 

 the Duke of Norfolk and his army arrive to support the Yorkist side, having traveled up the Great North road. The Lancastrians flee down to the slope to the beck where a bridge allowed them crossing from the Yorkist army who now gave chase. The bridge gave way under the weight of the men and many drowned, others using the bodies of their companions as a means to cross the river. The location is now known as the Bridge of Bodies, even those who managed to cross were hunted down as far away as York and slaughtered. 

Figures on the exact death toll vary but it is estimated that around 28,000 men died at Towton that day, an immense number given the entire population of England at the time was around 2,100,000 people. Whole villages were decimated, the adult male populations now gone. Towton was a grave-site with huge mass graves leaving the ground unfit for ploughing. Richard III, in the wake of his victory, exhumed the bodies in 1484 and attempted to redress some of the damage by giving the men proper burials and erecting a chapel at the site. Richard said at the time:

‘Their bodies were notoriously left on the field....and in other places nearby, thoroughly outside the ecclesiastical burial-place in these hollows.Whereupon we, on account of affection, contriving the burial of these deceased men of this sort, caused the bones of these same men to be exhumed and left for an ecclesiastical burial in these coming months, partly in the parish church of Saxton in the said county of York and in the cemetery of the said place and partly in the chapel of Towton....and the surroundings of this very place.’

The chapel was never finished, Richard III was killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. 


Our visit to Towton coincided, quite by accident, with the discovery of Richard III's remains. The archaeological impartiality of the Leicester dig seemed to be tainted due to the dig being partly funded by amateur historians with an earnest desire to clear the name of the much vilified king. While many myths had been propagated by the successive Tudors, ultimately, judgement of the character of Richard III seems to hang on the rather extreme probability that he murdered his two nephews in order to become king himself.

The battlefield, alongside the many other relics of the 30 year long War of the Roses, remains as a testament to the ultimately callous nature of the incestuous family of rulers who forced men to fight for their tenuous blood-right. 

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