Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir


  King Edward knew that if he did not take urgent steps to deal with the Lancastrians he would never be secure on his throne; Henry VI had to be overthrown in fact as well as in name. On 5 March he dispatched Norfolk to East Anglia to recruit men, and the next day sent Warwick north, accompanied by ‘a great puissance of people’, to muster support for the Yorkists in his territories in the Midlands. Two days later Warwick received commissions authorising him to array the lieges of Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. On the 11th Edward’s foot soldiers, recruited mainly in Wales and Kent, marched out of London on their way north. With them went a number of carts filled with weapons, guns and food.

  Edward himself left London on the 13th, via Bishopsgate, and marched north to St Albans with a great host whose ranks were swelled by new recruits as he went. Rumours of the conduct of the Lancastrian army were still driving many to support the Yorkists. However, Edward’s army was not much better behaved, at least to begin with, for at St Albans, although Abbot Whethamstead asked the new king to forbid looting, many soldiers defied the ban and caused such extensive damage to the monks’ quarters that the abbot and his brethren were obliged to lodge in outlying manors until it could be repaired.

  Meanwhile, the King’s mother, Duchess Cecily, remained in London, working tirelessly to gain and maintain support for her son’s cause among the citizens, who were fearful as a result of terrifying reports of the depredations of the Queen’s northerners that were filtering south. These made her task much easier, for the Londoners’ loyalty was now almost exclusively to the cause of York.

  On 16 March Edward came to Barkway, and the next day to Cambridge, where he met up with Sir John Howard, newly arrived from the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, where the abbot and convent had raised £100 for the King, ‘by way of love’. Coventry sent him 100 men, while other contingents were arrayed by the cities of Canterbury, Bristol, Salisbury, Worcester, Gloucester, Leicester, Nottingham and Northampton. By the 22nd Edward had arrived in Nottingham, where – after several false reports – he received certain intelligence that Somerset, Rivers and a strong force were positioned to defend the river crossing at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire. By the 27th he had reached Pontefract, ‘collecting men in thousands’, according to the Milanese ambassador. ‘Some say that the Queen is exceedingly prudent, and by remaining on the defensive, as they say she is well content to do, she will bring things into subjection and will tear into pieces those attacks of the people.’ Edward was now close behind the Lancastrian army, which was blocking the road to York, where lay Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and their son. Hall says that nearly 30,000 Lancastrians were encamped nearby, and that Edward had 25,000 Yorkists, which would shortly be reinforced by the hosts led by Warwick and Norfolk.

  Between them the two armies had between 60,000 and over 100,000 men – possibly two per cent of the total population of England – yet sources differ as to whether the Lancastrians had more than the Yorkists or were of equal strength. Whethamstead saw the coming conflict as a struggle between northerners and southerners, while Waurin says that the northern commanders were inferior to the southern ones.

  The Lancastrian army was indeed predominantly northern and was under the command of Somerset, Exeter, Northumberland, Devon, Trollope, and the Lords FitzHugh, Hungerford, Beaumont, Dacre of Gilsland, Roos and Grey of Codnor. It included at least nineteen peers – proof that many magnates still felt that their first allegiance was to Henry VI – while the Yorkists boasted only eight: Warwick, Norfolk, Bourchier, Grey de Wilton, Clinton, Fauconberg and the Lords Scrope and Dacre (Richard Fiennes). Somerset, commander-in-chief of the Lancastrians, was just twenty-four, while King Edward, commander-in-chief of the Yorkists, was not quite nineteen. Somerset and Exeter were in command of the Lancastrian reserve, stationed in the village of Towton, not far from York, while the Yorkist vanguard was commanded by Fauconberg.

  On 28 March King Edward sent Lord FitzWalter ahead with a force to secure the bridge over the River Aire, south of Ferrybridge, but they were ambushed by Lord Clifford, leading a large contingent of cavalry. So many were massacred or drowned that hardly any of FitzWalter’s men were left, while he himself was killed and Warwick, who was with him, was wounded in the leg. When the news spread through the Yorkist ranks morale among the men plummeted. King Edward and his captains were worried that this would affect their performance in battle, but Warwick saved the day in dramatic fashion when he killed his horse in full view of the army and vowed that he would rather fight on foot and die with his men than yield another inch.

  Meanwhile, King Henry had sent a message pleading for a truce to be negotiated, as it was Palm Sunday on the morrow, but King Edward refused the offer. He knew that a contingent of the main Lancastrian army, under Somerset and Rivers, was waiting two miles away, ready to crush the Yorkists if they overcame Clifford and tried to cross the river, and that if this campaign was to be successful then he must persist. Accordingly, he sent in the Yorkist vanguard under the command of John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, which managed to push the Lancastrians back to the end of the bridge. Messengers raced back to inform King Edward what was happening and he, seeing that reinforcements would be required, marched the main body of his army to Ferrybridge and commanded his men to go to Suffolk’s aid, himself going on foot to fight with them.

  At this point, in the midst of a violent struggle, the Lancastrians destroyed the bridge. The Yorkists, undeterred, built a narrow raft, intending to ferry their soldiers across, but it was seized by the enemy. Further furious fighting took place as the Yorkists made a successful but bloody attempt to recover it. Eventually they managed to cross the river a few miles upstream at Castleford, and set up camp on the other side amidst driving snow and freezing hail. In the end they had won the day, their victory having demonstrated to the enemy the new king’s superior qualities as a general; by continually reinforcing his vanguard he had achieved victory, knowing that to do so was critical at this stage. The Lancastrians, although they had fought furiously, had lacked sufficient reinforcements, although they did manage to make off with a great number of Yorkist horses whose owners were fighting on foot with their king.

  Lord Clifford, however, had been killed in the fight. As the Yorkists crossed the Aire at Castleford, Fauconberg was the first to go over, at the head of the vanguard. Clifford tried to trap him on the farther bank, and there was an intense struggle on Brotherton Marshes. Clifford fought with heroic courage, but seeing that his men were surrounded and no match for the enemy, gave the order to retreat via the valley of Dintingdale and the village of Saxton; he was by then so shattered with exhaustion that he unwisely loosened his gorget, and as he rode off a headless arrow embedded itself in his exposed throat and he died in great suffering. Edward had neither forgiven nor forgotten Clifford’s brutal murder of young Rutland after Wakefield, and would have considered his brother’s death well avenged.

  That night, King Edward lodged at Pontefract Castle. At dawn on 29 March – Palm Sunday – both armies awoke to find themselves in the midst of a snowstorm. Shortly afterwards the Yorkists began their march north, and at eleven o’clock in the morning encamped on the hill south of the village of Saxton, ten miles south of York, with their backs to the village. When Edward drew up his men in battle formation, their lines stretched for a mile along the ridge. At the same time the Lancastrians moved north from Tadcaster along the road from London, via Stutton and Cocksford, and took up their position half a mile to the north of the Yorkists on high ground a hundred feet above meadowland and the village of Towton, six miles north of Ferrybridge. Below them the land sloped gently down to the valley.

  The armies were now facing each other across what would shortly be known as the ‘Bloody Meadow’ and a field which is still called North Acres. From an offensive point of view the Lancastrians were in a commanding position and seemingly had the advantage. Behind the Yorkist lines l
ay the road to London and, beyond that, the River Aire: the Yorkists could easily be defeated by being pushed back along that road and trapped by – or in – the river. However, in the event of a Yorkist victory, the Lancastrian position was in reality horribly vulnerable. To their right, on the far side of the meadow, was a ravine, along which flowed a river called the Cock Beck, which was now in flood due to heavy rain and snow. To their left, a little way off in the direction of Selby and Cawood, lay the road to Tadcaster and the River Wharfe, which was also flooding. The only escape route for the Lancastrians, in the event of a rout, was by Tadcaster Bridge, across the River Wharfe.

  ‘The lamentable Battle of Towton’, the largest, longest, and one of the most important battles of the Wars of the Roses, took place on Palm Sunday in the midst of a thick blizzard that continued all day. As soon as both armies had taken up their positions, the fighting began. The chroniclers are maddeningly vague as to the tactics and strategies employed, and Waurin’s is the only detailed, if unsubstantiated, account. Edward had brought with him plenty of artillery but there is no record of it being deployed during the battle – probably because of the appalling weather conditions.

  At first, the Lancastrians were at a disadvantage because the wind was blowing the snow into their faces and they were unable to see the enemy properly or judge distances. Volley after volley of their arrows fell wide or short of the mark, and all they could hear through the swirling snow was the mocking laughter of Fauconberg’s archers, which was accompanied by a deadly hail of heavy-shafted arrows that created havoc in the bewildered Lancastrian ranks. What the Lancastrians did not know was that the Yorkists had gathered up thousands of enemy arrows from the ground and were firing them back at them, moving deftly backwards, at Fauconberg’s command, to avoid the next haphazard fall of yet more ineffectual Lancastrian arrows.

  Before long the Lancastrians became aware of what was happening and of the terrible slaughter that was being wrought in their army, which had as yet gained no advantage. The order was given to lay down bows and arrows and charge into battle across the meadow. The Yorkists, likewise, dropped their bows and rushed into the fray, as Northumberland and Somerset advanced downhill with the Lancastrian vanguard, inflicting numerous casualties as they came and routing Edward’s cavalry flank, which was chased from the field by Somerset’s men.

  There then followed one of the most terrible and bloody struggles in English history, as for two hours Lancastrians and Yorkists were locked in a vicious mêlée in driving sleet and bitter winds. By King Edward’s command, no quarter was given nor any prisoners taken; even the common foot soldiers were not to be spared. Edward, remembering the fate of his father and brother, was bent on revenge. He himself was busy commanding his army, aiding his men, or helping to carry the wounded from the field. When his soldiers appeared to be flagging he dismounted in the thick of the fighting and rallied them, crying that he intended to live or die with them that day.

  Warwick, in the thick of the mêlée, managed to maintain his position, although his men in particular were very hard pressed by their opponents. ‘There was great slaughter that day at Towton,’ wrote Waurin, ‘and for a long time no one could see which side could gain the victory, so furious was the fighting.’ So many had fallen that the snow was red with blood, yet throughout the battle reserve troops replaced those who had been killed or injured, or were collapsing from exhaustion; some of the latter were unable to rise and were trampled to death by the men who came to take their places.

  As the afternoon advanced the fighting showed no signs of abating, and every foot of ground gained by one side would be violently recaptured by the other; thousands perished, and the air was split by the screams of the wounded and the dying. It was not clear who was winning until dusk fell, when at last the Lancastrians were driven back to the western side of the meadow. At this point, a strong force sent by Norfolk, who was terminally ill and unable to come himself, rode up from Saxton into North Acres and attacked the Lancastrian left flank. The Lancastrians, realising then that the day was lost and that they were all dead men unless they got away, fled the field. As their forces broke, the Yorkist cavalrymen raced to the horse park behind their own lines and mounted their steeds to give chase. As they thundered past, the King and Warwick, flushed with victory, yelled, ‘Spare the commons! Kill the lords!’ Their words went unheeded.

  By evening, the already swollen waters of the Cock Beck had risen higher, thanks to the snow, yet for many of the defeated this was their only escape route, and before long almost the entire Lancastrian army was in full flight down the steep banks of the ravine, slipping on the snow and ice and plunging into the freezing waters of the flooding stream, which was soon filled with thousands of panic-stricken men, desperately struggling to escape from the fury and arrows of the pursuing Yorkist troops, who were systematically butchering every man they caught.

  Most of the fleeing Lancastrians were making for a makeshift bridge of boards at Cocksford, but what they had not anticipated was the strong current in the stream. Many drowned, while others were shot by the enemy, whose arrows were falling thickly amid the snowflakes. The Yorkists were also racing for the bridge, and there was heavy fighting as they tried to prevent the Lancastrians from crossing it to freedom. The bridge had not been built to support a battling mass of men, and as it gave way with a sickening crack hundreds of Yorkists and Lancastrians plunged together into the icy, deep water below, where most of them drowned or suffocated in the press. As they gasped their last, struggling wildly in the water, horses’ hooves trampled them, as more pursuers used their bodies as a bridge to the farther shore. Before long the Cock Beck was running red with blood all the way to the far-off River Wharfe.

  As other Lancastrian fugitives came up to find the bridge gone, they were slaughtered by Wenlock’s men or chased into and beyond Tadcaster. Yorkist soldiers pursued the fleeing Lancastrians for some time after the battle, and even smashed the bridge over the River Ouse at Tadcaster, where yet more vanquished soldiers drowned.

  The battle lasted in total ten hours, from eleven in the morning until roughly nine at night, although the rout went on for longer, some fugitives being pursued nearly as far as York. When it was over, men dropped down with exhaustion and slept among the dead and wounded. The Yorkists had scored a decisive and overwhelming victory, but at a bitter price.

  Towton was probably the bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil. Casualties were high because large numbers of men had fought intensively in a somewhat confined space. When dawn rose on 30 March, the meadow and North Acres were thick with corpses. King Edward surmised that about 20,000 had been killed; his heralds, after surveying the carnage, estimated 28,000, a figure given by several contemporary chroniclers. However, this only applied to bodies lying on the field, and did not include those who perished during the rout, so the real figure was probably nearer 40,000. Of these, according to John Paston, 8000 were Yorkists, although on 8 April the Venetian ambassador reported Yorkist losses of only 800. Whatever the actual figures, all the contemporary accounts agree that the death toll was unusually high; in fact, the casualty lists for Towton were proportionately higher than those for the Battle of the Somme.

  The people of Yorkshire remembered Towton as ‘a great battle’, according to the Arrivall, an official Yorkist account of events, but the memory was bitter because in that battle were slain ‘many of their fathers, their sons, their brethren and kinsmen, and many other of their neighbours’. The slaughter of Towton broke the power of the great families of the north, and the Lancastrians lost some of their best captains: the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Randolph Dacre of Gilsland, Lord Scrope of Bolton, Sir Richard Percy, Lords Welles, Willoughby and Neville, and Sir Andrew Trollope were among the fallen. Lord Dacre, during a brief lull in the fighting in North Acres, had thought it safe to stop and refresh himself and, removing his helmet, used it to scoop up some water from a small tributary of the stream that flowed through the field. Unfortunate
ly he was recognised by a young Yorkist soldier hiding behind a nearby elder tree, who raised his bow and shot Dacre dead. He was buried with his horse in the churchyard at Saxton; in 1861 the animal’s skull was dug up, to the great astonishment of the villagers.

  There were so many dead that it was said that blood was spattered on the snow-covered plain all the way from Towton to York. Because of the herculean task of burying so many thousands of bodies, King Edward gave extra wages to the gravediggers. A huge pit was dug at Saxton, in which hundreds of bodies, including that of Lord Clifford, were buried. Others were interred in another large pit in the Bloody Meadow, beside the bank of the Cock Beck; in the nineteenth century the soil in this spot was noted for producing rich, rank grass. Burial mounds are still visible at Low Leads, beyond Castle Hill Wood, by the battlefield, and a small wooden bridge across the Cock Beck now marks the spot where hundreds of Lancastrian corpses were piled high in water, mud and snow. In the 1850s, the owner of nearby Towton Hall had his cellars enlarged, and workmen found a large number of skeletons and bones buried beneath, belonging to men who had perished at Towton.

  Relics of the fallen have surfaced over the years. A ploughman found a fifteenth-century ring inscribed: ‘En loial amour tout de mon coer’. ‘Many a lady,’ observed ‘Gregory’ mournfully, ‘lost her beloved in that battle.’ On another occasion a ring was found which bore the lion of the Percies and a motto, ‘Now is thys’; it is now owned by the Duke of Northumberland. In the Castle Museum at York are a crossbow and a gisarm, or disembowelling knife.

  Towton had a profound effect on everyone. Savagery on such a scale was thought shocking even in that warlike age, and the Milanese ambassador observed, ‘Anyone who reflects at all upon the wretchedness of the Queen and the ruins of those killed, and considers the ferocity of that country and the state of mind of the victors, should indeed, it seems to me, pray to God for the dead, and not less for the living.’

 
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