Battle of Towton, Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461: Edward IV defeated a larger Lancastrian army to secure his claim to the throne against Henry VI in the largest and bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses.
Reasons for Designation
The site of the Battle of Towton, 1461, is included on the Battlefields Register for the following principal reasons:
* Historical: as one of the key battles of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87), the battle that secured Edward IV’s position on the throne;
* Scale: reputed to have been the largest and bloodiest battle fought in England;
* Landscape: the modern, open landscape is thought to be little changed from that of the time of the battle;
* Archaeology: retains significant potential in terms of finds scatters and expected archaeological deposits;
* Research: one of the best researched battlefields nationally, including the first battlefield mass grave to have been subjected to controlled archaeological excavation.
There are many brief, contemporary or near contemporary references to the battle of Towton, but no single clear account of the whole action. The three main documentary sources for the battle are the contemporary account written by the Burgundian chronicler Jean de Waurin, the Chronicle of Edward Hall written some seventy years after the battle, and ‘Hearne’s Fragment’ written circa 1520: although all three have a degree of inconsistency between them. Despite this uncertainty, the general location of the battle and its broad course is not disputed: its interpretation has been refined since the mid-1990s as a result of targeted research including metal detecting, archaeological excavation, historical and topographic studies.
The Wars of the Roses, generally taken as extending between 1455 and 1487, was a protracted struggle for the Crown between the House of Lancaster (emblem being a red rose) and that of York (white rose). The most intense period of civil war started with the Lancastrian defeat at Northampton (10 July 1460) when the Yorkists captured Henry VI. Richard of York was then defeated and killed at Wakefield (30 Dec 1460), but his heir, Edward, defeated a Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross (2 Feb 1461) and reached London to claim the throne as Edward IV. This was despite the victory of Queen Margaret’s Lancastrian army at St Albans on 17 February which secured the release of Henry VI. Margaret and Henry withdrew to York to rally support: the Battle of Towton (Palm Sunday, 29 March) was the result of the Lancastrian attempt to block Edward’s pursuit. Although Towton was a decisive Yorkist victory, Henry VI and Queen Margaret remained at liberty.
DESCRIPTION OF MILITARY ACTION
Edward’s advance was checked at the River Aire by a small force, the ‘Flower of Craven’ led by John de Clifford (9th Baron Clifford) who held the bridge at Ferrybridge. William Neville (Lord Fauconberg), leading Edward’s vanguard, forded the Aire at Castleford. Outflanked, Clifford withdrew northwards but was caught and slaughtered at Dinting Dale, just a mile south of the main Lancastrian force arrayed at Towton. The skirmishes at Ferrybridge and Dinting Dale are traditionally thought to have taken place on Saturday 28 March, but reinterpretation by Sutherland (2010) suggests that they occurred early on the Sunday morning and flowed into the main battle: Dinting Dale is thus included in the registered area. The main Lancastrian force, under the command of Henry Beaufort, (3rd Duke of Somerset) is thought to have been drawn up south west of Towton, on the plateau between the deep valley of the Cock Beck to the west and rough, wooded carr lands east of the road north to York. The Yorkist army, under the command of Edward IV, is thought to have advanced uphill from the south, to face the Lancastrians across Towton Dale, a shallow east to west valley bisecting the plateau. The two armies are recorded as being exceptionally large, including an unusually large proportion of the country’s nobles. Modern estimates suggest that there were around 80,000 on the field at Towton, earlier sources suggesting up to 200,000, with the Lancastrians having the larger force.
The battle is thought to have opened with an archery dual, the Yorkists aided by the wind and blown snow, the Lancastrian arrows falling short, forcing the Lancastrians to advance to engage. The cavalry of the Lancastrian vanguard is thought to have routed the Yorkist cavalry on the west wing, reputedly using men previously concealed in Castle Hill Wood, but they left the field in pursuit rather than capitalising on the advantage. Edward, leading the rear guard, managed to stabilise his force until the arrival of reinforcements led by the Duke of Norfolk. This tipped the scales in Edward’s favour resulting in a Lancastrian rout northwards towards York, the difficulty of crossing the Cock Beck leading to greatly increased Lancastrian casualties. It is reputed that orders were issued to give no quarter, with a larger than usual number of nobles being killed rather than taken prisoner for ransom. After the battle, the heralds estimated the death toll as being 28,000, although this may have included those killed at Ferrybridge and Dinting Dale, not just Towton.
Sometime after the battle, Edward established a chantry chapel, thought to have been built on Chapel Hill on the west side of Towton, somewhere near Towton Hall. This was endowed by Richard III who, in 1483, ordered the reburial of the dead from mass graves across the battlefield into consecrated ground at the chapel and at the church at Saxton.
The battlefield lies across a distinct plateau defined by the lower ground of the broad valley of the River Wharfe to the east, thought to have been carr woodlands in the C15, and the deeply incised Cock Beck to the west. This stream flows north and then east to define the northern end of the plateau. The narrowest point of the plateau is bisected by Towton Dale: a shallow, east-west valley whose sides steepen as it joins that of the Cock Beck to the west. The southern approach to the plateau is a gentle rise from the village of Saxton and the shallow, east–facing Dinting Dale to its east. The land use is predominantly arable, with the loss of many hedgerows leaving a landscape that is thought to be similar in appearance to that of the C15.
On the north side of Towton Dale is the scheduled and Grade II-listed 'Cross, sometimes known as Lord Dacre’s Cross': a medieval cross that was re-erected as a battlefield memorial circa 1930. It should be noted that the cross does not have a known direct association with Lord Dacre, a Lancastrian casualty whose Grade II-listed tomb is in the church yard at Saxton, but is thought to have come from the chantry chapel at Towton. In 1996 a mass grave, thought to have been associated with the chapel, and containing at least 60 individuals, was identified and excavated adjacent to Towton Hall, with a further nine skeletons excavated nearby in 2002-5. A mass grave retaining disarticulated bones has also been positively identified at the heart of the battlefield within Towton Dale.
The battlefield has been the focus of a research project since 1997, including extensive metal detecting which has identified a number of concentrations of finds. However, because not all of the battlefield has been systematically detected to the same degree, blank areas on distribution plots may be the result of a lack of collected data, not necessary indicating zones outside the area fought over. The battlefield retains considerable archaeological potential: finds scatters within the plough soil; more deeply buried finds in areas of colluvium such as Bloody Meadow and along the Cock Beck; and further mass graves awaiting discovery.
DEFINITION OF AREA
The registered area is set out on the attached plan. As is standard practice with the Battlefield Register, the area is drawn to follow modern boundaries wherever possible.
At Towton, the area runs around the west side of the built-up area of the village, but includes Chapel Hill and Towton Hall as the site of mass graves and the chantry chapel. To the south of Towton, the east boundary aims to follow the approximate western limits of the land thought to have been covered with carr woodlands in the C15, as these former woodlands are thought to have defined the eastern limits of the battlefield. At the golf course, the line then follows the A162 main road southwards to the junction with Headwell Lane which is used for the south boundary, this allowing the inclusion of Dinting Dale and Saxton Field where finds scatters have demonstrated the location of fighting. The boundary is then drawn around the east and north sides of Saxton to exclude the village, and then follows Milner Lane to the Cock Beck. Rather than following the meandering course of the stream (which clearly moves over time) the boundary follows the field boundaries on the western and then northern side of the Cock Beck to include the flood plain of the stream until it reaches the disused railway line to the north of Towton. This dismantled railway line is used as an identifiable northern limit to this area, using the A162 main road to return back to the village of Towton to complete the circuit.
This list entry was subject to a Minor Amendment to the Selected Sources on 10/04/2019