*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Wars of the Roses, a three-decade series of conflicts between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of the English throne, featured some of the most contentious combat ever seen on the British Isles. Just a few years into the struggle, at the Battle of Towton in central England, Edward of York removed King Henry VI and shifted the course of the monarchy by winning the bloodiest battle in British history.
In the mid-14th century, King Edward III — father of 13 children — created five royal “dukedoms,” portions of the English kingdom he would leave behind to his five surviving sons upon his death. When he died in 1377, the role of monarch passed on to his grandson Richard II. Twenty-two years later, after Richard abdicated under pressure, the Duke of Lancaster, Henry IV, took over as king despite the fact Edmund Mortimer had originally been named heir.
In 1403, Mortimer’s relatives launched an assault on the throne to put his heir, also named Edmund Mortimer, in his rightful place. Henry IV pushed the attack aside without much trouble, taking custody of Mortimer the Younger, his brother and his sisters. A decade later, when Henry V took over for his father, he made Mortimer the Younger a high-ranking knight. In 1415, Mortimer the Younger was revealed to be part of the Southampton plot against the king, who forced him into exile in Ireland.The men would die just three years apart, with an infant Henry VI taking the crown of England and Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, receiving Mortimer the Younger’s lands.
For the next quarter-century, as the English and French battled to the close of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry VI proved himself a capable battle commander, yet his choice to follow the conservative strategy of Edmund Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset, left Richard of York fuming. As more and more territory disappeared into French hands, the call for a more aggressive strategy became louder from some corners of the aristocracy.
Released from prison in 1453 after attempting a march on London two years before, Richard of York connected with other angry nobles against the psychologically unstable Henry VI and his allies from the House of Lancaster. Edmund of Somerset continued to minimize the Yorkists, largely with the help of Queen Margaret, leaving Richard of York with no choice but to use force and claim the title he believed he was rightfully owed as Mortimer’s heir. The Wars of the Roses, so named for the badges worn by each side (white for York and red for Lancaster), began at St. Albans on the outskirts of London in May 1455.
Five years after the first battle — and a string of Yorkist victories — the two sides met at the Battle of Northampton in July 1460. Overran again by their enemies, the Lancastrians abandoned Henry VI to Richard of York’s armies. Believing he entered Parliament as king weeks later, Richard sat in the royal chair, only to be reproached for his conduct. Forced to make a case for such an arrogant action, he produced a detailed family history to prove his case as king. Upon examining the records, the members of Parliament came to an agreement in October 1460, the Act of Accord, which kept Henry VI as king and made Richard next in line.
Unbeknownst to him, Richard had incited the jealousy of Queen Margaret — she would not have her son’s claim to the crown nullified so easily. After massing an army in Scotland, she led the Lancastrians toward York. At the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460, Margaret’s forces crushed the Yorkists. Richard and his second-oldest son, Edmund, were captured and killed, with their heads placed on pikes as a warning to the Yorkists.
The new Duke of York, the 18-year-old Edward, quickly took up his father’s fight. In February 1461, he claimed victory at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in southern England. Two weeks later, at the Second Battle of St. Albans, Margaret and the Lancastrian soldiers crushed the Yorkists and freed Henry VI. Locked out of London, Margaret sent her soldiers out into the nearby regions of Hertfordshire and Middlesex for food and treasure. England now had two kings — Henry VI in the north and Edward IV in the south.
It was only a matter of time before the two monarchs met on the field. Sensing a more defensible position, Margaret pulled her soldiers back towards York. Edward sent word to those nobles loyal to him — Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, William Neville, Earl of Kent and John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk — that he intended to drive north to meet the Lancastrians and remove Henry VI for good.
Following a long push through central England, William of Kent and the advance force of the Yorkist army arrived at Ferrybridge on March 28, 1461. Packed together on the narrow bridge over the River Aire, the men found it difficult to counter the Lancaster defense despite superior numbers. Edward and his contingent of soldiers soon pulled up to join the engagement, chasing back the opposition and solidifying the crossing for his troops. At long last, the question of who controlled England would be settled the next day.
The exact number of soldiers on each side is lost to history, though experts are certain an unprecedented number of Englishmen gathered outside Towton on March 29, 1461, the Christian holy day of Palm Sunday. William Gregory, a veteran of the Wars of the Roses, once wrote the 200,000-strong Yorkists were outnumbered by the Lancastrians, but historians have advanced estimates of anywhere between 50,000 and 80,000 — still one of the largest combined forces to enter combat in the world during that era.
Accounts of the Battle of Towton are rare, with the earliest written almost four generations after the event. What is known for certain is that combat took place in the midst of a driving late March snowstorm. Further, instead of Henry VI or Margaret, the Lancastrian army was under the command of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. On the opposite side, Edward cut an imposing figure in front of his soldiers. (Nearly six feet, four inches tall, he is still the tallest King of England ever.) Always eager to encourage his men and make aggressive moves, the Yorkist leader led his men onto the field just a few miles southwest of Towton.
Situated on the high ground, Henry of Somerset arrayed his forces as a human wall to block any movement toward York. In addition, he positioned a group of cavalry in the woods to the west, planning to flank the Yorkist advance. Edward’s men, tired after breaking camp and covering a significantly larger distance — not to mention fighting the previous day — seemed to be at a distinct disadvantage, especially when considering the fact they were forced to make the first move. But for the wind at their backs, the Yorkists had nothing to claim in their favor.
Noticing the strength of the wind, William of Kent ordered his archers forward to put the Lancastrians just within range. Unleashing a first round of arrows, the Yorkists then pulled back as their missiles slammed deep into the opposing army. Stunned, the Lancastrians fired back with a volley of their own — one that fell well short due to the gusts flying in their faces. Round after round of arrows came forward, piling up in front of the uninjured Yorkists.
Unable to affect his enemies in the valley below, Henry of Somerset pushed the Lancaster soldiers forward and ordered his horsemen to attack the York left. Edward drew his men together, forming a solid bank of troops to hold their ground. For close to three hours, the two sides hammered each other in brutal hand-to-hand combat with little to show for it. Edward had one last play, but only by accident: John de Mowbray arrived late for the battle, giving his soldiers the opportunity to sweep in from the east and decimate the Lancastrian flank.
Having already expended so much energy against Edward’s main force, many of the Lancastrian soldiers fled the Yorkist advance, throwing off their armor as they went. Their enemies on the run, Edward and his men lurched forward in pursuit, cutting Lancaster men down regardless of whether or not they surrendered. Many of those who escaped the Yorkist blades found themselves struggling to cross the River Wharfe, drowning or taking arrows in the back in such large numbers that some Lancastrians were able to cross on “corpse bridges” made up of their dead colleagues.
As men filtered back into their camp describing the carnage — perhaps 10,000 Lancastrian dead — Henry VI and Margaret decided to make a break for the safety of Scotland. Edward was now officially the sole King of England, a position he would hold until his death in 1483, but for a seven-month spell from late 1470 to mid-1471 in exile.
In recent times, knowledge about the Battle of Towton has grown thanks to the discovery of a mass grave in 1996. The remains of 40 soldiers were found strewn about a shallow pit, giving researchers clues into the grisly nature of combat on the day: one of the skulls contained 20 separate injuries, including removal of the ears and nose. The up-close-and-personal fighting made for horrifying wounds.
Late in 2010, archaeologists revealed another shocking find: the remnants of two small-caliber weapons and matching bullets, making the Battle of Towton the first known gunfight in history.
Also On This Day:
1849 – Britain annexes the Punjab region of India
1867 – Queen Victoria agrees to the British North America Act, establishing the Dominion of Canada from July 1st of that year
1951 – Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted of espionage against the United States
1971 – Charles Manson and three of his followers are sentenced to the death penalty
1973 – The last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam