[Note by P. Deligiannis: I apologize for the somewhat “mass” republishing of articles but lately I somewhat neglected my blog. I’ll try to make amends for it]
Republication from the Conversation
A Battle of the Somme on British soil? It happened on Palm Sunday, 1461: a day of fierce fighting in the mud that felled a generation, leaving a longer litany of the dead than any other engagement in the islands’ history – reputed in some contemporary reports to be between 19,000 – the same number killed or missing in France on July 1 1916 – and a staggering 38,000.
The battle of Towton, fought near a tiny village standing on the old road between Leeds and York, on the brink of the North York Moors, is far less known than many other medieval clashes such as Hastings or Bosworth. Many will never have heard of it.
But here, in a blizzard on an icy cold March 29 1461, the forces of the warring factions of Lancaster and York met in a planned pitched battle that soon descended into a mayhem known as the Bloody Meadow. It ran into dusk, and through the fields and byways far from the battlefield. To the few on either side that carried their weapon to the day’s end, the result was by no means clear. But York in fact prevailed and within a month (almost to the day), the towering figure of Duke Edward, who stood nearly six-feet-five-inches tall, had reached London and seized the English crown as Edward IV. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, fled into exile.
Towton was not merely a bloody moment in military history. It was also a turning-point in the long struggle for the throne between these two dynasties whose rivalry has provided – since the 16th century – a compelling overture to the grand opera of the Tudor legend, from Shakespeare to the White Queen. But this summer, as national attention focuses on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, we might also take the opportunity to recall a day in our history when total war tore up a landscape that was much closer to home.
An English Doomsday
First, the historian’s caveats. While we know a remarkable amount about this bloody day in Yorkshire more than 550 years ago, we do not have the benefits granted to historians of World War I. Towton left behind no battle plans, memoranda, maps, aerial photographs, nor – above all other in value – first-hand accounts of those who were there. We cannot be certain of the size of the forces on either side, nor of the numbers of their dead.
A death toll of 28,000 was reported as early as April 1461 in one of the circulating newssheets that were not uncommon in the 15th century – and was taken up by a number of the chroniclers writing in the months and years following. This was soon scaled up to nearly 40,000 – about 1% of England’s entire male population – by others, a figure which also came to be cemented in the accounts of some chroniclers.
This shift points to the absence of any authoritative recollection of the battle – but almost certainly the numbers were larger than were usually seen, even in the period’s biggest clashes. Recently, historians have curbed the claims but the latest estimate suggests that 40,000 men took to the field, and that casualties may have been closer to 10,000.