The Wars of the Roses
and Towton 1461
The Wars of the Roses were the longest period of civil war in English history, 1453-1487. They occurred following the final English defeat in the Hundred Years’ War, (1337-1453) and were a series of wars, minor clashes, and disorders between two branches of the Plantagenet family, Lancaster and York (a medieval mafia war). During which, there were three periods of sustained conflict: 1459-61, 1469-71, and 1483-87.
Hostilities began during the rule of the Lancastrian King Henry VI (1422-1461), who became king at the tender age of 9 months old following the untimely death of his father Henry V (1413-22).(until he was old enough to rule, England was run as a protectorate), The youngest prince to succeed the throne of England and the only one to be crowned twice as dual Monarch for England and France. He grew up under the tutelage of Richard Beauchamp Earl of Warwick but proved to be a weak and ineffectual King; he displayed a lack of apptitude for, or interest in, military and perhaps, political matters, and prone to give credence to ill judged, unsuitable advice and counsel. Obssessionally religious, he became known as the cleric-in-kings-clothing. He briefly went mad (1453-54), modern contempoaries suggest that he may have suffered from catatonic schizophrenia.
The loss of English occupied France and Henry’s ineffectiveness to govern, led Richard, Duke of York (d.1460) to call for reforms, inevitably this led to conflict between the two sides, Lancaster and York. Although hostilities began in 1455 at St Albans, it wasn't until 1459 that a sustained conflict began. Defeated and exiled, the Yorkists under Warwick the Kingmaker returned triumphant in 1460 to lay York’s claim to the Crown. On the 10th of October 1460 parliament passed an act of settlement which recognised Richard, Duke of York as heir to Henry VI, thus excluding Henry’s son Edmund, Prince of Wales (Richard's claim to the throne was a legitimate one and had more credence than Henry's). This didn’t go down too well with the nobility and especially with Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou. More politically astute than her feeble minded husband, she already had a deep-seated hatred for York and Warwick and had the support of some of the nobles. So she summoned the Dukes of Exeter, Somerset, Devon, Clifford, Roos, Greystoke and Latimer to join her with their forces in the north of England. Thus began the most violent phase of the conflict, which would end in 1461 at the battle of Towton.
Towton Palm Sunday 1461
Towton, the biggest, bloodiest, and longest battle to take place on English soil, occurred on Palm Sunday 1461 during a blizzard. It was the inevitable climax to a catalogue of treachery and murder that had divided a land and families alike. After parliament declared for Richard in October 1460, Margaret of Anjou had raised a substantial army in the north. Concerned about such a concentration of Lancastrian forces in Yorkshire Richard marched north with Lord Salisbury to Sandal castle near Wakefield recruiting as he went. As to what happened at Wakefield is something of a mystery, but on the 30th of December 1460 a large Lancastrian force lured the Yorkists out of the castle (one suspects treachery) and defeated them. Richard was killed during the battle and his 17-year-old son Edmund Earl of Rutland was murdered by Lord Clifford on Chantry Bridge. Lord Salisbury was taken prisoner and executed at Pontefract Castle the next day. The heads of York, Rutland and Salisbury were to adorn the walls of Micklegate Bar in York; the Duke’s wearing a paper crown. After Wakefield the Lancastrian army began to move south towards London, plundering and pillaging as they went.
York’s nineteen-year-old son Edward Earl of March had been celebrating Christmas at Shrewsbury when he heard about the deaths of his father and brother. He immediately moved to intercept the Lancastrian forces before they reached London but was confronted by a Lancastrian Force under the command of the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire at Mortimers Cross on the 2 February 1461, he won a decisive victory and took prisoner Owen Tudor (the Grandfather of Henry VII, the victor at Bosworth in 1485), who was executed the next day. After another battle at St Albans and the fact that the citizens of London had closed the gates, the Lancastrians moved back north, soon to be followed by the newly proclaimed Edward IV at the head of a powerful army, which would meet an equally powerful Lancastrian army on Towton Dale. So the scene was set for one of the bloodiest episodes in English history.
Palm Sunday 29 March 1461 the two vast armies faced each other in a raging blizzard, contemporary sources place the size of the combined armies between 76,000-80,000 a staggering number of men, when one considers the population of England at that time was only 2.5 million.
About 10 am the Yorkist army opened proceedings, taking advantage of the conditions, Lord Fauconberg moved his archers (appox 8,000 armed with the English Longbow) forward and shot the first volleys of the battle. The following wind favoured the Yorkist archers and the arrow storm carried deep into the Lancastrian ranks. The Lancastrians could not see their opponents and were unaware that their own arrow volleys were falling short because of the same wind. In any event, Fauconberg had moved his archers out of range. The Lancastrians had no choice but to take the battle to the Yorkists and engage with bill and sword, under the command of the 23 year old Duke of Somerset.
Initially the Lancastrian advance was successful and the Yorkist left flank began to give ground and for some hours a vicious bloody fight took place on the left of the Yorkist slope, a slope which history would remember as Bloody Meadows. Sometime in the afternoon the tide of battle swung in favour of the Yorkists when the Duke of Norfolk appeared with approx 6,000 fresh troops who immediately attacked the Lancastrian left. The Duke had been a taken ill at Pontefract Castle, on hearing that the Yorkists were committed to battle and to ensure his forces arrived as quickly as possible, he passed over command to his cousin Sir John Howard. Unable to withstand this new onslaught the Lancastrian army pivoted round so that its back was to the Cock Valley, and when the line collapsed they had no choice but to flee down the steep hillside, throwing away weapons and armour as they ran. However, the water meadows of Cock Beck were in winter flood and many who were not killed during the flight were drowned when they stumbled, forming bridges of bodies. Such was the intensity of the hatred on that Palm Sunday that Yorkist Knights called for their horses in order to pursue the fleeing Lancastrians, which they did, killing as they went, up to the gates of York some 10 miles north of the battlefield. So great was the slaughter on that day that it is said the waters of The Cock Beck and River Wharfe were turned red with blood. It’s estimated that as many as 28,000 maybe more, died that day. The Bishop of Exeter recorded that bodies could be seen for an expanse of 6 by 3 miles. Many nobles and many knights and of course, many ordinary men from all walks of life were killed at Towton, amongst the nobles was the Lancastrian Lord Darce, whose tomb is located in nearby Saxton village churchyard.
On hearing of the defeat Henry and Margaret who were in York at the time of the battle (unlike Edward, who according to accounts, fought with great distinction) fled north to Scotland. Edward was now King, he spent Easter in York and took measures to stamp out what remained of Lancastrian power in the north. He also took his revenge, replacing the heads of his father and brother with those of the young Earl of Devon and Lord Clifford who’d met his end the day before the battle in Dinnting Dale.
Many hoped that Edwards reign would herald a new peaceful era. However, Henry and Margaret were still at large, as were several of their diehard supporters. Edward’s supporters had not seen their last storm clouds. The Houses of York and Lancaster would clash again. Indeed The Wars of the Roses would continue until the end of the century effectively ending when Henry VII ascended the throne (1485-1509) uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster and heralding the Tudor era into the English Monarchy.
Paul Williams 2005&06
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