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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 56: The battle of Towton: 29th March 1461


The numbers involved

If it was clear to Edward that he would have to fight a battle of stupendous proportions for the time, and nothing less than a victory with the total annihilation of the Lancastrian army and Leadership would serve his purposes, then this was not a secret shared by himself and his commanders alone. It was equally apparent to Queen Margaret and the Lancastrian commanders that Edward would have to fight such a battle, and that each side would have to call upon its supporters for their maximum effort to put as many men into the field as possible. There is no doubt that each side made a supreme effort to do this, and it is only with the numbers of men engaged that serious doubts begin to assail us.

There is a will o' the wisp quality about medieval figures, and it is often tantalisingly and maddeningly difficult to track down a true number. Some things are reasonably certain. Some 20 peers were present with their "affinities",   [for the meaning of this expression, see Chapter ] and the Lancastrians out-numbered the Yorkists by a substantial but not an overwhelming margin.

There are also some certainties and some variables which need to be taken into account. The total population was no more than 3 million, although this figure must be taken as a maximum, and it may have been less than this; there had been no reliable census since the days of the Doomsday Book nearly 4 centuries before, and the population was still recovering from the ravages of the Black Death a century earlier. The primitive medieval economy was quite incapable of providing a very large number of soldiers, or of feeding them once they were mustered. They would also be entitled to pay, although this consideration seems not to have weighed too heavily on the minds of contemporary commanders. Bringing food to a large host, even on a spasmodic basis, was beyond the transport system of the time. There were no canals, and most of the rivers flowed east or west, whereas the Towton campaign had to be fought on a north/south axis. Carriage of supplies by sea could have done something to solve the problem, but there was still the difficulty of transport from the discharging point to the army's position. All this meant that the army would have to live, to a large extent, by foraging in the countryside, and the countryside's resources, so far away from harvest time in August or September, were limited.

Applying these certainties, near-certainties and variables to the figures which are given by the chroniclers, Gregory's figure of 200, 000 men on the Yorkist side can be dismissed out of hand. He was concerned, as were so many medieval chroniclers, to flatter the victor with the size of his achievement. Doubling this number to include the Lancastrian army and making allowance for its greater size, brings us into the realm of 500, 000, or 1 in 6 of the population, and this is absurd. In any case, deploying such a number on the relatively small battlefield would have been impossible, bearing in mind what is known of the battle's course. Edward Hall, writing some 70 years later, had the advantage of talking to his grand-father who had been present, and claimed to have seen the muster-rolls of the Yorkist army. These reveal a Yorkist strength of 48, 650. These would have included non-combatants, and muster rolls on which pay depended, were often fraudulently inflated. Including the Lancastrian army, something over 100, 000 men would be present, or 1 in 30 of the population. Again this seems too high a figure, and once more the confines of the battlefield make it improbable. Waurin did not feel able to venture a figure, although he undoubtedly spoke to many who had fought in the battle. Likewise the anonymous writer of the fragment of script attached to Sprotts Chronicle [pages 286/7] did not commit himself to figures other than that 33, 000 were slain. He too must have talked to those who had taken part.

Coming to more modern writers, David Smurthwaite [Battlefields of Britain p 108] simply states that the Lancastrian army was 30, 000 strong without quoting any sources. William Seymour [Battles in Britain 1 p 142] thinks that Edward Hall's estimate of 60, 000 for the Lancastrian army is too high, but he seems willing to accept the Yorkist muster rolls as an impeccable source. He concludes that the Yorkists began the battle with about 40, 000 men, and the Lancastrians were a few thousand stronger. This again brings us into the realm of 100, 000 in all, and as has already been said, this figure seems too high. Sir James Ramsey, perhaps wisely, attempts no figures, [Lancaster and York 11 pages 273 and 278] beyond stating that a force of 5, 000 men was thought a strong force at the time - as it undoubtedly was. King Edward IV's biographer, Professor Charles Ross, is of the view that some 50, 000 men took part in the battle, and this seems somewhat closer to reality, even if, in this work, doubt is cast on whether so many men could have taken part.

There is another yardstick by which the numbers present can be judged and, even though the resultant figures must still be treated with some reserve, it does have an appealing logic. The battlefield can still be seen much as it was in 1461, and what is striking is its small size. We also know a lot about the course of the battle, and these two factors do provide a guide to the numbers of men who fought in it.

The Lancastrian front seems to have been about a 1, 000 yards long, whilst that of the Yorkists was approximately 750 yards. It was then customary to draw up an army into three divisions in line with each other but with gaps in between; these were necessary to allow greater flexibility in case any manoeuvring was required in response to an unseen eventuality (even though manoeuvring on the battlefield was rare), to permit the archers to escape to the rear if they had to, and to allow horsemen through. Each army would thus have had two gaps each at least 25 yards wide. Thus the Lancastrians would have had to man a front of 950 yards and the Yorkists one of 700 yards.

Men-at-arms standing shoulder to shoulder would have needed one yard per man. Anything less would have so crowded them that they would have been unable to wield their weapons and disorganisation would have resulted. If each army had ranks of men-at-arms six deep (an extreme figure), the Lancastrians would have required 5, 700 men-at-arms and the Yorkist 4, 200. It is more likely that they stood four ranks deep, and this would have meant 3, 800 Lancastrian and 2, 800 Yorkist men-at-arms. Taking mean figures, one arrives at 4, 750 Lancastrian and 3, 500 Yorkist men-at-arms.

The usual ratio was three archers to one man-at-arms.

Applying this ratio to the mean figures suggested, there emerges a total Lancastrian strength of 19, 000, whilst that of the Yorkists was 14, 000, or 33, 000 in all who were present at the start of the battle. Allowance has to be made for the Duke of Norfolk's division, perhaps 2, 000 strong, which arrived late. This finds a grand total of 35, 000 men who took part in the battle.

These must however be looked on as maximum, or extreme, figures; they still mean 1 in 100 of the total population, and this high figure invites doubts of its own.

We do not know if the ratio of archers to men-at-arms was the usual 3 to 1. As in any army at any time, formations and units are rarely if ever at their total strengths. Sickness and desertions always take their toll and so do casualties; there was some heavy fighting on the day before the battle with a large number of killed and injured and also some taken prisoner.

Taking a lot of imponderables into account, it would be most extraordinary if more than 30, 000 men, including Norfolk's division, took part in the battle, and the true number may well have been much less than this. Hazarding a guess, there were perhaps 16, 000 Lancastrians and 14, 000 Yorkists (including Norfolk's division) at the very most. There seems no point in thinking of higher figures which were not reached in English armies until the Napoleonic Wars. Not even the Duke of Wellington had these sort of numbers available to him at his victories of Salamanca or Vittoria, and his armies were drawn from much bigger British, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese populations. What can be said with certainty is that the battle of Towton was the biggest battle ever to be fought on British soil, and was also the bloodiest. For the times, it was a battle of stupendous proportions, and the slaughter was enormous. 

The eve of the battle - 27th and 28th March 1461

John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, left London on 5th March 1461 to gather up the men from the Eastern Counties whom he had been recruiting since the previous December. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, left a few days later to mobilise some men from the Midlands who had been promised. Edward himself left the Capital on 13th March 1461 with the main body, whose numbers had been swollen by some more London men and a strong force from Kent led by a renowned captain, Robert Horne. Moving rapidly as was his custom when on campaign, Edward reached Cambridge on 18th March, Nottingham on 22nd, and Pontefract on Friday 27th. By now he had concentrated his entire force, except for the Duke of Norfolk's division. It is not clear why Norfolk's division was lagging behind. Mowbray was already a sick man who was to die the following November, and if the story is true that he accompanied his troops, they may have had to leave him behind in Pontefract when they arrived there shortly after Edward continued his northern march. It is not known who commanded his division in the battle, but it may have been his kinsman John Howard, later to become the first Howard Duke of Norfolk.

Without waiting for Norfolk's division, Edward pressed on to Ferrybridge on the River Aire, being anxious to cross the River before the Lancastrians, who were massing nearby, could fortify the northern bank and thus present him with a serious obstacle. The winter had been very severe with much snow and ice. This was now beginning to thaw, and all the rivers were in spate, making the fords impassable. The bridge at Ferrybridge was thus of some importance, and on the 27th March, John Radcliffe, Lord Fitz-Walter was ordered forward with a strong force to seize and hold it.

Fitz-Walter found the bridge partly dismantled but unguarded. He made the necessary repairs and sent word to Edward that it was now ready for use. The Yorkist sentries seem not to have been alert, because very early in the morning of the 28th March, they were surprised by a party of Lancastrians, commanded by John, Lord Clifford, and driven off the bridge. Fitz-Walter, thinking that his own men had found some drink and were quarrelling amongst themselves, left his lodging to quell the disturbance. Without armour, he was cut down and killed. There is a picturesque story, repeated by Edward Hall, that Warwick was wounded by an arrow in the leg.

He was said to have ridden to bring the bad tidings to Edward, and to have cut the throat of his horse as a token that he would not fly from the fight. This is most improbable, because a senior officer would not have been given such a dangerous task which was normally entrusted to a competent subordinate such as Fitz-Walter. Hall may have mistaken Warwick for his illegitimate brother, Sir Richard Jenney, who perished with Fitz-Walter.

On hearing what had happened, Edward ordered William, Lord Fauconberge to march his division to Castleford which lay four miles away, to seize and hold the bridges there, and then to return along the northern bank to Ferrybridge and drive Clifford away. This operation was successful, and Clifford's men, surprised in their turn, fled north for the safety of their own lines. Fauconberge, with Sir Walter Blount and the Kentish Captain Robert Horne, pursued them remorselessly, and cut their entire force to pieces in Dintingdale Vale, which lies about 1/2 mile to the east of the village of Saxton. Clifford, who for some reason had removed his gorget, was pierced by a Yorkist arrow in his unprotected throat. Another prominent Lancastrian was also killed, John Neville, the brother of Ralph Neville, 2nd Earl of Westmorland. John's branch of the Neville family had always been Lancastrian in its sympathies.

Fauconberge's operation completed, the Yorkist army crossed the River Aire during the afternoon of the 28th, and took up their positions opposite the Lancastrian army. Night was now falling, and Edward did not wish to make an attack in the dark. Besides, he wanted to give Norfolk's division time to catch up. His soldiers lay down on the sodden ground to get what rest they could in the bitter cold before the battle on the morrow, which was Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461.

The battle - 29th March 1461

The battle field can still be seen, almost unchanged after five centuries. On the A 162, about 1, 200 yards south of the small town of Towton, there stands a small monument which seems to represent the extreme left of the Lancastrian line, which ran west from this point towards Renshaw Wood and the modern B 1217. Looking south towards the position of the Yorkist right, there is an almost imperceptible dip in the ground, which however becomes more pronounced as Daltowton Vale to the West, which lay between the Lancastrian right and the Yorkist left. Further west still, the slope becomes yet steeper, and it descends through some woods to the bank of the River Cock, which lies to the right of the Lancastrian position. The Cock is a charming and pretty little stream, which is deceptive in its present aspect, because like all the other rivers, it was swollen with melting snow at the time of the battle. It had burst its banks, and posed a substantial obstacle to any attempt to out-flank the Lancastrian right wing. The Yorkist line was about 600 yards to the south, also running from east to west, and roughly equidistant from the A 162 and the B 1217. In Castle Hill wood, about 750 yards from the Yorkist left, the Lancastrians were said to have posted an ambush party, but what part this played in the battle is not recorded. It is more than likely that competent commanders such as Edward and his subordinate officers would have ordered a mounted party to clear the woods before the battle began, and that this was successfully done.

We do know a lot about the battle, but we lack many of its details, and again this accounts depends on what is known backed by reasonable supposition. There was no artillery, Edward's having been unable to keep up with the swift pace that he had set. Both sides fought on foot, and there were few mounted men. It is reasonable to suppose that each army was deployed in the customary three divisions, but apart from the commanders of each sides right divisions, the names of their commanders elude us. The Yorkist right was commanded by William, Lord Fauconberge, whilst the Lancastrian right was entrusted to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The centres would have been led by the overall commanders of each army, Edward for the Yorkists and Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset for the Lancastrians. Warwick would have been given a command, and the Yorkist left wing was the only one to give him. Who commanded the Lancastrian left wing is unclear, but speculation leads in the direction of Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, or perhaps Sir Andrew Trollope, the Lancastrian chief tactician, and the most experienced and able soldier on either side. Perhaps again this command had been destined for John, Lord Clifford, but he was already dead.

Dawn broke on Palm Sunday with an overcast and cold sky. The wind, which had been in the North, had backed to the West during the night and now backed further to the South, so that it blew from the Yorkist lines towards the Lancastrians. This was to have important consequences in the battle's early stages. Intermittent snow showers fell from a leaden sky onto the heads of both armies as each soldier cleaned and checked his weapons and his harness, ate what little food he had and, commending his soul to God, dressed into his allotted place. The wind stretched out the innumerable banners and made a brave show. Edward had recently adopted the White Rose, said to have been borne by his father in his right to Clifford Castle,  [Archaelog. xvii 26 and xxix 332/347] whilst the Royal Standard fluttered over the Lancastrian centre. There were many others, Warwick's Bear and Ragged Staff.Somersets Northumberland's Fauconberge's device of a Fish-hook, Edmund, Lord Grey of Ruthyn's Black Ragged Staff, and many others.

Early in the morning, sometime before 10 o'clock, a snowstorm broke with a strong driving wind from the South which blew the snow violently into the Lancastrians faces.

It amounted to what we would now call a 'white-out'. That wily old fox Fauconberge, the veteran of innumerable engagements in the French Wars, saw his chance. He ordered the archers of his Yorkist right division forward to a point equidistant between the two armies, and bade them shoot some arrows into the Lancastrian left. This was a risky manoeuvre in the all enveloping 'white-out' of the storm. The men could easily have become disorientated and lost, and it says a lot for the competence of their officers that this did not happen. 300 yards was extreme range for the long-bow, but aided by the following wind, their arrows fell among the Lancastrian left. They probably did little damage, but the Lancastrians were convinced, as Fauconberge intended they should be, that they were about to be attacked by the Yorkist right under the cover of the storm. They shot off their arrows until their quivers were empty. Against the wind, the arrows fell short. When the storm cleared, the Yorkist archers then shot for effect, and they now had a plentiful supply of Lancastrian arrows to be returned whence they had come.

Much galled by the Yorkist arrows to which they now had no effective response, the Lancastrian left division surged forward to the attack. Somerset probably did not intend this, but the movement was unstoppable and had to be supported. He had no option but order his centre division forward. Northumberland, on the right wing, seems to have been a little slower to realise what was happening, and that he too must advance. The net result was an uncoordinated advance so that the attack on the Yorkist line was piece-meal, and lacked the necessary punch.

In contrast, the Yorkist army kept good dressing as, slowly and with measured pace, it advanced to meet its foes. With mighty roars from thousands of throats, the men-at-arms of both armies met, and soon all was wild confusion.

It was thrust and parry, slash and cut, hack and hammer with swords, bills, hammers and axes whilst the archers, withdrawn to the sides and the rear, shot at whatever target they could see. Soon there were men with slashed armour and many with slashed flesh. The corpses lay in piles, and men had to climb over them to reach their foes. Men were shouting from the ecstasy of the fight, or were shrieking from the pain of their wounds or groaning in the agony of death. The shouts,  blows, shrieks and yells arose into the air in a hideous roar as though the very mouth of Hell itself had opened.

The battle lasted all day and into the following night. No man could keep up the furious pace of such vicious hand-to-hand fighting for long, and parties withdrew for a time to recover their breath before charging into the fray once again. Valiantly as the Yorkists fought, the superior Lancastrian numbers began to tell and they were being forced relentlessly back. Young Edward was everywhere, easily distinguished by his great height, bringing reinforcements to a threatened point here, encouraging exhausted and wounded men to yet greater efforts there, and sometimes plunging into the melee himself to do fearful execution. The Yorkists were however still being pressed back, and Somerset must have thought that they must surely break before the day was very much older.

Out of the gloom of that dreadful afternoon, an army could be seen approaching from the South. Soon the White Lion banner of the Duke of Norfolk could be made out. The division had marched by forced marches from Pontefract, and had crossed the Aire at Ferrybridge in Edward's wake. A forced march through ice and snow is not easily accomplished, and like Blucher's army marching to Wellington's aide at Waterloo, its officers, from the divisional commander down, had pleaded with, exhorted and cajoled their men to hurry to reach the battle, whose hideous roar they could clearly hear.

Whoever it was that lead Norfolk's division did so with great skill. Instead of bringing it to the rear of the Yorkist line, where it would have been no more than additional fodder for the slaughter, he led it up the line of the modern A 162 until it outflanked the Lancastrian position at a point where Saxton Grange now stands. Whilst the men-at-arms were deploying in a north to south line, the archers shot into the rear of the Lancastrian left wing. Once the deployment was complete, the order to advance was given, and then the further order to charge.

Norfolk's division fell on the Lancastrian left wing like a thunderbolt. It cannot be said if any part of the division was mounted, but if it was, then the horsemen would have been at their most effective against dismounted foot soldiers unprotected by archers. Somerset had watched their appearance and deployment with some dismay, aware that the Lancastrians were now too disorganised to make the necessary counter-deployment. He and Exeter managed to gather a few men but these were brushed aside by the fury of the onslaught, which was beginning to break up the Lancastrian line. The Lancastrians fought desperately in ones or twos, or in small groups that some officers had been able to gather together, but now for the first time, defeat was staring the Lancastrians in the face. It was their own line, and not the Yorkist, which was on the point of breaking. Soon men were running from the field in ones and twos, then in small groups, and finally in a flood, making for the safety of the Tadchester Road. Probably it was at this time in the late afternoon that Somerset and Exeter, both of whom survived the battle, fled from the stricken field.

Encouraged by the appearance of Norfolk's division, the Yorkist line was rallied and then, with Edward's huge figure at its head, it charged the disorganised and now probably leaderless Lancastrians. Perhaps many of the Yorkists were now mounted, and contributed to the slaughter on horseback. Edward did not intend to follow the normal concept of Chivalry, and allow a beaten foe to surrender, the men of rank being held for ransom and the Common folk, once disarmed, being allowed to depart for their homes. He had given the order that no quarter was to be asked for or given, and that nobody, whether Common or Noble, was to be spared. Surrounded on three sides, the mass of Lancastrians was herded into the killing field, which tradition still points to as the 'Bloody Meadow' where Daltowton Vale dips down to the River Cock. Many tried to cross the swollen stream, only to be drowned in its freezing waters. Some, by treading on the backs of their dead or dying comrades, did manage to reach the opposite bank, and may have perished in the marshes beyond. The killing went on until after darkness had fallen and there were none left to slay. Only then did the hideous sounds of battle die away, and silence fall upon a dreadful field, broken only by the soughing of the wind and the even more poignant moaning of the injured.

Edward had won a great victory, but victories must also be judged by the achievement of the victor's aims, and not simply by the destruction of his opponents army. Edward had aimed to make himself undisputed King of England, a fact which the Londoners had already accepted, and who else could deny this now? But he had also aimed for total annihilation of his opponents, and in this he had failed, if only by a narrow but still important margin. Somerset and Exeter had escaped and lived to fight another day. Queen Margaret and King Henry VI had not been present on the battlefield; they had remained in York, where Henry was said to have occupied himself in a continuous Mass whilst the battle was being fought. They too escaped, taking with them the 7-year old Prince of Wales. An important part of the Lancastrian leadership had been destroyed and would trouble him no more, but this did not lead on to the pacification of the Lancastrian North as Edward must have hoped it would.

Even so, we must not denigrate Edward's achievement of a resounding military success, even if not all his aims had been achieved so that it could be described as a decisive and overwhelming victory. It was still an enormous victory which was to have its effects for many years to come. At the time he fought the battle, he still lacked 3 weeks until his nineteenth birthday. 

The casualties

As we have no certain knowledge of the numbers present when the battle began, we likewise have no means of knowing how many fell on each side. Once again the numbers are hopelessly exaggerated by the chroniclers. Polydore Vergil, writing some 50 years after the battle, gives the lowest figure, some 20, 000 men. Edward Hall, some 70 years afterwards, quotes a figure of 36, 776. Its very precision invites suspicion, because it is most unlikely that the Yorkists victors made an accurate count of the Lancastrian dead, and possibly not even of their own. Croyland gives a figure of 38, 000. Sprott [Sprott's Chronicle pp 286/7] states that 33, 000 were slain without explaining how this figure was reached. The Paston Letters give a total of 28, 000 of which 20, 000 were Lancastrians; since these figures agree with Whethamstede's, it is possible that they were quoting him.

As we have already seen,  [pages ] there is good reason to suppose that nowhere near these higher numbers were even present at the start of the battle, and there were undoubtedly many who survived on each side. What can be said with certainty is that it was a vicious, hard-fought, hand-to-hand soldiers battle of unprecedented ferocity, where prisoners were deliberately not taken. The slaughter must have been enormous, and represented a high proportion of each sides total strength. It was undoubtedly heavier on the Lancastrian side, and may even have had some demographic effect upon the population of the North Country from where most of the Lancastrian soldiers had come. Of Lancastrian men of rank, Lords Clifford and Neville had been killed before the battle. Ralph, Lord Dacre of Gillesland, Ralph Bigot, Lord de Mauley, Leo, Lord Welles, Sir Henry Stafford, the younger son of the Duke of Buckingham who had died at Northampton, Sir John Heyton, Sir Richard Percy, and Sir Andrew Trollope were killed, whilst Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland died of his wounds the next day. Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, the son of the Earl who had originally backed Edward's father and had then forsaken him, was taken prisoner and beheaded in York a few days after the battle. James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire, suffered a similar fate when he was captured a few weeks later. According to Gregory, the executions did not end there. Contrary to Edward's orders, 42 Lancastrian knights were taken prisoner. If their captors were hoping for ransom they were to be disappointed. Edward was merciless, and ordered that they too should be beheaded.

The only prominent Lancastrians to escape the battlefield were Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, who was Edward's brother-in-law. The Yorkist losses had also been heavy, but we only hear of the deaths of John Radcliffe, Lord Fitz-Walter, and Sir Richard Jenney, Warwick's illegitimate brother, both of whom were killed on the day before the battle; in the battle itself, only Robert Horne, the redoubtable Kentish Captain, is said to have died, whilst Lord le Scrope of Bolton was gravely wounded. Such was the ferocity of the fighting that there must have been many more than this. Perhaps Yorkist propaganda did not think it advisable to admit the true figure.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003