Battle of Towton, 29 March 1461

Background
The Campaign
The Armies
The Lancastrian Army
The Yorkist Army
The Battlefield
The Battle
Aftermath

The battle of Towton (29 March 1461) was the decisive battle of the first phase of the Wars of the Roses and saw the young Edward IV defeat one of the largest Lancastrian armies to take to the field during the war. This victory came only four weeks after Edward had claimed the throne, and helped establish him as the accepted king of England.

Background

The two years before the battle was one of the most dramatic in English history, with repeated and sudden changes of fortune. As late as 1458 there had been an uneasy truce between the Yorkist and Lancastrian lords, with Henry VI acting as a mediator between the two, but this collapsed in 1459. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and Captain of Calais had been summoned to London to explain a number of acts of piracy in the Channel. This visit had ended in a brawl between Warwick's men and the Royal Guard and he had escaped back to Calais where he continued to defy the court.

Battles of the Wars of the Roses
Battles of the
Wars of the Roses

The court party, led by Queen Margaret, decided to act against the Yorkists. A great council was summoned and Richard, duke of York, Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury and Warwick were all accused of treason. Both sides then raised armies, but when the two sides came face to face at Ludford Bridge (12-13 October 1459) it was clear that the Yorkists were outnumbered. The Yorkist leaders fled into exile, with York himself heading for Ireland while Salisbury, Warwick and Edward, earl of March, escaped to Calais.

The Yorkists returned from exile in Calais in June 1460. They quickly took London, and then advanced to Northampton, where on 10 July 1460 the Lancastrians suffered a heavy defeat. Henry VI was captured and Warwick returned to London in triumph. When Richard of York finally arrived in the autumn of 1460 he attempted to seize the throne, but found that he had little support. Instead he was acknowledged as Henry's heir, cutting Prince Edward out.

The Lancastrians had been scattered by their defeat at Northampton, but not defeated. By November 1460 they had a powerful army in the north, and another in Wales. The Yorkists split up. Warwick remained at London, where he watched Henry VI and the south coast. Edward, earl of March, moved to the Welsh borders. Richard, duke of York, headed north to deal with the main threat.

This expedition ended in total disaster. York reached his castle at Sandal on 21 December but found a larger Lancastrian army nearby and few supplies in the castle. On 30 December he emerged from the castle and attacked the Lancastrians (the exact reasons for this move are unclear). The resulting battle of Wakefield (30 December 1460) ended with York, Salisbury and two of their sons dead. The victorious Lancastrians then began a march on London.

Meanwhile on the borders Edward faced an invasion led by Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke and James Butler, earl of Wiltshire and Ormond. This forced Edward to abandon a plan to move towards London and instead deal with this new threat. Pembroke and Wiltshire were defeated at Mortimer's Cross (2 February 1461), but the Lancastrian leaders escaped. This was probably why Edward remained in the west, leaving Warwick to deal with the main Lancastrian army.

Warwick left London on 12 February, but he only moved as far as St. Albans. The Lancastrians were much quicker, and on 17 February 1461 they smashed into Warwick's unprepared men (Second Battle of St. Albans). Most of Warwick's army didn't enter battle, but the vanguard was defeated and the rest of the army began to dissolve. Warwick was forced to flee west towards Edward and safety, while Henry VI was abandoned and was soon reunited with his wife and son.

The campaign now developed into a race for London. The Lancastrians arrived first, but the Londoners didn’t trust them and Queen Margaret had to enter into negotiations in an attempt to convince them to let her army enter the city. On 19 February the Queen moved her army back to Dunstable in an attempt to convince the Londoners of her good faith. On the same day news of the battle of St. Albans reached Edward. He rushed east, meeting Warwick in the Cotswolds, before entering the city to popular acclaim on 26 February. Queen Margaret and the Lancastrians were forced to retire back towards their strongholds in the north.

Edward now made a much more skilful move for the throne than his father's failed effort in the previous year. On 1 March George Neville, bishop of Exeter addressed a large crowd, which called for Edward to take the throne. On 2 March he was officially proclaimed as Edward IV. On 3 March a 'great council' was called (although it really only contained the Nevilles, the Archbishop of Canterbury and John, duke of Norfolk). Edward's claim was accepted by the council, and on 4 March he took the formal oath, marking the start of his reign (although his formal coronation would wait until after Towton).

The Campaign

Having claimed the throne Edward now had to fight to secure it. Although the Lancastrians had failed to take London they had won two significant battlefield victories, had more support amongst the aristocracy and could raise a powerful army.

On 5 March Norfolk was sent to East Anglia to raise troops. Two days later Warwick was sent north on the same duty. He moved to Coventry, then Lichfield and finally Doncaster, from where he join Edward. On 11 March Lord Fauconberg left London with the vanguard. Edward himself followed on either the 12th or 13th. He headed for Nottingham, where reports placed Henry VI, but by the time Edward reached the Midlands the Lancastrians had retreated across the River Aire and were in Yorkshire. After leaving Nottingham, Edward joined up with Warwick and Fauconberg and their combined army reached Pontefract on 27 March. The Duke of Norfolk was heading in the same direction but he was some distance behind the main Yorkist army.

On 27-28 March the two sides clashed in the first fighting of the campaign, at Ferrybridge. Both the Yorkists and Lancastrians wanted to gain control of the bridge over the Aire at Ferrybridge. Our sources disagree on who got there first, but a fierce fight developed on 28 March which was probably ended when Edward sent a detachment to outflank the Lancastrian defenders of the bridge. Lord FitzWalter was killed on the Yorkist side, Lord Clifford on the Lancastrian.

After the fighting on 28 March Edward moved his army across the Aire and camped for the night, probably close to Sherburn-in-Elmet. The Lancastrians were camped in the open countryside south of Towton.

The Armies

Towton was the first battle of the Wars of the Roses in which both sides were able to concentrate their main armies. In 1455 the Lancastrians had been caught by surprise. In 1459 the Yorkist leaders hadn't risked a battle and had fled from Ludford Bridge. The Lancastrians were caught by surprise again at Northampton in 1460 and had also been betrayed. At Wakefield the Duke of York had only commanded one of three Yorkist armies then in the field, and the other two had been involved at the Second Battle of St. Albans and at Mortimer's Cross in February 1461. Towton would be different. This time both sides were expecting to fight the decisive battle that would end the wars. The Lancastrians had concentrated to the north of the River Trent, while the Yorkists mustered in the south.

As is almost always the case with the battles of the Wars of the Roses we don’t really know how large the armies that fought at Towton really were. Richard Beauchamp, bishop of Salisbury, writing a week after the battle claimed that Edward's army contained 200,000 men. The same figure was given in Gregory's Chronicle, which for this period was probably produced in London in the 1470s. Most sources agree that the Lancastrian army was larger, so between them this would give a total of somewhere over 400,000 men.

Although the armies at Towton were probably the largest of the Wars of the Roses, we can safely dismiss these totals as grossly exaggerated. Some Royal armies of the period are properly documents, and the largest of these forces was only 20,000 strong while most were nearer to 10,000. John Gillingham points out a more serious problem with these figures - England probably had a population of around three million at the time of Towton, with an adult male population of 600,000. If we take the chronicles seriously then at least two-thirds of the available adult male population of England had managed to cross the country to join their respective armies. While the Lancastrians had been mustering their forces for some time, Edward's army was fairly fresh - the battle took place just over a month after he had entered London and four weeks after he claimed the throne.

Modern estimates of the size of the two armies vary from a low of around 10,000 to a more generally accepted high of around 50,000. We do know that a very high proportion of the aristocracy did take part in the battle - perhaps as high a proportion as half - and so the higher figure might be realistic for a short campaign close to home.

The Lancastrian Army

The Lancastrian army contained nineteen or twenty lords - twice as many as their Yorkist opponents. The army was probably commanded by Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset (Henry VI and his family remained in safety at York). Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, James Butler earl of Wiltshire and Ormond and Thomas Courteney, earl of Devon were all present. Lower down the scale the Lancastrian army included Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, Anthony Woodville Lord Scales, William Viscount Beaumont, Thomas Lord Roos, John Lord Clifford, Leo Lord Welles, John Lord Neville, Thomas Grey Lord Grey, Robert Hungerford Lord Hungerford and Randolf Lord Dacre. Also present was Sir John Fortescue, the Chief Justice.

Lower down the social scale was Sir Andrew Trollope, a captain in the Calais garrison who had joined the Lancastrians at Ludford Bridge and who despite his lower rank was an important military leader.

After his victory Edward attainted 61 knights and gentlemen for their part in the battle, including twenty-five MPs.

The Lancastrians still had national support at this stage. Henry's army at Towton had contingents from Devon, Calais and Scotland as well as a strong core from the north of England.

The Yorkist Army

The Yorkists had few lords present, but some of their leaders were amongst the most powerful in the country. Edward himself had just inherited his father's estates and followers to join with his own. In the same way Warwick had inherited his father Salisbury's affinity. William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, was less powerful but was an experienced commander. Outside the immediate Neville and York families were John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk and John de la Pole, earl of Suffolk. Lower down the scale were John Radcliffe,Lord FitzWalter (killed at Ferrybridge), and a sizable number of knights and men who became important during Edward's reign.

The Battlefield

We know from the Act of Attainder that the battle took place in the fields associated with the villages of Saxton and Towton. The River Wharfe flows from west-to-east to the north of the battlefield, with Tadcaster on the south bank.

The western boundary of the battlefield was formed by the Cock Beck, which runs north into the Wharfe just downstream of Tadcaster. At this point the beck runs through a valley with steep sides.

East of the beck the land rises to a plateau that peaks at 52m above sea level, before sloping gently down to the east into what would have been rather wet ground in 1461. The high ground between the beck and the wetter ground formed a plateau with the highest ground in the south. There is then a dip (North Acres), which steepens enough to earn the name Towton Dale. Just to the west of this is Bloody Meadow, where many of the Lancastrian victims of the battle were said to have died.

The Lancastrian starting position was probably on the higher ground to the north of North Acres, while Edward took the higher ground to the south. The configuration of the ground probably meant that the main Lancastrian army couldn't see the Yorkists until they reached the top of the southern part of the plateau.

At the time of the battle the London Road ran north from Sherburn in Elmet, passed to the east of Saxton and reached Towton, following roughly the line of the modern A162 (ignoring the Sherburn bypass). It then turned west to cross Cock Beck then ran up the west bank of the beck into Tadcaster (the route across the beck can be traced on a public right of way).

The battle was fought in heavy snow, with a southerly wind blowing the snow towards the Lancastrians.

The Battle

On the morning of 29 March it was clear that both sides wanted a battle. Both had raised sizable armies and both clearly believed that a battlefield victory would end the war in their favour.

We only have limited information about the two side's deployment at the start of the battle. According the Waurin the Lancastrians posted a force of cavalry, in Castle Hill Wood, on the western side of the battlefield, forming the Lancastrian right flank. They were hidden here and waited for a chance to ambush Edward's men. Somerset commanded the main part of the army, while the earl of Northumberland was probably in the east, forming the left flank. Exeter and Lord Wilton commanded the rearguard.

Edward's vanguard was commanded by Lord Fauconberg and contained a fore of archers. Edward himself and Warwick were probably in the central part of the line.

The battle began with one of its most famous incidents. According to Hall's Chronicle Lord Fauconberg took advantage of the southerly wind. He ordered his archers to fire a single flight. These arrows hit the Lancastrian archers, who responded with rapid fire. Unfortunately the snow and wind meant that their arrows fell short. Once they had run out of arrows Fauconberg ordered his men to advance a few steps and open fire. They then opened fire at a more effective range, using their own arrows and half of the Lancastrian arrows. The rest were left in the ground to act as an obstacle. This is a dramatic story but it may be an exaggerated version of a more contemporary mention of a southerly wind that made things harder for the Lancastrian archers.

Fauconberg's archery attack seems to have provoked a general Lancastrian advance, although they may have always intended to try and take advantage of their superior numbers. Somerset and Earl Rivers led this attack, and the Yorkist left was pushed back. Northumberland advanced more slowly, and was wounded and forced to withdraw from the fight.

At this point Waurin records a surprise attack by the cavalry hidden in Castle Hill Woods. The Yorkist left was pushed back, and Edward's cavalry may have been forced off the battlefield.

The battle now settled down into a hard fought melee, possible with the battle lines now rotated by 45 degrees anti-clockwise. The Yorkist line was under severe pressure and Edward's own personal prowess was said to have played a major part in preventing his army from breaking. Contemporary sources suggest that Edward was close to defeat at this stage in the battle.

The situation was changed by the arrival of Yorkist reinforcements. The Duke of Norfolk's men arrived along the Ferrybridge Road, placing them on the Yorkist right and Lancastrian left. The Duke himself may not have reached the battlefield - he was a sick man and died within a year - but his fresh troops were enough to turn the tide. The Lancastrian line began to give way.

At about this point Somerset made his escape, and as their leaders attempted to reach safety the Lancastrian line crumbled. Their early successes in the west now turned against them. As they fled back from the fighting many became trapped in a loop in Cock Beck, in the area that is now known as Bloody Meadow. The Yorkist pursuit was brutal, although Edward himself probably didn’t take part. The surviving Lancastrians were only safe when they reached York.

Most contemporary sources state that the heralds counted twenty-eight thousand dead after the battle. The Neville chronicler gives a lower figure of 9,000. The number of senior Lancastrians to fall suggests that the casualty figures were indeed high, although given that we can’t be sure how large either army was any attempt to estimate casualty figures is fairly futile. Unusually for a medieval battle the graves of many casualties have been found, providing a valuable insight into the nature of military service during this period - some of the dead had survived surprisingly serious wounds that had long-healed by the time they were killed at Towton.

Many of the Lancastrian leaders were killed. Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, was the most important casualty on the field, but Lords Dacre, Neville, Clifford, Wells, Willoughby and Mauley and Sir Andrew Trollope were also amongst the dead. The earls of Wiltshire and Devon were both captured and executed after the battle.

Aftermath

The only blot on Edward's victory was his failure to capture the Lancastrian royal family. Henry, Margaret and Prince Edward managed to reach Scotland, taking with them Somerset, Exeter and Lords Hungerford and Roos as well as Chief Justice Fortescue. As a result the Lancastrians were able to keep their cause alive, at least in the far north, and it would take another three years of campaigning before the fighting died down.

In the aftermath of his victory Edward entered York, where one of his first actions was to have the heads of his father, brother and Salisbury taken down and buried properly.

A number of his supporters were rewarded with new titles after the battle. His brother George became Duke of Clarence. His uncle, Viscount Bourchier, was made Earl of Essex. Lord Fauconberg became Earl of Kent. A number of knights were promoted to the peerage, amongst them the new Lords Devereux, Herbert and Wenlock. 

Edward spent Easter at York, and then headed north to Durham and finally Newcastle (where the earl of Wiltshire was executed). After that he moved south-west into Lancashire, before finally heading south on his way back to London. On 28 June 1461 Edward's coronation was finally held in Westminster Abbey.

The battle of Towton didn't end the fighting in the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, but it did make a Lancastrian victory almost impossible.


Edward IV and the War of the Roses, David Santiuste. A look at the military career of Edward IV, the often overlooked winner of the main part of the War of the Roses, and a king who ruled peacefully for nearly twelve years before dying a natural death. [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the Middle Ages - Subject Index: War of the Roses

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (2 December 2013), Battle of Towton, 29 March 1461, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_towton.html

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