Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wars of the Roses – and the Battle of Towton, March 29, 1461

The Wars of the Roses – and the Battle of Towton, March 29, 1461

Shakespeare Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 5


December 31, 2014



For more than 25 years, The Diane Rehm Show has offered listeners thoughtful and lively conversations with many of the most distinguished people of our times.

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Wednesday, Dec 31, 2014



The author of the bestselling book "The Plantagenets" picks up the story of the English crown where his last book left off. It describes how the longest-reigning British royal family tore itself apart and was replaced by the Tudors.

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Battle of Towton March 29, 1461

According to an article in the Sunday Times on August 28, 2008, by Adrian Anthony Gill, the Battle of Towton was fought on a Sunday, March 29, 1461. “By all contemporary accounts, allowing for medieval exaggeration, on this one Sunday between 20,000 and 30,000 men died. Just so that you grasp the magnitude, that’s a more grievous massacre of British men than on the first day of the Somme.

Without machineguns or shells, young blokes hacked, bludgeoned and trampled, suffocated and drowned. An astonishing 1% of the English population died in this field. The equivalent today would be 600,000.”

In an article by Martin Kettle for The Guardian, on Friday, August 24, 2007:

“It is often said that the bloodiest day in our history was July 1 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when 19,200 soldiers went over the top and were mown down by German guns. As a result, the Somme has become synonymous with the frightful, mindless slaughter of a whole generation of young British men. It traumatised the survivors so much that they barely spoke of it. But it hangs over our country still, nearly a century later. Merely to think of it can make one weep.

Yet Towton was bloodier than the Somme. When night fell on March 29 1461 - it was Palm Sunday, and much of the battle took place in a snowstorm - the Yorkist and Lancastrian dead numbered more than 20,000. It should be said that the figures are much disputed and rise to as many as 28,000 in some accounts, and there were countless wounded besides.

Now remember two other things while you absorb that. First, that while the population of Britain in 1916 was more than 40 million, that of England in 1461 was considerably less than 4 million, so the proportionate impact on the country must have been seismic. One in every hundred Englishmen died at Towton. Its impact must have been a bit like an English Hiroshima.

And, second, that, this being 1461, not a shot was fired. This was not industrial killing from a distance. Every Englishman who died at Towton was pierced by arrows, stabbed, bludgeoned or crushed by another Englishman. As a scene of hand-to-hand human brutality on a mass scale, Towton has absolutely no equal in our history. It was our very own day of wrath.


Towton is not a secret. It is in the books and on the maps. If you visit, there is a memorial. The same river which was so packed with corpses that men fled across them from one bank to the other still runs through it. If you study the Wars of the Roses, you learn it was a decisive Yorkist victory. If you go online you can discover some of the detective work done by the University of Bradford on mutilated skeletons exhumed from some of Towton's mass graves. And if you go to a performance of Henry VI Part 3, you will see that the national poet himself set potent scenes at Towton, where, in the thick of battle, a father finds he has killed his son and a son that he has killed his father, and where the watching and hapless Lancastrian king wishes himself among the dead - "For what is in this world but grief and woe?"
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