The Battle of Towton was fought during the English Wars of the Roses on this day in 1461, near the village of Towton in Yorkshire. It brought about a change of monarchs in England, with the victor, the Yorkist Edward, Duke of York—who became King Edward IV (1461–1483) having displaced the Lancastrian King Henry VI (1422–1461) as king, and thus drove the head of the Lancastrians and his key supporters out of the country.
It is described as “probably the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil”, though Boudicca’s defeat at the Battle of Watling Street is also a contender. According to chroniclers, more than 50,000 soldiers from the Houses of York and Lancaster fought for hours amidst a snowstorm on that day, which was Palm Sunday. A newsletter circulated a week after the battle reported that 28,000 died on the battlefield.
Contemporary accounts described Henry VI as peaceful and pious, not suited for the violent dynastic civil wars, such as the War of the Roses. He had periods of insanity while his inherent benevolence eventually required his wife, Margaret of Anjou, to assume control of his kingdom, which contributed to his own downfall. His ineffectual rule had encouraged the nobles’ schemes to establish control over him, and the situation deteriorated into a civil war between the supporters of his house and those of Richard, Duke of York. After the Yorkists captured Henry in 1460, the English parliament passed an Act of Accord to let York and his line succeed Henry as king. Henry’s consort, Margaret of Anjou, refused to accept the dispossession of her son’s right to the throne and, along with fellow Lancastrian malcontents, raised an army. Richard of York was killed at the Battle of Wakefield and his titles, including the claim to the throne, passed to his eldest son Edward. Nobles who were previously hesitant to support Richard’s claim to the throne considered the Lancastrians to have reneged on the Act — a legal agreement — and Edward found enough backing to denounce Henry and declare himself king. The Battle of Towton was to affirm the victor’s right to rule over England through force of arms.
On reaching the battlefield, the Yorkists found themselves heavily outnumbered. Part of their force under the Duke of Norfolk had yet to arrive. The Yorkist leader Lord Fauconberg turned the tables by ordering his archers to take advantage of the strong wind to outrange their enemies. The one-sided missile exchange, with Lancastrian arrows falling short of the Yorkist ranks, provoked the Lancastrians into abandoning their defensive positions. The ensuing hand-to-hand combat lasted hours, exhausting the combatants. The arrival of Norfolk’s men reinvigorated the Yorkists and, encouraged by Edward, they routed their foes. Many Lancastrians were killed while fleeing; some trampled each other and others drowned in the rivers, which are said to have made them run red with blood for several days. Several who were taken as prisoners were executed.
The power of the House of Lancaster was severely reduced after this battle. Henry fled the country, and many of his most powerful followers were dead or in exile after the engagement, letting Edward rule England uninterrupted for nine years, before a brief restoration of Henry to the throne. Later generations remembered the battle as depicted in William Shakespeare’s dramatic adaptation of Henry’s life—Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 5. In 1929, the Towton Cross was erected on the battlefield to commemorate the event. Various archaeological remains and mass graves related to the battle were found in the area centuries after the engagement.