The scene of the bloodiest, longest and largest battle in English history is a bleak Yorkshire plateau between the villages of Towton and Saxton, just south of Tadcaster. The battlefield is little changed from how it would have been on 29 March 1461. Two mighty armies met midway through the Wars of the Roses, to decide which of two rival kings should rule.
The slightly larger Lancastrian host – who had between 35,000 to 40,000 men – backed the mentally frail Lancastrian King Henry VI, who sat out the battle in nearby York with his queen.
The 28,000 to 30,000-strong Yorkist army marched from the south, commanded in person by the striking figure of the newly proclaimed King Edward IV – just 19, but already every inch (at 6ft 4in he was England’s tallest monarch) a warrior king.
You could start with a fortifying pint at the Greyhound Inn in Saxton, at the southern end of the battlefield.
The battle began with flights of arrows that, with the wind blowing blinding snow into the Lancastrians’ faces, gave the Yorkists an early advantage.
The armies closed and grappled toe to toe, only pausing to shift the growing piles of corpses. As the winter day closed, the Yorkists were reinforced by the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk, who had been detained by illness. Norfolk’s appearance was decisive: slowly the Lancastrian line buckled and its men fled the bloody field.
Stand at the cross
Follow the road due north out of the village to where it meets the B127. Bear right along this until you arrive at the battle cross. This weathered ancient stone cross stands at the spot where Lancastrian Lord Dacre took an arrow through the throat. It’s located in the heart of the battlefield where the two armies faced each other in west-east lines, with the Yorkists to the south of you, and the Lancastrians to the north.
The battlefield soon became a slaughterhouse. As the retreating Lancastrians struggled across the steep-sided Cock Beck, a stream swollen by the snow into a roaring torrent, they slid down its banks and drowned in their armour. The victorious Yorkists hacked at them with spear and sword, or pursued survivors on horseback – leaving a bloody six-mile trail across the snow.
No one knows quite how
many soldiers died at Towton. Modern analysis suggests a death toll of 28,000 – a staggering statistic for a medieval battle, representing around one percent of England’s total population at the time.
Politically, Towton was decisive. Edward replaced Henry as the King of England, with the House of York remaining in power until the Battle of Bosworth brought the Tudors to the throne in 1485, uniting the roses and ending the wars.
HOW TO GET THERE
The battlefield lies just south of where the A162 and B127 roads converge between the villages of Saxton and Towton.
FIND OUT MORE
The Towton Battlefield Society
Organises regular walks and anniversary re-enactments. The next dates are 10 and
The Rockingham Arms
Main Street, Towton,
North Yorkshire LS24 9PB
Family-run village pub that offers classic hearty dishes and beer, with a cosy atmosphere.