English History: The Battle of Towton

The largest and bloodiest battle in English history is almost unknown, in 2022. During the Wars of The Roses in 1461, close to the village of Towton near the city of York, a battle was fought during a snowstorm in March that year. When it was over, 28,000 soldiers had been killed, a total never exceeded in England since.

The Wars of The Roses lasted from 1455-1487, a civil war in England lasting for 32 years over who should succeed to the crown. On one side, the Yorkists with their emblem of a white rose. Their enemy was the Lancastrians, who used a red rose as their symbol. The contest began with the capture of Henry VI by Richard Duke of York, and thus began over 30 years of fighting to determine who would be the rightful king of England.


Henry VI

In 1460 the English parliament passed an act to let York succeed Henry as king. The queen refused to accept the dispossession of her own son, Edward of Westminster’s right to the throne, and succeeded in raising a large army of supporters, who then promptly defeated and killed York in the Battle of Wakefield. The late duke’s supporters considered the Lancastrians to have reneged on the parliamentary act of succession – a legal agreement – and York’s son and heir, 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 one another and others drowned in the rivers, which are said to have run red with blood for several days. Several who were taken prisoner were executed.

In 1929 the Towton Cross was erected on the battlefield to commemorate the event. Various archaeological remains and mass graves related to the battle have been found in the area centuries after the engagement.

40 thoughts on “English History: The Battle of Towton

  1. I knew of the War of Roses, but not this battle. Pete, you and Frank are my favorite history teachers, because you tell it like is was. Comparing the numbers to Gettysburg is very telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Pete, thanks for this interesting post. I have heard of the War of the Roses and know a little about it but I can’t recall this specific battle which would have been very important. We didn’t learn much English history at school, only the Anglo Boer and Zulu wars as well as the Xhosa altercations as well as the Industrial Revolution.

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  3. (1) Today, a bouquet of red and white roses is an offering of love.
    (2) “The largest and bloodiest battle in English history is almost unknown, in 2022.” I looked up the Towton Cross, which was supposedly built using stones intended for a chapel that was never completed. Maybe a larger, more impressive monument would not only be fitting for such a battle but would pique the public’s interest in it?
    (3) But why red and white roses? Why not red and white wine? At least that way, one side or the other could have drunk to victory!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People here have little interest in ‘ancient’ historical battles, David. More interest is shown in WW1 and WW2, for some reason. (Perhaps because there are people still alive who lost loved ones in both wars.)
      The red wine might have dulled the pain of the wounds, that’s for sure.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. What also interests me about this particular battle is that almost nobody in England knows about it, yet it was the worst loss of life in our history. Even more killed than during the notorious ‘First day of the Somme’, in WW1.
      (I am trying to read your post Willow One, but your blog is showing ‘not available’.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. News of your blog.
      I can see the latest post, and I left a comment about the little groundhog.
      But then it said,
      ‘Error. Please fill in the required fields’.
      Except there were no required fields to fill in!
      Something is amiss between your blog and the rest of us, undoubtedly.
      Good luck with that, Carolyn. 😦


  4. Pete, the comparison to Gettysburg in terms of fatalities really got my attention. Gettysburg is only a couple of hours away from me, and I have visited it a couple of times, becoming more aware of what played out there. I can’t imagine what kind of carnage this must have looked like after the battle you describe here.

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    1. And most of the deaths were caused by arrows or pole-arms, Bruce. There would have been no medical aid for the wounded either. They would have either been killed out of hand by the enemy, or died later from infections in the wounds. Towton should be famous in this country, but it is less known here than the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which involved just over 6,000 soldiers on both sides, with significantly fewer fatalities.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. If you can forgive a lot of very fake beards, the authenticity is spot on, Bruce. As well as the famous actors in the cast, the films used a huge amount of ‘reenactors’ who perform in civil war reconstructions.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I am sure most people in England know even less about it than you, Beth.
      This was the greatest loss of life on English soil, and rarely gets a mention.

      (By comparison, at the battle of Gettysburg, 7,508 men were killed in total on both sides, and 10,000 on both sides listed as ‘missing’. That is 17,508, compared to 28,000 at Towton 402 years earlier.)

      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That was great to read. I had heard the expression of the rose battle & know it involved the Yorkies – but no more. Again thanks Pete. Enjoyed/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good post Pete. A couple of years ago I was watching BBC’s Inside Out and a programme on the fragments of a gun which was found by a metal detectorist on the Towton site, the earliest known battlefield gun. I found a short video that shows the site and the fragments. They’re still finding human remains from the battle!

    Liked by 3 people

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