The Act of Settlement signed by King Henry VI in October 1460 transferred the right of succession to Richard, Duke of York and his heirs. Unsurprisingly, however, Queen Margaret refused to accept that her son should be disinherited. The Lancastrians once more attempted to resolve the matter through force of arms and three battles followed:
Wakefield- 30 December 1460, at which the Yorkists were defeated and Richard, Duke of York, killed.
Mortimer’s Cross- 2 February 1461, at which Edward, Richard’s son, defeated a Lancastrian army.
St. Albans- 17 February 1461 (second battle at St Albans), where the Yorkists were defeated and Henry VI released from captivity.
Despite this latter setback, the Earl of Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’, saw to it that Edward became king in March 1461. England now had two kings, a matter that could only be resolved on the battlefield. After St. Albans Henry’s forces had retreated into the north and so, soon after his coronation, Edward set off to confront him.
John Julius Norwich claims that the battle was ‘on a dramatically different scale from any previous engagement’.[i] On Palm Sunday the two armies met in the open field between the villages of Towton and Saxton. John Julius Norwich elaborates further:
The next six hours saw one of the bloodiest and most ruthless battles fought on English soil … The snow is said to have been more crimson than white, while the river Wharfe and its tributaries ran red with blood … Over an area six miles long by half a mile broad, the dead lay unburied for several days.[ii]
Towton was the largest and longest battle fought on British soil and was of huge significant in both military and social terms. The political significance was also substantial, for it secured the throne for the Yorkists, although the Lancastrian cause was far from extinguished. Henry, his extremely ambitious wife Margaret, and his son and heir had all escaped.
The battlefield remains undeveloped agricultural land. The open fields of the time of the battle were finally enclosed in the 18th and 19th centuries, but removal of many of the hedgerows in the latter part of the twentieth century has returned the landscape somewhat towards its medieval character.
Its place in Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays
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. Edward ruled England uninterrupted for the next nine years, before a brief restoration of Henry to the throne. The battle is depicted in Shakespeare’s dramatic adaptation of Henry’s life:
“ Woe above woe! grief more than common grief!
O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!
O pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!
The red rose and the white are on his face,
The fatal colours of our striving houses:
The one his purple blood right well resembles;
The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth:
Wither one rose, and let the other flourish;
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.” (Henry VI Part Three, II, v)
Key Facts & Figures
Name: Battle of Towton
County: North Yorkshire
Place: Towton / Saxton cum Scarthingwell
Date: 29th March 1461
Duration: 10 hours
War period: Wars of the Roses
Outcome: Yorkist victory
Armies: Yorkist under Edward Duke of March; Lancastrian under Duke of Somerset
Numbers: Yorkist: circa 40,000; Lancastrian: circa 40,000
Losses: (improbable chronicle figures): Yorkist: c.10,000; Lancastrian: c.20,000
Terrain: open field
Grid Reference: SE482384 (448237,438420)
Information taken from UK Battlefields Resource Centre website.