On Sunday 26 May, Nick Bagnall (director of the Henry VI plays) and I were joined by Julian Humphrys from the Battlefield Trust Society for a research trip around the Towton battlefield site. The Battle of Towton in 1461 is recorded as one of the biggest and bloodiest battles during the War of the Roses, with up to 28,000 deaths, and it is the first of four battlefield sites that the Henry VI three plays will play on this summer as part of their tour of the UK.
We began our day, passing by Towton first, stopping in the village of Saxton. It is here by the church that Lord Dacre lays, and upon a recent excavation, along with a horse. There is also a modern day memorial to the Battle – the first of many on our trail.
Next we move on to the Crooked Billet, a pub that bears that coat of arms of the Duke of Warwick. Opposite here is a small church, which is now run by the Churches Conservation Trust, called St Mary’s, Lead. We’re told by Julian that this would have provided a safe haven before entering into battle. There’s also a small stained glass window with the Boar from the livery badge (a simplified coat of arms) of Richard III, donated by the Yorkshire branch of the Richard III Society in 1982.
We now move into Towton itself, starting at the Rockingham Arms pub – where the Henry VI plays will performance in the field to the rear, we even spot a poster for the plays so a quick Kodak moment with Nick!
From here we walk up the hill, following the Lancastrians’ path to the battle. We stop by an information panel which is located in the middle of where the archers of the Yorkists and Lancastrians would have fired between each other. Today it’s a beautiful yellow meadow. Julian tells us that the wind blowing towards the Lancastrians meant that their arrows could not reach the Yorkists, with many blowing back towards them and hitting their own men. However the fog was so thick that they thought it was the arrows of the Yorkists.
This is one of the first chilling parts of the walk, and you begin to feel the defeat of the Lancastrians.
We hear of the Lancastrians’ move into battle, and at first it seems like they have control of it. But with the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk’s men, the Lancastrians begin to lose the front.
We are now on the main battlefield trail which is well sign posted, with lots of information panels along the way that describe the battle with facts, maps and photos of found objects. The Battlefield Trust Society has been able to create a lay-by at the side of the road so that you can park close to the trail.
The Lancastrians are pushed back towards Towton, a very hilly area, to a point that is referred to as the Bloody Meadow – the bloodiest part of the battle. Seeing the hilly landscape and knowing how even just walking it all is tiring, we all have a real sense as to how hard it must have been to try and escape the battle.
The defeat continues downhill to a point called the Bridge of Bodies, where the River Cock was accounted as flowing with blood. The river and bridge are so peaceful and quiet now, very different to the paintings and engravings that we’ve seen along the way.
“what for haste of escaping, and what for fear of followers, a great number were drenched and drowned, in so much that common people there affirm, that men alive passed the river upon dead carcasses, and that the great river of Wharfe, which is the great sewer of the brook, and of all the water coming from Towton, was coloured with blood”
– Edward Hall, accounting 70 years after the battle.
The day’s weather has been a hot summer’s day, and it’s often difficult to imagine what it would have been like on the cold, frosty day of the battle. As we make our way back into Towton we face our own battle as Nick and I see the site for the performances for the very first time. It’s all been very moving to have walked the battlefield trail, hearing from Julian and talking about the plays and their relation to the battle.
Despite the battle being one of Britain’s bloodiest, the trail is very beautiful and clearly marked out. If you are coming to the performances on 14 July, there will be breaks between the shows to enjoy the surrounding site, or you may like to make a day of it and walk the trail that we did beforehand, arriving at the site ready for the plays.