Towton, 1461: Are we any less War-like?

Last week I visited one of the bloodiest places in England. It is now a rather pleasant wheat field in Yorkshire, but on Palm Sunday, 1461, the place became known as Bloody Meadow. The Bishop of Exeter estimated that 28,000 men had been killed at Towton and the related clean-up operations. “Alas!” he wrote, “we are a race deserving of pity even from the French.” Some estimates say fifty to eighty thousand took part in the fighting. If the figures are correct, it would mean 1% of the entire English population died in these fields on that day.

The battle itself was part of the Cousins’ War, known to us as the Wars of The Roses. Lancastrian Henry VI and his queen fought Yorkist Edward. Edward won, becoming Edward IV and Henry was sent to the Tower where he was quietly bumped off. One medieval king simply replaced another, while tens of thousands of families mourned and grieved their losses.

It’s tempting to look back at this period with a pinch of ethical snobbery: what butchers and savages they were! And we would be right. Dan Jones writes in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors:

With men dying in their thousands, the Lancastrian line dissolved by midafternoon, and the leaders took flight. Behind them, defeat became a devastating rout. On Edward’s orders, no mercy was shown in victory. Skulls later found on the battlefield showed the most horrific injuries: faces split down the bone, heads cut in half, holes punched straight through foreheads. Some men died with more than 20 wounds to their head: the signs of frenzied slaughter by men whipped into a state of barbaric bloodlust. Some victims were mutilated: their noses and ears ripped off, fingers snipped from hands to remove rings and jewellery in the plunder of the dying.

Lancastrian escape route over Cock Beck: so many corpses littered the beck that a 'bridge of bodies' was created

Yet our headlines today are not dissimilar. Kim Jong-un, dictator of North Korea threatens to strike American territory with nuclear missiles while President Trump promises ‘fire and fury’ that the world has never before seen in return. The weapons and scale might be different, but man’s barbarous desire to kill and maim continues unchecked. I look forward to that day when a world Ruler will come whose title is the Prince of Peace. Only then shall ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ Isaiah 2:4.


Memorial to the battle at nearby Saxton Church

Medieval monument on the battlefield