Quotulatiousness

January 22, 2013

The obscure, unremembered — but bloodiest — battle in England

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:42

Unless you paid very close attention to British history, you may not even have heard of the bloodiest battle in England:

Consider, for example, Towton — the bloodiest battle on English soil, in which most of our nobility and their retainers took part and in which 28,000 people are said to have died. Since the population of the time was not much more than three million, that’s the equivalent of a battle today costing the lives of half a million.

If you were on the wrong side, that was it: curtains. Even if you survived the fighting you faced the greater horror of being ‘attainted’. This meant being hanged, drawn and quartered, while your goods were confiscated and your heirs disinherited in perpetuity. Such was the fate of 60 Lancastrian knights and gentlemen (including 25 MPs — so it wasn’t all bad…) after Towton.

As with the Norman Conquest and the first world war, the war’s victims numbered disproportionately among the English upper classes. ‘Out of 70 adult peers during this period, over 50 are known to have fought in battles they had to win if they wanted to stay alive,’ notes Desmond Seward, in his superb The Wars Of The Roses. Entire noble families were exterminated. In one campaign alone — 1460 to 1461 — 12 noblemen were killed and six beheaded, over a third of the English peerage.

And there was no way of opting out. If you were one of the 50 or 60 great families, you were too prominent politically and socially, and your private army was too valuable, to permit your remaining neutral. This, in turn, meant that your myriad kinsmen, retainers, and hangers-on had to follow you into battle, whether they liked it or not. As a government spokesman told the House of Commons in 1475, ‘None [of us] hath escaped.’

Update: Colby Cosh sent along a link to this Economist article from 2010:

Towton is a nondescript village in northern England, between the cities of York and Leeds. Many Britons have never heard of it: school history tends to skip the 400-or-so years between 1066 and the start of the Tudor era. Visitors have to look hard to spot the small roadside cross that marks the site of perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in England. Yet the clash was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses. And, almost 550 years later, the site is changing our understanding of medieval battle.

In Shakespeare’s cycle of eight plays, the story of the Wars of the Roses is told as an epic drama. In reality it was a messy series of civil wars — an on-again, off-again conflict pitting supporters of the ruling Lancastrian monarchy against backers of the house of York. According to Helen Castor, a historian at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the wars arose from the slow breakdown of English government under Henry VI, a man who was prone to bouts of mental illness and “curiously incapable” even when well. As decision-making under Henry drifted, factions formed and enmities deepened. These spiralling conflicts eventually drove Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, to assert his own claim to the throne. York was named Henry’s heir, but he was killed in December 1460. His 18-year-old son, Edward, proclaimed himself king just before the battle of Towton.

That set the stage for a vicious fight. Edward had his father and brother to avenge. After killing him, Lancastrian forces had impaled York’s head on a lance and adorned it with a paper crown. Following years of skirmishes others had scores to settle, too. In previous encounters, efforts had been made to spare rank-and-file soldiers. At Towton, orders went out that no quarter be given. This was to be winner-takes-all, a brutal fight to the death.

The result was a crushing victory for the Yorkists and for the young king. Edward IV went on to rule, with a brief interruption, until his death 22 years later — a death that triggered the final stage of the conflict and the rise of a new dynasty under Henry Tudor. The recorded death toll at Towton may well have been inflated to burnish the legend of Edward’s ascent to the crown. Yet there can be little doubt it was an unusually large confrontation.

The archaeological details of the battlefield excavations are quite interesting. Gruesome, but interesting.

January 20, 2013

A petition for Richard III to be reburied at York Minster

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:20

Elizabeth linked to this petition which might be of interest to Ricardians:

Joe Ann Ricca, Founder and Chief Executive of The Richard III Foundation, Inc., said: “Richard obviously had no choice after he was killed as to where his remains were taken, but today we have the opportunity to right the many wrongs that have been done to this unjustly maligned king, by correcting the distorted picture that has been painted of Richard over the centuries, and by bringing his remains home to Yorkshire, and to York Minster as he wanted.”

Richard, who was the last Plantagenet king, and the last English monarch to die in battle, had strong connections with the City of York and the County of Yorkshire. He spent much of his youth at Middleham Castle and for 12 years he ruled the North of England on behalf of his elder brother, King Edward IV, earning a widespread reputation for fair-mindedness and justice. After becoming king, he visited York several times and was showered with gifts each time. His son, Edward, was crowned Prince of Wales whilst in York.

Although entitled to be buried at Westminster Abbey alongside other kings and queens of England, Richard III announced his intention to be buried at York, and in 1483 set in motion plans for a new chantry chapel at York Minster. Indeed, so strongly was Richard linked to York that the City authorities greeted the news of his death at the Battle of Bosworth with these words: “King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was, through great treason, piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.”

April 9, 2012

The “bloodiest battle” in British history

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:28

Although the total number of casualties would be exceeded in other wars the British fought, the Battle of Towton in 1461 was the bloodiest battle to take place in Britain:

The bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil was not Hastings in 1066, when King Harold died, nor Marston Moor in 1644, where the Whitecoats fought to the death against Cromwell’s Ironsides, nor Culloden a hundred years later, where “Butcher” Cumberland broke the Highland clans. It was the now all-but-forgotten Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday 1461, between Lancastrians and Yorkists in one of their many clashes in the Wars of the Roses, to decide who should be king.

Forces totaling 75,000 men marched to Towton, reckoned at 10% of the total military-age manpower of England and Wales, and 28,000 of them died there. The figure is the result of a body count performed on the field by heralds and confirmed by several independent contemporary witnesses.

[. . .]

Even though far more of Henry’s Lancastrians than Yorkists fell at Towton, the battle was not even a decisive one: The Wars of the Roses rolled on for more than 20 years afterward. One reason for the clash’s harrowing violence was that civil war had turned into personal vendetta. The Yorkist leader, later King Edward IV, had lost his father and younger brother, dying in battle or murdered after it. Killing York senior and stirring the wrath of his son was a mistake, for the 18-year-old was 6-foot-4, a giant by medieval standards, and he had charisma that inspired followers.

His Lancastrian enemies were led by the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland and Baron Clifford, all of whom also had fathers to avenge. After years of regional feuds and fighting, the gentry and even the yeomanry of England had scores to pay off as well. There was no taking for ransom, and no quarter given. That probably accounts for the determination with which both sides fought, confirmed by high losses suffered even by the winners. Twenty thousand Lancastrians died, probably at least half of them as they were remorselessly pursued in retreat, but 8,000 Yorkists fell too.

One of the reasons the battle is so little-remembered — aside from it not being decisive in spite of the carnage — is that it was shoved down the memory hole by the Tudors after that dynasty came to the throne:

Very few records of the battle survive, which is one reason that so little is known about it. Historians believe this could be due to an early propaganda campaign by the Tudors.

Author and historian George Goodwin, who this month publishes a new book: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle, said: “The Tudors did a tremendously good propaganda job in making Bosworth the key battle because that was the battle which ended the Wars of the Roses. They were the winners and they got to write the history books. Because Towton was a Yorkist victory that wasn’t really very useful to them.”

March 26, 2011

550th anniversary of the bloodiest battle in English history

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:07

Unless you were paying close attention in your history classes, you probably wouldn’t recognize the name:

It was one of the biggest and probably the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. Such was its ferocity almost 1 per cent of the English population was wiped out in a single day. Yet mention the Battle of Towton to most people and you would probably get a blank stare.

Next week marks the 550th anniversary of the engagement that changed the course of the Wars of the Roses. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers took part in the battle in 1461 between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of the English throne. An estimated 28,000 men are said to have lost their lives.

But this bloody conflict is unlikely to remain forgotten for much longer. Archaeologists believe they will unearth what is likely to be Britain’s largest mass grave this summer.

Work is to begin in June, at a site 12 miles south of York between the villages of Saxton and Towton where the battle took place in snowy March weather. The locations of the graves were discovered by archaeologists using geophysical imagery and now, with funding in place, they are able to begin excavating.

And why is such a major battle so little-known? Perhaps because the “wrong” side won:

Very few records of the battle survive, which is one reason that so little is known about it. Historians believe this could be due to an early propaganda campaign by the Tudors.

Author and historian George Goodwin, who this month publishes a new book: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 — England’s Most Brutal Battle, said: “The Tudors did a tremendously good propaganda job in making Bosworth the key battle because that was the battle which ended the Wars of the Roses. They were the winners and they got to write the history books. Because Towton was a Yorkist victory that wasn’t really very useful to them.”

« « This week in Guild Wars 2 news| 20 years of Blizzard » »

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: