Last Friday, March 29th, saw the 558th anniversary of the Battle of Towton (Palm Sunday, 1461) – the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, and one of the biggest and most ferocious ever fought on English soil.
People at the time believed that tens of thousands had been killed. Contemporary reports speak of a death toll of 20,000 - 28,000, although they don't specify whether this includes men who fell in the preceding engagement at Ferrybridge, or John, Lord Clifford, and his 'Flower of Craven', overtaken and slaughtered at Dintingdale near Saxton after holding the Ferrybridge crossing while the main Lancastrian army took up position at Towton. Some modern commentators believe that these figures are greatly exaggerated, and that the true number killed may be less than 10,000; but however many men really did die on that snowy Palm Sunday, one question has never been answered to this day: what happened to all the bodies?
We only know for sure in a very few cases. Lord Welles is buried in the church at Methley, and Ranulph, Lord Dacre of Gillesland, lies in this tomb (pictured) beside All Saints' church in Saxton. Of the unidentified majority, an unknown number (maybe some hundreds) were exhumed from their battlefield mass grave-pits by Richard III, and reburied in the hallowed ground of Saxton churchyard. Some hundreds more may have been interred in and around the lost chapel of St Mary's at Towton, on the site of the present Towton Hall; 23 of them were discovered there during building works in 1996, and reburied in 2005 next to Lord Dacre, their resting place marked by the arrowhead-shaped monument sculpted by the late Stephen Hines. Another mass grave containing the remains of 38 individuals was subsequently discovered at Towton Hall, and 6 more under the dining room floor (all excavated by Tim Sutherland and his team from the University of Bradford); so it seems likely that more bodies still lie there, inaccessible beneath the building structure.
But what of all the rest? Given that the rout continued for many hours and ranged over a wide area of the surrounding countryside, it also seems likely that many more casualties were buried in the churchyard nearest to where they fell - in places like Sherburn-in-Elmet, Kirkby Wharfe, and Tadcaster. Yet more could have been interred in unknown locations on and around the battlefield; and it's feasible that some of those swept away as they tried to escape across the flooding Cock Beck were never found and thus received no formal burial, but still lie where their bodies lodged in bends of the river.
I hope that one day, further archaeological survey work will discover more of these unknown resting places. In the meantime, if you'd like to join Towton Battlefield Society in remembering the fallen of Towton, do come along for one of our special public guided battlefield walks on Saturday 13th April - you can find further information on the Society website www.towton.org.uk.
This year I’m marking the 558th Palm Sunday since the Battle of Towton with a look back at some of the commemorations held by Towton Battlefield Society since I became a member in late 2004.
I remember being very excited about taking part in my first event in 2005, dressed as a male archer in borrowed kit, and camping in the field behind Towton Hall in a company tent. Back in those days it was a pretty small, informal affair attended by a few dozen re-enactors and a few hundred members of the public, with a small unrehearsed melee (pictured) forming the climax of the day. But with the founding of the TBS in-house group, the Frei Compagnie, in 2007, we formalised things with a planned programme of shows and activities lasting the whole day, and ending with a full battle scenario; the ‘Battle of Ferrybridge,’ incorporating a mocked-up wooden bridge, (you can see the Cliffords defending it below centre) ran for several years.
Helped by a succession of freakishly fine springs with glorious weather, and generous support from the Wars of the Roses Federation, Towton turned into the biggest private event of its kind in Yorkshire, attended by hundreds of re-enactors and traders, and enjoyed by several thousand visitors. You can see the blue skies in the photos above - and look at the difference in the size of the camp between 2009 (left) and 2011! The latter was one of my favourites - our Palm Sunday 550th anniversary, a beautiful weekend distinguished by the opening of the new Battlefield Trail, and by the attendance of the Society’s patron, the late great Robert Hardy; although a personal highlight every year was being allowed to shoot Lord Clifford in the closing battle! Another unforgettable occasion was our non-event in 2013, (pictured below, left and right), when bad weather forced us to cancel at the last minute, and a hardy group of Society walkers took the rare opportunity to see the battlefield under snow, as it would have been on Palm Sunday 1461 (continued below pics).
Unfortunately, the 2015 event proved to be the last of its kind. Palm Sunday fell victim to its own success, combined with the limitations of a relatively small site, (the grounds of Towton Hall, home of the Society’s long-suffering President, Mrs Elizabeth Verity), and an ever-increasing bureaucratic burden – essentially, TBS couldn’t guarantee having enough volunteers to carry out all the essential crowd and site management tasks safely and professionally. So from 2016 onwards, we had to make radical cut-backs, just providing guided walks and a few displays in the barn for members of the public on ‘Palm Saturday’, then a members-only walk followed by lunch at the Crooked Billet on the anniversary itself. And this year, for the first time, I had to miss it altogether due to illness – mind you, when Hubcap (pictured above with chums, arranged by order of size), came home and told me how cold it had been up the battlefield, I didn’t feel as sorry as I might have done! But I hope we’ll be back there together as usual in 2020, walking round with our friends and remembering the men who lost their lives at Towton so many Palm Sundays ago.