In an unexpected change to Towton Battlefield Society's lecture programme, we were treated last night to a presentation by battlefield archaeologist Tim Sutherland (on the right of the picture with 'dream-team' partner, TBS Chairman Mark Taylor). Tim kicked off proceedings with a sneak preview of the new 6-part TV series he's been working on, due to be screened on the Yesterday channel in a few months: Medieval Dead (the title is a play on the 1980's classic 'Evil Dead' horror movies, which none of us picked up until he pointed it out!). The series will feature Tim's projects at home and abroad, including work at Agincourt and Tadcaster Castle; there will also be an episode on Towton, which promises fresh revelations. More than that I cannot say - you'll have to wait for the series to find out what they are!
After this appetiser, we moved on to an even tastier main course. As I've previously reported on this page, Tim and Mark have been energetically campaigning to protect Towton battlefield from the ongoing threats of unauthorised metal-detecting and agricultural damage, along with the recent threat of development at The Gallops in Towton village. This led, in December 2012, to Tim being invited to the House of Lords to address the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Committee on the real and present dangers faced by our battlefield; and now he delivered the same presentation to us.
It was interesting to hear that Baroness Andrews, the Chair of English Heritage (EH), left the meeting before Tim started to speak... perhaps chickening out of the grilling she knew she was bound to receive afterwards! Because, as Tim so eloquently explained, many of our current problems stem from EH failing in its remit of protection...
Mark and Tim at the opening of the TBS Visitor Information Centre at the Crooked Billet in 2007 - we've come a long way since then!
The battlefield was listed on EH's 'Heritage at Risk' register back in 1995 - although the boundaries of the designated battlefield area did not extend to important associated sites like St Mary's Chapel and the deserted medieval village of Lead, All Saints' Church in Saxton, (where Lord Dacre is buried), and Towton village itself; and notwithstanding the excavation of the mass battle graves around Towton Hall (right), these boundaries have never been extended. (Nor have they been at Marston Moor or Northampton battlefields, both currently affected by development issues, or indeed at any of EH's 'battlefields at risk' over the past 18 years!). EH did, however, commission a report by Dr. Glenn Foard, who agreed that Towton was under increasing threat and recommended that the battlefield boundaries should be extended - but have since failed to act on these recommendations, or even to register an objection on heritage grounds to the extended planning permission application at The Gallops! No wonder the battlefield is 'at risk', given such a gutless response from the body supposed to protect it.
The good news is that things will change... Mark and Tim's lobbying of local councillors and MPs, together with Facebook campaigns supported by TBS members and friends, have caused embarrassing questions to be asked at the highest levels within EH - with the result that a fast-track review process is now under way. As they remarked last night, this is an example of the 'Big Society' at work - collectively, small voices can make big changes, and we are all
Outside the battlefield boundary: Towton Hall, site of the mass graves
perfectly entitled to call institutions like EH to account when they're not doing their jobs properly - after all, we fund them through our taxes. So, despite coming under pressure to do so from certain quarters, our battlefield champions Tim and Mark are not about to shut up and go away... and if you would like to find out more about the background to all this, the Freedom of Information Act entitles anyone to demand copies of all documentation pertaining to Towton currently held by EH; you'll find details of how to make an application on their website. Roll on the next instalment of the saga!
I'm busy washing kit, sending out warning orders and dealing with replies from guest re-enactors and traders... yes, it's that time again. Palm Sunday will soon be upon us, and with it Towton Battlefield Society's biggest event of the year: our annual battle commemoration in the grounds of Towton Hall. Look out for our posters all around Yorkshire (left, another lovely design by the Frei Compagnie's own Frances Perry) - and if you fancy a grand day out with the family, wrap up warm, put your stout walking-boots on, and come and see us on the 24th! It promises to be another good day, with at least a dozen Wars of the Roses re-enactment households joining the Frei Compagnie in the living history camp; a great show of medieval craftspeople and traders on the field, including House of Freyja, Trinity Court Potteries, Alison and Hugh's Hand-made Things and Douggie the Wood with his fabulous furniture; and a barn-full of other stalls, among them the Richard III Society Yorkshire Branch, acclaimed Wars of the Roses artist Graham Turner, the Battlefields Trust, Tewkesbury and Stamford Bridge Battlefield Societies, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and much more (including myself and Su Harrison launching our latest novels!). You can get hot potatoes, coffee, hot fruit punch and hot-cross-buns to sustain you on site, buy a drink from the bar in the barn, or nip down the lane for a full meal in the recently refurbished and reopened Rockingham Arms; and round your day off with a battle - this year, the troops will perform a vignette of the opening stages of Towton, and the death of Lord Dacre. (According to tradition, Dacre was shot in the throat by an archer perched in a burr-tree near the one currently growing on the battlefield - a feat which, as an archer myself, I've always been a bit sceptical about!).
So it should be an action-packed day from the moment the guided battlefield walks start at 9.30 am to Lord Dacre's fall at 4 pm... I'm just crossing my fingers that we don't get authentically snowy weather to go with it...
21st March STOP PRESS: PALM SUNDAY EVENT CANCELLED
Groan... yes, for the first time since the last foot-and-mouth epidemic, Towton Battlefield Society has had to call off our major event of the year, the Battle of Towton commemoration on Palm Sunday. Sadly, the weather is proving all too authentic, with more heavy rain and snow forecast for the weekend, on top of everything we've already had this week. Ordinarily, we might have been able to cope... if the latest bout of wetness wasn't falling on ground still saturated by the Biblical floods of 2012. Hubcap and I discovered this to our cost on Sunday, when we went to do some marking out on the field and his van got seriously stuck. Then the implications sank in... we mentally multiplied our problem by the dozens of re-enactor and trader vans and trailers that would need to drive onto the field and unload, not to mention the hundreds of visitor cars likely to follow on the Sunday - it'd end up more like the Somme than the Wars of the Roses. Would the Portaloo van be able to deliver the toilets? Would we spend half the weekend pushing and towing bogged-down vehicles off site? Come to that, would we be able to get to site at all or would we be snowed in?! As the week wore on, the rain and sleet carried on falling and the weekend outlook grew ever grimmer, our hearts sank even further... so it came as a great relief, if a great disappointment, when TBS Chairman
Mark Taylor took the brave decision to cancel yesterday.
So now, instead of packing kit, I'm packing off press releases and messages, trying to save anyone the inconvenience and let-down of making a journey through miserable weather to find an empty field. As is Chairman Mark, and with some surprising results: amazing generosity by service providers waiving their cancellation fees; kind, understanding and appreciative messages pouring in from re-enactors and public; 4500 hits and 5% more 'likes' on the TBS Facebook page; new friends made, including a troupe of strolling minstrels who've offered to appear free, next Palm Sunday, and a general consensus that we've done the right thing. Phew. So please pass on to anyone you know that it's not going to happen - and if you'd like more background to the situation, check out my latest blog, Palm Sunday: Hail the Towton Warriors.
Towton Battlefield, Palm Sunday 2013:
the iconic burr tree, marking the area of Lord Dacre's fall, under snow on March 24th - not really what we'd been hoping for on the day of our major event!
For the past several years, we've been spoiled with blue skies and glorious Spring sunshine for our annual Battle of Towton commemoration on Palm Sunday (left) - but not so in 2013 (right)! Alas, this year the whole event was spoiled by weather conditions akin to those the soldiers endured on March 29th 1461... so thank goodness we'd called it off, as much of England ground to a halt under the unseasonal Arctic blast of this very long and strange winter. The only favour the weather did us was to keep visitors from making wasted journeys... but luckily, some of us from TBS and the Frei Compagnie who weren't snowed in managed to get to site to mark the occasion.
It was the first time I'd ever seen Towton under such heavy snow, let alone at this time of year, and it made for a very special and poignant experience as we walked the Battlefield Trail from Towton Hall, up the Old London Road and round the edge of the plateau to Bloody Meadow and Dacre's Cross - much the same route as some of the Lancastrian troops would have marched to their deaths 552 years ago. The very cold conditions had firmed the ground up slightly, but it was still a challenging walk with knee-deep, windblown drifts in some parts, and ankle-deep squidgy bog under shallower snow in others - and an absolutely biting easterly whipping across the plain, unlike the southerly wind that blew on the day of the battle. Definitely a day to wrap up well - and as you can see from Chairman Mark's face (right), we were all looking pretty red-raw and chapped by the time we'd finished. And at least we were still able to lay our floral tributes: a red-and-white cross on Lord Dacre's tomb in Saxton churchyard, and the two wreaths you can see on the right at the foot of Dacre's Cross (where Mark gave a brief address and we observed a minutes' silence). So even though we couldn't have our usual event, we still remembered 'our boys' - perhaps with even greater sympathy than usual, as we battled our way through the snow. And it was a great relief to get into the lovely cosy Crooked Billet afterwards for a hot drink and a slap-up lunch... it certainly made for a more relaxing and enjoyable day, in some respects, than the hard work and responsibility of running the public event!
There was another unexpected silver lining in the cloud of cancellation for us on Saturday 23rd. Normally, Mick and I would both have been working our socks off at Towton preparing for the big day; but this year, we were able to attend the Friends of Sandal Castle lecture on the Ackworth Civil War hoard by Finds Liaison Officer Amy Downes of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (left, with hubcap). Amy gave a fascinating presentation on this extraordinary find of more than 500 silver and gold coins and a gold ring discovered during building works in someone's garden in 2011. The coins, buried in a Wrenthorpe-ware pot just outside a long-vanished medieval building, dated from Henry VIII to a Charles I issue of 1645 - 6, and included silver ducatoons from the Spanish Netherlands brought back to England by Queen Henrietta Maria after her expedition to seek aid from European allies. The richness and date of the hoard, and the fact that the coins all appear to have been withdrawn from circulation at the same time, suggests that it might have been buried by a Royalist supporter to hide it from the Parliamentarians shortly before the Siege of Pontefract - could it have been pay for Charles I's troops? - and the fact that it was never retrieved poignantly suggests that the person (or persons) who knew where it was buried did not survive the coming battles. Altogether a most interesting and thought-provoking afternoon, further sweetened with marvellous cakes baked by the Friends - and if you would like to contribute to the fund to acquire the hoard for Wakefield Museums, please follow the instructions on their website.
Mick examines Finds Liaison Officer Amy Downes' handling collection of typical archaeological finds