Towton: How Britain’s Fiercest Battle Unfolded

Atop a North Yorkshire dale, amid a storm of snow and ice, the White and Red Rose clash in an epic battle for the English throne.

Feb 17, 2024By Ashley Wright, MA History, BA (Hons) History


Fought on March 29, 1461, the Battle of Towton was a key battle in a series of dynastic civil wars known as the War of the Roses (1455–1485), a decades-long struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York for the English throne.


By its sixth year, the conflict had already produced some deadly battles and skirmishes. Towton, however, would take the violence to a whole new level. Many consider it the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, with close to 20,000 slaughtered on the field that day. To find out why, we must take to the frontline and look at how the battle unfolded, step by step.


The Prelude: A Wilting Rose

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Henry VI at Towton, North Yorkshire, William Dyce, 1860. Source: Guildhall Art Gallery, via Art UK


In 1422, Henry VI succeeded to the throne of England at just nine months old. Due to his tender age, the young king had a minority council rule for him, comprised of the government’s most ambitious and influential men. These men would become immensely powerful, with their rivalries and machinations dominating English politics for decades, even after Henry came of age in 1437.


In July 1453, following an ignominious defeat at the hands of the French, Henry suffered a severe decline in his mental health. The beleaguered king was deemed unfit to rule, and another council was established. At its head was Richard, Duke of York, whose ancestry gave him a cast-iron claim to the throne.


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In 1455, the king recovered from his illness. Any ambitions Richard held for the throne looked to be over, but the man had come too far to let his grip on power slip away now. Marching on London, he intercepted the royal army at St. Albans and defeated them in battle, declaring himself Lord Protector of England.


Fighting soon began again, and in July 1460, Henry was captured at the Battle of Northampton. Five months later, however, the tide would turn: Richard was slain at the Battle of Wakefield, and, in another Lancastrian victory at the Second Battle of St. Albans, Henry was freed. Richard’s son, Edward, inherited his father’s claim.


Needing a decisive victory, both the Yorkists and Lancastrians decided to go all in. Gathering their armies, the two sides took to the field once more, this time just south of a small village in North Yorkshire: Towton.


Strength and Deployment

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Satellite image of Towton battlefield showing the initial deployment of both York and Lancaster, 2022. Source: Google Earth


While claims of the strength of each force have varied wildly over the years, the best estimate puts the Lancastrian numbers at approximately 25,000 men and the Yorkists at 20,000. Both were well equipped with the arms and armor of the day and although extremely limited, there is even some evidence to suggest some troops were equipped with early firearms.


In addition to a numerical advantage, the Lancastrians had the benefit of choosing the field – a sloping plateau bisected by a dale of flatland. By deploying on the north side of the plateau, they had an excellent line of sight with protection on both flanks by marshland (left flank) and the steep scarps down to the Cock Beck, a tributary of the River Wharfe (right flank). The Yorkists had no choice but to deploy on the south side of the plateau.


The First Action

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An engraving of Fauconberg commanding his archers, Edmund Evans, 1864. Source: Wikimedia Commons


With their forces now in position and in sight of one another, the Yorkist and Lancastrian archers began with a hail of arrows. Both sides loosed volley after volley, but it quickly became clear who had the advantage. Thanks to a southerly wind, the Lancastrian arrows fell just short of the Yorkist line, while the Yorkists faced no such problems. Even worse for the Red Rose were the flurries of snow soon blown north by this unexpected wind, hampering the accuracy of their archers even further.


Panic quickly descended upon the Lancastrian lines when, in an extraordinary maneuver, the Yorkist commander Lord Fauconberg ordered his archers to gather the arrows of their enemies and shoot them back once their own quivers were empty.


Trollope’s Advance

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Reenactors advance across the field as part of the 550th anniversary of the battle by Pure Calamity, 2011. Source: Flickr


With their lightly armored archers falling around them, the Lancastrian command came to the conclusion they had to advance their main force. Their vanguard, led by Sir Andrew Trollope, attacked first from the right, making significant inroads into the Yorkist left.


According to the account of Jean de Waurin, a contemporary to the battle, they were aided by an ambush party lying in wait in the nearby Castle Hill Wood. While the archaeology does corroborate the attack on the Yorkist left, Waurin’s claim remains unsubstantiated.


Nevertheless, the Yorkists were indeed pushed back from their initial positions.


Crossing the Dale

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The sloping plateau leading down into the depression known as the Towton Dale, photo by Ashley Wright, 2017. Source: Author


The main body of the Lancastrian army soon followed their vanguard, advancing across the depression of the Towton Dale and engaging the Yorkists on the southern plateau.


It was here the two armies finally met each other, full force. Thousands of men clashed in brutal hand-to-hand fighting, leading to a bloodbath of epic proportions.


No quarter was to be given, and in a matter of hours, the field was littered with corpses. The sheer number of bodies piling up became such a hindrance that, on some parts of the field at least, the fighting had to be paused to remove them, allowing those left alive to continue the battle.


Norfolk, Yorkshire’s Savior

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The Battle of Towton by John Quartley, circa 1878. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Facing superior numbers, the Yorkist line began to falter. Edward, however, would not allow it to break. Rallying his troops, the Yorkist king dismounted his horse and joined the rank and file, fighting alongside his men wherever the line appeared weakest.


It was a brilliant move. Whether he knew it or not, Edward and his men had bought enough time for the arrival of reinforcements raised by John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk.


Norfolk’s troops immediately swung the battle in favor of the Yorkists, reinforcing the line on their right flank – just where it happened to be strongest. This influx of fresh men sparked panic among the Lancastrian left, causing a great many of them to flee.


The Rout

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The Battle of Towton, 1461 by Richard Caton Woodville, 1922. Source: Wikimedia Commons


As the Lancastrian left capitulated, so did the rest of their line. More and more men panicked and began to withdraw, leading to even greater gaps for the Yorkists to exploit. Before long, the Red Rose was in full retreat.


It was now Towton turned from battle to massacre. Fleeing from atop the plateau, the Lancastrians faced two obstacles that ensured their almost complete annihilation.


First was the Towton Dale. This depression acted as something of a funnel, allowing the Yorkist cavalry to easily dispatch them as they fled northwest across what would later become known as the Bloody Meadow.


Second, and even worse, was the Cock Beck. The steep scarps down to the brook – now a raging river thanks to the snow – sent heavily armored men tumbling to their deaths, with the water itself proving just as deadly. Treacherously deep, this swirling torrent trapped hundreds, if not thousands, of Lancastrians, leading to their wholesale slaughter. By the day’s end, the river, now bridged by the mangled bodies of countless men, is said to have run red with blood.


The Aftermath: King and Kingmaker

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Part of Warwick Castle, the Earl of Warwick’s stronghold and residence by Elliott Brown, 2009. Source: Flickr


Any surviving Lancastrians were pursued relentlessly, with some chased even as far as Tadcaster – over two miles away.


His armies now decimated, Henry and his son fled north into exile with the few living nobles still loyal to his cause. Here, they continued to resist until May 1464, when the remaining rebels were crushed at the Battle of Hexham. Not long after, Henry himself was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.


Having been crowned king just a few months after his victory at Towton, all looked well for Edward (now Edward IV), but division between him and his most powerful minister, the Earl of Warwick, would soon put an end to any optimism.


Warwick was instrumental in the Yorkists’ success both on and off the battlefield and came to command almost as much power and influence as the king himself. He would later become better known by his epithet, “the Kingmaker,” for his role in the deposition of Henry… and his role in what was to come.


Shifting Allegiances

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Battle of Barnet by Agnes Allen, 1971. Source: Barnet Museum, via Art UK


Dispute after dispute between king and Kingmaker quickly resulted in open warfare, with Warwick organizing an armed insurrection against Edward. The rebels defeated the royal army at the Battle of Edgcote in 1469, and Edward was forced into exile. The Kingmaker then restored Henry to the throne in October 1470.


Henry’s rule, however, would last barely six months. There was little appetite among Lancastrians for the turncoat Warwick and, therefore, little opposition once Edward returned from exile in March 1471.


Their forces met at the decisive Battle of Barnet a month later. The Lancastrians were once more defeated, and Warwick was unceremoniously slain. Edward had won, and with further defeat for the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury and the death of the captive Henry, his rule as king was cemented for the remainder of his life.


The Red Rose Rises

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Battle of Bosworth by Abraham Cooper, circa 1825. Source: Dallas Museum of Art


Edward died in 1483, leaving his young sons Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury as heirs. Both boys, however, were soon declared illegitimate, handing the throne to the dead king’s brother, Richard III. Richard had the young princes sequestered in the Tower of London, where they were to remain indefinitely – never to be heard from again.


Richard’s ascendancy left many at court with considerably less power and influence, most notably the widowed Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s wife. Losing her lands, holdings, and, worst of all, her children, she allied herself with the last hope of the Lancastrians, the great-great-great-grandson of Edward III, Henry Tudor.


Supported by French aid and Yorkist defectors, Henry invaded England in 1485 and took on the White Rose at Bosworth Field, killing Richard and bringing the war to a bloody close. With his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York, Henry finally united Lancaster and York, bringing both houses under a single, blooming rose – the white and red of the House of Tudor.

Author Image

By Ashley WrightMA History, BA (Hons) HistoryAshley is a published novelist and contributing author from Greater Manchester, England. He holds an MA and BA (Hons) in History, graduating from the University of Huddersfield in 2020. His research and interests include the First World War, late 19th century British politics, and the Middle Ages in contemporary culture. When not writing, he enjoys hiking, playing historical games, and supporting Arsenal Football Club.