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Wars of the Roses: Battle of Towton

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Battle of Towton: Date & Conflict:

The Battle of Towton was fought on March 29, 1461, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).

Armies & Commanders

Yorkists

  • Edward IV
  • 20,000-36,000 men

Lancastrians

  • Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset
  • 25,000-42,000 men

Battle of Towton - Background:

Beginning in 1455, the Wars of the Roses saw a dynastic conflict erupt between King Henry VI (Lancastrians) and the out-of-favor Richard, Duke of York (Yorkists). Prone to bouts of insanity, Henry's cause was chiefly advocated by his wife, Margaret of Anjou, who sought to protect their son's, Edward of Westminster, birthright. In 1460, the fighting escalated with Yorkist forces winning the Battle of Northampton and capturing Henry. Seeking to assert his power, Richard attempted to claim the throne after the victory.

Blocked from this by his supporters, he agreed to the Act of Accord which disinherited Henry's son and stated that Richard would ascend to the throne upon the king's death. Unwilling to let this stand, Margaret raised an army in northern England to revive the Lancastrian cause. Marching north in late 1460, Richard was defeated and killed at the Battle of Wakefield. Moving south, Margaret's army defeated the Earl of Warwick at the Second Battle of St. Albans and recovered Henry. Advancing on London, her army was prevented from entering the city by the Council of London which feared looting.

Battle of Towton - A King Made:

As Henry was unwilling to enter the city by force, negotiations began between Margaret and the council. During this time, she learned that Richard's son, Edward, Earl of March, had defeated Lancastrian forces near the Welsh border at Mortimer's Cross and was uniting with the remnants of Warwick's army. Concerned about this threat to their rear, the Lancastrian army began withdrawing northwards to a defensible line along the River Aire. From here they could safely await reinforcements from the north. A skillful politician, Warwick brought Edward to London and on March 4 had him crowned as King Edward IV.

Battle of Towton - Initial Encounters:

Seeking to defend his newly won crown, Edward immediately began moving to crush the Lancastrian forces in the north. Departing on March 11, the army marched north in three divisions under the command of Warwick, Lord Fauconberg, and Edward. In addition, John Mowbry, Duke of Norfolk, was sent to the eastern counties to raise additional troops. As the Yorkists advanced, Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, commanding the Lancastrian army began making preparations for battle. Leaving Henry, Margaret, and Prince Edward at York, he deployed his forces between the villages of Saxton and Towton.

On March 28, 500 Lancastrians under John Neville and Lord Clifford attacked a Yorkist detachment at Ferrybridge. Overwhelming men under Lord Fitzwater, they secured the bridge over the Aire. Learning of this, Edward organized a counterattack and sent Warwick to attack Ferrybridge. To support this advance, Fauconberg was ordered to cross the river four miles upstream at Castleford and move to attack Clifford's right flank. While Warwick's assault was largely held, Clifford was forced to fall back when Fauconberg arrived. In a running fight, the Lancastrians were defeated and Clifford was killed near Dinting Dale.

Battle of Towton - Battle Joined:

The crossing retaken, Edward advanced across the river the next morning, Palm Sunday, despite the fact that Norfolk still had not arrived. Aware of the previous day's defeat, Somerset deployed the Lancastrian army on a high plateau with its right anchored on the stream of the Cock Beck. Though the Lancastrians occupied a strong a position and had a numerical advantage, the weather worked against them as the wind was in their face. A snowy day, this blew the snow in their eyes and limited visibility. Forming to the south, the veteran Fauconberg advanced his archers and opened fire.

Assisted by the strong the wind, the Yorkist arrows fell in the Lancastrian ranks causing casualties. Replying, the Lancastrian archers' arrows were hampered by the wind and fell short of the enemy's line. Unable to see this due to the weather, they emptied their quivers to no effect. Again the Yorkist archers advanced, gathering up the Lancastrian arrows and shooting them back. With losses mounting, Somerset was forced to take action and ordered his troops forward with a cry of "King Henry!" Slamming into the Yorkist line, they slowly began pushing them back (Map).

On the Lancastrian right, Somerset's cavalry succeeded in driving off its opposite number, but the threat was contained when Edward shifted troops block their advance. Details pertaining the fighting are scarce, but it is known that Edward flew about the field encouraging his men to hold and fight. As the battle raged, the weather worsened and several impromptu truces were called to clear the dead and wounded from between the lines. With his army under severe pressure, Edward's fortunes were bolstered when Norfolk arrived after noon. Joining Edward's right, his fresh troops slowly began to turn the battle.

Outflanked by the new arrivals, Somerset shifted troops from his right and center to meet the threat. As the fighting continued, Norfolk's men began to push back the Lancastrian right as Somerset's men tired. Finally as their line neared Towton Dale, it broke and with it the entire Lancastrian army. Collapsing into full retreat, they fled north in an attempt to cross the Cock Beck. In full pursuit, Edward's men inflicted severe losses on the retreating Lancastrians. At the river a small timber bridge quickly collapsed and others reportedly crossed on a bridge of bodies. Sending horsemen forward, Edward pursued the fleeing soldiers through the night as the remnants of Somerset's army retreated to York.

Battle of Towton - Aftermath

Casualties for the Battle of Towton are not known with any precision though some sources indicate they may have been has high as 28,000 total. Others estimate losses around 20,000 with 15,000 for Somerset and 5,000 for Edward. The largest battle fought in Britain, Towton was a decisive victory for Edward and effectively secured his crown. Abandoning York, Henry and Margaret fled north to Scotland before separating with the latter ultimately going to France to seek aid. Though some fighting continued for the next decade, Edward ruled in relative peace until the Readeption of Henry VI in 1470.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1401-1600
  6. Wars of the Roses
  7. Towton - Battle of Towton - Wars of the Roses - Edward IV

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