I’ve been obsessed with the Battle of Towton for as long as I can remember. On Palm Sunday 1461, outside the Yorkshire village of that name, Lancastrian and Yorkist forces clashed in an early engagement of what became later known as the Wars of the Roses.
It was the biggest battle ever staged in Britain, involving some fifty thousand men. It was fought in a blizzard of snow, which I think is partly what attracts me to it. The Lancastrians under the mentally unstable Henry VI were slaughtered by the Yorkist army under Edward IV, and in all about twenty-eight thousand men were killed.
By the time the battle was over, an area of snow three miles wide and six miles long was bloodstained and covered in corpses. There was no quarter given by either side. Many dukes and earls who weren’t killed in the battle were summarily beheaded afterwards.
I took the Towton Battlefield Walk not long ago, setting out from the Rockingham Arms pub after a few pints and enjoying a tramp across the bracing Yorkshire countryside.
This is my favourite of the many poems written about the Battle of Towton:
The Towton Rose
Oh, the red and the white Rose, upon Towton Moor it grows,
And red and white it blows upon that swarthe for evermore –
In memorial of the slaughter when the red blood ran like water,
And the victors gave no quarter in the flight from Towton Moor:
When the banners gay were beaming, and the steel cuirasses gleaming,
And the martial music streaming o’er that wide and lonely heath;
And many a heart was beating that dreamed not of retreating,
Which, ere the sun was setting, lay still and cold in death:
When the snow that fell at morning lay as a type and warning,
All stained and streaked with crimson, like the roses white and red
And filled each thirsty furrow with its token of the sorrow
That wailed for many a morrow through the mansions of the dead.
Now for twice two hundred years, when the month of March appears,
All unchecked by plough or shears spring the roses red and white;
Nor can the hand of mortal close the subterranean portal
That gives to life immortal these emblems of the fight.
And as if they were enchanted, not a flower may be transplanted
From those fatal precincts, haunted by the spirits of the slain;
For howe’er the root you cherish, it shall fade away and perish
When removed beyond the marish of Towton’s gory plain.
Edmund Bogg, 1902