The bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil
The chances are, you’ll never have heard of it. If, though, you ever drive over to the east coast of Yorkshire from the Manchester area (or vice versa, I suppose), take a tip from me. Leave the M1 for a while onto the little-travelled B1217. It’s a pleasant relief to take country roads for a short stretch between the hellpit of the M1, and the hugely horrible A64.
The meandering B road passes an Edwardian mansion, Lotherton Hall, and bends through the village of Saxton. Past the Crooked Billet pub, the narrow road lopes onto rising farmland. Through tall hedges you will glimpse cornfields and copses in this particularly English landscape. Shortly after the hedges give up the ghost, you’ll see something of an anomaly on your left. A big old holly bush squats by the road, dark and gloomy and alien-looking. You can park nearby.
If you then peer behind the old holly, you’ll find an ancient, weather-worn gothic cross. No one knows who first put the cross here – it lay in a ditch for centuries before being righted again. On its base, amongst flowers both dried and fresh, you’ll see a recently added date – March 28, 1461. The anonymous inscriber got the date wrong: it should be the 29th. The 29th of March in that year of turmoil during the Wars of the Roses was a Sunday – Palm Sunday, in fact.
On that snow-driven day, perhaps the most significant day of the entire struggle for the throne between Edward and Henry, 100,000 men met at this place to hack, stab, slice, suffocate, bludgeon and trample each other to death. This was by far the most murderous battle ever fought on British soil, yet most of you will never have heard of it. A hundredth of the entire British population died in the blood-stained snow between dawn and dusk that day; almost 30,000 men – three times the number of casualties than on the first day of The Somme.
This was a horrific, bloody brawl. Imagine, if you can, the driving, stinging blizzard; the deafening racket of clashing arms and armour, the pleading of men, the screaming and howled obscenities; the stench of puke and shit and trampled entrails. If you fall, you’re dead in seconds, the life crushed out of you by the sheer weight of men jammed into this meat-mincer. If hell has ever been upon the earth, this was it. The death toll was so great, and bodies piled up so much, that occasional pauses were called in the fighting in order to drag corpses of the way.
The Lancastrians began to push the Yorkists back, and the core of the fighting drifted into a vale now called Bloody Meadow. If you walk up the lane a little from the cross, you’ll see the bowl of this small valley before you. The slaughter, unremitting, continued late into the afternoon. The Yorkists, led by Edward, the son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York , were outnumbered and outfought. They became ever more desperate as they gave way, inch by bloody inch, across the field. Then, up what is now the B1217, marched an army bearing aloft banners that displayed a white boar. These were the men of the Duke of Norfolk, whose fresh reinforcements pelted into the Lancastrians’ flank. The Lancastrians were stopped in their tracks, faltered, and began to give ground, tripping over the corpses of their own dead. The beleaguered Lancastrians bent, broke and ran like buggery. Then the rout began. If the battle was vicious, the rout added a whole new level of brutality.
Far more men died in the rout than in the battle. Bridges in the path of the fleeing Lancastrians shattered under the weight of armed men, plunging many to a freezing death in the icy water. Thousands were caught and mutilated, for it had been agreed in the parley before the battle that no quarter would be given, no mercy shown. Part-hidden, in a naked stand of ash trees, was the grim Bridge of Bodies, built of Lancastrian dead to form a dam, the rushing waters streaming with crimson grume. Panicked, hysterical men scrambled across the River Cock over the carcases of the fallen. From Tadcaster to Towton, the fields were strewn with corpses and body parts. The fleeing men made easy targets for horsemen, and foot soldiers killed many who had dropped their weapons and thrown off their helmets to breathe more freely. And all the while, the blizzard raged.
In 1996 a mass grave of more than 40 bodies was discovered at Towton Hall. It delivered the bones of some of the soldiers who had fought and died at Towton. The skeletons showed evidence of terrible wounds – there were some with at least 20 head injuries. They all died horribly.
“The thing that shook us was that these people had been butchered. Perhaps the most spectacular ones are where people have had part of their head sliced off, or their head cut in half. There’s much evidence of mutilation. That noses and ears were hacked off.” – Dr Alan Ogden, a palaeo-pathologist.
When you know the history of this place – the significant battle that took place here to decide the fate of the English throne, the awful toll it took, the hellish things that happened to thousands of men, you can’t simply stroll amongst the corn and enjoy the sun. The terrible deaths of those thousands haunt your thoughts. There are ghosts here.
“Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place. It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.” – A. A. Gill, 2008