"O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!" - The Battle of Towton in 1461

29 March 1461: During a snowstorm on a Palm Sunday in Yorkshire, the largest and bloodiest battle on English soil was fought at Towton during the Wars of the Roses.

“O piteous spectacle! O bloody times! / Whiles lions war and battle for their dens, / Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity. / Weep, wretched man, I'll aid thee tear for tear; / And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war, / Be blind with tears, and break o'ercharged with grief." (William Shakespeare “Henry VI”)

Re-enactors from the Towton Battlefield Society. Their website is well worth a visit:

The order "no mercy" was issued to the 50,000 fighting men on both sides and the commanders on both sides meant it and it was the wind that changed, giving the outnumbered Yorkists the advantage. Not every man-at-arms was as heavily armoured as the French knights at Verneuil and Castillon and two salvos with 120,000 arrows shot by the northern longbowmen with the wind at their backs through the driving snow into the ranks of the Lancastrians charging down the steep slope into Towton Dale proved to be devastating and then it was man against man when the two battle lines closed, literally to the knife in the close packed ranks for the next three hours. When the Duke of Norfolk arrived in the afternoon with fresh troops and took the Lancastrians in the flank, the battle was over and the real slaughter began. The men of House Lancaster throwing away what armour they could and trying to run with the growing dark were cut down mercilessly by the Yorkists. 28,000 lives were lost on that day ensuring the throne of the Yorkist king Edward IV for the next 10 years, when the Wars of the Roses flared up again.

 The Battle of Towton, according to the American artist Richard Caton Woodville (1922)

What we know about the bloody fight where every second man that entered the field on the fateful Palm Sunday morning did not leave it alive by the end of the day, an exceptionally high death toll, even for a modern battle, is mostly hearsay, written down two generations later, by the Tudor historian Edward Hall, for example, who claimed that his grandfather was at Towton. Modern battlefield archaeology is only partly in accord with the gory 16th century accounts, but mass graves that were discovered in recent years show not only the deadliness of late medieval and early modern weapons, from skulls pierced by arrows with their deadly bodkin tips that went straight through the helmets worn to the aftermath when the fleeing men-at-arms had thrown their protective gear away. Depicted below is the head of a fallen soldier who was killed by a direct hit from a war hammer, probably wielded from horseback who positively did not wear a helmet anymore. The same is true for the man’s skull depicted on the bottom left. He was killed by the slash of a typical 15th century long sword, wielded with both hands, probably while turning towards his pursuer. He was a seasoned soldier who already had survived another nearly fatal blow of a sword to his lower jaw before, a hit that would have been a challenge for present-day casualty doctors, fully healed though and speaking volumes of the medical skills available during the so-called dark ages.

The images of the skulls were found on:


together with more information about Bradford University’s research on the battlefield.

and more on: