Towton 1461: England’s Bloodiest Battle
The Battle of Towton was fought in falling snow on Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461. It was almost certainly the bloodiest battle of the intermittent armed clashes that took place during the civil conflict in England now known as the Wars of the Roses. As with other books in the different Osprey series, Towton 1461 seeks to offer a brief, readable account of its subject. This offers some difficulties for an author faced with a complicated subject. The so-called Wars of the Roses is an historical episode that Gravett over simplifies by calling it simply a rivalry between the dynasties of Lancaster and York. The narrative on the origins of the Towton campaign is so compacted that it distorts the accepted story of the fifteenth-century English civil war as generally accepted by historians. The section also contains errors. For example, Edmund, duke of York (d. 1402), was not married to Anne Mortimer, and he was not executed in Henry V’s reign (1413-22), as Gravett asserts (p. 8). Edward, duke of York, died at Agincourt in 1415, not Duke Richard of York, (continuing errors on p. 8) and the duke of York who died at Agincourt was not the brother of any king. The York title passed to Edward’s nephew, Richard Plantagenet, son of Earl Richard of Cambridge, who was married to Anne Mortimer, and who was executed for being involved in the Southampton Plot of 1415.
The battle of Towton followed the proclamation of Edward, son of Duke Richard of York (killed 1460), as King Edward IV by a group of determined supporters. The constitutional questions surrounding Edward IV’s usurpation of the throne in 1461 are skirted with the curious tactic of saying that Edward was ‘inaugurated’ (p. 15). Edward’s opponents were the supporters of King Henry VI (1422-61) of the House of Lancaster. In telling the story of Towton, Gravett follows his background discussion with a helpful chronology of the military episodes of 1455-64, then introduces the primary commanders on each side at Towton, followed by a discussion of the opposing forces, their numbers (necessarily conjectural) and armament. In speaking of armament, Gravett states that there were no gunpowder weapons present (p. 24), and then that some were present (pp. 27, 65). Kelly DeVries is certain that there were gunpowder weapons present, but that they may not have been used because of the weather conditions (“The Use of Gunpowder Weapons in the Wars of the Roses,” in Traditions and Transformations in Late Medieval England, ed. D. L. Biggs, S. D. Michalove, and A. C. Reeves [Leiden: Brill, 2002], p. 30). The heart of Gravett’s book is taken up with an effort to reconstruct the course of events before, during, and after the battle. The narrative is supported by maps, photographs of the terrain and of surviving artifacts, and striking illustrations by Graham Turner. In telling of the battle, Gravett is much indebted to A. W. Boardman, The Battle of Towton (Stroud: Sutton, 1994) and V. Fiorato, A. Boylston, and C. Knusel, Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461 (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2000). Students will find the discussion of the battle to be very clear, and at the same time not so dogmatic as to make them believe that there is no room for uncertainty about the course of events, and exactly how Edward IV managed to emerge victorious over his Lancastrian foes. Readers will find of particular interest the manner in which William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, on the Yorkist side is credited with using archers and the weather go great advantage. The book is concluded with a travel guide for visiting the battlefield, a bibliography, and an index.