Day 8, Part II: The Killing Fields of Towton

While I pondered the bustling day in York, John brought the car around and we drove a half-hour southwest to the enormous battlefield of Towton. It was here on March 29, 1461 that the Wars of the Roses continued. The Yorkist royal contender completely routed the forces of Lancastrian Henry VI (who had ruled almost 40 years), declared himself King Edward IV, and drove the remaining Lancastrian leadership into exile. Spoiler alert: they do return; hence Wars of the Roses.

We parked at the side of the road and walked the empty killing field on a very cold, blustery, damp gray day as John retold the story. Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil—28,000 knights, archers, mercenaries, and peasant conscripts cut down in 10 hours of fighting. Having marched for days to get here, the two sides ultimately faced each other on a front that stretched a mile from left to right. Every man knew he was fighting a battle to the death. Sleet blew into the Lancastrians’ faces, and the wind behind the Yorkists gave their arrows an extra 30 yards of reach.

John and I stood shivering in the middle of the battle line, the field unchanged since then: a ridge here, trees over there, low ground cover between. We strained to hear the horrible groans and see the horrible sights of five centuries ago.

At the battle’s climax the Lancastrians broke and ran some five miles back to their camp, chased by Yorkists on horseback or foot, thirsty for blood. Their weapons were primitive but effective—archaeologists say that many, many people died of blunt-trauma head wounds.

On the drive back from Towton John spoke less than usual, and I was pretty quiet. Comfortable in our modern car with the heat turned on, we were still deeply chilled by the carnage we had vicariously experienced.

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