Was the battle of Towton as bloody as all that?

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Towton, a violent battle in 1461 which resulted in Edward IV claiming the throne from Henry VI. The battle is often thought to be the bloodiest ever fought on British soil, but is this really the case? Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 section explores…

The battle of Towton on 29 March 1461 has the reputation as the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. Contemporary chroniclers give extraordinary estimates of the number of deaths on that one day of prolonged fighting. Gregory’s Chronicle, for example, gives 35,000, and such high estimates are not confined to the chronicles. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the heralds, who had the responsibility of reckoning the dead, gave a figure 28,000. A comparison with deaths on a single day of fighting in the age of mechanised warfare suggests that these figures reflect, not any objective reality, but the medieval mind’s rather careless understanding of large numbers. A rather less bloody picture emerges from an examination of the deaths among lords and former members of the Commons who are known to have participated in the battle.

The sources are, as ever, defective, but it can be said with reasonable confidence that 27 of some 50 lay peers fought there, 19 on the Lancastrian side and eight on the Yorkist (or nine, if one adopts the Lancastrian view of the King, namely that he was merely the attainted earl of March). Only five of the 27 died on the battlefield, all of them Lancastrian, most notably Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, and Lionel, Lord Welles. It is harder to identify former members of the Commons who fought there, but the attainders of the Parliament of 1461 provide a starting point. Of the 18 former MPs attainted as present at Towton, only four died at the battle (and one of these, Ralph, Lord Dacre, MP for Cumberland in 1442 before inheriting his father’s peerage, was also one of the lords killed). Thus, of the 36 parliamentarians known to have fought for Lancaster, only eight fell on the field. A few other MPs can be added from other sources to this list of Lancastrian dead, like the Lincolnshire MP, Richard Waterton, a servant of Lord Welles, but the list is a short one, and there is no reason to suppose that the fatality rate among the unattainted Lancastrian MPs was any greater than that among the attainted (indeed, it may well have been lower).

Tomb of Ralph, Lord Dacre, in the churchyard of Saxton Church

The Yorkist side is much more difficult to reconstruct. All that can be said with certainty is that none of the Yorkists lords died in Towton campaign. Sir John Radcliffe, soi-disant Lord Fitzwalter, killed in a skirmish on the eve of the battle, is sometimes cited as one, but he was not a parliamentary peer. Other Yorkist casualties are hard to find. Of the 10 MPs from the Yorkist Parliament of 1460 who can be said with near-certainty to have fought there, two, the Worcestershire MP, John Stafford, notorious for the murder of Sir William Lucy at the battle of Northampton in 1460, and the Kent MP, Robert Horne, died at the battle, and another Thomas Gower, MP for Scarborough and closely connected with the Nevilles, may have done, but beyond this it is hard to go. Work for History of Parliament volumes for the 1422-61 period (soon to be published) has thrown up no other examples of MPs known to have been committed to the Yorkist cause who disappear from the records at the time of Towton. This implies that the list of Yorkist dead, namely Radcliffe, Stafford and Horne, recorded in a letter of 4 April 1461 is largely complete. In short, the death rate among the leading Yorkists was lower, and probably considerably so, than that among the leading Lancastrians, and that among the Lancastrians it was no more than about 20 per cent. 

One mundane source supports this general conclusion of a relatively low death rate, namely the writs routinely issued out of Chancery to enquire into the estates of deceased tenants-in-chief. One might expect these to provide a useful source for those who died at the battle, but they do not. Of the writs issued in the months after Towton in respect of likely combatants, nearly all relate either to those who died at earlier battles or to those, such as Welles and Radcliffe, known from other sources to have died on 29 March. All this suggests that the number of lords and MPs who died at Towton is not significantly underestimated in the surviving records and that the actual total may have been as few as about 20. Such a figure is hard to reconcile with an estimate of total deaths of more than one thousand times that figure.

This is not to deny that Towton was the greatest battle of the Wars of the Roses, only that, in terms of deaths among the leading protagonists, it was no more fatal than some much smaller engagements. The battle of Northampton, for example, which may have lasted only half an hour, witnessed the deaths of four Lancastrian lords, including two of the principal ones, the duke of Buckingham and the earl of Shrewsbury.  In this and other battles the leaders were systematically targeted in a way that might not have been possible in a much larger-scale battle like Towton.  None the less, the relatively few casualties among the leading protagonists there, particularly among those on the Yorkist side, raises the possibility that the battle did not see the carnage portrayed in contemporary chronicles. 

S.J.P.

Further reading:

C.F. Richmond, ‘The Nobility and the Wars of the Roses, 1459-61’, Nottingham Medieval Studies

Click to read more on the ‘Commons in the Wars of the Roses’ and follow the History of Parliament on social media to stay updated about the upcoming publication of Commons 1422-61.

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