The battle of Towton and the Parliament of 1461

On 29 March 1461 the battle of Towton took place. A notoriously violent encounter, the battle is the topic of a previous History of Parliament blog. But today Dr Charles Moreton, from our Commons 1461-1504, project explores Towton’s longer impact on the planned Parliament of 1461…

Today marks the 560th anniversary of by far the largest battle of the Wars of the Roses. It was fought at Towton in the west riding of Yorkshire and ended in victory for the Yorkist Edward IV against the forces of his recently toppled Lancastrian rival, Henry VI. Contemporary chroniclers agree that the numbers involved and the death toll were both very large. It was undoubtedly a savage encounter, although possibly not quite as bloody as tradition would have it. While few details survive, it appears that the battle lasted for most of the day and that the outcome remained in doubt to near the end.

Edward IV

In spite of the Yorkist victory, Lancastrian resistance to the new King continued and fears of insurrection and invasion marked the months that followed. The strongest opposition to Edward was in the far north of England, although the autumn of 1461 also saw campaigning in Wales. Such a state of affairs had consequences for the timing of his first Parliament, the principal business of which was the assertion of his title to the throne and the punishment of his opponents. The original intention was for it to open at Westminster on 6 July 1461, but on 13 June that year it was postponed until the following 4 November, to allow the King more time to deal with the stronger than expected resistance to his accession.

As the example of East Anglia illustrates, however, news of the postponement took time to travel. Two days later, on 15 June, the Norfolk shire court met to return the county’s knights of the shire, and it was also on the strength of the original writ of summons that the borough of Bishop’s (now King’s) Lynn proceeded with an election on 30 June, at which Henry Thoresby and William Caus were chosen as the town’s MPs. It would likewise appear that the elections held in the Suffolk boroughs of Ipswich and Dunwich on 25 June and 1 July respectively on the basis of the May writ. Notwithstanding the postponement, the burgesses of Ipswich and Dunwich stuck with the representatives chosen on those dates, although this was not the case with the county of Norfolk and the borough of Lynn.

King’s Lynn Trinity Guildhall, dating from 1422, image via Wikimedia Commons

With regard to the county, the proceedings of 15 June were a rowdy and disputed affair which ended without an actual return being made. A subsequent election held on the following 10 August was a similarly controversial event, since the sheriff, Sir John Howard, refused to accept the electors’ choice of John Paston and John Berney. Although Howard was a confirmed Yorkist who had won his knighthood fighting for Edward IV at Towton, his opposition to Paston and Berney almost certainly reflected personal animosities rather than political divisions. As for Lynn, the authorities there decided, unlike their counterparts at Ipswich and Dunwich, to set aside the election held in response to the initial writ of summons, and the mayor, Walter Cony, and Henry Bermyngeham were returned in place of Thoresby and Caus at a fresh election on 2 September. This was not the end of the matter, however, since this result was superseded by yet another election on 9 October. On this occasion Bermyngeham and Simon Pygot were the burgesses elected, and it was they who subsequently rode to Westminster.

It may well be that the borough set aside the initial election of Thoresby and Caus for procedural reasons once they had learnt of the postponement, although it is likely that the changing personal circumstances of the candidates involved also played a part in these changes of personnel. Whatever the case, the very postponement of the Parliament in the first place reflects the uncertainties that abounded in the months following Towton, a battle that historians have frequently, but perhaps somewhat misleadingly, referred to as ‘decisive’.

C.E.M.

The present author’s biographies of the principal characters mentioned above, as well as his discussions of the constituencies they represented, have recently been published in the History of Parliament’s Commons 1422-61, ed. Linda Clark (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Further reading:

  • C.H. Williams, ‘A Norfolk Election, 1461’, English Historical Review, lx (1925), 79-86.
  • Hannes Kleineke, ‘The East Anglian Parliamentary Elections of 1461’, in The Fifteenth Century X: Parliament, Personalities and Power – Papers Presented to Linda Clark, ed. H. Kleineke (Woodbridge, 2011), 167-187.

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