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The Most Brutal Day in English History

Barwicker No. 118 June 2015

On Palm Sunday, 29th March, over lOOO people attended the annual Towton Battlefield Society commemorative event and battlefield walk. It was exactly 554 years to the day since the l461 battle. The weather was poor, it was cold, wet, windy and muddy but nobody really cared because the battle was fought in a raging snowstorm as thousands perished in the snow and ice in a storm of biblical proportions. Supporters of the event are not deterred by trivialities like bad weather; most will be back next year with increased interest in the battle. But why do people come, what is the interest to them, why do people care?

Towton is a unique unspoilt medieval battlefield, the scene of England's biggest, worst and bloodiest battle. It was a nightmarish civil war where the sons and grandsons of the victors of Agincourt slaughtered each other. The two competing kings were here with all 'their power,' and most of the active nobility were here with their private armies to support either the House of Lancaster or the House of York. Huge numbers were involved. The age of chivalry had gone and no quarter was given or asked for as bloodlust, revenge and cruelty marked out the abattoir of the battlefield. Thousands of archers and men at arms fought to destroy and maim fellow countrymen. Each side knew the calibre of the finest archers in Europe and the quality of the soldiers; they knew what they were going to get!

Men were killed at Ferrybridge, Dintingdale, Towton and up to the gates of York. It is estimated that 75,000 soldiers fought and 28,000 killed. Many wounded soldiers died later from wounds and blood poisoning, some are buried in Barwick churchyard.

In our short battlefield service we try to envisage what happened on that fateful day. Historians write that it was a national tragedy, with losses comparable to the first day of the Somme, it was the costliest encounter ever fought on English soil, marking a new low point in barbarity, George Goodwin writes that 'it was the most brutal day in English history.'

We think of the common soldiers. Some had been on the road for weeks. They didn’t know where they were, living rough, enduring bitter hardship, hunger and great privation in the savage weather. The Yorkists came from Wales, the Midlands, East Anglia and the South. Lancastrians mainly came from the North and Scotland. Most men would have feared either being wounded or killed that day.

It was 100 years before the Reformation, 65 years before William Ty n d a l e’s New Testament was available in English; William Caxton’s printing of religious texts came after 1476. Thus it was a Catholic age and priests would be going round saying mass and men would be frantic to see the Host at the Sacring. To see the Host was to see Jesus and be blessed, all sins would be forgiven. Reading from the TBS programme, we all join in saying the Middle English version of the Lord's Prayer, which the soldiers would have known, and then we repeat the prayer in Latin. The service ends when the re-enactors come and place wreaths and palm crosses by the wooden battlefield Cross to be followed by the hundreds who have been involved. The wreaths are later placed by Dacre’s Cross.

This whole event is a minor miracle in itself as people feel that it's important to be present and involve themselves in something alien to their normal lives. We all know that something important happened at Towton, but what does it mean to us? Come next year and find out!

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