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Palm Sunday Field 2000

from The Barwicker No. 58

This year on Palm Sunday, 16th. April, the Towton Battlefield Society organised its annual walk. It was a wonderfully warm, bright, fresh spring morning following heavy overnight rain and a crowd of over 250 people travelled from all parts of the country to take part.

The Red Wyvern Living History Group camped overnight. They wore period costume and joined visitors en route discussing battle tactics, strategies and the weapons employed at Towton. An excellent indoor display area exhibited models, maps, battle banners, heraldry, archery equipment and Society badged clothing.

As usual, groups of 15-20 people set out from the Crooked Billet and The Rockingham Arms in order to rendezvous at Dacre's Cross at noon for a brief religious ceremony, before laying the wreaths of red and white roses. Archery competitions and arms drill sequences captured the interest of the afternoon crowd. It was a stirring sight to see all those groups of people strung out and striding all over the battlefield under the tutelage of their guides as they appreciated the enormous significance of the terrain on the outcome of the battle.

There is tremendous interest and curiosity in Towton and throughout the whole year motorists can be seen parking their cars and walking up to the new noticeboard, or laying flowers at the Cross or taking time to look round the vast and awesome plateau in quiet contemplation.

The question is why do people take the trouble? Who cares what happened on that field 539 years ago when England had two kings and greed, treachery, tyranny and cruelty gripped the land during The Wars of the Roses? Why should any of us spend time trying to understand situations, which are beyond modern comprehension?

Towton offers something different to all of us; to me it is like the Great War. I can never really come to terms with why such slaughter was allowed to happen on those terrible battlefields. It is a permanent mystery.

The shortage of primary sources is a major probem when studying what happened at Towton. Over a four day period, which included the battle of Ferrybridge, the skirmish at Dintingdale, the battle of Towton, the subsequent rout and harrying of the Lancastrians to Tadcaster and on to York, some 20,000 to 28,000 men were killed. There is no doubt that Towton is the bloodiest and longest pitched battle fought in England. The slaughter in the snow blizzard was nightmarish.

The development of new techniques has transformed archaeology into a highly sophisticated science capturing the imagination of millions and the power of television has given all of us a window on the past.

Part of a mass burial was discoverd at Towton Hall in 1996. Archaeologists and osteoarchaeologists recovered the remains of 43 men in a pit measuring 6m x 2m and only 50cms deep. The application of modern forensic anthropological techniques allowed the Bradford University team to build up a unique picture about the fate of these soldiers. The screening of the Channel 4 film, 'Secrets of the Dead: Blood Red Roses', broadcast in June 1999, enthralled the nation.

The histories tell us that no quarter was given or asked for during the battle; the detailed analysis of the bones substantiates this by recording the astonishingly large clusters of head injuries received. Most of these men were mutilated at the point of death and many had their noses and ears severed. The soldiers suffered multiple injuries far in excess of what was needed to disable or kill them. Cruelty and bloodlust was the order of the day.

On the 7th. April 1461 George Neville, Bishop of Exeter and Chancellor of England wrote to Francesca Coppini the Papal Legate and Bishop of Terni, in Flanders about the battle:

'There was a great conflict which began with the rising of the sun and lasted until the tenth hour of the night, so great was the pertinacity and boldness of the men, who never heeded the possibility of a miserable death. Of the enemy who fled, great numbers were drowned in the river near the town of Tadcaster, eight miles from York, because they themselves had broken the bridge to cut our passage that way, so that none could pass, a great part of the rest who got away gathered in the said town and city, were slain and so many dead bodies were seen as to cover an area six miles long by three broad and about four furlongs.....some 28,000 persons perished on one side and the other. Oh miserable and luckless race!'

Students of medievel history are interested in the military glories of the English archers and the supremacy of the longbow at Crecy 1346, Poitiers 1356, and Agincourt 1415. It is one of the many tragedies of Towton that the sons and grandsons of the Agincourt 'few' slaughtered each other in the terrifying arrow storm which unleashed an estimated half a million arrows in the bitter snow blizzard. Nothing could withstand such fury. The power of the longbow is vividly illustrated in Olivier's magnificent production of Henry V. Kenneth Branagh's version of the same film is even more impressive, in my opinion. Our Society encourages the sport of archery and most Sunday mornings at The Crooked Billet, a gallant few can be seen coaxing and encouraging novices to try their hand with the longbow. We think that it is important to protect this element of our heritage.

The fascination of Towton is endless and its vast forbidding high plateau has a chilled bleaknness about it for most of the year. The haunting night time isolation of Cotcher's Lane leading to North Acres, stimulates the imagination and the solitary Lead Church in the water meadows gazes impressively over Castle Hill Wood, which housed the ambush party. The ferocious gradients of Bloody Meadow plunging down to the treacherous waters of the River Cock and the Battle of the Bodies contributed immensely to the severity of the rout. While the battlefield nobility are buried in the consecrated solitude of Saxton chuchyard, the common soldiers were dumped into grave pits.

I think that archaeological evidence about the battle is still to be found. A properly researched and systematic survey of the site is needed, but Towton as ever is reluctant to reveal its sectrets. The paradox is that we need the future to find the past.

Chairman, Towton Battlefield Society
A.D. 2000

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