Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Battle of Towton by George Goodwin

Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is thought to encapsulate the very essence of medieval chivalry. But the story, conceived and written in the 1450s and 1460s is far more complex than that. It is a celebration of the ideal of chivalry, but, with strong asides from the author, it is also a lament to its absence at the time of the writing. Malory had many months to contemplate his task as he spent long periods in prison during those years. His alleged crimes were the complete antithesis of chivalric behavior. Beginning with an eighteen-month spree in the early 1450s. he was accused of: leading twenty-four others in an attempt to ambush and murder the Duke of Buckingham; committing rape and extortion; cattle and deer rusting from Buckingham’s estates and violent robbery against two sets of monks, from the priory at Monks Kirby and from Combe Abbey. He was captured and charged at Nuneaton in a court presided over by the vengeful Duke himself and was sent for trial at Westminster, a trial that never took place.

Instead, for Malory, the rest of the decade consisted of imprisonment, punctuated by periods of freedom, either through being bailed by powerful supporters or through his own daring escapes. He was released early in the 1460s, only to fall foul of a different set of authorities later in the decade and it was in prison again, probably this time in some comfort in the Tower of London, that he finished his masterpiece.

However one looks at it, the case of Sir Thomas Malory is far from the ideal world of the early days of Camelot. If he was guilty, it shows a knight who possessed not a shred of knightly virtue. If he was not –and his modern biographer Christina Hardyment makes a good case for him, though she accepts ‘the deer poaching’ – then this was yet another example of the law being abused and used in the hands of a powerful magnate, with the assistance of a new breed of unscrupulous lawyer. Either way, it showed how distant this age was from the chivalric ideal.

As the actual practice of chivalry began to disappear, its stylized trappings and forms became grander. This process would continue in Tudor England and would be repeated in all the other great kingdoms of Europe. Its outer expressions, in hunting, in jousting, in heraldic badges, in household ceremonies and in the vast conspicuous consumption of everyday living were increasingly just part of social competition and display.

By the time of the battle of Towton, a core element of chivalry – its operation as a code of conduct between knights – was defunct. The increasingly vengeful behavior of both sides in the coming battles is testament to that.. Thus chivalry, in terms of what has been elegantly expressed as the insurance policy of the knightly class on the battlefield, had gone. In the earlier Middle Ages, battles were generally encounters between knights on horseback. By the fourteenth and into the fifteenth, the nature of battles changed: one only had to think of the renown English victories in France – Crecy, Poitiers, and above all Agincourt – to realize that. If you, or your horse, were likely to be felled by a plebian arrow then it made better sense to fight en masse and on foot. The nature of warfare changed. It had become more impersonal and ‘democratic.’

By Towton, there was no longer ‘a code in which the key element was the attempt to limit the brutality of the conflict by treating prisoners, at any rate when they were men of “gentle” birth, in a relatively humane fashion. Defeat and capture no longer mean release on the payment of ransom. By Towton, the ideal was to profit by the death of one’s aristocratic competitor. By then the aristocracy was no longer a collaborative class. The united, unified elite of Henry V, itself a reconsolidation of what Edward III had created, was gone.

During and after the battle of Towton no fewer than forty-two captured Lancastrian knights were summarily executed on Edward’s orders. This, in comparison to previous battles, was a staggering number of lords and knights. But they formed a mere fraction of the overall death toll. Perhaps the appalling weather that continued all day, the treacherous conditions underfoot, the lie of the land, combined with geographical factionalism of the combatants to engender disaster. The forty-five degree turn of the armies, combined with the necessity of the Lancastrian advance, transformed their insuperable battle position on high ground with numerical superiority into a death trap.

At last, in the late afternoon, one of the lines broke. We do not know how and under what circumstances; perhaps a lord was killed, and his men, having lost their paymaster, lost the reason for fighting. Perhaps Norfolk’s outflanking manoeuvre succeeded and allowed the end of the line to be attacked from three sides. In such circumstances, ones and twos making a fateful decision can, in a matter of minutes even seconds, turn dozens, then hundreds, until the coherence of the Lancastrian army began to dissolve. This was the moment when young grooms caring for the horses of the great magnates and their most important men-at-arms held the power of life and earth. Their horses delivered to them from safe positions in the rear, the higher peerage took flight.

The rest of the troops had two main escape routes. If they wereb on the left of the line, they could try to climb back up the slippery slope and make their way on to the northern part of the plateau. But this brought them into open country where the Yorkish calvary, standing by for just an eventuality, could easily cut them down. And their immediate exit route away from the cavalry was to the right, down a vertiginous slop to the sodden ground leading to the icy waters of the overflowing Cock Beck below. The other alternative for the soldiers was to join, in individual panic, their thousands of slipping and sliding brothers-in-arms who were being funneled down from the flat ground of the battlefield, down into the area of Towton Dale, down into what opened out to become a wider open space that would become known as Bloody Meadow and then further down towards Cock Beck and ‘The Bridge of Bodies.”

In later years and quieter times, Edward IV told Philippe de Commynes that : “In all the battles he had won, as soon as he sensed victory, he mounted his horse and shouted to his men that they must spare the common soldiers and kill the lords, of whom few or none escaped.” This statement befitted a man of imperious charm that could turn to sudden violence within the flicker of an eye: a man who, with every justification, felt blessed by providence and whose reality could, to a great extent, be what he wanted it to be. The later part of his statement to Commynes was only partially true. The first part was a blatant lie. It is doubtful that Edward could have reined in his exhausted but vengeful army, even if he had wanted to. He did not. Edward had been in the Yorkish camp at 1st St. Albans, six years before; though too young to fight, he had seen the complete lack of mercy of those who did. The chronicler Edward Hall was in no doubt of Edward’s planned intention, that ‘he made proclamation that no prisoner should be taken, nor one enemy saved. The pursuit was relentless. It did not even stop at Tadcaster but continued into the night and another ten miles to York. Meanwhile the stripping of corpses and the gathering of severed heads on the battlefield itself began. Recent excavations (1996) unearthed mass graves of indicate the wanton and brutal massacres of unarmed men.


  1. There are a few type-Os in your final paragraph. Other than that, I highly enjoyed this story

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  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.