Far more Lancastrians died in the rout than in the battle itself. (Graham Turner painting)
As many as 75,000 men (10% of the fighting age male population of England) participated in the Battle of Towton.
The Lancastrians had the larger army and occupied the high ground, but the weather was against them, and proved decisive. The Lancastrian archers fired against a strong wind, blinded by the snow blowing in their faces, and their arrows fell fell short. Yorkist archers fired volleys which hit home, and then moved back out of range. Advancing again, they were able to retrieve their enemies’ arrows from the ground and fire them back at them. The Yorkist archers were able to repeat this same maneuver to great advantage.
Both sides had resolved before the battle that no quarter was to be given. The subsequent hand-to-hand fighting was exceedingly bloody. It was reported that soldiers had to move piles of bodies out of the way to get at the enemy. The fighting went on for hours with neither side gaining a decisive advantage until the Duke of Norfolk arrived with Yorkist reinforcements on the Lancastrian left.
Out-numbered and out-flanked, the Lancastrian left was broken and before long the entire Lancastrian line collapsed and routed. Troops fled toward the river, being cut down by cavalry along a path that became known as Bloody Meadow. The River Cock was in full flood. Many were trapped and cut down with the river against their backs, and hundreds drowned. It is said that some men were able to escape because they were able to cross the flooded river over the bodies of the fallen. Lancastrian deaths are estimated to have been as many as 28,000.
Richard III Society account
The Economist describes the results of some recent archaeological investigations of the battlefield burials found in the vicinity of Towton.
The remains commonly exhibit evidence of death by violence with extreme prejudice.
On the run from the battle, with Yorkist soldiers in pursuit (some of them doubtless on horseback), the men would have soon overheated. They may have removed their helmets as a result. Overhauledâ€”perhaps in the vicinity of Towton Hall, which some think may then have been a Lancastrian billetâ€”and disorientated, tired and outnumbered, their enemies would have had time to indulge in revenge. Even at this distance the violence is shocking. â€œItâ€™s almost as if they were trying to remove their opponentsâ€™ identities,â€ says Mr KnÃ¼sel of the attackersâ€™ savagery.
Take the case of the skull designated Towton 25:
THE soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enoughâ€”somewhere between 36 and 45 when he diedâ€”to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out.
Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.
The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his headâ€”picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25â€™s brain, felling him.
His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw (see picture). It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.
Hat tip to the Barrister.