March 29, 1461

Towton, Yorkshire

Yorkist army under Edward IV vs. Lancastrian forces led by the Duke of Somerset on behalf of Henry VI and Queen Margaret

The bloody Wars of the Roses dragged on as the Houses of York and Lancaster vied for power. Although Edward of York had initially been reluctant to proclaim himself king, his heavy defeat at the second Battle of St Albans convinced him that he needed to take that final, irrevocable step of rebellion. No sooner had the dust settled on that defeat than Edward was acclaimed king in London.

Meanwhile, instead of following up his triumph at St Albans with a decisive march on the capital, Henry VI opted for caution and withdrew his men north. The actual decision to pull back was probably Henry's, though he was easily led, particularly by his strong-willed queen, Margaret of Anjou.

So the Lancastrians withdrew to their power base in the north, probably destroying as they did so their only real hope of a quick end to the conflict. Edward IV threw caution aside, quickly raised a fresh army, and pushed north on his enemy's heels. He caught up with them near the river Aire, where both armies spent the night on the cold, snowy ground.

Edward sent a detachment under Lord Fitzwalter to seize the bridge at Ferrybridge. They found the bridge broken down, but unguarded, and spent the day repairing it. Fitzwalter's men were caught completely unaware by a dawn attack led by Lord Clifford and the Yorkists were forced back across the river.

Edward immediately sent another force upstream to cross the river at Castleford and cut off Clifford's retreat. This fresh force caught Clifford's men and killed most of them within sight of their lines. Somerset, for reasons known only to himself, sent no troops to help the unfortunate Clifford, but instead waited for the advance of the main Yorkist army.

Now the snow whipped up, driving full into the face of the Lancastrians. This made their attempts to return arrow fire laughable, and Edward's archers inflicted great damage. Perhaps because of this, Somerset ordered his men to advance first.

In a terrible hand to hand fight that lasted all day, the Lancastrians pushed their foe back, yard by bloody yard. The bodies piled high in the freezing cold, and fresh troops had to climb over corpses to reach the front lines. Edward's cause looked almost lost when reinforcements arrived in the shape of men under the command of the Duke of Norfolk.

Norfolk's men changed the course of the battle, and now it was the Lancastrians who were pushed back, across the field we now know as Bloody Meadow. Finally, they could take no more, and Somerset's men broke and ran. At least as many perished in the panic that followed, and the death toll may have reached 28,000 men or more. Towton was by far the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses.

The Lancastrian cause suffered an immense blow at Towton; many of their leaders were killed or captured, and King Henry and Queen Margaret were forced to flee north towards Scotland. Yet despite the slaughter (more men died at Towton than in any other battle on British soil), nothing was settled.

Over the next decade, a further seven major battles were fought until the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 brought about a lull in the struggle. But for the moment, Edward IV was free to prepare for his coronation and enjoy his rule.

More British BattlesMedieval knight image