4 – Battle of Towton – 1461
The Battle of Towton brought an end to what was a crucial (but not decisive) 8 month period in the War of the Roses which began with the Battle of Northampton. While Henry had been rescued at St Albans, he was reportedly mad and was virtually ineffectual.
Despite the defeat at St Albans, Edward, son of Richard of York, took the step of declaring himself the king (with the aid of the Kingmaker) and became Edward IV on 4 March 1461. Now that England effectively had two kings, it was obvious that deciding the rightful king was something that could only happen on the battlefield.
Henry’s forces had retreated north after St Albans so Edward followed them with a huge army; some sources claim he had up to 40,000 men though this may well be an exaggeration. After outflanking a Lancastrian detachment en route, the Yorkists met their rivals at an open field between the villages of Towton and Saxton. Depending on the sources you read, the combined total of the armies was between 50,000 and 80,000 men. To complicate matters, the fighting took place in the middle of a snowstorm. The result was one of the bloodiest battles in British history.
The battle began with both sides exchanging volleys of arrows before engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat. The fight lasted for approximately 10 hours in total but there seemed to be no breakthrough imminent until John de Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, arrived on the scene to help the Yorkists. He attacked the Lancastrians who didn’t see the approaching enemy until Norfolk’s men were almost upon their left flank. This proved to be the decisive moment in the battle. The exhausted Lancastrians threw off their armour to run faster but this left them more open to the blows of the Yorkists. A number of retreating Lancastrians were slain and the Yorkists finally claimed victory.
During the heat of battle, Edward was saved by a Welsh knight named Sir David Ap Mathew. At least 28,000 men died at Towton although a 16th century chronicler named Edward Hall gave an exact figure of 36,776. Once again, Henry and his wife were forced to flee, this time to Scotland. He took his son with him and was followed by Somerset, Exeter and a few other nobles. It would be another three years before the Lancastrians were even able to assemble an army large enough to take the field.