TRAVEL NORTH - 26: PALM SUNDAY MASSACRE, Walk Towton Field In The Footsteps of Edward IV Of York
A bloody rout of Lancastrian nobility near Wakefield saw Henry VI beaten, Queen Margaret fleeing for her life and Edward of York become king
A dispute between cousins led to Richard II being incarcerated and starved in Pontefract Castle on the orders of his cousin Henry 'Bolingbroke'.
Edward III had seven sons. His eldest to survive infancy was Edward of Woodstock, 'the Black Prince', who pre-deceased the king. Lionel, Duke of Clarence was next in line with John, Duke of Lancaster third - made duke after his bride-to-be refused any suitor without land or title. After him was Edmund Langley, Duke of York. Richard II was the son of Edward Woodstock, whose reign was pockmarked by two peasants' revolts and conspiracies by his lords. The last led to his downfall in 1399, with Henry Bolingbroke, eldest son of John usurping the kingship after Richard was confined, starved to death at Pontefract Castle (1400). Henry's claim to the throne was based on him being the next surviving male heir. Unluckily for him there was a rival claim through Philippa, daughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Philippa was wed to the Earl of March, Edmund Mortimer, laying the Mortimer claim to the throne. In 1425 the grandson of Edmund Langley, Richard Duke of York inherited the Mortimer claim through his maternal uncle, and would prove a strong rival to Henry VI his distant cousin. Henry borrowed heavily without repaying, thus making an enemy of Edward. It would be Henry's queen, Margaret who prosecuted her weak-willed husband's cause and would defeat Richard at Wakefield... Now read on.
You don't hear a lot about him or his origins. Edward's father was an anonymous English archer in the English army, conceived when Richard, Duke of York was on campaign in Normandy, Picardy and France. Edward has been eclipsed by his half-brother Richard III, the earlier Henry V and the later Tudors, although he never suffered loss in his campaigns across England. In choosing Elizabeth Woodville as his wife Edward sacrificed the support of Richard Neville, 'the King Maker', who went over to the Lancastrian cause and was killed in the second battle of Barnet (a street fight through the town that made Stalingdrad look more like a boy scout jamboree).
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A blizzard raged on the field of battle when the two sides met on that Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461.
The rough, rolling fields around the Cock Beck between Towton and Saxton echoed to the clash of arms, steel on steel, barbed arrows flew skyward, maces were wielded, pole-axes rose and fell. The fighting lasted for longer than the early spring daylight and long after the last blow fell, the last man dropped to his knees and the last noble searched the ground for his fellows Cock Beck ran with the blood and gore for three days.
Forty-two thousand Lancastrians who supported the ailing Henry VI met thirty-six thousand Yorkists who supported Edward IV, son of the ill-fated Edward, Duke of York who had been defeated a year earlier by Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou. It would be Margaret who had charge of the Lancastrian army, led by the young Duke of Somerset. Edward's army was commanded by Lord Fauconberg. Around a third of the men who fought that chill spring day fell. If they had not died immediately from a death-blow, they died agonising deaths from blood-poisoning - suffered from the tips of arrows thrust into the earth by the archers and loosed off quickly in 'clouds'. At the end of the day there were still two claimants to the throne, and despite his inferior numbers (at least six thousand fewer than Henry's) Edward was the victor. Henry VI and his queen fled north to Scotland with their remaining nobles, the tattered remnants of their army bruised and bleeding, prisoners given quarter despite Edward's 'no quarter' order.
Your starting point for the walk is on Main Street near the church at Saxton.
Take just over 200 yards (180m) and turn right at a footpath sign, taking a stone stile. There is a second stone stile where you forge ahead across a field. A signpost points to Lead Church. Pass left by a pylon and through a gap in a hedge. A path leads from here to the Crooked Billet public house. You have reached the first mile point of the walk.
Across from the pub - a possible location in its day as the quarters for Edward's main followers - cross the road and over the bridge. Pass through a gate towards the Lead Church that may have sheltered men during the day-long battle. Follow left by a fence posted Chantry Lane. Pass through a gate and go on to a yellow waymarker where you turn left. Before long you are walking along Cock Beck. Before a hedge that crosses your path, take the left, then right to climb another stile. Pass along the path to the left of Hayton Wood. After a kissing gate take the path across the field that rises to a gate.
You are at the 21/2 mile point. Go around the gate signposted Hazlewood Castle and follow the line of the hedge. Pass two more signposts and go on along the edge of Hazel Wood. take a left turn on a track at a 'T'-junction of paths and then, after a little over 100 yards (90m) turn right on a footpath. Cross the white-railed horse training acourse and enter a copse at a signpost. Having passed through these trees cross through the white railings again. Hazlewood Castle, formerly home to the Vavasours and now a plush hotel, is on your left. The first part of the castle was constructed in the days of the Normans and is 'logged' in Domesday. The congregation in the late 13th Century castle chapel would have heard the ongoing battle clearly as they celebrated Palm Sunday. The path bends towards the right in woodland and onward to a track. After a few yards turn left to a waymarked stile at the 4 mile stage. The path follows the wall of Hazlewood Castle. Take two more stiles and come to a lane where you take a left turn. At the 'T'-junction take the right turn along Chantry Lane. After over 200 yards (180m) take a right turn at a signpost. Follow the track for a mile and a half, over which you pass two farms to the 51/2 mile stage. At a 'T'-junction go right on the main track and over Cock Beck again. The Lancastrian army took up Castle Hill on the left of the track, while beyond is Bloody Meadow. So much slaughter went on here that, despite some of the wooden bridges collapsing under the weight of the men-at-arms they could cross over the corpses heaped in the beck. At the road pass straight across, along a lane and back into Saxton where a left turn is taken at a 'T'-junction, back to the church. Within the churchyard is the railed tomb of Lord Dacre, killed fighting on the Lancastrian side. Beside the tomb is a small pyramid that was unveiled in 2005 to commemmorate the thousands who perished in the battle.
You will walk pathways, fields and beckside paths over rough, hilly ground. Good walking boots are advisable. Rainproofs to be carried if not immediately needed over the 7 miles course (11.3km), but it is not too exacting and can take around three hours to complete.
By road Saxton is six miles south from Tadcaster, twelve miles to the south-west of York, off the B1217. Main roads around the area are the A64 and A1(M).
Using public transport? Arriva Yorkshire services 492 and 493 run from Tadcaster and Pontefract to Saxton.
Refreshments can be had at:
The Greyhound Inn, Main Street, Saxton, LS24 9PY, 01937 557202;
The Crooked Billet Inn, Wakefield Road, Saxton, LS24 9QN, 01937 557389;
Hazlewood Castle Hotel, Paradise Lane, Hazlewood, LS24 9NJ, 01937 535353, www.hazlewood-castle.co.uk
Use Ordnance Survey Explorer, map 289, Grid reference SE 476 368;
Tourist information from Yorkshire Tourist board, www.yorkshire.com
York Tourist Information Centre, De Gray Rooms, Exhibition Square, York, YO1 7HB, 01904 550099, www.visityork.org
Battle of Towton Field
This first-rate volume by John Sadler packs in details of the Yorkist and Lancastrian campaign, how they came together in that cold March of 1461, how their lines changed and what brought about the Lancastrian defeat despite their earlier advantage and greater number in the field. One of the factors, it's been said, is the use of the longbow with the wind behind the hail of arrows that decimated many of the Lancastrian men-at-arms. The battle ended in a desperate rout, no quarter given on a chill March day. Cock Beck 'played its part' in hindering the Lancastrians who tried to flee.
Some reading to 'brush up' on these and other British battles since Stamford Bridge in September, 1066:
BRITISH BATTLES by Ken and Denise Guest, maps by Peter Harper, published by Harper Collins for English Heritage, 1996 (h/b) and 1997 (p/b), ISBN 0 00 4 70968 3: Copious illustrations, colour photographs of re-enactments, costumes, weapons, banners and more. A wealth of information in 202 pages.