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TRAVEL NORTH - 26: PALM SUNDAY SLAUGHTER, Walk Towton Field In The Footsteps of Edward IV Of York's Army

Updated on February 1, 2018

A bloody rout of Lancastrian nobility near Wakefield sees Henry VI beaten, Queen Margaret flee for her life - well may she! - and Edward made king

Knight or man-at-arms at Towton - there was little in the way of chivalry in this late March confrontation between the forces of Edward of York and the Lancastrians
Knight or man-at-arms at Towton - there was little in the way of chivalry in this late March confrontation between the forces of Edward of York and the Lancastrians | Source
The Battle at Towton spills over into the ice-cold river. Many drowned in the icy cold water, used as 'human pontoons' by their fellows trying to get across Cock Beck from their Yorkist pursuers.
The Battle at Towton spills over into the ice-cold river. Many drowned in the icy cold water, used as 'human pontoons' by their fellows trying to get across Cock Beck from their Yorkist pursuers. | Source
William Dyce painting of Henry VI - he was undecided about fleeing Towton, in a daze, confused. He had to be dragged away when his queen, Margaret fled the field.
William Dyce painting of Henry VI - he was undecided about fleeing Towton, in a daze, confused. He had to be dragged away when his queen, Margaret fled the field. | Source
The battle rages - no quarter was offered or asked for on an icy day. This would be the day of reckoning, a pay-back for Wakefield and Queen Margaret's humiliation of Edward, Duke of York
The battle rages - no quarter was offered or asked for on an icy day. This would be the day of reckoning, a pay-back for Wakefield and Queen Margaret's humiliation of Edward, Duke of York | Source
A man-at-arms and an array of weaponry you would find on a battlefield around the time of the Wars Of The Roses (Shakespeare's invention), 1450-1500 and into the reign of Henry VII Tudor. Losers were given short shrift!
A man-at-arms and an array of weaponry you would find on a battlefield around the time of the Wars Of The Roses (Shakespeare's invention), 1450-1500 and into the reign of Henry VII Tudor. Losers were given short shrift! | Source

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.

Your markers...

Battlefield area cross-section, Towton near Wakefield
Battlefield area cross-section, Towton near Wakefield | Source
The view over the ridge with Cock Beck snaking parallel along the dale floor - many a man would lose his life in the freezing waters, if not from the shock then from blows to the head or back to make sure they'd never raise arms again
The view over the ridge with Cock Beck snaking parallel along the dale floor - many a man would lose his life in the freezing waters, if not from the shock then from blows to the head or back to make sure they'd never raise arms again | Source
Cock Beck may look peaceful in this scene, yet look at the trees. No leaves. Try a paddle in the water?
Cock Beck may look peaceful in this scene, yet look at the trees. No leaves. Try a paddle in the water? | Source
The London road bridge over Cock Beck would have been crowded with the fleeing Lancastrian men-at-arms, enough to slow them down for further 'treatment'
The London road bridge over Cock Beck would have been crowded with the fleeing Lancastrian men-at-arms, enough to slow them down for further 'treatment' | Source
On a calm, sunny afternoon the memorial to the dead seems just an old relic. Many of the dead were so traumatised their skeletons were strewn over an area the size of three football pitches
On a calm, sunny afternoon the memorial to the dead seems just an old relic. Many of the dead were so traumatised their skeletons were strewn over an area the size of three football pitches | Source
Towton Hall is now half-hidden to the casual bypasser, little use as a landmark, unlike the chapel below...
Towton Hall is now half-hidden to the casual bypasser, little use as a landmark, unlike the chapel below... | Source
Before the fighting Lancastrian nobles and men-at-arms would have come to pray for victory at the Chapel of St Mary Lead
Before the fighting Lancastrian nobles and men-at-arms would have come to pray for victory at the Chapel of St Mary Lead | Source
The permissive track alongside the battlefield - remember if you go there to observe the country code and treat the land with respect. It's a working environment
The permissive track alongside the battlefield - remember if you go there to observe the country code and treat the land with respect. It's a working environment | Source

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


The battlefield

Towton Battlefield Walk - historical society - see also the cross-section of the battlefield above
Towton Battlefield Walk - historical society - see also the cross-section of the battlefield above | Source

This first-rate volume by John Sadler packs in details of the Yorkist and Lancastrian campaign, how they clashed on that cold March day 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 on the slopes below. The battle ended in a desperate rout for Henry's men, no quarter given. Cock Beck 'played its part' in hindering the Lancastrians who tried to flee, claiming many in its chill waters.

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.

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    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello DAL (what's that stand for?)

      Nothing to do with Lancashire and Yorkshire (how many make that link in England, I wonder?) but the Plantagenet cousins, offspring of the second and youngest sons of Edward III, Edward Duke of York and John of Ghent. Try telling that to the man in the street!

      You can imagine the ribbing I got at school with a name like Lancaster living in the North Riding. In the later 19th Century my great Grandad and his father (farm labourers) moved up from Kings Lynn in Norfolk to work in the ironstone mines in Old Cleveland during the 'Klondike' years.

      I also used to be called 'Bomber', (like my cousin Paul still is). People at The Telegraph (Fleet St) gave me 'Burt'.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi, alancaster149, as a Lancastrian I enjoyed reading this informative hub written in your unique style. In these 'friendlier'days I travel into Yorkshire regularly { without a passport} to enjoy the wonderful countryside and to enjoy the wildlife. I still get a ribbing from the natives but at least these are words and not arrows. great hub my friend.

    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Nice to see you again, Patty. Nice to know you like the Hub, too. These are atmospheric places, although you wouldn't know to look at the place. Take a metal detector, it might come in handy. This was no cake-walk; even by British standards it was considered a bloodbath, and there have been many battles in Britain. Buy the book, get the 'T'-shirt!

    • Patty Kenyon profile image

      Patty Kenyon 5 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

      Wow, this was one of my favorites!!! I absolutely loved the history lesson along with the tour!!! One day I will be able to travel and see all of the places in your Hubs!!!

      Voted Up, Interesting, Useful, and Awesome!!!

    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I'd stick to the 'easy' stuff like the Romans and Greeks if I were you. At least you know where you are with them. English history is a bit involved; and again English history is said to have ended with William I and started again with Oliver Cromwell. In between there's a cartload of Frenchmen and other foreigners, or so they say.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Phew! see what I mean? lol! I actually read a book by the great historical writer Phillippa Gregory, and I remember that Elizabeth Woodville put the cat amongst the pidgeons if you know what I mean, but even reading a great writer like that who normally makes history so interesting, I still got confused with the whole thing. It really was cousin against cousin, and this person married that, I really get annoyed at myself because I love history, but this just confuses the hell out of me! so I tend to stick to the history of before or after this time period! thanks for the extra info, its beginning to sink in I think! lol!

    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott after him, muddied the waters by calling the era 'The Wars of the Roses'. The Duke of York was the second in line after the Prince of Wales; the first Duke of Lancaster, John 'of Ghent' (pronounced 'Gaunt') was made duke because his intended would not marry a 'commoner'. His issue were at odds with the issue of the Duke of York. Henry VI was the grandson of Henry IV. Bolingbroke, who usurped the throne by having Richard II imprisoned and starved to death at Pontefract Castle. Richard' and his offspring were Yorkists. Henry VI's queen, Margaret of Anjou messed things up by having Edward Duke of York executed at York wearing a 'pretend' crown after the Battle of Wakefield in December, 1460. They were all cousins, needless to say, who laid claim to the crown. Edward IV was not actually son of Edward Duke of York, but the result of a liaison between Edward's wife and an English archer whilst Edward himself was away fighting in the Low Countries during the final throes of the 100 Years' War. He was tall and fair, whereas Edward's own sons the Duke of Clarence and Duke of Gloucester were dark and a little shorter, like their father. Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick changed sides from Edward to Henry because of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville after he had been promised to a French princess (by arrangement with Richard Nevill, making him look a 'right Charlie' in their eyes)!

      It's probably still clear as Mississippi mud-pie, but it's less confusing than Shakespeare's meeting of the princes in the Temple gardens (inns of court, now London EC4, just behind where Fleet Street ends and where the city gateway known as Temple Bar once stood).

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      I always get confused about this time in history, so this was really useful, I love the archaeology, I think when someone finds a ring it really brings the history to life, voted up! cheers nell

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