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The Battle of Towton: 29th March 1461

Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each:

Una – Saturday

We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows limping back from there, waiting on Towton moor for the battle that would certainly come and the death that might.

It didn’t, not for him.

And then, half a lifetime later, he rode back over that old life, retracing himself from Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, knowing that this time he was, certainly, going to die. We know that they told him, and we know the journey need have taken no more than a day, so near midsummer: a long, hot, single day.

But I can’t think what he thought as he rode, or feel what he felt. He was a man of – no, not piety, that’s too smug and narrow a word, and faith too weak. He had a belief that’s hard for us to feel, perhaps impossible: a structure of absolute certainty that transcended faith, a knowledge as much part of him as his own bones, clothed in words and rituals that had clad him since the chrisom-cloth first wrapped him, since he was borne to church, to be baptised with holy water to bless him, and salt to scare away the Devil.

I’m very tired, and deeply shaken, and it suddenly seems unbearable, too, that I can’t know Anthony, that I can’t read his books, talk to him, walk beside him, look into his eyes, touch his hand. Perhaps if I try hard enough, perhaps if I imagine completely ... I try to feel him riding at my shoulder, but he isn’t there.

Elysabeth – the 1st yr of the reign of King Edward the Fourth

There were more battles. And then came the news of the fight at Towton.

Even by those first reports, it was clear that the slaughter had been like no battle before. My father was thought to have fled north with the King and Queen, and Antony was most certainly dead.

My mother’s grief for the loss of her first-born son was no less for being silent, or for the news being still uncertain. My own, coming so hard upon the loss of my husband, seemed more than my flesh might bear. And still we could not be sure. It might be a false report, I told myself, but if it were, would a true one not have come by now?

It was a week before a messenger from my father brought news: he and Antony were both safe at York, and the King and Queen were fled to the Scottish king.

Our joy that Antony lived was the sharper for having thought him lost. But if it had not been one of our own men who told of my father’s going to Edward of York, kneeling first in surrender and then in fealty to his new king, and Antony with him, I would not have believed it.

Antony – Tierce

Micklegate Bar is the strongest gate of all. Now I am leaving by it, in the company of my captors. And we entered by it so many years ago, when my father and I rode as the staunchest Lancastrians to join Queen Marguerite and see off the Yorkist rebels for good. Duke Richard of York was already dead, killed almost under the walls of his own castle at Sandal, his second son Edmund with him, and King Henry rescued in the second fight at St Albans. My father pointed upwards to the men’s heads stuck on pikes, leering down like puppets from the gate tower. They were black, not with age but with tar, the better to preserve their rictus of fear: the threat of death to the traitorous. I was nineteen, and I did not know that the wheel of Fortune would turn again so soon.

‘See that one, son? Edward’s father of York, and a very great man, what­ever he did. Edward’s brother at least was laid in the ground unbutchered. But that’s what gives Edward the fire in his belly. He and Edmund were brought up together, so close in age you might call them twins, and no older than you are. He has much to avenge. When he comes north to find us, it will not be an easy fight.’

If Edward had much to avenge, then the fight at Towton was a vengeance I had not thought it possible any mortal could wreak. It was the only time, they said, that Edward gave no order to spare the commons, and forbade his men to take any prisoners for an honourable, profitable ransom. All the enemies of the House of York were to be killed.

At Tadcaster we leave the Roman road that leads to Doncaster, and turn south. The sun is hot and high now, and I pull my cap down to keep the brightness from my eyes. No more than a couple of miles’ ride, and we are in Towton village. Chickens scatter from beneath our hoofs and a glimpse of skirts shows how the women whisk themselves indoors. Beyond the huddle of cottages and alehouses the road runs level; on our left hand the heat is beginning to shimmer above the higher ground. Even the larks have fallen silent, and only a sleepy dove, calling from the trees of Carr Wood, is still awake.

How bare and high the road seemed that day, with the sky hanging like lead over the frost-hardened earth, and the becks that we could not see until we stumbled on them, so deep had they cut their way into the land. Old soldiers felt the raw wind that stung our faces and looked to the east and shook their heads. Young ones left off rubbing blisters and asked what they saw. ‘Snow by the morrow,’ someone said.

We were part of the vanguard, south of Towton village. Places were set, tents put up, horses untacked and watered, ale barrels broached and cannon shot stacked. Squires polished armour and checked straps and buckles, clerks scratched at lists and camp women set snares for rabbits. The men piled their fires as high as they could get wood for them and smoke began to rise. By the time I had accounted for my men and seen them settled, I could smell charring meat and fat dripping on to embers. Some was not meat but fowls, no doubt got against the rules of war. But I knew better than to ask or to tell my father. He was in command of the second battle – supporting his new young grace of Somerset – and might decide he should seek out the felons, though there were far greater matters at stake.

A shout from the London road made us leap to our feet. A straggling handful of men, a few mounted on horses whose heads hung almost to their knees. No threat to us even before we could see their badges in the failing light. A lad with more energy to waste than the rest ran to them, and ran back to bring the tale: this was what remained of our vanguard. York’s men had forced through at Ferrybridge, and were even now but an hour or two away.

It was all but dark already. They would not arrive in time to attack tonight, my father said, coming out of his tent with a list of the musters who had joined us since yesterday. But we must make sure everything was in readiness.

We had need of all our strength on the morrow to hold on to a dream of any kind of good. Hard to believe it now, with the sun beating down on my head and the horses half asleep under us as the road drops gently towards Saxton. Hard to believe that some men who lay down to sleep that night never woke to fight but had the snow for a gravecloth. Hard to believe that the wind and sleet drove so hard in our faces that we could not see the enemy, and our archers’ arrows fell short time and again. The noise was as brutal as the press of men about me: steel and flesh, and cries for the King shrieking in our ears. So close did we fight that it seemed each army barely moved, or gained on the other. It never grew fully light, but the day crawled on. Too late did we realise that where once Cock Beck had guarded our flank, now we were turned inch by inch, and pushed back to where the ground fell away, and the men with it, tumbling helplessly down to the ice-covered rocks and bloody water. It was said the waters ran red for days. Men who could walk slipped away, those who could only crawl were left for the villagers. We who were captured in hope of ransom knelt and prayed that our knighthood would earn respect, and our estate earn safety. It was certain that the cause of Lancaster was lost.

But soon we realised that, with the battle won, Edward of York had reconciliation, not vengeance, in his mind.

‘Has not God shown by this victory that there can be no hope of peace while Henry with his usurper’s blood still wears the crown?’ he asked my father, with a solemn face. Then he smiled. ‘Sire, I have lost my great Plantagenet father, and must have men about me of worship: of courage and wisdom. There’s peace and prosperity waiting for us all, had England but strong and godly government at last. You are one of the few who can give it that peace and prosperity. What say you, my lord Rivers?’

My father went to Mass and prayed for guidance, and I prayed, too, that the oath of allegiance which would secure our family would also be acceptable to God.