Military flanks

The Battle of Towton - The Mediaeval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades - The Mediaeval Soldier - Like Hungry Wolves
June 16, 1995

In the preface to his seminal 1857 work, Visits to Fields of Battle in England, Richard Brooke wrote: "Notwithstanding the scanty nature of the historical accounts handed down to us, some information of value has reached us." Brooke, a Liverpool solicitor and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, was answering a need among Englishmen of the gothic revival to rationalise a dark period of their history, whose culture attracted as much as its bloody politics repelled them.

Today's antiquarians have been pitched on to the front line of another battle, to save the fields themselves from building development, inappropriate landscaping and motorways. Naseby is a lost cause but two of Brooke's battlegrounds, Blore Heath and Tewkesbury, are the object of a rearguard action by conservationists.

A leading campaigner is the actor Robert Hardy, an expert on the longbow and adviser to English Heritage's Battlefield Panel. In his foreword to The Battle of Towton Hardy writes that it is impossible to reach the whole truth about a battle. As chairman of the Towton Battlefield Society A. W. Boardman has an unrivalled knowledge of the ground and the record, such as it is, of the battle fought there on Palm Sunday, March 29 1461, in which the English crown changed hands as a result of ten hours of hand-to-hand combat in blizzard conditions.

A contemporary poem spoke of ",000 the Rose (of York, Edward IV) killed in the field", and the numbers game has bedevilled any assessment of what was probably numerically the greatest battle ever fought in Britain. Boardman's own calculation, based on a projection from the private baronial forces involved, and the sole surviving Roses' muster roll, is 20,000 Yorkists and 25,000 Lancastrians - comprising the retinues of most of the northern nobility (Boardman shows it was very much a North v. South contest). He also proves that the skirmish for the river crossings on March 28 was not a disjointed action, as so often thought, but the first round of the battle proper, with the Lancastrians debouching from their overcrowded ridge position, only to have their advanced guard pushed back in confusion.

The ,000 casualties mentioned in the Yorkist poem, which Boardman accepts, were partly explained by the fact that the late mediaeval man at arms fought on foot, leaving his horse tethered in the baggage park. But, as Ann Hyland shows in her monograph, the horse was central to the military ethos of earlier generations. The knight was a member of a mounted elite and Hyland, an expert horsewoman and founder of the Endurance Horse and Pony Society of Great Britain, gives a fascinating account of the mounted paladin before the English archer humbled his pride at Crecy and Agincourt.

She has drawn on an admirably broad range of histories and specialised accounts of horsed warfare from a period, which unlike the Wars of the Roses, is rich in sources. One legend of which Hyland disposes is that the Anglo-Saxons fought mainly on foot. The 1066 campaign up to the last stand at Senlac was a highly mobile one and the discovery of large numbers of horseshoes at Stamford bridge seems to confirm the battle descriptions in the Norse sagas and in Florence of Worcester's chronicle.

The Saxons had the misfortune to meet the most formidable cavalry of the day when their own mounts were blown from "one of the most intensive periods of equestrian action known", and their numbers depleted as a result of being deliberately attacked by the Viking warriors at York.

Hyland's detail on horse breeding and management will prove of great value to mediaevalists. William the Conqueror rode a Spanish horse at Senlac, with remounts ready for when it was killed - all bred from the fine Barbary stock already the most sought after by chivalry, and whose transportation by ship on campaign was already organised in fine detail.

By the time of the Crusades, 100 of the Templars' rules were concerned with the care of horses and their value en masse in shock tactics. Here the Crusaders' preference for stallions, against the Saracens' mares, had a marked effect on the outcome of battles.

VE Day apart, this summer's major military commemoration is the 250th anniversary of the "45". Stuart Reid has concentrated on the few hours of high courage, confusion and bleak despair amid the sleet on Culloden Moor itself. He is interested in separating the facts from the "Bonnie Prince Charlie" legend, first created by Jacobite ladies. This is a thorough work of intelligent scepticism. The author is a former soldier and, armed with detailed contemporary records, he can turn "inherent military probability" into near-certainty.

Thanks to his researches in soldiers' letters, muster rolls and newspapers we now know that the Highlanders who fell on the redcoat line "like hungry wolves", were mostly not wielding broadswordsbut muskets and their uncoordinated charge, together with so much else in the disastrous enterprise, can be blamed on chiefs' divided aims, rather than on the galling fire of Hanoverian artillery.

The wounded were not systematically butchered in the heather, although a few low-grade, pressed "vestry" soldiers extended little compassion to captured Jacobites. Reid shows that at least part of the atrocity scenario in Lyon in Mourning was Jacobite propaganda and that Cumberland's harrowing of the Highlands was due in part to a fear that its inhabitants were to rise again, this time with French help.

The last of these valuable aids to military history brings a battle like Towton to life through colour photographs. This year English Heritage will be staging more than 30 mediaeval re-enactments, using buffs like the Company of St George and the White Company, whose dedication to capturing something of the reality of the Wars of the Roses (although patently not its squalor) is evident from these pages. A marvellous present for a modern Richard Brooke!

John Crossland is an archival research specialist.

The Battle of Towton

Author - A. W. Boardman
ISBN - 0 7509 0771 1
Publisher - Alan Sutton
Price - £18.99
Pages - 176

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