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Author Topic: Why do we not know about Towton?  (Read 258 times)

Sean Clark

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Why do we not know about Towton?
« on: December 10, 2018, 05:05:00 PM »
With a new Bloody Barons being considered, my reading has turned towards the period and I am currently listening to 'The Hollow Crown' by Dan Jones (very good).

I'm also doing some research around Blore Heath which is 2 minutes drive from my house. This was where famously Margaret had a local blacksmith reverse the shoes on her horse to make good her escape. The anvil that was allegedly used is displayed in our local church yard in Mucklestone.

Towton has always fascinated me as a battle, mainly due to the huge numbers involved, something like 2% of the entire population of England at the time. Numbers vary from source to source, some claiming up to 28,000 were killed. I suspect this number was greatly exaggerated but it remains true that Towton was the largest battle ever to be fought on these shores. And yet no one outside of historians and wargamers no much if anything about it.

What follows is an old article from the Guardian by Martin Kettle discussing this point. Makes for interesting reading...

"For some years, until it grew too yellow and curled, I had a New Yorker cartoon taped to my fridge door. In the cartoon, a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman are conversing at a cocktail party. The woman is asking: "One question. If this is the information age, how come nobody knows anything?"
In Britain, people of that generation make remarks of that kind quite a lot. In August, while the school system belches forth the latest A-Level and GCSE results, the usual suspects queue up to say the usual things from their respective viewpoints. The pupils say they are thrilled, the teachers that they are vindicated, education ministers that the system works, and the Daily Telegraph that civilisation is at an end. Amid this annual ritual you can be sure that someone will also say that, while kids today are schooled to pass exams, they lack the broad education and general knowledge that we, their parents, once enjoyed.

My instinct is that a bit of caution is in order before we regurgitate too readily the idea that we of the older generation know so much and our children know so little. I say this partly because I'm often struck by the amount my children know that I don't - and partly because, with the obvious exception of Nicole Kidman, we're none of us perfect anyway.

A group of us, all intelligent, well-educated and middle-aged, were sitting around the table just the other day when I mentioned a fact I am always surprised is so little-known. And guess what? None of the rest of the group knew anything about it either. This week I asked a few colleagues at random what this thing meant to them. Once again, I drew a blank.

So here is my question. What does the word Towton mean to you? If you have the answer, as lots of you will, I'm glad, because you should. Yet if you don't, you are in very good company. It nevertheless says something about us as a nation that you are far more likely not to know anything about Towton than to know instantly what it is.

And here is the answer. Towton is a village about 10 miles south-west of York. It owes what fame it has to the fact that it was once the scene of a battle. But this was not just any battle. At the battle of Towton, more English people were killed than on any other day ever. And by ever I mean - ever.

It is often said that the bloodiest day in our history was July 1 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when 19,200 soldiers went over the top and were mown down by German guns. As a result, the Somme has become synonymous with the frightful, mindless slaughter of a whole generation of young British men. It traumatised the survivors so much that they barely spoke of it. But it hangs over our country still, nearly a century later. Merely to think of it can make one weep.

Yet Towton was bloodier than the Somme. When night fell on March 29 1461 - it was Palm Sunday, and much of the battle took place in a snowstorm - the Yorkist and Lancastrian dead numbered more than 20,000. It should be said that the figures are much disputed and rise to as many as 28,000 in some accounts, and there were countless wounded besides.

Now remember two other things while you absorb that. First, that while the population of Britain in 1916 was more than 40 million, that of England in 1461 was considerably less than 4 million, so the proportionate impact on the country must have been seismic. One in every hundred Englishmen died at Towton. Its impact must have been a bit like an English Hiroshima.

And, second, that, this being 1461, not a shot was fired. This was not industrial killing from a distance. Every Englishman who died at Towton was pierced by arrows, stabbed, bludgeoned or crushed by another Englishman. As a scene of hand-to-hand human brutality on a mass scale, Towton has absolutely no equal in our history. It was our very own day of wrath.

Towton is not a secret. It is in the books and on the maps. If you visit, there is a memorial. The same river which was so packed with corpses that men fled across them from one bank to the other still runs through it. If you study the Wars of the Roses, you learn it was a decisive Yorkist victory. If you go online you can discover some of the detective work done by the University of Bradford on mutilated skeletons exhumed from some of Towton's mass graves. And if you go to a performance of Henry VI Part 3, you will see that the national poet himself set potent scenes at Towton, where, in the thick of battle, a father finds he has killed his son and a son that he has killed his father, and where the watching and hapless Lancastrian king wishes himself among the dead - "For what is in this world but grief and woe?"

Yet, though not a secret, Towton is largely now forgotten. It carries none of the civic weight that Gettysburg does in America. Of course, Towton was all much longer ago, though more distant Hastings is still recalled well enough. Perhaps the dynastic cause in which Towton was fought is simply too obscure, though plenty of people today can recall roughly what the much later internecine battle at nearby Marston Moor was about.

Towton undoubtedly meant something to Shakespeare and his audiences. He uses it to warn against the great fear of all Tudors, the catastrophe of civil strife. We have no fear of civil war today. Such things belong to the past, where they did things differently. And yet ... Might something other than the fact that it all happened a long time ago partly explain our sustained expunging of Towton from the national memory?

Perhaps Towton is simply too brutal, too senseless and thus too traumatic to acknowledge today. I wonder whether Towton denial is even something we inherit in our DNA, an experience we do not want to confront because its intensity and slaughter do not fit with our island story, our national self-esteem and our enduring need for meaning and optimism. Yet when I think about the mindless killings of our own times, whether at home in the streets of Liverpool or abroad in the bombing of distant cities and villages, it seems clear that something of the savage spirit of Towton still lives on within us, even today - and that we should know about it.





martin goddard

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2018, 05:34:54 PM »
I am always disappointed by folk who bemoan the lack of knowledge of others.
What they are often doing is a comparison between their knowledge on a specific subject and the lack of knowledge of others in that same specific topic. I expect that they know that they are fooling themselves.  They attempt to boost their own virility by picking on easy targets. Same as those that "would have beaten them soundly" having seen some violent villain get put into prison in a distant county.  Tiresome.
An example would be the very nice chap who told me that Boolean algebra was used in glazing. Although most impressed, I asked him what Boolean algebra was? He said he had no idea (poor old George Fredrick). This sort of nonsense belongs with "my 7 year old knows more about computers than adults do".  Don't forget the "my child knows more than those teachers, therefore i will home school it".
We all know that 25/8mm is a terrible size to portray Towton in; 15mm is obviously the only size to do it in??!!

Stewart 46A

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #2 on: December 10, 2018, 06:52:10 PM »
That’s very thought provoking Sean, it may be in our DNA to forget as I had read similar before and forgot the facts until your article

Sean Clark

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #3 on: December 10, 2018, 06:58:28 PM »
Exactly Martin, but I would never impress that view upon any one other than close friends who know how to take a gentle joke.

I think my point is more about why the national consciousness hasn't been made aware of this and yet Hastings and Waterloo are both accepted general knowledge. It's not a dig at anyone individually or accusing the general public of being ignorant. It's not the fault of the public if they do not know what they do not know. Hastings and Waterloo might be seen as more important because of the percieved impact following the outcome of both battles. Bosworth is possibly more famous because of the locating of Richard III's remains.

Towton may not have decided the outcome of the Wars of the Roses - but I still find it astounding that 1% of the population is thought to have perished there. That is the equivalent of 600,000 casualties in a single day today. Even if the number is half that - it must have been a terrible day indeed.

martin goddard

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #4 on: December 10, 2018, 07:42:52 PM »
I suspect only 7% of the nation can calculate compound interest and really is important.

Folk can learn the most complex of ideas if it is important to them. Otherwise it is all luxury.

Sean Clark

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #5 on: December 10, 2018, 08:25:18 PM »
Yes compound interest has always baffled me. I bet a lot of people who aren't historians and have little interest in history know the significance of 1066 though.

Radar

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #6 on: December 10, 2018, 08:30:38 PM »
I think a lot depends upon the history syllabus in schools, primary schools in particular. When I was at primary the WotR were mentioned in passing: an anecdote really, explaining the symbolism of the Tudor rose. O-level and A-level it wasn't touched upon. Challenges the notion of merry olde England I guess, along with The Anarchy. So not really studied in mandatory history lessons.
For the same reason many adults know little about the civil wars of the seventeenth century - as a nation are we embarrassed about an era when our monarch was beheaded? ECW now on the syllabus/programmes of study so hopefully things will change in that respect.

As for Towton, only recently has the battle been marked in York - two of the towers on the city walls are themed Henry 7 and Richard 3, one of them has a model of the battle. York a city that has possibly  too much history - Roman, Viking and medieval celebrated, but no real mention of Marston Moor and the siege (apart from a small plaque on one of the gates).

Towton fact? They had to have a break in the battle to clear the bodies, as they physically couldn't get at one another to could carry on fighting?

Leman

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2019, 08:45:08 PM »
When I was a history teacher (up until 2011) Towton was studied as part of the WoR and a little diversion into osteo-archaeology in Year7. It cropped up again in Year8 when compared with Marston Moor, again in Year9 when compared with casualties on the first Day of the Somme and again in Year10 when used in conjunction with Waterloo, Gettysburg and the Somme when considering casualties vis-a-vis the development of weapon technology. And this was a “bog-standard” comprehensive!

Sean Clark

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Re: Why do we not know about Towton?
« Reply #8 on: January 10, 2019, 06:28:46 PM »
That's good to hear at least.