The War of the Roses: Towton Massacre

It was March 29th, 1461, and the largest, bloodiest battle ever fought in England was transpiring. It was the Battle of Towton, and it marked a major turning point in the War of the Roses. Over 28,000 men lost their lives in this single battle. For being such a major battle in English history, there is little known about the day itself and the men who fought. In August 1996, a mass burial pit was discovered near the battlefield. The remains were excavated by trained osteoarchaeologists and archaeologists from Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford and members of the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service. The mass grave included 43 individuals within a 6m x 2m x 50 cm space. By combining the excavations of the battlefield, with historical information from the time period, and this bioarchaeology, a more nuanced interpretation of the Battle of Towton can be created.

The battlefield is an interesting site of archaeological information, and studies done at Towton have been using the landscape in order to understand how the battle took place. In order to do this, an archaeological team from Bradford used existing historical data from the North Yorkshire County Council Sites and Monuments Record, as well as maps, and aerial photography. In addition to this, they conducted their own surveys through field walking and metal detector searches. By doing this they were able to locate the boundaries of the battlefield, and clarify where supposed burials were located. A number of supposed mound burials were found to contain nothing of importance, although a single burial on the battlefield itself was actually found. Artifacts from the study were fairly sparse, and consisted primarily of clothing fasteners and pieces of metal. However, given the high number of amateur metal detecting going on in the UK, it is not surprising that the more military artifacts would be absent. Some evidence of gun technology has also been recovered from surveys. The presence of this new technology at the battlefield could potential explain why it was so bloody. For information on the guns at Towton, see ArchNews’ post on the subject.

Studies of the bioarchaeology of the mass grave have been looking at reconstructing what the individuals went through during this epic battle. Within the mass grave found at the field, there were 24 confirmed individuals and commingled remains of a minimum of 14 individuals. All individuals were male, except for in cases where sex was indeterminate. The ages ranged from 15 to over 45, with many fitting into the younger range of the spectrum. The men were found to be extremely well muscled, but also exhibited a wide range of trauma from overuse and a hard lifestyle. Trauma around the time of death is the most revealing about the course of the battle. Two individuals suffered from sharp force trauma to the head, highly suggestive of being battlefield casualties. These blows directed at the face suggest that given the type of weapon, primarily swords, and the full body armor, the head was the best target.

The individual named Towton 25 suffered the worst fate, or at least the worst as evidenced by his skeletal remains. He was subject to eight discrete injuries. Five of these were directed at the left side of his face. Fragments of bone from these injuries would have been forced into his brain, causing mortal damage. In addition to this, he was attacked from behind, another sharp force wound to the back of the head. His final blow was the most damaging: a slash that bisected his entire face from the top of his skull running through to his jaw. This type of attack on an individual is revealing about the type of battle being fought, and aids in our understanding of what they experienced during the war.

While doing this research, I questioned whether the battlefield itself was a type of mortuary landscape. These seemingly mundane open fields, remain unsettled and preserved today as mementos to the past atrocities and reminders of the dead. Whether the deceased are buried at the site, in a nearby cemetery, or lost to time, the field itself remains as a marker of death. Like cemeteries, battlefields are curated and protected as long as the memory remains fresh within the people. Are battlefields mortuary landscapes? They are a site of death and funerary treatment, like a cremation basin after the bodies have been removed for a separate burial. While the individual injuries from the mass grave can tell us how the battle proceeded one on one, and what the manner of the fighting was, the entire landscape is important as it was the site of death and now remains a site of mourning and remembrance.

Works Cited

Stephen. 2010. Battle of Towton. Birth of Modern Warfare. ArchNews.

Economist. 2010. Battle of Towton: Nasty, Brutish and not so short.

Holst. 2004. Osteological analysis for Towton Battlefield.

Sutherland and Schmidt. 2003. Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project.


4 responses to “The War of the Roses: Towton Massacre

  1. I’m a medieval post-grad student at King’s College London and currently attending the Harlaxton Medieval Symposium. One of the most interesting speeches today came from a bone archeologist who showed us an analysis of the Towton excavation and what was learned about their diet, illnesses, military tactics etc. Should be interesting when they go back into the ground in 2012 to find more

  2. Well I’ll probably be back in the states by the time they do, but it’s going to be done by the archeolgists at the University of York so you may want to keep an eye on them.

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