AA Gill: Towton, the bloodbath that changed the course of our history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Adrian Anthony Gill is a British newspaper columnist and writer, using the byline A. A. Gill. He is currently employed by the Sunday Times as their restaurant reviewer and television critic.]

Get onto the B1217 – the Ferrybridge-to-Tadcaster road – just after the M1 joins the A1M, and you’ve crossed that unmapped line where the north stops being grim and begins to be bracing. Go through Saxton, past the Crooked Billet pub, and on your left you’ll see rising farmland, green corn and copses – an old landscape, untroubled by poets or painters or the hyperbole of tourist boards, but handsome, still and hushed. The road is straight; it knows where it’s going, hurrying along, averting its gaze. Through the tonsured hedge you might just notice a big old holly tree on the side of the road. It seems out of place.

Get out of the car, adjust to the hissing silence and step behind the tree. Hidden from the road you’ll find a gothic stone cross of some age. Nobody knows who put it here or where it’s from. For centuries it lay in the ditch. A date recently inscribed on its base, March 28, 1461, is wrong. It should be the next day: the 29th, Sunday. The movable feast – Palm Sunday.

This oddly lurking crucifix is the only memorial on the site of the largest, longest, bloodiest and most murderous battle ever fought in Britain – Towton. Bloodiest not just by a few hundred, but by thousands. Its closest home-grown mortal rival is Marston Moor, fought 200 years later with a quarter of the casualties.

By all contemporary accounts, allowing for medieval exaggeration, on this one Sunday between 20,000 and 30,000 men died. Just so that you grasp the magnitude, that’s a more grievous massacre of British men than on the first day of the Somme. Without machineguns or shells, young blokes hacked, bludgeoned and trampled, suffocated and drowned. An astonishing 1% of the English population died in this field. The equivalent today would be 600,000.

Walk in the margin of the corn as it is ruffled by the blustering wind. Above, the thick mauve, mordant clouds curdle and thud like bruises, bowling patches of sunlight across the rise and fall of the land. In the distance is a single stunted tree, flattened by the south wind. It marks the corner of this sombre, elegiac place.

It would be impossible to walk here and not feel the dread underfoot – the echo of desperate events vibrating just behind the hearing. This is a sad, sad, dumbly eloquent deathscape.

Back down the road at the Crooked Billet, in the car park you’ll find a caravan on bricks that is the headquarters of the Towton Society. The pub is happy to have them here; the council has given them temporary permission. Most weekends this is a visitors’ centre, if there’s someone to volunteer to open it.

I’m met by a band of enthusiasts: an amateur historian, an archeologist, a metal-detector, a supermarket manager, a chemical engineer, teachers, a printer, a computer technician, a schoolboy and his dad. They are a particularly ordinary English gaggle – the sort of men and occasional woman you’ll find in huts and garages or rummaging in car boots and boxes on any weekend. Keen but defensive, proud and embarrassed, inhabiting that mocked attic of England’s hobbyists, aware that their interest tiptoes across the line between leisure activity and loopy obsession, they are instantly attractive. Enthusiasm is always likable. English enthusiasm, so shy and rare, is particularly winning. The men are beginning to wiggle into leggings and jerkins of boiled wool and linen, belting on purses and daggers, stringing bows, filling quivers from the boots of Japanese 4x4s, slipping back across the centuries with apologetic grins. I’m handed a skull. It wears the mocking expression common to all skulls and has long forgotten the fear and agony of its traumatic wound: a double-handed hammer blow to the back of its helmeted head so fearful, it split the base of the bone and disengaged it from the spine.

The chances are you’ve never heard of Towton. The most fatal day in all of English military history has been lost, left to be ploughed under by the seasons of seed-time and harvest. It is as if there was a conspiracy never to mention it. There are surprisingly few contemporary accounts of the battle, and they are sparse, though all agree on the overwhelming size and mortality...

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