Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Towton and Allusions in A Song of Ice and Fire

Today is the 553rd anniversary of the Battle of Towton, the most pivotal engagement of the Wars of the Roses. It was fought between the armies of York and Lancaster on 29 March 1461, just south of the English town of Towton in Yorkshire.

John Quartley's 19th Century painting of the Battle of Towton.

Towton is regarded as a historically important battle. First, it is almost certainly the largest battle ever fought on English (or indeed British) soil. Analysis of the battlefield seems to support suggestions that there were at least 50,000 soldiers present, possibly a lot more, between the two sides. It was easily the largest battle of the Wars of the Roses, and the immense death count helps explain why subsequent battles featured significantly less troops. It was also possibly the bloodiest battle in the history of English armed forces, with credible figures of 28,000 given for the dead. That's 9,000 more even than the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The figures are supported by the fact that more of the English nobility was present at the battle than any other in the war (almost three-quarters of all the lords and knights in the entire country were on the field), meaning that they would have been able to bring a formidable number of levies and vassals to the fight.

Henry VI, King of England and (sort of) France. A pious and peaceful ruler to his friends, a weak and ineffectual nutjob to his enemies.


The Wars of the Roses resulted from a dynastic dispute between the ruling Lancasterian branch of the Plantagenet family, led for most of the war by the weak, ineffectual and possibly insane King Henry VI, and the Yorkist branch, which had rebelled against the weak rule of the 'mad king'.

The conflicting claims to the throne resulted from the deposing (and alleged murder-through-starvation) of King Richard II in 1399 by his cousin, Henry IV. Henry IV's short reign was blighted by rebellions against his rule by loyalists to the old regime. The young Henry V acceded to the throne and unified the disaffected English nobles by launching a major military campaign in France. Against the odds, Henry won the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and secured the capitulation of the French king, who agreed to make Henry's heir his own heir as well, unifying the crowns. Henry V's son was born in 1422, but as the king was only 35 it was expected he would live for many more years. Instead he died, possibly of dysentery, whilst campaigning against French rebels. Henry VI became King of England at the age of nine months and is still the youngest monarch ever to ascend to the throne. Charles VI of France died just a few months later, making Henry King of France as well. However, Henry's claim was disputed by Charles VII of the House of Valois, who was crowned King of France in 1429.

Henry's early years were spent mostly in England, where he became a huge fan of the arts and intrigued by civil governance. However, he had absolutely no interest in warfare at all. The military successes of his father and regents were soon frittered away (especially after the 1431 martyrdom of Joan of Arc gave renewed vigour to the French cause). In 1437 Henry turned 16 and became king in his own right. He ignored the advice of his more militaristic cousin and heir presumptive, Duke Richard of York, and pursued policies of peace with France. In 1445 this was secured with Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou, the niece of Charles VII. The marriage treaty was combined with a secret transferral of English-held lands in France to the French crown. This news was deeply unpopular in England, especially with Richard.

Richard's faction soon grew in power. Henry and Margaret's rule was disastrous: they favoured ineffective and corrupt courtiers despised by lords and commoners alike; they overspent massively; they failed to work for the interests of London merchants; and their military successes were few and far between. Margaret was also a strong-willed political animal who was soon Henry's closest confidante and advisor, something that further infuriated both Richard and many of the people, who regarded her as pursuing French interests over English ones. When Charles VII invaded Normandy, reversing the victories won by Henry V, Henry VI's response was laggardly and unenthusiastic. In 1453 Bordeaux was captured by the French, leaving Calais as the sole English possession on the European continent. Returning troops rioted when they discovered they had not been paid due to the crown's overspending.

A year earlier, Duke Richard (after a spell as Lord Governor of Ireland, an appointment made in a futile attempt to limit his power) had presented a list of demands to the king, including the removal of ineffective advisors and the reversal of some of his more unpopular policies. Henry agreed, but Margaret convinced him to renege on the deal. When word of the fall of Bordeaux arrived, Henry had a nervous breakdown and was left insensible for a year. Richard declared himself Protector of the Realm and dismissed most of Henry's loyalists. He also marginalised Margaret, who had just given birth to a son (Edward of Westminster) and reduced her influence.

Henry Tresham's rendition of the Earl of Warwick just before the Battle of Towton. According to some, Warwick slew his own horse in front of his men to show that he would not flee the field and abandon them. The historical accuracy of this is questionable.

Richard spent a year ruling England and used this time to win the support and loyalty of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. Warwick was a powerful, popular, charismatic and quite staggeringly rich landowner and noble who was also a very skilled and respected soldier. Warwick and York spent their time helping the London merchants and reversing the disastrous spending plans of the old regime. This won them great respect and friends in London and the south. However, on Christmas Day 1454 Henry VI regained his wits. This was seen as a miracle and Henry surprisingly quickly was able to regain most of his former power. He brokered a deal with York that York and his heirs would succeed Henry to the throne rather than his own son. However, Margaret was furious with this idea and soon convinced Henry to go back on it. Margaret and Henry had Richard of York removed from court. Fearing arrest, Richard raised a small army and marched on London in May 1455, declaring his intent to remove the king's corrupt advisors. At the Battle of St. Albans Richard won a decisive victory. Several of the king's closest supporters were killed and Henry himself was found cowering in a tanner's shop, having suffered a relapse of his illness. Richard of York again declared himself Protector of the Realm but once again the king recovered (in February 1456) and had Richard removed from court. He was sent back to Ireland to serve as Lord Governor for a second term. Warwick was also removed from London and dispatched to Calais.

The king and his family went on progress through the Midlands, but this was ill-timed. French privateers were raiding the coast and practising piracy in the Channel, whilst there was widespread dissent in the south. Warwick and York also used their exiles to build up new power blocks, with Warwick winning the loyalty of Calais, Kent and parts of London by defeating the French pirates in naval engagements in the Channel and York securing military support in Ireland and Wales. Warwick overstepped his authority by sinking or capturing ships from neutral countries. When he was summoned to court, Warwick declared that it was an attempt to kill him. He and York unified their military forces at Ludlow in Wales, but were surprised by a Lancasterian pre-emptive strike before they were ready. The Yorkists were defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, but York and Warwick survived and escaped back to Ireland and London, although both were now openly attained as traitors.

Warwick decided to launch a swift, surprise attack to capture London whilst the king and queen were still in the north. In the event, Warwick was welcomed with open arms and occupied the capital with almost no problems at all. Raising an army, he marched north to intercept the royal army at Northampton and defeated it in battle in July 1460. Henry VI was taken prisoner once more. York landed in Wales and quickly marched to London. Fed up with repeatedly making deals only to have them broken, York claimed the English throne directly. The boldness of the move shocked even Warwick, who believed they were still fighting for influence and control of the weak king, not outright control. Richard produced a detailed claim citing his mutual descent from both the second and fourth sons of King Edward III, whilst Henry was only descended from the third son. The gathered nobles agreed that Richard's claim was superior, but that deposing a king anointed by God was unholy. They made Richard Protector of the Realm (for the third time) and disinherited Edward of Westminsters from the lines of succession, so Richard or his sons would later take the throne instead.

The deal was rejected by Margaret of Anjou, who had remained in the north. She negotiated an alliance with Queen-Consort Mary of Scotland, gaining a large army which she used to engage the Yorkist forces at Wakefield in December 1460. In a pitched battle, Richard, Duke of York, was unexpectedly slain and the Lancasterians gained a total and commanding victory.

Richard's claim was inherited by his son, Edward, Duke of March. Only eighteen years old, Edward was already a skilled soldier and an inspirational commander. Hungry for revenge, Edward and Warwick raised fresh troops but were defeated at the Second Battle of St. Albans. The captive Henry VI had been taken to the battlefield and was rescued by the Lancasterians in its aftermath. However, the Lancasterians failed to capitalise on their victory: the south had turned against them, with Coventry declaring for York, and supplying their army became difficult. They retreated north to Yorkshire to gather a new, larger army. In early 1461, Warwick and Edward regrouped in London, where Edward was crowned as Edward IV of England in a brief ceremony. They then marched north from London, gathering all the strength of the south and all of their other supporters to them.

Richard Caton Woodville's depiction of the battle, focusing on the fighting along the river along the side of the battlefield.

The Battle

The two armies had grown to extreme sizes by the time they met at the town of Towtown on 29 March, a reflection of the seriousness of the situation. Almost the entire English nobility had turned out to the battle, declaring for one side or the other. The Lancastrians had an estimated 30-35,000 troops to the Yorkist 20-25,000, but the Yorkists succeeded in claiming superior, flat ground at the southern end of the battlefield. The Lancastrian position gave them limited visibility and also wedged them between several areas of marshland and a small river, preventing them from deploying their superior numbers to turn the Yorkist flanks.

Even worse, the wind was blowing strongly from the south when battle was joined. The Earl of Warwick's uncle, Lord Fauconberg, was a noted expert in archery and immediately deployed the Yorkist archers to fire from the limit of their range. The wind carred the arrows into the Lancastrian ranks, immediately causing havoc. Return fire into the wind was ineffective, and soon the Yorkists had achieved significant casualties amongst the Lancastrian ranks before direct blows had been exchanged. When the Yorkist archers ran out of arrows, they advanced, retreived enemy arrows, and continued to fire. The Lancastrians finally charged rather than be shot to death. Despite the high number of casualties caused by the Yorkist archers, the Lancastrians still almost turned the battle through the ferocity of their charge, accompanied by a sally of horsemen hidden in a nearby woodland. This cavalry charge into the Yorkist left flank almost shattered it, but Edward IV hoisted his banner and rode personally into the fray, inspiring his men through his courage. The flanking attack was defeated and the York line stiffened.

However, the two forces were still evenly matched and the battle descended into a bloody engagement of attrition. Some reports claim that combat lasted for ten hours, an almost-unheard of length for a medieval engagement. Roughly halfway through the battle, the forces of the Duke of Norfolk arrived to support Edward. Hidden by the terrain until the last moment, these reinforcements hit the Lancastrian left flank and began to turn it. Whilst the Lancastrians prevented a total collapse and rout, they were now hard-pressed. Eventually the Lancastrians admitted defeat and withdrew. The Yorkists were too exhausted to pursue. By a pre-standing agreement that this battle would finally decide the matter, some of the Lancastrian supporters went over to Edward.

The battlefield following the engagement was an unusually grisly sight, even by the standards of the day, and part of the field was renamed the Bloody Meadow, for the grass had turned red through the blood that had seeped into it. The sheer volume of casualties led to some of the most unchivalrous behaviour of the wars, with scores of captured Lancastrian knights being executed on the spot rather than held for ransom.

Richard III slays Sir William Brandon (Henry VII's standard-bearer) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1483. Richard's charge of a thousand knights almost turned the battle, but he was slain and the Wars of the Roses effectively ended.


Margaret of Anjou and Henry retreated to Scotland, a move which further increased support for Edward IV in England. The Earl of Warwick and other Lancastrian supporters were rewarded and swept the remaining Lancastrians from power. Henry VI made several sallies from Scotland to try to regain his support, but he was captured at Clitheroe in 1465 and taken to London. This forced Scotland to sue for peace, which meant that Margaret and her son Edward had to take refuge in France instead. Other exiled Lancastrian supporters, such as Jasper Tudor, continued the fight, hoping to raise fresh forces on the continent, but it appeared that their cause was completely lost.

Astonishingly, their hopes were reignited by someone who had been their bitterest enemy: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker. In 1464 Warwick negotiated the marriage of Edward IV to the daughter of the King of France, a considerable coup which would almost certainly remove the last vestiges of support for Margaret. Instead, Edward annoued he had married the widow of a minor nobleman, Elizabeth Woodville. Warwick was furious with what he saw as a betrayal by the king, whom he regarded as a protege (and, unwisely, as not skilled at warfare). This was worsened when the Woodvilles were given more influence and power at court. In 1469 Warwick conspired to put Edward's brother George on the throne. This plan backfired and Warwick and George were forced to flee to France. There they struck a treacherous alliance with Margaret of Anjou, with Warwick's daughter Anne Neville marrying Edward of Westminster. They invaded England in 1470 and retook London, restoring the captive Henry VI as the King of England. Edward fled to France, but Warwick overreached himself and offended the extremely powerful Duke of Burgundy, who was kin to the Woodvilles. The Duke provided Edward with the forces he needed to re-invade England and capture York. He marched south, gaining fresh support, retook London and and attacked Warwick's army at the Battle of Barnet. Warwick was killed.

Margaret and her son regrouped in Wales, but found their allies deserting them. When Gloucester defected to Edward's camp, they found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the Severn. They were engaged by the royal forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury in early 1471 and defeated, with Edward of Westminster killed (becoming the first and only heir to the English throne to die in battle). King Henry VI, again imprisoned in London, was found dead a few weeks later. Although it was claimed he had died of a broken heart after learning of his son's death, it is now thought more likely was killed by supporters of Edward to end the Lancastrian claim to the throne. Anne Neville was forgiven the crimes of her father and late husband and was taken back into the king's peace. She later even married the king's youngest brother, Richard. Henry VI's remaining heir, Henry Tudor, was in exile in France and his somewhat questionable descent from Edward III meant that Edward IV disregarded him as a serious rival.

Edward IV ruled until 1483 when he died suddenly, although he had become indolent and something of a wastrel once the wars were won, more interested in fighting and (alledgedly) women then governance. His son, Edward V, was expected to inherit with Richard as regent, but Richard unexpectedly executed Queen Elizabeth's brother, Edward V's protector, as a traitor. Elizabeth herself took refuge in Westminster Abbey and Richard claimed the throne by saying that Edward V and his siblings were bastards, as the controversial marriage between Elizabeth and Edward IV had not been legal. Edward V and his younger brother both disappeared without a trace from their holdings in the Tower of London sometime in the summer of 1463.

In a coming-together of former enemies almost as unlikely as that of Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the exiled Henry Tudor, agreed to join forces. Henry was betrothed to Elizabeth and Edward IV's daughter, Elizabeth of York, and Margaret convinced her current husband, Lord Thomas Stanley, to switch sides. Stanley had become one of the most powerful nobles in the country and commanded respect. However, he would not commit until it was clear that Henry Tudor could win. When Henry's forces invaded England and Richard marched against him, Stanley continued to hold back his decision. When the two armies met at Bosworth Field and Henry gained the upper hand, Stanley betrayed Richard and helped destroy his army. Richard III was slain on the battlefield and Henry took the crown as Henry VII of the House of Tudor, uniting the former houses of Lancaster and York through his marriage to Elizabeth of York.

This marriage ended the Wars of the Roses (a few minor rebellions aside) and began one of the greatest dynasties of English monarchies; their second son Henry became Henry VIII and their granddaughter was Elizabeth I of England.

The Battle of the Trident in A Song of Ice and Fire, where Robert Baratheon slew Rhaegar Targaryen, the son of the Mad King, and won the Iron Throne.

Allusions in A Song of Ice and Fire

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire features multiple allusions to the Wars of the Roses as a whole and the Battle of Towton in particular. A full analysis of such things belongs to its own article, but a few of the obvious factors are as follows:
  • The names 'Stark' and 'Lannister' are echoes of 'York' and 'Lancaster', although of course the details of the families are very different: York and Lancaster were branches of the same tree of descent, worshipped the same religion and most of the members of the two houses were related to one another.
  • The casus belli for the Wars of the Roses was the mismanagement of the kingdom caused by the 'Mad King', Henry VI, similar to how Aerys II Targaryen sparked Robert's Rebellion. However, whilst Aerys's insanity resulted in him burning people alive and executing people for no reason, Henry's manifested as a catatonic state lasting months at a time. The initial rebellion against Henry focused more on how he was served by poor advisors, a theme touched on in ASoIaF (particularly on how Varys's advice to Aerys seemed to backfire) but not as prevalent.
  • The term 'Protector of the Realm' was claimed by both Richard of York and Eddard Stark. However, whilst Eddard was honourable to a fault, Richard was more self-serving and a more politically savvy person.
  • The Battle of Towton ended the war with a surprise victory for the numerically inferior force led by a young but charismatic and skilled teenager. The battle is in many respects a dead ringer for the Battle of the Trident, although the Battle of Towton was fought alongside a small river rather than over a large one and Edward IV did not kill Henry VI's heir there.
  • Edward IV's life story - a young, brilliant fighter slightly underestimated who turned into a strong war-leader who became a king but, bored of rule, became a bit of a fat drunkard, and whose death sparked a renewed period of civil war (including a dubious claim to the throne by his youngest brother) - bears strong similarities to that of Robert Baratheon. A key difference is that Edward seems to have loved his wife Elizabeth Woodville, and there are no indications Elizabeth ever slept with her brother. There are also echoes of the later Henry VIII in Robert.
  • Lord Thomas Stanley is seen as a ruthlessly pragmatic man who wants to improve the power of his family and is ready to support any course to do so. He withholds his army until a victor emerges and then joins with it. This can be seen as an analogue of Lord Tywin Lannister. Other elements can be seen in other historical figures: Warwick's immense fame, influence and wealth, not to mention him reacting badly to any slight, are also traits of Tywin's.
  • The overall course of the war - the Lancasters and Yorks basically fighting one another whilst suffering in-fighting between their own forces and eventually both being trumped by the Tudors - can be seen somewhat reflected in the Starks and Lannisters fighting one another to exhaustion only for the Tyrells (whose symbol is a rose) to rise to power afterwards.
  • For literal references: Ser Criston Cole of the Kingsguard, whose support for Aegon II rather than Rhaenyra sparked the Dance of Dragons, was called the 'Kingmaker', like Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The sisters of King Baelor the Blessed were locked up in the Maidenvault and became known as the 'Princesses in the Tower', similar to how Edward V and his brother Richard became the Princes in the Tower. Fortunately, the princesses had a happier fate.
Of course, A Song of Ice and Fire is not just the Wars of the Roses with the serial numbers lopped off, but Martin has cited them as an influence and inspiration in certain places.


newfiesailor said...

Good catch with the significance of the Tyrell rose and the Tudor rose; I never thought of that. That would put a whole different spin on the Tommen-Margaery wedding. Of course, The War of the Roses is a later name where the significance of the rose itself may be a complete myth, made famous by Shakespeare.

I always thought of Lord Tywin as Edward I with his conflict with the romanticised movie version of William Wallace being Eddard Stark. The north being Scotland and all that. Tywin was tall and golden as was Edward I, with the ruthless, warlike personality of Longshanks. Of course, GRRM probably used a whole slew of different kings to form the combined personalities of his characters. Interesting article.

Aditya said...

Your historical articles are great.

David said...

Just a small quibble Towton is and always has been a small village, not a town. The battle was fought on a plateau of agricultural land between Towton and Saxton, just off the old London Road from York.

Wastrel said...

I think the clearest parallel to Aerys and the rebellion against him has to be Richard II - traumatised by an early popular revolt (Richard personally resolved the Peasant's Revolt when he was only fourteen), allegedly power-mad, accused of tyranny and of murdering the heads of the most powerful families.

Another Richard of York-Eddard parallel: Richard's father was executed by Henry V.

Rhaegar's legendary wonderfulness, and early death, seem an allusion to the Black Prince (Richard II's father).

The Brotherhood Without Banners may be an allusion to Jack Cade, who lead a popular, lower-class rebellion against Henry VI, associated with Richard of York though probably not under his control. Though so far the Brotherhood haven't actually sacked King's Landing the way Cade did.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing article. I've always wanted to learn more about the Wars of the Roses since reading ASOIAF.

Anonymous said...

I thought that Warwick was closer to Littlefinger than to Tywin.

--The Dragon Demands

Anonymous said...

This is much better article comparing to one in Wikipedia.

However all allusions in ASOIAF seems to be very illusive except Robert-Richard.

Also i think Catelyn Tully has some resemblance to Elizabeth Woodville.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Wert! One other allusion can be made in the comparison of Rob Stark with Edward IV. Rob "never lost a battle" ala Edward but fatally slipped up when he secretly married Jayne Westerling (as Edward had done with Elizabeth Woodville). This eventually led to the destruction (temporarily at least)of the Stark dynasty as it did to the house of York. (The Woodvilles were so unpopular that it gave Richard III an excuse to usurp the throne eventually leading to the battle of Bosworth.)

JKN14 said...

Great article, but the Battle of Tewksebury seems more like the Battle of the Trident, given that it was the decisive battle and the Lancastrian heir to the throne died. Edward IV also seems more like Robb Stark, marrying for love and all then Robert Baratheon, although there are similarities in both. Very interesting read though.