Battlefield archeology: Towton, 1461, and the brutality of war

Posted: December 29, 2010 in Uncategorized
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My advisor, Richard Kaeuper, sent his cohort an utterly fascinating news story the other day, from the Economist, of all places.  What prompted them to publish a piece on the human archeology of the battle of Towton just before Christmas, I don’t know, but I’m glad they did.  For those with even a semi-active imagination (as I flatter myself I possess in some measure), the horror of war and the terror of being a hunted fugitive after a lost battle jump off the page, all the more because of the detached nature of the text.

Just to recap, in case your Wars of the Roses history is a bit rusty: Towton was fought on Palm Sunday in March, 1461, southwest of York, between Edward IV’s Yorkist and the Duke of Somerset’s Lancastrian forces.  In blowing snow and freezing temperatures, Edward’s forces won, and Towton is now known as one of the largest, and probably the bloodiest, battles to take place on English soil (and yes, I did what all self-respecting academics do, whether or not they admit it–I went to Wikipedia for a refresher).  A few years ago, Martin Kettle from The Guardian wrote a very depressed (and depressing) piece on the battle, in which he notes that The Somme was not, after all, the bloodiest day in English history: Towton was.  His prose is worth quoting at length (though note that he’s mistaken regarding no shot being fired–there were a fair number of guns employed at this battle):

[T]his 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?”

The article in the Economist shows how this misery is illuminated in the human remains of Towton: for example, the skull of Towton 25, struck on the left temple five times, then smashed in the back of the head by some weapon (who knows, perhaps a falchion) and felled to the ground, hit again in the back of the head and turned over, and finally machete’d across the face, basically ripping his skull apart.  He, like the other human remains found in 1996 under Towton town hall, was most likely a Lancastrian fugitive as the battle was ending, hunted down and slaughtered.

As Kettle says, there’s information on Towton if you look for it (again, Wikipedia is a useful collector of scholarly links): the English Heritage site has a page on it.  The University of Bradford has a page on its excavations, and the Towton Battlefield Society is an active group.  But the personal aspect of the battle, revealed by these excavations and pictures, is what impresses me most.  As a historian, I’m supposed to be concerned mostly with “change through time,” examining “structures of power,” and “cultural discourse,” and I am–it’s essentially my dissertation, as well as a couple articles I’m finishing.  But I have always felt that stories, narratives, and research that illuminate “the human condition” are just as valuable to human knowledge and understanding, and the story of the Towton skeletons is such a thing.  Gaining some sense of the horror of that day, of the physical appearance and emotional state of the participants, getting a glimpse into a human’s life story, even when that human remains nameless, is a great and terrible thing, and is worth being set against any other type of historical or literary study.  Even if we leave the narrative with a sense of wonderment and sorrow, that is enough.  If I ever write something that causes that reaction from readers, even if I never write anything else, I will be content.  And unfortunately for humanity, we will probably not run out of such stories any time soon.  Which means “job security,” so to speak, for me.

 

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