British to excavate War of the Roses graves

The Battle of Towton – fought during England’s War of the Roses – was likely the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, yet it it’s also one of the least known. That’s about to change.

Archaeologists believe they have located burial pits from the 1461 clash, a battle that claimed 28,000 lives, and will begin excavation this summer.

Work is to begin in June, at a site 12 miles south of York between the villages of Saxton and Towton where the battle took place. Experts have identified as many as five different mass burial sites and believe they could yield the remains of several hundred men, according to The Independent.

This week marks the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Towton, an event so bloody that almost 1 percent of the English population was wiped out in a single day. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers took part in the battle between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of the English throne.

The locations of the graves were discovered by archaeologists using geophysical imagery. Tim Sutherland, a battlefield archaeologist from the University of York, told The Independent that he believes there are between three and five grave pits at the site.

“These are the main mass graves found right in the middle of the battlefield. They are the big ones,” he said. “Every time the field is ploughed we go to this exact spot and as soon as the rains wash the surface clear we start finding fragments of human remains.”

Very few records of the battle survive, which is one reason that so little is known about it. Historians believe this could be due to an early propaganda campaign by the Tudors, who eventually took control of the English crown in 1485, when Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) defeated Richard III at the Bosworth Field.

“The Tudors did a tremendously good propaganda job in making Bosworth the key battle because that was the battle which ended the Wars of the Roses, said George Goodwin, an author and historian who just this month published Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle. “They were the winners and they got to write the history books. Because Towton was a Yorkist victory that wasn’t really very useful to them.”

Exact casualty figures are still a matter of conjecture for historians. 

“England was in the grip of civil war between the North and South. Towton represented the appalling climax of the disastrous 40-year reign of England’s youngest ever king, the pious and weak Henry VI from the House of Lancaster,” according to The Independent. “Henry was just nine months old when he succeeded his father to the throne.

The houses of Lancaster and York met at Towton on March 29, 1461. 

“The Lancastrians, who initially had the upper hand with a larger force and a position on higher ground, retreated when a fierce blizzard turned against them and Yorkist reinforcements arrived,” according to the paper. “No quarter was given and the battle soon turned into a massacre, with bodies piling up by the minute.

“Subsequent studies of some of the remains offer a frightening glimpse of the brutality inflicted on the Lancastrian soldiers,” it adds. “Experts found multiple chops, incisions, punctures and cuts on the facial areas and some evidence that prisoners may have been summarily executed.”

“It was Britain’s most brutal battle because there was absolutely no quarter, and the victorious army had licence to kill anybody,” Goodwin said. “The Yorkists had the blood-lust of victory. Part of the reason it was so atrocious was because a sense of ‘the other’ had crept in, and there was a real hatred of the enemy.”

(Above: The Battle of Towton, Richard Caton Woodville, 1922)

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