Anyone who questions the brutal nature of medieval warfare need only read The Economist’s description of the fate of a Lancastrian soldier killed at the Battle of Towton during England’s bloody War of the Roses:
The soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough – somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died – to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out.
Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.
The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head – picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.
His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.
Though relatively unknown today, the Battle of Towton has been described as “probably the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.”
Author George Goodwin, who wrote a book on Towton to coincide with the battle’s 550th anniversary in 2011, reckons as many as 75,000 men, perhaps 10 percent of the country’s fighting-age population, took the field that day, according to The Economist.
According to chroniclers, it is claimed that as many as 28,000 men were killed.
“An astonishing 1 percent of the English population died in this field,” The Times wrote in 2011. “The equivalent today would be 600,000.”
The remains of the individual known as Towton 25 and 39 others were discovered in the summer of 1996, when builders working at Towton Hall, about a mile away from the main battlefield, discovered a mass grave.
Archaeologists from the University of Bradford eventually took charge of an excavation, discovering 28 complete skeletons along with 12 partial skeletons.
“The skeletons had clearly been the victims of great violence. Many display the same frenzied wounding as Towton 25,” according to The Economist. “The location of the bodies, and subsequent carbon-dating, linked them conclusively to the battle of Towton.”
Towton is the only mass grave of known medieval battle victims to have been found in England.
The only comparable find is that of a mass grave of victims of the Battle of Visby in Sweden in 1361, which was excavated in the early 20th century. While that find was considerably larger – nearly 1,200 individuals – the way in which the bodies there were removed, with the graves broken into grids and excavated one square at a time, made it almost impossible to reassemble skeletons later.
At Towton, skeletons were carefully recorded in the grave so that they could be put back together again. This has allowed a more complete picture of participants in the fighting to emerge, according to the magazine.
(Top: Battle of Towton, by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr., 1922)