The brutal reality of Medieval warfare


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.

Towton 25, the Lancastrian soldier who died at the Battle of Towton in 1461, with wounds evident.

Towton 25, the Lancastrian soldier who died at the Battle of Towton in 1461, with wounds evident.

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.”

As a result of the clash, Edward IV took over as King of England, displacing Lancastrian Henry VI.

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)

17 thoughts on “The brutal reality of Medieval warfare

      • There certainly is. I guess it just isn’t our distant ancestors who suffered from these kinds of horrors though.
        I imagine the bodies of the victims of the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s would have had similar injuries.

      • Yes, you’re right. I have a feeling that with the passage of time, what happened in Rwanda is going to garner more and more attention, much like the Holocaust didn’t begin to get a great deal of attention until the 1960s. Talk about an experience that will shake your faith in humanity.

  1. There are two reasons why Towton has always stuck in my mind. One because I come from Yorkshire where the Battle of the Roses was still talked about 500 years later. Two, because on our way to the coast for holidays, we would always pass through Towton crossroads. I can’t remember if there was a sign to the battlefield back then, but my parents would always start talking about it. I think one day we went to visit the site, but all I remember is a field. Nothing much really considering the significance of the batttle.

    Your other commenters have mentioned mass murders in Africa. I would add Pol Pot and Cambodia to that list.

    Our ability and desire for murder is truly frightening.

  2. Hard to press like on this one. When we don’t experience war and bloodshed, we put tuck it away. But if we had to see it, to live and die by it, might we live our lives differently? I don’t know. We would certainly never forget it.

    • Yes, war is one of those things that’s easy to disengage oneself from, especially if it’s not happening to you. It’s one thing to send troops elsewhere, another to have battle them on your own turf. And while the tactics have changed over the past 550 years since the War of the Roses, seeing the grisly outcome for the losers at Towton reminds one that the impact on those who serve today is something that cannot be overestimated.

      • You are so right, and we have some pretty nasty injuries coming back from war today. Thanks for sharing, as always. I love your posts. 🙂

  3. Good post–like all thus far. The numbers…they don’t work out, do they? The Times says 1% of the population died. Goodwin says 75,000 men were 10% of the population. Which means the total population exceeded 1,500,000, by Goodwin’s count, yes? (Men, women, not even counting children.) 1% of that dead yields 15,000 vs. the chroniclers’ closer-to-30,000. Well, that’s okay, because there are those children to make up the difference.

    But my understanding has always been that medieval period casualty tallies were GROSSLY exaggerated, and demonstrably so from archeological evidence. Granted, I gained that understanding ages ago in university, and “we” may know otherwise now.

    I is confused. Couldn’t access the Times article to see what figures it gives vs. Goodwin’s.

    • Goodwin’s comment was that as many as 75,000 men, perhaps 10 percent of the country’s *fighting-age population,* took the field that day. So, yes, that would exclude not only children, but also men over, say 45 or 50, which wouldn’t be a huge number, but would still be a significant figure.

      I’m not sure why you couldn’t access The Times’ story. One of the sentences says that, “By all contemporary accounts, allowing for medieval exaggeration, on this one Sunday between 20,000 and 30,000 men died,” representing 1 percent of England’s population. It would appear from that sentence that historians have accounted for the medieval penchant for exaggeration.

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    • Much obliged, and it is a fascinating subject. I suppose it’s easier, psychologically, to try to settle one’s differences on the field of battle than at the negotiating table. At least, that’s what history would lead us to believe.

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