The following is an edited extract from ‘House of Beaufort; the Bastard Line that Captured the Throne’ by Nathen Amin, released by Amberley in August 2017. You can order the book HERE)
The Lancastrians had scouted an ideal location on an exposed plateau between the villages of Towton and Saxton, a few miles south of Tadcaster, and once it became clear the Yorkists were making their final advance, orders were given to assume battle formation. The duke of Somerset’s army was slightly uphill facing south, with a deep ravine to their right in which the swollen River Cock flowed before meandering behind their lines. To prevent an attack from the rear, the bridge crossing the Wharfe in Tadcaster was demolished, in theory safeguarding their position. As it transpired, this order merely hemmed Somerset’s men into a death trap.
Once the Yorkist army, fresh from the Ferrybridge engagement, had organised their lines, cries were heard from both sides in support of their respective kings. It had started to snow heavily, with swirling winds obscuring vision and leaving the ground icy white, hardly ideal conditions for a life or death confrontation. It was tacitly acknowledged by all this was to be a decisive battle, with any traditional rules of engagement suspended. Somerset himself probably recognised that should he be captured alive, it was unlikely he would survive the day if previous encounters were any indication. Of course, the same was true in reverse, and Henry Beaufort still retained hope of getting his hands on Warwick. Nervous tension must have pervaded through his body as he stared across the terrain, his battle standard of blue and white with the Beaufort Portcullis fluttering in the cold air.
The fighting commenced with the archers loosing their arrows into the cold sky, although unbeknownst to them, Lancastrian efforts fell woefully short, losing range in the tempestuous wind. The Yorkist archers simply gathered up the arrows and shot them straight back whence they came, finding their targets with devastating accuracy. Somerset had probably hoped to encourage the enemy to attack him uphill, where he could pick them off from his advantageous position, but the unforeseen slaughter of his own archers prompted the duke to order his infantry to advance. Leading by example, and protected by a full harness of armour with his Beaufort arms prominently sewn onto his tabard, Somerset charged into battle. Hours of claustrophobic, hand-to-hand combat followed, leaving hundreds of men dying by the hour amidst the incessant clanging of steel upon steel.
The fighting was furious, but generally even-handed, until the arrival of the duke of Norfolk’s forces in the early afternoon. Norfolk smashed into the Lancastrian left-flank, gradually causing Somerset’s men to pivot until, disastrously, they had their backs towards the ravine and the flooded Cock Beck. As Edward’s forces started to overwhelm Somerset’s, the Lancastrian line disintegrated, with soldiers choosing to flee for their lives rather than standing their ground. What followed was slaughter on an unfathomable scale, for the Lancastrians were, in George Neville, Bishop of Exeter’s words, ‘routed and broken in pieces’. The panicked soldiers generally headed in two directions; some fled down the ravine towards the Cock but, finding it tough to scramble back up the opposite bank in the icy conditions, were butchered en masse. Others headed north, but finding the bridge across the Wharfe destroyed by their own hand, drowned in considerable numbers attempting to cross the freezing water whilst evading their bloodthirsty pursuers.
No quarter was given and no mercy granted, prompting Bishop George Neville to report ‘so many dead bodies were seen as to cover an area six miles long by three broad and about four furlongs’. Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Englishmen lay dead in blood-splattered snow, ‘a number unheard of in our realm for almost a thousand years’. Amongst those butchered at the hands of their fellow countrymen were Northumberland and Trollope, including forty-two knights executed after the battle on Edward’s orders. It is unsurprising the Milanese ambassador described the battle as ‘great and cruel’ on 18 April 1461, wryly adding ‘as happens when men fight for kingdom and life’.