Palm Sunday, 1461: England’s forgotten war between North and South

From Telegraph blogs, May 11, 2012

Compared to other major European countries, England is a fairly unified land. The north and south of France are quite distinct in terms of climate, geography and language; Germany is divided both north to south and east to west, a fact borne out by Misha Glenny’s recent series about German history. As for Italy, which fairly recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, the views of northern Italians on this subject are well known.

In comparison England’s regional differences are fairly minor, reflecting both its size and the antiquity of its political union, which dates to the time of Athelstan “the Magnificent” in the 930s. Roughly 50 years before that, in the face of the Viking invasion, the two surviving kingdoms, Mercia and Wessex, introduced a single currency, using the pound that was (probably) first introduced by Offa of Mercia in the 8th century. If this all sounds ridiculously obscure to many people, it gives some indication as to why Englishmen perhaps value their economic independence more than Germans or Italians do. Watching Michael Portillo’s excellent documentary about the euro the other night, it’s quite clear that Greeks and Germans alike appear to be under a powerful delusion similar to that described in When Prophecy Fails.

Athelstan is, by one of those unexplainable quirks of history, almost entirely forgotten; perhaps it is because, unlike his grandfather Alfred, he did not hire a professional PR man like Asser. Another strangely forgotten part of English history is the Battle of Towton, in 1461, the subject of George Goodwin’s highly enjoyable recent book, Fatal Colours.

Towton barely registers in the national consciousness, not even as famous as Crecy or Poitiers, let alone Hastings, Agincourt or Waterloo, yet it was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. Up to 28,000 men died that Palm Sunday, 1461, comparable with the first day of the Somme, but in a country of around three million people. As the author notes, “it was not merely a military engagement – it was a national catastrophe”, with up to one-tenth of all Englishmen and Welshmen eligible to fight being present on the North Yorkshire battlefield fighting for Edward, Earl of March, son of Richard, Duke of York, the most powerful magnate in the kingdom, and his cousin, the weak-minded Henry VI.

The king had come to the throne in 1422 at just nine months, following the death of his father Henry V, but as well as inheriting the thrones of both England and France he had also inherited, from his French grandfather Charles VI, a serious mental illness (Charles was convinced that he was made of glass). The most recent theory is that Henry VI suffered from schizophrenia, which would match many of his symptoms, such as a chronic need to avoid conflict (rather difficult for a medieval monarch) as well as long periods of catatonia. Schizophrenia can be triggered by childhood trauma, and the king certainly suffered from many of those, as his warring uncles and cousins positioned for power in the two kingdoms. When Normandy was lost, and so with it England’s French empire and the 100 Years War, the English warrior-caste’s violent energies turned inwards.

A medieval society could not survive a weak king, and the people began to fear for their safety as rival lords and their “affinities” (entourages) robbed and murdered at will. Although the inspiration for Game of Thrones, there’s also something of the Sopranos in this conflict. What would in the 19th century become known as “the War of the Roses” was a conflict of blood – inter-related aristocrats vying for power for themselves, their siblings and their children. The cycle of revenge grew steadily worse, and by 1461 the rules of chivalry, whereby noblemen were spared after battle, had disappeared. Goodwin illustrates this senseless blood-spilling with his description of the execution of Owen Tudor, an elderly courtier and soldier, at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in early 1461:

The confused old man did not understand the temper of the times; even when faced with the axe and the block, he was still expecting a pardon. It was not until the collar of his red velvet doublet was ripped off to ease the passage of the coming blow that he grasped his fate. His head was taken and placed on the market cross, where it was later tended by a mad woman. After washing the blood from his face and combing his hair, she placed a hundred burning candles around the severed head. This act, tender, even pious, in its intent, but gruesome in its context, served to mirror the distortions of a troubled age.

Edward of March, who probably ordered Tudor’s execution, had recently lost both his father and his brother Edmund at the Battle of Wakefield, to whom he was very close, which may explain the ferocity of his actions. His father, a descendant of Edward III through his fourth son, had emerged in the 1450s as the most powerful man in the kingdom, but he would not win the crown. Instead York’s decapitated head was displayed in York with a paper crown on it.

That his son was able to return from certain defeat, and to take the throne in 1461 as Edward IV, is testimony to a little remembered aspect of the War of the Roses: that it was a war of North v South. The Yorkists did have some support in the northern counties, and the Lancastrians in the south (so called because Henry IV, who had seized the throne in 1399, was the Duke of Lancaster), but generally speaking their soldiers came from different sides of the country, and this, Goodwin believes, helped to explain the savagery, since men were marching through villages greatly distant to them in distance and speech.

That the Yorkists won was down to the support of London, which even then was vastly richer and more powerful than anywhere else in England, due to its role in the export of wool. Just as in the Civil War two centuries later, London’s commercial wealth was crucial – in the nine months before Towton the city provided £13,000 for the Yorkist cause, enough to pay 26,000 archers for 20 days’ service.

So when in late 1460 the Royal army headed south from Wakefield there was a genuine terror in the capital that the northerners would sack the city. This fear the Yorkists of course promoted, as recalled in the songs of the time:

Between Christmas and Candlemas a little before lent
All the lords of the North they wrought by one assent
For to destroy the south country they did all have intend
Had not the Rose of Rouen [Edward of March had been born in Rouen] been, all England had been shent.

Another goes:

The northern men made their boast when they had done that deed
‘we will dwell in the south country and take all that we need.
These wives and their daughters our purposes they shall see…

This may explain the brutality with which the final battle was fought, and the fact that many of the corpses at the site – which are still being dug up – suggest they were unarmed prisoners.

In the end London’s financial muscle won the day, a constant throughout English history, and the city continued to expand under Edward IV, who would have been one of the country’s greatest rulers had he not eaten himself to death around his 40th birthday, one of the less dignified regal deaths of the time. After that his youngest brother Richard III had Edward’s sons murdered (almost certainly, despite recent attempts to rehabilitate him), and the throne was then taken by almost the last surviving royal, Owen Tudor’s grandson Henry – who went on to marry Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth and so unite the warring clans. As part of the Tudor propaganda machine Towton, which dwarves Hastings in size and bloodshed, was effectively hushed up, and England began to heal; never again, even during the Reformation where the counties to the east of London were considerably more Protestant than elsewhere, would the country be seriously divided as north v south again.

And poor old Henry VI ended up being maced to death, although his reign was not a total waste of time – he did build a rather successful school just outside Windsor, which still produces the odd prime minister.

What do you think?