A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A mass grave of slaughtered soldiers reveals the brutality of late medieval warfare
On Palm Sunday, March 29, 1461, the forces of Henry VI were crushed near the village of Towton, Yorkshire, by the army of his rival, Edward IV. Towton differed from earlier battles in scale--more than 50,000 took part--and viciousness, historical sources suggesting that both sides ordered that no quarter be given. A contemporary chronicler, Jean de Waurin, wrote of the battle, "So followed a day of much slaying...so furious was the battle and so great the killing: father did not spare son, nor son his father." The Bishop of Exeter described the carnage: "there was a great conflict, which began with the rising of the sun, and lasted until the tenth hour of the night, so great was the boldness of the men, who never heeded the possibility of a miserable death. ...from what we hear of persons worthy of confidence, some 28,000 persons perished on one side and the other."
Towton was a pivotal battle in the Wars of the Roses, the protracted struggle between two lines of Edward III's descendants, that of his third son, the Duke of Lancaster, and that of his fourth son, the Duke of York. The House of Lancaster, to which Henry VI belonged, used as its emblem a red rose, while York, the family of Edward IV, used a white rose.
In 1996 construction workers at Towton discovered a mass burial. Alerted by this initial find, West Yorkshire Archaeology Service and University of Bradford researchers excavated the gravesite's undisturbed portion. The new book Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton A.D. 1461 is a record of that excavation and the bones of at least 39 individuals found in it.
Blood Red Roses shows how a site report can be made accessible to a wide audience and, at the same time, documents an approach to ancient remains that draws from the forensic study of mass graves, a real contribution given increasing interest in battlefields and prisoner-of-war camps as archaeological sites. Blood Red Roses also carries us beyond the written record of this particular battle and the period in general, and beyond our fascination with a romanticized version of the past.
Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.