As England’s royal claimants fought for the throne during the War of the Roses, the battles became larger and fiercer. Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, ruled as king, but his weakness and bouts of schizophrenia emboldened his challenger, Edward IV of the House of York.
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The two forces, totaling 75,000 men, met on Palm Sunday in 1461 at Towton, a village near York. In the ensuing battle, 28,000 died --- the bloodiest day on British soil.
When the Lancastrian line broke, surrendering meant certain death. There was little chance of escape and no prisoners would be taken. The Yorkist cavalry used their horseman’s hammers on the heads and backs of fleeing men. Some made it as far as a nearby river where the existing crossing had been destroyed. But so many died there that a “Bridge of Bodies” formed, which their desperate comrades tried to struggle over.
Those who did escape fared no better: The Earl of Wiltshire was later captured, decapitated in Edward’s presence and his head sent south to be impaled on London Bridge.
I spoke with George Goodwin, author of “Fatal Colours: Towton 1461 - England’s Most Brutal Battle,” on the following topics:
2. Feeble Henry VI
3. Power Vacuum
4. York vs. Lancaster
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)
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