The Artefacts of Towton Battlefield
One of the crucial things in discovering what happened during a battle is the archaeology and artefacts found on a battlefield. Towton has proved to be one of the most important battlefield sites in regards to finds. The soil quality and composition makes it a perfect material in which to preserve artefacts. The heavy snow and blizzard conditions at the time of the battle have also ensured that there was a lot to be found. Because of the weather conditions many objects were buried in the snow and trampled into the ground unseen. The sheer amount of arrow heads found and the position they were in helped to establish where the volley of arrow fire was at the beginning of the battle and where the two armies were positioned initially.[private]
As well as the artefacts found at Towton, the tremendous loss of human life has also left its mark. Several mass graves have been found, as the victims were hurriedly buried following the battle. A mass grave was uncovered in the 1990’s during extension of Towton Hall. The skeletons all had numerous head wounds and forensics dated them to the time of the battle. Scientific study also suggests that they were executed, as there were no injuries to the arms which would have been the case had the men been able to defend themselves. This discovery gives further credence to the reports that the battle was fought with no mercy- there would be no hostages or ransoms at Towton.
Simon Richardson is one of the most experienced battlefield metal detectors in the UK. As well as being responsible for finding much of the artefacts at Towton as the metal detecting expert for the Towton Battlefield Survey Project, he has also worked on the Bosworth site and Agincourt. His expertise has been used for television including carrying out a metal detector survey on “Agincourt’s Dark Secret”. He tells the Yorkshire Reporter about his important finds at Towton, and his journey as a metal detector:
“As a boy growing up in Tadcaster I had heard over the years stories of great things being found on and around Towton Battlefield – swords and battleaxes, breastplates and even a helmet still with a skull inside. Silly stories and rumours but they fuelled my imagination and interest and I was determined to one day find these fantastic things myself.
In 1982 after gaining permission, I started to search parts of the battlefield with a metal detector where at last after years of thinking about finding great things like weapons and armour, I could finally do it.
Recording the location or ‘find spot’ of any item related to the battle I knew would be vital in understanding the bigger picture. Every artefact I recovered would be like a piece of a jigsaw and to view the whole thing, all the pieces needed to be in the correct place, and maybe then the battlefield would give up its secrets or at least be better understood. That was my goal.
Some 32 years later I have collected and recorded the exact location using GPS over one thousand battle related items that were lost on the 29th March 1461. To be able to find an object and know the exact day it was lost on, hundreds of years ago I find truly amazing and I always wonder to myself did the combatant who lost this item live or die?
I can feel far removed from the events of the past whilst walking and searching in that wonderful landscape.Treading in the footsteps of men long ago and standing where corpses once lay. It is hard just looking at the landscape today knowing the horrors it was once witness to. Then in my hand I can be holding a human tooth or a finger bone I have just picked up. Or an artefact with cut marks or stab holes in it, and then the reality of the terrible slaughter and death hits home once again.
Nearly all the metal items I have found over the years are quite small or damaged. Things like buckles, belt and strap fittings, and small decorative pieces from leather off both man and horse.
I am often asked why this is the case and I explain that after such a battle as Towton the whole area would have been scoured for weeks afterwards for anything of value or usefulness. Remember the population was very poor. Great swords, battle axes and breastplates did once litter the battlefield but for only a short time. Even the dead horses would have been butchered and eaten. Only small items trodden into the snow and mud would have gone unnoticed. These are the things I find.
Once in a while I do find something a bit special, like a spur or a heraldic pendant depicting a knight’s coat of arms worn on his horse. My best find from the battlefield is the famous Towton gun, 2 chunks of bronze cannon barrel which had exploded during the fight, probably killing everyone around it at the time. The gun was featured in a documentary on the BBC a few years ago now.
I have over the years excavated the human remains around Towton hall and recently, personally excavated the stonework from the lost chantry of Richard III during filming for the series ‘The Medieval Dead’.
A fitting end I think to 32 years of dedicated hard work – dedicated that is to the fallen soldiers of Towton field.”
The Arts and Towton
The Wars of the Roses has inspired many people over the years including Shakespeare. His folio of work – the ‘histories’ included a sequence of eight plays all covering the War of the Roses. The most famous of these is probably Henry V, brought to life as film in 1944 by Laurence Olivier.
The artist Graham Turner and poet Peter Wyton are both inspired by the Battle of Towton and this shines through in their work.
Graham Turner has produced many pieces of medieval art showing pivotal events from the War of the Roses including Towton and the battle of Bosworth. He also competes in jousting tournaments across the UK and Europe. Graham has written an exclusive article for the Yorkshire Reporter to tell us how Towton has inspired and influenced him over the years:
Painting The Battle Of Towton
By Graham Turner
My first visit to the battlefield at Towton left a vivid impression on me. With a biting wind cutting across the exposed plateau it was easy to imagine the unfortunate souls in the massed armies of Edward IV and Henry VI as they struggled for their lives on that bitterly cold Palm Sunday in 1461.
I was about to begin my large scale oil painting of the battle (pictured on pages 28-29), and walking the battlefield with a group of archers, who were to demonstrate to me the technique needed to shoot a mighty warbow, really helped me get a feeling for what I was painting.
It is my ever-present quest to really understand my subject matter that later got me involved in the medieval extreme sport of jousting. Commissioning a bespoke suit of armour, learning to ride in it, then jousting at venues such as the Royal Armouries in Leeds, the Tower of London – even at the Historishes Museum in Bern, Switzerland – has been such an incredible experience, giving me a real insight into what I paint. The highlight of my jousting career was winning the prestigious Queen’s Golden Jubilee Trophy at the Royal Armouries in 2010, riding my own horse, Magic, on the very day my parents’ celebrated their golden wedding anniversary – it is a memory that will stay with me forever.
With all my paintings it is the human story that inspires me, what is motivating the people who inhabit my canvases, what’s going through their minds. It was cold enough wearing modern clothes when I first walked the battlefield at Towton, but now, having experienced wearing armour in sub-zero temperatures, or walking on slippery ground in medieval shoes, I can feel a real empathy for them.
They are not toy soldiers or fictional characters, but real people like us, with emotions and feelings like us, coping in an extreme situation, and I hope I am able to convey this in my work.
Along with this desire to show real people in my paintings, I am also obsessed with getting every little detail as ‘right’ as possible. They are wearing real clothes, not dressing up costumes, and the items in the world I have recreated for them, from knives and helmets to domestic items, can be identified in museum collections or from sculpture, art and manuscript illuminations of the period.
My original oil painting of Towton is now part of a private collection, but prints and cards are available, including an edition reproduced on canvas. My fascination with Towton continues, and I have revisited the battle several times and created other paintings of this pivotal day in our history. I was also involved in a documentary about Towton filmed a few years ago, in which I was able to wear both my hats; the artist talking about painting our past, and the jouster, showing what it was like to wear and ride in armour.
I will be exhibiting some of my work at the Towton Commemoration event on April 13th, and will be happy to discuss my work and sign prints. I will be unveiling a new canvas print reproduced from my Towton painting, a much larger size than previously available that really shows the detail of the original.
See www.studio88.co.uk for more information about Graham and his work, original paintings plus prints and cards.
Peter Wyton is the Poet Laureate for the Towton Battlefield Society. He has been writing poetry from a young age and won many accolades over the years. His work will be added to the 2014 update of OUP Anthology of War Poetry. He has written two poems about the battle of Towton including ‘Advice from the One Percent’ and the one printed here:
The Towton Fallen
We can go home this evening. They could not.
In all respects, we’re luckier than them,
The lives we live, the property we’ve got.
All we may offer is this requiem
For those in Bloody Meadow, Towton Vale,
Who do not rest in ordered cemeteries
Like men who fell at Ypres or Passchendale,
Their names and ranks on pristine headstones. These
Lie where they were flung in noxious pits,
Democratised by death, a disarray
Of commoners and royal favourites
Cruelly slaughtered on a holy day.
Spare them a thought at this historic spot.
We can go home this evening. They could not.
For more information about PeterWyton visit