The king is an imbecile. The realm is in anarchy as partisan factions cleave to their banners, supporting one or the other rival claimants to the throne — represented by the Red Rose and the White. Civil war on a massive and bloody scale scourges the land…
If this sounds like the premise of an epic fantasy, it is: the York vs. Lancaster intrafamily feud that has come down through history as The Wars of the Roses was one of the key historical inspirations for George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones.
The first phase of the conflict was concluded in a titanic battle in Yorkshire, England, near the village of Towton on March 29, 1461.
I crave moments when time seems to collapse in on itself and I feel like I can reach out and touch the past — or perhaps more accurately, that it can reach out and touch me. The frisson that such moments creates is an addictive rush. For, while the past is, indeed, another country, it is inhabited by people not so much different from ourselves, whose struggles, triumphs and sheer resilience serve to instruct and inspire. At the very least, they have a tale to tell.
For some reason, I was struck powerfully by the scant but compelling details of the life and death of a man who has no name, only a number: Towton No. 16.
Towton No. 16 was one of some 50 skeletons discovered by workmen as they excavated for an extension of Towton Hall in 1996. The skeletons were carbon dated and shown to be contemporary to the Battle of Towton. And they all showed evidence of massive trauma from multiple blows to the head and torso from swords, axes, pole arms and war hammers.
No. 16 was a burly fellow of middle age, who took several savage mortal blows to the head. What makes him particularly fascinating though, is that his skull revealed a previous trauma — a long, deep sword cut along his jaw, which had broken the jaw at two places. And it had healed some eight years or so before Towton.
No. 16 was obviously a fighting man of long and hard experience. And tough as hell.
A forensic sculptor recreated No. 16’s features and in that act brought him as a witness into the modern world. Vividly.
Obviously, medieval medicine was more sophisticated and capable than we credit. The man took a nasty, disfiguring wound in some battle, skirmish or brawl, yet returned fit enough to dish out and take more of the same.
There’s something in that countenance that tells us it’s fitting that he fell in what is often described as the largest and bloodiest battle on British soil. The battle was fought in a snowstorm, and it apparently lasted for exhausting hours in what may actually have been a running series of fights. Reported casualty figures are enormous — supposedly 28,000 men died that day. That seems unlikely — a death toll higher than the charnel house of the first day of the Somme? Yet it is certain that many thousands met a gruesome end in that gentle Yorkshire valley.
The majority of the casualties occurred when the Yorkists, bolstered by late-arriving reinforcements, routed the exhausted Lancasterians. Rout, as it often does, turned to slaughter.
Both sides had ordered no quarter given, and the orders were carried out with evident relish and repeated savage, frenzied to the head. Many of the fleeing men-at-arms and archers apparently threw away their armor and helmets to speed their flight — and left themselves all the more vulnerable to blows.
I can’t fully explain why I find myself moved by the resurrection of the memory of an unknown 550-year-old man-at-arms from a now-obscure conflict in England. The sense of connection with the past is enough, of course. It is also, always, perversely comforting to me to recognize that misrule, turmoil and conflict are far from being an aberration — we should feel comfortable enough in that state, since we have spent so much of our history in it.
Perhaps we feel ourselves battered, wounded even. But, like Towton No. 16, we bear our scars and persevere – until we find ourselves overwhelmed. We could do worse.