Nigel Jones

Atlas of History’s Greatest Military Victories, by Jeremy Harwood – review

Final proof – if any were needed – that Englishmen are not made of the same mettle as their rough, tough ancestors is provided on the website of the Towton Battlefield Society, who have cancelled their annual re-enactment of England’s bloodiest battle this Sunday ‘for safety’s sake…’ on the grounds that the battlefield has been waterlogged by this year’s unremitting wet weather.

This is an irony of ironies. For those who fought the original battle on the high Yorkshire plateau of Towton on Palm Sunday, March 28th 1461, during the Wars of the Roses, were not constrained by the same health and safety fears. Instead, between 50-80,000 men stood toe to ironclad toe for around ten hours in a driving snowstorm, shooting, hacking, stabbing and clubbing each other down. At the end of the slaughter – and the rout which followed, when fleeing Lancastrians were pursued pell-mell across the fields by the victorious Yorkists – around 28,000 (an estimated 1 per cent of the total population of England at the time) – lay dead or dying.

Battlefields are sacred sites, as the actor Robert Hardy, patron of the Battlefields Trust and an authority on the longbow, which executed much of the slaughter at Towton, reminded us when he wrote:

‘They are places where great skill, great courage, great bigotry, great perfidy, great cowardice, great stupidity have been shown. Where men have gone to their deaths because of passionate beliefs, uncontrollable rage or in the control of a code or discipline so powerful that it has seemed better to perish than to escape them. A battlefield is also a tomb, holding the bodies of those who died there, in Towton’s case a very great number, a perpetual shrine and memorial which should engage our thoughts and our reverence.’

Towton – important though it was in English history, bringing one monarch, Edward IV, to the throne and effectively ending the reign of another, Henry VI – does not feature in Jeremy Harwood’s Atlas

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