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The Battle of Towton is one of the less famous engagements in English history - which is surprising, given that it was probably the largest, bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. Certainly - as an Englishman, using myself as an anecdotal example - the name Towton has far less emotional pull than other battles of the Late Middle Ages: Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt, Bosworth, Flodden. How did so many people fight in this now-forgotten battle?

Numbers

The exact numbers of soldiers involved any given medieval battle will always be a matter of conjecture, but, resting on the authority of an article by one Sidney Dean, we can tentatively estimate that, potentially, as many as 75,000 men fought at Towton, with 50,000 being a more likely figure. These estimates are pretty shocking when we compare them to other battles from the same period in which English soldiers fought:

  • Crecy (1346): ~11,000 English + ~25,000 French = ~36,000
  • Poitiers (1356): ~6,000 English + ~15,000 French = ~21,000
  • Agincourt (1415): 6,000 English + ~20,000 French = ~26,000
  • Verneuil (1424): ~9,000 English + ~15,000 French = ~24,000
  • Castillon (1453): ~8,000 English + ~8,000 French = ~16,000
  • Tewkesbury (1471): ~6,000 English (Lancastrians) + ~6,000 English (Yorkists) = ~12,000
  • Bosworth (1485): ~7,000 English (Lancastrians) + ~10,000 English (Yorkists) + ~5,000 English (Stanley) = ~22,000

Incongruities

The above numbers raise several questions:

  1. Why were the English not able to raise a Towton-sized army to fight the French? Given what Henry V was able to accomplish with a few thousand, with five times as many he could surely have steamrollered all the way to Marseille!
  2. Why were the Yorkists and Lancastrians, respectively, not able to raise similarly-sized forces for the rest of the Wars of the Roses?
  3. Why were the French not able to raise a Towton-sized army to fight the English? If Philip VI had brought 50,000 men with him to fight the Battle of Crecy, the Hundred Years War could have been tidied up in an afternoon.

I think I can answer questions 1 and 2 myself. For 1: fighting overseas brings logistical difficulties, and more is at stake in a civil war; it's not surprising that the numbers were greater at Towton than at Verneuil. As for 2: the size of Towton itself, with the horrifying number of casualties it incurred, accounts for this; after Towton, there were not enough soldiers in left in the country to repeat it, at least for a generation. I have more trouble accounting for question 3, however.

Grunwald and Flodden

I know of two battles fought in the Late Middle Ages, involving European-style armies, which potentially surpassed Towton in scale: Grunwald and Flodden. Do either of these battles help to explain the size of the armies at Towton?

In the case of Grunwald, I do not think so. In 1500 - this was the closest estimate, chronologically speaking, that I could find - the population of Poland-Lithuania was around 8 million, whereas the population of England was around 2.5 million. It's not surprising that Poland-Lithuania could field a monster army; it was a Late Medieval juggernaut! What actually is surprising is that France, with a population of around 15 million in 1500, was not able to field larger armies during the preceding century.

I think that Flodden, on the other hand, might have more to tell us with respect to this question. Three things strike me about this battle:

  1. The enormous size - by the standards of the previous century - of the two armies. The English brought 26,000 men, and the Scots about 35,000.
  2. Not only were the armies enormous, but there are solid factors which would have explained the two armies being much smaller, not bigger: the main English army was fighting in France at the time, and Scotland was, in terms of population, a dwarf kingdom, with only around 500,000 in 1500. In fact, if the figures are correct, around a quarter of all able-bodied men in Scotland must have been present.
  3. The weapons predominantly used at Flodden - particularly the English bill, a close cousin of an agricultural implement, but to a lesser extent the Scottish pike too - are cheaper and require less training to use effectively than the arms and armour which characterise the Hundred Years War, namely the longbow and heavy cavalry.

Putting these factors together, my guess is that, at Flodden, we see the beginnings of the peasant-conscript armies which were characteristic of the Early Modern Period. Does a similar trend explain the massive scale of the Battle of Towton? Were the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies at Towton as professional, on average, as the longbowmen and men-at-arms who fought so effectively at Agincourt and Verneuil?

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