Fatal Colours: Towton 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle
By George Goodwin
W.W. Norton and Company, 2012
Publisher’s Synopsis: The tumultuous reign of Henry VI and its climax in the carnage of Towton—the bloodiest battle fought on English soil. The battle of Towton in 1461 was unique in its ferocity and brutality, as the armies of two kings of England engaged with murderous weaponry and in appalling conditions to conclude the first War of the Roses.
Variously described as the largest, longest, and bloodiest battle on English soil, Towton was fought with little chance of escape and none of surrender. Yet, as if too ghastly to contemplate, the battle itself and the turbulent reign of Henry VI were neglected for centuries.
Combining medieval sources and modern scholarship, George Goodwin colorfully re-creates the atmosphere of fifteenth-century England. From the death of the great Henry V and his baby son’s inheritance first of England and then of France, Goodwin chronicles the vicious infighting at home in response to the vicissitudes of the Hundred Years War abroad. He vividly describes the pivotal year of 1450 and a decade of breakdown for both king and kingdom, as increasingly embittered factions struggle for a supremacy that could be secured only after the carnage of Towton.
Fatal Colours includes a cast of strong and compelling characters: a warrior queen, a ruthless king-making earl, even a papal legate who excommunicates an entire army. And at its center is the first full explanation for the crippling incapacity of the enduringly childlike Henry VI—founder of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge.
With a substantive and sparkling introduction by David Starkey, Fatal Colours brings to life a vibrant and violent age.
Extract: When the Yorkists were sighted, a resounding shot went up from both armies, the acclamation of support for the their respective kings. As the Lancastrians had the commanding position, Fauconberg was forced to move the Yorkist archers to the foot of the far slope of Towton Dale, giving the advantage of height, thus distance and killing power, to the Lancastrians. But the sixty-year-old, physically unimpressive ‘little Fauconberg’ was seasoned soldier of vast experience and he knew how to read the weather.
As archers of the two sides set up position, a storm of biblical proportions broke out. Sleet and snow were to alternate during a day of appalling conditions. At this critical moment, according to Hall’s Chronicle, it was sleet. The wind direction was crucial: it came directly from the south and recent scientific tests on the battlefield in extremely blustery conditions have shown what a difference this would have made. Heading into such a wind, the Lancastrian arrows would have lost range; by the same token , the Yorkists arrows would gave gained it. The Yorkists now had the advantage of distance – probably more than fifty yards – of impact and of visibility. The Lancastrian archers were blinded by sleet being driven directly into their faces. They could not see where their arrows were landing and began to shoot volley after volley at an enemy flickering in and out of vision in the distance, hoping to best their opponents through quantity of shot – but their arrows were falling short.
Review by Desmond Seward: “The story has never been told so well or so excitingly. The author explains the origins of the conflict between York and Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses, that would never have happened but for the inadequacy of the childlike, schizophrenic Henry VI, whose regime was discredited by the loss of English France and by Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450.” –
Review by Steve Donoghue: “People are at the heart of Goodwin’s story, as they should be. Not just the rank-and-file soldiers who hacked and slashed at each other for ten hours in the snow, but the men who set them to it: weak, mind-wandering Henry VI and his rapaciously businesslike nobles, the valiant Earl of Warwick, and most of all King Edward IV, tall, handsome, broad-shouldered and muscular, an 18-year-old dreamboat juggernaut.” – Monthly