Towton Battlefield Society’s flagship event, the annual Palm Sunday commemoration of the Battle of Towton (March 29th, 1461) has just been cancelled.
Since the Society’s founding in 1994, this has only ever occurred as an advance decision forced by outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Not so in 2013… we’ve been planning it for months, expecting a bumper turnout of guest re-enactors, traders and exhibitors. But now all that hard work, preparation and anticipation has come to naught, five days before the event – and for what? The weather, with more heavy rain and snow forecast atop a week of wet, freezing misery for Yorkshire.
‘How ironic,’ remarked a friend with tongue tucked firmly in cheek, ‘that a battle fought in terrible snowy conditions in the 15th century can’t be recreated in the 21st because, though infinitely more advanced, our technology cannot cope. Oh, and someone might get hurt.’
Yes – these were indeed the conditions that tens of thousands of men and horses travelled, camped and fought in, back in 1461. The chronicler Jean de Waurin wrote of the Yorkist army (who had just marched up from London through another bitterly miserable Spring) that, ‘It was so cold, with snow and ice, that it was pitiful to see men and horses suffer, especially as they were badly fed.’ A nightmarish thought: all those weary feet trudging through the slush and muddy ruts of unmetalled roads, the miles of baggage train slogging behind, and the unfortunate souls equine and human at the very back, struggling through the mire left by those who’d gone before. And at the end, frozen nights of camping followed by a battle fought in driving snow, with Henry VI’s Lancastrians eventually driven off the edge of Towton plateau to skid helplessly down the steep defile into the flooded River Cock, in what became the bloodiest rout of the Wars of the Roses.
Ugh. Still, it wasn’t just the forecast weather that forced our cancellation. On the contrary, the prospect brought out a ‘Blitz Spirit’ among re-enactors and traders, with plenty keen to share the medieval experience as an homage, a challenge, or simply for fun (well, we are a strange breed). And I dare say a hard core of ‘Towton pilgrims’ among the visiting public would have braved the elements too, for similar reasons.
But as another friend observed wryly, ‘No-one sued back then for twisted or broken bones, stranded vehicles or destroyed fields. Yes, gone are the days you could freeze yourself close to death, knee deep in mud…’
Quite. As organizers, we’re taken inescapably into the realm of Health & Safety, risk assessments, legal liability, insurance claims etc etc.. It can all sound unbearably nanny-ish and precious, but existing and predicted conditions do ratchet up the risk levels from the norm expected at any public event to the strong likelihood of things going badly wrong, and serious incidents occurring. That could be disastrous – not only for anyone injured, or whose property was damaged, but for the Society’s reputation and the whole future of the event. Like it or not, we’re collectively responsible for delivering a safe, well-run and enjoyable experience for participants and public alike… which we can’t, when severe weather and travel disruption may prevent key personnel and services from even getting to site. The uncertainty of what we’d have, what we could cope with, the endless proliferation of ‘what if?’ scenarios all added up to an unacceptable degree of risk.
Because one factor we are sure of is that the event site is completely waterlogged, and won’t dry out even if it’s fine on the day. Normally, because the ground drains well, we’ve been able to manage with wet weather immediately before and during the event weekend – but normally, it hasn’t come on top of the wettest year we’ve had since God knows when, a deluge that started straight after our last Palm Sunday and has barely stopped since. My husband and I began to panic about the conditions last Sunday, when we went to do some site preparation and his barely-laden van sank three inches into the field. It took us a very fraught hour to extricate it, leaving a set of deep ruts and a deeper sense of foreboding. There’s no hard-standing car-park at Towton Hall (we’re talking someone’s private garden, after all) – so what would happen when hundreds of cars and vans drove over that beautiful grass and pristine ridge-and-furrow? Cue visions of it churned into a Somme-full of bogged-down vehicles and mud-bespattered, irate people, blocked access causing traffic jams and chaos in the village, and huge messy damage to the grounds that could take years to fully repair… on an archaeologically-sensitive part of a nationally-significant battlefield, an area we hope will soon be incorporated within an extended battlefield boundary.
No – we couldn’t, just couldn’t do it. So I’m not disappointed by the cancellation – quite the reverse. I’m applauding the Society Chairman for taking the brave decision (and whatever flak might go with it). I’m dancing in relieved delight that we won’t be stuck out in foul weather, watching our pride and joy degenerate into a shambles. I’m saluting with hundred-fold increased sympathy and respect those 15th century warriors who did have to march and fight in similar horrendous conditions. And the only thing that does disappoint me is the root cause of it all: this dismal bloody weather.