Towton 555: Remembering Palm Sunday

For the first time in ten years, I’m not stressed out as the date approaches Palm Sunday. Why? Because the Towton Battlefield Society annual event to remember the fallen of Britain’s bloodiest battle on Palm Sunday 1461 has been, if not cancelled, then radically scaled down.

Since my first participation back in 2005, the event steadily grew and developed, helped by a series of freakishly perfect Spring weekends which attracted ever more re-enactors and traders keen to start off the new season, and ever larger audiences keen to find something interesting to do on a fine sunny Sunday. From 2007 I was on the management team; and as secretary and chair of the Society’s in-house re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie, it naturally fell to me and hubcap to organise the living history camp, guest re-enactors and programme of field entertainment, including combat demonstrations and a battle finale. Planning and preparation involved a massive amount of work – not only for us but for the TBS chairman and committee, other Frei Compagnie members, and many Society members who spent successive weekends gathering and processing wood for the camp fires, cleaning the barn to receive traders and exhibitors, and mowing and marking out the field. Then the event itself spanned four days of preparation, delivery and cleaning up afterwards, with everything from setting cones out on the roads, marshalling the car-park and cleaning out the Portaloos being done by volunteers, many of whom were fitting all this in around full-time jobs.

By the battle’s 550th anniversary, a low-key day of guided walks and a small living history camp had turned into one of the biggest private events of its kind in Yorkshire and, arguably, one of the best. Many re-enactors and visitors would come along year after year to enjoy the very special atmosphere of an event held in the grounds of Towton Hall, where the famous mass graves were found, courtesy of landowner and Society President Mrs. Elizabeth Verity; and in terms of commemorating ‘our boys’, I like to think we did them proud.

Alas, in the process we all ran ourselves ragged and it became too much to cope with. By December it was obvious that TBS wouldn’t have enough volunteers to run a large public event safely and professionally in 2016, and it had to be cancelled. To be honest, my relief was as huge as the task-list we would otherwise have had to embark on straightaway in the New Year. Realisation soon followed that neither hubcap or I could face ever picking up that burden again – it had always been very tough for a self-employed pair at the financial year-end, and start of the busiest season in Mick’s gardening business – so whatever might happen on future Palm Sundays, any living history element won’t be organised by us!

But of course the Battlefield Society will always commemorate Towton, and this year I’m looking forward to taking part in a far more chilled-out way. Our main public event is next Saturday, 19th March: a series of guided walks of the Battlefield Trail between 9.30 am and 2 pm – we’re leading the 11.30 walk – plus a couple of Society stands in the barn on Old London Road, where I’ll also have a Herstory stall selling new and pre-owned books, and the trilogy of Richard III CDs by The Legendary Ten Seconds. Then on Palm Sunday itself we’ll go round the trail again on a special members-only walk, which will include a wreath-laying service at Dacre’s Cross, before repairing to The Crooked Billet for lunch and a spot of archery. Compared to the amount of effort we’ve put in over the past decade, two walks and a little stint on my book-stall seems like a mere bagatelle!

So if you’d like to join us next Saturday, dress warm, wear stout shoes and come prepared to pay £3 into the Society coffers for your guided walk. You can also enjoy various medieval experiences at venues in York, including beautiful Barley Hall in Coffee Yard – see for further information. Or if you’d like to support TBS but are too far away to attend these events, log onto Just Giving and sponsor our intrepid friends Wes Perriman and James Hodgson of the Red Wyverns (Clifford Household) who are marching from Skipton on March 18th and meeting up with the Beaufort Companye to complete the trek to Towton on the 20th. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing next weekend, please join us in spirit and spare a thought or prayer for the thousands of poor souls who died in miserable conditions on that snowy Palm Sunday 555 years ago…



History Matters: Palm Sunday: Hail the Towton Warriors

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.

Richard III: England’s Wickedest King?

‘Richard III: that wicked man who murdered his nephews and stole the crown.’ So I was taught as a child; and now, among the countless column inches and debates engendered by his rediscovery, the same tired old cliches keep arising – that Richard was England’s worst king, an evil, usurping regicide who murdered his way to the throne.

And I’m sick of him being singled out for particular odium when, if you scratch any medieval monarch, you’ll find iniquitous acts. Richard III a usurper? Then he was in good company. Stephen usurped the crown from his cousin Mathilda; John attempted it from his brother, Richard I; Queen Isabella took it from her husband Edward II, to put prematurely on their son’s head; Henry Bolingbroke from Richard II; Edward IV from Henry VI; and Henry Tudor from Richard III – musical chairs with a throne, the crown tossed about like a basketball. Yet none of the others are tagged ‘usurper’ as often as Richard III – if he was a usurper at all. If Edward IV’s children were indeed illegitimate by reason of their father’s pre-contract or clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, then Richard was the rightful heir – a fact his detractors conveniently forget.

Richard III a regicide? Again… usurpers couldn’t afford to leave the dangerous fag-ends of deposed kings lying around. Hence the horrible doing to death of Edward II, Richard II imprisoned and starved to death (unless it was suicide by hunger-strike) in Pontefract Castle, Henry VI knocked on the head by order of Edward IV (a crime typically blamed on the then Duke of Gloucester, though he could hardly have done such a thing off his own bat), and Richard himself killed in battle.

Murderer? Yup – well, it goes with the turf. How much suffering was caused, how much infants’, or innocents’, blood shed by William I as he stamped out Anglo-Saxon civilisation and reduced the populace to feudal slavery? By the slimy and treacherous John, another contender for killing his nephew? By Richard the Lionheart, marauding with his armies through Europe and the Holy Land? (But that was OK, of course – it happened abroad, with full Church approval). By Edward I hammering the Scots, or Henry V’s soldiers in France, or Mary I in her fiery persecutions of Protestant heretics? (She at least gets the title ‘Bloody’, although it could well be applied to others – benignity and pacifism were not highly valued attributes in medieval monarchs).

And what of Richard’s successors, the Tudors? Henry VII at least had the decency (or was it pure cynicism?) to wait until his last, allegedly feeble-minded Yorkist rival had entered adulthood before having him executed. Henry VIII smashed England’s religious houses, throwing countless monks into homeless penury and executing many more for the sake of wedding Anne Boleyn; then when her charms (and ability to produce a son) failed, used trumped-up charges and confessions extracted by torture to murder her and her brother George, her alleged partner in incestuous adultery. Bastardised his own daughters, murdered his best mates when they somehow failed, displeased or challenged his will; fell besotted with a girl young enough to be his daughter, then, when he found out she’d been a good-time gal, lopped off her head too (a fate his last wife, Katherine Parr, only escaped by a whisker).

So whatever Richard III did to safeguard his power base, press his claim to rule and stamp his authority, he, like those who came before and after, was just doing what he felt he had to. The entire early history of our monarchy is unspeakably violent and cruel, the true evil villain throughout being the institution itself: the unholy trinity of absolutism, primogeniture and religious dogma that drove the ruthless crushing of dissent and unorthodoxy, and the relentless pursuit of legitimate sons. Damn one king, damn ’em all – they were a bloody awful lot. Or cut them some slack, look at their acts in the context of their times and situations, and do the same for King Richard.

Yes – I’d like to see a league table of royal blood-shedding, a butcher’s bill for each reign averaged out at deaths per year, before I’m willing to buy Richard III as our ‘worst’ king. Meanwhile, anti-Ricardians, less it with the ‘murderous usurper’ thing, OK? It’s really, really BORING – and he wasn’t the only one, by a long chalk.

History Matters: New Ricardian Lies?

On BBC Look North last night, I saw something that had me spitting feathers: children at a York primary school are petitioning the Queen for Richard III’s remains to be reburied in York.

I have no problem with that – I’ve signed such a petition myself. What I have a BIG problem with is the reasons they were giving, like, ‘Richard III came from York’. No, he didn’t – he was born at Fotheringhay in the Midlands. Or, ‘It was his dying wish to be buried in York.’ Um – I doubt he had time to wish anything before the back of his head was cleaved off, except perhaps to reach Henry Tudor and kill him.

This suggests several things, none of them very pleasant. Had the children grossly misunderstood their lesson? If so, it’s not a very good advert for the school or the history teacher. Were they simply repeating what they had been told? Judging from some of the howlers I’ve overheard teachers feeding their classes, I could well believe it: pointing to the Close around Salisbury Cathedral, ‘this is a ‘typical village green’; to a 20th century repro door, ‘see how well the wood is preserved’; or to a low doorway, ‘that’s because people in the Middle Ages were all very small’ (conjuring images of an England populated by hobbits). Again, very scary; teachers hardly better-informed than their pupils passing on rubbish. Or, worst of all, had they been deliberately lied to, emotionally manipulated to turn them into York partisans and bring their school into the media spotlight?

Whatever, this pile of total tosh has now been aired on a prime-time local news programme, and no doubt some non-history-buff viewers will believe it, perhaps now petition for a York reburial themselves – but for the wrong reasons. And while I’d be happy indeed to see the Lord of the North return to Yorkshire, I don’t want it to be on the back of such outrageous misinformation… God knows, we’ve had enough of that for the past 528 years.