Monday, 29 March 2010

A fearsome anniversary

Today, the 29th of March, is the anniversary of the bloodiest single day’s fighting in the entire history of England – indeed of Britain. The key battle of the Wars of the Roses that took place near the village of Towton in Yorkshire on this day in 1461 confirmed the grip on the throne of the White Rose of York, in the person of Edward IV, and ensured that the Red Rose of Lancaster, represented by Henry VI, would never win it back.

Estimates vary but most commentators agree that about 28,000 were killed at the battle of Towton. The notoriously awful first day of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War cost just over 19,000 dead.

The dead at Towton represent about 1% of the English population at the time, which is pretty scary. To give a sense of what that means, it would take between eighteen and nineteen days for the number of passengers travelling through Heathrow airport in London to reach 2.8 million; the equivalent of Towton would involve something like 150 to 200 crashes over that period of just more than two and a half weeks, with every passenger lost.

Of course, as a friend pointed out, estimates suggest that the Black Death a bit more than a century earlier had killed between a third and over a half of the English population; without the Black Death, the Towton dead wouldn't have represented such a high percentage. Equally, by causing two or three million deaths, the Plague showed itself to be a more impressive killer than our puny little wars (only by the twentieth century had we progressed enough to become as efffective as diseases in killing our own kind).

Even so, wiping out 1% of the population in a single days remains prettry remarkable – the First World War achieved a bit over 2% in four years. Towton achieved that distinction with swords, arrows, axes and spears. There were no machine guns, tanks or modern artillery pieces.

Perhaps all this proves just how bitter civil wars are. After all, despite the terrible bloodletting in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, despite the senseless butchery of Vietnam, the single conflict in which the United States suffered the greatest loss of life remains the Civil War. Americans have never died in such numbers as at the hands of their fellow Americans.

It’s also amazing how pointless Towton was. After all, who cares today whether the Wars of the Roses were won by the house of York or the house of Lancaster? Edward IV and Henry VI were both Plantagenets – they were cousins. We sacrificed 1% of our population to sort out a family tiff.

The spin masters of the time dressed it all up as a matter of noble sacrifice, heroism and glory. Shakespeare, over a century and a half later, made a pretty good job of giving the whole sorry tale the nobility of an epic in the third part of Henry VI. In reality, it was just two branches of a family sorting out their naked drive for power and possessions by means of violence. The poetry was better, but Shakespeare’s history plays were really just the equivalent then of The Sopranos today.

At Towton itself, there’s not much to mark the site of the Battle, no real monument. Perhaps it’s more appropriate that way.

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