Monday, January 17, 2011

Medieval Battle in England: Recent Archeological Surprises

The December issue of The Economist had a fascinating article about recent archeological work on the 1461 Battle of Towton where the Lancastrians fought a vicious battle against the Yorkists. This archeological site is remarkable because it represents one of the single largest known medieval battles ever excavated - they estimate there may have been as many as 75,000 soldiers involved in the one-day battle: ~10% of England's fighting-age population. Wow! It is also an important site because the mass graves are being excavated in such a way that the remains of individual soldiers can be pieced together to learn more about specific individuals. Contrast this with the mass grave excavations for the 1361 Battle of Wisby in Sweden, which were done in traditional quadrant-style, making it impossible to match bones of individuals together.

Battle of Towton - 1461

If you've read his far and you're interested in this kind of thing, you should follow the link to the article and read it. I am not going to summarize the whole thing here, but I just want to outline a few tidbits that were very interesting and surprising about the Battle of Towton:

1. The fighting men were BIG. There is a common stereotype that hundreds of years ago Englishmen were tiny people with rotten teeth. It turns out that the average height of Towton soldiers was only slightly shorter than a modern-day Englishmen. Many of the soldiers approached 6' and they were healthy and had good teeth. It turns out that the shortness stereotype derives from the fact that Victorian English were stunted in their height for some reason. 

2. Many of the soldiers had previous battle experience. Analysis of remains revealed that many soliders had old blade wounds that had healed up before this particular battle. Most of these soldiers weren't simply peasants forced to fight - they were fighting men of all ages: 17-50.

3. The longbowmen were highly trained from an early age. Many of the skeletons had enhanced calcification of the right shoulder and left elbow, suggesting they were highly experienced using massive longbows. Furthermore, one skeleton showed a special type of related "Little League Elbow" fracture that only occurs in adolescence, suggesting archery practice started from an early age.

4. They used handguns. The Towton site has produced some of the earliest evidence of lead-composite shot, as well as possible fragments of a handgun.

5. The battle was gigantic. Even if the estimate of 75,000 participants is exaggerated, a medieval battle with tens-of-thousand of soldiers is still impressive to consider.

6. There was extreme mutilation and overkill.  Most of the Towton excavation has thus far focused on a mass grave of soldiers that was a fair distance away from the main battle site. The majority of these skeletons showed massive repeated weapon trauma to the head - much more than would be necessary to kill an individual. One man even had his ear cut off. Futhermore, the individuals  did not show the normal combat wounds on the hands and arms seen at other medieval battle sites. The archeologists hypothesize this may have been a group of retreating Lancastrians who had removed their helmets to run faster. They were probably chased down by Yorkists on horseback who hacked at their heads and faces over and over again. Horrifying. 

7. The bodies were looted. Unlike at the Swedish Battle of Wisby site, where the soldiers in the mass graves still wore their armor, the Towton soldiers were completely stripped of their possessions before being thrown in the pits. A single ring was found on one soldier - it was probably hard to find covered up by the blood and gore.

Glad I wasn't there...


  1. Fascinating article and succinct summary of the surprising bits, thank you.

  2. Good find. I'm more an ECW geek, but this is relevant to my interests.

    It turns out that the shortness stereotype derives from the fact that Victorian English were stunted in their height for some reason.

    This stereotype stems from army fitness records from the Victorian period. Many of the runtiest 19th c. Tommy (minimum enlistment height was 5'3"!) were from the periodically-employed urban working class, a group with a proverbially poor diet and living conditions.

    Simple visual examination of surviving artefacts (weapons, armour, etc.) gives the lie to the old 'medieval soldiers were runts' fallacy.

  3. The warrior class is usually going to be better fed than the average person of that era. I am pretty sure the average height of the English in the 15th was still less than it is today.

  4. That's an incredible find. I'm fascinated by the brutality and scale of the conflict.

  5. Neat stuff; thanks for sharing!

    The stereotype of people being smaller hundreds of years ago isn't just a misconception, though. I've spent enough time in the claustrophobic confines of castles and 17th century sailing ships to confirm, first-hand, that a 6' tall man would have had a very uncomfortable time of it. Stairs and ladders as so small that I have a hard time climbing them, and the bunks in ships were nearly child-sized by today's standards.

    As seaofstars mentioned, the soldiers from the Towton site are probably unusual examples of people of that time; professional warriors might have been cherry-picked for their size and likely got more and better food than the average person.

  6. Wow, what a great find. In the Economist of all places! I'll be heading over there next to waste more of my time reading something I have no need to know but can't seem to stop myself from consuming.... I love history and this time period is covered in one of my favorite Avalon Hill games from way back called Kingmaker. Thanks for the tip and the summary!

  7. I read the article last month and it is both fascinating and brutal. The end of the battle was a scene of nightmare and hell for the losing side.

    I understand the size of people has a lot to do with diet, both in terms of quantity and what is eaten (corn or wheat, for example). However, it is easier to build a small castle than it is to build a large castle.


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