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Book Review: Fatal Colours

Fatal Colours: Towton 1461 – England’s Most Brutal Battle

by George Goodwin

W.W.Norton, 2012

A familiar approach historians take when attempting to bring the back-and-forth welter of the Wars of the Roses to their readers in some kind of order is to focus on one theme, one person, even one battle. The attractions of such an approach are obvious: it brings an instant clarifying prism to the complex and bloody squabblings of York and Lancaster. The weaknesses of the approach are equally obvious: it can lead both to over-simplification and to padding. George Goodwin, in his new book Fatal Colours, uses the approach to good advantage – and manages to avoid most of the pitfalls.

His focus is a natural one: the epic Battle of Towton, which took place on a cold, blowing 29 March 1461 between the well-positioned, well-provisioned, and well-rested forces of Lancaster and the battle-weary and badly outnumbered forces of York, lead by their proclaimed king, Edward IV (the Lancaster king, Henry VI, didn’t come to the battlefield, but he and his wife sent their kind regards). A freak snowstorm sent winds whipping in the direction of the better-situated Lancastrians, and the Yorkists took advantage of that fact to fire volley after volley of arrows at extreme firing range – but the day was decided not at long distance but at extremely and brutal close quarters: once the arrow-business was largely over, the two very large masses of men slammed into each other and roared and fought and hacked for the entire day. It was a vividly protracted near-run thing, and since it was fought on Palm Sunday, many of the combatants on both sides were, in addition to everything else, worried about the disposition of their immortal souls:

Should they be killed, their best hope of salvation was to be buried on a west-east axis, with head to the west and feat to the east, preferably within a consecrated church and as close to the altar as possible. Thus when the resurrection came, the soul clothed in new flesh would be best placed for the second coming. This manner of burial, for the Church of England at least, remains the custom to this day.

That ‘to this day’ flourish is something Goodwin tries often in Fatal Colours, usually effectively – working to make his story feel more ‘relevant’ to modern-day readers who drive through the various desolations of North Yorkshire with nary a glance out the car windows. This is the concern lurking around the entirety of the Wars of the Roses, this hint of closed-bottle irrelevance, this gaudy pageant of knights and nobles and two kings fighting and reconciling and fighting and decamping to France at periodic intervals. The whole thing is a mighty, gripping, intensely human story – but to those not historically inclined, it can read like an account of an old game of chess.

Everything, of course, rode on Towton. It wasn’t just the two rival kings who had risked losing all they had – it was also their nobles, who had to choose between the valiant Yorkists or the vile, oath-breaking Lancastrians and then hazard all they had on the choice. As Goodwin points out, the stakes were high because this was an age of the ‘over-mighty subject':

The mightiest subjects, however, were very mighty indeed.

They each had their own advisors and their own courts, which became centres of social prestige and display. This is an age which, like our own, though subject to short-term economic and financial dislocations, could also be very prosperous for the well-placed. And it was ostentatious wealth: the great magnates found opportunities for display in all areas of their lives, from their titles, their holdings of buildings and land, their manner of dress and that of their womenfolk, in the personal ceremonies of their households and in the superior nature of what they ate and drank. They did not only dress like peacocks, but, with the birds cooked, stuffed and reassembled in their finest plumage, they ate them too.

There’s a certain winking element of play in the passage, and there are many such passages in the book – Fatal Colours is unashamed of its intention to grab your interest and hold it, even if that intention isn’t best-served by puffy, overheated phrases like “short-term economic and financial dislocations.”

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 (he’s the one on the book’s dust jacket, in form-fitting superhero armor, red Superman cap billowing behind him), and most of all King Edward IV, tall, handsome, broad-shouldered and muscular, an 18-year-old dreamboat juggernaut. Goodwin tells the stories of all these long-dead people with a verve that does them justice.

“It was through an ill wind that the Lancastrians lost Towton,” our author correctly tells us:

Without it they would almost inevitably have one. Sound strategy, as described by Christine de Pisan and Vegetius, dictated that they take up the best ground with a larger force and secure themselves against flank attack. This they did. Without the blizzard, they would, from their superior position, have rained down their arrows on the Yorkists at the bottom of the slope. The Yorkists would have been forced to leave their position and, at most medieval battles, as at Towton, it was the side that first abandoned their starting position that lost.

As it happened, the Lancastrian ranks were broken and sent fleeing, chased, hunted, and butchered almost to a man, and their feckless king took off for Scotland with his wife and family. There was peace in England for a few years, although it wouldn’t last, and more bloody chess would follow. Goodwin gets my vote to write about more of it, if he’d like.