Fatal Colours: Towton 1461: England’s Most Brutal Battle, by George Goodwin
This book is an example of a solid and well-written battle study that is mainly of interest to those who are fond of reading about the Wars of the Roses and about the nature of politics during late medieval England. This book is largely of interest to readers in England (witness, for example, the spelling of colors in the title), but general readers of military history who are interested in the period will appreciate this work as well as a sound and somewhat broad battle study. One of the aspects of this book that are shared with many whole-length books on single battles is that a significant amount of time is spent on the context of the battle and comparatively little on the battle itself. And so it is, for example, that a substantial portion of this book is spent discussing aspects that the ideal reader of this book is going to already be familiar with, namely the political hostility in England that rose between the death of Henry V and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses and the way that this hostility was fomented by various actors for selfish political gain. While this book is definitely a battle study, it also belongs in the tradition of war & society literature rather than being focused on matters of tactics.
This book is a relatively short one at just over 200 pages, and it is well that it seeks to broaden the scope of looking at Towton, because in order to be a book it likely could not have much less material than it does to be published in contemporary circumstances. The book begins with a list of illustrations and an introduction as well as a discussion of the people involved in high politics in England first between 4122 and 1450 as well as in Spring of 1460 and a prologue as the author takes some time to set the stage for Towton by discussing the complexities of English bastard feudalism and the various participants in the struggle for political power during the reign of the ineffective and perhaps mentally ill Henry VI. After that the author talks about the step too far at St. Albans that led to the outbreak of hostilities in 1455 (1) before going back in time to discuss the difficult legacy of Henry V for his infant son during a long minority (2) and the absence of capability and interest in that king upon ruling actively upon reaching adulthood (3). After this comes questions of absent-minded kings (4), the problem of honor (5), as well as the transformation of the queen into a fierce defender of her son’s interests (6). After this comes a look at Warwick (7), the rise of Edward IV (8), and a discussion of the regional nature of conflict in this phase of the War of the Roses (9). Finally, after all of this context and discussion, there is after 150 pages of material a look at the battle of Towton itself (10), before the author discusses its aftermath, a look at the smaller list of people active in English political life after the slaughter of an appreciable portion of England’s male population, the wound man, family trees, notes, a select bibliography, places to visit, acknowledgements, and an index.
How a reader will feel about this book depends on various factors. Those readers who are looking and most interested in a detailed discussion of the progress of the battle itself may be disappointed by the brief amount of discussion here about such matters, although there is plenty of tactical commentary on the earlier battles of the Wars of the Roses up to this point, so those readers ought to find at least enough tactical material to be of interest. The ideal reader of this book, though, is one who is particularly interested in the political questions of Towton and in its ramifications of the continuing regional divide within England between the North and South of the country that exists to this day as well as the challenge that late medieval politics in England (and other places, it should be noted) presented to leaders looking for regime locks in periods of drastic weakness at the top. England was a state in the Middle Ages whose unity required success in war, and as a result had predictable periods of internal disorder in the aftermath of failure in war abroad, as happened after the final defeat in France at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, when the disruptive and violent energies of England’s fractious nobles could no longer be directed in an outward direction towards conquest.