Battered soldier's body tells bloody tale of the Wars of the Roses

By William Axtell | 06 July 2015

He fell during one of the bloodiest battles on English soil - now his bones reside at the Richard III Experience in York

The battered bones of a soldier who fell at the Battle of Towton have been put on display at York's Richard III Experience.

Archaeologists believe the 6ft 1in man, who was aged between 36 and 45 when he died, was of high status. His remains were found away from the mass graves of the battle under the floor of Towton Hall.

A photo of a male human skeleton inside a large darkened museum box
© Courtesy YAT
He may have been a mounted knight and there is evidence for such a claim in his wounds.

“The skeleton shows some extensive injuries,” says Sarah Maltby, the Director of Attractions for York Archaeological Trust. “He has a stab wound to his left foot, which shattered one of the bones and cut two more. 

"Does this mean he was on horseback and combatants on the ground were slashing at him from below or was this an injury caused by downward blow of a sword?”

It was not a foot injury which killed the man, however, as his skull shows evidence of a cut to the lower jaw and blunt force trauma to the base of the skull. The latter injury was probably the fatal blow and could either have come from a blunt weapon such as a mace or war hammer or, if he was wearing a helmet, from the blade of a poleaxe or sword.

“None of his injuries show any evidence of healing, so we can assume all these wounds took place on the battlefield,” says Maltby.

“It is interesting to note that the cut he has on his jaw matches other individuals found at Towton - was there a practice of forcibly removing helmets on the battlefield?”

The Battle of Towton was a key battle in the Wars of the Roses and one of the bloodiest in English history. Although the figures produced at the time are likely to be greatly exaggerated, up to 80,000 men fought in the 10-hour battle, with suggested losses of up to 10,000 Yorkists and 20,000 Lancastrians.

Victory for the Yorkists secured the throne for Edward, Duke of March. Although as Edward IV he endured many subsequent perils and was temporarily dethroned between 1470 and 1471, the Battle of Towton changed the course of English history and established the Yorkist line, which ended with Richard III.

  • You can see the skeleton as part of the exhibition, Commemorating the Re-Interment of Richard III, at the Richard III Experience in York.

The man's injuries:

Stab wound to the left foot, top of the foot arch - caused shattering of bone and cuts on two other bones

Weapon cut to the back of the lower jaw - several individuals from Towton have this injury as well

Blunt force trauma to the back of the skull, possibly caused by a bladed weapon striking the back of the helmet at force or a blunt weapon hitting the skull. It is likely that the assailant who struck the soldier attacked from the back, left side. It is probable that this injury proved fatal.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums where you can see human skeletons:

The remains of the Shepperton woman, one of the oldest people to have been found in the London region, aged between 5,640 and 5,100 years old and displayed alongside a facial reconstruction.

The Novium, Chichester
The Bronze Age Racton Man is a star exhibit at the impressive museum of Roman Sussex - a complete skeleton found in a crouched position, clutching a dagger in his right hand.

Among the many exhibits on display in the Jack Lucas Gallery are a full skeleton of a human girl and a beautifully detailed belt-buckle depicting two peacocks by a tree, both dated to the 4th century.

Follow William Axtell on Twitter @WilliamAxtell.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
If Richard III got a decent reburial, how come this soldier can't get the same? I think it's disgraceful that he's now "property" (in other words a financial asset) to be exploited in order to earn money from ticket-sales to an exhibition. I can appreciate that archeologists want to examine the bones - and that's fine. However, they've had ample opportunity to do so and it's high time this man was decently reburied. To keep his remains in a museum is just plain wrong.
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