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Peter D. A. Boyd
A Quest for 'The Towton Rose'
Peter D. A. Boyd
Web version of
BOYD, P.D.A. 2010. A Quest for 'The Towton Rose'. In The Towton Herald (the newsletter of the Towton Battlefield Society). Issue 51, pp. 6-8.
[The Battle of Towton took place near Towton in Yorkshire in the year 1461, between Yorkist and Lancastrian forces, during the Wars of the Roses. About 30,000 men were killed in the bloodiest battle that ever took place on British soil. A wild rose, known as 'The Towton Rose' or 'The Battle Rose' grew abundantly on the battlefield.]
Part of 'Bloody Meadow' on the site of the Battle of Towton
The legendary 'Towton Rose' was supposed to have white flowers 'splashed' with red representing the blood of the fallen. Does it still exist on Towton Battlefield and, if not, does it survive anywhere else in cultivation?
The earliest account of the Towton Roses that I have found so far is Rev. G. F. Townsend's report to a meeting of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland held at York in July 1846 (published in 1848) in which he says:
"The rose is white, and now and then on the appearance of a pink spot on the flower, the rustic, happy in his legendary lore traces the blood of Lancaster".
However, the 'The Towton Rose' story is not straightforward and many published accounts, from the 19th century to the present day, are ill informed, confused and confusing. They may describe the roses as having just white flowers or flowers 'red and white', but it unclear whether some roses were white and some red or there was a mixture of red and white in each flower. Many old accounts repeat previous errors without analysis or even 'embroider' them a bit more. It is also clear that most writers had very little botanical, horticultural or scientific knowledge or had ever seen the roses themselves!
Rosa spinosissima (from Weeds and Wild Flowers by Lady C.C. Wilkinson, 1858).
The Towton Rose was generally identified as a dwarf form of Rosa spinosissima (old name Rosa pimpinellifolia). This is a native wild rose with various vernacular names including 'Scots Rose', 'Burnet Rose' and 'Cat Rose'. The species is the only native rose to have dark purple/black heps (see illustration above). All other native species have red heps. The leaves are much smaller than other native roses and the stems bear a mixture of narrow prickles and bristles between them. The small flowers are normally white but forms of the species with some colour on the petals have been recorded in various parts of Britain. Some Yorkshire nurseries sold single coloured 'varieties' during the late 18th century.
However, Rosa spinosissima gave rise to hundreds of single, semi-double and double coloured Scots Rose cultivars in Scotland and elsewhere during the early 19th century. My research embraces Rosa spinosissima and Scots Roses from a scientific, horticultural and social history standpoint. The Towton Rose provides a fascinating example of a particular form of Rosa spinosissima becoming a local 'phenomenon' with supposedly magical origins and a social history all of its own.
It is thought that the true Towton Rose may have become extinct on the battlefield over 60 years ago through a combination of over-collecting in the previous hundred years, ploughing of formerly unploughed land during World War II and the concerted effort of a local farmer to destroy the remaining roses in the late 1940s to deter Towton Rose souvenir hunters on his land. The Towton Rose may only survive in gardens.
My initial enquiry to Mark Taylor [Chairman of The Towton Battlefield Society] in May 2010 prompted a resurgence of interest in the subject. Journalist Martin Hickes published an article called 'A new twist in the search for the ghostly Towton Rose' in The Yorkshire Post on the 14th June 2010 and in Peter Algar's interview for BBC Radio York about his book The Shepherd Lord in June 2010, he was asked about the search. The story has also appeared in The Guardian and The Shropshire Star, the latter having picked up my Shropshire connection from The Guardian website.
This media coverage has prompted members of the public to come forward with information about what they hoped were true Towton Roses in their gardens. Unfortunately, they all turned out to be Rosa gallica 'Versicolor', popularly known as 'Rosa Mundi' (and sometimes, incorrectly, the 'York and Lancaster Rose' which is a different rose). 'Rosa Mundi' is a widely cultivated 'Old Rose' with irregular white 'stripes' on the dark pink/red petals. It often 'reverts' to the dark pink Apothecary's Rose (Rosa gallica 'Officinalis'). In contrast, the true Towton Rose was the much smaller Rosa spinosissima with pink or red markings on the white petals. The amount and intensity of red may have varied within the population or even from one year to another.
It is recorded that local people from Saxton sold plants of the Towton Rose to battlefield visitors in the late 19th and early 20th century but the true plant had already become rare by then. 'Rosa Mundi' seems to have been planted somewhere on the battlefield at some stage (possibly around this time) and may have been sold as the 'Towton Rose' by locals, since 'Rosa Mundi' was easier to propagate or buy from nurseries.
I consider that the original Towton Roses were a natural occurrence. Wild Rosa spinosissima is still widespread in Yorkshire, particularly on the Magnesian Limestone, but it is now extinct on some sites and less abundant than it was on others because of changes in land use during the 20th century. It is a characteristic rose of coastal sand dunes and such sites are now the stronghold for the species nationally.
The history of planting cultivated roses on the battlefield site has been extended in the last fifteen years or so to forms of Rosa spinosissima. While some attempts to 're-introduce' Rosa spinosissima to the site have been unsuccessful, one planted beside the memorial cross by a member of the Battlefield Trust flowered this year. Although I understand that this plant was purchased with the nursery's assurance that it was native British Rosa spinosissima, it is neither 'typical' of the species as it occurs in Britain, nor probably as it occurs in the Towton area. I am grateful to Scowen Sykes who kindly told me about this rose, plants of Rosa spinosissima in Saxton Churchyard and another that he discovered in Towton village itself. The plants at the latter two sites appear to be definitely non-native or larger cultivated forms. Many plants of Rosa spinosissima sold in British nurseries today originally came from taller growing European and Asiatic sources. Such forms are very different to the dwarf roses referred to in old accounts of the Towton Rose - not only in stature but also in size of flowers, leaves, heps and other features.
I consider that, if planting is done on the Battlefield area in future, it should only be in appropriate places, with appropriate permissions and only involve plants that have been propagated from the true Towton origin roses. Any such plantings should be 'officially' recorded somewhere so that no confusion arises in future.
I am very grateful to Peter Algar and Scowen Sykes for the enthusiasm and energy with which, separately, they have searched the battlefield area and followed up leads on possible Towton Roses surviving in people's gardens on my behalf; and to Graham Darbyshire for a very enjoyable day exploring the Towton-Saxton area with Peter and myself. I am grateful to Scowen Sykes for showing me a Rosa spinosissima that he had found in Towton itself. Other local people have also contacted me and there are some promising leads that I hope will culminate in the discovery of a 'true' Towton Rose before my fully referenced article appears in the next Towton Herald!
Peter D. A. Boyd
Curator, Shrewsbury Museums
Shropshire Museum Service
See Peter Boyd's later article on Towton Roses: fact and fable for The Towton Herald (newsletter of The Towton Battlefield Society) Winter 2010-2011
Martin Hickes' article in The Yorkshire Post