Welcome to peterboyd.com
Peter D. A. Boyd
Towton Roses: fact and fable
Parts 1 and 2 combined
Peter D. A. Boyd
Web version of
BOYD, P.D.A. 2010. Towton Roses, Fact and Fable: part 1 (early history). In The Towton Herald (the newsletter of the Towton Battlefield Society). Issue 52 (Winter 2010-2011), pp. 3-11.
BOYD, P.D.A. 2011. Towton Roses, Fact and Fable: part 2 (later history). In The Towton Herald (the newsletter of the Towton Battlefield Society). Issue 53 (Spring 2011), pp. .
[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.]
I wrote an introduction to the story of 'The Towton Rose' in the Summer 2010 edition of The Towton Herald (Boyd, 2010). [Online version available]
This article attempts to document the different accounts of 'The Towton Rose' and provide a critical analysis of them. Many of the sources are not readily available so I have reproduced the relevant passages here with their references so that other researchers can follow them up if they wish.
Original descriptions of 'The Towton Rose' identify it as a form of the native wild rose species Rosa spinosissima (also known as Rosa pimpinellifolia), whose vernacular names include Scots Rose, Scotch Rose, Burnet Rose and Cat Rose. Later, its identity became confused with other native species and a cultivated rose, Rosa gallica 'Versicolor' (often known as 'Rosa Mundi').
Rosa spinosissima showing its small leaves, prickles and bristles on its stems and black heps (illustration from Weeds and Wild Flowers by Lady C.C. Wilkinson, 1858).
Although Rosa spinosissima is probably most widespread on coastal sand dunes, it does occur inland, particularly on limestone. It favours the Magnesian Limestone areas of Yorkshire and is still widespread but it has disappeared from some of its former sites (probably including the battlefield) and is less abundant on others having been destroyed by ploughing, herbicides and other agricultural activity over the last 150 years or so.
The Rev. G. F. Townsend, Vicar of Brantingham, Yorkshire wrote the earliest published account that I have found of the Towton Roses (Townsend, 1848). He had visited the battlefield in July 1846 and collected slips (cuttings) of the roses:-
" The place is called Towton Dale or Tartingdale, and a road runs between two stone quarries, which are said to be, with no ostensible improbability, the scene of slaughter. ........... It is reported that the soldiers were buried in large mounds on the field of battle, and that the Yorkists, either in affection or in triumph, planted some rose-trees on the tombs of their fallen countrymen. These mounds through the lapse of four centuries have worn nearly down to the level surface of the soil; but you may yet see a kind of circles in the field, above the quarry which I have mentioned; and these circles are covered with patches and clusters of rose-trees. 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. I brought away some few slips of the roses, in testimony of the truth of the tradition, and any lady or gentleman is welcome to take them, in remembrance of this anniversary".
The mounds or 'tumuli' are marked on an Ordnance Survey map of sixty years later. The roses were probably growing there quite naturally before their construction but the roses may have grown more thickly on the disturbed well-drained soil of the mounds than the surrounding land.
Ordnance Survey map of 1908 that I have enhanced with colour showing The Bloody Meadow between the two quarries and location of the 'tumuli' [most of the area of the meadow shown was ploughed in the 1940s]
Townsend's account seems to have precipitated increased interest in the battle and the roses. Grainge (1854) provided additional information on the appearance of the roses and documented the fact that they were already being dug up as souvenirs of the battle:-
"Another most beautiful and fanciful notion is, that the dwarf rose, which grows abundantly in a grass field, that formed part of the battle ground, flourishes profusely here, and will not grow elsewhere; and that Providence has caused it to spring from the blended blood of the victims of the red and white rose factions, which are typified in its white petals slightly tinged with red, and in the dull bloody hue of the leaves of the older wood. This pleasing piece of superstition has caused many of those diminutive shrubs to be removed from their native soil and carried far away to other places".
The "white petals slightly tinged with red" but also "dull bloody hue of the leaves" on the mature stems of "diminutive shrubs" is fully consistent with an identification of Rosa spinosissima. This rose is a very variable species but can occur as low-growing spreading shrubs growing only a foot (30cm) or less high. Other forms may be much taller; some European and Asiatic forms growing to over 2 metres high. The flowers are normally white but individual plants or populations of plants in which the petals have a 'tinge' of pink or red on the petals or more marked 'marbling' of the petals, have been recorded in many populations of this species in Britain and Europe. The first published record of such a form was in Scotland in 1684. Rosa spinosissima also often exhibits good autumn colour, the leaves changing colour to a '"dull bloody hue" or other variation on the themes of purple, red, scarlet, orange or yellow in different forms. The intensity of colour may vary from one year to another. This year  has been particularly good for autumn colour in my collection of 'Scots Roses'.
A form of Rosa spinosissima in my own collection with the flowers 'tinged' with red - possibly similar to The Towton Rose
Whellan (1855) recycles the words of Townsend and Grainge but also provides additional information:-
"Patches and clusters of these rose trees in full blow [bloom] may be seen every year; and it appears very difficult to eradicate the plant, for whilst the least portion of the root remains in the soil, it will, in due time, shoot forth a plant".
This is typical of Rosa spinosissima, which spreads laterally by underground suckers (root-shoots) rather than adding greatly to its height and volume at one point like most roses and other shrubs. This allows it to flourish in tough wind-swept conditions and stabilise the soil on unstable hillsides and sand dunes. Suckers, collected in Autumn (October/November) or Spring (March/April), are the best way to propagate the species. Most attempts to grow the Towton Rose were probably made by souvenir hunters digging up plants when they were showing their flowers in May or June. In most cases, they would be unsuccessful and this would support the myth that they would not grow anywhere but on the battlefield!
Most writers seem to have visited the site of the battle only once and may not have seen the roses in flower - depending instead on the accounts of local people and others. Even, Richard Brooke who visited the Towton battlefield almost every year for nine years between 1848 and 1856 in preparation for his book Visits to Fields of Battle, in England of the fifteenth century (1857) does not seem to have seen them in flower himself. However, he described the site in detail and refers to the location of the roses:-
"The battle of Towton was fought on the spot now occupied by the large meadow and valley ... (on the west side of the road), the depression called Towton Dale, the fields extending a considerable distance to the eastward of the road, and the ground in the neighbourhood of the stone quarry"."The large meadow is remarkable for producing rich rank grass, and also for three or four extensive irregularly shaped patches of very small wild dwarf rose-bushes, which I was told, were both red and white; it forms the west end of Towton Dale. The meadow is not unfrequently called the Bloody Meadow, and was, according to tradition, a scene of great slaughter, and it is said that considerable numbers of the dead were buried there. The distance across the fields, from the public road at that spot to the turnpike road leading from Ferrybridge, is about a mile, and the whole tract of ground between them is enclosed and cultivated".
In 1858, Lady Caroline Wilkinson wrote about a long tradition of planting roses on graves in Weeds and Wild Flowers: their uses, legends, and literature referring to the Towton Rose as an example of this custom:-
"But the most touching instance of this application of the rose is yet to be seen on the battle-field of Towton ... On that field ...... the roses which were planted by the survivors on their sepulchral mounds still grow and bloom, breathing out, untended and unheeded, silent lessons never yet taught by the blazoned shields and marble trophies which mark the conqueror's tomb. We might almost fancy that the well-known "York and Lancaster" rose, the old fashioned rose of our childhood, whose red and white petals bear, peacefully commingled, the colours of the contending parties, might have sprung from this ungenial soil, and drawn its beauties from the field of civil fight to exhibit an undying reproof to ages yet unborn".
The language is very 'flowery' and also confusing. It should be noted that Lady Wilkinson is not saying that the Towton Rose is the same as the 'York and Lancaster Rose' (sometimes misnamed 'Rosa Mundi') - she is saying that "we might almost fancy" that the 'York and Lancaster Rose' arose in such a way. She went on to refer to another battle, Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) [A.D.778] where myth stated that red and white roses arose spontaneously after the battle.
While it is not inconceivable that people chose to plant suckers of the Towton Roses on the sites of burial at Towton, the roses were probably growing there already and any suckers in the loose soil mounded over the bodies in late March or early April 1461 would have grown well in the loose 'fertilized' soil when the warmer weather arrived. In fact, the mounds on Bloody Meadow, thought in the 19th century to be associated with the battle, probably predated the battle by hundreds of years.
A poem by Jane Williams about Towton Roses, called 'On Receiving some cuttings of rose-trees from Yorkshire' is included as an appendix of Wilkinson's book. This is the final part:-
"And heaped in many a lofty mound,By pitying victors then,That battle-field gave burial groundTo forty thousand men;And on those mounds the Roses twainOf civil strife, were set,To mark the parties of the slain,With symbols of regret.Almost four centuries have fledSince that disastrous day,Each proud Plantagenet is dead,Their race has passed away.Scarce can the characters be readWhich edge Lord Dacre's tomb,Yet still the roses, White and Red,On Towton's ridges bloom.And thence a wandering Cymo's handThese tiny cuttings sent,Which may, perchance, yet live to standTheir poet's monument!"
Did the cuttings grow? Did they and others survive as plants to the present day?
The late 1850s was a period when the production of poetry about the battle and the roses peaked. Also in 1858, Walter White first published a poem about them in the first edition of A Month in Yorkshire. The last verse of this was probably the verse most quoted by later writers in reference to the Towton Rose:-
"Palm Sunday chimes were chimingAll gladsome thro' the air,And village churls and maidensKnelt in the church at pray'r;When the Red Rose and the White RoseIn furious battle reel'd;And yeomen fought like barons,And barons died ere yield.When mingling with the snow-storm,The storm of arrows flew;And York against proud LancasterHis ranks of spearmen threw.When thunder-like the uproarOutshook from either side,As hand to hand they battledFrom morn to eventide.When the river ran all gory,And in hillocks lay the dead,And seven and thirty thousandFell for the White and Red.When o'er the Bar of MicklegateThey changed each ghastly head,Set Lancaster upon the spikesWhere York had bleached and bled.There still wild roses growing,Frail tokens of the fray -And the hedgerow green bear witnessOf Towton field that day."
The playwright James Robinson Planché (1794-1880) visited Towton in 1858 but the short account of this visit and a poem that he wrote at the time was not published until 1872 in his autobiography, The Recollections and Reflections of J. R. Planché :-
"In the summer of 1858, being, with my son-in-law, Mr. Whelan, on a visit to Lord Londesborough, at Grimston Park, near Tadcaster, Yorkshire, I was present at a grand entertainment given by his lordship to his principal tenantry in that county. It was a day fete, the company assembling about noon. There was a sumptuous dejeuner, or early dinner, in the riding-house, and a large marquee erected for dancing in the park, on the confines of which is a field called Battle Acre, being the place, according to tradition, where the Lancastrians made their last ineffectual stand against the forces of the rival house of York in the decisive conflict of Towton Field. During the dancing, I strolled down into "the Acre" which is celebrated for a singular natural curiosity. A quantity of wild white roses annually spring up and blossom in a particular portion of it, and all attempts to destroy them by the farmers of the land had failed up to that period. The general opinion appeared to be that they had been originally planted by the victorious party in commemoration of the triumph of the White Rose, and probably on a spot where a pile of their slain had been buried. Lord Londesborough had used his endeavours to prevent their extirpation after he became possessed of the property, and at the time I speak of they still continued to make their annual appearance. The following verses, suggested by this interesting fact, were strung together on the spot, and a copy of them given to Lady Londesborough the next morning at breakfast. As they have never been printed, the singularity of the subject will render excusable their introduction here".
The Flowers of Towton Field
A Ballad of Battle Acre
"There is a patch of wild white roses that bloom on a battle-field,Where the rival rose of Lancaster blush'd redder still to yield;Four hundred years have o'er them shed their sunshine and their snow,But in spite of plough and harrow, every summer there they blow;Though rudely up to root them with hand profane you toil,The faithful flowers still fondly cluster round the sacred soil;Though tenderly transplanted to the nearest garden gay,Nor cost, nor care, can tempt them there to live a single day!I ponder'd o'er their blossoms, and anon my busy brainWith banner'd hosts and steel-clad knights repeopled all the plain.I seem'd to hear the lusty cheer of the bowmen bold of York,As they mark'd how well their cloth-yard shafts had done their bloody work;And steeds with empty saddles came rushing wildly by,And wounded warriors stagger'd past, or only turn'd to die,And the little sparkling river was cumbered as of yoreWith ghastly corse of man and horse, and ran down red with gore.I started as I ponder'd, for loudly on mine earRose indeed a shout like thunder, a true old English cheer;And the sound of drum and trumpet came swelling up the vale,And blazon'd banners proudly flung their glories to the gale;But not, oh! not to battle did those banners beckon now -A baron stood beneath them, but not with helmed brow,And Yorkshire yeomen round him throng'd, but not with bow and lance,And the trumpet only bade them to the banquet and the dance.Again my brain was busy: from out those flow'rets fair,A breath arose like incense-a voice of praise and prayer!A silver voice that said, " Rejoice! and bless the God above,Who hath given thee these days to see of peace, and joy, and love;Oh, never more by English hands may English blood be shed,Oh, never more be strife between the roses white and red.The blessed words the shepherds heard may we remember still,Throughout the world be peace on earth, and towards man goodwill."
It is interesting that while the local farming tenants considered the roses a nuisance, Lord Londesborough "had used his endeavours to prevent their extirpation" since he took over ownership of the estate. Planché refers to "a patch of wild white roses" but "where the rival rose of Lancaster blush'd redder still to yield" may be referring to the 'blush' of red on some of the otherwise white flowers. However, if he visited the site in summer, he would have been too late to witness the roses in flower. Was 'Battle Acre' the same as 'Bloody Meadow' or another site of Rosa spinosissima close to the house? It is over 2 miles 'as the crow flies' from Grimston Park to Bloody Meadow but it may have been considered to be within easy walking distance there and back "during the dancing".
In 1859, the year following Planché's visit, a writer only signed R_ but known to be Henry Liddell, The Earl of Ravensworth (Ravensworth, 1877), wrote an article called 'The Field of Towton Moor' in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. He wrote about the Towton roses:-
"When, or by what hand, planted, or how they came, is not known, but in the field where the bones of the brave thus repose, white and red roses grow in great abundance. They are the small wild Scotch rose. The owner of the field has repeatedly tried to get rid of them by burning and mowing, but in vain; they still spring up again. According to popular belief, these roses will not bear transplanting, but refuse to grow on any soil except that consecrated by the remains of those valiant men, who there fell the victims of a senseless national quarrel".
The poem accompanying the article included the following verses:-
"Oh, the red and the white Rose, upon Towton Moor it grows,And red and white it blows upon that swarthe for evermore -In memorial of the slaughter when the red blood ran like water,And the victors gave no quarter in the flight from Towton Moor:When the banners gay were beaming, and the steel cuirasses gleaming,And the martial music streaming o'er that wide and lonely heath;And many a heart was beating that dreamed not of retreating,Which, ere the sun was setting, lay still and cold in death:When the snow that fell at morning lay as a type and warning,All stained and streaked with crimson, like the roses white and redAnd filled each thirsty furrow with its token of the sorrowThat wailed for many a morrow through the mansions of the dead.Now for twice two hundred years, when the month of March appears,All unchecked by plough or shears spring the roses red and white;Nor can the hand of mortal close the subterranean portalThat gives to life immortal these emblems of the fight.And as if they were enchanted, not a flower may be transplantedFrom those fatal precincts, haunted by the spirits of the slain;For howe'er the root you cherish, it shall fade away and perishWhen removed beyond the marish of Towton's gory plain".
Ravensworth's article is the first time that the rose is named as Rosa spinosissima (the 'Scotch Rose') although the previous descriptions are sufficient to identify it as that species. Although the poem suggests that the roses would flower in March (the anniversary of the Battle of Towton), the roses would not be flowering so early. They would not even be in leaf. Rosa spinosissima is probably the earliest of Britain's native rose species to flower but, at the latitude and altitude of Towton, that would be expected to be in late May or June - with the flowering period of other native roses starting later but overlapping with them.
In the poem, the colour of the flowers is compared with the snow which fell during the battle, being "stained and streaked with crimson, like the roses white and red". Were the roses 'tinged' with red like the Scots Rose (illustrated) in my collection (not from Towton) or did they have streaks or irregular markings of red on the petals?
Subsequent references to the roses over the following few years do not add any new information and most writers repeat what had already been written by others.
John Pickford MA of Bolton Percy, near Tadcaster wrote an article on 'Towton Field' in 1870. He describes the location of the roses as follows:-
"... the battle was fought in a large meadow, through which the little river Cock winds. Grass grows in rich luxuriance there; and at this day groups of wild dwarf rose-bushes are seen, traditionally said to have been planted on the mounds under which the slain were buried ... The people in the neighbourhood firmly believe that these rose-bushes will alone grow in the "Bloody Meadow," and that attempts to plant them elsewhere have always been unsuccessful".
Reference to the roses in Hookham (1872) merely reproduces the account in Townsend (1848).
In 1884, Wheater provided a summary of the Towton Roses story (as well as quoting several poems already mentioned):-
"On a part of the field where the final death-struggle and rout of the Lancastrians took place grow many small rose bushes, which, tradition says, sprung from the mingled blood of the rival rose-bearers shed on this fatal field. They grow on this soil only, says the legend, and if transplanted to any other place they quickly wither and die. When in bloom the petals are a mingled red and white, and when the leaves become old they are of a dull red hue on the under side. These bushes grow in the only grass field between Towton and Saxton, which slopes down to the valley of the brook Cock, and has apparently never been under the plough, This pleasing piece of superstition has caused many of those diminutive shrubs to be removed from their native sod, and carried far away to other places, and the report of the villagers is that they have much decreased in number of late years. The plant is the Rosa spinossissima [spinosissima] or burnt [burnet] rose, which only attains to about a foot in height. It certainly grows in many other places besides Towton Field, but its favourite habitat in the inland parts of Yorkshire is the magnesian limestone"."The principal growth of these roses is near a place where great numbers of the dead have been buried, in the narrow dry valley down which the Lancastrians rushed to escape the pursuit of their pitiless enemies, soon to be engulfed in the marshes by the sides of the small, crooked, slow-flowing river Cock".
Again, the rose is identified as a form of Rosa spinosissima growing to about a foot (30cm) high with flowers having petals of "a mingled red and white". This suggests what is known as a 'marbled' form. The leaves became red as they aged. The "narrow dry valley" is Towton Dale, flanked on one side by Bloody Meadow with its 'tumuli', as indicated on the 1908 Ordnance Survey map.
At least two Yorkshire plant nurseries (John and George Telford of York; William and John Perfect of Pontefract) sold coloured Scots Roses (forms of Rosa spinosissima) as early as the 1770s. They sold a 'marbled' Scots Rose and a red Scots Rose as well as the ordinary white flowered form. While it is conceivable that the roses at Towton had been planted from cultivated forms, there is no evidence that the Towton roses were anything but natural.
The Rev. Thomas Parkinson confuses the story in 1888 by stating that the rose is "commonly known as the 'York and Lancaster rose'":-
"This rose, whose petals are variegated with mingled white and red, is said to have sprung up where the blood of York and Lancaster was so plentifully mingled. The bush (so it is said) refuses to grow elsewhere. If transplanted to other soil, it either fades away or the flowers revert to a single colour - white or red".
The name 'York and Lancaster Rose' is often given, mistakenly, to the garden rose Rosa gallica 'Versicolor' ('Rosa Mundi') but the true 'York and Lancaster Rose' is a quite different rose. It is certainly not a name applied properly to any form of Rosa spinosissima! It is worth noting that the cultivated rose 'Rosa Mundi' (which has large 'striped' flowers) will often revert to the dark pink/red Rosa gallica 'Officianalis' (of which it was a 'sport') but it will not turn into a white rose.
Forms of Rosa spinosissima with tinged or marbled flowers may be variable within a plant and the extent or intensity of colour may vary from one year to another. The rose illustrated here from my collection, varies in appearance from year to year. Some years the red tinges on the buds and petals give a very striking effect but, in other years, the flowers are predominantly white. Flower colour may also vary to some extent according to the fertility and mineral content of the soil in which they are planted. The mineral content of the Magnesian Limestone soil of the battlefield may have had an effect.
In 1891, Alexander Leadman gives a misleading description (corrupted from earlier descriptions) of the roses in Proelia Eboracensia:-
"I cannot conclude this story of Towton Field, without an allusion to the little dwarf bushes peculiar to the 'Field of the White Rose and the Red.' They are said to have been plentiful at the commencement of this century, but visitors have taken them away in such numbers that they have become rare. Such vandalism is simply shameful, for the plants are said to be unique, and unable to exist in any other soil. The little roses are white, with a red spot on the centre of each of their petals; and as they grow old, the under surface becomes a dull red colour".
Leadman's account had been reproduced in The Daily News and prompted a reader of that newspaper to write to the Journal of Botany asking for an identification of "the little dwarf rose". The botanist William West replied in the Journal of Botany, v. 29, November 1891, p. 346:-
" I have no doubt that this is Rosa spinosissima. I have seen it all along on the Permian limestone about Towton".
--------------------------------------- Part 2 -----------------------------------------
Until the latter, all the accounts of Towton roses referred to were made by historians, poets and 'travel writers'.
Botanists did not specifically mention the roses at Towton in The Flora of Yorkshire (Baines 1840) and subsequent supplements because Rosa spinosissima was nothing unusual. However, The Flora of West Yorkshire (1888) by Frederic Arnold Lees (in which the vernacular name for Rosa spinosissima is given as 'Cat-rose') includes an observation by Mr John Emmet of Boston Spa in which he states that it was THE rose on Towton field.
Harry Speight displayed sound botanical knowledge in his book on Lower Wharfedale (1902) and clearly knew Rosa spinosissima well at Towton and other localities. He showed more common sense than many earlier fanciful writers and also includes some fascinating information on the commercial value of the rose to some local people:-
"Much has been made of a local belief, that a certain dwarf rose-bush, once plentiful on the Field of Towton, has produced roses white and red ever since the great battle. There are people foolish enough, even in our own days, to believe in a miracle, which, had it originated in the Middle Ages, might be excused, but as it is wholly a modern invention, the notion of this floral oddity must be discountenanced in the light of scientific fact. These bushes, no doubt, grew about Towton long before the White and Red fight between King Edward and King Henry, and produced the same kind of roses then as they do now. The plant is the little Scotch Burnet Rose (Rosa spinosissima) which grows not only at Towton, but all over the great belt of magnesian limestone which divides our county in half, from north to south. I have found it in many places just the same as at Towton. The plant is common to this formation, and its blossoms vary, like all roses, according to age, soil, and situation, from pure white to flesh-colour, that is, with more or less pink or red in the bud or open flower"."The run on these roses at Towton has been tremendous, especially within living memory, and a man at Saxton once told me that he had got as much as 2s. 6d. a root for them within the last ten years! Very few now remain; nearly all having been stubbed up; more the pity, for there is nothing in the least peculiar about these Towton roses, and no botanists, before the 19th century, have commented upon them. Furthermore, we have been told in prose and poetry that the "blooms do fade and the tree doth wither and die" when removed from its native heath! Exactly; so will most flowering bushes when removed at the wrong time of the year or planted in uncongenial soil. In Saxton gardens the plants may be seen thriving vigorously, but it is useless attempting to grow them in Leeds, Manchester or Bradford. Scores of songs and poems and magazine articles have been written on this aspect of the Towton blooms; but the following beautiful verse must suffice as a fair example of this popular fallacy".
I fully agree with most of what Speight says except I am pretty sure that the roses would grow in Leeds, Manchester or Bradford today. The heavy acidic air pollution in those places, at the time he was writing, might have been unfavourable!
One of the best-known writers about Towton is Edmund Bogg who wrote The Old Kingdom of Elmet the land 'twixt Aire and Wharfe a descriptive sketch of its ancient history (1904). His prose is rather 'romantic':-
"No monument marks the site of battle, yet there is one beautiful memorial on the field which the villagers tell us cannot be effaced above where the warrior sleeps, white and red roses bloom, emblems of the fatal feud. How they came thus is not known, but they do not grow well on other soil than that on which was poured out old England's noblest blood".
"The peculiar variety of wild white rose, tinged (not streaked) with red, formerly plentiful on the battlefield, has been cut and uprooted until now it is very scarce. There was formerly a large bed in the field known as Towtondale, or bloody vale; here a farmer told the writer that he netted the bed of some thirty yards square, and made it into a sheepfold, which was the means of destroying the plants. The country people attribute the rich red tinge of the roses to the soil being impregnated with blood at that fatal fight. Botanically speaking, Dr. Arnold Lees informs me this cannot be the case. The 'field,' being glacial drift over limestone, is rich in species of wild flowers, four different kinds of roses growing there. The white York rose, a spiny neat-leaved plant, is always creamy-hued. The common dog-rose, the Lancastrian, is a blush pink, more or less deep. The field rose is also white, not very prickly, and easily destroyed; it has been found with the petals streaked with pink probably from hybridization but very rarely".
It is interesting that Bogg makes a point of describing the rose as "tinged (not streaked) with red" like my illustration. However, the rest of his account is a little confused. He seems to have mistaken the 'field roses' (which often grow in hedgerows and sometimes show some pink on the white petals) with the bicoloured Rosa spinosissima that was formerly abundant as dwarf bushes within the open field. No-one else had suggested previously that the 'Field Rose' Rosa arvensis or another hedgerow rose has anything to do with the fabled Towton Rose and later, in Bogg's book, Dr Lees does not refer to such an association. Lees suggests that 'The Towton Rose' was a mixture of two species (see below). The scrambling mode of growth of Rosa arvensis or tall shrubby growth of other hedgerow species is not consistent with other descriptions of the Towton Roses as dwarf plants about one foot (30cm) high forming large patches within the meadow.
Part of the Bogg's paragraph on the possible effects of iron on plant growth from blood shed on the site (not reproduced here), is also a mixture of confused science and nonsense. Besides any other scientific considerations, any effect of blood that was shed on the site would probably have been short lived. The brown oxidised blood from the fallen (it would not have remained red very long) could probably have been washed off the sloped soil surface or out of the soil into the Cock Beck within a year or two and much more quickly with snow melt or if there had been heavy rain in the weeks after the battle. It seems an extremely remote possibility that there would have been any nutritional or other scientifically valid effect on roses growing there four hundred years later in the mid 19th century! However, if the dead were buried in shallow graves on the site, it is possible that the bones could have had a longer-term effect on soil chemistry, maintaining a favourable alkalinity and providing phosphates plus other nutrients that could encourage the growth of Rosa spinosissima.
Bogg's description of the roses found on the battlefield seems to be based on the account of Dr F. Arnold Lees (medical doctor and botanist) that was published as part of a separate section titled 'The Wild Flowers of Elmete' in Bogg's book:-
"First there are the roses, white of York, excessively spiny, forming impassable thickets in places, a low branching bush with profuse creamy blossoms, never a tinge of Lancasterian red on their velvety petals a rose whose motto might well have been that of its County-men: "Touch me not " (Nemo me impune lacessit). It is abundant at Towton, although also found in many other parts: it is no calcifuge [lime-hating] as is the foxglove (quite a rare flower in Elmete), for it will grow and spread on seashore sand, but it clearly has a preference for the dry soil that mostly prevails above limestone rock. Still, in Elmete, the downy red rose of Lancaster (scientifically Rosa tomentosa) is not unfrequent, with the paler open-blowing and pink-flushed dog-rose, and all three sorts grow on Towton Field; but the folk-lore conception that the mingled blood of the combatants is typified in the mingled hues of the rose-bloom is, of course, botanically a fable".
Lees is clearly referring to Rosa spinosissima in the "roses, white of York", "excessively spiny", "will [also] grow and spread on seashore sand " and he refers to Rosa tomentosa as "the downy red rose of Lancaster". He seems to have believed that the white and red Towton Roses were two native species symbolizing the Houses of York and Lancaster – not one species with 'bicoloured' petals. He had probably not seen plants of the bicoloured Towton Rose as they were already rare by that time or it was not a year in which they showed. This symbolic association that Lees implies with these two native species should not be confused with the two cultivated non-native species that were then and are now traditionally associated with the Houses of York and Lancaster (Rosa x alba and Rosa gallica). Incidentally, Rosa x alba is probably a hybrid including Rosa arvensis and Rosa gallica in its makeup. A local rosarian, Norman Lambert of Fulford, Yorkshire wrote about the story of the Towton Rose in 1931. Most of his article in The Rose Annual was an account of the battle and the legend of its origin. Although he knew the site of the battle well and provides a description of the roses of the area, it seems to be based on that of Lees:
"One of the first things I can remember was a story told by my grandfather of the Red and White Roses that were to be found growing on Towton battlefield, which was about eight or nine miles from our home. He related how he had tried to transplant some of the trees in his garden, but that they had refused to grow, as others who had tried the experiment had found, away from their native heath. The Roses were white streaked with crimson"."I have visited Towton field many times since. There are wild Roses still growing there, low branching bushes sometimes forming a thicket, almost impassable on account of their abundant spines, and crowned with creamy white blossoms in June. This is the Rose of York. Here and there the Rose of Lancaster (Rosa tomentosa) is found with its downy red flowers, and the common Dog Rose grows in plenty. Occasionally a creamy white bloom is tinged with red or pink - the result of cross-fertilisation by insects - and it is quite reasonable to suppose that some variations have been streaked in colouring. I have met and talked with natives of the district, contemporary with my grandfather, and they refuse to accept any theory other than the legendary one".
The creamy white flowered 'Rose of York' was probably Rosa spinosissima that still existed on the site in the early 1930s (if not in its bicoloured form). It is a pity that he did not confirm the identity by its scientific name – vernacular names are open to misidentification!
More recent writers have confused other roses that they have seen on and around the battlefield with the true Towton Rose. Eric Houlder (2004) misidentified a hedgerow Dog Rose (Rosa canina or a related species) as the Towton Rose but he suspected that he might have done so at the time. Many common tall growing Dog Roses and other wild rose species have pale pink or dark pink flowers with a white centre. This is different to the 'tinged' or 'marbled' flowers of the true Towton Rose. It is likely that the dwarf form of Rosa spinosissima that was the true Towton Rose would only survive in an open situation. It might survive some mowing or grazing but, in its dwarf form, it could probably not survive being shaded out by lush taller-growing shrubs and herbaceous plants in a hedgerow.
The lower part of Towton Dale on the right leading down to Cock Beck on the left (Photographed by Peter Boyd in July 2010). See the map.
During a visit to part of the battlefield that that I made in July 2010, I did not see any Rosa spinosissima but plenty of Rosa arvensis of which some plants on one part of the site were nibbled short by grazing cattle. The non-botanist might confuse such plants with Rosa spinosissima. However, Rosa arvensis has white flowers in clusters - unlike Rosa spinosissima in which the flowers are normally arranged singly at the end of a shoot or side shoot. Each individual flower of R. arvensis has a columnar group of fused styles (appearing to be a single 'stigma') shaped like a thick pin and head in the centre of each flower, whereas the styles/stigmas in a R. spinosissima flower form a low mound in the centre of the bloom. The stems and leaves are also very different and the flowers of R. arvensis produce ovoid red heps - unlike the rounded black heps of R. spinosissima.
The clustered flowers of Rosa arvensis showing the erect 'stigmas'(photographed in Towton Dale in July 2010 by Peter Boyd)
It seem very likely that Rosa spinosissima no longer occurs in the Bloody Meadow area of the battlefield. Its destruction has been brought about by human action:-
1) collecting by souvenir hunters who preferentially collected plants of Rosa spinosissima that displayed red on the petals – this may have left a population of the rose in which the normal white flowered forms predominated before that too was destroyed.;
2) the concerted efforts of farmers to destroy the roses because they were considered to 'infest' their land, lower the value as grazing land, create practical difficulties for hay-making on other meadows and the value of hay gathered;
3) ploughing of land during the 2nd World War when every available piece of land was brought into arable production.
Aerial photographs of the battlefield area taken in 1948 show areas such as Bloody Meadow apparently ploughed but with the 'shadows' of ring ditches from the tumuli still showing. Since then, small fields have been consolidated into larger fields, so that many hedgerows (and field margins in which the Towton Rose might have persisted) have been lost.
Bloody Meadow rising to the left (formerly a stronghold of The Towton Rose) – now a barley field with Towton Dale on the right leading down to Cock Beck (Photographed by Peter Boyd in July 2010). See the map.
The Towton Battlefield Society has recorded an additional agricultural reason and probable specific date for destruction of the last Towton Roses in the late 1940s. The following statement made in 1969 by a local farmer Mr. Albert Bailey (aged 79 years old) was quoted by Martin Hickes in his article for the Yorkshire Post in 2010:-
"… we were plagued with battle roses. They were small wild roses, red and white, and they grew all over the battleground. The roses became a nuisance as in summer people invaded the field to dig up the bushes and every time someone left the gate open and the cattle got out. In the end we had a blitz on the roses and dug them all up. I haven't seen one now for over twenty years. It is a funny thing, scores were dug up by visitors but, as far as I know, they would never grow away from Towton".
In spite of extensive searches in the battlefield area in 2010 by me and members of the Towton Battlefield Society, no wild Rosa spinosissima has been found. As I recorded in my first article on The Towton Rose (Boyd 2010a), some non-local forms of Rosa spinosissima have been planted in the Towton-Saxton area – a practice to be discouraged.
It is still to be hoped that original local Rosa spinosissima has survived in the wild in the area but it now seems more likely that the bicoloured Towton Rose has only survived in a garden somewhere.
The publicity of the search in the summer of 2010 led to several people making contact. Unfortunately, everybody who thought that they had the true Towton Rose growing in their gardens had Rosa gallica 'Versicolor' ("Rosa Mundi") and not Rosa spinosissima. Several elderly people who grew the rose said that a member of their family no longer alive had collected the rose as cuttings or a plant in the early 1900s, on the site of the battle. This can only be explained by local people (or others) having planted 'Rosa Mundi' at some time on the site - in the same way that people have planted Rosa spinosissima on the battlefield within the last fifteen years or so. This may have happened after the Rev. Thomas Parkinson wrote his misleading account referring to the 'York and Lancaster Rose' in 1888 and may have been a genuine but misguided attempt to commemorate the battle by planting the cultivated red and white rose on the site. We know from Speight (1902) that local people sold plants of the Towton Rose. Sometimes, 'Rosa Mundi' may have been sold as the Towton Rose.
One story of particularly interesting pedigree regarding these 'faux' Towton Roses was kindly sent to me by former Yorkshire photojournalist Tom Montgomery. He had interviewed and photographed 74 year old Sam Hood of Aberford (about three miles from Towton) in June or July 1980:
"He was the former village butcher who had been Assistant Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1977/78. He was also a keen local historian. He had l6 of the rose bushes and had been given them by his father's cousin. They had been in his family for over a hundred years and had been moved several times. He believed they were the only ones left and was firmly convinced they were the 'Towton Rose'. They flowered freely for about a month at the end of June and the beginning of July. He said they would grow in other parts if cultivated properly. But a lot had been taken from the area when they were flowering without permission. As it was the wrong time to transplant they died perpetuating the myth they would only grow in the Towton area. Mr Hood said he had tried to re-establish them near the battlefield but people took the bushes. They had even stolen them from Saxton churchyard. Mr Hood believed that any Towton rose bushes in the area would have come from his stock"."He gave the Bishop of York, who preached at the 500th memorial service to the battle in 1961, two bushes. One went into the gardens of Bishopsthorpe Palace in York, I understand, and the other went with him when he became Archbishop of Canterbury shortly afterwards".
The Bishop of York in 1961 was Michael Ramsay. He became the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury in the same year.
The late Sam Hood's 'Towton Roses' (actually 'Rosa Mundi') [photographs by Tom Montgomery]
Tom Montgomery also interviewed a lady in Saxton about the Towton Rose:-
"In 1992 I was asked to do a piece on the Towton Rose by a paper and I spoke to Mrs Florence Middleton of, would you believe, Rose Cottage, Saxton. She had lived in the village for 67 years and said she had never seen the rose growing wild. But "a gentleman who had it in his garden used to bring me a bunch every summer. If I wasn't in he would tie them to the door handle. But he died a few years ago and I don't know where it can be seen now" she said".
Unfortunately, I do not know if Mrs Middleton had been given the true Towton Rose or 'Rosa Mundi'. When Tom Montgomery first contacted me, I had great hopes that a rose with this pedigree would turn out to be the true Towton Rose and it was a disappointment to find that it was 'Rosa Mundi' again when I received the photographs! However, I am very grateful for his permission to reproduce the photographs and for a delightful account of this chapter in the social history of these roses.
I am not giving up the quest and still hope that a plant of the true Towton Rose still survives somewhere – probably unrecognised.
Unfortunately, tidy gardeners taking over an old garden who did not like its spreading habit and did not know its significance, might well have grubbed it out.
In spite of everything that was written about The Towton Rose in the 19th century, I have not yet been able to trace a 19th or early 20th century illustration or herbarium specimen of the true Towton Rose. I have not exhausted all the possibilities however so there is still a good chance that an old watercolour, photograph or herbarium specimen may still come to light.
Please contact me if you think that you may have a plant of the true Towton Rose. Remember that it will be quite low growing (although, in a garden, it may grow larger than the foot high [30cm] it grew at Towton) with white five-petalled flowers about 2 inches (5cm) or less across, 'tinged' or 'marbled' with red, small leaves and dark purple or black heps in late summer - unlike the red heps of all other native roses. The stems would be covered with a mixture of narrow prickles and bristles – not broad-based prickles like other roses. Once you have seen Rosa spinosissima, you are likely to recognise it again. The rose planted at the base of the cross on the battlefield is not true Towton Rose but closer to native Rosa spinosissima than those planted in Saxton Churchyard. If you want to familiarise yourself with wild Rosa spinosissima, it can be seen on other sites in Yorkshire such as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Reserve at Burton Leonard (SE3262) where it grows abundantly and is described as "particularly aggressive" (Abbott, 2005).
Please also contact me if you know of the whereabouts of an original 19th or early 20th century painting, photograph or herbarium specimen of the true Towton Rose. Victorian or Edwardian ladies or gentlemen are likely to have drawn, painted or photographed it and such a picture may exist in an archive, museum, art gallery or private collection. I would like to be able to illustrate it in a future article and in my book Scots Roses, Rosa spinosissima and other Pimpinellifolias (due to be published by The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Royal Horticultural Society in 2012).
I have assembled the official National Collection of Scots Roses (about 300 forms) and I would like to be able to preserve living specimens of the true Towton Rose and propagate it so it can be made available for planting on appropriate approved sites in the Towton area and to individuals who would like to play a part in perpetuating it.
Abbott, P. P. 2005. Plant Atlas of Mid-West Yorkshire. Yorkshire Naturalists Union.
Baines, Henry. 1840. Flora of Yorkshire. Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. London.
Bogg, Edmund. 1904. The Old Kingdom of Elmet the land 'twixt Aire and Wharfe .
Boyd, P.D.A. 2010a. A Quest for 'The Towton Rose'. In The Towton Herald (the newsletter of the Towton Battlefield Society). Issue 51, pp. 6-8. Online version available
Grainge, William. 1854. The Battles and Battle Fields of Yorkshire from the earliest times to the end of The Great Civil War. York: Published by James Hunton; London: A. Hall & Co. p.76.
Hickes, Martin. 2010. Search for the Towton Rose stirs echoes of carnage The Yorkshire Post 14th June 2010 (including quotes by Peter Boyd, Peter Algar and others).
Hookham, Mary Ann. 1872. The Life and Times of Margaret of Anjou. Vol. II. p.122. Tinsley Brothers, London.
Houlder, E. 2004. The rose of the wars. Dalesman (September 2004). vol. 66 No. 6.
Lambert, Norman. 1931. The white rose and the red: memories of a famous fight. In Rose Annual 1931. The National Rose Society.
Leadman, A. D. H. 1891. Proelia Eboracensia: Battles Fought in Yorkshire, treated Historically and Topographically. Bradbury, Agnew and Co.
Lees, F. A. 1888. Flora of West Yorkshire. Lovell Reave & Co. London.
Lees, F. A. 1904. The Wild Flowers of Elmete. In Bogg (1904).
Parkinson, Rev. Thomas. 1888. Yorkshire Legends and Traditions. Elliott Stock. London. pp.189-193.
Perfect, William and John. 1777. William and John Perfect: A catalogue of forest-trees, fruit-trees, ever-green and flowering-shrubs, sold by William and John Perfect, nursery-men and seeds-men, in Pontefract, Yorkshire. 1777. York: Printed by C. Etherington.
Pickford, John. 1870. Towton Field. In Notes and Queries. Fourth Series. Vol. 6. pp.1-3. London.
Planché, J. R.. 1872. The Recollections and Reflections of J. R. Planché. vol. 2. Tinsley Brothers. London.
Ravensworth, The Earl of [Liddell, Henry Thomas]. 1859. The Field of Towton Moor. In Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 1859 Vol. LXXXV. January 1859. pp. 94-95. (American Edition Vol. XLVIII)
Ravensworth, The Earl of [Liddell, Henry Thomas]. 1877. Poems. Dodsworth. Newcastle-on-Tyne. pp. 90-91.
Speight, Harry. 1902. Lower Wharfedale: Being a complete account of the history, antiquities and scenery of the picturesque valley of the Wharfe. Elliot Stock. London.
Telford, John and George. 1775. John and George Telford: A catalogue of forest-trees, fruit-trees, ever-green and flowering-shrubs, sold by John and George Telford, nursery-men and seeds-men, in Tanner-Row, York. York: Printed by A. Ward, in Coney-Street.
Townsend, G. F. 1948. On the Battle of Towton or Palm Sunday Field. In Memoirs Illustrative of the Antiquities of the County and City of York communicated to the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland held at York, July, 1846, with a General Report of the Proceedings of the Meeting, and Catalogue of the Museum formed on that Occasion. The Archaeological Institute. London. pp. 12-17.
Wheater, W. 1884. Towton in the Past. In Smith, William. 1884. Old Yorkshire. Longmans, Green & Co. London. p.41-42.
Whellan, T. and Co. 1855. History and Topography of the City of York and The North Riding of Yorkshire. Vol. I. John Green. Beverley. p.161.
White, Walter. 1858. A Month in Yorkshire. Chapman and Hall. Piccadilly. p.3.
Wilkinson, Lady C. 1858. Weeds and Wild Flowers: their uses, legends, and literature. London: John van Voorst. pp. 218-220.
*I should be very grateful if you could contact me if you know of the whereabouts of an original 19th or early 20th century painting, photograph, herbarium specimen or living plant of the true Towton Rose*
Peter D. A. BoydEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org
See Peter Boyd's earlier article on The Towton Rose for The Towton Herald (newsletter of The Towton Battlefield Society) Summer 2010