A NEW TWIST IN THE SEARCH FOR THE GHOSTLY TOWTON ROSE
In a curious hybrid twist of history and botany, the search is on this summer for living proof of one of the county’s most potent symbols.
Most Yorkshire folk have heard of the infamous Battle of Towton – the bloodiest battle in Britain’s fractured history.
But for years, the search has been on for the elusive and delicate Towton Rose – a curious yet hallowed bloom which, through a quirk of, perhaps more than just romantic happenstance - reputedly flowers only on the spot where thousands fell on Palm Sunday 1461.
Even more spookily, the bloom, a subject of poetry and mythic folklore since those times - exhibits red and white petals, exactly mirroring the emblems of the famous feudal combatants from the days of the Houses of York and Lancaster, and later immortalised by the heraldic symbol of the Tudor Rose.
For years the flower - now believed to be extinct - has only existed in handed-down historical reports, in legend and poetic verse – and circumstantial reports of sightings in or close to the ‘Bloody Meadow’ and hedgerows of famous Towton’s battleground.
This summer, a group of devotees from Yorkshire will be scouring the famous battle site not far from York in the hope of spying the elusive bloom.
Curator Peter Boyd, from Shropshire, an expert on wild and cultivated forms of the Scots Rose, asked for the help of historians and others in Yorkshire to search for surviving examples of the rose both on the original site or in people’s gardens to allow it to be sampled for DNA analysis.
“The rose was identified in the 19th century as a form of the native Scots Rose (Rosa spinosissima), also known as the Burnet Rose. There is no doubt that it DID exist but it is said that it has not been seen for over 70 years.”
Leeds businessman Peter Algar, from Horsforth, author of The Shepherd Lord, set during the aftermath of Towton, and a keen Towton Battefield enthusiast says:
“I think there will be a concerted effort by many this summer, as we approach the 550th anniversary of the battle, to seek out the truth behind the history of the elusive Towton Rose – and maybe – just maybe – find a surviving specimen. We have had a lot of publicity on Towton this year following on from some really professional and gripping TV and radio programmes on the subject, therefore we were delighted but not entirely surprised to be contacted about the Towton Rose.
“At Towton, which turned into a disaster for the Lancastrians, some of the worst slaughter was seen at Bloody Meadow, where it is said Lancastrians crossed the River Cock, which reputedly ran red with blood, over the bodies of the fallen.
“The rout lasted all night and into the morning, when remnants of the Lancastrian army stumbled into York in total panic.
“Historians often speak of a wall of piled dead building up in fields around the so-called ‘Bloody Meadow’, while those that did manage to escape the swollen Cock Beck – weighed down with armour and through exhaustion – were killed trying to ford the River Wharfe at Tadcaster.
“The battle took place in a snow shower, and in the aftermath of the carnage, in solid fields, there was little time or ease with which to dig deep graves.
“Bones and artifacts still rise from such today among the slightly un-nerving vista of the fields around Towton.
“As a result, thousands were buried in shallow graves, and it is upon such graves that the Towton Rose is said to have flourished.
“I’ve already started the search for the Rose which is curious in that, according to various literature, it cannot be successfully transplanted from the soil where it was, in legend, ‘enriched’ by the fallen.
“There are quite a few roses which are coming into bloom in the hedgerows and ditches of Towton – and on the fringe of the Bloody Meadow. I’m hoping one of these might just prove to be the Towton Rose – but that’s where our colleagues and botanical experts come in.
“The last recorded sighting of the rose was in the 1940’s. In 1969, a 79 year old farmer, Mr. Albert Bailey stated:
“’But we were plagued with battle roses. They were small wild roses, red and white, and they grew all over the battle ground. 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 1995, in an effort to recreate a white rose, tinged with red, Towton Battlefield Society member Peter Hetherington transplanted cultivated specimens of Rosa spinosissima around the battlefield but they did not flourish.
Peter Algar adds: “Whatever the truth, I’m sure the quest to find a surviving plant will go on for a long time. As an author specialising in the period, it certainly captured my imagination and I’m sure will do for many others in Yorkshire.”
Mr Boyd says:
“The Towton Rose is supposed to be a variant of Rosa spinosissima (old name Rosa pimpinellifolia). This species flowers in late May or June depending on the latitude and altitude. If it still exists, it will be flowering about now at Towton or in someone’s garden”.
“It is possible that the colour in the Towton Rose is due to some genes from the Dog Rose Rosa canina or another native species but this is part of the mystery that would be solved by DNA analysis”.
“I have found several references to the white and red Scots Roses which grew on the site of the battle – including an 1859 account which says:
“‘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. Who would wish to disturb or disprove so touching, beautiful, and poetical legend ?’”
Mr Boyd adds: “It is worth pointing out to people looking for it today that many forms of Rosa spinosissima only grow two or three feet high and may even be only be a few inches high where they are nibbled by rabbits.
“They sucker to form low mounds of growth. The British forms do not usually form large bushes like the Dog Rose. Therefore, one should probably not be looking for large bushes! They have small leaves and stems with mixture of prickles and bristles. They have characteristic black heps after flowering – unlike any other native British rose which has red ones”.
“It would be great to be able to find an original plant, not only for its scientific interest but also to be able to propagate it properly and secure its future on the site (if the farmer agreed) or in cultivation”.
Mr Boyd urged against planting Rosa spinosissima from nurseries on the site because most plants of this species obtained from nurseries (it is commonly sold for hedging) are larger growing European or Asiatic variants.
“They would not have the right character and would contaminate the genetic makeup of any native population in the area.
“Forms of Rosa spinosissima with red markings on the otherwise white petals have been recorded from various places in Britain for over 400 years so that the Towton case is not unique - it is probably merely coincidence that it occurred on the site of a bloody battle – but it is a compelling story!”
But for those of poetic sensibility, as the ghosts of Towton look on, many are hoping the most beguiling of Yorkshire symbols will one day flower again, a little like the Flanders poppy, from the heart of the bloodiest, ancient battlefield.
A poem was written about this phenomenon by Edmund Bogg in 1902.
“Oh, the red and 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 the 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 red,
And filled each thirsty furrow with its token of the sorrow
That 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 portal
That gives to life immortal these emblems of the fight.
“And as if they were enchanted, not a flower may be transplanted
From those fatal precincts haunted by the spirits of the slain
For howe’er the root you cherish, it shall fade away and perish,
When removed beyond the marish of Towton’s gory plain.”