'Look – a molehill!" After scouring a Yorkshire field for the best part of an hour, director Nick Bagnall has found what he's been looking for.
We contemplate the small mound of earth. "It gives me goosebumps just looking at it," Bagnall says.
We are standing at the site of the Battle of Towton, a dozen miles from York, where the bloodiest encounter of the Wars of the Roses was fought. It features in a famous scene from Shakespeare's Henry VI Part Three, in which the king sits on a molehill and witnesses the lament of a father who has killed his son, and a son who has killed his father.
Bagnall is scoping out the spot ahead of a Shakespeare's Globe theatre production that will stage the bard's history plays on the actual battlefields where they are set. Some locations, such as Towton and Tewkesbury, are already famous. Others, like the battles of St Albans and Barnet, are more obscure. "The battle of Barnet happened in thick fog, so scholars aren't sure exactly where the fighting took place," admits Bagnall. "But it remains the only English battlefield you can get to by tube."
Bagnall has edited the three parts of Henry VI into a series of two-hour dramas, each of which can be seen independently and will tour the country before a run at the Globe in London. But it is the battlefield days, in which all three plays will be presented in order, that are the biggest challenge. "We have to cover 49 years of history in six hours," he says.
All that remains is to pray for snow. The battle of Towton was fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, when an unseasonal snowstorm meant the Lancastrian forces were blinded by flurries that made their arrows fall short. "For any big, open-air project you hope the weather will be good," Bagnall says. "But here you have to imagine these huge, hooligan armies fighting through driving sleet with everyone slipping in blood and slush."
We meet the production's historical advisor, Julian Humphrys from the Battlefields Trust, who explains the physical toll of medieval combat – and the impracticalities of armour. "Owning a suit of armour would have been like having a Ferrari," he says. "But it would have been hot as hell – there was more danger of dying from heart failure than the enemy's arrows."
"I'm finding it hard to get my head around all this," admits Bagnall. "The closest equivalent I can muster was seeing the Stone Roses reunion in Manchester – you could sense what might happen if 40,000 blokes were in a field and things turn nasty."
By contrast, he has to recreate the Wars of the Roses with just 14 actors. "For the biggest battles, the most we can manage is seven-a-side," he says. "But we'll use replicas of real medieval weapons. It's amazing how the atmosphere in a rehearsal room freezes when someone picks up a mace."
The number killed over Towton's 10-hour duration is open to dispute. Shakespeare's source, the medieval chronicler Edward Hall, arrived at the suspiciously precise figure of 36,776 – though Humphrys suggests the figure was closer to 3,000 dead. "What isn't in dispute is that it would have been the greatest number killed on English soil in a single day," says Humphrys. "Imagine if each of the sheep we can see now were a mutilated body." There are a lot of sheep.
Some harrowing war crimes on Towton were also uncovered recently. An archaeological investigation by the University of Bradford in the 1990s revealed a mass grave full of bodies with single head-wounds. Their injuries suggest they had each been executed with their hands tied. Bagnall contemplates an information panel with a picture of excavated skulls smashed like eggshells. "Edward IV gave the order to show the enemy no mercy," he says. "This is a horrible image of what that actually meant."
Our final stop is the most macabre of all – a river crossing called the Bridge of Bodies. Today, the site bordering the battlefield is a charming woodland rivulet. But Humphrys explains that at the battle itself, melting snow transformed it into a torrent that cut off the Lancastrian retreat. The bridge gave way, and fleeing soldiers forded the river by trampling over corpses.
For Bagnall, this is almost too much to absorb. "The Wars of the Roses were so brutal it's impossible to comprehend, let alone represent on stage," he says. He looks across at the grassy slope where his performance will take place. "Coming here makes me feel that the ghosts will be watching."
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