LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Archaeologists believe they have found evidence of the first use of firearms on a British battlefield after fragments of shattered guns were unearthed on a site that saw one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil.
The bronze barrel fragments and a very early lead shot were discovered by a metal detectorist working closely with a team that has been trying to unlock the secrets of the 1461 battle of Towton, in Yorkshire, northern England.
The battle, fought over the throne between Lancastrian King Henry VI and England's first Yorkist king, Edward IV during the Wars of the Roses, has gone down in history as the bloodiest ever fought on the island.
Lead project archaeologist Tim Sutherland, who has been working on the site since 1996, said it was a hugely exciting discovery, marking the beginning of the end of the use of archery and ushering in the start of modern warfare.
"As far as we know there are no parallels for any such finds, on certainly a British Medieval battlefield, but probably a European one as well," Sutherland, who is a visiting lecturer at the University of York and a firearms expert, told Reuters.
He said historical records suggest cannon-like guns were used at Towton, but no one has been able to find any evidence of it until now.
Laboratory analysis of the barrel fragments prove they belonged to two different guns. The results confirm Sutherland's view that the crudely cast guns, likely needing a pole for support when fired, exploded because of the cold as the battle raged during a snowstorm.
The discovery of a lead ball with an iron core is also highly significant, being the earliest composite lead bullet known in Europe, he said.
Sutherland may yet rewrite the battle's entire history as it gradually yields more of its secrets.
Accepted accounts say the 10-hour clash fought in a blizzard between the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies ended with the slaughter of 28,000 men -- the bloodiest ever fought on English soil.
But Sutherland believes the figure is a gross exaggeration -- a myth perpetuated by the Yorkist king for political ends.
"It's up there, but it's not the biggest. Marston Moor (fought during the English Civil War nearly 200 years later) is almost certainly the biggest," said Sutherland, who also believes the battle incorporated three separate chaotic engagements not one.
Mass graves of soldiers found in 1996 and recently in the center of the battlefield suggest only three or four thousand died, he said.
But Sutherland is nevertheless unequivocal when it comes to the battle changing the course of English history.
"Everybody has heard of King Richard III and if it hadn't been for Towton, won by his brother who died early, he would not have taken the throne," he said.
King Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth some 20 years later ending the Yorkist line and heralding the start of the Tudor dynasty.
Editing by Steve Addison