The Wars Of The Roses And The Death Of Chivalry
Further to my research for my poetry regarding the Wars of the Roses, I intended in this article, to look at how the notion chivalry was non-existent during this period and to dispel some of the ‘romantic’ mythology that surrounds the notion of chivalry.
When the word chivalry is mentioned most people think of Arthurian images of ‘Knight’s in shining armour’ rescuing fair maidens, of tournaments, jousts, and heraldic pomp and splendour. A group of special men following a code of honour to defend the Church, the weak, the oppressed and showing mercy on the battlefield. This romantic notion is of course wholly a Victorian vision more than a medieval one. The reality of course was far more brutal, the word chivalry is an abstraction; we can explain what it means in terms of the knight as the possessor of such qualities. The actual ideology and practice are not so easily pinned down. Medieval chivalry is full of inconstancies and contradictions, as we shall see.
First and foremost, we have to make the distinction between a knight and the idea of chivalry; a knight was a professional solider that replaced the older ‘citizen armies’ of antiquity, and in England appeared courtesy of the Norman invasion of 1066. The knight errant was an individual who could when required, equip himself with weapons and armour; mounted on a suitable horse, he could fight as a heavy cavalryman in a medieval army. Dubbed knight by king or immediate superior for services rendered in battle, he was usually, but not always of noble or aristocratic birth, since to be recognised as such required high financial expenditure. However, chivalry the code by which the knight fought and lived and its cultural influence are less easily described.
Sir John Hawkwood, the English mercenary knight of the White Company in service of the condottireo in Italy, was well aware what chivalry meant to him in the 1300s. At the gates of Montecchio in Italy he was met by two friars who greeted him with the usual “May God grant you peace” to which he replied “May God take from you your alms, you come to me and say that God should let me die of hunger. Don’t you know I live by war, and peace would destroy me?” what he was implying, was that for him chivalry was used as a cover to enable him to commit brutal acts in war. Which he did with aplomb at Cesena in 1377.
The codes and rules of chivalry primarily were used to permit controlled violence in an ever-increasing violent society. However on the battlefield these codes were being eroded. Chivalry was a code that regarded war as the hereditary profession of knights but by the fifteenth century major changes were at work in northern Europe, which would affect the knight’s role as a heavy cavalryman. Limiting rules derived from chivalric codes governing all aspects of warfare had been in place well before the Wars of the Roses began, and it was common in battle for important people to be captured and released for ransoms; anyone who could offer good compensation in return for mercy on the battlefield would be spared. The Wars of the Roses can be seen as putting the final nail in the coffin of the notion of chivalry on the battlefield, but it had been on the wane since the thirteenth century, and by the time of the 100 years war between England and France (1337-1453) it was in it’s death throes.
The battle of Crećy where a 16-year-old Edward the Black Prince would earn his spurs, was no chivalric battlefield. By 1346 the English had lost interest in chivalry as a military occupation. The English were massively out numbered, and the French had assumed that the knights on both sides would battle it out on horseback, and that the smaller English force would be overwhelmed, ransomed and go home ruined. But the English were playing by a new rulebook, when they arrived at the battlefield most of the knights dismounted ready to fight on foot. They were relying on the support of their non-noble longbow men. The English Longbow was not a noble weapon, and not wielded by rich young nobles, in the right hands it was to prove to be a weapon of mass destruction; The French and their allies charged with full pageantry in the first five minutes the English loosed more than 3,000 arrows, the flower of French and Genoese chivalry was cut down by archers on sixpence a day. The French Knights mercilessly rode down the survivors of their own ineffective crossbowmen soon after their Genoese allies had succumbed to the English arrow storm. Here the notion of chivalry can be seen as a means by which to avenge so-called cowardice, even though the French Knights were doomed to suffer a similar fate, annihilated by the English cloth-yard arrow. They lost 5,000 men the English a few hundred.
Archers had now shifted the balance of power on the battlefield; the repeated heavy losses of French heavy cavalry at Poitiers and Agincourt effectively marked the end of the heavily armoured mounted knight as an effective fighting force on the battlefield. During the Wars of the Roses properly placed massed archers were to prove overwhelmingly effective in diminishing the knight’s role even further, and especially at Towton 1461.
Warfare in the Wars of the Roses was an extremely personal matter, and the stakes were high, especially among the nobility and gentry, who generally suffered the most.
Casualties were extremely high amongst the knightly classes during the Wars of the Roses, especially compared to other English medieval campaigns. Chivalry was in effect a buffer to prevent this kind of aristocratic slaughter from happening. It seems however, that in the Wars of the Roses there was a great reluctance on both sides to capture knights and ransom them. Even Kings and Princes were killed without hesitation at battles such as Wakefield, Tewkesbury and Bosworth. Similarly, many prominent nobles were executed instead of being offered quarter and ransom as the laws of chivalry had previously dictated. Families repeatedly lost loved ones in feuds that were perpetuated for generations and were settled in battles that were specifically sought out by individuals for the express purpose of revenge. It is reasonable to conclude that during the most intense periods of fighting during the Wars of the Roses, factional opposition rendered the codes of chivalry and it’s merciful aspects virtually obsolete on the English battlefield. The tide of ‘unchivalrous’ behaviour began in 1455, in what was nothing more than a street fighting skirmish, but would become known as battle of St Albans and would persist throughout the conflict, the specifically targeted executions of certain nobles at the battle of St Albans was the cause. Amongst the relatively few casualties inflicted at St Albans in 1455 prominent nobles such as the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford had been killed during or after the battle by ambitious Yorkist lords aiming at furthering their own political supremacy and dominance. The Yorkists’ disregard for the codes of chivalry in favour of political necessity and family feuding effectively set the trend for all future confrontations. All the nobles killed at St Albans had sons who were intent on avenging their father’s deaths, and restoring family honour using a distorted image of chivalry to fulfil their private aims. The Sons of St Albans succeeded in brining down the head of the house of York at the battle of Wakefield five years later. Here, the young Lord Clifford took his revenge by murdering the Duke of York’s 17-year-old son in the rout after the battle on Wakefield Bridge; The Duke himself was killed in the battle; further retribution was levelled at the Earl of Salisbury who had been present at St Albans. Denied ransom by the Lancastrians, he was dragged from Pontefract Castle by a mob and beheaded like a common criminal. Then in a totally unchivalrous act the heads of all three were erected on the walls of Micklegate bar in York for all to see. Even before the battle the Lancastrians were intent on breaking a chivalrous truce in order to fulfil their unchivalrous ambitions. Even before Wakefield, at Blore Heath and Ludford Bridge the threatening aspects of attainder (treasonable acts against the crown) placed on the Yorkist Lords brought about new grievances. This new phase of the Wars of the Roses came to a head after the battle of Northampton when Richard Duke of York, staked his claim to the crown. In this view Edward, Duke of York’s victory at Mortimers Cross in February 1461 was immediately followed by the execution of Lancastrian captives at Hereford, notably Owen Tudor, in revenge for the deaths of Edwards father and Brother at Wakefield. Again at the second battle of St Albans later in the month blood feuding would play a role in the execution of more nobles.
A few weeks later on Palm Sunday 1461 at the battle of Towton the blood feuding would be exacerbated by the crucial dynastic issue, and reached a terrible climax which resulted in the deaths of Lord Clifford, Lord Neville, the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Darce, Lord Welles, and many others; the Earl of Devon was executed the next day, and another forty-two knights were executed or died after the battle. Those who had escaped the battle were later hunted down and killed, The Earl of Wiltshire was apprehended and beheaded, and Sir Ralph Percy was killed at Hedgely Moor. The Duke of Somerset, Lord Roos and other refugees from Towton were also executed after being captured at the battle of Hexham in 1464. So the Cycle got worse and the bloodlust destroyed any valid notion of chivalry. At Tewkesbury The Duke of Somerset was executed after the battle, the Prince of Wales fell victim to a Yorkist blade during the rout. Even the Church could no longer offer protection after a group of Lancastrians who sought sanctuary in nearby Tewkesbury Abbey were unchivalrously dragged out and executed on Edwards orders. Proving that fear of divine retribution was ineffective against this kind of bloodlust and political execution. Henry VI himself was put to death in the Tower of London in 1471. Where was the code of chivalry in all this slaughter?
Alternatively, all these deaths may be seen as paying the price for treasonable actions against the Kings of England during this period and therefore not subject to the knightly code of honour at all. This is in part true but does not explain the role of chivalry in the Wars of the Roses, and whether it actually existed in some distorted form. Perhaps the answer lays in the knight’s perception of chivalry when they dismounted and fought on foot, and the weapons ranged against them, also in their perception of the civil war, and resulting breakdown of law and order in the country and the influence of bastard feudalism. The advent of artillery on the battlefield completely destroyed both the knights’ and literary philosophers’ ideas of chivalry, because the mounted knight was no longer the master of ‘shock tactics’ on the battlefield. Indeed in the War of the Roses the footman played a more dominant role than had previously been seen in the Middle Ages. It must also be stressed that there was a fine line between the political and chivalrous. Individual motives, and acts of treachery by individuals and whole contingents of soldiers was one of the worse aspects of the Wars of the Roses chivalry could not survive on the battlefield against such a back ground of instability.
Did a distorted form/notion of chivalry exist during The Wars of the Roses? For example, Sir Ralph Grey for reasons best known to himself, but probably a political pact with the opposing side at the battle of Northampton in 1460 committed an act of treachery and fought for the other side until he was finally caught after the battle of Bambrugh Castle in 1464. Where now at the mercy of Edward IV was subject to a ritual humiliation he had his spurs stricken off by the hard heel by the master cook…and had his coat of arms stripped from his body and made to wear them back to front until his execution. The fact that Grey’s honour was taken from him in this way showed that maybe a distorted version of chivalry existed during the Wars of the Roses but was regarded more of an ideal than a practical mode of behaviour. Chivalry was, nevertheless, in its darker aspect nothing more than an excuse to commit cold-blooded murder and, in the Wars of the Roses at least offered a chance to execute political opponents at will; therefore represents a completely different concept to the generally accepted notion of the perfect knight.
Orders of Medieval Chivalry, such as the Order of the Bath, Order of the Garter, and Order of the Golden Fleece acted as a cover for the slaughter, pillage and destruction that could, and did occur in warfare. Formalised with oaths, vows, vigils and exchanges of heraldic tokens between princes and kings, the hereditary right to kill was maintained in glory and honour as an example of how the knight should behave and thereby achieve great personal renown. The dangers of the code of chivalry actually helped produce a retrograde effect in warfare, whereby plunder and looting had become a direct product of a knight’s career. Hence it was possible for him to become a mercenary in his own land if he wished and an enemy to his own people. By the mid-fifteenth century much that had been typical of chivalry had lost it’s significance. As can be seen amongst the high numbers of casualties amongst the aristocracy during the Wars of the Roses who were not shown and did not expect, any mercy on the battlefield. Such indiscriminate slaughter was the result of blood feuds, civil war and factionalism and was bound to help the demise of chivalry in England.
It seems that the knight’s disregard for his opposite number on the battlefield proves that no code of chivalry was followed or even existed during the Wars of the Roses. It could also be surmised that ‘true ’ chivalry was destroyed in England at the first battle of St Albans in 1455 and that the Wars of the Roses saw the death of chivalry as an effective code of honour. So it would remain until the Victorians and Romantic poets reinvented these codes of honour and dressed them up in the courtly romances of the Arthurian legends detracting from chivalry’s true and bloody purpose.