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One summer’s morning of 1455, only two years after the end of the Hundred Years War and English expulsion from France, Richard Duke of York attacked Henry VI’s royal army at the fortified town of St Albans. A conflict was started that would only end thirty-two years later at the battle of Stoke. During that time warfare was characterized by bloody battles fought, mainly, between over-powerful noblemen and their retinues. The battles themselves were similar to those fought in France, yet aspects of warfare still evolved to suit the soldiers now fighting their own countrymen.
To a large extent the men who fought, and won battles in the last years of the Middle Ages were experienced professionals. This is because a system now known as ‘Bastard Feudalism’ was in use where instead of having a standing army, the king would call upon his nobles to bring their own troops to his aid in times of unrest or war. A typical lord’s troops were made up of the men of his household, his tenants and above all his retainers.
The men known as retainers came from many sorts of social background, ranging from the bourgeoisie to the knights and gentry. These men would sign a contract with their lord known as ‘livery and maintenance’ where military service was exchanged for a salary and the lord’s protection. The retainers in turn brought their own tenants and troops with them to join their lord. As such, single noblemen had vast numbers of soldiers at their call. At the peak of his power, the mighty Earl of Warwick could raise 20,000 retainers from all over the country.
England’s only official standing army was the garrison of Calais, but cut off by the channel, the contingent rarely came into play as the campaigns were generally too short. The same can be said for mercenaries, whose services were only required by factions launching invasions from abroad, as is the case of Edward IV in 1471, and Henry Tudor in 1485.
The one other source of manpower was through the royal commissions of array, which gave the bearer the right to assemble and arm men in the king’s (or a noblemen’s) name. The larger towns like York or Coventry frequently sent contingents of men – sometimes as many as 200 strong – to join needy armies. It is interesting to note though, that they didn’t always support the same side.
The Wars of the Roses commenced at a time when England had been at war with France for several decades. In the French wars the average troop ratio was three archers for every other foot soldier, back on English soil similar numbers must have been involved. The English practice of fighting on foot had not changed either. Cavalry charges against English soldiers had proved ineffective in France and it was a tactic only once essayed on home ground, at the battle of Blore Heath: there the attacking horsemen were beaten back by a barrage of arrows and their leader, Lord Audley killed.
Despite this, horses were used extensively in the campaigns as transport. Soldiers rode to the scene of the engagement so as to arrive fresh and save their strength for the battle ahead. For this reason poorer men would ride any horse available, ‘even packhorses’, wrote an Italian visitor in 1483.
In battle most of the nobles, including the army’s commander, made a point of fighting on foot, so as to share the same risks as the common foot soldiers. Many nobles started the battle on foot, then had their horses brought to the front later on. This gave them a good advantage over the enemy should he be routed, as horsemen were able to pursue and pick off men in flight at their ease. On the other hand should the battle turn against them the nobles were more likely to escape capture and death, by fleeing on horseback, than they would on foot slowed by their armour.
While movement was slightly restricted in full harness, men could do most everyday actions just as well with a bit of practice. Armour was heavy but as the weight was spread over the body, in particular the shoulders, it was not as encumbering as often believed. Medieval armour reached it’s peak in quality, during the Wars of the Roses, to the extent that men in full harness no longer needed shields and were free to wield two-handed swords, battle axes and the many pole arms on offer.
Although nobility and knights could afford harnesses, some however, chose to wear the similarly effective but substantially cheaper brigandines, favored by the men-at-arms. A brigandine consisted of a leather jacket, lined inside with strips of metal riveted together and offered good protection while staying affordable even to some of the lower classes.
‘The lower classes’ on the battlefield were the foot soldiers, mostly archers and bill-men. They nearly all had sallets, the most common helmet (as did the nobles) and padded jacks which were surprisingly good at cushioning a blow. What’s more their lightness enabled the bearer to flee very successfully in defeat.
As well of bills, foot soldiers might also fight with halberds, glaives and poleaxes. Besides these both archers and bill-men had a second weapon, usually in the form of a sword or dagger, sometimes accompanied by a small iron shield that could be hung on their belt.
The newest element of English armies was their often-substantial artillery trains. Cannon and bombards were used successfully in siege warfare at the time, bombarding Bamburg, and other impressive castles into submission during the early 1460s. On the other hand they played little or no part in the actual battles for diverse reasons; the slow clumsy artillery had trouble keeping up with armies moving distances of twenty or thirty miles a day.
Although they were used at Tewkesbury in 1471, it seems that many of the Lancastrian guns, lagging behind were captured, while at Barnet the cannons were fired blindly through the fog and did no damage. Guns were present at Towton as well, but not a shot was fired due to the weather.
The only real achievement in battle was at Losecote field, where after one volley from the royal guns the untrained rebels took flight and were routed.
England’s war winning weapon on the continent for the past century had of course been its archers, at home, however, they tended to cancel each other out. Most battles started with an archery duel, which never really lasted very long but generally weakened the opposing ranks. The Armies were split into three divisions known as ‘battles’ with the archers gathered at the front and the men-at-arms and common soldiers behind them. The commanders stood at the ‘battles’’ centre with their retinues of lords and knights.
When one side got the upper hand of the archery duel the other would drop its bows and advance to engage the enemy and put an end the slaughter. As they advanced the archers would fire their last arrows, before either retreating behind their army or joining the combat alongside their own bill-men. The battle itself would quickly degenerate into a bloody melee of fierce hand-to-hand fighting with little quarter, and could go for several hours before the winning side became apparent.
The longest and bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses was Towton, where the fighting started at 9 o’clock in the morning and went on seven or eight hours with the rout only ending the next day. Such was the extent of the slaughter there, at times the battle stopped, while participants removed the heaps of bodies so that the fighting could go on. Most battles were not so bloody, but heavy casualties were usual during the rout. On more that one occasion whole bridges perished under the weight of fleeing men, sending those crossing to their deaths. Frequently however, the worse casualty rates were amongst the nobility, and not the commoners; Philippe de Commynes states in his memoirs that ‘It is a custom in England that the victors kill…none of the ordinary soldiers’.
The fleeing commons were spared but pursuing soldiers were instead encouraged to seek out and kill the knights and lords. After victory, nearly ritual beheadings of leading noblemen took place. Paul Murray Kendall calculates the total number of dead during, and following the battles of 1455-1487 as ‘one Prince of Wales, nine dukes, one marquis, thirteen earls and twenty four barons’. This is not including the hundreds of knights and gentry slain. Several great families became extinct during the Wars of the Roses. Overall the population of England suffered very little during the wars, yet these same wars were the greatest calamity to hit the nobility since first formed under the Conqueror© wars-of-the-roses.com- all rights reserved