Nature of Battles and Armies in the Wars of the Roses

June 10, 2009 0 Comments

Although involving the deployment of ARCHERS and ARTILLERY, most battles during the WARS OF THE ROSES were relatively brief hand-to-hand mêlées fought by bodies of armored foot soldiers.


Because the wars were civil conflicts, with Englishmen fighting Englishmen, neither side possessed any great technical advantage. Both armies had the same components and WEAPONRY, usually an artillery contingent, complements of archers and cavalry, and a core of similarly equipped footmen. Battles usually opened with an exchange of bow and gun fire, but neither weapon had much effect on the fighting once hand-to-hand combat was joined. The great English victories of the HUNDRED YEARS WAR, in which ranks of longbowmen had decimated enemy cavalry charges, had taught armored cavalry to fight on foot as heavy infantry wielding swords, battle- axes, maces (heavy, spiked staffs or clubs), or flails (a mace with a spiked ball attached to it by a chain). These latter weapons were devised to counter fluted ARMOR, which could deflect sword or arrow but might be crushed by the impact of mace or flail. Unlike the Battles of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), English victories in FRANCE that were won by the army on the defensive, most Wars of the Roses battles were won by the attacking force-the impact of the charge giving the attackers an advantage at the clash of battle lines.


Because armor was heavy, and a fighting man encased within it quickly grew hot and weary, few battles continued more than a few hours-the momentous Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD in 1485 may have lasted little more than one hour. The Battle of TOWTON, fought throughout the length of a March day in 1461, was altogether exceptional in its duration. Because most cavalry fought on foot, the longbow was not a decisive weapon in civil war battles. After discharging a series of opening volleys to draw the enemy from his position, the lightly armored archers were at a severe disadvantage against heavily armored infantry. Battles were decided by the experience and morale of the infantry, who slugged it out with one another until one side gained an advantage. Thus, the heart of any army consisted of the retinues of the PEERAGE and GENTRY, men better trained and equipped in arms than the local levies of peasants and townsmen who comprised the bulk of most civil war forces. The RETAINERS of a lord or gentleman tended to be more disciplined and steadier in battle, less likely to break and run when heavily engaged. For instance, at the Battle of TEWKESBURY in 1471, EDWARD IV may have been victorious because he had a higher proportion of nobility and their retainers in his army than the Lancastrians, who were relying on hastily recruited shire and town levies from the West Country.


In terms of morale, a final factor in the outcome of civil war battles was the quality of leadership. Commanders were expected to lead their armies into combat and to inspire their men with their own deeds of valor. In this regard, the Yorkists had a distinct advantage, for Edward IV was a skilled and confident soldier and leader, while HENRY VI never led an army into battle. Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, was also an inspiring commander, whose leadership greatly benefited the house of YORK in the early stages of the wars, and the house of LANCASTER during the READEPTION of 1470-1471.


Further Reading: Boardman, Andrew W., The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1998); Haigh, Philip A., The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1995); Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987).


Supplying of Armies


Supplying a fifteenth-century army with food, clothing, and other necessary items was a difficult task that often limited the size of the force, affected its mobility, and influenced the strategy of its leaders. Three different methods were employed, usually in combination, to supply WARS OF THE ROSES armies-the troops carried their own supplies, purchased supplies from merchants accompanying the army, or lived off the land.


Records for the armies EDWARD IV raised in the early 1480s to invade SCOTLAND indicate that huge quantities of mutton, bacon, beef (on the hoof), fish, grain, beans, and salt were collected at Newcastle, the army's base. Large numbers of carts and horses were gathered to carry the food and such cooking supplies as kettles, ladles, and dishes, as well as such other necessary tools and equipment as axes, shovels, and sickles. Although most civil war armies were half or less the size of the 20,000- man force that Richard, duke of Gloucester (see RICHARD III), led northward in 1482, they still required lengthy wagon trains even to carry only a few days' worth of supplies. Thus, even for brief campaigns-and most during the Wars of the Roses lasted for only days or weeks-troops quickly exhausted their food reserve and had to turn for supplies to merchants following the army or to foraging in their area of operations. Merchants and their vital supply trains could limit movement, especially when their numbers were added to the already large number of noncombatants who accompanied an army-servants (male and female), fletchers, carpenters, grooms, physicians, chaplains, cooks and bakers, and general laborers. The presence of merchants also required that a troop of soldiers-a contemporary military manual suggests no less than 400-be deployed to protect them and their wares.


In a civil war, the practice of living off the country posed serious political risks. Taking supplies from the people of the countryside, even upon promise of payment, could easily degenerate into looting and turn friendly or neutral towns or regions into hostile territories disposed to favor the other side. The plundering that characterized the southward march of MARGARET OF ANJOU's army in 1461 cost the Lancastrians much support in LONDON and southern England and gave a boost to Yorkist PROPAGANDA. Because only London, with perhaps 40,000 inhabitants, was larger than an army of 10,000, living off the land also limited movement into sparsely populated areas and encouraged operations near a larger town or in a richer agricultural area. Speed of movement was also affected by the problem of supply. In March 1470, Edward IV marched quickly northward to quell the uprisings instigated by Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick. However, before engaging the rebels, Edward had to spend four days in York collecting supplies; the food his troops carried with them had been exhausted on the march, and Warwick's men, through their own foraging, had exhausted the supplies available in the countryside. The problem of supplying a large army in the field may have been the main reason civil war commanders tended to seek rather than avoid battle, so as to quickly end campaigns and disband armies.



Further Reading: Boardman, Andrew W., The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1998); Gillingham, John, The Wars of the Roses (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); Goodman, Anthony, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Dorset Press, 1981); Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987).



Size of Armies


Aside from the fantastically large estimates of contemporary chroniclers and commentators, little evidence survives to support the realistic calculation of the size of WARS OF THE ROSES armies. However, the pay records for English armies sent to FRANCE in the fifteenth century are more plentiful and do permit historians to make educated guesses as to the sizes of most civil war forces.


English claims for the numbers engaged were disbelieved even in the fifteenth century. In 1461, the Milanese ambassador in BURGUNDY confessed to his master, Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, that he was ashamed to speak of the huge numbers of men (about 300,000) who were reported to have participated in the recent campaign and Battle of ST. ALBANS. Such numbers, observed the ambassador, resembled "the figures of bakers" (Gillingham, p. 43). For the Battle of TOWTON in March 1461, the bishop of Salisbury, writing one week after the battle, and the LONDON merchant who likely wrote Gregory's Chronicle (see LONDON CHRONICLES) both claimed that EDWARD IV's army numbered 200,000. Because all accounts of Towton agree that the Lancastrian force was larger than Edward's, accepting the chronicle figures means accepting that almost a half million men fought at Towton. For these numbers to be accurate, almost every adult fighting man in mid-fifteenth-century England-perhaps 600,000 out of an estimated total population of less than 3 million-must have been present at the battle. Given the size and extent of contemporary problems of supply and transport, such figures are clearly incredible.


Although few such documents exist for Wars of the Roses armies, the surviving pay records of various other fifteenth-century military forces allow for more believable size estimates. For instance, the accounts of the Exchequer, the ancient royal financial office, show that Edward IV transported 11,500 fighting men to France in 1475. In 1415, when Henry V crossed the Channel to launch the Agincourt campaign, he took with him an army of about 9,000. The largest English army of the century was the force of 20,000 men with which Richard, duke of Gloucester, invaded SCOTLAND in 1482. Because no English king or commander had the full military resources of the realm at his disposal during the civil wars, the armies of the Wars of the Roses are unlikely to have exceeded the 1482 force in size. A reasonable estimate is that the largest armies at the largest battles, such as the Battles of St. Albans (1461), BARNET, and TEWKESBURY, did not number more than 10,000 to 15,000 men. At most other battles, and especially later in the wars, when enthusiasm for actively taking sides waned among the PEERAGE and GENTRY, the armies may have been half or less this size. The one possible exception is the Battle of Towton, for which exact figures are elusive, but which clearly was the largest, longest, and bloodiest battle of the conflict.


One possible way to explain chronicle figures is to make a distinction between fighting men and the large numbers of noncombatants who supported them. Besides its ARCHERS and MEN-AT-ARMS, a fifteenth-century army might include chaplains, grooms, bakers, carpenters, physicians, fletchers, and servants and hangers-on (both male and female) of all kinds. If such noncombatants were counted as part of the army, an actual fighting force of 10,000 could be a much larger aggregation of human beings. The counting of noncombatants may explain why, for instance, the force with which Edward IV left Burgundy in March 1471 was given as 2,000 in the HISTORY OF THE ARRIVAL OF EDWARD IV, the official Yorkist account of the invasion, but was recorded as 1,200 in Jean de Waurin's RECUEIL DES CRONIQUES ET ANCHIENNES ISTORIES DE LA GRANT BRETAIGNE.


Further Reading: Boardman, Andrew W., The Medieval Soldier in the Wars of the Roses (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1998); Gillingham, John, The Wars of the Roses (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); Goodman, Anthony, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Dorset Press, 1981); Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987).

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