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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 27: The Nature of the English


There were a number of contemporary writers, both English and foreign, during the 15th-century, and in attempting a brief overview, it is only necessary to consider what the more objective had to say. There are the views of Froissart (although he mostly wrote in the 14th-century), Philip de Commynges, a Burgundian nobleman employed in diplomacy by the French and Burgundian Courts throughout the period of the Wars of the Roses, George Chastellain, the French scribe who wrote a history of the times at the behest of Philip-the-Good, an anonymous Venetian visitor who travelled in England in the 1490s, and Domenico Mancini of Rome who visited England between May and June 1483, and was thus present during the time of King Richard III's coup. There was also a party of Bohemian travellers, Leo von Rotzmital and his companions Schasek, Gabriel and Tetzel who visited England during 1466.

The Venetian thought the English to be a most handsome race who made a virtue of being polite to one another. He was greatly impressed by how civilly they addressed each other with their hats doffed as a sign of mutual respect. Yet he felt they did not really trust each other, and their suspicion of foreigners was obvious. Mancini remarked on their very powerful physiques, with bodies stronger than those of other nations and with hands and arms seemingly made of iron. The Venetian remarked that they never appeared to be in love. In the fiery Italianate sense, where hearts were openly worn on sleeves, this was perhaps true. What he failed to realise was that the English, as frequently and as joyously as anyone else, broke the Seventh Commandment with the gayest of abandon. [Thou shalt not commit adultery] This was however always in private, and open boasting of one's achievements was not always welcome. The English ladies were noted as being very forward. A greeting or a farewell were not complete with a mere handshake; a kiss was required, frequently far more intimate than was normal between a man and a woman who were not married to each other.

The Venetian went on to say:-

"The population of this land does not appear to me to bear any relation to her fertility or riches."

This is a singularly cryptic comment, which seems to mean that the population was so small that it could not exploit the obvious riches of the land. If this is what our Venetian visitor meant, then there must have been much truth in his observation. There are no reliable figures for the population in 15th-century England, and there had been no systematic census since the Doomsday Book nearly four centuries before. The best opinion holds that the population, which was still recovering from the ravages of the Black Death in 1348, when somewhere between a third and a half of the people had died, was approximately 3 million souls in the 15th-century. Yet the Venetian found evidence of wealth among the people. Innkeepers serving their guests frequently put silver cups, goblets and forks on the table. Monasteries and Priories, nominally devoted to poverty, lived and dined in such splendour that the stranger could be excused if he thought that he had wandered into some baronial hall. An English writer, Sir John Fortescue, the eminent jurist and one-time Chief Justice, remarked how well the English lived, being rich in gold, silver and all the necessities and conveniences of life. They did not drink water unless ordered to do so by the priest as a penance; presumably they slaked their thirst with a form of light ale which was commonly drunk by high and low alike. They had a great abundance of meat and fish of all kinds, and a reference to the Franklin, one of Chaucer's companions on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, shows what people commonly put on their tables and the trouble they took to provide it. They had ample woollen clothes and bedding with all the necessary household furnishings; in fact everyone, according to his rank, had all the things which made life easy and happy. Fortescue, who seems to have been an idealist rather than a realist, may have been exaggerating, but what he said was probably true of the great majority. [Commendation of the Laws of England - Chapter XXXVI]

Well as the English treated their bellies, they were, according to our standards, content to live in squalor. Soap of a coarse variety was, according to the Paston Letters, plentiful and cheap, and for the fastidious, soap of a superior quality was imported from France, although this was expensive. Clothes were certainly washed and in 1467, the housewives of Leicester were forbidden to wash them at the common wells because this would pollute them. [Records of the Borough of Leicester ed M. Bateson 11 291/4] Washing of the person was not an universal practice, and were it was undertaken at all, it was not a consistent one either. A host might offer a guest who had ridden from afar under a warm sun a hot bath, supplied by relays of servants with buckets, but the purpose seems to have been the relief of tired limbs and aching joints rather than cleanliness. There are references to the hot baths enjoyed by King Edward 1V and the duty of his Chamberlain, William Lord Hastings to arrange them, but it would not appear to have been a routine or daily event. It would be reasonable to suppose that most of the nobility and the gentry followed this custom, spasmodically perhaps, whilst the common people seldom washed them-selves, however much care they took of their clothes. The modern necessity for personal hygiene was not understood, and it is scarcely surprising if many people, by failing to cleanse their skins of their natural excretions and the external dirt which they attracted, should have suffered from skin complaints, sometimes of a revolting, and often of a permanent, nature. Such unsightly complaints were generally classed as leprosy, although whether this was always correct is open to question. [See pages where the disease which afflicted King Henry 1V is described] Leprosy, a disease caused by dirt and filthy conditions, did exist in England and was greatly feared, even if not all those named as lepers really deserved this title. Those called leper were not encouraged to join gatherings of the healthy. They could attend church services but had to be segregated. Often this meant that they had to remain outside, and the 'leper holes, 'where the priest would place the bread and wine, can still be seen in many parish churches today. The Proclamation of the City of London dated 28th April 1472 forbade lepers from entering the City Gates under pain of losing their horses or if on foot, their cloaks.

As with the people so it was with their houses. The nobles lived in castles and mansions of stone, whilst everyone else lived in houses built of timber and plaster on wattle. Picturesque the houses certainly were, and a town of half-timbered houses, with their thatch or tile roofs was, and still is, a thing of beauty. Pleasing as they were to the eye, and in the 15th-century beauty lay in the eye of the beholder as much as it does today, they had little to commend them from the point of view of cleanliness and health. There was no main drainage, and the household waste was simply thrown onto the cobbled street. The towns and the Cities had broad and wide main thoroughfares, but in their side-streets, the houses were built with their jutting upper stories so close together that they almost met their neighbours on the opposite side. This inhibited the circulation of the cleansing air and the removal of many unwholesome odours.

The noisome privies, both in the mansions of the well-off and the homes of the more humble, frequently performed a most useful service apart from the most obvious; clothes were hung there, as the stench would drive away the moths. The ground floor was usually covered with rushes, changed periodically as the tolerance of the household required. The houses were infested with rats and mice, and they carried disease, notably the Plague. Above all, the houses were tinder-boxes. Fires were frequent and were extinguished only with the utmost difficulty.

The City Fathers did their best, and their ordinances are a reflection on the life-style that people thought was proper. The Leicester Ordinances of 1467 [page ] are probably typical of many towns. Those that had "muk and swepynges and other fylthes" must hire a cart to take them away; if left on the street for more than three days, the Householder could be imprisoned by the Mayor. The City of London had similar ordinances to deal with "any dung rubbous....other noysant thing in the opyn stretes". Pigs were to be kept confined until the time came to drive the common herd out to the fields; they must not be allowed to roam at will and enter people's houses as the fancy took them. Likewise ducks were not to be left unattended to go where they would.

Much of the countryside comprised a wilderness of moorlands, heath or forests of a haunting beauty of their own. England was a very beautiful country which was pleasing to the eye. But there were many deserted villages which had not been re-populated since the disaster of the Black Death. Where the land was cultivated, the Bohemian travellers noted with approval that this was done with great care and diligence. Hedges were laid, ditches were dug, and access to cultivated property was restricted to a few entrances. Care and order prevailed so far as the land was concerned. The countryside was dotted with prosperous and well run farmsteads whose produce was well able to support the small population. The manors and country houses of the gentry were few and far between, but when encountered the traveller found imposing castles, mansions or granges which were often fortified and guarded by a moat. The cities were impressive and wealthy, and the capital city was one of the foremost cities in Christendom. [A description of London, and its people, as seen by Queen Margaret in 1445 will be found on page ]

Chastellain remarked that it was fashionable to be 'melancholy', a mood described by Shakespeare in many of his plays. A typical Englishman thus described himself:-

"I am a man of sadness, born in an eclipse of darkness amid fogs of lamentation"

This may have been a light-hearted gibe at the weather, and it does not necessarily mean that people were unhappy. But momento mori were common and were greatly valued. Perhaps it is not surprising that the fleeting quality of 15th-century life should occupy people's thoughts to such a degree that melancholy became a fashionable fad. Banditry, highwaymen, armed robbery, murder and house-breaking had always been commonplace in England, and the risk of violent death at the hands of a criminal was always a high one. More especially, there was a multitude of diseases which were beyond the cures of the primitive medicine of the time. Some of these diseases killed quickly and in great numbers. Cholera was endemic to England, and remained so until the mid 19th-century. The Plague, both bubonic and pneumonic, was a frequent visitor, and a patient could die within two hours of the initial infection. This disease was at its most common during the warm summer months, and Warkworth records that during the hot summer of 1473, both men and women dropped suddenly in the fields during harvest time, never to rise again. [Chronicle pp23] During a particularly virulent outbreak in 1471, Sir John Paston wrote anxiously enquiring after the family's friends in Norwich, adding that no town in the land seemed free of the infection. [Paston Letters III pp 14/15] There were some people who did recover from the Plague, but this was rare. Typhoid, Typhus, Tuberculosis and Smallpox added their ravages and carried off many. Now there was the added proportion of defeat in France and fighting at home which in themselves had a depressing effect upon people's spirits.

The English did much to brighten their lives and to banish the ever persistent grey of their weather. Medieval ceremony and pageantry was a riot of colour, and the Court gave a lead which others were expected to follow; this they did, and many of the homes of the Great Magnates and lesser nobility could be said to be miniature Courts in themselves.

Both King Edward IV and King Richard III had had contact with foreign Courts, particularly when they were in exile in Flanders during 1470 and 1471, and the splendour of the Burgundian Court had amazed them. Whilst there was no softening in the boyhood training in the martial arts -

nobles and courtiers were still expected to be thoroughly proficient in skill-at-arms - there was now much greater emphasis than ever before on the more civilised virtues.

Both Kings were fond of music, and the English Court was second to none in its standards of music and musicians. No courtier would dare to present himself at Court unless he could perform a series of the most elaborate dances, was skilled with harp, lyre and mandolin, and could compose "a woeful ballard, made to his mistresses eyebrow",  [As You Like it - Act II, scene vii by William Shakespeare] well aware that the lady was as competent a musician as he was himself. Kings and courtiers had long been proficient in French and Latin, the languages of the Courts and diplomacy, and now a greater skill in English, hitherto regarded as a rather rough tongue, was also demanded. As soon as that the magic of printing had reached England, books were more commonly owned. In the past some noblemen had owned libraries, but these had been the exception rather than the rule. Beautifully illustrated and printed, books were avidly read, and the stage was set for the English language to reach its height as it did 100 years later. Gorgeous dress played an important part in the complicated Court rituals, whose purpose was splendour as much as anything else, even though King Edward IV was said to dislike ceremonies which were too elaborate. Besides martial prowess for the tilt-yard and the battlefield, erudition, the ability to play music and sing and to engage in intelligent and pleasing conversation was essential. There were but few English artists, but both Kings rejoiced in good painting and freely imported pictures from abroad. Even table manners had improved somewhat from the debased quality which had so offended Queen Margaret in the 1440s, [page ] even if it was thought necessary to emphasise that it was indelicate to eat ones meat from the point of a knife. [The Babees book pp 254, written about 1475] Whenever the Court ventured forth from London, which it frequently did, the people could be assured of the splendid spectacle which they expected their King to maintain. They grumbled if they had to pay for it, but that was another matter.

For the great majority who never visited the Court, there was perhaps less opportunity for splendid display, but it was not neglected. The robes worn by the burgesses of the towns and the members of the Guilds, when engaged on their official functions, could have been said to belong to the Court rather than a mere provincial town. Knights and their ladies were expected to, and did, dress themselves with colour and with care as though they were waiting upon their King rather than some dreary local gathering. The clothes worn by both sexes, however restricted by the Sumptuary laws which prescribed people's dress, were often extravagant in cut and design. The churches and the houses, however humble they may have been, were frequently decorated with murals whose purposes were as much to provide colour as to instruct a largely illiterate people in the Bible stories. The dress of the Bishops and the priests was made as imposing as possible, and when they appeared, the people could be assured of splendour. Church services, which were all that most people saw on a regular basis, were purposely made splendid as much to provide the congregation with an imposing and colourful sight as to honour the Most High.

There was a darker side to the English and this did not escape observation. This is not to say that other nations were less cruel in certain respects, but the foreign writers clearly felt that the English assumed the aspect of barbarians more readily than did others. Froissart thought the English were of a hot-tempered and haughty disposition, quickly moved to anger and difficult to pacify and bring back to reason. They delighted in battles and slaughter, and whilst they remarked with horror on the murderous ways of the Scots, they found no difficulty in casting stones when they themselves lived in glass houses. Commynges found them 'choleric' to an exceptional degree. This also is an expression often used by Shakespeare, and meant that they were hot tempered and all too ready to settle a dispute by blows rather than to have resort to more peaceful means.

What particularly revolted foreigners, used as they were to the savage penalties prescribed by their own laws for condemned criminals, was the punishment visited upon traitors. Hanging drawing and quartering meant that the criminal was hanged until he was half dead, taken down and revived, disembowelled whilst he was still alive, and finally cut into quarters which were sent to decorate the gates of towns as a warning. The heads were stuck on pikes, and placed above a town's gate where they could be seen by all.

The Venetian, who must have been inured to lawlessness in his own country, was horrified by the lawlessness in England, and thought that no country had so many thieves and robbers. Even the streets in the towns were not safe at night, although the City of London, in what must have been typical of many Cities, did maintain an armed watch, and required people to hang lanterns outside their houses as a form of street lighting. [Archives of the City of London, letter book L, folio 7 dated 1461] As for the countryside, it was not safe to venture forth except in daylight and then only in armed company. To neglect these precautions was to invite attack. Corpses were a common sight on the roads. Whilst some of them had succumbed to disease or occasionally starvation, most had been slain by the brigands who were an ever present threat.

Many complaints about the problem of lawlessness were raised, principally in Parliament, but little was done to put it down, although it was never disputed that the prime duty of the Monarch was to ensure the keeping of the King's Peace. King Henry V had demonstrated that much could effectively be done, and he had made a special point of doing so. He laid so many criminals by the heels that he choked the judicial system of the country, but the hard blows and hangings which he freely dispensed produced a considerable measure of improvement. For a time during his reign,  [1413-1422] there was a large measure of peace in the land. Firmness of his kind had to be a constant quality, and after his death things soon lapsed back into the bad old ways. At sea, the position was no better. English pirates were regarded as the most ferocious, although they faced stiff competition for this dubious honour from French, Breton and Scots pirates.

Again too little was done by successive Lords Admiral to deal with these pests, although Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, showed that as much could be achieved on the seas as King Henry V had achieved on land. When he was Lord Admiral, he regularly dispatched the King's ships on sweeps of the Channel, and they had much success in catching and disposing of pirates. Some Warwick brought ashore for a ritual, and salutary, hanging as an example to others. Those that were surplus to this requirement were thrown overboard. By these means, he made the seas a much safer place. Even so, King Henry V and the Earl of Warwick were the exceptions rather than the rule, and it is curious that even firm kings like King Henry IV and King Edward IV seemed disinclined to make the necessary effort. By 1458 Margaret Paston, a lady with as keen an eye for military matters as many another married lady of her time, wrote to her husband that, because the windows of their house were too low for the use of longbows, he should buy crossbows, clearly feeling that this was a weapon she too could use. They would certainly find a use for 'poleaxes',   [battleaxes] so he should purchase some of these as well.

One of the main sources of lawlessness was the mass of beggars on the roads. Having little or nothing themselves, they saw nothing wrong in helping themselves to the goods of others, or in using force to get what they wanted. There had always been a lot of beggars in England, and they had always been a nuisance. In the mid 15th-century, the problem was greatly compounded by the mass of settlers, among them gentle folk and even churchmen, who had been dispossessed by the victorious French of their property in France. The problem was further aggravated by a spate of enclosures in the 1450s, when landowners sought to turn the arable land into pasture for sheep. As will be seen from Sir John More's "Utopia", this rivalled anything that was done in the 18th-century. The more ruthless majority of landowners turned the people off the land, pulled down their cottages, and left them to find their fortunes elsewhere as best they may. The beggars were greatly feared, and did not always find the ready hospitality which King Henry VI had enjoyed when wandering in the North after the battle of Hexham 1464.

[page ] Often they presented themselves in great and threatening numbers at some town or village or isolated manor house, and could only be driven off by curses, kicks, snarls and blows, and sometimes even by flights of arrows.

Criminal acts were by no means confined to the desperate and destitute, and the pages of this work show all too many instances of the gentry seizing by force the possessions of others to need repetition here. Sometimes there was a genuine dispute which should have been taken to the Courts, and the English were litigious. At other times, it was simple covetousness and envy at the good fortune of another that led to the act of seizing his property. In both cases, violence was all too often the preferred option. The gentry were not above bribing jurors or intimidating the Courts. When a magnate had an interest in the outcome of a case, he would pack the Courtroom with his followers who kept up such a noisy barrage of interruptions that the jury was too frightened to give a verdict according to the law. A typical case is revealed by the Chancery Proceedings of 1463, which dealt with the property of Margaret and Elizabeth, the two heiresses of Wakehurst Place in Sussex. The two girls received a visit from two brothers, Nicholas and Richard Culpeper:-

"With force of arms, riotously against the King's Peace, arrayed in manner of war"

This was no social call upon neighbours. The brothers and their followers wore full armour and bristled with weapons. Weeping and wailing copiously, and raising a great lamentation, the two girls were dragged off and married to the brothers who then laid claim to their property.

This was no isolated incident by people who should have known better. In 1461, Bokenham Castle and the surrounding lands were forfeited to the Crown, probably following attainder proceedings against a defeated Lancastrian. Before the Royal officials could take possession, the Castle was seized and garrisoned by John and William Knyvet and entrusted to John's wife Alice. She drew up the drawbridge, and bade the King's officers to be gone in no uncertain terms. The King had to ask the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk to subdue the place. [Patent Roll 1 Ed iv pt 2] John Troys was due to be tried for assault and battery in Cambridge in 1464. He and his friends raised a multitude which so intimidated the justices that a trial was impossible. The King had to intervene, and Troys was eventually tried - and acquitted, the King choosing to overlook his 'insurrection'.

The Mayor of Nottingham complained to the King in 1471 of riots which had been organised by Henry, Lord Grey. Grey denied to the King that he had anything to do with them. The King clearly did not believe him, and bound him over, under the direst penalties, to give no further cause for complaint.

The Church, nominally devoted to peace and peaceful living, had its fair share of uproarious and scandalous behaviour. In 1461 Sir John Tatersale applied for a commission to try the parson of Snoryng and his band, whom he had just apprehended, for highway robbery. Margaret Paston added her voice, saying the countryside would never be quiet until such people were punished. John Mallery, the vicar of Lewisham in Kent, took exception to certain injunctions he had received from the King's officers, and openly preached from the pulpit that when the Church bells were rung, the parishioners should assemble with weapons in their hands, ready to do battle. This they did, and the Royal officers found it impossible to execute their Writ. [P.R.O. Ancient Indictments bundle 311 no 2] John Schoyare, the new Prior of Lantory Monastery in Gloucestershire, found himself at odds with his predecessor, John Haywarde, in 1463. The foresters of the Priory took Schoyare's part, whilst the local gentry sided with Haywarde. There was a pitched battle, with some killed and many injured. The monks fled to the protection of the Earl of Warwick, and only came back eight months later when peace had at last been restored. Even then Schoyare had not finished with them. Several canons were imprisoned, and when his unpopularity with the local people forced Schoyare to leave, he despoiled the monastery.

The Christian Faith was taught in England, as elsewhere in Europe, by a Church which may have had English Archbishops and Bishops, but whose ultimate head was the Pope in Rome. This was to continue for another 60 years or so. There was no objection to the settlement of doctrinal differences by a Papal Bull, or Papal dispensations for marriages within the prohibited degrees, but the Pope's interference in other matters was not welcome. The respect with which his office was held, at least by the King and the government, is shown by a letter written to Pope Sixtus IV by King Edward IV on 24th February 1476. The writings of that foolish old man Bishop Pecock [page ] had resurfaced and were being avidly read.

They were as full of heresy as they had ever been, but the Pope could rely on the English authorities to suppress them and to deal severely with anyone found to be circulating his ravings. This may have reflected the views of the governors, but in no way did it do the same for the people they governed. Pietro Aliprandi, the Milanese Ambassador to Burgundy, wrote in bitter terms to the Duke of Milan on 25th November 1472 complaining of his treatment in Calais when he wanted to cross to England in the company of the Ambassadors from Burgundy and Scotland. All three had safe conducts, and Aliprandi had often been to England before. He could easily prove who he was. Nevertheless, he was arrested as a messenger of the Pope on his way to gather Papal taxes in England. [At one time, Aliprandi had been in Papal Service in London. Perhaps the Calais authorities did not believe he had changed his employment] As the Calais authorities knew perfectly well, Papal taxation was impossible in England, being forbidden by the 14th-century Statutes of Provisors, and Aliprandi thought that what they really wanted to do was to throw a Papal servant into the sea. The Scots Ambassador faired no better, being told very rudely that as a Papal tax gatherer, he would be murdered as soon as he set foot in England. Anybody who looked less like Papal officials than Aliprandi and the Scots Ambassador would be difficult to find, but it made no difference, and Aliprandi had to escape to Burgundian territory before he could even put pen to paper. He described the English as being devout as angels in the morning, but after dinner they were like devils, evil islanders born with tails. They would not, possibly could not, keep their word, and he proposed they should be excommunicated. This would force them to go to Rome seeking to excuse themselves, and even then, it would be many a long day before he had any further dealings with them. In 1468, a Papal Bull was issued to the Cordwainers [Shoemakers] Company that the "pykys" [toes] of shoes should not be longer than 2 inches in length. The Cordwainers told their members that anybody who obeyed the Pope would find himself in serious trouble with the Company. Gregory solemnly intoned:-

"and sum men sayd that they wolde were long pykys whethyr Pope wylle or nylle, for they sayde the Popys curse wolde not kylle a flye. God amend thys." [Gregory's Chronicle (CS) pp 238. Later a Parliamentary Statute gave effect to the Pope's decree. The Cordwainers raised no objection to being told what to do by their own Parliament - see page ]

Lollardy lingered on. Thomas Hardy of the parish of Lannyvet in Cornwall, accompanied by a large number of people, entered the parish church while Mass was being celebrated, and roundly declared that nobody should offer more than the "Mass Penny" to the collection. This was a heavy enough burden to most people, and nobody was there to make the Priest rich and fat. Thomas Schapton of Padstow went even further by saying that one hair from a man and one pin from a woman was quite enough. It was folly to give money for masses for the dead. It did the dead no good at all, and simply enriched the Priest. [PRO Early Chancery Proceedings bundle 13 No 163] John Wyllys was tried for heresy by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1462,  [Lincoln Episcopal Registers - Chedworth folio 576] and William Balowe was similarly charged before the Bishop of London in 1467. Their heresies consisted of statements that the saints in heaven did not need earthly offerings which the priests purloined, that lighting candles before statues was akin to worshipping graven images, that bread and wine did not turn into the body and blood of Jesus simply because it was blessed by a sinful priest, and that the only true confessions were to God, not to a corrupt clergyman. This was plain and simple Lollardy and heresy into the bargain. They went to the stake in the belief that only fire could purge their immortal souls.

England may have had many advantages as a place to live when compared with other lands. The English may have been regarded as a violent, bawdy, lascivious, thieving, loud-mouthed, riotous, restless, self-opinionated, untrustworthy people even if they were seen as colourful and full of determination and character. They also had the reputation of being a martial race, and one whose individuals stood up for themselves, even against the mightiest in the Land, in a way that compelled admiration elsewhere. But "Merrie England", in any event a Tudor concept, was always something of a myth. There was just too much violence in society, and too little effort to compel people to live at peace and to trust to the law, however much lip service they paid to the respect in which it was held. It is not as though they were always set a good example by the highest in the land. King Henry V, whilst he was still Prince of Wales, is said to have advanced in a threatening manner upon Chief Justice Gascoigne in his own Court. [page ] The firm demeanour of the Judge discouraged the Prince, and a fulsome apology, given on the insistence of the Prince's infuriated father, only just saved the Heir to the Throne from being committed to prison for his atrocious behaviour.

The ferocity of the Wars of the Roses

Against such a background, it is scarcely surprising that the Wars of the Roses were fought with such ferocity and cruelty. It is said by many historians that the ancient nobility was pursued to its extinction, but this is not wholly true. Of some 70 adult Peers who lived between 1455 and 1487 (respectively the dates of the 1st battle of St Albans and the battle of Stoke), 50 are known to have taken part in one or more of the 14 great battles. If captured, they were normally beheaded. There was no room for the medieval courtesy of allowing them to ransom themselves. They were political foes, and their extermination was the accepted method of neutralising them. This was not an invariable practice. King Henry VI spared the life of John Neville, Lord Montague, who later gave him every reason to regret doing so, after the 2nd battle of St Albans 1461. King Edward IV made a point of sparing many lives of defeated and captured Lancastrians in the hope, not always realised, that he could turn them into loyal subjects.

Those however who met their deaths, either in battle or subsequently at the hands of the headsman, usually left numerous families. These were sometimes visited with the legal death of Attainder,  [Chapter ] but King Edward IV, the main practitioner of this process, made free use of his power of pardon and restoration of lands and titles. This was not an automatic process, and neither was it necessarily immediate. Edward would only use it when they had submitted to him and he was satisfied they had learnt their lesson and were unlikely to give him further trouble. Many of the great Houses, whose heads had died as the penalty for being on the losing side, survived and prospered.

"There have been seven or eight memorable battles in England, and 60 or 80 Princes and Lords of the blood royal have died violently".

wrote Commynges. The number of battles would have been accurate if he had written this passage during the period of uneasy peace that followed the battle oh Hexham 1464. His reference to the number of "Princes and Lords of the blood royal" is puzzling; there were never as many as "60 or 80". Perhaps however he was painting with a broad brush. As will be seen from the family trees, many of the Peers had some royal blood in their veins.

Commynges went on to say:-

"the calamities and misfortunes of war fell only upon the soldiers and especially upon the nobility."


"England enjoyed this particular mercy above all other Kingdoms, that neither the country nor the people nor the houses were wasted or destroyed".

This again is only partly true. London, East Anglia, the Southern Counties and Wales rarely heard the tramp of hostile armies or suffered their ravages, although all of them readily supplied soldiers and suffered the loss of slain or maimed kinsmen. The position was very different for the Midlands and the North where the campaigns took place and the big battles were fought. Hungry, wet and cold soldiers will take what they want of food and shelter, and the ravages committed by Queen Margaret's army during its march south to the 2nd battle of St Albans 1461 were extreme. Northampton was put to the torch in 1460, and Royston,  Grantham and Peterborough were pillaged in 1461. Ludlow suffered a similar fate in 1459, and St Albans was pillaged twice, once in 1455 and again in 1461. No doubt many other towns as well as isolated farms and manor houses were despoiled without any mention being made by the chroniclers.

At least this can be said; apart from a few castles, there were no sieges. English towns and cities, unlike their counter-parts in France, were spared the horrors of a medieval siege.

14 pitched battles cannot fail to produce what is so often glibly described as the horrors of war without any real understanding what this expression really means. The slaughter was terrible, and there can have been few homes throughout the land that did not mourn some dead or maimed kinsman. This was particularly true of the leaders who were made a special target during the battle; if captured afterwards, they were frequently put to death. One chronicler records that no less than 42 knights and squires were captured at Towton and were immediately decapitated.

19 more were similarly treated after the battle of Hexham.

Captured rank and file were usually allowed to depart in peace after they had been disarmed, and there are no reliable records of the numbers slain in the fighting.

The passage of five centuries has blunted the memories of those terrible days. All wars are fearful, and civil wars are doubly so. The evidence that there is shows the Wars of the Roses were no exception. When in 1474 the Common House was considering the taxes to be raised to pay for the 1475 expedition to France, a member alluded to the miseries of the wars and the number of lawless people who, as he saw it, could well be recruited into an army to fight in France. He was speaking to an assembly which had first-hand experience of the Wars of the Roses, and there cannot have been any temptation to engage in hyperbole or exaggeration:-

"Every man of this land that is of reasonable age hath known what trouble this Realm hath suffered. None hath escaped.........yet there is many a great sore, many a perilous wound left unhealed, the multitude of riotous people which have at all times kindled the fire of this great division is so spread over all and every coast of this Realm, committing extortion, oppressions, robberies and other great mischief's..."

[Literae Cantuariensis III ed J.B.Sheppard - Rolls series London 1889]

In June 1483, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, spoke in similar terms to the Great Council, adding that more men had been killed in battle during King Edward IV's reign than during the whole of the Hundred Years War. This was an obvious exaggeration, and there were no available figures for a comparison. It is enough however that the Duke was recording what all could readily accept; there had been some appalling slaughter in which very many people had died. 

England's military leadership

One of England's blessings is that she has never had an offizierkorps, or "officer class" which was beyond civil control. We are indebted to H. L. Gray [Incomes from land in England in 1436 - English Historical Review XLIX 1934] and T. B. Pugh [The Magnates Knights and Gentry in 15th-century England] for an analysis of the "officer class" who would have commanded and officered any military force in the 15th-century. Trained in the use of arms, they would have raised soldiers and lead them on campaign. [Reference should also be made to Chapter ] This reveals something like:-

50/60 Magnates income 1, 000 p.a. or more

200 richer Knights income 100  p.a. or more

1, 000 lesser Knights income 40  p.a. or less

1, 200 Squires income 20  p.a. or less

2, 000 Gentlemen income 20 p.a. or less

To our eyes, these incomes are ridiculously small. There was much less reliance in money than there is today, and many of the daily needs would have been supplied by the estate or farm. A yearly income of 1, 000 would have been a vast fortune, while 20 would still have been a comfortable income. Chief Justice Fortescue recorded that many a well-off Yeoman was prosperous on an annual income of 5.

These figures do not include the 'Captains' who cannot reliably be numbered. They were still important people in the military hierarchy, although they were seldom belted and dubbed knights. Some of them may have come from the numbers of Squires or Gentlemen, but some came from the rank and file, being promoted much as is a modern Sergeant-Major on account of their powers of leadership and outstanding personalities. Often they devoted their lives to war, and were highly skilled in the military art. Persons such as Matthew Fulk and Osberne Mundeford are mentioned in the pages of this work, and typical Captains will be found in Shakespeare's play "King Henry V" in the persons of MacMorris, Fluellen, Jamie and Gower. Wherever they came from, they were tried and trusted soldiers of great ability.

Often during the War in France they were put in charge of the garrison of a town. They should not be omitted from the ranks of capable military officers, even though they were normally to be found in junior ranks fighting alongside their soldiers.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003