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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 46: The soldiers


The officers

One of England's greatest blessings is that she has never had an offizierkorps, or 'officer class', which is beyond civil control. We are indebted to H. L. Grey [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 'officers pool' of the time. Trained in war and the use of arms, they would have raised soldiers and lead them on campaign. This reveals:-

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

200 richer Knights income 100 p.a.

1, 000 lesser knights  income 40 p.a.

1, 200 Squires income 20 p.a.

2, 000 Gentlemen income 20 p.a.

To our eyes, these incomes appear ridiculously small, but it would be most misleading to attempt any comparison with the money of today. There was much less reliance on money then than there is now, 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 not always belted and dubbed knights. Some of them may have come from the numbers of squires and gentlemen, but a number 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. When they could find no service with an English force, they frequently took service as mercenaries abroad, particularly in Burgundy. Persons such as Matthew Fulk and Osberne Mundeford are mentioned in the pages of this work, and typical Captains will be found in William 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 garrisons of towns. Usually they commanded companies in the field, but sometimes they were to be found holding more senior ranks.

The Supreme Commander of an English Army in the field was the King himself, the Constable of England whose office betokened that he was the permanent Commander-in-Chief of the English land forces, or one of the Royal Dukes. It was however quite common for a Great Magnate who was not of the Blood Royal to be appointed as the Supreme Commander. Immediately subordinate to the Supreme Commander were the commanders of the "battailes", usually three in number, reflecting the customary method of devising the army into three roughly equal parts. In this work, the "battailes", or battles, are called divisions to emphasise that they were part of the army and were usually self-contained so that they could, if need be, operate on their own. Below them came the junior officers who commanded the companies.

The Rank and File

There was no standing army and, apart from the King's bodyguard, the Calais garrison, the small garrisons of the Royal Castles and some mercenaries who were usually abroad, there was no Englishman who made the profession of arms his full time occupation. On the other hand, the rigid division between soldier and civilian which pertains today did not exist in the 15th-century.

Statutes against Livery and Maintenance, notably that of 1399, forbade people to maintain private armies. The Statutes were difficult to enforce, and frequently the King, who was reliant upon his nobles for the provision of armed men, had to turn a blind eye to the often blatant disregard for their provisions. There was a method of avoiding the provisions of the Law in any case, and there was no way of preventing it. The Great Magnates lived in considerable grandeur, and they maintained large bodies of household men, and others such as huntsmen and foresters, often considerably in excess of the numbers required even for the most magnificent life-style. One of the duties of these men was the protection of the Lord and his property against the incursions of the envious, and sometimes armed force was the only way of repelling them. They were also available to fight in any cause which the Lord chose to espouse.

The pyramid-like nature of medieval society is well illustrated by the two main methods of recruiting men from their civil occupations to fight when the necessity arose. The first of these was the Indenture, or contract, system. The loyalty of the Great Magnates to the King, and one of the obligations attaching to their holding of their estates, required them to enter into contracts with him for the provision of armed men even though, at the time the contract was made, there was no obvious need for them. Some of these Indentures have survived, and show in considerable detail the numbers and type of soldiers the Magnate was to provide when called on to do so. The Great Magnates entered into similar contracts with those who held lands from them, and this reached down to the lowest scale of the landed classes, so that a landed squire or gentleman might be required to bring two or three men-at-arms or archers, whether mounted or on foot, with him to the mustering point designated by the King.

Towns were put under similar obligations, and also had to provide soldiers when called on to do so. Strict observance with ones contract could be sternly demanded by the mustering officer. For instance, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, found himself in trouble when he presented himself at Southampton for the Agincourt campaign and was found to be short of two men-at-arms. He was peremptorily bidden to find them from somewhere.

Out of this grew the "affinity" system which is described elsewhere. [page ] A local magnate might give some guarantee of military protection to his subordinate landholders in return for their obligation to supply him with armed men when he called for them. This bound them to him in other ways than the purely military, and reinforced the bond of pyramidal loyalty on which medieval society depended. Some of these affinities were quite small, while others were very large. William, Lord Hastings had an affinity of 90 in the Midlands, exceeding by only a small margin that of Thomas, Lord Stanley in Lancashire. In the North the Nevilles, and after them Richard, Duke of Gloucester had affinities of considerable size.

The other method was a survival of the feudal system of the earlier Middle Ages when the King could require his subjects to fight in his army for a period which did not exceed 40 days. In earlier times, this period was usually adequate to deal with the immediate threat, but by the end of the 15th-century, it was often much too short. The King would issue a Commission of Array, addressed to the Sheriff of a county or the Mayor of a town, which required him to muster the eligible men, aged between 16 and 60, and specified how many soldiers were required. The subordinates of the Sheriff or Mayor, the Constables, kept a good count of the men in their localities, and knew who would be fit and able to serve. Usually the Commissions did not specify a time limit, contrary to the earlier feudal practice, but there was always a natural time limit to the period that such conscripts could be kept with the Colours.

Needless to say, these arrangements were subject to a multitude of abuses. In 1470, when Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence were, unbeknown to King Edward IV, plotting against him, they tricked him into giving them a Commission of Array. Edward, supposing that the troops so raised would support him, duly gave it, only to find out at a later date that their real purpose was to bring about his downfall. [pages ] Again in 1470, John Neville, Marquis Montague, raised soldiers in West Yorkshire, ostensibly to fight for King Edward IV against Warwick and Clarence's landing in the South. In the nick of time, the King found that he was about to be arrested by these same soldiers and had to flee into exile. [pages ] Things could work out the other way however. In 1471 when the same John Neville tried to raise troops in the Pontefract area to fight King Edward IV after his return from Flanders, the people answered that they were of the Percy affinity, and without a call from Henry Percy, they neither could nor would turn out to fight. Where was John's Commission of Array? As they very well knew, he did not have one, and John had the mortification of watching Edward march by without a force to attack him.

Ramshackle and arbitrary these two systems may have been, but it is astonishing how well they worked in practice.

It took only a short time to raise a considerable force and to muster it at the designated place. The nearest modern equivalent is the Israeli Defence Force, which from time to time is called out to repel danger. At one moment, the soldiers are all engaged on their peacetime occupations, but as soon as the Proclamation is made, then everyone, both men and women, goes home to don their uniforms, collect their weapons, and report to their regimental depots. In a very short time, a formidable army is assembled to supplement the small regular forces who are always with the Colours. The only real difference is that each Israeli is required to devote some weeks every year to military training. No such obligation existed in 15th-century England.

Naturally a call to arms was not always welcome. Many people would not have thought highly of a summons to leave their jobs, their homes and their families and turn out to fight. What them motivated them? A medieval soldier was entitled to pay, and at the rate of 6d a day for an archer and a 1/= a day for a mounted man who brought his horse with him, these were excellent rates when compared with the wages he could hope to earn on the civil market. Later in the Wars of the Roses, these rates could be substantially increased, thus adding to the financial inducement. Moreover, the pay, perhaps as much as 3 months, was advanced at the mustering point. It was usually provided by the community from which the men came. How, or indeed if, it was ever reimbursed is problematical. It counted for something that the soldier had coins to jingle in his pocket. In addition, there was personal motivation of a sort which must have varied between individuals. Although there was no news media, people took a keen interest in the events of the day, and were anxious to put wrongs to rights. The pyramidal nature of medieval society ensured that men tended to think of the King's quarrel as their own, and they even identified themselves with their immediate Lord's dispute. This could account for the relative ease by which Lords in rebellion could raise forces without the legal compulsion of Commissions of Array. If the Lord thought that the wrong person was on the Throne and proposed to do something about it, then those who took their lead from him were prepared to support him. There were times when things did not always work out in this way, and some of these are described in this work, but in general, people did obey a summons to fight.

The opportunity to fight some of their fellow citizens from another part of the country also played some part in motivating people to brave the hardships, dangers and discomforts of campaigning. The South loathed the North as dangerous and barbaric savages. The North saw the South as soft and rich with boundless opportunities for plunder. The West Midlands regarded the Welsh as being incapable of learning civilised ways, and the Welsh returned their loathing in ample measure. Yorkshire and Lancashire could scarcely meet without coming to blows. A chance to hammer some of these horrible people and teach them a lesson was not to be lightly passed over.

Last but by no means least the English, as some foreign observers noted,  [Chapter ] were a fiery and war-like people, some even thought a martial race. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the 15th-century Englishman, besides accepting some fighting and campaigning as part of contemporary life, enjoyed them for their own sake.

Movement and manoeuvring

What is really astonishing is how fast medieval armies could move about the country-side and reach the destinations that they set for themselves. Most of them were on foot, and they did not possess the excellent boots, specially designed for the purpose, worn by the Roman soldiers and the armies of today. Although the Roman mile was shorter than its modern equivalent, a Roman Legion on the line of march was expected to march 40 Roman miles a day. Foreign observers attending the manoeuvres of the Imperial German army just before the First World War noted that the troops regularly marched 35 miles a day. During the Second World War, standard Commando and Parachute Regiment training required 40 miles in 9 hours, whilst even today the Royal Marines aim to cover 30 miles in 7 hours. Compared with these feats, the standard march of 20 to 30 miles a day by a 15th-century army compares very favourably. When circumstances were pressing, these figures could be greatly exceeded. The march of King Edward IV's army in 1471, from Sodbury Hill to the battle-field of Tewkesbury, some 36 miles, can be said to rival that of the Light Division pressing on to reach the battle of Talavera 1809. Its commander, Brigadier-General Crauford, was determined to take part in that battle, and the Division's feat is said to be the greatest recorded forced march in history.

There could not be the strict order on the line of march which is observed today and on which General Crauford insisted. [Crauford, a real martinet, required the keeping of rigid dressing and step. If somebody was seen to side-step a puddle, he was ordered to sit down in it] Phillip de Commyngs saw the English army on the march during the 1475 expedition to France, and noted the lack of uniformity in dress and weapons and the straggling nature of the formations. He still thought it was a splendid army by the standards of the time, particularly as everybody reached the designated point by the end of the day. This must speak highly of the authority of the officers and the nature of the staff-work of the army. The appearance of the troops was anything but uniform. Some towns and some Lords took great pride in making sure that their men were uniformly dressed and armed, and sometimes the soldiers were gaudily dressed and made a brave show. Uniform was beyond the levies, both in dress and weapons, and often no man was dressed and armed like his comrade-in-arms marching beside him. Domenico Mancini noted that the Northern men who arrived in London in June 1483 at the behest of Richard, Duke of Gloucester were not uniformly dressed and armed. He still regarded them as most formidable looking troops of soldiers.

A last category deserves mention. Mercenaries were often employed from abroad, particularly from Burgundy and Flanders. They were professional soldiers in every sense of the word, usually being similarly dressed and armed. King Edward IV, when he returned in 1471, had a force of Burgundian hand-gunners in his force. So did others at various stages of the Wars of the Roses.

Manoeuvring on the battle field once battle was joined was rare, but was not entirely unknown. There was some manoeuvring at the battles of Towton 1461 and Tewkesbury 1471, [pages ] but this was exceptional. Manoeuvring before the battlefield was reached, or even in the last moments before battle was joined, was however quite common and was usually very skilful.

There could be many purposes in such manoeuvres, and a few will be mentioned here. It might be desired to fight on more favourable ground, such as Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury's moves before the battle of Blore Heath 1459.

[page ] The manoeuvring of the French army at the siege of Pontoise was highly successful in its twin aims of keeping pressure on the besieged and avoiding a pitched battle with the English relieving force for which the Constable of France, Arthur of Brittany, was not prepared. The English manoeuvring was also very skilful, and involved night marches to avoid a superior French force, and keeping a river between themselves and the French who were now determined to attack. [pages ] English manoeuvring to raise the French siege of Avranches enabled them to cross two rivers unopposed and reach the French position between the two rivers before having to strike a blow. [page ] Deception of ones foe could also be an aim. During the Tewkesbury campaign the Lancastrians, on finding that King Edward IV was not to be fooled into believing that an attack on London was intended round the Southern flank of the Yorkist army, sent 'forerunners', or an advance guard, onto Sodbury Hill to create the impression that they would give battle there. Once spotted by the Yorkist scouts, they withdrew to rejoin their own army. The Yorkist army marched many a weary mile in the wrong direction before discovering that the Lancastrian's true objectives were the Gloucester bridges. Some valuable hours were thus gained. [pages ]

The key to successful manoeuvring was reliable intelligence. All armies employed 'scourers', or scouts, and they scouted ahead of, behind, and on the flanks of the army.

They were mounted, and were usually Knights or Captains, although it was not unknown for experienced and trustworthy 'other ranks 'to be so employed. Their job was to find the enemy and report on the three main ingredients of all good intelligence - the enemies line of march, his strength and his apparent intention. For the most part, their work was excellently done, but there were lapses. Richard, Duke of York, marching north to the battle of Wakefield 1460, allowed his vanguard to be cut to pieces by Somersets men, apparently unaware that Somerset was nearby. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had no real idea where the Lancastrian army was before the 2nd battle of St Albans 1461, and lost the battle mainly because he allowed his intelligence-gathering to falter. Both paid very heavily for their mistakes, and both were severely criticised by their contemporaries who thought them guilty of inexcusable errors.

Armour worn in battle - the knights

Armour worn in battle was lighter than the much more substantial armour worn for the joust. In battle, when the soldier customarily fought dismounted on foot, agility and skill with weapons was as much protection against death and injury as was the armour itself. Heavy weight [King Henry VIII's jousting armour weighs 85lbs] was therefore to be avoided, and lighter armour was necessary which restricted movement to the least possible extent. No armour was proof against all the malevolence of the enemy, although those who could afford the better tempered German and Italian armour were better protected. Armour could be slashed, although its very presence could cushion and thus avoid or lessen the damage to the sensitive flesh beneath. It was not always proof against the English archers arrow if shot at short range, and even less did it protect its wearer against the newest weapon on the battlefield - field artillery.

As the modern soldier must learn to carry his pack and his weapons until the longest day is done, so the medieval knight had to learn to wear his armour. That most romantic of all military dress was very difficult to wear without discomfort, even hardship. It was worn over an undercoat of a felt-like material, rather like the underlay of a modern carpet, which was designed to soften the blows of battle and to prevent, at least to some degree, chaffing of the skin by the unyielding metal. Some chaffing did occur, thus causing festering sores. Armour gave no protection against the weather. If it was hot, the soldier rapidly became soaked in his own sweat. In cold weather, he needed his cloak to prevent him from freezing. Rain penetrated every nook and cranny, and it was quite possible to be soaked in a mixture of sweat and rain-water. Hovering between the extremes of heat exhaustion and hypothermia, it was usual to wear only part of the suit when on the line of march and to don the rest when fighting was imminent. There were occasions when it had to be worn the whole time, and even to sleep in it. During the Welsh Wars, when danger lurked behind every rock and tree and around every corner, it was far too risky to go about only partly armoured. There were advantages however. King Henry IV would have been killed when his tent blew down on him if he had not been sleeping in his armour.

We rely to a large extent for our knowledge of armour on the memorial brasses that lie a-plenty in the parish churches in the Eastern part of the country. These reveal that there were two major changes in armour between the last quarters of the 13th- and 15th-centuries. The first concerns the transition from chain-mail to plate armour, and the second the helmet which protected the vulnerable head. The earliest brass of all, that of Sir John d'Aubernoun (1277), and the other figures shown on Plate , show figures dressed entirely in chain-mail except for two patches, probably boiled leather, which covered the knees. A sort of coat, with a cowl hood, reached down to the mid thighs. Trousers, complete with feet, covered the lower limbs and reached up to the waist. Over the head was placed the great helm, little more than a cylinder of metal, which rested on the shoulders. A narrow slit allowed the wearer to see his enemy. The great helm was usually flat on top to allow the crest to be worn. This increased the height of the soldier and made him more menacing.

As the 13th-century turned into the 14th-, plate armour was being added, particularly to the breast and the legs, by being strapped on over the mail. Sir John de Creke's figure (1325) shows how this was done. By 1384, Sir John Harsick's figure is almost entirely covered in plate armour, but chain-mail has not quite disappeared. Small amounts remain around the groin and the arm-pits, but there is still a substantial cowl covering the head and shoulders. Over this was worn the bascinet, an open-faced helmet with a pointed top. In battle, the great helm, with its crest, would be worn over the bascinet. This was a clumsy arrangement, and by the time of Agincourt (1415), the visor was in general use. Hinged to the bascinet, it covered the face, and could be pushed to the top of the head when not required. The early visor was pointed to deflect blows to the face but it suffered one grave disadvantage; an upward blow could push it up, thus blinding the soldier and possibly exposing his face. At about this time, the chain-mail cowl had been superseded by a plate gorget covering the throat. The figure of Sir John Peryent (1415) shows this and is also interesting in showing how the arm-pits were now protected.

The design of plate armour made enormous strides during the 15th-century, and the figures of Richard Staunton (1458) and Ralph St Leger (1470) show how the armourers had so developed their art that freedom of movement was much improved. There were still defects, and it is to be supposed that civil fashions were allowed to intrude into the sphere where only military considerations should have held sway. Both figures are shown wearing enormous couters (elbows) which could have been struck off or damaged in a melee. Few others are shown wearing them, so the idea could not have caught on. The sabatons (feet) of all figures appear far too long for a mounted man or for one fighting on foot, as the English usually did. This seems to have reflected the 'pykys' (toes) of civil dress which were so long that they had to be tied to the knee to keep them out of the way. Even so, it was not until the early 16th-century that the more sensible rounded toe was adopted.

Staunton's figure shows the salade, or rounded helmet, which seems to have been developed by the most skilled of all armourers, the southern Germans and northern Italians. Later models included a gorget which reached up to cover the mouth, while a long fish-like tail gave added protection to the back of the neck. The visor, this time much flatter, gave the soldier protection to his upper face and a much improved view of what was going on.

Memorial brasses do help to explain the transition from chain-mail to plate armour, but they do not always show the actual armour used by the deceased; they only show what he would have worn if he had been able to afford the very latest the armourer could offer him. Armour was extremely expensive, and only the pockets of a King or a Great Magnate could extend to the very latest, and most improved, suit. Others with slimmer purses had to make do with what they could afford. It could be false to say that at the battles of Barnet, Tewkesbury (1471) or Bosworth (1485) there was no chain-mail or plate of antique pattern to be seen. The armour which had served the grand-father and the father so well would have been pressed into service. Out of date it may have been, but it would have to serve.

Click on a link below to view the armour in more detail:

Armour worn in battle - the rank and file

Not everybody could afford a full suit of armour, or even a horse to carry its weight on the line of march. Those attached to the Houses of the Great Magnates were better provided for, and often wore armour of a uniform pattern if not a full suit. Others had to make do with bits and pieces of discarded armour which their lords had given them. Some had bits and pieces which they, or their forebears, had plundered from the battlefields of the Wars in France, or the earlier battles of the Wars of the Roses. Uniformity throughout the army was an impossible conception, but it is impressive to read the surviving reports of periodical musters, particularly that of Bridport, which the Constables held to check the armour and arms which each man possessed.

An amazing amount of armour, albeit of an antique pattern, was in the possession of the humble citizens who might be called out by a Commission of Array.

Apart from this, the standard body protection of a man-at-arms or an archer was simple. Each possessed a sallet, or helmet, which closely fitted the head. Sometimes this had a large brim, important to the archers to keep the sun out of their eyes. The shoulders and torso were protected by a padded jacket which reached to the mid-thigh. This gave some measure of protection, although substantially less than that enjoyed by the knights, but the soldier depended on agility and the use of his weapons to avoid death or injury at the hands of the enemy. 

The weapons - the knights

The weapons of the knights were standard to the extent that each carried a sword and a dagger. The sword itself was about three feet in length and, being pointed and sharpened on both sides, was admirable for thrusting and slashing. It could, in company with the dagger which was held in the left hand, be used to parry the blows of the opponent, and both weapons could be said to have offensive and defensive purposes, to kill or disable the enemy while preventing him from doing the same. So efficient were they that by the late 15th-century, the shield had in general been discarded; it was too cumbersome for use when fighting on foot, and it was no longer necessary. [The shield was still carried in the joust] The dagger itself, while a secondary weapon, was still a most lethal object. The dagger used by Sir Simon Walworth to kill Wat Tyler in 1381 may be seen in the Fishmongers Hall, and as a weapon it is most impressive. A few favoured the six-foot long two-handed sword which required both hands to wield it. A blow from this weapon must have killed the opponent outright, but it was very cumbersome, and if the initial blow was parried or avoided, it must have been difficult to wield it again in time to avoid the enemies counter-stroke.

The knights also used a variety of maces, hammers and poleaxes, [battleaxes] all of them very effective in a melee. The 12-foot lance could only be used while mounted, and on the rare occasions when fighting was on horseback, its long reach made it a fearsome weapon.

The weapons - the rank and file

The men-at-arms wielded a variety of spears to which were often attached axes for slashing at the enemy. Some examples are set out on page . In addition, they were armed with a short sword, which was their secondary weapon, and often a small buckler, or shield.

There is a 15th-century depiction of the battle of Doryleum, fought in 1097 as one of the battles of the First Crusade. As usual, the artist shows a contemporary battle scene at the expense of true accuracy. The battle was fought on the plains of central Turkey, and there was no splendid city in the background; the city probably represents Constantinople which was nowhere near the scene, which was as barren and desolate a place as can be imagined. In any case, the battle was fought with the Crusaders Advance Guard surrounded by hordes of Turks shooting arrows into a helpless mass of men. The battle was decided by the Crusaders Rearguard, whose presence the Turks never even suspected. The Turks were treated to something they had never previously known, a cavalry charge by the French Chivalry, one of whose leaders was the Christian Bishop Adhemar. The picture does still give a good impression of a 15th-century battle where the melee has become general. The soldier in the foreground demonstrates how his weapon, probably a halberd, could be used. He is aiming to cut his opponent in half around the waist-line.

The archers wielded the most formidable infantry weapon of the time, the six foot longbow. The longbow was made from a number of woods, yew being the favourite, although ash and elm were also used. It was originally thought that the longbow required a pull of 60 lbs. to draw it, but recent research on bow staves recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose indicates that the pull could have been far greater than this, perhaps as much as 100 to 180 lbs. The archer drew the cloth-yard shaft not to his mouth, but to his ear. The impetus of the discharge could send his arrow 300 yards, but it was at its most effective at shorter ranges than this. It could, and frequently did, penetrate armour, and even when it did not, its force has been likened to a kick from a horse which could knock a man over. It could, unlike the crossbow, be shot at a fast rate by men standing close together. Used like this by archers in a mass, the longbow could be a devastating weapon; it dominated the battles of the early 15th-century.

The trouble with the longbow was that it was a very difficult weapon to use. Its pull required a twisting motion of the body, and the archer had to wear a heavy leather glove on the left hand and wrist to prevent damage to the tendons by the bow string. It required constant practise, and it is questionable if the bowman received this. The law required him to practise regularly, and not to spend his time playing football or indulging in other time-wasting games, but it may be doubted if he heeded it. Probably it was sufficient if he could hit a group of men rather than a single individual, and this it seems he could certainly do. It needed a master bowman, probably a forester or a huntsman who lived with his bow in his hands, to pick off a single individual at say 200 yards. It could be done, and often was.

In spite of the general preference for the longbow, cross-bowmen did have a place in English armies. Often they were foreign mercenaries, but there were a number of native Englishmen who wielded the cross-bow. This weapon did have a number of disadvantages. The great strength of its metal spring required that its bowstring should be winched back with a special winch onto its release catch before it could be used. Its rate of shooting was thus very slow; it could manage only two shots a minute as compared with the longbow which could shoot 10 arrows in the same period. Also its lateral bow made it impossible for the cross-bowmen to stand in the same mass as could the archers. There were however several advantages. It was a versatile weapon, and in 1458 Margaret Paston [page ] felt that the low windows of her house made the use of the longbow impossible; cross-bows she considered were ideal to repel the would-be robbers she daily expected. It could if necessary be used by a novice, demanding as it did far less skill and practise than the long-bow required. Its heavy bolt, or 'quarrel', could be shot with sufficient force to smash, and so penetrate, armour at a greater range than the long-bow could achieve. With its long fin held under the armpit rather than rested on the shoulder, it was fairly easy to aim, and the forward motion of its discharge obviated the recoil which is still a problem of the modern rifle. Margaret must have been right in thinking that the cross-bow was a weapon she too could use.


Artillery, after a rather hesitant beginning in the 14th-century, made great strides in the 15th-. It was developed by several peoples more or less separately, even if simultaneously. In the West, the English can be said to be the main protagonists of siege artillery and the most skilled in its use. King Henry V was a convinced artillerist and he used siege artillery extensively, and with great effect, during his project of the Conquest of France. Apart from Agincourt (1415), there were few big battles, and the pace of conquest was measured by the capture of towns and castles. Foreseeing this, he had assembled a large train of siege artillery.

The siege gun of the time was known as the bombard. Whilst there was probably never as big a gun as 'Mons Meg' cast anywhere else, the bombard was always a massive piece.

'Mons Meg', a gun presented by Phillip-the-Good to King James II in 1449, can still be seen in Edinburgh. It weighs 8 1/2 tons, has a 9 inch bore, and was capable of throwing an iron shot weighing half a ton or a stone ball of a quarter of a ton. Examples of two work-a-day English bombards can be seen at Mont-St-Michel. Captured by the French armies in 1437, they are much smaller than "Mons Meg", but are still massive pieces. [plate facing page ] Their chambers are reinforced (one markedly so) to take the force of the explosion of the propellant. Behind the breech of each is a 'fin' to serve the twin purposes of reinforcing the breech still further, and to act as one of the points for securing the gun to its carriage. The bores are huge, and so are the gunstones which are also displayed. Ideally the barrels should have been longer to give greater muzzle velocity, but doubtless considerations of weight and man-handling must have forbidden this. What is impressive is the smooth nature of the bores and the strength of their build which has prevented any sagging from their present inadequate support. The bombard was intended to knock down the stone masonry of castles and town walls and thus create a breach which could be stormed. The muzzle velocity must always have been a variable factor, depending on the quality of the powder and how damp it was; gunpowder has always been hydoscopic, and there was always some humidity in the air. Even so, in the hands of skilled gunners, the bombard was surprisingly effective; when its balls were fired continuously at the same spot, they usually brought masonry crashing down. An added bonus arose from the use of stone balls. On impact they shivered into thousands of pieces, and had the same effect as modern shrapnel from an airburst shell. The bombard's rate of fire was very slow, but in a siege this did not matter. It was important to take time to load the gun with the utmost care, and then to lay it with equal precision. This, together with the fact that its massive weight required enormous effort to move it at anything above a snail's pace, made the bombard unsuitable for use on the battlefield.

Considering how proficient they became in the use of siege artillery, it is indeed surprising that the English were late converts to field artillery, and even then, they always regarded it as a weapon of lesser importance. During the War in France, they seem never to have grasped or understood its use. Perhaps understandably, they put their trust in the longbow and did not look beyond it.

The French on the other hand had ample incentive to find some weapon with which to break the English archers dominance of the battlefield, and they showed that the lessons were there to be learnt. With the genius of the Bureau brothers, Jean and Gaspard, they developed a lighter form of field-gun, which they learnt how to use most effectively. It threw a light projectile which served when the target was flesh and blood rather that stone walls, it did not require the care to load and lay that the bombard needed, and it could keep up a relatively rapid rate of fire. At the battle of the Herrings 1429 [page ], the French artillery played most effectively upon the English army whilst beyond the range of the dreaded longbows, and this would have been a French victory but for the indiscipline of their Scots allies. When deployed behind earthworks, as the French artillery was at the battle of Castillon 1453, it could destroy the enemies army in comparative safety.

The English began to take field artillery seriously when John Judde, a City merchant, was appointed Master of the King's Ordnance on 21st December 1456. The date is interesting, because King Henry VI was again ill, and the Yorkist faction was pre-dominant in the government. Judde contracted to make 60 field pieces besides other cannon, large quantities of gunpowder, and carts to transport them. He seems to have been very energetic as by the following May, he could report that 26 field pieces, a culverin (a long barrelled cannon to be mounted on ships or castle walls) and a mortar were ready. Judde died in 1460, but his office survived him so that when Patrick de la Motte became Chief Cannoneer in 1484, the Tower was a veritable arsenal where cannon were cast and stored. It is questionable if during the course of the 15th-century, the English field artillery ever reached the high standards achieved by the French, and the English still felt that the longbow was the more reliable weapon; there was some justification for this view, because gunfounding was still in its infancy, and guns burst all too frequently. When they did, they caused mayhem. Nevertheless, field artillery had 'arrived' in England, and the gunfounders laboured to improve their products whatever the sceptics may have said or thought. King Edward IV took considerable trains of siege and field artillery with him to France in 1475, and Phillipe de Commyngs was much impressed by what he saw.

Field artillery played only a small part in the Wars of the Roses, and this appears to be because the artillery had the greatest difficulty in keeping up with the fast moving campaigns. Even though the French had shown the way by carrying their guns about in carts, and their armies moved every bit as fast as the English, the English field artillery never managed to match them in speed of movement. King Edward IV had no artillery at the battle of Towton 1461; his customary fast advance had left it far behind. His forced march from Sodbury Hill to the battle of Tewkesbury 1471 posed immense problems for his guns. They did reach the battle in time, but so late in the night that the gunners had little chance of rest before the action began. The Lancastrians had dug their guns in behind earthworks at the battle of Northampton 1460 as the French had done at Castillon seven years before. They were ineffective, but only because their powder had been wetted by the sudden rainstorm just before the Yorkist attack. [pages ]

Guns came in many shapes and sizes, the gunfounders being prepared to please their customers (who included noblemen and towns and cities besides the Royal Arsenal) by casting guns to meet special requirements. The author of "Knyghthode and Bataile", obviously a traditionalist, could not be bothered to name them all, but he does give a glance at some of their fascinating names; besides bombards, cannon, culverins and mortars, there were serpentines, crappaudes and sakers. The rest he airily dismissed as eight or nine other kinds. This was still quite a range of types.

The Mont-St-Michel Bombards

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These English muzzle loaded siege guns were captured by French forces in 1437 and are now on display at Mont-St-Michel.

Some idea of their massive size can be gained from the figures of the people which are inescapable in any tourist photograph. These guns would have been used in sieges of fortified castles or towns where their slow rate of fire did not matter greatly, but where a skilled gunner could hit the same spot successively and bring masonry tumbling down. They were mounted on wooden carriages and could only be moved by large teams of oxen, horses (or men) at a snails pace. As siege artillery they were very effective, but their ponderous size made it impossible to use them in a battle; for such employment smaller "pieces" were necessary ["piece" is a technical expression, and means the barrel of a gun and any moving parts that go with it].

Their projectiles were stone balls which had to be chiseled into shape by stone masons, although it is possible that some members of the gun crew possessed the necessary skills.

Guns were normally constructed in two parts, the fin and the after-end of the explosion chamber as one part and the barrel itself as the other. When ready, the fin and the after-end of the explosion chamber were then screwed into the barrel. Doubtless the effect of firing them a few times welded the two parts together so that they could not be separated; thus they had to be loaded through the muzzle. The fin played no part in the firing of the piece, but acted as a counter-weight to the piece itself and as an additional means of securing the whole to its wooden carriage. The explosion chamber was situated where the fin and the barrel met. It could be massively reinforced as is the case with one of these two guns.

The gun founder of the time built guns by fitting and welding together longitudinal iron staves that ran the whole length of the barrel and formed the inner bore. Once this was done, red hot iron concentric rings were fitted, and hammered along the full length of the barrel until the fitted snugly with their immediate predecessor. The rings can easily be seen, both inside and outside the barrel, whilst inside the barrel of one, there are the remains of the longitudinal staves, or inner bore. Doubtless their French captors found some means of removing the longitudinal staves so that the gun would be rendered useless in the event of re-capture.

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Whilst there were no sieges of towns, and only a few sieges of castles during the Wars of the Roses, a few words need to be said if only to demonstrate the military skills that were employed.

There were four main methods of persuading the besieged to surrender. They could be starved into submission. They could be bombarded into surrender by siege engines or the newly invented bombard. Towers on wheels could be pushed up to their walls so that the besiegers could storm them. Their defences could be undermined by miners. It needed a fine exercise of judgement on the part of the besieging commander which method, or combination of methods, would best serve his purposes.

Starving out the besieged was the easiest method, but it was usually a lengthy process, and often ran the risk of disease among the besieging army which could cause more casualties than the weapons of the enemy. Siege engines had not altered much since Roman times, but they had one great advantage; most of the materials for their construction were available locally. All that was needed was some stout timber and some very strong rope. Mangonels and trebuckets worked on a system of springs, obtained by twisting rope about the main beam, and counter-weights. They could hurl massive stones against the walls, or even the corpses of dead animals or combustible materials into the town to spread disease or to set it on fire. Towers could also be built of local timber and pushed up against the walls to give a platform over which the walls could be stormed. During the 15th-century, siege engines and towers were giving way to the bombard, even though this had to be brought, with immense labour, from afar. Its advantage lay in the possibility of pushing it along a trench, or sap, to shorten the range. 0nce there, it could hit the same spot in the walls with successive rounds, something a siege engine could not be relied on to do, and so make a breach, which could be stormed by bringing the masonry crashing down. Mining, an ancient method, was frequently used. There were plenty of skilled miners in England who know how to drive a shaft underground until it was under the enemy fortifications. Once there, they would set the pit-props on fire and cause the masonry above to collapse. If sufficient gunpowder was available, it could be put to the same use.

The besieged were not without their resources. Damaged walls could be rebuilt, or else shored up with stout timber.

Sallies could be made to destroy saps and capture bombards.

One favourite method of discovering if the besiegers were mining was to place a bowl of water on the battlements. If the water rippled, it indicated that the besiegers were mining at that spot. This called for a counter-mine, and some ferocious fights took place in the inky darkness below ground.

Frequent parleys took place between besiegers and besieged, and a curious custom was often observed. If the besieged did not surrender at once, they undertook to do so if not relieved within a fortnight or perhaps a month by a force marching to their rescue. If no relief had reached them by the end of the period, they could march out with all the honours of war, keeping their weapons and departing wither they would. Often additional terms were stipulated, such as their commanding officers surrendering as prisoners for ransom, but the important thing was that any such terms had to be most strictly observed; to break them was regarded as most dishonourable. If the town or castle refused to surrender and was subsequently taken by storm, it lay with the besieging commander whether he spared any lives or slaughtered the besieged to the last man.


As has already been said, it was usual to divide the army into three 'batailles' or battles (in this work called divisions) of approximately equal size. Each division had its own commander, subordinate officers, men-at-arms and archers. On the line of march, and particularly when the enemy was near, it was usual to concentrate most of the archers with the vanguard to repel any surprise attack and to cope with any attempted ambush. When forming up in battle line, the archers returned to their respective divisions.

The usual form of battle line consisted of the three divisions standing in line level with each other, with the men-at-arms and the armoured knights, who customarily dismounted for battle, formed into three solid blocks of men. There were gaps between the divisions. These were intended to make the handling of each division more flexible, to allow horsemen (if there were any) through and to allow the archers to escape to the rear if the enemy line came too near; the archers were too lightly armoured to engage in a general melee, although they sometimes did so, and their main purpose was to draw their bows to shoot arrows which would become impossible in any tight scrummage. The archers could be posted in a long line before the army, on the wings, or in a harrow shape formation between the divisions. If time permitted, they would drive stakes into the ground at an angle towards the enemy and sharpen the points to break up an enemy charge. Nets, if available, were often strung out to impede the enemy. Pavises, which resembling a door laid on its side, could be erected to give the archers some protection whilst still allowing them to shoot over the top. Calthrops, a five pointed star with sharpened points, could be thrown onto the ground. One point would always stick uppermost, and would injure any man or beast who trod on them.

During the War in France, raiding parties, perhaps a thousand strong, were frequently sent deep into enemy territory. Almost invariably they were mounted for fast movement, and they usually returned, laden with booty, and driving large herds of cattle before them. There were two main reasons why they were not employed during the Wars of the Roses. There was little incentive to alienate the populace by plundering them. The levies raised by the Commissions of Array were often green troops who were not reliable unless they were fighting in a mass alongside their comrades-in arms and under the watchful eyes of their officers; they would hardly be suitable for raiding parties where, as often as not, each man had to act on his own.

Since the days of Crecy 1346, English armies had customarily fought on foot, the armoured knights dismounting to take their places alongside the men-at-arms in the battle line. Usually only the senior commanders were mounted to enable them to move quickly about the battlefield, but this was not invariable; for instance, Warwick had dismounted at the battle of Barnet 1471, and doubtless many other commanders did the same. It is difficult to accept that commanders never kept some of their armoured knights on horseback, and several uses can be thought of for small parties of mounted men, even though they were very vulnerable to archers. They could cut off a section of the enemy which had unwisely become detached from their main body, they could quickly clear a woodland which lay on the flank of any advance, and they could advance rapidly to seize and deny to the enemy any feature for which he appeared to be making.

It is infuriating that the chroniclers were so inexact about the courses of the battles. There are several occasions when it might be supposed that a wise commander would keep some of his men mounted, and several contemporary pictures show mounted knights charging each other with lances. It is however impossible to confirm the truth of this. It does appear that, during the Wars of the Roses, there were only two instances of cavalry charges by sizeable numbers of horsemen - at the battles of Blore Heath 1459 and Bosworth 1485.

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Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003