Sunday, 28 September 2014

Wars of the Roses Armies:
15th Century England

In 1480 England had a population of around 2.5 million souls, a massive reduction in comparison to the previous mid-century figure, mostly due to the ravages of the Black Death and from which the population had yet to recover. Most common sources assess the able-bodied male population of military service age (16-60) as being a rough 17.5% of the total (children formed around 40% of the total population and presuming someone survived infancy, their life expectancy was averaged at 59), so around 437,500 adult men were available for military service across the length and breadth of England. Some 60,000 of those were clergy, monks, or otherwise tied to the church in some way or form. The majority of the population lived in the countryside and were employed as agricultural workers, or the various crafts related to it. 

In terms of population density, the Home Counties had the highest man per acre levels, followed the Midlands and East Anglia. The sparsest populated areas were Cornwall, Mid and North Wales and England North of the River Trent. Towns and cities had approximately half the population of the previous mid-century. London was the largest city with a population of around 25,000, followed by York and Bristol with around 6-8,000, then Coventry, Norwich, Newcastle, Salisbury, Exeter, Ipswich and Canterbury, all with populations in the region of 3-5,000. Most other towns had populations varying between 1,500 and 3,000 souls. 

London had not overly expanded since 1300. There was slightly more development in Southwark to either side of the High Street, but otherwise the area was largely unchanged. To the North of St. Mary's at Spital, the areas known as Shoreditch and Hoxton were gaining an unsavoury reputation as fleshpots and dens of vice, their popularity assisted by the Lord Mayor of London opening the wall and building 'Moor Gate' (shown on the map) in 1415.

The Gentry & Aristocracy

At the top of English society were the 'armigers', those individuals who were entitled to bear a coat of arms. While traditionally this had been confined to the 'warrior caste' of knights and nobles, by the 15th Century this had widened considerably to include town and city burgesses, merchants, lawyers and especially bankers, all of whom in some way had generally loaned or given money to the crown (a number of Italian names crop up in lists of who was knighted during the 15th Century). The De La Pole family for example, rose from fish merchants to royal heirs, in just over a century and of course Henry VII himself owed his claim to the throne to the marriage of his minor gentry grandfather to Henry V's widowed queen.  

Sat astride the gulf between commoners and armigers were around 5,000 'simple gentlemen' (owners of land, rather than workers of it) with incomes under £20 per year. Above them were the lowest of the armigers, the 1,200 or so 'esquires' and approximately 800 'knights bachelor' (knighted for the term of their lives), whose incomes mostly (but not always) ranged between £20 - £40 per year. There were finally around sixty 'knights banneret' (hereditary knights) with incomes largely above the £40 mark. In all but name these last men were often receiving income from land at least equal to that of the lowest of the actual aristocracy (the Lords). 

The actual nobility within which titles were passed through the family line to the oldest male of each generation, with junior siblings gaining the rank of knight banneret (but generally no land in the process), numbered around sixty. These consisted of four dukes, thirteen earls, three viscounts and around forty lords. Dukes and earls were roughly equal in terms of the land held, but the title duke implied a blood relation to the royal house, while earl generally did not. Some of the Lords were first sons of Earls, but held land in their own right (through marriage for example) until they ascended to the superior title. 

The Common Folk

Aside from the above 7,000 or so, the remaining adult males (c. 370,500) formed a pyramid with much more modest incomes and lifestyles. In terms of population breakdown, around 12,000 were the wealthiest of the Yeomen (freehold farmers), earning below £15 per year (as far as the tax man was concerned in any case). Roughly 32,000 Yeomen and master craftsmen were bringing in smaller incomes of between £5 and £10 per year. Around 88,000 were tenant farmers, time-served skilled workers, smallholders and 'husbandmen' and were achieving incomes of between £2 and £5. The remaining 238,000 or so were semi-skilled workers, seasonal workers, villeins, cottars and unskilled labourers, who earned below £2.

For terms of reference some examples show, a shepherd earned 20/ in a year, while a pig-man in the same record received 15/8d. A group of husbandmen received 26/ each, while another received 20/ and a 'toga' worth 5/ (he was however owed wages, for which he went to court over). Other husbandmen of the same period were only getting 16/8d, but received a clothing allowance of 4/. The Statute of Labourers of 1495 set maximum rates of 20/ per year, plus meat and drink, and a 5/ clothing allowance, for shepherds, carters and ploughmen. These wages were actually far lower than the 'wages boom' of the initial Post-Black Death period, yet are higher than the average for 1450.    

In terms of income £1 in 1480 is the equivalent to around £5,000 today (when adjusted for necessary standard payments and charges, in naked value it is nearer £500). For those of you not familiar with 'old money' £1 was twenty shillings (20/), or 240 pence (240d) with 12d to 1/. Occasionally a 'Mark' might also be mentioned, which was an accounting term in England for a two-thirds of £1, i.e. 13/4d (or 160d). While this may seem interesting but irrelevant, it did actually have a bearing on weapon and armour ownership, which I will cover in the next post.

Man & The Land

The Black Death had vastly reduced the population of England, with some towns suffering a population reduction of over 50%. Population continued to decline over the century, but was starting to rise slowly from the 1450s onwards. Agricultural production had suffered, both as a result of the population drop and due to incentives offered by landlords, to effectively allow villeins to 'buy their freedom' and become tenants, rather than see them leave their landholdings and seek wages elsewhere. While agricultural output was on the increase, it was failing to keep pace with the rise in population.

While there was to be no repeat of the 'Great Famines' of the early 14th Century, farming was effectively at subsistence level. There was enough surplus to support the urban population of any area and by and large the rural population had sufficient for its needs. A sudden large influx of additional mouths to feed however, such as the presence of a large army, would stretch the capacity of any area to feed it. This would be even more pronounced in the more sparsely populated areas. The more realistic of the figures given for army sizes in the era, imply that 3-6,000 men were the limits any single district could support at any one time as the force moved through it. 

Larger armies had to either stagger their march, or adopt different routes to arrive at the same point. Having arrived at that point, it was a race against time to bring the enemy to battle before supplies got scarce. Edward IV's army that was raised for Towton in 1461, was exceptionally large for its time and even the most conservative estimates put it at around 25,000 men. For the march North it was divided into three parts, with one heading up Watling Street to the Midlands, another heading off into East Anglia (to recruit even more men) and the final part was to head up the Great North Road and even then it was staggered between two departure dates. 

The equally as large Lancastrian Army had originated from very diverse areas (the Far North, the West Country and Wales) and marched towards Pontefract to form up, so was somewhat less problematic. A previously large army of some 15,000, mostly Northerners and Scots, who were to fight at the 2nd Battle of St. Albans, had been permitted to pillage as they proceeded and so avoided the problems of supply. Lancastrian forces after Towton, confined to the Far North, were much smaller forces, both due to the low populations of those areas and the logistics of keeping what men they had fed.  

The other problem with military activity was also the manpower involved. With population outpacing the production of food to feed it, removing large numbers of men from the land only made things worse. The crucial time was Harvest time (Late Summer), when even women and children worked from sunrise to dusk to bring the crops in. Spring was also busy, but somewhat less labour intensive. The traditional lengths of compulsory military service were forty days outside of a man's home county and a full levy of the population was rarely if ever attempted. A levy assessment for just 13,000 archers in 1457, was to be conducted over several of the more populous southern counties, just to prevent such a labour drain.

While levies of the general population were used from time to time during the Wars of the Roses, the bulk of the forces were raised from those areas where knights and nobles had concentrations of land-holdings and the local political clout to summon men to their standards. Some of these would be their own tenants and workers, while others would be those of their retainers and 'well-wishers'. As a result the men raised to fight were often drawn from a disproportionately concentrated area, rather than the more usual broad spread of land, as was the case with planned 'militia' levies. As a result, both the noble raising the force and his subordinates within it, would all be conscious of the income they were losing while 'their men' were away from the land.  


  1. Thank you that was scholarly and worth reading.
    I learned a bit.
    An ole history teacher

    1. You're welcome and thank you!

      Truth told though, it was 'ole history teachers' like yourself who got me hooked way back when I was at school who deserve any gratitude owing. I can't think what life would have been like without that acorn of inspiration they passed to me.