Friday, 26 September 2014

Richard III and all that...
Wargaming The Wars of The Roses

Graham Turner invariably depicts the chaos of Wars of the Roses battles superbly. This is his depiction of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. 

My introduction to the Wars of the Roses came a long time ago, with two childhood trips, the first with the School to the Bosworth Battlefield site in Leicestershire and the second in the form of a family trip to nearby Warwick Castle, the seat of Warwick the Kingmaker, that archetypical 'over-mighty subject of the age. While a popular wargaming period the Wars of the Roses are still somewhat obscure in the popular imagination, despite gallons of ink and reams of paper being utilised in books and magazines. I devoted approximately a third of my degree course on the wars and uncountable hours both before and since those three years of in-depth study. The one thing I took from all that was that I actually knew far less about the era than I thought I did.   

Despite numerous books on the topic, the perception of the Wars of the Roses still largely derives from Shakespeare's depiction of them, itself a popular perception based on necessary 'Tudor spin-doctoring' that cemented Elizabeth I's right to rule in those troubled times of the 16th Century. All of this came to the top once more during the recent discovery and re-interment of Richard III in Leicester. Any objective view of the era is tainted by popularism of personalities, efforts to justify the legitimacy of the current royal family and of course the lack of surviving documentation.

The usual sources and accounts used in articles tend to have been written during the reign of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Given the efforts made to preserve their respective rules, it is not surprising perhaps that anything that ran counter to the 'official line' did not survive and that the 'histories' created during their reigns are both suspect in their agendas and of course the time gaps between writing and events. Surprisingly therefore they still tend to be the main accounts relied on by wargamers and some historians. While the degree of spin is not known, the comparison with potential future historians relying on the works of David Irving to understand the Holocaust is a fair one.

The Story So Far...


The Tudor Rose, symbolising the unification
of the houses of York (white) and Lancaster
(red), under a dynasty whose progenitor had
needed a law passing to legitimise his own
claim to the throne.
The armies of the protagonists during the infrequent outbreaks of dynastic violence, which we have come to call the 'Wars of the Roses', were somewhat of a blip in the progress from a Posse Comitatus style temporary levying of men for military service, to one in which men generally served on a voluntary basis, or did not serve at all. For over a century the provision of military forces had largely been on the basis of men serving voluntarily on fixed term contracts, under professional military contractors. In real terms this was not unlike the 'private military contractors' of the present day. When the King needed an army, he went to these men to provide them. The exceptions to this rule were that the militia North of the River Trent were routinely raised to repel Scottish raids and that infrequent rebellions, of which Wat Tyler's Revolt had been the first since 1403, saw the wholesale raising of the militia on the line of march.

While a strong ruler was in control, things largely went as they should and any wrongdoing by these contractors was kept in check. If one should get above himself, it was usually the case that other contractors and their men, could be used to bring him back in line. The Crown itself had no army of its own, other than the professionals of the royal garrisons of Berwick and Calais and barring the conscription of ordinary men, relied almost wholly on its 'PMCs'.

The crown was continuously in a financial crisis and war was an expensive business. Henry V had virtually bankrupted the crown to mount his expedition of 1415 and only victory put him in 'the black' for a period of time. Thankfully the crown's sub-contractors were wealthy men and able to bear the expense of raising and operating their 'companies'. At some point payment became due however and the crown would extend royal offices, tax and customs collection franchises, and other things of that type, to settle its bills. The result was that magnates became ever more powerful and their own sub-contractors benefited from their largesse. My favourite analogy for the system is that of the Mafia and organised crime of the Early 20th Century, with rival crime families vying for influence and power in loose and shifting associations.

Armies Before The Wars of the Roses


The bulk of forces sent to fight in France were quite compact. Each nobles or knight contributing relatively small contingents each, containing men picked and chosen from the masses wanting to sign up. As a result the armies that went to France tended to contain the best men England could produce. As sometimes emergencies could crop up which required the deployment of men in a hurry, it became common to permanently employ a core of skilled professionals on a full-time basis, who lived on or near a noble or knight's main estate. Taking turns in serving within their lord's house, these became known as 'household men'. Even the King had a household.

Other knights and gentry were essentially kept on standby and received periodic or life 'retainers' in return for contracting to serve when summoned. Others might simply indicate that they would come when called and were known as 'well-wishers'. These might have their own arrangements with others of their class, or might be tasked with raising companies by normal recruitment. Whatever the method, there was always a core of men ready to serve almost immediately and a much larger web of associations, which could raise an army in a matter of weeks.

This method had worked very well for much of the Hundred Years War, but once the French began winning back the land they had lost from 1429, the appeal of war as a means of income started to wane. It became noticeable that before an expedition was sent off, 'captains' would scour the gaols for petty offenders not sentenced for capital crimes and who were willing to serve as archers in return for a pardon. Other captains raised their companies 'on the fly'; they set up their standard in a market place and attempted to recruit their companies there and then.

The amount of knights and nobles willing to raise forces was dropping too, largely because of the uncertainty of being reimbursed if things went badly, which they increasingly did. While an army had previously contained many men of rank, now it was rare to find enough to command each of the three traditional divisions of an army. Instead of dukes and earls aplenty, subordinate commanders were often knights or esquires, or even meaner men. In 1453 the Earl of Shrewsbury's army in France contained only the brother of Lord Clifford as a person of note.

The Wars of the Roses



With political tensions increasing and occasional violence between rival nobles, many of them expanded their households and extended their network of retainers and well-wishers. Veterans returning from France became highly sought after for their experience and noted local archers were usually scooped up too. Those lords not caught up in the high politics of the day, used the disintegration of government and order to settle old scores. Even if purely for the benefit of protection from unemployed soldiers turned robbers, or those already involved in that life, if you could afford to, you gathered armed men around you.

The majority of armies of the Wars of the Roses were composed of the households and retainers of the nobles and knights involved in any particular phase of the wars. While it was not a civil war as such, with a nationwide polarity between 'York and Lancaster', local politics could still draw in the local population. One thousand men from York and its environs were raised by the Percy family in its pre-war dispute with the Nevilles and in 1470 a similar number of men were recruited from Bristol to support Lord Berkeley against Viscount Lisle's forces.

Some use was made of commissions of array to raise men under the common law requirement to bear arms when the King ordered it, but those who held rolling commissions could call-up the men in those areas to serve whomever he had attached his star to. There were even cases of rival commissions being employed in the same areas. Sometimes the commissioners were unable to raise the men stipulated, because so many of them had been retained by various nobles and were therefore exempted from the levy, as the men retaining them did so theoretically on royal authority, whatever their actual loyalties. While not universally true, those men who had not been retained were usually of little value militarily.

Aside from the willing men who retained, or were retained, there were still a large number of men who were essentially still 'serfs', or had leases which stipulated periods of military service at their landlords behest. Like the men subject to the provisions of commissions of array, they could be somewhat reluctant soldiers, although traditional allegiances and the kind of man their lord was could offset this. Lord Montagu struggled to raise the tenants on estates granted to him after Towton, as the inhabitants "knew no lord but a Percy".

From these disparate sources considerable armies could be raised by some individuals. The Duke of Buckingham needed 2,000 'bends' (sashes with his badge on), while his son ordered 3,000 livery jackets in 1483. The Percy family could apparently muster around 6,000 or so from their Yorkshire estates alone. Even just in terms of households and principle retainers - men at arms and mounted archers, magnates had quite large riding retinues. The Duke of York had 200 with him when he entered London for the 'Love Day', the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick in the region of 3,00 apiece. When Warwick inherited his father Salisbury's lands, the implication is that he could thus double his force.

Most knights and nobles had more modest followings however, with 'riding retinues' in the region of between twenty and a hundred men, while the total of the forces they could raise altogether was probably in the region of 500 to 1,000. Nevertheless when several nobles and their retainers got together, divisions of two or three thousand men could be formed and when combined with others of the same faction could result in armies of between 6,000 and 12,000 could be assembled with ease.

The ultimate armies of the era were those of the Battle of Towton, which realistically must have numbered at least 12,000 men per side and potentially as many as 25,000 per side. The city of York alone sent 1,000 men to that battle, but was never able to repeat that amount. Towton is exceptional however and necessitated the armies be broken up for the march, with each division following different routes.

The reason for this was that any single region could not feed an army of that size. While there were men enough to form bigger armies, population was outstripping the land's ability to feed it. Stripping any area of manpower for an extended period also resulted in a reduction of output and a dearth of food, as well as lost income for the men owning that land; the gentry, knights and nobles, who needed that income to maintain their forces.

As I mentioned above this was not a civil war and actual participation by the population at large and even the aristocracy, was not total, or even approaching that. Some magnates never involved themselves at any point in the conflicts, while others appear for a single bout of fighting, never to be heard from again in that context. Other than those areas where those who involved themselves in the fighting held land, or those communities astride the main thoroughfares, many people would be unaware there was fighting going on, until there was news of some battle in some distant place.

Rabble or Army?

The troops which took part in the Battle of St. Albans in 1455 were almost wholly drawn from the professional soldiery employed by the magnates. Those of Towton on the other hand only contained a core of such men, with the majority levied from ordinary citizens.

From a wargaming perspective, the understanding of the battles, wars and the raising of troops to fight them, is somewhat of a quagmire. Typically comparisons are drawn between the armies of the Hundred Years War, with their deliberate cherry-picking from amongst the forces of professional warlords and the hastily raised armies of tenants and townsmen, which formed the bulk of a typical Wars of the Roses Army. The same surviving indenture of Walter Strickland is usually trotted out and invariably dated as 1455, 1459 or whenever, despite its use of language and terms from the Mid-Sixteenth Century.  

The 'Bridport Muster Roll' is another hardy perennial source, despite being a survey of arms rather than a muster roll, unless of course women routinely fought in the wars. What it does point to is that unlike previous conflicts, communities were now buying and possessing parts of harness individually and that these were then pooled to equip those men who did go to fight; a practice generally believed to have originated in the Tudor Era. Despite its close proximity to the latter part of the wars, Tudor practices which are equally as relevant in terms of elapsed time as the usual Hundred Years War sources, are often ignored as relevant.

English men did not wake up on the morning of 23rd August 1485 and think "We are Tudors now, let's completely change our way of war". Like any other period there was a process of change which took place over an extended period. In the 20th Century where British soldiers went into the Boer War with the Lee-Metford, into the Great War with the similar Lee-Enfield and were still using the same weapon in 1939. The Enfield was finally replaced in 1957, but nobody would suggest that the same tactics were used from 1900 to 1957, or indeed that the army of 1900 was the same as that of 1957 in terms of tactics or composition either.       

While the pace of change was much slower in the 15th Century, the idea that an army of professionals in 1346, 1356, 1415 or 1453, all used the same methods is ridiculous and was certainly not the case form what we know. To then apply those methods used by those career soldiers to armies formed at the drop of a hat, from across the general non-military population, is somewhat astounding. Henry V spent six months selecting and shaking-down his army for his adventure of 1415. The typical soldier of the Wars of the Roses had been raised, marched-off, fought a battle and had hopefully returned home in half that time at the very most. Even Edward IV's army that was selected for his French expedition of 1475, was criticised by contemporaries for its lack of discipline and formation on the march; ordered ranks and files of men these armies were not.

The longest period of continuous military activity during the Wars of the Roses was the period between the Duke of York's leaving of London for Wakefield in October 1460, to the Battle of Towton in March 1461, a mere five months. Presuming that the men raised for these forces served continuously (albeit York's army was destroyed and Edward IV's army for Towton was only raised in late January), there is barely any time available for training in formation fighting and manoeuvre. Many men would also be unfamiliar with their weapons having never had call to use them. 

The strict selection of competent archers that marked Hundred Year War armies would also be impossible; if you carried a bow you were an archer, plain and simple. Probably the armies which fought at Bosworth in 1485 had more in common with the English Army at Flodden in 1513, than it did with that of Agincourt in 1415. Tudor methods which have been preserved in various assessments and musters, are probably more in tune with the Wars of the Roses than is typically believed and there is a relative wealth of those surviving, all of which are often ignored when something is written about the Wars of the Roses.

Local Wars For Local People

Simple road encounters and scuffles could spark feuds that lasted for decades, although there was usually an underlying dispute at the root of any disagreement. Medieval gentry tended to rely on the courts in the first instance, but were not slow in drawing swords when that failed to deliver the expected result. 

I found pinning down the composition of a typical Wars of the Roses army to be both frustrating and fairly impossible given the dearth of suitable information and sources. While I believe that Tudor documents tend to offer a closer approximation of reality than earlier ones, that is still just my opinion rather than actual fact. During my studies I became more interested in local conflicts and rivalries between regional affinities, such as the Neville-Percy dispute, the Courteney-Bonville dispute, as well as those that took place between much lower-ranking individuals.

While these conflicts did not produce mass battles, they did determine who fought for whom in them and did determine events to a degree. Lord Audley was slain at Blore Heath, reputedly by the low-ranking Sir Roger Kynaston so that he could continue his affair with Audley's wife. That Kynaston married Audley's widow is a matter of record, so there may very well be some truth in the folk tale. The 'Battle' of Nibley Green in 1470 featured armies of under a thousand men per side and settled the dispute between the Berkeleys and Talbots. These tales tend not to feature within the greater narrative of the wars, yet potentially offer far more satisfying scenarios for the gamer.

Berkeley for example was not apparently a very nice guy. Despite this his brother-in-law spent his own money on hiring men from Bristol to beef-up his meagre forces to take the field against Talbot. Berkeley and Talbot had previously exchanged letters and arranged to meet up to settle matters. The men from Bristol apparently tipping the scales in Berkeley's favour. Berkeley was later to renege on the deal he had made with his brother-in-law in return for the troops he hired too. 

Kynaston's son was to have a career as 'Wild Humphrey', Shropshire's version of Robin Hood (sort of at least) and was to wage a sort of guerrilla war against supporters of the Earl of Arundel during Henry VII's reign. Presumably matters were settled at some future point as Kynaston served in the Royal Army in France in 1513. Most counties in England have similar individuals and stories and indeed outside of the Wars of the Roses Era. 

The point is that there is scope for limited warfare at quite a low level, indeed going as far as to make it possible to game a campaign, with each player representing individuals with somewhat meagre forces at their disposal. Top level Wars of the Roses campaigns on the other hand tend to be unrealistic, due to most real campaigns being over after a battle has been fought. Some local disputes went on for decades, with numerous small actions and scuffles as part and parcel of them.

Tom, Dick & Harry

My favourite segment of the Wars of the Roses is the period from Edward IV's death in 1483 to the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487. This is largely because of the previously mentioned childhood trips and somewhat to do with my reading Sharon Penman's The Sunne in Splendour back in 1982, which really set the ball rolling. It is perhaps the part of the era that can most be identified with the image of back-stabbing and plotting Shakespeare left us with. It is also a natural follow-on from my other Medieval project, the Franco-Burgundian War of 1477 to 1482.

It is a time of two kings, Richard III and Henry VII. It is also the time of two prominent and intriguing characters of the time; Lord Thomas Stanley and Henry Duke of Buckingham. Having been born, brought up, lived and worked in the South Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire and Welsh Marches area, for most of my life, I also have a keen interest in that broad area. The period in question was one of great activity in local politics, as well as quasi-military activity as the balance of power ebbed and flowed across the region.

As I do not intend to build up massive armies for this project and that there is a fair degree of information about local families, political alliances and a degree of blood spilt in the area, I decided on pursuing this period at a low level, with 'skirmishes' as opposed to mass battles. With a degree of latitude and avoiding a slavish adherence to real events, I opted to create a fictional setting in which to pitch local 'faces' against each other, within the four year period mentioned above. The missing element was a suitable set of rules for Medieval skirmishes.    

Lion Rampant

My discovery of Dan Mersey's Lion Rampant Medieval Skirmish rules was a bit of an eureka moment for me, as it allowed me to play the very battles I mentioned in the above section. They did not work so well for my Franco-Burgundian War project, but then we are actually talking more about an 'Early Modern' war there, rather than a low key Medieval conflict, which is what the rules are designed for. For low-level actions in England though, they work as well for the 15th Century as they do for any other. Until their release I had pretty much given up on the Wars of the Roses as a gaming period, but they have certainly revived my interest and will enable games of a much smaller scale than I had previously planned for.

I have tinkered with the forces contained in the rulebook to give them a more 'War of the Roses' period feel, but that being said, there is no real reason why you could not just use the forces right out of the rulebook. If you do want to go down the same road as I did, the relevant post: Lion Rampant & The Wars of the Roses will give you what you need. I also created some Wars of the Roses Campaign Rules that expand those outlined in Lion Rampant itself. Between these two elements I have the basis for playing out the mini-battles I wanted to undertake.

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