Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Wars of the Roses Armies: Man, Arms & The Law

Archers practice at the butts c.1325

There were two basic legal statutes which required "all citizens, burgesses, free tenants, villeins and others from 15 to 60 years of age" to own arms and equipment. These were the Assize of Arms of 1181 (subsequently revised in part in 1252) and the Statute of Winchester of 1285. Between them they placed both the right to bear arms on every English free man and the duty to both own them and to bear them in the King's service when summoned by a lawful authority.

For each hundred (a nominal area of land and population) two constables were to be appointed, who besides being responsible for maintaining law and order, were to assess individuals for the level of equipment they were to own and to inspect that equipment twice a year. Justices of the Peace while on their periodic progresses through the hundreds, should hear the reports of the constables, outlining the levels of equipment and any deficiencies or defaults by individuals and appropriate measures taken to rectify a problem by way of a fine or other punishment.  

The initial requirements for the items to be owned were;

♦  For £15 of land, or 40 marks worth of chattels; a hauberk, a helm of iron, a sword, a knife and a horse.   
♦  For £10 of land, or twenty marks worth of chattels, a haubergeon, a helmet, a sword and a knife*.   
♦  For a 100/ (£5) of land, a doublet (i.e. a padded jack), a helmet of iron, a sword and a knife*.    
♦  For 40/ (£2) of land and over, up to 100/ (£5) worth, a sword, a bow, arrows and a knife.  
♦  He who has less than 40/ worth of land shall be sworn to have scythes, gisarmes, knives and other small weapons; he who has less than twenty marks in chattels, swords, knives and other small weapons.
All others who can do so shall have bows and arrows outside the forests and within them bows and bolts (i.e. crossbows) - In essence then, if you earn over £2, you should have a bow or crossbow.

* At some later point around 1300 the requirement to own a horse was added to both these classes, who were subsequently termed hobelars

Oddly the requirement for the first three categories to own a lance (i.e. a spear), present in the 1181 Statute is missing, but as this was an addendum, it is presumed that it was still required. Contrary to popular myth the only mandatory requirement to own a bow was for the men in the £2-5 bracket, for everyone else it was merely 'encouraged'. Certainly by the time of Edward III there was a fear that archery was dying out and with it an advantage for English armies that had barely begun to be appreciated. 

In 1363 Edward III issued a proclamation which included the requirement that;

♦ Every able-bodied man on feast days (including Sundays), when he has leisure shall in his sports use bows and arrows, pellets or bolts and shall learn and practice the art of shooting.

The proclamation then goes on to prohibit all sorts of games of chance and skill, other than shooting and then bemoans the degradation of archery, so as to threaten the numbers the realm could field. Interestingly the tract says "arrows, pellets and bolts", and while we know that crossbows were de rigueur for forest-dwellers from the Statute of Winchester (archers found in woods were arrested as poachers), 'pellets' are something else. Whether they refer to slings (unlikely), or the new handguns (which Edward had employed since 1344 and which are mentioned as firing 'pellets') is quite intriguing across the wider population at such an early date.  

Whatever is meant however, it seems clear that the proclamation is an attempt to increase the efficiency of the missile troops in general, rather than to increase the numbers available. No new laws requiring everyone to own a bow were issued, so ownership was only ever compulsory for the class of men specified in the Statute of Winchester. Similar requirements to practice and not play other sports or games were passed in 1414 and 1440 (and later in 1477), two of which oddly usually coincide with the early stages of planning large foreign military expeditions and so can be taken as attempts to ensure that the nation's archers were not unpractised when they time came.

For those above the £5 category, no real incentive was required. Bows were quite common the higher up the social scale you went, with some, along with sheaves of arrows, were often given as gifts between friends and even on occasion as part payment of debts and rent. Even for the gentry and aristocracy, archery was both a pastime and a hunting skill. Where more bows were needed were in the hands of those who did not have them, namely those below the £2 income level who could ill-afford them.

With some rough number crunching and access to studies on population spread and income, I have compiled a breakdown by county of the approximate numbers of men of each income level, which can be downloaded as Word document here. In short however, the relationships between each population income group can be broken down much more simply. For each 'Armiger' (man at arms, knight, or noble with the right to a coat of arms) with a nominal income of over £20, there were approximately, in simple terms, across the population as a whole;

  • 3 'Simple Gentry' (£15+) - mounted and armoured 'men at arms'.
  • 8 Wealthier Yeomen (£10-£15) - mounted 'spears', with jacks and helmets.
  • 15 Yeomen (£5-£10) - mounted archers with jacks and helmets.
  • 52 Husbandmen(£2-£5) - unarmoured archers.
  • 138 Labourers, villeins and others (under £2) - unarmoured bills. 

While this is not wholly representative across the whole of the population, due to variations in the relative wealth of areas, urban population distortions and other factors (which I covered here), it does give some idea of the ratios of troop types in relation to each other. In terms of general availability and use, bearing in mind that land still had to be worked; the higher the income, the less an individual was needed to work the land.

Simple Gentry were free of any real need to work and even when not away from their holdings, usually appointed someone to run their land. The Yeomen usually had their own tenants, who their wives, sons and daughters were quite capable of supervising while the man of the house was away. Only the Husbandmen and others were actual land workers, so unless their absence was of short duration, their livelihoods, the circulation of their crops into the economy and their landlord's income accordingly, would suffer for it. However there are also the numerous 'sturdy beggars' and 'vagrants' with no income, or land to work, to be considered as well.     

The Cost of War

All of England's armies which fought in France, other than those right at the beginning of the Hundred Years War, were essentially armies of men who were theoretically willing volunteers. With barely any serious use of the militia system, other than on the Scots Marches and during Glyndŵr's Revolt in 1403, those that preferred to be 'in England now-a-bed' were largely left alone to do so. The rates of pay had remained fairly static for over a century and only when troops were very hard to find, were there brief increases in the wages paid. War was an expensive business and Henry V almost pushed the kingdom to bankruptcy for his Agincourt campaign, only his victory prevented this from occurring. Attracting men by raising soldier's wages was just not a reality. 

15th Century soldiers had to provide their own arms and armour. To gain specific rates of pay, they had to present themselves with the specified equipment and in the case of archers, they had to have a bow of the required draw weight and to prove their ability with it. While in 1415 royal officials exchanged bows that were below standard for ones previously bought to the required specification and then extracted the cost from the archer's pay, this was an unusual event. In previous times a man would simply be turned away if he was not up to scratch, or paid at the footman rate at best.

While soldiers wages barely altered over a two hundred year period, they remained very competitive in spite of that. While a mounted archer might only earn 6-8d a day as a soldier and as a tradesman he might earn 10d per day, soldiers were paid every day of their service, not just work days and were entitled to a share of booty taken on campaign in addition. Just the wages of a mounted archer alone came close to placing him into the £10 income category that put him into a different class as regards the equipment he had to own. For the foot archers 4-6d a day definitely put them into the next bracket, as 4d alone amounted to £1 per year more than their current income.

Military equipment was not exactly cheap however. In the 1380s a war-standard bow cost 8d (around £150 in today's terms), but by the 1450s the price had risen to 2/ (£500) and by 1475 the price had to be capped by law at 4/ (£1000). Arrows had gone from ½d each (£10) to ¾d (£15), so a sheaf of twenty-four cost 18d (£375). A man earning £2 a year therefore, would have to spend over a month's wages, presuming that he was able to get a bargain. A cheap short sword, a falchion or other similar hand weapons, could be picked up for anything over a penny, but you would get what you paid for. It would be enough to 'pass muster' and gain your first ten days pay (2/6d) however, which would then be spent on food, ale and whatever else you needed for the time ahead.

A pretty average set of soldiers equipment,
which would cost at least around £2, or 
£10,000 in today's terms.
While some men would already possess these items, along with various items of armour and other equipment, anyone buying into it was facing yet further expense. An average sallet would set you back at least 13/ (£3250), although an antique bascinet with the visor removed might go for about half that. A new padded jack was around 20/ (£5,000), but if you were not too worried about the personal hygiene of the previous owner, a second-hand one could probably be acquired for half that. If you wanted to attract that extra 3d per day the mounted archers attracted, you would also need a horse and the least you could get away with would be a hackney at around 20/. As any horse owner will tell you though, the true cost is in terms of stabling and fodder, which were a considerable expense even in 1450.

Little wonder therefore that those who traditionally raised forces for foreign service amongst the gentry and nobility, often had a store of weapons and armour in their manor houses and castles, with which to equip their recruits. They received the correct pay for their company, while their 'naked menne of warre' received the lower pay rates, the recruiter pocketing the difference. While this sounds unfair, it allowed entry into a military career for those who could not otherwise afford to and who were likely to find 2d a day an actual increase in their income. Like the latter day French Foreign Legion, few questions were asked, other than "can you draw a bow?".

When Peace Broke Out

For much of the Hundred Years war a fairly constant cycle of men served overseas. The luckiest two thousand or so found almost permanent service in various garrisons, the plum-posting being selection to join the one at Calais and thus being employed directly by the King. Others of particular skill or prowess became full-time employees in the households of the chief nobles routinely engaged in war. Otherwise war was seasonal and largely dependant on there being a large campaign planned, requiring a lot of men.

The end of the Hundred Years War finished the somewhat lucrative military life (other than within the Calais Pale) and around 15,000 former soldiers were unceremoniously dumped in London, Southampton and the Cinque Ports. Some had been soldiering for much of their adult life and barely had any useful civilian skills with which to make a living. The rising political tensions had led some magnates to expand their households, but even if the whole of the 120 knights and nobles embarked on employing former soldiers, they would have to employ around 125 men each to swallow up the returning soldiery.

While some of the higher nobility did recruit men into their households at such figures in the 1450s, most did not and perhaps at best, 5,000 may have found employment in this way. For most of the rest it was a search for labouring jobs, or a return to former trades and homes. Some embarked on a life of crime and in the Home Counties there was a marked increase in highway robbery by small bands of desperate men.

Regardless of what they did however, ten thousand men were swallowed up into the existing population and while few would have strayed far from the more prosperous South of England, former soldiers represented only around one in fifty of the male population, even concentrated in these areas. Even if we allowed as much as a further 50% for those having previous military experience, but who had retired from serving before the 1450s, we are still talking a ratio of only one man in thirty. Any notion of the country being awash with disgruntled veterans just does not stand up to scrutiny.

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