One of the key factors that enabled the Wars of the Roses to happen was the military power held by individual nobles. While this was largely the case across the whole of Europe to a point, the English system had developed almost completely to the point that without the support of the nobility, an English king could not actually raise an army. While Henry IV and Henry V were strong kings, who were able to keep their nobles in line, the same was not true of Henry VI (not withstanding that he was a minor for much of his reign.
By the 15th Century war was no longer conducted with armies of nobles and knights, supported by a mass of ill-equipped and reluctant feudal levies. Professionals had largely replaced both types and if knights and nobles were present in a force, it was either as leaders of men, or in the capacity of professional soldier. France and Burgundy had even gone as far as to maintain permanent forces of men at arms and mounted infantry (and professional foot in the case of Burgundy).
The English monarchy was in no position to do the same however and even Henry V's 'Agincourt War' had only been possible through parliament voting him a 'double subsidy' (tax) and had things turned out differently the crown would have been bankrupted by the debts Henry incurred raising his army of 12,000 men. Had Henry been captured only a public subscription could have paid even the smallest of ransoms.
The disastrous campaigns which followed Henry's death did not improve matters and royal income was steadily reduced by the practice of paying the expenses of the nobles by granting them royal offices, the stewardship of royal castles and manors, as well as the right to collect taxes, customs and various duties for set periods. While this largely served the purpose of paying for the wars, it also created a cycle in which the crown would ever be in debt to its nobles.
The crunch came in the 1450s with the loss of all England's French possessions with the exception of Calais. The Dukes of Suffolk and York had both led forces in the final few years and while Suffolk's actions had been somewhat of a comedy of errors, he received full remuneration through the methods described above. York on the other hand found his were virtually worthless, either the taxes and duties due had already been collected for the year in question, or they were 'empty offices' with little if any of their supposed income evident. The blatant favouritism shown to Suffolk on this occasion was possibly the last straw for York.
The Indenture System
Since around the Mid-14th Century English Armies had been raised by the crown contracting with the more martial of the nobles and knights to raise men on their behalf. These in turn sub-contracted with others of their kind so as to provide the requisite numbers and types of men. These contracts were termed indentures, named for the serrated cut made between the respective halves of each contract as an anti-forgery measure.
Since the raising of men might be required at short notice, particularly in response to a raid by the Scots over the border, or by the French in one of England's possessions there, that such indentures became virtually permanent agreements and a sum of money - a retainer, paid to secure the service of an individual (who not surprisingly became a 'retainer') until he was needed in earnest.
The retainers themselves either served on an individual basis, accompanied by their own armed attendants (usually permanently employed members of their own households), or were to be the captains of companies of archers that would be raised for the duration of a single campaign. Such captains usually also sub-contracted with a small number of subordinates, who would be expected to raise their commands in a suitably short period.
With all free men still being required to own and bear arms according to their income, under the law as outlined in the post Man, Arms & The Law, there was no shortage of suitable potential recruits. Given that the quantities of any individual troop type far outstripped the crown's ability to pay them, there were always enough volunteers to man the armies raised. When money was an issue however, costs could still be cut by scouring the gaols for petty criminals willing to serve in return for a pardon.
The system worked well and with the exception of short-term emergencies; such as Hotspur's and Glyndwr's revolts in 1403, and of course the incessant tussles on the Scots Border, that there was no large-scale summoning of levies through Commissions of Array for the entire first half of the 15th Century.
Livery & Maintenance
While indentures survived into the 15th Century, they were increasingly replaced by a system known as Livery and Maintenance, which dispensed with the formal contract between individuals and instead relied on a kind of de jure feudalism of sorts. Technically the system was voluntary, but as the practice spread it was very much the case that choosing some local figure to serve, or to pin your star to, became a necessity rather than an option.
The system was simplicity itself and relied on an individual agreeing to do another's bidding when requested and usually military service in addition. Typically that person would wear the badge of the person they served, or in the case of the gentry and men of that ilk, an ornate metal collar (the 'sss' style of Henry V's men being a typical type), a signet ring, broach or other form of jewellery (like that of Richard III's 'hog' found at Bosworth) would be worn.
|A silver-plated boar broach, believed to have been worn by one of Richard III's followers at Bosworth.|
Members of an individual's household or those serving them in an official capacity (including when serving under arms), would wear a coat or tabard in that person's 'livery colours' (in the same way that today jockeys wear the colours of their employer). Unlike retaining which typically only encompassed the social elite, men of all stations could and did enter the service of others in this way, although those at the bottom undoubtedly did so via intermediaries.
In return the person they chose to serve would use his position (or those of his subordinates) to 'maintain' them, i.e. support them in their own endeavours, by way of official posts, recommendations for custom, urging people to vote a certain way. The most outward display of maintenance in action was in court. Presuming that the judge or magistrate was not actually maintained by your own 'good lord', or the jury was not packed with fellow supporters of him, both could be intimidated, either by actual physical threat, or by the site of numerous men in your lord's livery.
Local politics in the 15th Century became a case of whoever had the largest 'affinity' (the sum total of hirelings, retainers, men maintained by them and their political allies - 'well-wishers') dominated any given area. The most notable example of this was the Percy Family, known as 'The Kings of the North'. Despite losing ground at the start of the century, they could still summon around 1,000 men from the streets of York alone, in a naked display of power against their Neville rivals.
Local Warfare On A National Scale
While most histories of the Wars of the Roses concentrate on the big names and the big events, it was local level politics that kept the fire stoked. The Duke of York only gained the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick as 'well-wishers' due to the favouritism shown towards the Percy family by the Duke of Somerset's faction. The Earl of Devon had been an erstwhile supporter of the Duke of York until his bitter rival Lord Bonville became one of York's party.
Up and down the whole country areas were quite polarised by their support of one faction against another, based on which noble held the balance of power in that area. In Derbyshire and Staffordshire, the Greys opposed the Talbots, Beaumonts and Vernons. In Lancashire it was the Harringtons and others against the Stanleys. In Norfolk the Mowbrays were opposed to the Pastons, the De Veres and other beneficiaries of Sir John Fastolf's inheritance and indeed it was inheritance disputes that were usually at the root of all these feuds.
My favourite analogy for this era is that of imagining 15th Century England as being run like organised crime in the USA in the 1920s and '30s, but with no Justice and Treasury Department agents around. The royals and nobles are the crime families and syndicates, acknowledging the supremacy of one of their kind for as long as it lasted. Turf wars, 'hits', extortion, corruption and even bootlegging, not to mention the occasional St. Valentine's Day Massacre and piracy on the high seas, all some 500 years before Al Capone was born.
Like organised crime, occasionally Someone lower down the scale would step out of line. Lord Grey of Codnor attacked a body of the Earl of Shrewsbury's men in 1467, his target was his rival Roger Vernon, who was killed in the attack. Reprisal and counter-reprisal followed and Grey's 'capo' William Lord Hastings, along with the King's brother, the Duke of Clarence and the king's father-in-law Earl Rivers, were despatched to restore order. The end result was that Grey, the murdered Vernon's son Henry and Shrewsbury, were all bound over to keep the peace after all three attempted to intimidate juries sitting on the various criminal cases which followed.
Grey was once more in trouble during 1471, this time he was inciting the population against Nottingham's mayor. Hastings was to take Henry Vernon on as a retainer in the same year, while Codnor was still of his affinity. It is imagined that when the two encountered one another in Hasting's service, things were probably a touch tense to say the least. Richard III as Duke of Gloucester, had interceded with a body of men on the side of the Harringtons (part of his affinity), in their dispute with the Stanleys, which might partly explain their subsequent actions at Bosworth some few years later.
The younger members of 15th Century 'crime families' were no less impulsive than junior members of their latter day exemplars. The Percy-Neville dispute was largely perpetuated through the juniors of the families, Lord Egremont in the case of the Percys, with Thomas and John Neville (later Lord Montagu) on the other side. Egremont's partners in crime appear to have been his brother Richard and John Clifford, eldest son of Thomas Lord Clifford - some ten years his junior and it was seemingly Egremont leading Clifford astray, despite the latter's later reputation as 'Butcher Clifford'.
Egremont was certainly of the same blood as his 'Hotspur' ancestor. In 1447 he and his men had attacked the Archbishop of York and his men, subsequently being imprisoned for that offence. He had attacked royal officials in Cumberland, including the Sheriff, in 1453 and was languishing in prison in London when his father fell at the Battle of St. Albans in 1455. This brash young man's career was to be cut short when he was killed at the Battle of Northampton in 1460. Similar stories can be found all over the country and an affray near Coventry in 1448, where Harcourts and Staffords clashed, resulting in the deaths of Richard Stafford and two Harcourt Retainers, were not uncommon occurrences in these turbulent times.
Unsurprisingly perhaps then local grudges were often settled in national battles, or sometimes in their aftermath. Shropshire legend has it that Lord Audley was slain by Sir Roger Kynaston at Blore Heath, so that Kynaston could marry Audley's widow. The two certainly married some time later and it is possible that Audeley's death in battle, at that time still an unusual occurrence, might have more to it than meets the eye. The summary execution of Lord Bonville after the 2nd Battle of St. Albans in 1461, owed more to his feud with the Earl of Devon than it did to his politics, Bonville had taken no part in the battle and had remained with the King throughout it. Other executions in other battles often had overtones of personal revenge, which were often more to do with local family feuds than national politics.