Thursday, 23 April 2015

Wars of the Roses Armies
Households & Riding Retinues

Graham Turner's evocative illustration of 'speres' in action at Towton in 1461.

"... As for speremen they ben good to ryde be-fore the
foote men and ete and drynke uppe hyr vetayle, and 
many moo suche prety thyngys they doo...".

- William Gregory 1461.

It is very difficult to separate mounted troops from foot troops in most sources. Invariably numbers are usually given in terms of overall manpower, be it the realistic 6,000 men in Edward IV's army at Tewkesbury, or the wildly impossible 100,000 men at Towton. On occasion however it is possible to find separate references to wholly mounted forces and by cross-matching other sources; if a man receives wages in one document and receives payment for the upkeep of a horse in another, it is safe to assume he serves as a  mounted man. Sadly some researchers only concern themselves with the 'military' nuggets of information and not the otherwise dull 'domestic' ones.

In 1455 fresh from their victory at St. Albans, the victorious Yorkist lords rode post-haste to London, taking Henry VI with them and leaving some 2-3,000 footmen trudging in their wake. The Duke of York apparently had 500 men, including '140 of his own household', while the Earl of Salisbury and his son the Earl of Warwick, had 400 and 300 respectively. John Mowbray Duke of Norfolk, turned up too late for the battle itself, but nevertheless made it to London with a retinue which included four knights, 45 esquires and eleven other men at arms, putting him in the same ballpark as the other Yorkist lords if we add the invariable mounted archers who would have accompanied the men named above.

The Lancastrian army of some 2,000 men they had defeated is believed to have consisted almost solely of the households and few retainers of the lords in company with the King. The Dukes of Buckingham and Somerset, Somerset's son the Marquis of Dorset, the Earls of Northumberland, Devon, Pembroke and Wiltshire, as well as the Lords Stafford (Buckingham's son), Clifford, Dudley and Roos, mustered an average of just under 200 men each. Given that Buckingham and Northumberland were noted as having large households and 'riding retinues', the rest must have had somewhat fewer as a result.

For the series of discussions that took place in 1458, culminating in the 'Love Day' pageant, these same Yorkists arrived outside London with similar numbers of men in tow as had been the case in 1455. York's retinue consisted of 400 horsemen, Salisbury's 500 (of which 80 were reported as being knights and esquires) and Warwick arrived with 600 horsemen some time later. The Lancastrians on the other hand were seemingly taking no chances this time. Between them The Duke of Exeter, the Earl of Northumberland, his brother Lord Egremont and Lord Clifford, brought 1,500 horsemen from the North, 300 of them in Exeter's retinue alone. From the South-West the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Devon came with 200 and 300 horsemen respectively. 

These bodies of men were what were called 'riding retinues' and consisted of the military men employed within their households, as well as those of their retainers and 'well-wishers'. In terms of the overall military forces that such men could draw on, they were the small core around which an army would be built. For each man at arms or archer within a riding retinue, a further five or six tenants or servants on foot could probably also be raised. On 'home ground' even more men could be raised. The Percys could not only bring around 6-700 men in a riding retinue to London, but were reputed to have contributed some 6-7,000 men in total for the Battle of Towton.

Illustrations from the Beauchamp Pageant show a wide variance in the armour worn by men at arms, ranging from the fully-armoured 'knights', to others wearing brigandines, mail and only partial plate armour.

Anyone who was anyone in the 15th Century had a household. This might merely be one or two domestic staff in the case of the gentry and the wealthier yeomen, but it usually contained one person with at least a part-time military function. It would not even be unusual to find a mounted archer with a 'household' of a man who also served and drew pay as a foot archer for example, although the 'knight' with his 'squire' and 'groom' are the archetypical example. Walter Strickland Esquire had two servants, both 'able with a bow' and John Paston privately retained two archers as servants for 2d per day, while he served in the Calais garrison.

Some men had considerably larger households, such as John Crokker Esquire, who besides his custril and page, had ten servants, all of whom were archers. Sir Robert Harcourt had sixty men with him at Coventry Faire in 1448, when he was involved in street brawl with the men of Sir Humphrey Stafford. Presumably Stafford's household was of a similar size, as there were only three men killed, one of whom was Stafford's eldest son, the first man to fall. Had Stafford's retinue been significantly smaller, more casualties might be expected in such a one-sided affair.

When we usually talk about riding retinues however, they are the households of more prominent individuals, to which are added the households of men like Stafford, Harcourt, Crokker, Paston and all the others, regardless of their size. In the 1470s the Duke of Norfolk had a household of 98, divided into 23 'staff' (who wore a livery of red and tawny) and 75 'servants' (who wore blue livery). Norfolk was routinely accompanied by a bodyguard of twenty mounted archers, although this could be reduced to ten on his 'own turf', such as his visit to Ipswich in 1483. Sir William Stanley sailed for France with the army in 1475, solely accompanied by twenty mounted archers as his bodyguard.     

On that same visit to Ipswich, Norfolk was to hear that Edward IV was close to death and set out immediately for London. He arrived the following day, with an entourage of thirty horsemen who he had presumably summoned before setting out and who had joined him en-route. By the time Norfolk returned home, he had 130 horsemen with him. Clearly he had summoned some of his retainers and their men to bolster his own household.

Maintaining households was not cheap and while the usual expected cost of a lord's total outgoings was £500 per year, Norfolk was spending £300 per year on wages alone, which would also be the case for the Duke of York. In Norfolk's day the Dukes of Gloucester and Buckingham are also maintaining households of similar size and these are the men who rode immediately to intercept Edward V and Earl Rivers, who presumably had somewhat fewer.

When these various households combined to form riding retinues, substantial numbers of men could be gathered. Along with his legislation against 'livery and maintenance' Edward IV suggested that retinues should be limited in size to 240 for a duke, 140 for an earl, 40 for a lord, 24 for a knight banneret and 16 for knights ordinary and esquires. Presumably these suggestions largely fell on deaf ears, judging by the sizes of households alone during his reign.


The kit of a Man at Arms c.1485. In terms of weapons and equipment there is around half a year's pay at a man at arms's rate laid out here.

The most common modern rendition for heavily-armoured fighters of this period is 'man at arms', derived from the Norman-English homme d'armas (occasionally gens d'armas, from which we get gendarme). By the 15th Century however this term had largely been replaced by the term speres (or any variation of the spelling) in English, which was the direct translation of the French term lance. The term is found in use in two contexts, first is its original meaning of a micro-unit of a knight, a squire, a groom and the traditional three horses each knight was to provide for battle. The second context is a referent for a single lance or spear-armed and armoured horseman, without the extra horses and men.

Terms changed over time and squire began to refer to individuals who were members of the nobility, but not heir to title or knighthood. To replace them the term costril (or custril), a corruption of the French coustillier, or occasionally valet, or even the plain and simple 'his man' came into use instead. Grooms became pages, or simply 'boys', although on occasion are described as lackeys or varlets and were adults rather than youths. While most were servants, the Duke of Norfolk's page, Thomas Moleyns, was a young relation of his wife, the daughter of Lord Moleyns; so clearly the old tradition of learning to be a knight at the bottom survived in some cases.

As more sophisticated and expensive armour became progressively more common however, those faced by opponents who were likely to be better-protected, bought, begged, borrowed, or stole the best they could get, rather than rely purely on the haubergeon and helmet minimum standard. While quantities of iron 'munition' armour were relatively cheap and plentiful, they were in a different league to the case-hardened steel harnesses being produced. A 'no frills' Milanese harness cost in the region of £9; almost half a year's income for the entry-income man at arms and above that for those aspiring to enter it. A made to measure and well-finished harness, such as that made for the Duke of Gloucester in 1397, would cost around £100.

The Duke of Norfolk bought one of his retainers a full harness for £7 in 1468. The Earl of Oxford told John Paston he was willing to pay the same price for one around the same time period. Edward IV gave a full harness to a squire, which was valued at £4; a quarter of a year's income for someone of that level and is likely to have been of low-quality at that. To these prices would be added a mail-reinforced arming doublet, which itself might have cost £1-2. Corners could be cut however and a brigandine with mail additions (16/8d) purchased in lieu of breast and backplates could reduce the overall cost. 

Occasions during the Hundred Years War where mounted archers serve for a period of time as men at arms, but then regress to be being archers once more, seem to indicate that the gap in armour between the best of the mounted archers and the worst of the men at arms was slight, if any. The idea therefore that the majority of the men at arms were the emblematic gothic armour clad 'knight' is a fiction. In 1492 the de facto separation between those individuals encased in full harness on a barded horse, accompanied by costril and page, and those serving as single 'speres' without full harness, or attendants became formal.

A series of indentures between King Henry VII and a number of nobles and knights breaks their forces down into men at arms "each with their costril and page", "their demi-lances" and mounted archers. The men at arms receive 1/8d per day (a drop of 4d from the old knights wage of 2/), the demilances 9d and the mounted archers 8d. In the indentures provided there are 76 men at arms (plus their costrils, so 152 men), as compared to 182 demilances and 350 mounted archers, although the distribution is nowhere near equal across the board however.

The full breakdown can be seen here, but one or two of the indentures bear commenting on. Sir Walter Herbert has a single man at arms (himself), twenty four demi-lances and twenty mounted archers, a most unusual ratio, but probably a result of his recruiting ground being his estates in Mid-Wales, an area that was both relatively poor and lacked a tradition of mass archery. Elsewhere the ratio of men at arms to demi-lances is more like 1:2 or 1:3 in prosperous areas, although on occasion they are equal, or as in Lord Strange's case, men at arms are actually double the numbers of demi-lances. 

There is no real rule of thumb that can be applied, there are now just entirely separate entities of 'heavy cavalry' and somewhat less-well protected 'light horse'. The term demi-lance itself comes from the 'cavalry spear' or lancegay, which was far less substantial than the 'heavy lance' traditionally wielded by the men at arms. However illustrations of the period show what must be demi-lances wielding the heavier lance, so that may well be a generic description.

Scowrers, Prickers & Demi-Lances

We tend to think of the bill as being the be-all and end-all melee weapon in English armies of the period, but the glaive is more frequently mentioned as a weapon in sources right to the end of the 15th Century. That the weapon could be used like a lance and as a cutting weapon, made it the ideal weapon for men who would routinely fight on foot or mounted as circumstances dictated.

Prior to the formal distinction being drawn in 1492, it is clear that these troops did exist as a separate troop type prior to that, or at least were occasionally separated away from the mass of the men at arms. The frequency with which detached groups of 'spears', bodies of 'prickers', 'harbingers' 'aforeriders' and 'scowrers' appear in sources implies a role for mounted troops that would not be effectively performed by fully-harnessed men at arms. The Calais Garrison itself employed 64 scowrers in Calais and a further 19 in Guines Castle, where they were paid 9d (sometimes 10d) and their leaders somewhat above the man at arms rate of 12d. 

These men are hardly light cavalry in the truest sense however. While they are probably comparable to the Anglo-Scots Border Reivers in equipment and role, the Borderers were far better suited to the light cavalry role. The demi-lances or whatever you choose to call them before 1492, are very much a mixed bag. The Earl of Salisbury's were able to warn him of the Lancastrian force ahead of him prior to Blore Heath in 1459, while the Duke of Somerset's and the Duke of York's armies passed each other a few miles apart, oblivious of each other's presence in 1460, despite their scowrers clashing at Worksop. 

Warwick's aforeriders let him down in 1461 and failed to report the rapid advance of the Lancastrian Army as it approached him at St. Albans in 1461. One group reporting the army as being 9 miles distant, just prior to their attack. While no group registered the flanking movement it made after Dunstable, leaving Warwick's Army facing the wrong direction when they attacked through the town itself. The Lancastrian's own, probably Borderers, did an excellent job of screening their army in like measure. Edward IV's men harassed Queen Margaret's army on the march prior to Tewkesbury in 1471, so redeem the quality of English light horse to a degree. 

It seems apparent that this intermediate mounted troop type operated in conjunction with both men at arms and mounted archers as needs must. The 1492 documents refer to 'their demi-lances' with reference to the men at arms, in the same context as mounted archers are also often referred to in the same way. It is very hard to conceive that the force which Lord Clifford led at Ferrybridge in 1461 and which was engaged in a running battle with Yorkists as they withdrew to the main Lancastrian Army at Towton, as being anything but an engagement between 'light cavalry' mixed with mounted archers. Clifford's death by archery in a skirmish at Dintingdale certainly seems to point to this too.      

Mounted Archers

The notion that mounted longbowmen were merely 'peasants on poor-quality nags' does not stand up to any scrutiny. They were in fact just one step down the social scale from the landed gentry and in terms of income often their equals. There was even a law forbidding them to stand for parliament, as many met the 40/ income from rent which classified them as 'knights of the shire'.  Nevertheless others became justices of the peace, aldermen, burgesses, bailiffs, parish constables and on occasion mayors. It is not difficult to find individuals who served alternately as archers or men at arms and vice-versa on different campaigns.

The most numerous of the professional and semi-professional soldiers, serving in the households and indentured retinues of the gentry and nobles, were the mounted archers. Although many of the professionals amongst them had quite humble backgrounds, the class as a whole were actually drawn from the yeomenry (freehold farmers) and lowest levels of what was becoming 'the gentry'.

Cheshire had a reputation for producing fine archers and a contemporary chronicler considered that mounted archers there were of the same social level as men at arms elsewhere. Certainly families like the Breretons, Masseys, Brookes and Traffords provided archers and men at arms from within them. Across the country as a whole, it would not be unusual to find the head of a gentry family serving as a man at arms, while a son and/or other relations serving with him as mounted archers.

With the exception of those 'loaned' a mount by their employer, mounted archers had to be horse-owners and the minimum acceptable value of their mount was deemed to be 10/. The minimum of defensive wear consisted of a jack and a helmet, which combined with sword, bow and arrows, meant that to outfit a such a man cost in the region of 50/ or nearly three months pay.

From contemporary illustrations it can be seen that many mounted archers went beyond the minimum, with brigandines, haubergeons, as well as armour for the legs and in some cases arms too. The best-equipped of the mounted archers would only be told apart from the poorest-equipped of the men at arm by their bow.

For the professional archer, as opposed to the 'gentleman farmers', the pinnacle of their careers would be acceptance into the permanent service of a lord. Certainly they were in great demand too as the political tensions of the day led to an increase in the size of households. A common assumption is that England was teeming with Hundred Years War veterans in the 1450s. There were perhaps 10,000 at the very most within a military-age population of some half a million; so perhaps one man in fifty had some form of military experience - it was very much a seller's market.

In 1467 the Duke of Norfolk hired someone described in the accounts as an archer de maison (household archer) referred to as 'Master Daniel'. He was to be paid £10 per year and to receive two gowns and a house in the village for his wife. As a kind of 'signing up bonus' Daniel also received two doublets, a gown, a pair of boots, two spears, a shooting glove and a bow and arrows. On a subsequent trip to London Norfolk bought him two bows costing 10/ (120d) in total, while one Norfolk bought for himself cost just two.

Clearly he was not just a typical archer. The Earl of Warwick described household archers as being worth two ordinary ones, "even English ones". An ordinary mounted archer could expect to be paid 8d per day on campaign and Daniel was getting around almost 10d per day. In the terms of the Statute of Winchester Daniel was already in the income class of yeoman based on his pay alone and was being paid just 2d per day less than a man at arms. Men like Daniel however seem to be the exception rather than the rule and most would not receive such lavish attention from an employer.

Nevertheless the high wage rate itself does not seem so unusual. Coventry was forced to hire soldiers at 10d a day in the same time frame as Daniel was employed and a later contingent gouged the city for 12d per day. With no share of loot or ransom to be had, soldiers expected and got, higher daily rates to compensate on occasion. What does stand out here though, is that Daniel was gifted two spears along with the usual trappings of an archer.

Given my comments regarding archers operating with 'afore-riders' and 'prickers', is it possible that Daniel's role combined the two functions? Contemporary accounts of this time begin to stop mentioning men at arms and mounted archers, and the collective term 'horsemen' becomes increasingly common.

We are aware that mounted archers in France were beginning to transform into 'gentry cavalry' in the same period, while still retaining their dismounted archer role; for a time at least. Certainly the 1492 indentures appear to show a reduction in both mounted archers and men at arms in some cases, with the demi-lancers seemingly filling the number gap.

At the beginning of the Wars of the Roses the ratio of mounted archers to men at arms appears to be the roughly 1:3 ratio of the later Hundred Years War. In the 1475 Expedition to France they are not listed, but the term lances is used instead of men at arms too, so it is possible that Edward's Army was organised like his continental counterparts on this occasion, so each 'lance' would contain one or more mounted archers within them.

On the face of it in the 1492 indentures some retinues have the expected ratios of mounted archers to men at arms and/or demi-lances that you would expect (2-4 mounted archers to each), while most others do not. When you add the costrils included for each man at arms, there is actually a virtual parity between mounted archers and other mounted troops. At which point the shift occurred between these forces and those of the Hundred Years War is impossible to tell from the sources we have available.

The Resurgence of Cavalry

Despite the English popularly being depicted as fighting mostly on foot during the Hundred Years War, the tradition of fighting mounted was maintained in contemporary illustrations. This scene from the Beauchamp Pageant shows a mix of 'knights' and less-well protected men at arms in combat.

During the Hundred Years War English men at arms appears to have dismounted to fight for all of the set-piece battles of the era. The one notable exception was the Battle of Baugé in 1421 with disastrous results. The initial battles of the Wars of the Roses seem to have followed this pattern of dismounted men at arms supported by archers, certainly St. Albans in 1455 can only be seen as an infantry battle, given that it largely took place in the streets and gardens of the town itself. 

Northampton in 1460 seems like an English versus English version of Castillon in 1453, with the Duke of Buckingham's army occupying an earth and timber fortification that mounted artillery. Other battles are somewhat less easily identifiable as purely infantry battles however. Blore Heath in 1459 appears to have been a mounted Lancastrian attack on an inferior force that deployed its baggage wagons in a laager to secure one of its flanks. 

At the Second Battle of St. Albans in 1461, the Yorkists deployed pavaises with nails driven through them, spiked nets and caltrops, all rapidly deployed items that are usually deemed anti-cavalry devices, more so than anti-infantry devices. While Sir Andrew Trollope was famously wounded in the foot by a caltrop, slaying 'fifteen men' who had to come to him, as he could not go to them, but it is conceivable that he had been un-horsed prior to receiving the wound. Certainly the rapidity of the Lancastrian approach and the attempt to make a flank attack, all point to part of the host being mounted when the attack began. 

The Earl of Warwick's reputed slaying of his horse at Ferrybridge in 1461 implies that he started the engagement mounted, but elected to kill his mount as a gesture that he would stay and fight with his infantry. The running battle near Dintingdale, between Lord Clifford's men and Warwick's, as Clifford withdrew from Ferrybridge towards the main body of the Lancastrian army, seems almost certainly a cavalry action. 

Somerset's attack at Tewkesbury also seems to have been at least partially conducted by a mounted force. While using terrain to advance unseen, the time taken to deploy infantry when he appeared would have robbed him of any advantage from the manoeuvre. That he is said to have rode and killed Lord Wenlock for not supporting him, adds weight to the idea that mounted troops were used. Of course Edward IV's own flank attack on Somerset's battle, was certainly carried out by mounted men.

Bosworth in 1485 is famous for Richard III's own cavalry charge, to attempt to kill Henry Tudor's exposed household. Short of it happening at the very feet of the men led by Sir William Stanley, only a mounted force from the Stanley lines could have thwarted this attempt initially, at least until such time as his infantry could cover the distance.

There is definitely the case for increased use for cavalry during the Wars of the Roses, which seems counter-intuitive when you consider that the predominant weapon in use by both sides was the bow. The accepted 'history' is that cavalry armies (i.e. the French) could not prevail against English archery, yet here we have English versus English apparently using cavalry.

Certainly using your archers as a kind of 'counter-battery' weapon against your opponent's archers might indeed go towards them cancelling each other out. That a juicy target of men at arms and others, on what seems to be largely un-armoured horses, could be ignored by even a small party of archers seems to be unlikely. I suspect that rather than being placed in the battle line, they were either kept in the rear of the army, or as was the case with the 'plomp of spears' at Towton and a similar formation at Tewkesbury, they were concealed by terrain.

Once the infantry battle lines were committed, their speed would reduce any casualties suffered from any unit of archers that could target them. To me this sort of makes sense. In the battles of the Hundred Years War where the French seem to have almost won, or indeed on a number of occasions did actually win, they deployed men at arms on foot, with mounted formations of men at arms engaging in flank attacks. This tactic nearly paid off at Agincourt and won the day at Patay.

English commanders would no doubt be well aware of the weaknesses of their own and their opponents armies and it may very well be the case that such 'French tactics' became the norm. Certainly they seem to have borrowed other ideas from former opponents; the Battle of Northampton mentioned above being one.  


  1. I posted this earlier than usual to help out those of you planning on buying the new Perry 'Light Horse' set.

    At its simplest one box of lights to one of men at arms, will give a fair representation of men at arms and custrils. Personally I would go for half a box of men at arms to each box of lights.

    Should you wish to represent mounted archers and pages too, this is the opportunity to get that three box deal!

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Sadly yes, for us to gain the enjoyment of researching the subject, there has to have been death and suffering in the first place. You would think that the millennia of conflict might have taught us something about how wars are only a short-term solution to a problem.

  3. Perhaps look up Walter Culpepper of Calais ... who rode out himself with 100 archers and devastated a force of French harassers.

    1. Sorry I made a mistake it was 200 archers .... against a thousand men. 600 were the main force that he attacked at the bridge.

    2. I will have to look that up, thanks! The numbers sound dubious, but then it was not unknown for chroniclers to exaggerate or generalise. A comment about '1,000 archers' once turned out to be actually mean, '1,000 archers and almost 250 men at arms' on closer examination.