Sunday, 6 April 2014

An English Interlude: Introduction


A while back now, I wrote a series of posts on the Wars of the Roses, which have proved to be some of the most popular posts by viewer count on the blog and which have even been recommended reading on the odd forum. While I am obviously quite flattered by this, having re-read them I am somewhat embarrassed at how long and rambling they were at times, and how easy it is to miss important details because of that. I intend therefore to re-write them and present them in a much more reader-friendly form. While there is no direct connection between Duchess Marie's War and the Wars of the Roses, nevertheless, as I hope to point out within the posts, neither exited in a vacuum either and in some cases, the personalities of one war crop up in the other.

If you have absolutely no idea what the Wars of the Roses were, they were a series of relatively short duration military campaigns, fought between rival political factions in mid to late 15th Century England. Although there were a number of contributory causes, the main one was that a fair proportion of the nobility were far from happy that they had lost a great deal of income from the loss of the French territories at the close of the Hundred Years War. Others were unhappy that political rivals were benefiting from their relationship with the King (or more correctly his favourite, the Duke of Somerset), while their own aspirations suffered correspondingly from not having that same relationship.

It might seem a bit cold to put the whole thirty or so years of conflict down to something as simple of money and jealousy, but Shakespearian notions of the true line of succession and the manifest destiny of kings and queens, belong in the 16th Century where they were fabricated. In truth the Tudor claim to the throne was spurious at best and back in 1485 Henry VII was actually fifth in line to the throne, if you discount that his line was actually illegitimate and that an act of parliament had been required for Henry VII to be even in the running. The modern-day Ricardian's argument that "those bastard Tudors stole the crown" has its basis in fact.

It was not the first time this had happened though. Back in 1399 the ineffectual, disturbed and somewhat unpopular Richard II had been toppled by a rebellious group of nobles, with his cousin Henry at their head. While this can be seen as 'a good thing', as '1066 and All That' would put it, it set a precedent that it was acceptable for the 'major shareholders' of England plc, to unseat the 'chairman of the board' if things were not going well. Both Henry, his son Henry and finally his grandson Henry (imaginative naming of children was not a feature of the medieval era), all faced rebellions and plots for rebellions to unseat them from their lofty perches.




Richard III 'King of the Car Park', perhaps the most
enduring and enigmatic of the personalities of the Wars.



While it was indeed 'good to be the King' as Mel Brooks put it, remaining on the throne required keeping the majority of the most prominent subjects happy, along with the more significant sectors of the common people too (While they might tug their forelocks generally, annoy them enough and there would be a rebel army of surly commoners and lower gentry at Black Heath before you could say "Wat Tyler"). Royal power was not as overwhelming as you might think and when it came down to it, the numbers of troops which the King could raise from those lands he held as his own, was often far less than some of his richer 'over-mighty subjects'.

While the King did have the power to raise a levy from the general population, reckoned to be something in the region of 60,000 men worth raising and considerably more if you were not too fussy about things like quality and fitness to serve, this same body of manpower was where individual lords also drew the bulk of their rank and file from too. Royal officials turning up to raise men for the King could easily find that there were none left to be had.

Strong Kingship, keeping the most mighty and powerful onside and of course finding them something to do, were perhaps the most important qualities a 15th Century English King needed. Henry V understood this to the point that he nearly bankrupted the Crown with his French War to keep his nobles occupied. Even then he faced a plot by those who felt they were being hard done by in the grand scheme of things. However it was not all about who was going to be king and perhaps too much ink has been wasted focusing on this, when in fact the Wars of the Roses were more about local power and influence than anything else.

Back in the 15th Century the concept of being English was not as powerful a concept as it was later to become. People generally thought of themselves in terms of their more immediate surroundings. Ask a 15th Century man what he was and he was far more likely to say he was a 'Yorkshire Man' or a 'Kentish Man' before he said 'English' and probably even more likely to name a town or an area than a county ('Robin of Redesdale' for example).

Local ties and allegiances were far stronger than any notion of Englishness and in areas where nations met, often more in common with their 'foreign' neighbours than someone across the other side of the country. Nationality was certainly negotiable in the Scots Border region and a considerable number of men in 'Welsh' contingents had their homes in Herefordshire and Shropshire. Even Owain Glyndŵr, that most Welsh of Welshmen, is believed to have gone into hiding in Herefordshire, not something that would be easily achieved if every 'English hand' was against you.

The King's Writ, thanks to appalling roads and the limitations of travel within a horse-powered world, ran little more than a days travel from London. The Crown relied instead on individual nobles to keep the King's Peace within their respective areas and to all intents and purposes, these individuals were kings of those areas. Naturally being 'in' with these guys was important in a networking sense and so over time prominent families attracted their genuine supporters, fair-weather friends and others forming what we now call an 'affinity'. Likewise rivals of these families, or rivals of their supporters, would also form their own 'affinities' dedicated to obtaining the power and prominence that they did not have.

While on the face of things this does not seem a likely basis to start a war, consider the fact that today people will exchange angry words and even come to blows over which football team they support. Back then there were things like disputed inheritances (most major families in an area were connected by marriage somewhere along the line), betrothals cancelled, or even that some guy had sold you a dodgy cow. The reasons for division were numerous, but if your enemy or rival supported 'Noble A', you needed no other encouragement (or indeed option but) to support 'Noble B'.

Across the country there were such affinities and while not all of them were vehement rivals, the balance of power and patronage within any area still relied on either who you supported, or who you were supported by. The extreme example is Yorkshire's East Riding, where you were either 'for Percy' or 'for Neville' and the entire dispute for such a polarity of local opinion rested entirely on the Percy opinion that the 'New Money Nevilles' were supplanting them in their almost-heredity position as Wardens of the Scots Border Marches. The ensuing dispute came very close to a miniature war within the East Riding and which could have spread across the entire North.

The skeletons discovered near the battlefield of Towton showed that in some cases they had not been strangers to violence prior to the battle. While the ones examined appeared to have been struck down by horsemen during the rout, some of them showed old, yet still disfiguring injuries from other battlefields. 
As it was the Percy-Neville dispute largely formed the basis of the initial phase of the Wars of the Roses and determined who formed the respective supporters of the King (or more correctly the Duke of Somerset) and the Duke of York. Theirs was not the only such dispute however, Courteney and Bonville, Talbot and Berkeley, Mowbray and Paston, name a county and you can find at least one inter-family dispute going on. It was not just a case of name calling and the occasional brawl either, if one of your supporters was up in court, you packed it with your followers wearing your livery, just to let everyone know who's man they were trying, if of course you had not already bribed or intimidated the jury or judge into making the 'right' decision in the first place.

Even ordinary people therefore, were forced into this system, otherwise they could not ply their trade, sell their wares, or even expect basic justice, without being part of the 'system', or indeed in some cases effectively 'paying for protection'. The most recent analogy I could suggest for life in 15th Century England, would be that of Prohibition Era America with the Federal Government removed. What would be left was a collection of organised criminal entities, corrupt local officials and law enforcement, often in bed with those same syndicates, or playing them off against the other. What would pass as any form of order, would come as a result of a syndicate being formed by some of the criminal organisations, making them somewhat more powerful than the remainder... To me that is pretty much how 15th Century England operated.  

You are no doubt wondering why all this does not usually make it into books about the Wars of the Roses, other than superficial mentions. The reason is quite simple, most books cover the big men of the age, the big battles and the big picture. Mostly the books tend to be re-hashes of the same few sources, or previous histories of the wars, themselves based on the same original source materials. This is of course interesting and in combination with Shakespeare's version of events, indeed it is understandably the sexiest aspect of the period. For those of us who do not play out the big battles on the tabletop, it is not really useful.

The nitty-gritty of the time however, is contained in local records and letters, perhaps most famously in those of the Paston family, in which the course of their own dispute with the Duke of Norfolk is revealed. You generally won't find details of one of Buckingham's stewards being beaten to death in a 'home invasion' by a group of York's supporters, or indeed details of 'Wild' Humphrey Kynaston's virtual one man guerilla war against the Strange family in Shropshire, unless you have the time or inclination to scour the local archives however. Effectively you do not need to and safe in the knowledge that there is a whole, as yet unwritten history of the Wars of the Roses out there, can happily play out relatively small scale actions based on a real (or make believe) conflict between families far lower down the food chain than the Kings, Dukes and Earls.  

Bosworth 1485, the last battle in which an English King would actually fight in battle. 

Within Richard III's army were a number of either foreign mercenaries, or observers, one of which at least, Juan de Salazar, had learned his trade in Duchess Marie's Army during the war with the French... which is the one of the connections I am making between the two periods.

One of the others is that Henry Tudor's army contained a number of French troops which had previously served in the recently disbanded Bandes Française, the Swiss-trained professional infantry created by Louis XI for the same war.

Whichever level of game you choose to play however, the principles under which armies were raised, organised and fought, were the same. The big armies of the period were simply the very small armies grouped together in an almost modern-style 'modular' fashion. Sir Whoever of Anywhere's men would form a 'platoon' within Lord All-that's 'company', itself part of the Duke of Earl's contingent, which fought as a wing of Prince What-his-name's Battle. The short series of posts I will be adding to this section will cover the basics of raising these armies, the principles of how they operated and while I can't provide a definitive answer to the "How many bills and bows where there?" question, I will at least explain why there is not a definitive answer, then or now.

To provide some continuity with the subject of this section, i.e. Duchess Marie's War, I will be trying to concentrate on the very end of the Wars of the Roses, namely Buckingham's Revolt, the Bosworth Campaign and that of Stoke Field. However the bulk of information will be just as relevant to the earliest and subsequent phases of the Wars and where they are not, I will be sure to point this out.