War and Roses: Battles and Warfare in England's War of the Roses, 1461-1471

Many of the campaigns and major battles which comprise the rich history of the War of the Roses were short in length, lasting only a few days as opposed to weeks or months. Warfare was undergoing a slow transformation throughout c.1440-1499 as the medieval age waned into the renaissance age. The lords, barons, dukes, and knights of this period brought rather small forces to bear in combat, around 200-2000 men. This were relatively diverse forces comprised mostly of archers and infantrymen, with diverse forces  cavalry artillery, and mercenaries from the continent.

Towton, March 1461

Combat was almost always decisive in this era and battles were relatively short but hard fought and costly as a result. Even in small scale skirmishes the bloodshed was shocking by all accounts that survived the period from 1400 onwards. The Lords, Earls, Dukes, or Kings who served as generals and commander of their households were often in the thick of the battle near their vanguards; the colorful and rather elaborate banners of these houses and Lords denoting their position on the field to friend and foe alike. [1]

 In the battles taking place in the summer months the duration of combat was usually even shorter given the physical exhaustion that knights and men-at-arms were prone to. Though gunpowder made its presence felt during the War of the Roses the sword, battle axe, mace, or flail still carried the day in melee combat. [2]
Crossbow bows were deadly but arrows were the real "man-killers" in battle. Of course arrows were also indiscriminate killing royal, noble, and commoner alike.

Many of the knights on horseback or on foot preferred the mace, flail, war hammer, or heavy 'battle axe' against a similarly well armored adversary because these weapons could often crush a man’s armor and mortally wound him in one powerful swing. Using blunt force and crushing ability a mail or war hammer could crush steel armor, lacerate flesh, and break bones causing catastrophic injuries. Swords were often more effective only on foot against lightly armored or unarmored opponents. Wounds were not always fatal in battle and many could survive grievous wounds.

From the bodies examined at the Battle of Towton archaeological dig sites the evidence concludes that fighting men were killed or died from primarily blows received to the head in the melee or by arrows. Many had suffered previous injuries, old healed war wounds or more recent wounds from battles before.

Blood & Snow: Battle of Towton

The English longbow, though not as fear inspiring as the melee weapons of this age, was the most formidable weapon, especially when fired in volleys by forces of in excess of 10,000 trained and experienced archers. The so called "Arrow Storm" could cause death and grievous injury on a massive scale and break a foot soldier army of spearmen, skirmishers, men-at-arms and dismounted knights after two to three well placed volleys.

The longbow in general was a weapon of great importance to not only the armies of York and Lancaster but to most armies in the greater medieval history of the British Isles. This affect was observable during the War of The Roses at the Battle of Towton on March 29th 1461, in which Yorkist archers shot upwards of 750,000 arrows in less than 10 minutes at Lancastrian positions killing perhaps thousands and wounding many more before the melee. [3] [4] 

To understand the importance and greater socio-cultural impact of the War of the Roses one must look at several of the most important battles in the thirty-two years of dynastic conflict that defined the War itself. The most infamous of all battles in the War of the Roses is arguably the Battle of Towton, fought in 1461 in the midst of a late March blizzard south of Towton, in the woods and meadows near the River Cock Beck.

Though no precise number can be put on the forces present around 20,000 to perhaps as many as 60,000 men fought at Towton representing all the major lords and houses in support of either the Yorks or Lancastrians, leading to the start of the bloodiest day in English history on English soil. Just eighteen years old on the day of battle, King Edward IV led his men by all accounts with great confidence and courage from the front as he rode between his lines. He commanded his men, as he called them his "children" before the battle that in the event of total victory they should slaughter the nobles and lords but spare the commoners in their service. [5]
Battle of Towton 1461

This kind of decree really highlights the feudalistic code of kings and royalty of the medieval age in regards to the lords and their royal retinues who rebelled. Basically in the bids for power through military and dynastic usurpation it was understood that the rebel nobility would be held responsible for the rebellion which was considered treason against the rule of the king, the common man often might escape punishment however. Presumably most of the peasants or tradesmen enticed or impressed into service for a royal house during the War of Roses did not hold particular allegiances with any family. Despite the massive early morning arrow barrage at the start of the battle the Yorkist forces were still outnumbered; they charged with determination and fury as the remaining Lancaster army attempted to encircle their exhausted forces in bloody melee combat for several hours.

No quarter was given nor expected as the hatred between the two houses had grown immensely since 1455. Eventually the Yorkist heavy cavalry put the Lancastrian army in flight where a slaughter ensued that lead to the deaths of at least 12,000 men for both sides if not more from later injuries sustained. Many Lancastrian knights captured after the battle were subsequently executed, their heads placed on pikes outside York that had previously displayed the heads of defeated Yorkists, including Edwards’s father the Duke of York, who had been recently killed in battle. [6]

    Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick, The Kingmaker's death at Barnet

Certainly rivalry between the various houses plays a major part in the brutality of combat during the War of Roses since knights often tried to single out old adversaries to meet in single combat which was still seen in the culture of the knight as most a desirable way to attain fame, prestige, and honor. Consequently the War of the Roses was defined socially by the large numbers of the even highest born nobles who were killed in battle or executed throughout the conflict. Most notably the Prince of Wales, two kings, one by (probable) murder and one on the battlefield at Bosworth were killed in the conflict [7] 

An important battle to the middle period of the War of the Roses and the final end to Henry VI’s reign during his 'Readeption' was the Battle of Tewkesbury in the year 1471. Coupled with their victory at the Battle of Barnet, Edward IV and the Duke of Gloucester forces' regrouped to finally defeat the treacherous Earl of the Warwick, the "Kingmaker", (killed at Barnet in melee after being unhorsed or perhaps killed after being captured by the Yorkists) and the Lancastrian power-base. This all but end large scale opposition to Yorkist power until 1483. 1471 was an important and yet fateful year for King Edward and his brothers George the Duke of Clarence and Richard the Duke of Gloucester; having regained Edward's crown by defeating the Rebellions of "Robin of Redesdale" and Earl of Warwick-ending the so-called Redeaption of King Henry VI.

At the Battle of Tewksbury fought on 4 May 1471, the Yorkists won the  day and defeated the House of Lancaster. Defending against a charge and then counter attacking in a bloody day that left dead Lancastrians scattered throughout the village of Tewksbury. Edward and one of his most able nobleman Baron William Hastings won the day though outnumbered yet again by the Lancastrians opposition.

Battle of Tewksbury

The opening salvos of this battle saw the use of primitive hand cannons and artillery fire which were generally not effective but important in the context of the evolution of warfare in later medieval period. After the Yorkist counter charge was successful later in the day [8] some accounts hold that Edward and his brother Richard led their men in a massacre of the remaining Lancaster’s seeking refuge from the carnage in Tewkesbury Abbey. Only until the dramatic intervention of a lone priest did Edward and the Yorkists cease from cutting down (or summarily executing) their remaining Lancastrian enemies both of noble and common birth. [9]

Despite clemency at first many of the surviving Lancastrian leaders most notably the Duke of Somerset among them, were beheaded after the battle. Edward the Prince of Wales, Henry VI’s only son and heir was killed during the fighting and if not he was certainly executed immediately after his capture as well. Later in the year 1471, Henry VI was allegedly murdered in the Tower of London. The Yorkist reign would continued until of 22 August of 1485, when King Richard III (the former Duke of Gloucester) is killed at the Battle of Bosworth.

The Duke of Somerset's execution

The War of the Roses, 1471-1482

In the timeline of the Wars of the Roses the year 1471 is a very important year in the conflict and for the Royal House of Plantagenet as well. April of that year brought the death of Warwick the Kingmaker at the Battle of Barnet. In May at the Battle of Tewksbury Edward the Prince of Wales and the 'die-hard' Lancastrian Edmund Beaufort the Duke of Somerset were killed. Both of these events preceded Henry VI’s death in mid May 1471-allegedly murdered in the Tower of London, likely on the orders of King Edward IV. King Edward's nineteen year old brother Richard of Gloucester (b.1452-1485) had distinguished himself fighting valiantly commanding his retinue with bravery and the utmost skill at both Tewksbury and Barnet.

Also taking place in May of 1471 was the brief seemingly half-cocked rebellion of Thomas Neville, known as the Bastard of Fauconberg, who perhaps had been unaware that the Yorkists had defeated & killed the Prince of Wale essentially pacifying the North, attempted an attack on London via the sea. Risings in Kent and in the North were planned to coincide and though these small rebellions threatened his immediate reign after the Battle of Tewksbury, King Edward had fought his last battle after marching triumphantly into London to defeat Fauconberg.

Death of the Earl of Warwick, the 'Kingmaker', the Battle of Barnet, 1471

The Bastard of Fauconberg, son of Hundred Years' Wars and the Wars of the Roses veteran Sir William Neville, the Earl of Kent, had made a living and earned a fearsome reputation for himself by pirating ships traveling on the Channel. He eventually took to harassing Yorkist shipping along England's southern coast in the name of his cousin the Earl of Warwick until he was eventually executed in Edward's name for his long list of treasonous offenses.

The end of this rebellion helped to stabilize southern England making London relatively safe from a siege and sacking for the first time in twenty years, though minor rebellions and intrigues in the North would continue to plague the house of York. In 1478 the King's own brother the Duke of Clarence was executed for treason. Richard the Duke of Gloucester, Edward's youngest brother was by then one of the most powerful men in England hosting slew of titles, honors, and lands. As the effective lord-lieutenant of the North it was the Duke of Gloucester who led an expedition into Scotland to retake the castle at Berwick from the opportunistic Scots in the year 1482.

Related Posts

[1] St. Aubyn, Giles The Year of Three Kings 1483 (Scribner UK October 1st 1983) pgs. 166-167
[2] Giles pgs. 200-220
[3] Lacey, Jim A day of Blizzard and Blood Military History Vol. 28 No. 6 March 2012
[4] Led by the Lord Fauconberg the Earl of Kent, these 10,000 archers had 48 arrows each in their quivers and fired every single one at the enemy Lancastrian formations across the field
[5] Lacey pgs. 55-56
[6] Lacey pgs. 56-57
[7] Giles pgs. 215-226
[8] Goodchild, Steven Tewkesbury: Eclipse of the House of Lancaster 1471 (Battleground. Wars of the Roses series. Pen and Sword, 2005) pgs. 40-59
[9] Crown Imperial


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