On 22 May 1455 a thirteen-year-old boy stood on a battlefield. This, we must assume, was his first exposure to warfare, although the sights he witnessed on that day would become sadly familiar. The boy was Edward, Earl of March, later to be known as King Edward IV. He was to play a vital role in the conflicts we know today as the Wars of the Roses. Traditionally the Wars of the Roses have been seen as a time of bloody battles and larger-than-life characters: England, traumatised by its defeat in the Hundred Years’ War, is ripped apart by the treacherous machinations of ‘overmighty’ magnates. But this view owes much to the work of Shakespeare. In his Henry VI the King wanders in a daze as chaos erupts around him. The culmination of Shakespeare’s history cycle, Richard III, is an orgy of mayhem and murder before peace is restored by Henry Tudor. Modern historians have attempted to provide a more nuanced interpretation. John Gillingham, for example, has argued that wider society was largely unaffected by the wars.1 John Watts, in the most original recent interpretation of the Wars of the Roses, has characterised the English nobility not as bloodthirsty schemers but as ‘victims, driven by the hideous logic of a dysfunctional system to the fruitless creation and defence of an authority which could not be exercised’.2 Nevertheless, the battles of the Wars of the Roses were bloody indeed, and there were large characters – although contemporaries might not have recognised their depictions in Shakespeare! These were extraordinary times, when anything must have seemed possible: it is no surprise that ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ was a popular device in contemporary literature. There were few larger characters, I would suggest, than King Edward IV.

This is not a conventional biography, although my intention is to illuminate Edward’s personal role during the Wars of the Roses. The focus will be on Edward’s military career, but in order to understand Edward as a commander I believe we must also try to understand Edward as a man. Context will be provided via a thorough discussion of political and diplomatic events.

The origins of the Wars of the Roses will be discussed in some detail below. However, before we progress any further, it may be helpful to explain some of the more important aspects of military organisation during this period. The following section provides an introduction to matters such as the conventions of military recruitment, motivation, and the equipment used by warriors, before moving on to a discussion of the sources.

First, how were armies raised?3 It used to be thought that ‘overmighty magnates’ consistently maintained hordes of armed men – essentially private armies – although this view is now largely discredited. Most noble households did contain carefully selected ‘tall men’, who acted as bodyguards and fought close to their lord on the field, but their numbers were never great. But in times of crisis a great nobleman could call on his affinity, a broad network of tenants, servants and ‘well willers’, who would in turn call for support from within their own smaller networks. Existing administrative structures (maintained, for example, by estate officials) would help to ensure that men could be recruited quickly. Common soldiers would usually expect to be paid; sometimes gentlemen were retained, under the terms of an indenture, in return for cash payments. Often, however, these formal arrangements merely acknowledged existing relationships.4 Noblemen augmented their forces from various sources –foreign mercenaries fought at many battles, and several towns sent well-equipped detachments to support armies on both sides – but this fluid system, traditionally known as bastard feudalism, was the primary means of recruitment for nobles’ armies. The greatest noblemen, such as the Duke of York, or the Earl of Warwick, could raise hundreds, and even thousands of men in this way.

Perhaps surprisingly, royal armies would have been raised in a broadly similar manner. There was no standing army at this time, although the King did maintain a permanent garrison at Calais. Many members of the garrison were veterans of the Hundred Years’ War. Yet even during foreign wars the crown largely relied on the nobility, exploiting the ‘bastard feudal’ networks that have already been described.5 In times of dire necessity, however, the King could also call on the service of all able-bodied men for the defence of the realm. Assuming the system functioned well, each village and hundred would be expected to send a specified number of men. Traditionally the county sheriff was expected to raise these troops, but often the responsibility was delegated to local nobles and gentry, whose authority was based on a commission of array. Arrayed men would usually be paid, although there were occasions when they appear to have been pressed into service. Sometimes arrayed men are dismissed by historians as little more than a rabble, although there were many occasions, even in the absence of established noble leaders, when they displayed a high degree of organisation.6 There was also considerable overlap with the ‘bastard feudal’ networks already described.

The King could appeal to an instinctive loyalty from all sections of society, although it must be stressed that even kings could not take support for granted. There were a lot of men during the Wars of the Roses who preferred, whenever possible, to avoid making commitments to either side.7 Even so, it would be simplistic to suggest that when men did fight they were motivated only by material ambition, or, in the case of the commons, by legal obligations or fear. It is also clear that the nobles and gentry could be driven to act by family ties or more abstract principles.8 Honour mattered, not least because the ideals of ‘chivalry’ continued to shape expectations of aristocratic behaviour.9 But the motives of common men were just as complex. The dissemination of propaganda, within an increasingly literate society, helped ensure that common people would answer a call to arms of their own free will. Some rebel noblemen sought to convince a wide public that their actions were motivated in defence of the ‘common weal’.10Motivations were complex, as ever, but we can assume that often men of all social classes joined armies because they felt morally obliged to do so.

Next, we turn to equipment and weapons.11 The aristocracy usually fought on foot, in full armour. Plate armour was now at the height of its development, and it did not physically restrict the wearer as much as might be supposed. Knights at tournaments would often leap before they entered the lists, to show how little they were affected by wearing armour12. That said, armour was uncomfortable to wear for long periods due to the heat and fatigue generated; and breathing could be difficult –men often risked death by removing their visor or bevor (throat protection) at critical moments. Nevertheless, the best plate armour, produced by German or Italian specialists, provided effective protection from missiles and close-quarter weapons. Developments in armour meant that noble warriors increasingly favoured ‘crushing’ weapons, such as maces, which would be more likely to incapacitate an enemy than a blade, even if they did not kill him outright. Then smaller weapons such as a dagger could be brought into play, focusing on weak points such as the visor or the armpit – if the assailant had time. Swords were used extensively, but another popular weapon was the poleaxe. This was a truly formidable staff weapon, which usually incorporated a blade, a point and a ‘beak’. The latter was designed to punch through plate armour – and bone.

As we move down the social scale there was, unsurprisingly, more variety in the type of equipment used, but ‘ordinary’ soldiers should not be underrated. The Italian Domenic Mancini witnessed the arrival at London in 1483 of Duke Richard of Gloucester’s northern archers –presumably chosen men. Mancini was deeply impressed:

There is hardly any without a helmet, and none without bows and arrows: their bows and arrows are thicker than those used by other nations, just as their bodies are stronger than other peoples’, for they seem to have hands and arms of iron […] there hangs by the side of each one a sword no less long than ours, but heavy and thick as well. The sword is always accompanied by an iron shield. They do not wear any armour on their breast […] the common soldiers have more comfortable tunics that reach down below the loins and are stuffed with tow or some other soft material. They say that the softer the tunics the better do they withstand the blows of arrows and swords, and besides that in summer they are lighter and in winter more serviceable than iron.13

The ‘comfortable tunic’ referred to was known as a jack, although some common soldiers may have worn more (or less) armour than this. It is intriguing that Mancini tells us that almost every man has a helmet, even in this relatively well equipped group. The longbow was, of course, the weapon most associated with the English common soldier during this period. Ideally made from a yew bowstave imported from the Continent,14 6 feet long, and just as heavy as Mancini implies, the longbow was a powerful weapon. It required constant practice for an archer to draw a bow effectively. It is generally accepted that a reasonably skilled archer could shoot at least ten arrows a minute during combat, although some men may have shot more. English archers were feared throughout Europe because their ‘arrow storms’ had been a feature of the greatest English victories against the French during the Hundred Years’ War.15 Not all the common soldiers would have been archers, however. Some would have wielded staffweapons such as theglaiveor the langdebeve.16 Archers would also have been expected to fight in the mêlée with hand weapons, including the sword and buckler noted by Mancini or the maul (lead hammer).

Such then (briefly), were armies during the Wars of the Roses, although it is important to realise that arms and armour were constantly evolving. For example, there were regional variations in armour, though even knights of modest means would buy imported suits of armour from foreign specialists. In England, for instance, men came to prefer a version of the sallet (helmet) that was taller than the original German versions. But the most rapid changes appeared in the field of gunpowder weapons.17 England did not take the lead in these developments and chroniclers’ references to ‘gonnes’ – such as the culverin, a light artillery piece that could be used in the field – are often obtuse. Nevertheless, as we shall see, gunpowder weapons did play a role in the Wars of the Roses. English commanders, especially Edward IV, were evidently keen to learn about gunpowder technologies and to employ the new weapons on campaign.

The historian of the Wars of the Roses has recourse to a wide range of sources.18 Record sources often provide us with our chronology, especially with regard to political events, and some historians are able to weave extraordinary stories from the most unpromising materials. This book is not based on extensive archival research, although I am building on solid foundations provided by others. The smooth narratives produced by modern historians often gloss over the long years of painstaking work in the archives, undertaken by generations of scholars. Yet records often lack the human element that appears in letters or chronicles, although these sources present their own problems. For example, the diplomatic correspondence preserved in the Calendar of State Papers related to Milan can be remarkably vivid, but it quickly becomes clear that much of it is based on gossip and rumour. The wonderful Paston Letters provide an incredible insight into the world of the English gentry, although the letters are a chance survival and are not fully representative. It is rare for personal letters to survive even from the greatest of noblemen and kings.

When historians use chronicles as sources they face a number of challenges.19 Few chronicles provide eyewitness accounts, for example, and it is very difficult to determine how chroniclers obtained their information. Even when two (or more) chronicles say the same thing, this does not mean we are necessarily dealing with a ‘fact’; it is just as likely that one chronicler was copying the other or that both had access to the same source. Many chroniclers derived their information about military affairs from newsletters, which circulated widely, although some writers were better than others at weaving such pieces into their own work. Livia Visser-Fuchs has studied the way in which the Burgundian nobleman Jean de Wavrin incorporated a wide range of material into his work, much of which originated in England20. Some of Wavrin’s Receuil is independent – he was present on the field at Agincourt – yet, paradoxically, the great value of his work is in his willingness to use (and therefore preserve) the work of others. Wavrin did not lack discernment, however. Indeed many chronicles were carefully constructed by their authors: they are not merely repositories of information. One of the most intelligent writers of the period is the author of ‘Gregory’s Chronicle’ (c. 1470), possibly a cleric with a background in writing sermons. This chronicler carefully selected his material and his approach is anecdotal. Warriors, including ‘ordinary’ people, are judged according to a sliding scale of honour and shame.21 Such accounts provide a fascinating insight into contemporary mores, although they do not always make it easy for the modern historian to determine causal relationships. It can also be difficult to determine the exact sequence of events. But this is not to say, though, that ‘Gregory’ (and others) entirely ignored the more practical aspects of warfare. His account of the second Battle of St Albans (although it may be derived from another source) provides some interesting comments about the equipment used and also displays an awareness of tactical issues.

The best military source for the period is almost certainly the Arrivall, written by one of Edward’s clerks shortly after the 1471 campaign. Unusually, for a medieval source, it provides valuable accounts of military councils and strategic decisions. Such details usually have to be inferred from events. We must not forget that the Arrivall was an ‘official’ production, designed to commemorate and propagandise Edward’s recovery of his throne, but the author was an acute observer of military affairs. Moreover, few other sources were written so close to the centres of power, although a notable exception is the second continuation of the Crowland Chronicle. The writer was certainly well informed, and it is usually assumed he was a Yorkist ‘civil servant’. Other important English sources include the Chronicle of the Rebellion in Lincolnshire (another official tract), Annales Rerum Anglicarum (which provides a valuable, albeit unfinished, account focusing on the activities of the Nevilles), the English Chronicle, the first continuation of theCrowland Chronicle (written by the abbey’s prior), and Warkworth’s Chronicle (the latter was possibly written c. 1480 by the master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge). From the Continent, the works of Georges Chastelain and Philippe de Commynes are important for the light they shed on European views of the English. Commynes, indeed, was personally involved in diplomacy, although he is scarcely objective. The Italian Domenic Mancini visited England close to the end of Edward’s reign and, as we have seen, took advantage of the opportunity to observe the English at close hand. A number of later English sources also provide interesting details, although it becomes ever more difficult to determine where they obtained their sources and why they were writing. The influential work of Edward Hall will be discussed in some detail below. Another intriguing later source is Hearne’s Fragment, written c. 1520 by a (presumably) elderly man who claims to have been a servant of the dukes of Norfolk. It is likely, unfortunately, that the most valuable section of this work no longer survives.

How may historians fill in the gaps in the written evidence, or determine between conflicting accounts? One solution, in a military context, has been provided by Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Burne, writing in the mid twentieth century. Burne’s approach was to employ a method he called Inherent Military Probability22 Burne determined what he considered to be indisputable ‘facts’; he would then put himself ‘in the shoes’ of each commander in turn, considering what he would have done in their situation. If the ‘I.M.P.’ could be reconciled with the sources he would then move on to ‘the next debatable or obscure point in the battle and repeat the operation’. To some extent, therefore, Burne’s approach was simply to employ logic and ‘common sense’, in the light of his military training. On occasion, however, Burne is given to surprising flights of fancy.23 His reconstructions are essentially intellectual exercises which prioritise one factor, the tactical, over others that are equally important. Battles were often decided, at least partly, by factors over which the commander had no control, most notably the weather. The best military minds could not be prepared for unexpected acts of treachery. Most importantly, Burne’s accounts also give little sense of the chaos of battle, which could sometimes be overcome only by willpower and courage, not by tactics.24

Nevertheless, Burne’s work remains valuable and thought-provoking. For example, a survey of the terrain was an important aspect of Burne’s approach, and naturally this remains important today. Most battlefields have changed, of course, although modern scientific methods, allied to painstaking research in the archives, have made it possible to understand the medieval landscape as never before. At Towton, moreover, the battlefield continues to give up its secrets to archaeologists. Most notably in 1996 there was a chance discovery, during building work, of a mass grave, which held the skeletons of sixty-one men who died in the battle. The skeletons have been subjected to modern forensic techniques, in the light of research into medieval arms and armour, and the results have been startling.25 Yet as Robert Hardy has eloquently reminded us, even when no bodies have been discovered, every battlefield is ‘a tomb […] a perpetual shrine and memorial which should engage our thought and our reverence’.26 Walking in the gentle countryside between Kingsland and Mortimer’s Cross, bathed in sunshine, I found it difficult to imagine that men once struggled there for their lives. But when I visited the plain at Towton for the first time, battered by the cold wind on a winter’s day, it was not so difficult to envisage that this was once the site of a great and terrible battle. Ultimately we should not be surprised that historians have reached different conclusions about the Wars of the Roses. Much as we may wish the writing of history to entail only an ‘objective’ examination of the ‘facts’, it also requires imagination and many silent choices. The sources of history are open to many interpretations.

Modern historians have offered many different interpretations of Edward IV himself. Was Edward ‘playboy or politician?’ asks Keith Dockray, in a lucid survey of the historiography.27 Dockray appears to conclude that Edward was a bit of both, although others have offered more robust views – as we shall see. Contemporary writers were also divided in their assessment of Edward’s character, although few doubted his courage or his great skill in war. Thomas More, writing some years after Edward’s death, was fulsome in his praise. More was by no means an impartial observer – he was a writer with a complex agenda – but his description of Edward provides an apt introduction:

He was […] of heart courageous, politic in counsel, in adversity nothing abashed, in prosperity rather joyful than proud, in peace just and merciful, in war sharp and fierce, in the field bold and hardy.28

Was Thomas More right? It is for the reader to decide.

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