Clash of armour: the art of English warfare in the late 15th century

In this first part of a special feature on the dynastic struggle between the rival houses of Lancaster and York, Neil Faulkner presents a study of the strategy and tactics of the time.


The Wars of the Roses were the wars of ‘bastard feudalism’. By the 15th century, war was almost completely professionalised. Most knights had evolved into peace-loving local gentry – ‘lords of the manor’ in their villages, but no longer lords of battle, having commuted their inherited obligations to do military service for money payment, an arrangement that well-suited their overlords, who wanted funds for aristocratic display and professional retainers.

Many knights, of course, continued to be military men, but this was now a choice, and others gained the rank through service as professional captains. Such men were commonly sub-contractors, who would hire, equip, and train a contingent of armed men, whose services they would then sell. This development meshed with the growing desire of leading magnates – who were competing with each other for offices, estates, and court influence – to monopolise the service of these military contingents by engaging them in long-term contracts.

Though somewhat romanticised, this reconstruction of three 15th-century soldiers – an archer and two bill-men – gives a reliable impression of the general appearance of ordinary soldiers. All wore some mix of plate, mail, padded jacks, and metal-studded brigandines. But armour was exceptionally expensive, so only the nobility wore full plate armour. Image: WIPL

The system originated at the top. During the 14th century, Edward III had revolutionised the English system for raising royal armies by replacing reliance on feudal obligation with written indentured contracts between the Crown and leading magnates for the performance of military service. These magnates then set about building what were, in effect, private armies.

Those who sold themselves to a particular lord on a long-term basis would wear his ‘livery’ (heraldic colours and devices) in return for ‘maintenance’ (payment and protection): these were the true ‘retainers’, since they were paid even when not on active service.

Only professionals could sell themselves in this way, and the rewards for skilled archers, spearmen, and men-at-arms were high. In 1467, Sir John Howard hired an archer by offering him £10 a year (the income of a knight), two gowns, and a house for his wife. As a sign-up bonus, he also provided a payment of 2s. 8d., two doublets, and new livery coat.

Also notable is the fact that all soldiers seem to have worn plentiful armour, and to have been mounted on campaign. Medieval armour was, of course, hugely expensive, as were the horses to provide mounts for archers as well as men-at-arms. Yet contemporary images leave little room for doubt: we see archers wearing steel sallets, chainmail shirts, quilted jacks, plate on arms and legs, and mounted on the march.

Bill and bow

Edward IV’s army at the Battle of Barnet numbered about 10,000 men, Warwick’s probably rather more, perhaps even as many as 15,000. How these numbers broke down we do not know. The evidence of contemporary muster rolls implies that the proportion of archers to men-at-arms ranged between 10:1 and 3:1. These figures are supported by the chronicle accounts of Agincourt, where the proportions are 5:1. We have to assume that English armies of the 15th century were usually composed largely of longbowmen.

We are equally hazy about the integration of longbowmen, men-at-arms, and the ordinary spearmen sometimes referred to in the sources. The clear implication is that each lord raised his own combined-arms force, but there was presumably some arrangement for the archers and men-at-arms of each ‘battle’ to be brigaded together in separate units.

Since ordinary soldiers seem to have worn padded hauberks, metal-studded brigandines, chainmail shirts, even steel breastplates, and certainly steel helmets, spearmen could undoubtedly have taken their place alongside fully armoured men- at-arms in the main battle-line.

Archers, on the other hand, whatever their personal protection, would have been highly vulnerable in frontal close-quarters collision against men-at-arms. So what happened to them? There seem to be two possibilities.

What did the archers do?

One is that they withdrew from the main battle-line to the flanks and the rear. Circumstantial evidence for this is supplied by an incident during the Battle of Barnet. At one point, the Marquis of Montagu’s archers mistook Lancastrians returning to the battlefield for enemies and opened fire on them. Since the battle-lines had turned through about 45° by this point, the Lancastrian returnees were approaching Montagu’s flank; archers stationed here and in the rear of the main battle would have been ideally placed to deliver the fire in question.

But this incident could also be accommodated if we assumed the second possibility: that the English had perfected – in so far as they could be perfected – the tactics of working ‘bow and bill’ in harness. This, after all, is precisely what they had done at Agincourt, where archers were stationed in the main line, a wedge on either flank, and two wedges between three separate contingents of men-at-arms; the archers thus deployed fought in the main line throughout the battle.

The ‘pike and shot’ warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries would involve careful choreographing of the deployment and movement of pikemen and musketeers, such that both fire and shock action could continue in combination, the one supporting the other.

The development of armour from the 11th to the 15th century, as illustrated by English tomb effigies. Full chainmail covering was introduced as early as the late 11th century, but, towards the end of the 12th century, plate began to be used to provide additional protection to the most vulnerable parts of the body. The development of armour was essentially the advance of plate to the point where it covered virtually the entire body – necessitating a high degree of articulation, and therefore craftsmanship if the warrior was not to be immobilised. Image: WIPL

Was this anticipated in late 15th-century English warfare in comparable combinations of archers and men-at-arms in the front-line? Did some at least of the archers withdraw to positions either side of the blocs of men-at-arms, perhaps echeloned slightly back, but able to provide fire support and to enter the mêlêe should opportunity arise – as at Agincourt?

We simply do not know the answers. We do not know whether it was managed routinely, occasionally, or not at all; and if it was managed, we do not how. The historical sources are not much help, for though they give no impression of archers in the main line once the men-at-arms have crossed bills, we know they are wholly preoccupied with the doings of the gilded elite, and rarely deign to tell us much about what the lowly archers were up to.

The ‘battles’

Still, we can be certain of one thing: it was invariably the clash between rival blocs of men-at-arms that determined the outcome in the battles of the Wars of the Roses. So let us refocus on this.

In a major battle like Barnet, we can assume that there were between 2,000 and 3,000 men-at-arms on either side, organised in three ‘battles’, making each of these somewhere between 650 and 1,000 men. This, of course, is the approximate size of a standard tactical unit of foot throughout much of military history. The Athenian taxis (a subdivision of the phalanx) numbered about 1,000, the Roman cohors (a sub-division of the legion) about 500, and a British infantry battalion from Marlborough’s day to Haig’s about 1,000 at full complement.

The reason is simple: this is the largest mass that is just about manageable as a unified entity on the battlefield. Larger units tend to come apart and fall into disorder. Smaller units lack force and are liable to be overwhelmed by opposing formations.

The implication is that the Wars of the Roses were fought with ‘battles’ of men-at-arms that roughly corresponded in size with more formally constituted infantry battalions. (And it is perhaps superfluous to point out that it is the same word: ‘battalion’ is a Romance form of the anglicised word ‘battle’.)

Nonetheless, the 15th-century ‘battle’ was an informal agglomeration, not a disciplined unit. Each was commanded by a great lord and represented his ‘affinity’, his network of retainers, tenants, and contractors. His ‘battle’ therefore comprised a mixture of his own household troops, other men levied from estates and towns under his control, and contingents supplied by lesser nobles and professional captains under contract to him.

Livery and armour

The ‘battle’ would therefore fly the standard of the great lord, and the numerous banners of the individual leaders forming his affinity. Each man-at-arms would wear a surcoat decorated with the badge and livery of his lord, sometimes that of the great lord himself, often that of his own captain, if he were of sufficient rank. Looking on such a battle, therefore, one would see an array of men encased in plate armour amid the reds and yellows, blues and greens, whites and blacks of countless heraldic devices.

During the 15th century, the comprehensiveness of body armour reached a peak. A well-equipped man-at-arms would wear steel plate-armour that covered head, shoulders, arms, hands, torso, thighs, legs, and feet. Ideally, the plates would comprise many small pieces strapped together, so as to allow maximum movement, and the best armours would be so fully articulated that they imposed very little restriction. Plate was designed with angled surfaces to deflect arrows and blows from hand-held weapons.

A contemporary image of heavy horse charging pikemen, who hold a palisade and are supported by cannon: a perfect representation of the way in which the rise of the middling sort across much of Europe created a ‘crisis of cavalry’ during the 15th century. Image: WIPL

Chainmail would cover any unavoidable gaps, like armpits and groin, and the plate would be backed by heavy padding for comfort and additional protection. Sometimes sections of chainmail would be sewn onto the leather and quilted undergarments.

The notion that the Late Medieval knight was so encased in metal that he was virtually blind, deaf, and incapable of anything but lumbering steps and clumsy swings is false. The weight of battle armour was evenly distributed, and it amounted to only about 50 to 70lbs in total – less than the full equipment of a 19th-century cavalryman, and roughly similar to the load carried by First World War infantry.

Armoured combat

There is no question, however, that wearing such a weight had major implications for combat efficiency: the effect was to impede movement, observation, and hearing; to slow reaction times and hinder weapon- handling; and to make battle a more exhausting experience than it would otherwise have been. The development of armour had, in this respect, reached an impassable limit: it could not have got much heavier without effectively disabling the warrior altogether. The point is that it had not passed that limit.

The advantages were profound: the development of armour had altered the whole form of Medieval battle. Feudal heavy cavalry had been doomed by the rise of infantry recruited from ‘the middling sort’ – not just English longbowmen, but the Scottish schiltrons, the Flemish urban militia (wielding long-handled clubs), the pikemen of the Swiss cantons, and Czech Hussite hand-gunners had all won signal victories over mounted chivalry during the 14th and early 15th centuries.

Cavalry faced two problems on the changing Medieval battlefield. However complete an armour, it was impossible to provide comprehensive protection to a man-at-arm’s horse without preventing the animal from moving at all. Horses remained perilously vulnerable to the arrow-storm.

Compounding this problem was the fact that when a mounted man went down, the effect on the formation of which he was part was highly disruptive – far more so than in the case of a man on foot. The horse would stumble and collapse in a great heap, throwing the rider, creating a centre of disruption that would send ripples through the surrounding ranks, exacerbated by the instinctive reactions of other horses to the obstruction and chaos.

The crisis of cavalry

The second problem was the growing ineffectiveness of mounted shock-action. This always depends primarily on the moral effect of the charge. To be blunt, a cavalry charge is essentially a bluff. Against steady infantry who remain tight-packed and with guard up, it almost invariably fails. The reasons are these:

1. Horses cannot be driven into a solid obstruction like a line of infantry. They tend to come to a halt short of the obstruction, leaving the rider – assuming they do not throw him – stranded out of reach of his enemy.

2. Even if the rider succeeds in spurring his horse forwards, he is distracted by the struggle to impose his will on the animal – unlike the waiting infantry, who, assuming they are steady and trained, are wholly focused on the imminent collision.

3. In so far as riders are able to force their horses forwards, the primary effect is to expose the vulnerable animal to the blows of the opposing infantry. The horses are likely to be clubbed or impaled before the rider is close enough to do any damage in return; in effect, the front of his animal becomes a barrier preventing the rider from engaging the enemy.

The middling sort

What made the rise of ‘the middling sort’ of such decisive significance for military history was that it created a growing pool of recruitment for an infantry that had the moral fibre to stand its ground on the battlefield: not feudal serfs, but free men of modest standing like the yeomanry of the English shires or the burghers of the Flemish trading cities – men with a stake in the system, a sense of status and pride, an approach to life that was sober, intelligent, and hard-working. This class of men doomed feudal heavy cavalry on the battlefields of Europe.

The tactical problem was especially acute in Britain, the home of the yeoman-longbowman, whose battlefield pre-eminence had been deliberately fostered by centralising Plantagenet monarchs eager both to rein in feudal anarchy at home and to even up the odds in wars on the Continent. Moreover, once one side’s men-at-arms were deployed on foot, those of the other were bound to comply if they were to have any hope of fighting their enemies on equal terms.

The commanders of armies in the Wars of the Roses faced both an arrow- storm and steady infantry. This is the reason that the main battles were invariably fought dismounted. Some men might remain mounted as a tactical reserve, sometimes on the flanks, where they might occasionally find opportunity to strike an enemy formation fully engaged in frontal collision, or more often in the rear, acting as a rapid-reaction force – the most famous example being Richard III’s fateful charge across the battlefield with his mounted household contingent after sighting Henry Tudor’s standard at Bosworth. .


The history of the Wars of the Roses is blessed with an extraordinary collection of letters and papers, relating to the Paston family of Norfolk gentry, dating between 1422 and 1509. In the letter below, the Earl of Oxford – who fought for the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet – issues a summons to arms at the start of the campaign.

The Earl of Oxford to Henry Spilman, Thomas Seyve, John Seyve, James Radclif, and John Brampton the Elder, 19 March 1471:

Trusty and well beloved, I commend me to you, letting you wit [know] that I have credible tidings that the King’s [Henry VI’s] great enemies and rebels [the Yorkists], accompanied with enemies estrangers [foreign mercenaries], be now arrived and landed in the north parts of this his land, to the utter destruction of his royal person, and subversion of all his realm, if they might attain; whom to encounter and resist, the King’s highness hath commanded and assigned me, under his seal, sufficient power and authority to call, raise, gather, and assemble, from time to time, all his liege people of the shire of Norfolk, and other places, to assist, aid, and strengthen me in the same intent.

Wherefore, in the King’s name, and by authority aforesaid, I straitly charge and command you, and in my own behalf heartily desire and pray you, that, all excuses apart, ye, and each of you in your own persons defensibly arrayed, with as many men as ye may goodly make, be on Friday next coming at Lynn, and so forth to Newark, where, with the leave of God, you, and my friends, to the reencounter of the said enemies; and that ye fail not hereof, as ye tender [favour] the weal of our said sovereign Lord and all his realm.


1. The Wars began in 1455

In a sense, the Wars of the Roses began with the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. Lancastrian legitimacy was always actively contested, except perhaps for a brief period during the reign of Henry V (1413-1422).

2. England was at war for 30 years

The Wars were not a unified conflict lasting three decades, but rather a series of short campaigns or mini-wars separated by years of peace. There were three major eruptions of sustained violence: 1455-1464, 1469-1471, and 1483-1487.

3. Richard III was a baddie

Richard III was cast as the villain in Tudor propaganda, most obviously in Shakespeare’s portrayal, but his monarchy was in the forward-looking Yorkist mould, and his more ruthless actions were dictated by the political exigencies of the time.

4. The Wars were fought between Yorkshire and Lancashire

The division of the country did not correspond to the names of the opposing factions. The Lancastrians were powerful in the north and west, the Yorkists in London, the Midlands, and the south. To some degree, the division more closely mirrored that of the Civil War of 1642-1646.

5. ‘The Wars of the Roses’

Calling the succession of 15th-century dynastic conflicts ‘the Wars of the Roses’ was an invention of Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century, and Shakespeare is responsible for the roses: in Henry VI, rival nobles pick red and white roses. The Yorkists did use the white rose, but as one of many badges, and the Lancastrians did not use a red rose at all until very late on.

Part Two of MHM’s special on the Wars of the Roses: