In spite of the name ‘Wars of the Roses’ given in retrospect, it is exceedingly unlikely that any long-term ‘war’ at all was recorded contemporarily. During those years, the vast majority of the time the country was at peace, and unconcerned with its king being either Yorkist or Lancastrian. The bitter hatred between those two houses was limited to comparatively few unforgiving families. In general, 15th century England was a time of peaceful prosperity which saw vast increases in international trade, a lessening of poverty and the rise of the middle classes.
But there was another war, rarely mentioned and rarely considered. This was something that brought more ruin to the general population, and surely mattered more to them than the problem of which king wore the crown. And that was the battle behind each and every battle that took place during this period.
For these were not small local skirmishes. The lords who were called to fight for their faction came from all over the land, and they mustered their troops both from their own vast estates, wherever those were situated. And then these mustered armies, of ordinary men, farmers, tradesmen, and craftsmen as well as seasoned campaigners, tramped across the countryside behind their leaders, making for whatever distant area had been designated as a meeting place. Sometimes this involved crossing hundreds of miles, and the quickest and easiest route did not always involve taking the main road. Several thousand tired men striding across fields and pasture could bring the terrible desecration of a farmer’s crops, the death of farm animals taken for roasting over the campfire at night, and frequent unpaid demands for food and drink from the local villages.
For example, the ferocious and tragic Battle of Towton, 1461, was fought in Yorkshire. But the men who joined the battle had come from all over England, tramping mile by mile, summoned by their lord to fight for his cause and ambition. One estimate of those killed at Towton stands at nearly 30,000 men. So first the muster brought its own devastation of the countryside, and then the horrific slaughter left a host of widows and fatherless children in wretched penury, and the utter misery of such awful loss without even the opportunity to bury the hosts of the dead.
Men called upon to risk life and limb, ready to slaughter or be slaughtered, were not always on their best behaviour, nor were they all the sweetest of polite gentlemen. There were the prickers, for instance. These were mounted men armed with pitch-forks and employed to gallop the outlying limits of a battlefield and force back into action any attempted deserters. I doubt if such men were too careful concerning their manners as they marched the long miles to the battlefront.
There would also be heavy wagons loaded with supplies and arms, followed by women and trailing families, children ready to help deliver arrows on the outskirts once fighting started, and prostitutes hoping to make a little money and a little friendship. No lightweight procession then – trundling across the land, searching for food as they went, and looking for places to camp.
But the worst damage came from foreign armies. They could devastate the land they crossed. Burning as they went, many foreign soldiers hoped to force their enemy into surrender by ensuring all farmland and food crops were eradicated as they passed. A starving enemy would be weak and more willing to lay down their arms. Such ruthless cruelty became more and more commonly accepted. The so-called hero of Agincourt, King Henry V, adopted this scorched-earth strategy, and left utter misery and destitution behind him in France. And it was the common folk, not the lords, who suffered most and whose depleted livestock and burned fields might take years to recover, ensuring bitter hunger and poverty long after the actual battle was won or lost.
When Henry Tudor led an army of England’s greatest enemy across the country from Wales to Warwickshire and Leicestershire, they would most certainly have left a trail of devastation behind them. The French had no love for the English and would not have treated either the people or the land with respect. Besides, many of the French army were mercenaries, or criminals released from prison in exchange for their willingness to fight. The weather was hot and the miles long and sweaty. Robbery, violence and rape would certainly have occurred along the way. Some cities opened their gates to Henry’s troops, which seems unsurprising. Better to invite them in and treat them well, rather than risk the utter desecration of crops, farmland and outlying homesteads by refusing all succour.
Foreign armies could bring little with them in the way of food and comfort. Wagonloads of arms would be hard enough to transport overseas since shipping was not a simple matter in those days. So the whole army needed feeding – thousands of men twice a day. And men had other desires. No camp-followers or prostitutes would have voluntarily served a foreign army and so the troops would simply have taken what they found along the route. The long standing enmity between the English and the French at that time – strongly expressed in both battle and peacetime – could not have ensured any peaceful trudge through those summer lanes. The fields, about to be harvested would have been stripped or trampled underfoot.
Whatever Henry Tudor may have believed regarding his right to the English throne – and not only was that minimal but he clearly knew this, hence all the myth-making afterwards – but to arrive in a country claiming kingship, and yet devastate those same people by coming financed and accompanied by that country’s greatest enemy in large number, was surely an act of utter arrogant wickedness.
There are some contemporary indications of the devastation that occurred in this manner. For instance, Henry Tudor, once he claimed the crown, paid compensation to the farm owners whose lands had been wrecked where the battle took place and where his army had camped the previous night. But there is no mention of restitution made for the whole journey from the west coast to the east. Later, the Pretender ‘Perkin Warbeck’ when accompanied by a Scottish army marching into England to do battle for his claim as Prince Richard, Duke of York, soon abandoned his invasion because he could not accept the terrible violence, destruction of crops and brutality of the men he led as they tramped through the English counties.
There is also considerable evidence of later armies abroad, those of Napoleon for example, and the appalling misery they left behind them – not during battle alone – but simply during the passage of such mighty armies across peaceful and suffering country-sides.
So we read of the great battles of the past and we cheer for the heroes, but there was another destruction that went unrecorded, and that was suffered by the ordinary citizens, many of whom would have no chance to recover. This was what hurt the common man, who probably cared little for which king sat snug and smug upon the throne.
BARBARA GASKELL DENVIL for MURREY AND BLUE