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This Week in History

St. Albans (22-28 May)

This was the first battle of the thirty years of bloody conflict between the great families of England that was to end on Bosworth Field in 1485, and to become known as the Wars of the Roses. St Albans was a first victory for the Yorkists, but the Lancastrians finally triumphed to win the throne for the Tudors.

The Battle of St Albans

An Extract from Men-at-Arms 145: The Wars of the Roses


In May 1455 the queen and Somerset summoned a Council, to which no prominent Yorkist was invited, and ordered a gathering of the peers at Leicester to take steps for the king's safety. York marched south to secure a fair hearing from the king, while the court moved towards Leicester, escorted by a large number of nobles and their retainers. The king and Somerset did not learn of York's actions until they were en route to Leicester. They tried to assemble an army, but there was insufficient time; at nightfall on 21 May, when the two sides camped only 20 miles apart, the king's 'army' still consisted of just his escort and their retainers.

Both sides decided to advance against their adversary during the night, and these marches became a race for the chief town of the area, St. Albans. The king's army arrived there at 7am, and York halted at Key Fields, east of the town, at about the same time. There followed a pause of three hours while reconciliation was attempted, York offering to withdraw if the king would surrender Somerset, whom York considered a traitor. The king (i.e. Somerset) refused, and York ordered the attack.

Warwick was to lay down a barrage of arrows in support of flank attacks by York and Salisbury. However, these attacks were repulsed and Warwick therefore ordered his archers to concentrate on their own front. He then attacked the centre, broke through to the Chequers Inn, and here established a rallying point. Falling back to prevent their divided forces from being outflanked by Warwick, the Lancastrians weakened their defence of the Sopwell and Shropshire Lanes, and the forces of York and Salisbury almost immediately burst into the town. The Lancastrians began to falter, panicked, and broke, to be pursued up St. Peter's Street by the triumphant Yorkists.

Somerset and some retainers took cover in the Castle Inn while Lord Clifford, with Percy, Harington and some other knights and esquires, fought on outside the inn. When those outside were slain, Somerset led his men in one last charge. He killed four men before being felled by an axe. The king, the Duke of Buckingham, and the Earls of Devon and Dorset were captured; Clifford; Somerset, Stafford, Percy and Harington were amongst those killed.

York was appointed Protector in October and Warwick became Captain of Calais, the city which possessed the only standing army of the king. For the next three years there was an uneasy peace.



Further Reading

Essential Histories 54: The Wars of the Roses (extract below) is a compact but comprehensive account of the 30 years in which the nobles of the opposing houses of York and Lancaster, and their knights and men-at-arms fought over a dozen major battles, and the crown of England changed hands six times. It explores the origins and course of this famous dynastic struggle, often misunderstood, and misrepresented by Tudor 'spin' from the accession of Henry VII onwards. The book places the fighting and the numerous invasions that the conflict gave rise to in their political and social context, also demonstrating that they had almost no impact on the daily life of the non-combatant population. Campaign 120: Towton 1461 is a study of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist victory that established Edward IV as king, and Campaign 66: Bosworth 1485 explores the concluding events and the defeat and death of Richard III.

Men-at-Arms 145: The Wars of the Roses examines the armies, liveries and badges of the opposing sides with a concise narrative of the main campaigns and battles (extract above). This was the age of the knight in full plate armour; Warrior 35: English Medieval Knight 1400-1500 (extract below) describes the life of a 15th century knight, his equipment and experiences, from his earliest days as a squire through to his experiences on the battlefields of France and England.

An Extract from Essential Histories 54: The Wars of the Roses

Background to the Wars


Everything in the 1450s appeared to be going wrong. A savage slump of c. 1440-80 beset most parts of the economy and the majority of people, the Hundred Years' War ended abruptly with English defeat, and the government was powerless to remedy these disasters. The problems were connected - war had plunged the government deep into debt and the depression had slashed its income - but the ineffectiveness of Henry VI himself, a king incapable and unwilling to reign, also contributed. People blamed the government for the state of the economy, which actually no late medieval state could control, and were unwilling to attribute England's military humiliation to the recovery of France. The king's bankruptcy and the loss of Normandy alike were blamed on the corruption and even treason of ministers and commanders, who were widely believed, incorrectly, to have been plundering the king's mythical resources. Hence parliaments and people refused financial help to the government, advocating instead retrenchment and recovery of what had been given away. They demanded reform, refusing to acknowledge when reforms had been achieved and kept repeating the same message.

The year 1450 commenced with the impeachment and murder of William Duke of Suffolk, the king's principal councillor, followed by the murder of two ministers and two bishops and with the massive rebellion of Jack Cade in the south-east, and ended with the government on the defensive against another parliament bent on reform. Critics saw themselves as a single movement seeking the same objectives through different means. They lacked a leader until October, when Richard Duke of York - the premier duke, the richest nobleman, and a prince of the blood - returned from Ireland where he had been lieutenant to take up the leadership of reform. Reform implied no challenge to the king and York focused his attacks particularly against Edmund Duke of Somerset, the defeated commander in France and the most effective of Henry's favourites.

Henry VI held Somerset blameless and made him his principal adviser, but York, who had earlier been lieutenant of France himself and who lost materially by defeat, wanted Somerset executed for treason, repeatedly rejecting the king's exoneration of him.

Henry VI resisted the challenge. He simply refused to give way to an apparently irresistible alliance and still enjoyed enough unquestioning loyalty to get away with his obstinacy. With Somerset's help, Henry rebuilt the effectiveness of his government and was on the point of bringing the powerful Nevilles to order in the summer of 1453. York continued to pursue the cause of reform. A first attempt to seize control of the government with an army recruited from his Welsh estates ended in 1452 at Dartford in humiliating capitulation. York was obliged to promise in St Paul's Cathedral that he would not resort to force again. York's opportunity came when the king went mad in 1453 and York was the majority candidate among several to head a new government as Lord Protector (1454-55). He owed much to his new allies, the two Richard Nevilles, father and son, Earl of Salisbury and Earl of Warwick, and rewarded them accordingly. York imprisoned but could not destroy Somerset, who was restored to favour on the king's recovery early in 1455. Perhaps fearing vengeance, York and the Nevilles ambushed the court at the first battle of St Albans (22 April 1455), eliminated Somerset and other opponents, and again took control of the government. York's Second Protectorate (1455-56) ended with his dismissal. A period of tense stalemate was ended by Henry VI's peacemaking in February 1458 (the Loveday at St Paul's), but the peace did not last, perhaps because the Yorkists expected too much favour and too much influence once they had been forgiven. The first stage of the wars proper opened in 1459 with yet another loyal rebellion - another attempt by the Yorkists to supplant Henry VI's government without changing the king. Their initial defeat and subsequent victory preceded and permitted York's claim to the Crown the following year.

An Extract from Warrior 35: English Medieval Knight 1400-1500

Into Battle


The knight of the 15th century often fought on foot. He had been trained to fight mounted, with a lance, but it was often more effective to dismount most of the men-at-arms and to keep only a small mounted reserve. This was partly due to the increasing threat from missiles. In France during the early 15th century, the English forces used tactics learned the previous century. If the armoured fighting men were kept near the blocks of archers and all waited for the enemy to advance, it meant the latter arrived in a more tired state, all the while harassed by the arrows from the archers and compressed by a natural tendency to shy away from them. This bunching could then work to the advantage of the English who used their archers to strike at the press of French soldiers, now aggravated by those behind pushing forward, as happened at Agincourt. The groups of mounted men-at-arms who tried to outflank the archers at the start of the battle were foiled by the woods which protected each end of the English line, and found to their cost the price of facing archers when mounted.

When archers were in a strong position, ideally defended by stakes, hedges or ditches, a cavalry charge was extremely dangerous. But even when the horses were protected by armour, there was always some exposed part that an arrow could strike, and arrows went deep. Shafts fitted with broad hunting heads made short work of flesh, and the horses became unmanageable even when not mortally wounded. The mounted knight then became useless as he fought for control or was thrown to the ground as the animal collapsed. It is worth noting that only a few hundred at each end of the French line attacked, and of these a few still reached the stakes despite the volleys of presumably thousands of arrows launched at them. Yet it was the dismounted men-at-arms who did most of the fighting in this battle, and it was they who, according to one chronicler, pushed the English line back a spear's length before everything became jammed up:

'But when the French nobility, who at first approached in full front, had nearly joined battle, either from fear of the arrows, which by their impetuosity pierced through the sides and bevors of their basinets, or that they might more speedily penetrate our ranks to the banners, they divided themselves into three troops, charging our line in three places where the banners were: and intermingling their spears closely, they assault-ed our men with so ferocious an impetuosity, that they compelled them to retreat almost at spear's length'.

Arrows versus armour.

Archers carried specialist arrows, with needle-point-ed heads called bodkins, to cut through armour. Tests have shown that the spin of the arrow in flight enables short bodkins striking at right angles to drill a hole into armour plate, but that the slight shoulders at the back of the arrow head then force it out again. However, long bodkins, were slimmer and could penetrate plate enough to do damage. The range at which an arrow was shot, as well as whether iron or steel heads were used, would determine its potency. At short range, the bodkins could be lethal, or inflict a wound that would slow up or debilitate a man in armour. However, most surviving oxidised red bodkins seem to be of iron, which tests suggest curl up when they strike plate. If they struck mail they would burst the rings apart as they went through. Crossbows were equally powerful although they did not employ bodkins. Handguns were also now appearing in armies, though not in any great number at this period.

Since plate armour obviated the need for a shield, and fighting dismounted meant the rein hand was free, it became common for knights on foot to carry a two-handed staff weapon in addition to the sword hanging at their side. At first this was often a lance cut down to a length of around 6-7 ft (1.8-2.1 m). Increasingly, other staff weapons were carried, which could deal more effectively with plate armour. One of the most popular was the pollaxe, designed to dent or crush the plates, either to wound the wearer or so damage the plates that they ceased to function properly.

Mounted men were very useful in a rout, for they could catch up a fleeing enemy and cut him down with minimum risk to themselves, especially if he was lightly armoured. Indeed, catching archers out of position was the best way for cavalry to scatter them before they got a chance to deploy. In the Hundred Years War this was not too much of a problem for English knights, since the French did not use archers on a large scale. During the Wars of the Roses, archers fought on both sides in Yorkist and Lancastrian armies and, for the most part, the men-at-arms found it best to stick with the tried-and-trusted methods and fight on foot.

Organisation and identification.

Armies still tended to organise themselves into three divisions or 'battles', as they had in previous centuries: the vanguard or 'van', the main battle and the rearguard. Each division included soldiers of all types who served the various lords or the king. A man of rank, be he banneret, lord or king, was recognised by his banner, a large square or rectangular flag bearing his coat-of-arms. The lord might also wear a surcoat with his arms, at first a tight or loose jupon with or without sleeves, latterly a loose tabard with loose elbow-length sleeves rather like that worn by heralds. However, surcoats were increasingly discarded and, with a lack of shields, it was essential that the banner-bearer remain close to his master, following his horse's tail, as it was said. The rallying flag was the standard, a long flag ending in a point or swallow tail. It was usually divided horizontally into the two principal colours from the lord's coat-of-arms, which also formed the livery colours worn on the jackets of his retainers. The end nearest the fly was usually furnished with a red cross of St George on a white ground. Along the rest of the flag were symbols from the coat-of-arms, together with heraldic badges, again repeated in the badges sewn on to livery jackets or worn in hats. A lord might give the order not to move more than ten feet (or a similar measurement) from the standards, but if the line slightly shifted it would not be too difficult in the confusion of battle to strike out accidentally at an ally.

Knights fighting mounted might have their coat-of-arms on a small pointed pennon nailed to their lance. In order to carry out heraldic identification and to deliver messages, important nobles employed their own heralds wearing tabards of their master's arms, and trumpeters with the arms on hangings below the instruments.

The noise of many men hammering away at each other must have been deafening. When the visor was down, it was not only the hearing but also the vision that was impaired, though lateral views were better than might be supposed. Helmets lacking ventilation holes made it difficult for the wearer to see his own feet without bending forward, and they also quickly became hot and sweaty.


The Boer War (29 May-1 June)

In 1806, a British expedition seized the Cape, a Dutch colony, and relations between the British and Boers – the descendants of 16th century Dutch settlers – almost immediately began to deteriorate. In the late 1830s, many Boers made the Great Trek north and settled in the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Natal. British influence extended into this area over the next decades with the discovery of gold and diamonds, and then further into the surrounding areas, such as Zululand. In 1880, the Transvaalers took up arms in the First Boer War or Transvaal War, which won them back a degree of independence. By the 1890s, the Transvaal was flanked by British territory, and relations continued to deteriorate. The turning point seems to have been the Jameson raid on Johannesburg mounted by the British, and after a couple of years of increasing tension, the main Anglo-Boer conflict erupted in late 1899.

This extract from Essential Histories 52: The Boer War 1899–1902 describes the famous siege of Mafeking, a key moment in the conflict.

The siege of Mafeking


The besieged towns of Mafeking, Kimberly and Ladysmith played an important role in the conflict. Mafeking became the stuff of legends. Cronjé laid siege to the town with 8,000 men and 10 guns, including the famous siege gun known as ‘Long Tom’, a Creusot 94-pounder. The 42-year-old Colonel Robert Baden–Powell, future founder of the Boy Scout Movement, had about 1,000 men with which to defend the little town, together with four muzzle–loading cannon and a handful of machine–guns. With strict orders not to suffer heavy casualties, Cronjé held back at first, giving the resourceful and imaginative ‘B–P’ opportunities to prepare his defenses and inspire his garrison, which he did with a bizarre yet successful combination of amateur theatricals, amusing billboards and strict discipline. Morale remained high despite heavy rationing and continuous bombardment.

He did not hesitate to execute those blacks who stole food, and though he cut back the rations issued to the Africans, he also took the unprecedented step of arming them to bolster the size of the garrison. This incensed Cronjé, who sent Baden–Powell a message in the first month of the siege:

      It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingos and Baralongs against us – in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness … reconsider this matter, even if it [should] cost you the loss of Mafeking … disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.

Baden–Powell had had the foresight before the siege to send away as large a proportion of the town’s women and children as was possible, and ordered the construction of underground shell–proof shelters for those who remained. He encircled the town with earthworks and devised bogus ‘mine fields’, simple wooden boxes which had wires connecting them to his headquarters. Most were filled with sand; others, containing dynamite, were detonated in public demonstrations intended to intimidate the besiegers and to mislead spies in the town. Above all, Baden–Powell remained resolute, the consummate leader of men:

      All you have to do is to sit tight and when the time comes to shoot straight … Take my word for it, if you act as I fully expect you to act, the Boers will never enter Mafeking.

Although the Boers bombarded Mafeking day and night, very little damage was actually done. Baden–Powell made light of the fact early in the siege by placing a satirical casualty list outside his headquarters, which read:

      Killed: one hen


      Wounded: one yellow dog


      Smashed: one window

While the Boers’ ‘Long Tom’ had more of a psychological than physical impact on the garrison, Baden–Powell felt that some response ought to be made to the incessant shelling. An 18th–century naval gun exhumed from a farmyard was restored to operation. When the initials ‘BP’ (representing the foundry of Bailey and Pegg) were found stamped on the barrel, the defenders hailed the discovery as a good omen, and promptly discovered, to their even greater joy, that the cannon, dubbed ‘Lord Nelson’, could send a roundshot bouncing nearly 3,000 yards, right into the midst of one of the Boers’ encampments. The conversion and refurbishment of another half–buried cannon, loaded with home–made 18–pound shells, ultimately obliged the Boers to decamp almost 5 km (3 miles).

The Boer strategy of starving out the garrison imposed severe restrictions on food. As supplies dwindled many turned to feeding on locusts, available in abundance and prepared as a curry. Most residents survived on a porridge of ground oat husks. Nothing went to waste. Baden–Powell described how:

      When a horse was killed, his mane and tail were cut off and sent to the hospital for stuffing mattresses and pillows. His shoes went to the foundry for making shells. His skin after having the hair scalded off, was boiled with his head and feet for many hours, chopped up small, and … served out as ‘brawn’.

      His flesh was taken from the bones and minced in a great mincing machine and from his inside were made skins into which the meat was crammed and each man received a sausage as his ration. The bones were then boiled into rich soup, which was dealt out at the different soup kitchens; and they were afterwards pounded into powder with which to adulterate the flour.

Such thrift and resourcefulness, allied to the inspiring leadership of Baden–Powell, sustained the besieged residents of Mafeking during their 217-day ordeal. British losses were low, though in the last days the Boers had made a final unsuccessful attempt to break in. The whole episode was cast as an epic of bravery and fortitude in the British press. The fact that many African workers had starved as a result of severe reductions in their rations was conveniently overlooked. The relief of the town was met with wild jubilation and Baden–Powell emerged as a national hero.



Further Reading

Essential Histories 52: The Boer War 1899–1902 is a complete narrative of the war, plus the background, consequences and the world around the conflict.
Campaign 38: Colenso 1899 – The Boer war in Natal focuses on the Natal campaign, from before the battle of Colenso, possibly the blackest time for the British, through to the relief of Ladysmith.
Campaign 45: Majuba 1881 describes the encounter at the supposedly unassailable summit of Majuba when the Boers sent the British forces into a headlong retreat that shocked the Empire.
Men-at-Arms 301: The Boer Wars (1) 1836-98 is a detailed study of the Boers in the period from the Great Trek up to the outbreak of the second Boer conflict.
Elite 71: Queen Victoria's Commanders studies the commanders of the British Empire of this period, including commanders involved in the Boer War.