Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 26 July 2013

Soldiers and warfare, Wars of the Roses-style...

....*warning*, this may not be for the faint-hearted.

To tie in with the release of 'Rebellion', Part Two of The White Hawk, I thought I would post something about the mechanics of combat during The Wars of the Roses. It can't help but make for a grisly read...

The Battle of Barnet - not half as much fun as it looks

Imagine you are a common or garden foot-soldier in one of the armies mustered by York and Lancaster to settle their differences on the battlefield. You are a youngish man, in your mid-twenties, and relatively healthy and well-nourished: it was in the interests of the nobility to ensure their fighting men were fit and well-fed. You are 'liveried and fee'd' i.e. you wear the arms of your lord on your coat (or possibly just a badge), and are paid a wage to fight for him.

It's a cold, wet morning. Mist lies heavy on the land. The enemy are just about visible as a mass of silhouetted banners and spear-points slowly moving in your direction. Their progress is accompanied by the steady pulse of drums, accompanied by squalling trumpets and the occasional toot of a pipe.

Are you feeling brave? Perhaps you did last night, when you were deep in your cups and boasting to your fellows of the heroic deeds you would perform in tomorrow's battle. Reality is somewhat different. The ale has worn off, leaving you with a cracking headache and a mouth that tastes like m'lord's charger has taken a dump inside it. Your limbs tremble. Your hands are slick with sweat.

A young soldier in the Middle Ages (a real one this time) summed up the feeling of pre-battle nerves thus:

"When we are in the tavern drinking strong wine, and the ladies pass and look at us with those white throats and tight bodices, those sparkling eyes resplendent with shining beauty; then nature urges us to have a desiring heart. Then we could overcome Yaumont and Agolant, and the others could conquer Oliver and Roland. But when we are on campaign on our trotting chargers, our bucklers around our necks and our lances lowered, and the great cold is congealing us together, and our limbs are crushed before and behind and our enemies are approaching us, then we could wish to be in a cellar so large that we might never be seen by any means..."

Sounds like fun, eh? The best is yet to come.

So, what are you, our trembling footsoldier, kitted out with? Assuming your lord could afford it, your body should be protected by a 'jack', a kind of tunic stuffed with tow. According to Dominic Mancini, writing in 1483, "...the softer the tunic the better do they withstand the blows of arrows and swords, and besides that in the summer they are lighter and in the winter more serviceable than iron."

That's about it for body armour: if you had a bit more cash, you might have been able to buy a brigandine (a tunic stitched with hundreds of steel plates), and various types of knee guards and armour for your legs and arms. But you're not, so you haven't. Your head is protected by a sallet, a popular form of open-faced helmet. You also have a pair of leather gauntlets, so whatever else happens at least you shouldn't suffer from any nasty splinters.

What about weapons? Well, your principal bit of killing gear is a bill, a sort of converted farm implement consisting of a long ash shaft (no snickering, please), hexagonal in shape to improve grip, about seven feet in length (I said NO SNICKERING), and topped off with a lethal combo of hook, spike and blade. The general idea is to whack your foe with the blade, trip him up with the hook, and then ram the spike into his essentials. That generally does the trick. He, of course, will be trying to do the same to you.

If you were a really lucky boy - which we have already established you're not - you might have a sword thrust into your belt. Instead your secondary weapon is a dagger with a long, slender blade, useful for thrusting into visors and vulnerable joints in armour.

It's starting to rain. Brilliant. Some beefy nobleman covered from head to toe in richly decorated steel shouts an order, and the line starts to tramp forward towards the enemy. You keep pace with the rest, your feet slipping on damp, uneven ground. Your limbs won't stop trembling. Your bowels are doing a jig. Your head is thumping, and your mouth is dry as dust. You are frightened, more frightened than you have ever been, and with good reason.

Have some

The enemy march into view through the mist. Both sides fight on foot, even the nobles, and form two dense lines, bristling with bills and halberds and other pole-arms. Men cheer and shout curses and war-cries as the lines slowly flow together. Many will shortly be crying for their mothers.

What follows is pretty much unimaginable, except perhaps to anyone who has been at the bottom of a rugby scrum. The front lines of both armies hack and thrust and stab at each other, attempting to punch gaps in the opposing line. A disabling blow to the face or leg is what's needed - if you can drive a spike through someone's teeth, or rip away their tendons or hamstring with a hook, great. Anyone who gets knocked over is most likely a goner, either bludgeoned to death by the enemy or trampled by his comrades. If you're really lucky, you might be able to crawl to the rear through a forest of legs.

Your world is a living hell of sweat and cramp and pain and muscle-ripping effort allied to visceral, eye-bulging terror. The sheer physical strength needed to wield your heavy bill is exhausting. The screams of wounded and dying friends rattle in your ears. The stench of excrement and urine and spilled guts fill your nostrils. All you can see is a tightly-bunched row of bodies and ghastly, contorted faces, most of them spitting hatred and abuse at you. They are doing their best to stick sharp metal things inside you. You are doing your best to prevent them and return the favour.

This happy meeting goes on for quite a while - hours, even, as the two sides slug it out in what can best be described as a gigantic shoving-match. Eventually one side will give way, either through exhaustion or some slight advantage gained by the enemy: an unexpected flank attack, perhaps. That's what did for the Lancastrians at Barnet.

Tired as you are, frightened as you are, you had best hold your ground and pray that your side are not the first to lose heart. If the men around you should fail, if their line starts to crumple and retreat, then the day is lost and you are almost certainly fated to a hideous death. The wounds on the skeletons of men recovered from the grave-pits near Towton bear stark testimony to the pitiless frenzy of killing that usually followed a battle.

So what happens to YOU next? Roll a ten-sided dice. If you roll 1-7, please turn to Page 56. If you roll 7-10, please turn to Page 73 - actually no, I'll stop there, this is turning into a Steve Jackson adventure gamebook...

The White Hawk (II) Rebellion


  1. Captivating read, David! Very convincing. Felt as if I were there, struggling to survive... Would you mind if I recommend it on my personal FB?

    1. Thanks Kasia :) Not at all - go ahead.