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Historical Notes: No chivalry in the Wars of the Roses

WHEN THE Hundred Years War ended in 1453, English soldiers were forced onto opposite sides to fight in an intermittent conflict which was controlled by well-established feudal loyalties. This 15th-century conflict, which eventually became a dynastic civil war, later became known as the Wars of the Roses.

By examining sources such as musters, city records, state documents and indentures it is possible to present a much clearer picture of how the medieval soldier was recruited, what problems he faced on the march, how he was supplied and billeted, and how he actually fought and lived or died on the battlefield out of loyalty, or just unfortunate circumstance.

How he was led by his superiors, what the soldier wore both for the march and for protection in battle, and what weapons he used in combat, are all important factors when discussing his role and effectiveness in a War of the Roses army; what emerges from all the evidence is an interpretation of the medieval experience of soldiering, and of actual battle itself, stripped of all its romantic imagery and propaganda. It is argued that it was chivalry which justified the "art of war" in the 15th century.

In 1996 an actual medieval war grave was discovered by workmen in the village of Towton in North Yorkshire. The find was unique in that the grave held the bodies of some 37 soldiers who had fought at the terrible battle of Towton on 29 March 1461. These bones preserved many important clues, not only to the soldiers tragic deaths but also to their lives previous to this which paint a much more detailed picture than ever thought possible. The evidence of their horrific experiences adds further bold stitches to the rich tapestry of existing information regarding medieval man during this period. Through much painstaking and dedicated research the conclusions drawn from the Towton grave bring to life the hell of medieval combat .

The medieval soldier's mental attitude to combat was complex and depended much upon his social status, but these feelings regarding warfare were certainly felt, and made apparent to others at the time. In contemporary writing such thoughts surface in various forms, regardless of whether we think today that medieval man allegedly lived in a more violent age and hence may have been immune to combat and violence in some protracted way.

Various attainder documents state the seriousness of local and national rebellion, and contemporary letters discuss the various injuries that were sustained in battle, and also the danger of infected wounds after the event. Loss of goods, horses, equipment, personal loss of a loved one, and individual deprivation because of warfare are all clearly apparent even in this far-off age, through the window of personal letters. This evidence proves conclusively how important it was to be on the winning side in such a conflict, and how all could be sometimes lost in defeat.

Drawing on forensic evidence from the recently unearthed Towton grave pit, several startling facts come to light. Battlefield surgery was probably more advanced than we might at first have imagined. Before the battle of Towton several individuals had received head wounds which had healed - one in particular had suffered extreme facial deformity but this did not dissuade him or others fighting again at the battle of Towton.

Thirteen separate injuries were inflicted on one individual which may prove that overkill and mutilation were carried out on a wide scale. Evidence of archery skills linked with modern comparisons also goes some way to proving the identity of some of the grave victims. Proof that certainly some of the Towton soldiers were veteran campaigners.

Examination of such sites can shed new light on those men who fought the Wars of the Roses, but also dispels once and for all the mythical notion of chivalry in war.

A. A. Boardman is the author of `The Medieval Soldier' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 18.99)