The Calais garrison of over 1,000 men was England’s only standing army. The town was a vital Yorkist base in the winter of 1459-60, and Calais troops formed the core of the Yorkist army which invaded in June 1460. However, Andrew Trollope, a Calais commander and renowned soldier, refused to fight Henry VI (October 1459) and became a leading Lancastrian captain until his death at Towton. The government also paid the wardens of the northern marches (usually from the rival Neville and Percy families) to retain a few hundred soldiers, but their private forces were more important. French and Burgundian rulers supplied mercenaries to back invasion in 1470-71 and 1485-87. Their importance grew as noble participation in the wars declined after 1461. The major source of soldiers was noblemen’s retainers and tenants. The Percys and Nevilles could field up to 10,000 men each for short periods, many of whom were experienced in border warfare. The Yorkist lord Hastings raised 3,000 men in 1471, and the Stanleys fielded large contingents between 1485 and 1487. The reluctance of tenants to serve far from home, and the nobles’ ability to pay them were the main limitations.
At Towton (1461), seventy-five per cent of lords and much of the gentry fought on the Lancastrian side. The Yorkists had fewer lords, but they were the wealthier. Armies became smaller in later wars. At Bosworth, twenty-eight of thirty-five lords failed to turn out for Richard III. Experience taught them it was safer to wait and accept the victor, who could then summon soldiers from towns and counties: in 1455, Coventry equipped 100 archers for Henry VI, and sent the same number with Warwick to Towton. However, by 1470-71, their daily wages had to be raised by fifty per cent to attract recruits.
The largest armies fought at Towton, over 20,000 men on each side; Edward may have had 9,000 at Barnet (1471), Warwick more; at Bosworth, Richard heavily outnumbered Henry Tudor’s 5,000 men, although Sir William Stanley’s army redressed the balance, and not all of Richard’s army was engaged. Archers predominated, outnumbering “men-at-arms by seven or more to one. English archers were highly rated in Europe. In the civil war battles both sides had them and they were less influential than in the Hundred Years’ War, their main function being to cover the men-at-arms and to break up defensive formations. However, their absence compromised the Yorkists at Edgecote. Other footmen were armed with bills (poleaxes). The elite men-at-arms, all landowners, were encased in expensive armour. Nearly all battles of the civil wars became slogging matches in which the men-at-arms on foot played the dominant role, though cavalry were also used, as at Towton, Tewkesbury, and Bosworth. Most armies had field artillery, although this was used only at the start of battles because its rate of fire was relatively slow; mounting it in field defences went out of fashion after 1460. There were few sieges in the civil wars, although Edward IV possessed an impressive siege train. The English made little use of handguns, and the mercenary gunners from the Continent made little impact in the wars.
The main goal in the civil wars was political power rather than control of territory, so the campaigns of the Wars of the Roses were brief and ended in battles. This was not due to lack of military skill; many of the nobles who commanded in the 1450s had experience in the French wars, and younger captains like Somerset, Warwick, and Edward IV, who learned from experience, were capable soldiers. It was desirable to limit campaigns to avoid causing damage by foraging, and to reach a conclusion before the levies dispersed. Analysis of the campaigns of 147071, for which there is detailed evidence, shows that both sides manoeuvred skilfully. York (in 1459) and Warwick (in 1461) paid dearly for failure to reconnoitre. Edward IV’s handling of his men before Barnet and at Tewkesbury also shows some tactical skill and, in contrast to the English experience in the French wars, it was often the attackers who won battles.
Sources rarely refer to the crucial role of logistics. To invade Scotland in 1481, 500 carts were requisitioned to carry supplies, and more would ferry provisions from Newcastle. In civil wars such preparations were impossible, and the mobility of armies suggests that there were no large wagon trains. Armies carried a few days’ provisions and equipment in wagons. In 1459, the Yorkists used wagons for protection at Blore Heath and Ludford Bridge. In 1460, London furnished Yorkist transport. Supplies were purchased or seized from towns, depending on their lord (Stamford, Wakefield, and Ludlow were York’s towns) and the state of discipline. The best sources were the largest towns like London (1461), York (1470), and Bristol (1471). Requisitioning and looting were often indistinguishable, but living off the country meant dangerous dispersal (as the Yorkists found in December 1460), while plundering alienated the population. Margaret kept her northerners, who had a bad reputation, out of London in February 1461 in deference to fears of pillaging, thus leaving the city open to Edward.
An army on the march was preceded by light horse called ‘scourers’, harbingers, or aforeriders whose tasks included arranging billets and victuals, and scouting. Accurate reconnaissance gave Edward a crucial advantage in 1470 and 1471, whereas the failure of York’s and Warwick’s scouts (December 1460 and February 1461) resulted in defeat. Contact between opposing harbingers provided knowledge of the enemy’s location, and thus sending aforeriders in one direction, and the main body in another was used to deceive the enemy by Warwick in March 1470, and by Margaret in April 1471.