English Elizabethan Army

Trayned Band drilling

Taunton Garrison take on the Armada!

Queen Elizabeth I, was feeling stretched: she had one army guarding the Scottish frontier and another she could ill-afford in Flanders. Unbeknownst, her ambassador in Paris, Sir Edward Stafford, was actually a spy for Philip and fed him much accurate information. Her spies were similarly well-placed— one delivered an exact copy of Philip’s plans. But the sheer disparity of forces was truly intimidating. Elizabeth knew she could not stop Parma’s veterans on land with her ill-equipped and outnumbered trained bands.

The English commander waiting to meet the Invincible Armada was Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham. His top captains were all once and future privateers: John Hawkyns, Francis Drake, and Martin Frobisher. They set sail with Elizabeth’s fleet on July 29. The next night, Saturday, having weathered a second storm in which four galleys were lost along with another ship, the Armada moved into the Channel. It was spotted from shore and beacon fires lighted. Quickly, a line of fires hopscotched from hilltop to hilltop until the entire south coast of England was awake and warned from Plymouth to Dover. A second string of signal fires raced inland faster than man or horse or ship, to London, York, and as far north as Durham. The queen and militia were alerted and England readied to repel invasion.

For all the dash and daring of experienced English captains, however, nothing they did stopped the slow progress of the Armada. When it hove to at the safe harbor of Calais on August 6 it looked like the ‘‘Enterprise of England’’ might well succeed despite English skill. Fortunately for England, Sidonia was still 30 miles from Dunkirk where the invasion army and its 200 barges were blockaded by small but deadly warships of the Sea Beggars, then allied to England. Parma refused to load men on the barges without Sidonia dealing with the Dutch ships. He might have walked his men to Calais but he could not get the barges there, unescorted through the Dutch blockade. This was a major flaw in Philip’s grand design all along. As so often, Philip had trusted to God to find a way that he could not see yet. Now it was God’s favor the Spanish could not find.

Michael Roberts excluded English armies from his consideration of the revolution in military affairs, suggesting that there was virtually no progress made toward military modernization during the Wars of the Roses, which saw little to no adoption of continental weapons or tactical advances. More recently, Mark Fissel argued that the English military system actually showed high levels of flexibility and absorbed numerous foreign military ideas, though giving them a unique English character in practice. A major difference from the continent was that military development in England relied far more on private interests than the state, and was more closely tied to naval warfare. From 1588 to the start of the English Civil Wars (1639–1651) most English soldiers were raised through conscription.

For service abroad, which was on a considerable scale in the last quarter of the 16th Century, troops had, of course, to be paid, but were often raised, complete with arms and armour, from the county militia or the Trained Bands (it was commonly those whose absence would be most welcome who were sent on foreign service!)

In the 17th Century the Militia system fell into decline, but by the Civil War was still the only basis for military forces in England—hence the efforts of both sides to gain control of it, and the important role played in the war by the Trained Bands of London.

Infantry Weapons and Organization

In the early 16th Century, nearly all were the traditional billmen and longbowmen, both usually equipped with a jack (a waist or knee length coat “quilted and covered with leather, fustian or canvas, over thicke plates of iron that are sowed in the same”), and with a simple rounded helmet of “skull” or sallet type. Even by the 1550s this was still largely true, corselets and morions being rare, and multi-layered canvas jackets or even mail shirts being still favored.

Henry VIII, the only military-minded English monarch of the period, began reform. As well as instituting home production of artillery and armour, he imported weapons in quantity (many are still at the Tower) and encouraged the adoption of artillery, the pike, and hand firearms. However, among 28,000 English foot taken to France in 1544, there were less than 2,000 arquebusiers, and billmen outnumbered pikemen three or four to one. Henry had to hire Spanish and Italian arquebusiers, and German pikemen.

The older weapons were gradually supplanted by the new, and in 1558 English companies in Ireland had about 50 each of longbowmen and arquebusiers. A Leicestershire company of 1584 shows a later stage in the transition, having 80 pikemen and 80 men with firearms, as against 40 billmen and 40 archers. Though Sir John Smith wrote approvingly of this organization in the 1590s, and recommended the formation illustrated, he was a longbow enthusiast, and it seems likely that the 1580s saw both the appearance of the musket and the disappearance of the bow from first line English service. The London Trained Bands dropped the bow in Armada year, and in 1595 it was ruled unacceptable for Trained Bands “shot” generally.

However, in the mid-1580s the general muster of the so-called “maritime” counties still included 32 percent archers, as against 40 percent with firearms and 28 percent corselets, or pikemen. Such counties as Wiltshire, Derby, Oxford and Bucks were the main suppliers of archers.

English infantry companies varied from 100 to 400 in strength, Sir Roger Williams apparently considering 150 to be standard in the 1590s. Some further examples are: 1558—150 armoured pikemen, 150 unarmoured pikemen, 100 arquebusiers; 1596—50 pikemen, 12 musketeers, 36 caliver men; 1599—30 pikemen, ten short weapons, 30 muskets, 30 calivers; 1600—20 pikes, ten halberds, six sword and buckler, 12 muskets with rests, 12 bastard (light) muskets, 40 calivers.

The word “Regiment” was used in Henry VIII’s time to describe one of the three medieval-type battles into which armies were still divided (in 1544, 13,000 to 16,000 strong). Each of these would mass its pikemen and billmen together in from one to three large blocks, with wings of archers and other shot operating on their flanks. “Regiment” still had a very vague meaning in the mid-16th Century—all the troops operating in the Netherlands, 6,000 or more, forming one “regiment”—but by the later part of Elizabeth’s reign, regiments were fairly definite organizations, commanded by a colonel. They could be of ten companies, as later, but in Ireland were often of five.


“Men-at-Arms”, with heavy lance, full armour, and often barded horse, were still used in the first half of the century, but were few in number, though of high quality. In 1544, Henry VIII had 75 “Gentlemen Pensioners” or Household cavalry, and 121 Men-at-Arms. Individual noblemen would also serve in full plate. The appearance of such troops would be much the same in any army, though Englishmen might wear rounded Greenwich armour.

Much more numerous were the “demilances”, with corselet only, or three-quarter armour, open burgonet, and unbarded horse. These men carried a lighter lance, and later pistols, and formed the main English heavy cavalry up to the end of the century.

According to Sir Roger Williams, in the late 16th Century, demilances formed a fifth of the English cavalry, the rest being light horse, but the proportions in the militia were nearer 1:3. The characteristic English light cavalry were those variously referred to as “Javelins”, “Prickers”, “Northern spears” or “Border Horse”. They also were armed with lance and one pistol, sometimes carrying a round or oval shield as well, and wore an open helmet, mail shirt or jack (corselet for the wealthier individuals), leather breeches, and boots. Such cavalry were supplied by several English counties, but the best came from the raiders of the Scottish border, who were reputed to spear salmon from the saddle!

Nearly all English light horse were of this type, though by 1586 the Government were also trying to raise “petronels”—unarmoured cavalry with firearms.

Cavalry were always in short supply in English armies; Henry VIII supplemented them with Burgundians, and Germans with boar spear and pistols. In Ireland in the later 16th Century, cavalry usually formed about one-eighth of an English army. In Henry’s time they were organized in bands, cornets, or squadrons of 100 men, later of about 50.

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