It never ceases to surprise me how often you can get a glimpse of history by a chance visit. In May 2014 I was researching in Wharfedale in Yorkshire at the same time as enjoying some excellent walking. One day we walked across from Kettlewell, where we were staying, to the village of Arncliffe in neighbouring Littondale. This particular walk was not really for research purposes as Arncliffe itself does not feature in any of the books of my Rebels and Brothers series. This was a walk entirely for its own sake, that is to say a walk where my long suffering wife was not kept hanging about whilst I took several hundred photos of the same place from 43 different angles…
It was one of those interesting days when we came across people and places we were not expecting. The weather was pretty unexpected as well but we enjoyed the day nevertheless. What though, you might reasonably inquire, has any of this got to do with either writing or history? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.
At Arncliffe we stumbled upon the village church, St Oswald’s – we also stumbled into the Falcon Inn but that’s another story… Rarely do we pass up an opportunity to pop inside an old church because you never know what you’ll discover. Much of this church was actually Victorian but the fifteenth century tower remained intact.
The little gem we found was displayed inside the church: a list of local men who fought at the battle of Flodden Field against Scotland in 1513. I doubt the actual list is original but what it contains seems plausible enough – and what it contains is quite interesting.
Flodden Field was a very important victory for the English because at the time the king, Henry VIII, was busy invading France. It was the elderly Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey who led the English army against the Scots and he must have been hard pressed to raise an army when the king’s best soldiers were in France. Nevertheless, he raised quite a sizable force, the majority of whom must have been recruited in the northern counties of Westmorland, Northumberland and Yorkshire. I suppose they were used to it because they had been fighting the Scots since forever.
Here is the list:
So what does it tell us about the men who marched north to Scotland? It tells us that the majority of the local men were either archers or billmen. When historians – or for that matter historical fiction writers – glibly refer to raising an army, this is the sort of stuff of which an army was composed. Mustering an army was not about thousands of swordsmen or “knights.” It was rather about ordinary men being required to do some military service for their local lord and what he was looking for was men with a bow or men with a bill – which is a long pole with a blade of some sort on it. These men were not primarily soldiers but when required to fight they could do so.
Archers were often used en masse at the start of a battle and usually carried a short sword or knife which they used later in the battle if required. Billmen would support armoured men at arms, driving their bills at a wounded man to finish him off or using the bill as a sort of medieval tin opener to weaken the joints in armour.
This document tells us that there were roughly even numbers of archers and billmen supplied for Flodden but it also refers to whether they had a horse or not. Most men did not and thus they were going to be walking all the way to Scotland and, if they were lucky, all the way back. Four men did have horses and were described as “harnished” – that is to say in battle harness or armoured. We might deduce, though we cannot be sure without further evidence, that these four were wealthier than the rest since horses were expensive and so was armour.
Some surnames are repeated several times in the list, e.g. the Knolls. Some may have been brothers, or fathers and sons. These were relatively small communities and though the English losses were not as heavy as the Scots at Flodden, it should give us pause for thought. How great an impact would heavy casualties in battle have upon these small rural communities?
To put it into context, one only has to consider the period forty years earlier during the Wars of the Roses when armies were being raised time after time. It is difficult to understand how these ordinary folk coped with the disruption, the subsequent absence of menfolk and so on. You might believe that the common folk were usually spared in battle and it was often the leaders who suffered most. That might have been true at the start but as the wars continued and the stakes got higher, the cry of “no quarter!” was heard a good deal more frequently. In 1461 at St Albans and especially later at Towton, the death toll seems to have been very high.
A record of participation for York or Lancaster along the lines of the Flodden list would have included similar bowmen and billmen. Littondale and neighbouring Wharfedale were areas where the powerful Percy family had landholdings but not far away in the next dale to the east, Coverdale, there lay a centre of Neville power at Middleham Castle. The Nevilles and the Percies had been bitter rivals for as long as anyone could remember and you can be sure that ordinary folk were all too familiar with the feuds that went on between rival lords and families. They would have played their part over the years with their bows and bills.
It is a wonder how lords were able to keep the supply of men coming. In my Wars of the Roses series, Rebels and Brothers, a theme which surfaces in the later books is the continuing demands made upon such ordinary people and how they suffered because of it. Some of my readers have remarked that the death toll was very high and expressed surprise that men were willing to take up arms for lords who were basically very likely to get them killed or injured. The answer is quite simple: willingness did not come into it.
Obedience to authority was the norm and people did not have much choice in their lives. They relied on the power of their local lord and were required to support him in return. The local lord, if he was a client of a magnate such as Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, would need to provide a contingent of local fighting men. Some of these, it’s true, might be found from amongst those who had fought in the Hundred Years War but by 1471 when two more large battles were fought, those wars had been over for 18 years.
If we consider again what happened in 1513, England had enjoyed a period of relative peace under Henry VII and it was almost a generation since large armies had been required. So those on the Arncliffe list for Flodden might not have been especially experienced in warfare – just ordinary men who, for the most part, worked the land in Littondale or served as herdsmen or foresters. But their names were recorded and we get that glimpse of them playing their small part on the bigger stage at Flodden. Such lists could be replicated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for almost every village in England but they are not, like the Arncliffe one, on display.