Commons (Common People) and the Wars of the Roses


Commons (Common People) and the Wars of the Roses
   The vast majority of English men and women held no titles, owned little or no land, and had little or no political influence. Except for the residents of LONDON and a few larger towns, the common people of England lived and worked in the countryside, where over 90 percent of the English population resided in the fifteenth century. Although comprising the bulk of most civil war armies, these countrymen were generally little affected in their daily lives by the WARS OF THE ROSES, which for them meant brief, intermittent campaigns and little material destruction (see Military Campaigns, Duration of).
   The common soldiers who fought in civil war armies were usually conscripts, countrymen thrust into battle not by their own political convictions but by the social conventions of the day. The PEERAGE and GENTRY expected that able-bodied men living within their spheres of influence or on their estates would follow them into combat when summoned. Accustomed both to bearing arms and to a certain level of violence in their lives, commoners could usually be persuaded by a local magnate or gentleman, or by a popular preacher, to take arms in a particular political cause. In 1485, for example, John HOWARD, duke of Norfolk, recruiting troops to support RICHARD III against Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond (see Henry VII, King of England), expected to raise 1,000 men from the towns and villages on his East Anglian estates.
   Common men had much less stake in the wars than their social superiors did, and common soldiers usually had much less to lose by taking sides. While the noble and gentry leadership of civil war armies was often targeted for death, as the Yorkists likely targeted Edmund BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset, at the Battle of ST. ALBANS in 1455, victorious commanders, such as Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, at the Battle of NORTHAMPTON in 1460, ordered their men to spare the opposing commons. The common soldiers also avoided the executions and bills of ATTAINDER that consumed noble and gentry lives and property after most battles. During the HUNDRED YEARSWAR, English armies operating in FRANCE had systematically devastated the countryside, killing villagers, burning buildings, and destroying crops and livestock. During the Wars of the Roses, the English countryside saw very little destruction. In 1461, when the northern army of Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU plundered Yorkist towns and strongholds during its COMMONS AND THE WARS OF THE ROSES 59 MARCH ON LONDON, the great terror that swept over the southern shires was in part due to the novelty of such pillaging in England. Attacks on or sieges of towns were also rare, with the 1471 assault on London by Thomas NEVILLE, the Bastard of Fauconberg, being the major example during the wars.
   The great social evils of the civil war period were the violence, disorder, and corruption of justice inflicted on the countryside by the RETAINERS and servants of noblemen. In some parts of the country, riots, murders, assaults, and forcible dispossessions were common, especially in the 1450s and 1460s. Although these evils arose chiefly from feeble royal government, especially under HENRY VI, and from abuses in the system of BASTARD FEUDALISM, the Wars of the Roses aggravated the problem, at least during the periods 1459–1461 and 1469–1471. EDWARD IV’s preoccupation with the uprisings precipitated by Warwick allowed the fiveweek siege of CAISTER CASTLE to occur in Norfolk in 1469 and the bloody Battle of NIBLEY GREEN to erupt in Gloucestershire in 1470. However, the political security achieved by Edward IV in 1471 seemed to end the wars and allowed a strengthened Crown to reduce the level of violence in the countryside thereafter.
   Further Reading: Gillingham, John,Wars of the Roses (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981); Goodman, Anthony, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Dorset Press, 1981); Harvey, I. M.W.,“Was There Popular Politics in Fifteenth Century England?” in R. H. Britnell and A. J. Pollard, eds., The McFarlane Legacy: Studies in Late Medieval Politics and Society (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton, 1995), pp. 155–174; Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.