The battle timeline of the major battles of the Wars of the Roses is shown in the table below.
Each battle lasted from a few hours to most of one day. Most battles were fought in countryside though the battle may be named after the nearest settlement. Estimates of the size of opposing forces vary widely but would amount to several thousand, sometimes more than ten thousand.
The traditional formation consisted of three ‘battles’: the centre and two wings, each led by a very senior noble. At Barnet King Edward IV and his brother George led the centre. Their youngest brother Richard, aged 19, led one wing and Lord Hastings the other wing. The reserve might be concealed in a wood to be brought into action at a critical time.
A battle often began with longbow archers who could release a quarter of a million arrows in a few minutes. Cannon were sometimes used when these could be brought to the field in time. The Tower of London was the main royal armoury and Edward IV made use of this as he approached Barnet.
After the initial ‘arrow storm’, fighting was hand to hand and on foot. This meant being up close and personal with someone who was intent on causing grievous bodily harm if not death.
Cavalry charges were rare in the Wars of the Roses: Richard III led the last one at Bosworth. During the Hundred Years War, French cavalry charges had often been ineffective against English forces on foot. Horses were used to reach a battlefield but then usually tethered behind the lines and away from the main action. They provided as a means of escape or to chase the defeated side in a rout. At battles such as Barnet, English nobles dismounted to show that they intended to fight amongst their troops on foot.
When it was clear which side had won the losers began a disorderly retreat. This often turned into a rout during which the victors massacred the defeated. Some of these killing fields still retain names such as ‘bloody meadow’ (Towton and Tewkesbury).
The battle timeline of the Wars of the Roses below shows that no one side had a monopoly of victories. Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury and Boworth were the most decisive battles.
In the Hundred Years War common practice was to try to capture nobles alive and then ransom them. If the captive was of high status this could produce huge amounts of money. Some English nobility and the King became very rich after Agincourt, Crécy and Poitiers. In the Wars of the Roses, prisoners were generally not taken, other than the King. Death was the more likely outcome for the losing side. Senior nobles captured alive were summarily executed. By 1487 the Wars of the Roses had brought about the extermination of most of the high nobility of England.
Burial of the dead in mass graves was usual. A grave pit has been excavated at Towton which has revealed the horrific wounds inflicted in medieval pitched battles. A spiritual responsibility placed on the victor was to build a chantry and provide for Masses to be said for those killed in battle.
If you’d like to find out more about each conflict, see our interactive map here.
Here are some audio podcasts of the most important battles during the wars of the roses:
Bosworth Part I
Bosworth Part II
You can also find out more details on the Richard III Society website.