A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Renaissance Armies: The EnglishHenry VIII to Elizabeth
An article by George Gush
All eligible were compelled to muster for inspection at varying intervals (up to twice a year in times of danger), the system being generally administered on a county basis, and run by Commissioners of Musters (replaced, from the reign of Mary, by the new Lords-Lieutenants). The Clergy, and Lords and their retainers, had similar obligations, administered separately. By the end of the century the militia, in theory at least, totaled a million men.
At first the troops returned home after inspection, unless an invasion threat caused them to be kept mobilizedHenry VIII kept 120,000 men on foot for a whole summer. From 1573, however, "Trained Bands" appeared, picked men from the general muster retained for drill, costs being paid by the city or county concerned. This reform was perhaps connected with the increasing use of firearms and pikes, both requiring considerable training (the bow, of course, required even more training, but this had normally been acquired by its exponents during their own time).
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 Englandhence 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
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: 1558150 armoured pikemen, 150 unarmoured pikemen, 100 arquebusiers; 159650 pikemen, 12 musketeers, 36 caliver men; 159930 pikemen, ten short weapons, 30 muskets, 30 calivers; 160020 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 Centuryall 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.
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.
The general lines are indicated by the illustrations, and followed the lines of civilian dress of the period. Even the standing force, the small Sovereign's Bodyguard of the Yeoman of the Guard (who served both on foot with bow and halberd, and mounted with javelin) seem to have confined uniformity to jackets and caps. When raised by Henry VII, the jacket was white and green, with a rose on the chest; under Henry VIII and thereafter they wore red jackets, guarded in black, with rose and crown in gold, and red or black cap with white plumes, but breeches and hose could be of various colors. As gentlemen, the Pensioners probably scorned uniformity, but the illustrations may give some idea of their dress. When they became Gentlemen at Arms under James I, they wore red and yellow plumes.
Contingents raised by noblemen might be clad in family or other colors (for example the Earl of Surrey brought 500 men in white and green to Flodden) and it seems that larger groups were sometimes uniformedat the siege of Boulogne, Henry VIII's Main Battle and Rear Guard were dressed in red with yellow trim, the other forces in blue with red trimand in 1558, 8,000 English sent to aid Spain in the Netherlands all wore blue.
In the early 16th Century, white was a favorite color for English troops (the Tudor colors were green and white); in the later part of the century red became most widely used. Blue, however, was also widely worn, and, for Irish service, cassocks (loose long or short coats, sometimes hooded or sleeveless, and worn over equipment) were usually to be of russet, green, or "sad" colors. Cavalry in Elizabeth's reign seem to have favored red, tawny or orange colors; Border horse usually wore white, and could wear "blue bonnets" like the Scots. English archers, too, often wore "Scots caps" in red or blue, over their helmets, and cavalry helmets were likewise sometimes covered with red or parti-colored caps.
The sign of the English soldier, worn on breast and back in the first half of the 16th Century, and found on shields and pennons later, was the red cross of St. George. Toward the end of the century sashes, worn about the waist or over the right shoulder by officers, and some pikemen and cavalry, became the usual national distinction. Red, or red and white, seems to have been worn by the English.
Officers were distinguished from their men, just as in other armies of this period, by armament (sword and buckler, half-pike, or partisan being favorite officers' weapons), and by rich clothing with silk and lace, gold or silver trim, decorated armour, and jewelry.
A number of English flags are shown. The St. George's cross on a white ground was evidently most common, sometimes combined with Tudor green-and-white, or the Tudor rose, but striped flags are often shown in paintings from Elizabeth's reign, possibly influenced by the Dutch.
Noblemen's units would be likely to display family crests or badges in case of cavalry, as with one guidon shown. At the battle of the Yellow Ford in Ireland, Percy's Regiment had a standard with silver crescents (a badge of the Percys) which could indicate something like the later Civil War system for company flags.
About the Author
George Gush was educated at Tonbridge School, Kent, and won an Open Scholarship in History to Christ Church, Oxford, and has pursued a teaching career ever since graduation.
Article contents originally © Copyright George Gush and Patrick Stephens, Ltd 1975, 1982 and reproduced here with permission.