Initially, when my good friend Graham presented me with three boxes of Perry's Wars of the Roses figures plus the metal command figures to go along with them, my mind went into overdrive on how best to use these beautiful sculpts. Obviously they would be used in a WotR setting, but what about a fictional setting in the North of England, with fictional characters allied to either the red or white rose?
With this idea germinating in my tiny brain, I came up with an abstract map of about 25 provinces/estates/areas, whatever you wish to call them. I then created the names of towns within these areas. Looking at a map of Yorkshire and Lancashire, I took the beginning of some names and spliced them with the ends of others to give a local flavour but avoid actual places that exist or existed at that time.
Next up was a leader/baron/Sir or similar to rule over these provinces, quite early on I decided to have four main leaders, each with a castle, spread across the map. Two would be leaning toward the Yorkist cause and two for the Lancastrian claim. The other areas would be overseen by lesser lords who could be recruited/bullied into alliances with the four main protaganists.
With this embryo of an idea fermenting in the background, thoughts turned to building and painting the figures. My buddy had provided me with a box each of infantry, mounted men at arms and light cavalry. I started with the infantry box which contained enough figures to build 24 archers, 12 bill men and four fully armoured foot knights. A small army in itself. The first dozen archers sat on the painting board and quite by chance I chose to paint them dark blue and white, nor particular reason other than the contrast would look good, especially if I did the jackets half and half, same with the sleeves. It would mean more work but I considered the extra effort would be worth it.
The white was on and I started on the dark blue, it was at that moment when that deja vu feeling struck me and I was cast back to my early teens. Back then I and other friends were really into a table football game named 'Subbuteo' the tiny footballers were about 20 mm and could be bought in the colours of your favourite team for about seven shillings and sixpence (37 pence), a fortune back then, however you could buy a set of unpainted figures for two shillings and sixpence to paint up for yourself. One of the teams I painted was Blackburn Rovers in their blue and white quartered shirts, here I was half a century later doing virtually the same thing! That was when the idea of using football team colours for my retinues hit me, it was perfect, if a little tongue in cheek, but appealed to me. Even better, Blackburn was in Lancashire so the first Lancastrian retinue was born. They were followed by the claret and light blue of Burnley to complete the red rose factions. Of course the Yorkists would have a retinue in black and amber the colours of Hull City, my home town team and keeping close to home I chose the green and white of North Ferriby United as an ally.
More boxes of Perry WotR figures were purchased to give each retinue archers, spear men and mounted men at arms in their own retinue colours, The foot knights and bill men, were not given faction colours and so could be used to represent any of the factions in the game as required. Later I decided to create a further three factions for some of the lesser nobles in the game. Once again football colours were used, black and white of Grimsby Town, red and white of Stoke City and finally green and yellow of Norwich City. The troops are now being painted up and will come in very useful for my campaign game.
That of course brings me back to the campaign, I now had fictional towns, leaders and each had a growing army to command. Why not just go the whole hog and create a country of my own? Still set in a Medieval England period of the 15th Century. It would free me up to create alliances of my own imagination and a story to run alongside, to drive the campaign forward. The story would be written by events that unfolded on my table top! Each battle would indeed have a reason as well as heroes and villains!
The following is the beginning of that story. This is not Bernard Cornwell by any means, so please be kind. I don't think that illustrious author has anything to fear from my scribbling.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Once upon a time...
A Plea for Help.
Walter de Cobham, Thrang of Thorngarth stood atop one of the towers of his castle. The icy wind pierced his heavy clothing, stabbing cold fingers at his skin as if he was stood naked. Flurries of snow blew into his face, settling on his greying moustache, beard and eyelashes making him screw up his face to protect his eyes. A sentry, in a heavy fur cloak and clutching a spear, had silently moved away to a respectable distance from his thrang, giving the ruler of this very castle and of the whole Dominion of Thorngarth, his privacy.
Walter looked down upon the town outside of the castle walls, the snow covered roofs of the houses, shops, inns and animal sheds blended into the surrounding countryside. Wisps of smoke from warming fires instantly torn away by the wind. Barely a soul could be seen in the narrow streets, the people sensibly staying close to a fire in their humble abodes, their animals, for the most part, living with them.
It had been a bad Winter, the second in a row. It was now early April, the fields should now be in plough ready for sowing, not buried under a thick layer of snow, the soil frozen solid beneath. His dominion was blessed with rich fertile soil which produced a heavy yield of whatever crops were planted, but last year's crop, also late into the ground, was fast running out. The granaries were almost empty and soon they would have to start consuming the very seed they needed to sow for this season. Once that was gone the people would butcher and eat their animals, or at least those that could afford to own any beasts, after that it would be famine.
A movement from the sentry caught Walter's eye. The man had placed his spear resting on the battlements and had cupped his hands, tilting his head down to shout to an unseen colleague far below in the gatehouse.
'Armed men approaching!'
Walter looked beyond the town, and sure enough his eyes rested on the large group of figures making their way along the Burn Howe Road toward the town and castle, he had not seen them. Damn his failing eyes.
A voice from below acknowledged the sentries warning, though the words could barely be heard, being snatched away by the wind. Walter nodded to the sentry before moving to the spiral stone staircase and making his way down the tower. His forty five year old eyes maybe losing their sharpness but his body was still as athletic as any man alive, he descended with the speed and agility of a mountain goat.
The initial alarm caused by the approach of soldiers was quickly dispelled when the colours of Egton Low Moor could be identified. Townspeople stood at their doors to watch the group of spear men and archers, led by two mounted knights pass by, braving the wind and snow that was even now laying a new layer on top of the old, outside their doors.
The column made it's way up the hill and came to a halt before the open gates of the castle. Two sentries wearing the black and amber colours of Thorngarth, and bearing spears stepped forward to block the narrow entrance. One of them shouted to the now stationary, and exhausted looking soldiers, to state their name and business.
'I am Owen, son of Richard Wadham, Thrang of Egton Low Moor!' yelled back one of the mounted knights. 'I carry a message for the Thrang of Thorngarth, which I have to deliver personally and so request entry.'
Of course it was all a formality, the identity of Owen was known as soon as he entered the town below, and this fact had been passed up to the castle in plenty of time, should the gates have needed to be closed. The two gate sentries nodded their heads in acknowledgement and stood aside to let the weary men pass.
Walter met the son of his good friend in the castle courtyard, he ordered that the men of Egton Low Moor be fed and given a place to sleep that evening, before leading Owen to his own private chambers. Owen had expected the chamber to be richly decorated and furnished to impress, but the opposite was the case. A fire blazed in a grate, positioned in front of which were two wooden chairs, both had thick cushions placed upon the seats. A pair of tables, some tapestries adorned the walls, candle holders placed strategically to give good light and a couple of plain animal furs on the floor, more or less completed this modest chamber.
'I don't care for finery or filling a room with useless items. Walter smiled, it was as if he was reading the mind of his young guest. Your quarters are through there, he nodded toward a now opening door, a boy of about fourteen years, stood and bowed to the two men. You can get rid of that armour and mail and then rejoin me for a bowl of hot broth.'
As the boy assisted Owen to remove the heavy armour and chain mail, he noted his saddle bag was on the table, unopened, beside a large bed. He smiled to himself, there must be another entrance to this room, as yet still hidden from him, probably behind one of the numerous wall drapes that adorned this room. Obviously, the Thrang of Thorngarth saw fit to make his guests more comfortable than himself. His father had always spoken fondly and with great respect about this man, Owen was beginning to understand why.
Later, he sat contented by the fire in the humble chamber, two bowls of hot, tasty broth and bread had filled his belly and he felt warm and relaxed for the first time since leaving Egton Low Moor nine days before. The journey through drifts of snow, waist deep or higher, had been a nightmare, add to that the howling wind, which never seemed to stop and would blow directly in their faces no matter in which direction they headed. But it was a journey he had no option but to make, if the people of his father's dominion were to survive.
'You have a message for me from Richard I believe?' Owen almost jumped, so wrapped up was he in his own thoughts.
'I am sorry my lord, he said rising to his feet, I will fetch it immediately.' Walter placed a hand on his arm.
'Sit down my boy, Is it written or do you have it in memory?'
'Both my lord.'
Walter nodded, 'Then I would prefer to hear it from your lips, the damn words on parchment swim before my eyes anyway now.'
Owen had memorised the contents of the letter exactly as it was written, his father had insisted on it. What Owen didn't know was that his father was one of he few people aware of Walter's failing eyesight. Walter listened to the words spoken by Owen, the boy was his father's double at that age he thought, and as he listened he could hear the voice of his old friend.
My dear friend,
I am once again in need of your help. This damn Winter coming on the heels of the last, has emptied my granaries and flour stores. Half the sheep were lost and frozen to death on the moorland before the shepherds had chance to gather them in. It will take three or four years to make up that loss alone. My people are now going hungry, rationing has been in force now this last two months. I fear they will perish if this snow persists. The sheep we have left are now almost out of fodder, they being just little more than skin and bone themselves now.
If you could supply me with flour and fodder, enough for thirty days. This weather cannot go on like this and may well have already broken by the time you receive this request. If there is still snow on the ground in May, well then we are all done for!
My son has forty men with him to protect any supplies you can spare my old friend, alas I have no pack animals and again have to beg for you to supply them also. The boy was instructed to come directly to you and attempt to bypass Knapton, you will know if this was achieved. I need say no more on that score.
My son has some gold to pay for part of what you can spare, though even that is in short supply in these parts, as you well know.
Please spare me what you can my old friend.
Walter stared at the dancing flames in the hearth as he listened to the words of his good friend and fellow thrang. Egton Low Moor, as the very name suggests, is a poor part of the country, its hills and moorland make for poor agriculture, it was however, perfect for raising sheep. It was from this that the Dominion made the bulk of its living. The people of Thorngarth were feeling the pinch of this run of bad Winters, Walter could only imagine what the people of Egton were suffering.
'Where you spotted as you passed through Godfrey Lovell's lands?' Walter asked, his eyes still gazing at the flames, already knowing the answer. No Thrang worth his salt, would be unaware of a large band of armed men in his dominion. Lovell was a cruel and greedy man, but he was no fool.
'We were shadowed as soon as we entered his dominion sir.' Owen replied quietly, before continuing, 'They may have thought we were a band of raiders, after corn or cattle my lord, but they never approached us closely and disappeared once we entered the Dominion of Burn Howe.'
Walter looked at the young man, 'It is of no matter, if you had travelled by Garthdale it would have added more days to your journey and the words of your father clearly speak of haste. He got up from his chair. Come, I shall provide you with all I can spare and the pack animals to carry it, they have spent the last three months doing nothing but eat and shit in their stables. Some exercise will do them good. I shall not let your people starve when we have food in reserve.'
Walter had already decided to send his son with archers and bill men on the return journey. Lovell would be able to guess the mission of Owen and his band and would no doubt have a substantial force blocking his passage back to Egton Low Moor. The people of Knapton would too be suffering and any extra rations that could be stolen or captured would be most welcome. It was too great a prize for Lovell to ignore and he would also gain the satisfaction of knowing he was eating produce from Thorngarth.
The two men made their way down a stone staircase to the great hall of the castle, there was much to organise before the morning.
* * * * * * * * * *
To Rob the Poor to feed the Rich.
The crowd in the market square of Knapton became hushed as the two prisoners, with hands bound behind their backs, were led up to the customary place of execution. Both were still boys not out of their early teens, each looked wide eyed at the crowd and shuddered at the sight of two nooses hanging from the wooden gibbet. The younger boy started to cry and struggled against the ropes binding him, but the grim faced guard who was leading him simply smashed a gauntlet clad fist into the youngsters face, breaking teeth and nose in one blow. The boy staggered his face a mass of blood, but he was silent and his struggles ceased. Once on the platform a noose was placed around the neck of each boy. The second was now sobbing too, but trying to control it, lest he suffered a similar blow from his guard.
Godfrey Lovell was watching from a nearby balcony, with members of his household and Thrang Host surrounding him. With the condemned boys now in position, the crowd and the executioner turned to look up at him. Godfrey remained seated, his chin resting on his hand which in turn rested on the arm of a chair. He loved being the centre of attention, he always had since childhood. He could hear the whimpering of the two boys, who at his command, would dangle kicking and choking on the end of a rope. He would savour the moment of anticipation a little longer. He was quite comfortable where he was, unlike the townspeople who had been called out of their homes and forced to witness the execution in the bitter cold and snow.
Godfrey finally stood to address the crowd.
'Loyal subjects!' he began. 'You are about to witness the fate of thieves. I will impose the same fate on any of you who choose to take the same path. Let it be a warning to you all. We are all short of food, the Winter has once again been long and cruel. This does not mean you can take the food of others.'
With a mere nod to the executioner, the boys were hauled up by the neck, no quick drop and broken neck for them, Oh no! Godfrey liked his victims to suffer. Horrible sounds of gagging and choking came from both victims, legs kicked uselessly in the air and eyes bulged in their sockets. The macabre sights and sounds lasted for over two minutes, until finally the boy with the broken nose gave a final twitch and his body hung limp, joining his partner in crime who had succumbed a good thirty seconds earlier. The crowd remained standing, some weeping others making the sign of the cross, others just looking at the snow covered ground before them. They would stay there until Godfrey had vacated his position on the balcony, but he had once again sat in his chair. It had been over too quickly, not enough time to enjoy the agonies of the two boys. Such a shame, he thought they would have lasted longer, to prolong his enjoyment and pleasure.
Eventually he stood and left the balcony, the townspeople returned to their homes and the two corpses were left dangling from the gibbet as a reminder to all.
After all, half a loaf of bread was half a loaf of bread!
There was considerably more than half a loaf of bread on Godfrey's dinner table that evening, indeed a good deal more than his hungry subjects could even dream of.
'Any sign of Wadham's runt and his little army yet?' he asked stuffing another piece of chicken breast into his mouth.
Luke Brann, his banner bearer, shook his head, 'No my lord, but if they come back this way it will not be for another two or three days. They may even travel back through Garthdale.'
His fingers and lips dripping with chicken fat, Godfrey shook his head and grinned. 'Oh no, they are in a hurry or they wouldn't have passed through my dominion in the first place. They will come back this way of that I am certain. No doubt they have gone to Thorngarth with a begging bowl and that fool of a Thrang will fill it for them at a great cost to himself and his people.'
Godfrey downed the contents of a wine goblet and tore off another chunk of breast, sticking his knife into it. 'If de Cobham wants to weaken himself, well that is fine by me. Only we shall be taking whatever he has supplied to the runt from Egton.' He lifted the knife with the piece of meat wrapped around its blade, 'Forty men, he must have armed every damn shepherd in his dominion, well they will have to pass a force of more than double that number if they want to return home.'
The piece of chicken disappeared into his grinning mouth.
* * * * * * * * * *
So there you have it, the first part of the narrative, I now need to finish work on the archers and spear men that represent the men of Egton Low Moor, all the other troops are ready for action. The table will be covered in a white sheet and some trees minus leaves will be dotted around and a barely visible road line will be laid down. Once the skirmish on the snow covered road through Knapton is fought, the story can continue...