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The historical context, a brief synopsis



Our group aims to accurately portray the lifestyles of a retinue of English longbowmen and their company during the latter part of the 15th Century - an exciting time noted for political and social upheaval and on-going power struggles. The period is synonymous with that popularly referred to as the Wars of the Roses (the struggle for  England's throne between the Houses of York and Lancaster) and the culmination of the Hundred Years' War with France which had started in 1337.

To achieve our aims, we need to have an understanding of the events that shaped the time; the cultural, economic and political influences; and the general lifestyles and attitudes of people living in that era.

On these pages we've tried to summarise many of the details in order to provide a brief exploration of some of the background to the period.


Events during the period (Table 1.)

Table 1. (below) gives a brief summary of the significant dates through the period 1400 - 1510. If you require more information, try clicking on any of the kings' names.


Henry V Henry IV Henry VI Edward IV Edward V Richard III Henry VII Historical timeline for period


Table 1. Contrasting Royal Succession against period events1

Illustration© WW.Forsythe, 2009

Synopsis of notable legislation (Table 2.)

Ordinance of Labourers (1349); Statute of Labourers (1351) Intended to control the movement and payment of labourers as a result of shortages (linked to Great Plague, rural famine etc.). Wages were to be contained to pre-plague levels and mobility of labour to be curtailed. Contractual relationships were to be encouraged and contracts enforced as these were cheaper than daily rates.

Sumptuary Laws (1363 & 1463) Introduced by Edward III in 1363, Sumptuary Law was intended to reinforce the divisions of status through controls on the quality, quantity, type and costs of material and fabric that an individual could purchase and/or wear. They were widely open to interpretation and regional variations and were very difficult to enforce. All though in place to some degree for much of the period, they were formally revised in 1463. Sumptuary law paved the way for the future adoption of equivalences between traditional and emergent roles within society.

Poll Taxes (1377, 1380) and Graduated Poll Tax (1379) Introduced to raise revenue for war, Poll Taxes were very unpopular. The Graduated Poll Tax (1379) is important as it expands on the notion of equivalences. For example, (in the legal sector) a Justice of the Bench was assessed as equivalent to an Earl; London Alderman, a greater merchant or a provincial Mayor equivalent to Knight Batchelor; Lesser Merchant to Esquire etc.

Poor Laws (1391, 1403 & 1495) Introduced to govern the provision of charity, distribution of alms and introduce curbs and controls on begging. Were linked to public fears over the number of beggars and subtle changes to contemporary thinking - where the poor, as a result of labour shortages, became viewed as either deserving or undeserving.

Statute of Additions (1413) Established that defendants in legal indictments were not only to be identified by their name and locality, but also their occupations (‘estate’, ‘degree’ or ‘mystery’).


Notable items of legislation

Table 2. Highlights of Legislation2

Illustration© WW.Forsythe, 2009

1 Table 1 is adapted from Maurice Keen, 'English Society in the Latter Middle Ages 1348-1500' pp ix-xv

2 Table 2 is adapted from Maurice Keen, 'English Society in the Latter Middle Ages 1348-1500' pp ix-xv





Household Roses

Roses of the rival Households

Illustration© WW.Forsythe, 2009

Notes on the Commissions of Array
Notable events during the period
Notes on important legislation
Notes on 'Service'

The historical context (part 2)


A Brief Note on Service

Mediæval society was deferential and strongly underpinned by the concept of hierarchy - where everyone had their given place and fitted in accordingly.  Supporting each level of this system was the idea of giving and receiving ‘service’.

Service, itself, could be ‘honourable’ – where the servant was of good standing, probably owning land or from a wealthy family; or ‘menial’ where the servant was wholly dependent on their one role. (For example, this differentiated the tasks of the (honourable) servant waiting on the dignitaries at the top table from the (menial) servant dealing with the lower orders).

The system relied on a mutually beneficial relationship between two men; as master and servant. It was dependent on trust, where both parties had a moral obligation to one another. Both were honour-bound; the lord to uphold the interests of the servant; and the servant to demonstrate a far greater obedience to the lord than the mere deference that society expected. As such a lord could, in principal, ask a servant to do whatever needed to be done, provided that it didn’t conflict with the servant’s own status.

Service brought with it a symbiotic prestige and the opportunity for social advancement, influence and subtle increases in power. A lord could benefit from having a servant whose skills and status carried greater influence than his own in certain quarters when carrying out his undertakings. A servant’s own standing would be enhanced by having the lord’s patronage – conveying strong backing – and by relaying orders in his lord’s name – inferring increased power.

A principal benefit of service was that it got things done quickly without having to resort to an expensive salaried bureaucracy.

The system was open-ended and did not cease once a particular task or function had been performed. It was not exclusive and it was commonplace to be in service to more than master, where the servant had to be acutely aware where his first duty actually lay and prioritise accordingly. Multiple bonds were encouraged as it was desirable for a servant to be well connected. Service relationships were not easily broken, though should a bond become less valuable over time, it could be left in the background.

With multiple connections came the inherent risk of being in service to opposing factions during uprisings. The servant had to be very careful in distinguishing between his duty and own personal interest. Such situations could also arise within families and communities where different members were in service to different sides but, on the whole service worked on a local level with landowners looking to lords with influence in their local areas.

The relationship between master and servant could go on to develop into a close and lasting friendship throughout life (e.g Edward IV and Hastings)


The historical context (part 2)
Suggested reading
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This site was designed by WW Forsythe and is © Company of Saint Sebastian, 2009. All photographs and other artwork are property of their respective owners, used with permission and credited accordingly.