John Graham-Leigh was the Editor of Slingshot, the magazine of the Society of Ancients.  One of his many good ideas was to arrange for the same historical battle to be re-fought using as many different rule systems as possible.  Each re-fight is written up and printed in the same issue, allowing readers to compare and contrast the way in which the various systems coped with re-creating the encounter.  Following on from Cynocephalae and Gaugamela (c.f.), is Barnet.

A Description of the Battle of Barnet

The Battle of Barnet was one of the key engagements of the Wars of the Roses, resulting in the removal from the scene of one leading character, Warwick the Kingmaker, and the establishment of another, Edward IV, firmly on the throne of England.  It followed a complicated series of political events and a lightning campaign by Edward of York to retake London. 

One side in the battle was a loose Lancastrian alliance led by the Earl of Warwick, comprising his own Neville retainers, his brother the Marquess Montague (who had recently changed sides) and the “old Lancastrian” Duke of Exeter and Earl of Oxford.  None of these leaders can have trusted the others. 

On the Yorkist side, Edward IV could rely on his old friend Lord Hastings and his youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but scarcely on his other brother George, Duke of Clarence, who was Warwick’s son-in-law, had changed sides twice in the previous two years and had only recently rejoined the Yorkist cause.

The Yorkists advanced northwards from London and encountered Warwick’s army just north of Barnet in Hertfordshire, 10 miles from London.  The armies arrayed during the evening, ready for battle at first light; the morning of Easter Sunday, 14 April, started with thick fog obscuring the armies from each other. 

There is broad agreement on where the battle was fought – on an area of gently rolling heathland then known as Gladsmuir Heath and around the hamlet of Monken Hadley, astride the Great North Road.  Most historians of the battle also agree on approximate numbers – 9,000 to 12,000 men in the Yorkist army, 12,000 to 15,000 for the Lancastrians.  

The Yorkists deployed with Hastings commanding the left, Edward and Clarence in the centre and Gloucester on the right; Oxford led the Lancastrian right, Warwick and Montague the centre and Exeter the left. 

Each “battle” or division would have had a substantial proportion of archers, probably 30%-50%, and a much smaller proportion (perhaps 10%) of fully armoured men-at-arms with the rest being billmen.  Both armies contained a core of professional “retainers” and a larger number of recently-raised levies. Given the amount of fighting during the previous 15 years, many even of the levies would have had some campaigning experience.  There is no mention of any cavalry taking part in this battle and probably all the men-at-arms fought on foot.

Because the armies deployed in the dark and advanced in thick fog, the lines were not directly opposite one another.  On the Yorkist right, Hastings’ men were overlapped by Oxford’s, while Gloucester similarly overlapped Exeter on the other flank.  Oxford’s attack routed part of Hastings’ division and the Earl then pursued fleeing Yorkists as far as Chipping Barnet (some of the fugitives reached London, announcing that the King was slain and all was lost).  Gloucester less dramatically drove back Exeter and the centre divisions locked in indecisive combat.  

Then Oxford’s men returned and were shot at by some of Montague’s men, who mistook their silver star badge in the fog for the sun badge of York.  When the mistake was realised, the cry of “Treason!” went up, and a large number of Lancastrian troops (including Oxford) fled the field.  The Yorkists pressed forward, Montague was killed, Exeter was desperately wounded and left for dead, the Lancastrian line dissolved and Warwick was killed in the pursuit.  Edward IV had won a complete victory.

Setting the Scene

Any refight of this battle must take account of the leaders and the relations between them.  

Edward IV was an exceptionally capable general whose battlefield record is five wins out of five.  He was known for inspirational prowess with his poleaxe as well as for daring manoeuvres.  Hastings was less capable but a sound and loyal subordinate, as was the 18-year-old Gloucester.  Clarence – Shakespeare’s “false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence” – was thoroughly untrustworthy and it is not surprising that Edward kept him close by in the centre.  

On the other side, Warwick was no more than an average commander (two wins, two defeats).  Montague had a sound record of generalship but his loyalties were torn between his elder brother and the King he had served for many years.  His heart was probably not in the fight.  Exeter and Oxford had been sworn enemies of the Neville brothers for years and must have suspected that even now the Nevilles might do a deal with the Yorkists.  Exeter was regarded as an unreliable cypher, but Oxford showed perhaps excessive dash and enterprise in this and two later battles and could be regarded as a “rash” commander.

Special Rules for Vis Bellica

As with most scenarios that are designed to recreate the conditions of a specific battle, Barnet required the creation of some special rules:

1)  Note that Sub-Generals also command their own troops.

2)  Heavy fog covers the battlefield.  This means that the following special rules apply:

  • Spotting. Officers roll 4d6 rather than 2d6 for spotting rolls, and all penalties for distance and terrain are doubled.
  • Shooting. The maximum range for longbows is reduced to 10".
  • Confusion. Once during the game, each player can call "mistaken identity" when an enemy base has friends from a different brigade within their arc of fire and in range. The base must then shoot at the friendly base unless the owning player rolls a 5 or 6 on a d6. If the roll succeeds, the base may not shoot at all that turn: nobles are rushing around shouting "Don't shoot!" If the roll fails, the base shoots at the specified target, with that base taking casualties and making morale checks as usual.
  • Movement. Once a player has moved a base, a d6 is rolled. If the score is 1, then the base has drifted 1d6" to the left. If the score is 6, then the base has drifted 1d6" to the right. If this drifting causes them to bump into a friendly base, then they just line up beside/behind them.

3)  If the Yorkist SG (Edward) takes any casualties, then Gloucester, Hastings and their troops become Ally Troops as Clarence takes command.

Refighting the Battle of Barnet, 1471

Army Sheets

The Lancastrians

The Yorkists

Scenario Notes

The Plans

Being outnumbered, the Yorkists decided to attack in echelon, leading with the right wing, hoping for a good victory on this flank before engaging the rest of the Lancastrian line.

Caution got the better of the Lancastrians, who decided to sit and await the arrival of the Yorkists, greet them with a hail of arrows and then counter-attack.

The Battle

Turn 1

The Yorkists advanced in their echelon formation, while the Lancastrians tried to spot them through the fog.

Turn 2

The Yorkist right and centre emerged from the fog, to be hit by a lethal hail of arrows that caused much carnage in the front line of archers, whose return fire was rather pitiful by comparison.

Turn 3

Oxford, on the Lancastrian right flank, started to advance, hoping to be able to attack the Yorkist centre in the flank, but was engaged my archers who had been hanging back in the fog.

The Yorkist centre and right now pushed forward to point blank range, and took a good hammering – 1 unit of Longbowmen being destroyed while 2 others broke and headed for the rear.

Turn 4

The Yorkist right and centre now hit the Lancastrian line, with Longbowmen from both sides moving to the rear to escape the carnage.  Unfortunately, the Lancastrians were not able to give all of their heavy foot Attack orders in time, with the result that some were caught flat-footed.  The Lancastrian line was unceremoniously shunted to the rear, with 2 units breaking on impact.  Both Warwick and Montagu suffered injuries in the melee, too, severely impacting their ability to control their troops from this point onwards!

Turn 5

Hastings, on the Yorkist left, moved his battle line forward to engage Oxford, who was facing him, but was not able to prevent Oxford moving some of his units to attack Edward’s exposed flank.  This gave the Lancastrian centre a welcome boost and Warwick was able to stabilise what had been a dire situation.  No such help was getting to Montagu, however, and his troops completely gave way at this point.  They had given a good account of themselves, though, and leaving the victorious Yorkist right in no state to influence the battle further.

Turn 6

On the Yorkist left, Oxford hit and pushed back Hastings, while in the centre, Warwick re-dressed his line for one final charge.  Edward was not up to the challenge, however.  Outnumbered 3 to 1, he decided that a winter at the Burgundian Court suddenly had a certain appeal, and headed off into the sunset.


This was a very enjoyable and interesting battle to refight, and I hope that this came across in the above report.  Not only was it fun, but the course of the battle and its various events felt very realistic and plausible.

So, how well did Vis Bellica work for this battle?  Was the game good because of the rules or in spite of them?  I will look at some salient features of the battle and explain a little about how Vis Bellica turned a good scenario into a great game.

  • Spotting.  Vis Bellica has a system for spotting enemy troops as they approach.  Using this rule (modified as explained above to represent fog) meant that the players did not know exactly where the enemy was until they emerged from the fog, usually at very close range!  Real ‘fog of war’!
  • Shooting rules.  In Vis Bellica, stationary missile units have an advantage over units that are moving (i.e. they shoot first and are not penalised for moving!)  This meant that the Lancastrian plan to remain halted gave their Longbowmen a big initial advantage over their Yorkist opponents.
  • Command system.  Each turn, Leaders and Generals get a random number of Command Points (similar to PIPs in DBM) that are used for a variety of purposes, such as spotting enemy troops, issuing orders (units follow an order until it is changed or the enemy persuades them not to) and rallying Disordered or Shaken troops.  A shortage of Command Points resulted in much of the Lancastrian line being stationary when the Yorkists charged them – not a good thing.  Wounded leaders get less Command Points, with obvious results.
  • Damage and Morale systems.  In Vis Bellica, units accumulate damage from enemy shooting and in melee.  This means that as the game progresses you can see your once proud units becoming more and more battered.  Even if they pass all of their morale tests and avoid becoming Shaken or Routed, attrition will eventually get the better of them. This played a huge part in this game, as several units (notably on the Yorkist right flank) became so battered that sending them into action again would have meant almost certain destruction.
  • Turn Sequence and Melee system.  These features, in particular, contributed a lot to the enjoyment of the game.  When a unit charges into contact with the enemy, the results of the impact are resolved straight away, including recoils and routs, before anything else is done.  Add to this the rules allowing units to charge into an existing melee (to either help out a struggling friendly unit or to finish off a battered enemy) and you should start to see that the charge phase of the turn can see some major changes in the situation on the battlefield.  The frantic reinforcement of wavering units was what saved the situation for Warwick.

So, in summary, Vis Bellica added a lot to the success of this game.  The Wars of the Roses are often pointed out as being a very interesting period of history that makes rather dull wargaming.  This is certainly not the case if you use Vis Bellica!

This article reproduced from Slingshot  (issue dated May 2004), the magazine of the Society of Ancients.

The description of the battle of Barnet, along with the setting the scene section,  was written by John Graham-Leigh.  

The scenario adaptation to Vis Bellica was written by John Hills.

Both appear with the kind permission of John Graham-Leigh.