What have you got against Elizabethans?

You may have noticed that I've got a bit of a thing about Wargaming the Dutch Revolt. It's a period the interests me and lets face it, thats the way it should be. If a certain period piques your interest it's only natural that you might want to war-game in that period. It makes sense. I'd imagine that it isn't that way for a lot of people though. The latest new miniatures could catch your eye and make you go searching for information about the period they come from. Or perhaps a bunch of your friends are starting to use a new rule set and you are pressured into buying and painting a force for it in order to play. These are all valid.

For me it started off with my Wife buying me a copy of 'The History of the Art Warfare in the Sixteenth Century' by Charles Oman. I think I originally wanted it because of a fascination with the Italian Wars of the first half of the century but as I read through the book (on the beach in Rimini being one memorable location) the wars of the latter half of the 1500's actually started to light up my imagination. As I read more about the French Wars of religion and The Dutch Revolt I started to realise that there was a lot about the period that would make fascinating and colourful wargames. I assumed that many of people must have come to the same conclusions as I had and started to search around for them and their armies. I found stuff in 15mm. I found the Perfect Captain and all their brilliant work but I just couldn't find folk doing a lot of armies in 28mm. There weren't a lot of figures around either and although things have started to improve in that area, there still isn't a lot of enthusiasm for the era. It found it perplexing.

Someone mentioned in a youtube video I watched the other day that they thought the reason for this might be that there were no big wars for wargamers to get enthused about. I was a bit puzzled by this as there are loads of wars going on during this period but then I pondered a little more. Gamers tend to aim at two periods either side of the 16th C. The Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War are essentially both Englishman fighting Englishman and, although there are foreigners involved, they take part exclusively on British soil. Could the fact that none of the large scale warfare during the Elizabethan era took place in England be enough of a turn off for british gamers? I found this a bit odd as there is a lot of interest in the Italian Wars and very few British took part in those wars. So maybe it's just ignorance, maybe, because in school the only event of the whole era that might be touched upon is the Spanish Armada, people just don't know much about the era at all. Maybe they just need a little pointing in the right direction? As I was reading the Complete Works of Sir Roger Williams, the story of a Welsh Soldier who fought in many of the wars of the period, the idea struck me, why not have a quick run through of all the warfare, conflicts, rebellions and generally interesting fighting that someone may have found themselves involved in during the period.

Before we get to that though just a quick chat about the period I'm about to discuss. The Elizabethan period strictly covers 1558 (Elizabeth I accession to the throne of England) to 1603 (The accession of James I/VI). Obviously this is a particularly English way of dividing up history but it's also quite handy in that it encompasses the end of the Italian Wars (1559 - The Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis) and the death of Henry II of France (1559 - Ironically while celebrating the end of the wars by taking part in a Joust - A splinter form a lance entered through the eye port of his helmet and went through his eye, he died days later) which was instrumental in leading to the French wars of Religion. Her death comes at a time when France had found a period of peace and the Dutch Revolt had come to a stalemate followed by a period of Truce (signed sometime after her death). So we can see that 'Elizabethan' is handy shorthand for a specific period of European history.

Secondly, there was no such thing as a National army. Generally they way troops were raised was that a captain would be commissioned to raise a Company. This company would be of anywhere between 100 and 400 men (depending on who was doing the commissioning and the local traditional size of a company), once the captain had paid the men and equipped them he would report at a muster and have to show that he'd fulfilled his commission and be given some orders and, if he was lucky, some money. Several of these companies might be combined together to make a regiment under an officer of the employers choice. This could be a field unit or a organisational unit. The company would then either operate as part of that regiment which might be combined with others to make a field army, or could be sent to form the garrison of a town or some other job. The person providing the commissions would obviously have to be a person with a large amount of money and this would normally be a head of state of some kind but occasionally towns or cities could send out commissions in order to try and protect their own interests. As troops were raised this way it was possible to have an army made up of companies from all over Europe. Traditionally a captain had to ask permission of a monarch in order to raise a company in their realm but this was usually just a formality. By this method it was common for Englishman, Scots and Welshman to find themselves fighting on the continent (and later on the same method that many of he military leaders in the Civil Wars gained military experience).

Enough of this information!

Oh good Captain, where do you take us to fight?

The Low Countries!

In 1566, for a variety of complex reasons, the Seventeen Provinces rose up in revolt against their Lord and master, King Philip II of Spain. Philip wasn't about to give in to some rebellious subjects (it would only encourage others) especially as he made loads of money from one of the richest areas of Europe and he wasn't about to have Protestants tell him what to do. That combined with the fact that he quite liked having France surrounded meant that he was going to do damnedest to make sure he kept the rowdy Dutch in line. He sent an army to restore order but little did he know that it would take nearly 80 years before the war would finally come to an end. In that time thousands of mercenary soldiers from the British Isles would have fought on the Low Countries and in fact armies sent by the Queen (Ie Commissioned by Elizabeths government and sent as an English army rather than mercenaries) fought for dutch independence. The Dutch War was the school of warfare for generations of soldiers throughout Europe and featured nearly all possible forms of warfare from large set piece field battles (where the Dutch rarely succeeded) and Sieges (a constant form of the periods Warfare) to smaller forms, known as 'actions', such as ambushes, raids, foraging, camisado's, skirmishes and all sorts of other small scale warfare. This kind of thing is perfect for wargaming but gets soundly ignored. It's criminal.

So you've fought in the Low Countries and fought alongside some rather charming Huguenot chaps and it seems they could do with a bit of help.

To France!

The French Wars of Religion raged for most of the latter half of the century. A series of weak Kings (the feckless offspring of Henry II) controlled by their mother (the formidable Catherine De Medici) attempted to retain power by playing off different factions within court. These factions were mostly divided by religion and led to vicious warfare and massacres. Although the wars are marked by big battles it was the interminable small scale warfare that made up the day to day grind of the wars. Like all wars of the period, mercenaries were in use on both sides. Dutch, Germans, English, Scots, Welsh, Swiss, Spanish, Italians and no doubt many more all took part in the wars at some point or another. Again the company or mercenaries were the basic building block of armies but the Spanish army of Philip and several English Armies sent by Elizabeth were sent as auxiliaries to support the Catholic League or the army of Henry IV later in the war. Lots of shorter wars but still a long period of unrest and warfare that many soldiers might have found themselves taking part in.

But where else can we defend the faith dear Captain?

Lo, but I have heard that the Bishop of Cologne wishes to turn his Bishopric to the true word of god! To Cologne!

Strictly speaking, any Prince of the Holy Roman Empire could choose his religion as he saw fit and his subjects would then have to follow suit. However this didn't apply to church lands such as the Bishopric of Cologne. When the new Bishop (don't imagine a particularly holy man, most were young noblemen who inherited their positions just like their secular relatives) declared that he intended to convert to Protestantism there was uproar. Cologne was an Electorate which meant that the Bishop had a vote in the election of the new Emperor, having another protestant involved in the election wouldn't do. I rival was elected to the position of Bishop and he and his relatives gathered an army in order to take their new lands by force. The Cologne war lasted 5 years and again was the focal point for mercenaries for the period. Many of the same troops that had been fighting in France and the Low Countries were sent to fight in Cologne. Even the Spanish became involved as the defenders of Catholicism and the Hapbsurgs. Eventually the Catholic cause was successful but not before huge areas of the Bishopric were laid waste by rampaging armies.

Must we always be fighting in the North West of Europe?

No we can aid the grand city in the North East!

To Danzig!

Poland was another country who elected their Kings and as a city within Polish Prussia (although technical independent and with it's own set of privileges), Danzig had an opinion about who the next King should be. When the Nobility of Poland voted for someone else, Danzig was a bit peeved and rebelled against the Polish state and started a 2 year conflict. Being a single city it needed to import mercenaries to fight its battles but being one of the principle seaports of the Baltic it had plenty of Money to do so. Mercenaries from the conflicts further west sailed to defend Danzig's privileges, most notably a regiment of Scots who had been previously employed by the Dutch.

Hark! Does the Queen desire our service elsewhere? Where are we to go to serve her best?

To Ireland my friends!

Elizabeth's father had made attempts at dealing with his Irish subjects and their difficult ways but by Elizabeth's time the majority of Ireland still remained wild and untamed. Only the Pale around Dublin was kept under direct control of the crown (from which we get the phrase 'Beyond the Pale') the rest of Ireland was under the control of Earls or Lords who either claimed some decent from earlier conquerors (the Old English) or were natives. These nobles pledged their allegiance to the English crown in order to retain there position and Lands but in practice the English didn't have a lot of control over the Irish. Inevitably as the English attempted to expand their control over areas outside the Pale they came into conflict with the Nobles. Twice the Desmonds rebelled against the English and then Hugh O'Neill led the longest and most dangerous rebellion, one which eventually involved the landing of Spanish troops. The constant low level warfare and ambushes that characterised the wars are perfect wargaming fodder and the whole period of Irish history is well worth researching.

Those Spanish! Always meddling in others affairs! How can we make them pay?

To the sea boys!

Spain and England had always been glaring at each other ever since the days that Mary was married to Philip. Spain saw Elizabeth as a protestant bastard, not fit to rule on a throne of Europe, especially as she had a perfectly good catholic cousin that would do the job (Mary Queen of Scots who at one point in certain parts of Europe was known as Queen on France, England and Scotland). Elizabeth's meddling in the Low Countries didn't help and when she finally signed the treaty of Nonsuch with the Dutch the Spanish finally lost their cool, and although it was never declared openly, they were at war. This was a different kind of war, however, as there were no large land battles. Instead the war took place on the sea in the form of battles between ships and raids on towns and fortifications. Sir Francis Drake raided Cartgena, Santo Domingo and the Canary Islands and in these he used soldiers to fight battles with the Spanish defenders of the towns. Elizabeth gave pretty much free reign to her Sea-Dogs to disrupt Spanish shipping in the new world, and acting like legalised pirates they fought in the Queens name all over the Spanish Main. All this only resulted in annoying the Spanish who launched the Great Armada in an attempt to ferry their army form Flanders to England. Ultimately this grand scheme failed but it didn't stop them trying again. Twice. The thought of what would have happened if they Spanish had been successful is an intriguing one and would make for a great 'What if' campaign. However there is plenty of action of the real life kind to keep a wargamer happy. Raids on the Spanish mainland ports such as Cadiz are easily playable small scale battles that could be played on spectacular tables if someone felt like building them. It also has to be remembered that the English armies fighting in the Low Countries and France were as much there to fight against the Spanish as they were to aid the natives.

There were other places you could earn a living as a mercenary, The Livonian War in Eastern Europe,  Swedens war with Poland (known as the Northern Seven years war), The war of the Strasbourg Bishops, The Marian Civil War in Scotland and even the Rising of the Catholic Nobles in Northern England.

As the vast majority of the wars above involved mercenaries during a 40 year period then one set of figures could be used for one side or the other and, in many places, both sides.

I think the idea that there wasn't anything interesting happening during this period and thats why wargamers tend to avoid it, can be put to bed. All the period needs is a bit of research and a good set of rules that reflect the unique approach to warfare that the period offers.

Perhaps a bunch of enthusiasts that could put there heads together and push some toy soldiers across a table or two, perhaps organise a campaign.

Possibly wishful thinking.....but I hope not.


  1. Couldnt agree more, painting Elizabethan English and Irish as we speak.

  2. Some really good info here Colin! Sounds like how people treat the 1690s as well. 😉

  3. A great read. Look forward to seeing more of your Dutch revolt, as I've quite enjoyed what I've seen so far!

  4. I do love the period. Aesthetically I think an Elizabethan force looks great on the table and the tech level still lends well to 'semi traditional' fantasy games (magic, orcs, undead etc).

  5. Great article, I completely agree--this is a very interesting period indeed. One thing you don't mention which has received (comparatively) a lot of wargaming attention is the Border Reivers... the border skirmishes between the Scots and English clans which reached their heyday in the Elizabethan era and completely stopped when the Crowns were unified with the ascension of James I.

  6. Nice recap of the period. It seems that there really is a lot of wargaming potential.

  7. It's the tyrany of the paintbrush, there is only so many projects you can realistically tackle in a lifetime, so there's the drive towards selecting from a niche that other gamers have already chosen. It'd be interesting to know why this period has never really made the cut, I suspect that as you mention it's the Armada that's the famous bit from an English history teaching perspective. Also that whole Protestant / Catholic thing makes the narrative a bit messy.

    The key I think with gaming in a niche is to have enough figures painted that you can supply both sides of the battle, which really breaks down the barrier to finding a game (at the cost of doubling the effort!)...

  8. Well, I'm sold. Trunk hose and peascod bellies no longer disturb me. My 'En Garde!' project will now be set in the 16th rather than 17th century. Thank you!

  9. Nice post. I’m already onboard with Elizabethans, now I’m more onboarder.


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