Were the Wars of The Roses an Inevitability?

In my spare time I have been reading Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson. It’s a massive book, full of information, probably the most complete work on Henry since Wylie’s four-volume effort in the 19th Century. Frankly, I’m finding it hard going. Not because it’s a bad book (it isn’t) or because Given-Wilson is a bad writer or a poor historian (the very opposite is true) but because, quite frankly, I find Henry a deeply unsympathetic character, and the more I learn about him the less I like him.

One of the interesting snippets I have picked up from this book is that in the 1390s Henry spent over £400 in legal fees chasing up various land claims that he thought he was entitled to pursue. OK, £400 does not sound much in 2020, maybe a Solicitor’s hourly rate; but in the 1390s 1000 marks (about £667) was the basic annual income qualification for an earldom. An ordinary person would consider themselves well paid on 6d a day (2.5p modern money) or 3 shillings (15p) a (six day) week. A woman working in agriculture was often only paid a third of that. And no one was paid for the numerous religious holidays – for the ordinary person, they were time off without pay. So a good annual income was maybe £4 or £5 at best. Many would have received far less. So £400 was a heck of a lot of money.

Now, you may say, and it’s true, that pursuing legal claims for land (often dubious) was pretty much a national sport for the nobility and gentry of the late middle ages. Look at the Pastons, for example. They were always chasing up some claim or other, or someone was chasing them.

But the Pastons, in the 15th Century, were barely established as gentlefolk. They had recent ancestors who had been actual bondmen. So it’s not surprising their grip on their property was tenuous, and that they had to scrap for every penny. Similarly, it’s not hard to understand some impoverished baron trying to expand his holdings a bit – the value of land was not what it had been before the Black Death and tenants – and even labourers – had that little more edge than they had had previously.

Henry of Bolingbroke, by contrast, was heir to what was undeniably the greatest inheritance ever brought together under one roof. What’s more, he had married a very wealthy heiress. OK, he had had to share the de Bohun inheritance with Uncle Gloucester (how sad!) and his mother-in-law was still alive and inconsiderately drawing her dower, but the lordship of Brecon alone was worth £1,500 a year!

So, to be blunt, Henry was a greedy so-and-so. He was suing his Uncle Gloucester and the Earl of Warwick, and various other people, because he was not satisfied with his enormous slice of the pie.

Here’s the rub – his father, John of Gaunt, was no better, despite being incomparably the richest private individual in England. (By several streets.) Through the 1390s he persuaded Richard II to confer further sweeteners on him. For example, the duchy of Lancaster was given its special status on an hereditary basis, instead of for life. Then there was the little matter of the grant of the Duchy of Aquitaine. (This latter was in part entangled in the very complex peace negotiations with France, but did Gaunt really need another great duchy?)

Richard II was rapidly running out of things to give – England’s resources were strictly limited – but there really is no indication that the Lancaster family would ever have been satisfied.

Some people will say – “Ah, but Richard II was a lousy king.” Well, for a start, he was rather more effective than is often realised. A lot of the negative stuff is pure Lancastrian propaganda, much of it invented after Richard’s deposition. (How familiar!) The reality is though that even a sovereign with the talents of Elizabeth I and Henry II rolled together would have struggled to succeed with a cuckoo in the nest as large as the Lancasters were. Remember the problems Warwick gave Edward IV? Compared to John of Gaunt – and even more to Bolingbroke post-inheritance – Warwick was a mere country squire.

Richard II had to do something about the Henry Problem. If his chosen solution failed, it was because it was, in fact, too generous, too mild, too humane. When their positions were abruptly reversed, Henry made no such mistake. Objectively, one of them was sure to be the death of the other, it was just a matter of time.

That being the case (and the same would have been true had matters gone the other way) there was set up in English politics a turbulence that was always going to cause problems sooner or later. To a point, the impact was seen straightaway. Henry IV’s reign was extremely troubled because many of his subjects simply did not see his kingship as valid. He was not, after all, Richard II’s right heir, and he had obtained his position by illegitimate force. It took him until at least 1405 (maybe 1408) to resolve matters and secure his crown. It was done by painful attrition, and with a bit of luck along the way. But it only really postponed the issue for a generation.

Henry V did his best (at the very start of his reign) to conciliate his father’s remaining enemies – such as were still alive plus their heirs – and to a very large extent this succeeded. He was further helped by his remarkable successes in France, the more or less complete inability of his obvious dynastic rival, the Earl of March, and by the fact that the third Duke of York was still a little boy.

However, it only took the failure of Henry VI’s kingship to bring the dynastic issue back on the table, and then set the whole structure of Lancastrian kingship tumbling down. Could it have been avoided? Probably not, except in a magical world where Henry VI is much more effective as a ruler and finds the cheat button that releases unlimited resources to enable the French war to be won. In the real world, there was not a chance.

 

 

 

11 comments

  1. Do I detect an anti-Lancastrian slip showing here? I apologize if I am wrong; though, even so, I feel bound to play Devils Advocate. The question you ask is, of course, a hypothetical one to which there is no definitive answer. I don’t think the WOTRs (c1450’s-1470’s) were the inevitable outcome of Bolingbroke’s usurpation: it’s more complex than that. By entailing the throne to Richard of Bordeaux the young son of his deceased eldest son the Black Prince, E3 created a situation, which was bound to end in tears. R2’s mismanagement of the nobility and his failure to produce an heir of his own only made things worse. Although Bolingbroke’s title was inferior to Edmund Mortimer’s, he was clearly thought by the then power brokers to be the best man for the job (proven warrior, experienced administrator etc.). Unfortunately, he proved to be a man of straw and was plagued by dynastic challenges in the early years, which may at a stretch be seen as an embryonic York-Lancaster dispute. But even so, that dispute had died out be the time H6 was crowned King of England and France. The WOTR was not a dynastic war in the beginning. It was a struggle for control of a weak King. The York/Warwick faction had no intention of deposing H6 before 1460. It only became a dynastic dispute when Richard of York resurrected his Mortimer ancestry to claim the throne rather than face the possibility of a traitor’s death for rebelling against his sovereign. Until that moment the Yorkist claim was at best moribund. Although, I haven’t read Chris Given-Wilson’s bio of H4, can I also pick up on your observation that R2 was not as bad as he is made out to be. Although you may well be right, it is not the impression I get from a couple of Given-Wilson’s books that I have my book shelves, including ‘The Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1399’, which contains an excellent and balanced selection of contemporary chronicles many of which attest to Richard’s despotism. I also have Given-Wilsons edition of PROME covering R2’s first thru to his last parliaments, which seems to confirm some of the poor contemporary opinions of R2. I quite agree, however, that Bolingbroke’s title to the throne as published in PROME is pure Lancastrian propaganda (It was the Lancastrian lawyers who drafted it for insertion in the Parliamentary Roll after the event.)

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  2. 1. I would agree that a Henry V-like win over France was unlikely after 1429; but-I think competent and brave handling might have at least allowed England to hold on to a good portion of the post-Agincourt winnings for a while. Even, perhaps, ha good and careful disconnecting might have been achieved.
    2. I would hardly think Henry IV a “straw man”.
    3. I see no legal or procedural problem with Edward 3 having the son of his eldest son succeed him. It only turned out a cropper because Richard II was a twit.

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    1. I can entertain arguments supporting Richard III, but Richard II? A bridge too far.

      I agree we need to strip away propaganda when revisiting the past. Indeed, I think that Richard II gets a deeply unfair shake in history in many aspects of his reign. His foreign policy was controversial in its time, but appears sound with the benefit of hindsight. He had an almost progressive policy towards the Welsh, even if that policy was driven by an interest in crushing the power of the English marcher lords more than in advancing the Welsh people. The culture of his court, his interest and investment in art, literature and architecture — at times, England seems tantalizing close to being the birthplace of the Renaissance.

      But what you’ve done here is not to strip away Lancastrian propaganda so much as invent an anti-Lancastrian propaganda and apply it retroactively upon Richard’s reign.

      Richard II was a true tyrant. He was brutal to the peasantry, even by the standards of the day, in the aftermath of the revolt. His corruption and favoritism was shameful enough to provoke two separate rebellions. He attempted to secure an alliance with the French against his own people. He held parliament at arrow-point to codify his revenge. He wrongfully exiled either Bolingbroke or de Mowbray (they could not both have been guilty, yet both were exiled). He confiscated the Lancastrian estate without cause — and you seem be endorsing not just its confiscation, but Bolingbroke’s execution simply for being the person who stood to inherit it. This is tyranny. It is a repudiation of the very idea that there are constraints on a king’s power.

      It is important to judge a monarch by the standards of their own day. One key way to do so, in this era, is to look at support from the peers of the realm. In this area, Richard II is a remarkable failure. Major lords rose up against him twice — and both times he failed to muster significant support against them. His support simply melts away from at the appearance of a major challenger in 1399. The one major plot to restore him to the throne dissolves literally in a single night. The sad spectacle of the Epiphany Rising is the last whimper of support we hear for Richard. (Glyndwr and the Percys will of course invoke his name, but this is theater.*) Even Edward II and Henry VI could draw and sustain greater support than Richard II.

      The simple truth is that Richard failed of his own accord. He fought to dramatically expand the power of the crown in a kingdom that was extremely hostile to such an expansion of royal power. It created a dangerous political environment, and Richard was unable to navigate politics of the situation he himself created.

      You can try to blame Richard’s problems on Bolingbroke and Gaunt, but this is ahistorical at best and propagandist at worst. Gaunt wasn’t even in England for most of Richard’s first decade — he was off on his doomed Castilian adventure. Bolingbroke was of course a man of means, but he and de Mowbray did not join the rebellion in 1387 until it was well underway. Bolingbroke’s rebellion is not the cause of Richard’s failure — it is a symptom of Richard’s failure.

      So, were the Wars of the Roses inevitable? No, but the deposing of Richard II likely was. He seemed deeply convinced of his right to absolute power and committed to pursuing it. It is hard to believe that he would have survived long enough to produce an heir with Isabella considering how many more years he had to wait to consummate the marriage. If it had not been Bolingbroke, it would have been someone else.

      There are any number of possible (and, in my opinion, much more likely) “off ramps” between the usurpation of 1399 and the WOTR, though. First and foremost, Edmund Mortimer might have produced an heir. Henry V, or Bedford, may have lived another decade. The English may not have so foolishly walked away from the Congress of Arras. Suffolk may have failed to secure the marriage with Margaret of Anjou. The child marriage of Margaret Beaufort and John de la Pole may not have happened …

      * = If you’re really looking for a Warwick the Kingmaker parallel in the story of Richard II — which you seem to be when you say “Remember the problems Warwick gave Edward IV?” — the obvious candidate here is, to me, the Percys. They’re overpowerful subjects whose support brings substantial military might and are crucial to legitimizing the rebellion among the nobility, and then subsequently turn on the man they put on the throne when they realize they can’t control him.

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  3. The character of Richard II:-

    “The English chroniclers, writing or revising when a touchy usurping Lancastrian was only too ready to take offence, magnified any incident which could add to the discredit of the deposed, and were unable to appreciate that the years 1389-1396 were in some ways the most brilliant years of medieval England;” The Hollow Crown, Harold F. Hutchinson, p.129.

    “The period of Richard’s personal rule – thanks to the peace policy he so successfully pursued and for which he is seldom given full credit, the finances of the Crown at that time achieved a prosperity and buoyancy unequalled in the whole Middle Ages.” Steel, The Receipt of the Exchequer, Cambridge, 1954, p. 359.

    Chris Given-Wilson estimates Richard II’s expenditure on retainers to have reached £25,000 a year by 1399. This was because of his much-criticised policy of retaining followers, notably from Cheshire. Historians tend to agree that this was a very bad thing, and one of the reasons for his deposition.

    The odd thing is that Given-Wilson estimates Henry IV was spending £35,000 a year on retainers by 1404-05. Strangely enough, I have not yet come across a historian who has a word to say about Henry’s retaining policy. Apparently in his case it was OK.

    Saul points out that in 1397, Richard had raised the power of the crown to unprecedented heights. If we were talking about Henry VII, this would of course be a Good Thing, but as it’s Richard II it’s a Bad Thing. The fact remains that Richard was one heart beat (Bolingbroke’s) away from Louis XIV style absolute rule. Not a bad achievement for such a “weak” and “incapable” monarch.

    Historians also generally praise Richard’s enlightened foreign policy.

    As to Yorkist bias – Guilty, m’lud. Unlike many writers on history who are biased as a biased thing but pretend objectivity, I make no secret of my partisanship. I make out the Ricardian/Yorkist case. It’s what I do. There are plenty of people out there who think the Lancastrians and the Tudors were God’s gift to England. I am here to point out the case for the other side.

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    1. > Chris Given-Wilson estimates Richard II’s expenditure on retainers to have reached £25,000 a year by 1399. This was because of his much-criticised policy of retaining followers, notably from Cheshire. Historians tend to agree that this was a very bad thing, and one of the reasons for his deposition.

      The odd thing is that Given-Wilson estimates Henry IV was spending £35,000 a year on retainers by 1404-05. Strangely enough, I have not yet come across a historian who has a word to say about Henry’s retaining policy. Apparently in his case it was OK.Saul points out that in 1397, Richard had raised the power of the crown to unprecedented heights. If we were talking about Henry VII, this would of course be a Good Thing, but as it’s Richard II it’s a Bad Thing. The fact remains that Richard was one heart beat (Bolingbroke’s) away from Louis XIV style absolute rule. Not a bad achievement for such a “weak” and “incapable” monarch. As to Yorkist bias – Guilty, m’lud. <

      I did not accuse you of Yorkist bias — this is, after all, a Yorkist site. I said you'd invented an anti-Lancastrian bias, which seems to me a very different thing when discussing the events of 1399. Indeed, considering the defection of both Edmund, 1st duke of York, and Edward, earl of Rutland and future 2nd duke of York, to Bolingbroke's cause, it would seem that to be anti-Lancastrian in 1399 is to be anti-Yorkist.

      And, with regard to this line in my first comment — "If it had not been Bolingbroke, it would have been someone else." — I would rank both Rutland and Cambridge high on the list of possible usurpers had Bolingbroke failed in 1399.

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      1. Hm, I tried using “>” and “<" to note parts of your comment I was quoting and respond in king, but that seems to have triggered some code that deleted parts of my reply and italicized others. Well, perhaps I'll try again another night when it's not so late.

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