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Plantagenet Ireland and Poynings’ Law

It is fair to say that most medieval English kings had little interest in Ireland except as a source of revenue. (The same was probably true about England and Wales but it seems too cynical to say it, and at least they did live there.)

Prior to the Bruce invasion, Ireland yielded between £5000 and £20,000 a year to the Exchequer. Even the lower figure was a useful sum in medieval terms, bearing in mind that the “qualification” for an earldom at this point was about £666. So in a bad year, Ireland gave the king the equivalent of more than seven earldoms, after expenses.

By the 1350s the net revenue was down to between £1,000 and £2,000, while by the start of Richard II’s reign Ireland was running a deficit. Given the general state of the Exchequer this was a Very Bad Thing and Something Had To Be Done. (1)

Of course, simply pulling out of Ireland and making a saving was unthinkable. Instead various half-hearted measures were tried, and various people lined up to take the place in hand, ranging from Robert de Vere (created Duke of Ireland!) to Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, the King’s uncle. The matter was evidently seen as (relatively) a low priority, and in view of the state of England at this time, this is quite understandable.

Eventually, in 1394, Richard II himself, personally, set out for the Emerald Isle with a well-equipped army 7000-8000 men. By the standards of English military expeditions in Ireland it was extraordinarily successful and well-executed. Not that Richard II gets much credit for it. By January 1395 the various Irish chiefs had begun to submit to Richard and by early Spring the capitulation was complete.

Richard, writing to his Council in England, stated that rebellion arose from past failures of government and that unless mercy was shown his opponent would ally with the “wild Irish”. He therefore proposed to take them under his protection until their offences had been purged or excused. (2)

This conciliatory policy towards the Irish speaks strongly in Richard’s favour. He intended that from now on there should be “liege Irish” as well as “liege English” and he tried to settle some of the many grievances (mainly about land) between the two groups. Of course this was a major task, and probably could never have been completed to everyone’s satisfaction even if Richard had remained in Ireland for ten years. However, it was a settlement of sort.

Unfortunately Richard was forced to cut his visit short due to issues in England, leaving the young Earl of March behind as Lieutenant. March was of course also Earl of Ulster, and in that capacity had land issues of his own., particularly with the O’Neill family. By 1396 March was leading major raids into O’Neill territory, and the short period of peace was under extreme strain. By 1397 Leinster was also in a state very close to war.

In 1398, not long after extending March’s term of office, Richard II decided to replace him with the Duke of Surrey, Thomas Holland. Surrey, Richard’s nephew of the half-blood, was another young and inexperienced man, with the added disadvantage that he had no hereditary lands in Ireland at all. He required, therefore, heavy subsidy from the Exchequer. Before the change could be completed, March had been killed in the fighting, as was his son in 1425.

King Richard now decided on a second personal visit to Ireland. This was a strange decision, given that he had just annexed the lands of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and that Bolingbroke was in France, poised to invade England. However, we have the benefit of hindsight. Richard had no reason to suspect that the French, his supposed allies, would allow any such thing – and but for a temporary shift in power at the French court, they would not have done.

Richard’s second visit to Ireland was less successful. In a parley between Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester and Art Macmurrough – who styled himself King of Leinster – the latter made it clear he was unwilling to submit. Before much more could be done Richard was forced to leave Ireland to confront Bolingbroke, and Ireland was once again left more or less to its own devices.

It is remarkable that any remnant of English lordship survived Henry IV’s reign, given the state of Henry’s Exchequer and the low priority given to Ireland by a king who was fighting on several fronts, including internal battles against his opponents. But the fact is that somehow, it did. Indeed Irish-based ships co-operated with Henry in the re-conquest of Anglesey.

Henry V and Henry VI were also unable (or unwilling) to give great priority to Ireland. Ralph A. Griffiths states “The isolated administration entrenched in Dublin and its ‘pale’ was more often than not subject to the rough dictates of Anglo-Irish magnates like Desmond and Ormond, and for some time past it had been assailed by a Celtic resurgence among the native Irish themselves that was cultural and social as well as military in character.” (3)

The attitude of the Anglo-Irish peers was to remain key, because unless and until the English government was willing and able to finance significant military intervention in Ireland, their power made them the most effective players on the island. Of course, the rivalries between them meant that the Crown was often able to play one family off against another.

In 1437 the author of The Libelle of Englysche Polycye expressed concern about the state of royal government in Ireland, suggesting the country could become a base for French, Scottish and even Spanish enemies, with whom hostile elements in Ireland could form an alliance. This fear of encirclement explains much of English/British policy towards Ireland over the next several hundred years, although in the short term very little was done about it, not least because England simply did not have the resources. (Such resources as were available were being thoroughly over-stretched in France.)

By this time the Irish revenues were failing to maintain the cost of government there, and even its most senior officers struggled to obtain their salaries. In 1441 it was reported that the charges of the Justiciar of Ireland and his underlings exceeded revenue by £1,456. (4)

In December 1447, Richard, Duke of York took on the role of Lieutenant of Ireland, with a salary of 4000 marks for the first year and £2000 in each of the following years of a supposed ten year appointment. York, who was very much at odds with Suffolk and Somerset at home, was effectively ‘promoted’ to a backwater. Those responsible doubtless thought that it would keep him quiet (and busy) for a long time. He was, of course, Earl of Ulster, and therefore had very significant landed interest in the country.

Not until summer 1449 did York actually set out – from Beaumaris. Even then he did so only because the King pressed him to go. He was received ‘ with great honour, and the earls of Ireland went into his house, as did also the Irish adjacent to Meath, and gave him as many beeves for the use of his kitchen as it pleased him to demand.’ (5)

That Richard, Duke of York, was a successful Lieutenant of Ireland is in some ways surprising. He was an aristocrat to his finger tips, and not generally noted for his people skills. If he had strengths they lay in his relative honesty and relative efficiency as an administrator and soldier. York failed miserably to unite the English nobility behind him, and yet he seems to have been well-regarded in Ireland. (In contrast to John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who was positively hated in the same role.)

York quickly summoned a great council at Dublin which ensured the protection of certain hard-pressed castles and towns and also sought to address some of the more extravagant abuses of the Irish government.

His problem was that the money he had been promised largely failed to appear. He received less than half of what he should have in the first two years, and that was in tallies. After December 1449 he received nothing at all. (6)

This helps explain why York eventually threw in his hand and returned to England.

However, after the debacle at Ludford Bridge, York was sufficiently confident of his welcome to return to Ireland (with his second son, Rutland) and was able to use it as a secure base to plot the overthrow of Henry VI’s government.

York encouraged or allowed the Irish Parliament to pass legislation which left the country almost, but not quite independent, Henry VI’s sovereignty being reduced to little more than a cipher. It was even declared that the introduction of English Privy Seal Letters into Ireland was a breach of the country’s liberties. In return the Parliament voted York men and money, and rejected Henry VI’s attempts to remove York from office. The duke was not quite King of Ireland, but he was something very close.

Thereafter Ireland became strongly Yorkist – even into early “Tudor” times. It may be that York’s almost accidental policy of granting autonomy was the answer to the Question. In May 1487, a young boy was crowned at Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral (right) as “Edward VI”. He may actually have been the ill-fated Earl of Warwick by that name but is traditionally named as “Lambert Simnel”, who was taken to work in Henry VII’s kitchen after the battle of Stoke Bridge ended his insurrection the following month. In his identification of the boy (7), Ashdown-Hill uses historical, numismatic and physical evidence cogently, as ever, eliminating the other possibilities.

As a result of “Lambert”‘s coronation, Henry VII’s regime decided to control Ireland more closely. The “Statute of Drogheda” (left) (“An Act that no Parliament be holden in this Land until the Acts be certified into England”) was passed in early or mid-1494 and is described as 10 Hen.7 c4 or 10 Hen.7 c9. It is also known by the name of the newly appointed Lord Deputy at the time: Sir Edward Poynings (1459-1521) and specified that no Irish Parliament could meet until its proposed legislation had been approved by the Lord Deputy, his Privy Council, the English monarch and his Parliament. Ireland was thus legislatively subjugated and its status changed again under the “Crown in Ireland Act” in 1542, becoming a kingdom (“An Act that the King of England, his Heirs and Successors, be Kings of Ireland”) under the same monarch as England, in place of a lordship. Curiously, this was in the same year that Wales was subsumed by the Kingdom of England (Laws in Wales Acts). As the sands of the “Tudor” era ran out, the Earl of Essex was sent to suppress another Ulster rebellion but ignored his orders and returned home to aim for the crown. James VI/I’s subsequent plantations filled the power vacuum left by the O’Neills.

Consequently, the “English Civil War” is also known as the “War of the Three Kingdoms”, each of which had a different religious settlement as Charles I’s reign began. Similarly, legend has it that George I expressed to plant St. James’ Park with turnips and asked an aide the price: “Only three crowns, Sire”. Poynings’ Law is still in force in Northern Ireland, whilst it was fully repealed in the Republic as late as 2007.

Notes

(1) All figures are from Richard II, Nigel Saul, page 273

(2) For more detail see Saul, p 281.

(3) The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 411.

(4) The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 412.

(5) Irish chronicle quoted in The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 421.

(6) The Reign of King Henry VI, Ralph A. Griffiths page 421.

(7) The Dublin King, John Ashdown-Hill particularly chapters 1-5.

How well-stocked with alcohol was Henry V’s army in 1415….?

An illumination of a medieval siege – although, judging from the “Oriflamme“-looking flag on the left of the picture the attackers may be French. Besieging an English castle near Bordeaux perhaps?

“…. An army may look splendid but if it is not fed it will not fight and if it cannot drink it will not be happy. As such when Henry V of England rekindled the Hundred Years War 600 years ago in a bid to reclaim his, “just rights and inheritances” in France, wine (and beer) was very much at the heart of his plans of conquest….”

If you read this excellent article (  ) in its entirety, you will be left wondering if the Henry V’s English army waded through booze in 1415!

Henry VI: saint or sinner?

A gentle and devotional life

About seventy years ago, the historian John Harvey wrote this in an essay about King Henry VI: “The life and death, and the thwarting of his noble designs are one (sic) of the sorriest tragedies of English history. He was a victim of forces outside his control, for whose existence he was not responsible, but set in motion by his grandfather’s crime and his father’s one-sided ambition. Inheriting the love of justice of his Plantagenet forefathers and the a artistic culture and melancholia of Charles VI of France, his character was in sharp contrast with that of his age, possessed in marked degree by his wife. In his charity, his love of art and his spirit he was a true Plantagenet, though a paradoxical one…. He saw the world as a place of brief sojourn in which to do good, to learn courtesy and to seek God. There was nothing political in his martyrdom; except as the shadow of a name, and the crowned and anointed husband of Margaret, he represented no threat to anybody in the world. Yet the callous and sacrilegious hand that struck him down, though it ended a gentle and devotional life on earth, ensured that Henry’s virtues and lasting benefits should be perpetually bought to the mind of oblivious posterity” [1]

 

Harvey took this version of Henry’s life and death from a tract entitled ‘A Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI’, which is attributed to John Blacman and was published in 1510.[2] The tract is in fact a collection of anecdotes of Henry’s religious devotions from the recollection of one of his chaplains and other intimates of his personal life. The aim of the collection is to present Henry as a holy saint whose ‘kingdom’ was not worldly. He performed a miracle of loaves (but not fishes) for his troops and endured hunger, thirst, mocking, abuse and other hardships in his life including wounding in his side by a dagger. He foretold his own death but was not believed. And he suffered a violent death so that others might live in peace. Blacman’s depiction of Henry as an exemplar of Christian virtue, though not of this world was also the standard Tudor view echoed by Henry VII’s historian Polydore Vergil: “ King Henry was a man of mild and plain-dealing disposition who preferred peace before war, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility and leisure before business: and to be short, there was not in this world a more honest and a more holy creature. There was in him honest shamed-facedness, modesty, innocency and perfect patience taking all human chances, miseries and all afflictions in his life in good part as though he had justly by some offence deserved the same. And he ruled his own affections that he might more easily rule his own subjects; he gapped not after riches nor thirsted for honours and worldly estimation but was careful only for his souls sake; such things as tended to the salvation thereof he only esteemed for good; and that very wisely; such again as procured loss thereof he only accounted evil.[3]

 

To set against this Tudor narrative of the martyred Henry, we have his known failings as a king. Henry is mainly remembered as the king who lost the Hundred Years War and during whose rule the Wars of the Roses started. Indeed The late Bertram Wolffe thought that Henry as such an insubstantial and unsuccessful king that writing his biography was a long and dispiriting task. I do not deny that Henry was a weak and ineffective king. That judgement was made in his lifetime and has not been seriously challenged since. However, I do think that John Harvey may have an arguable point about Henry’s culpability. Was he wholly to blame for the calamities of his reign, or was he the victim of circumstances? That is the question I wish to discuss in this article; first, by setting Henry’s reign in the context of events from his accession until his mental breakdown in 1453; second, by discussing his performance in three key policy areas: maintenance of the dual monarchy, royal finances and the rule of law.

 

Divided opinions

Until the twentieth century, studies of Henry were dominated by the story of an innocent king at the mercy of greedy and violent nobles. However, modern biographies challenge that simple narrative and in doing so have broadened our understanding of the complexities of Henry’s reign. In 1981, two contrasting studies of Henry VI appeared almost simultaneously. The first was by Bertram Wolffe; whose, unforgiving verdict of King Henry goes well beyond the accusation that he was incompetent.[4] Wolffe judges Henry by what he did as revealed in the government records, and he completely rejects the notion of the mild, martyred king. In its place he describes an actively malign king, whose piety was too ostentatious to be virtuous, and whose nature was too unforgiving and vindictive to be saintly. He was also a poor judge of character, prone to interfering, and lacking in judgement and proportionality. He disregarded his royal oath and he was wilful. In essence the inconsistencies and failures of English foreign policy were due to Henry’s capricious changes of mind and his susceptibility to improper influences. Thus Wolffe rejects the whole idea that the loss of France was due to the divided opinion of the English aristocracy.[5] He does not doubt that Henry’s failures as a king left the establishment of Eton College and of King’s College Cambridge as his sole achievements.

 

Also in 1981, Ralph Griffith’s published his evaluation of Henry’s reign. It is a nuanced and detailed assessment of Henry’s performance as monarch and his qualities as a man. Griffiths recognises the military and fiscal difficulties that dogged Henry’s rule, and the factionalism of the nobility, which would have tested even a high performing and confident king. The essence of Griffiths’ evaluation of Henry is best put in his own words: “Henry VI was in reality a well-intentioned man with aspirations that were laudable enough, in an age when king’s could not rule by good intentions alone. He had an interest in the realities of government with the aim of realising those aspirations, especially in education, relations with Valois France, and the reward of friends and servants. Other of his qualities were obstacles to effective kingship. He was extravagant, credulous, over merciful and compassionate to those at fault yet fearful suspicious of those rumoured to be doing him harm. These are not the qualities of a shrewd and balanced judge of men and politics. Henry also lacked the foresight, prudence and calculation that make a king’s actions responsible ones; he showed little sagacity, subtlety or discrimination in his administrative actions and none of the political astuteness necessary to achieve an acceptable balance among his subjects competing interests — as contemporaries recognised who stressed his simplicity. Not that he was uneducated or unintelligent but he was the least experienced of English medieval kings at his succession and never shook off his youthful dependence on others in the routine and detail of affairs…With his naively defective judgement, Henry’s advisors were too often unworthy of his confidence.[6] Griffiths’ explains this last sentence later in his book. “Those contemporaries who …[observed]...Henry VI as a boy were agreed that he grew into a personable, intelligent and even precocious youth. His years as a minor between the ages of one and fifteen were naturally of considerable importance to his education as a monarch of two realms. His relatives had already created for him an atmosphere of political bitterness, even personal hatred, and after Bedford’s death, both (Humphrey duke of) Gloucester and (Henry) Beaufort (bishop of Winchester) strove to be the single most dominant influence on him as he grew older. They would be reluctant to allow him the exercise of free will as an adult king. The end result of these intense personal pressures was to accustom Henry to dependence, to being told what to do. Even after Gloucester and Beaufort had receded into the background he found other pillars on which to lean: the earl of Suffolk. Archbishop Kemp, the duke of Somerset and finally, when he was least able to fend for himself, the Queen.”[7] In Griffiths’ view, therefore, Henry is far less culpable for the disasters of his reign than those relatives and other advisors who instead of supporting the king betrayed his trust in them.

 

John Watts’ appraisal of Henry, which first appeared in 1999, is the antithesis of Wolf’s ‘active’ king.[8] He also questions Griffiths’ negative assessment of Henry’s relatives and advisors. Watts argues simpliciter that Henry was so passive that he created difficulties for the nobility, who in their own interactions tried to compensate for a king who was chronically unable to exercise royal authority, and was especially ‘incapable of giving judgements, managing the counsel of his advisors and making policy appear his own.’ This depiction of Henry as a simpleton is not a new one. In the opinion of at least one anonymous fifteenth century commentator, Henry was simple and easily led: “In the same time the realm of England was out of all good governance as it had been before, for the king was simple and led by covetous counsel and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily but payment there was none. All the possessions and lordships that pertained to the crown the king had given away, some to lords and some to other simple persons so that he had almost nothing left. For these misgovernances and for many others, the hearts of the people were turned away from them that had the land in governance and their blessings were turned to curses” [9]

 

Watts contends that what others describe as “‘the king’s unfair and unwise distribution of patronage and the opportunistic behaviour of his household servants’, should be judged in the context of ‘how this [patronage] was turned into power in the localities or why the nobility who might have been expected to resist the king’s agents did nothing until the 1450’s.[10] His own explanation is that: “The England of the 1440’s was governed by a very extensive network of men, including most of the old nobility; their difficulties stemmed more from lack of co-ordination and lack of authority than from partisanship.” Central to this thinking is late twentieth century research carried out by Christine Carpenter, Anthony Pollard, Helen Castor and others into the dynamics of local politics and relationships in the fifteenth century. These several studies suggest a different and more complex regional dynamic from the factional politics of the greater nobility.[11]

 

Local cooperation between landowners, merchants, farmers, artisans and labourers, coupled with the complex inter-relationships of the gentry forged by their arranged marriages, were the bonds that held English society together. The importance of these local transactions, whether they were commercial, legal, social, successional or familial, is that often they transcended the politicking of the great nobles. In view of Henry’s inability or unwillingness to govern and on the basis that ‘something had to be done’, it is argued that rather than fleecing Henry, his closest advisors were in fact trying to maintain the everyday cohesion of national and local life from collapsing into anarchy. This is an important new hypothesis; since even though the English nobility were a turbulent and quarrelsome bunch, their relationship with the king was based on mutual cooperation and benefit.[12] In the absence of a national police force or standing army, or civil service the king relied on the nobility to enforce his law, his peace and his policies through their network of local officials and law officers. In return, the king was expected to provided the national leadership that ensured “…an outward calm for the defence and surety of the realm”.[13]

 

Professor Christine Carpenter in her own leading study of this period holds the view that Henry was so deficient in kingly qualities that whilst he might be allowed to approve some insignificant grants and pardons, though not necessarily as an act of personal rule, he was hardly likely to be allowed to formulate foreign policy for the war in France, which “…was absolutely central to the domestic politics of England…It is scarcely conceivable that they would have allowed the king to dictate policy on which their very lives depended when they seem to have been able to dictate to the king on everything else that mattered.” [14] However, she does not deny the possibility that Henry’s wishes may be seen in some of his ‘over-generous grants and pardons and in the foreign policy of the 1440’s’, which may be the result of Henry’s genuine desire for peace rather than an example of his capriciousness.

 

It seems, therefore, that though modern scholars agree that Henry was in the general sense incompetent, there is less certainty about whether he was culpable for the deficiencies of his reign. In considering that question, it is important to bear in mind that Henry VI is unique among English monarchs. He was not only born to the purple, but also surrounded with the divinity of kingship from the cradle. The untimely death of his father Henry V bought baby Henry to the throne of two kingdoms before he was a year old. He is the only English king to have presided at his first parliament sitting on his mother’s lap. Consequently, his character and his performance can only be judged in a regal context and by bearing in mind that in respect of both his kingdoms he never had the benefit of growing-up under the wing of his father from whom he might have learned the art of kingship.

 

Kingship

The English had high expectations of Henry. He was, after all, the only son of a successful warrior king. They expected him to rule in the common interest and they recognised his absolute, personal and inalienable authority to do so. There was no conflict between these principles if the king was competent. Ideally, such a king was prudent and took representative advice before acting. He made sound decisions and implemented them efficiently. Sir John Fortescue in his treatise on fifteenth century governance noted with smug pride that though in theory English kings had the powers of a tyrant, they generally ruled responsibly ‘in the common weal’.

 

Much depended on the vigour and personality of the king. He was expected to devise his own foreign and domestic policies, conduct affairs of state, make peace or declare war, lead the army against enemies foreign and domestic, dispense justice, and live off his income from crown lands and feudal dues. In theory, baby Henry was expected to do all these things from the moment he ascended the throne. In practice, of course, that was impossible. Henry could neither walk nor talk, nor control his bodily functions, nor even chew his own food much less govern his realms. This practical problem was complicated by the established constitutional doctrine, which held that the person of the king and the institution of king (the Crown) were indivisible. Royal authority, therefore, rested solely in the king’s person from the very instant of his accession. No other person could exercise royal authority on behalf of the king under any circumstances; to do so, was treason.[15] In 1422, therefore, the king’s true subjects were wondering how their baby king could rule them if he was physically and intellectually incapable of exercising his authority.

 

‘The king’s tender years’

On his deathbed, Henry V entrusted the governance of England to his youngest brother Humphrey duke of Gloucester, signifying that the duke should have the principal safekeeping and defence ’of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[16] These words implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent answerable only to the king and then only after Henry reached his majority. It was a settlement that recognised the indivisibility of the person and office of king, and devolved royal authority to the regent. However, when the matter came before the lords in parliament in 1422 they disregarded Henry V’s will and rejected Gloucester’s claim to be regent[17]: they did so again in 1428.[18] Distrusting Gloucester’s motives and preferring a conciliar minority rule to his autocratic regency, the lords determined on legal advice that exceptionally during Henry’s minority the indivisible estate of the king was incomplete since it lacked will or reason, which must perforce be supplied by the lords of the King’s Council, who would exercise the king’s authority collectively, whether assembled in Parliament, in the king’s continual council or in the Great Council, until the king was able to assume his personal rule.[19] John duke of Bedford the heir presumptive was appointed to the specially created and limited position of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm, and chief councillor to the king. Gloucester was allowed to hold that position only during Bedford’s absences abroad. Professor Watts regards this as a paradox in which the lords are both the king’s servants and his representatives, but in reality, it was a practicable solution to a practical problem. It was a settlement that prevented a non-regal autocracy, whilst enabling the realm to be governed during the king’s incapacity. It did not transfer royal authority to the lords and its legitimacy was founded squarely on the English lords’ collective responsibility. Moreover, this constitutional model stood the test of time. It was used again when Henry was incapacitated by mental illness in 1453, and also in 1483 when the child king Edward V succeeded to the throne. I am labouring these points now because of their importance in understanding the nature of Henry’s reign.

 

A minority council was therefore appointed to govern the kingdom collectively during the protectorship and throughout the king’s minority.[20] From the start, the council’s work was undermined by two long-term problems. First, a conflict of interests between the king’s relatives Gloucester and Beaufort soon became apparent. Gloucester, acting head of the council vice his absent elder brother, was overly ambitious and used his position to influence the direction of policy. Beaufort, the king’s Chancellor, was wealthy and used his wealth to promote his own policies. Their differences, which were personal as well as political, were irreconcilable. And their disgraceful behaviour did much to bring the council into disrepute. Second, many of the minority councillors exploited loopholes in the council’s financial regulations and abused their authority for their aggrandisement. There can be little doubt that Henry’s relatives and his venal councillors set a very poor example for the impressionable king. Even so, it is unlikely that Henry’s inadequacies were apparent when he was a child, since his involvement in affairs of state was notional.

 

A personable, intelligent and precocious youth

Henry’s transition from child king to adult king was a complex, and for some an arcane process. Unfortunately, a definitive appreciation of those events is hardly possible due to an academic disagreement between historians about what really happened and why. The undeniable facts that can be elucidated from the minutes and archives of government are straightforward. On the 1 October 1435, two months before his fourteenth birthday, Henry attended his first council meeting. Gloucester and Beaufort were also present since it was a strategically important gathering to appoint a new captain for the Calais garrison. Evidence of Henry’s subsequent attendances at minority council meetings and also at the less frequent but larger assemblies of his Great Council can be gleaned from the minutes of those meetings. In addition, petitions and warrants signed by the king signify that he regularly exercised his royal prerogative in matters of grace from at least the 28 July 1436, which was well before his fifteenth birthday. [21] For example, between the 7 November 1436 and the end of the month, he signed twenty-seven petitions and warrants.[22] Nor was Henry’s involvement in government restricted to matters of grace. There is evidence that he played a significant part in substantive foreign policy decisions such as the Duke of Orleans peace mission to France.[23] Despite the council’s natural concern about the liberality of Henry’s grants,[24] there was no obvious reason at this stage and on this evidence for anybody to think that Henry would not make a satisfactory king. He was young and could reasonably be expected to become more prudent as he gained experience and wisdom.

 

Following a meeting of the great Council, which lasted from the 12 to the 14 of November 1437, Henry declared the formal ending of his minority and assumption of his personal rule; he was not yet sixteen and the youngest English king since the Conquest to do so.[25] All the existing councillors were reappointed on oath to ‘counsel (Henry) well and truly and to keep his secrets, and to put forward their whole labours and diligence for his worship’.[26] Their terms and conditions of service were changed. Payment was now at the king’s discretion. The most contentious part of Henry’s declaration was the description of his future relationship with the new council, which was set out in a series of detailed ‘ordinances’ taken partly from those established for the council by Henry’s grandfather in 1406.[27] As far as I can see, the core of the declaration amounts to this: i) Henry’s prerogative on matters of grace is unfettered. ii) The council will continue to discuss ‘weighty matters’ moved before them, though no decision will be made or action taken without the king’s ‘advice’. iii) The council will continue to discuss and dispose of routine matters unless the council is divided or unable to make a judgement; in which case, the matter will be referred to the king for judgement. So much for the facts, I now turn to the debate about their meaning.

 

Professor Griffiths considers Henry’s declaration to have been no more than “…an announcement that Henry VI would take a prominent part in affairs henceforth, though without jettisoning the councillors who had served him during his youth.”[28] He dismisses the idea put forward by Watts et al that it was prompted by conciliar apprehension; neither does he accept that it was an attempt to restrain the king. It was, he argues, a material restraint on the council’s power vis-à-vis royal authority, as all matters of grace were in the king’s prerogative. “Pardons were his to give, all collations and benefits his to bestow, royal offices his to fill and anything pertaining to the Crown estates, bounty or favour were reserved to him”. [29] Moreover, though matters of weight might be discussed in council, nothing could be moved without reference to the king. Even routine matters must be referred to the king if the council were divided or unable to make a decision. Griffiths’ further suggests that the outcome was no more than Henry’s personal assumption of powers delegated to the council in 1422. The vagueness of the term ‘great weight or charge’ is an indication of Henry’s intention to intervene in anything important. Griffiths does not see this as a forceful return to personal rule or a wilful thrusting aside of wise councillors. Even less is the council attempting to preserve its authority by ‘ encircling the king with restrictions devised thirty years before’. “Henry’s declaration...[heralded]…the re-establishment, after fifteen years of conciliar government, of traditional royal rule in which the king’s councillors had an acknowledged part. Perhaps the only surprising feature was that it was published so soon in the young king’s life.”[30]

 

Bertram Wolffe’s conclusion is not materially different from that of Griffiths on this issue. Though, he is more vigorous in his assertion that, as far as could be judged in 1437, Henry possessed some kingly qualities such as physical strength, piety and ambition, and that there was a reasonable chance that wisdom and judgement would follow in due course. Henry was keen to assume the reins of power “just as soon, if not sooner than his advisors approved“.[31] Wolffe came to this conclusion after a careful and thorough analysis of the official record, minutes, petitions, warrants commissions and ‘the workings of government’, which demonstrate that Henry was not merely a cipher authorising everything and anything they put before him. In Wolffe’s opinion there were no grounds for the minority council to cling to their powers once the king determined he had come of age. The ordinances of 1437, though based on those of 1406, indicate that the council was shedding power, not increasing it. I do not think that either Wolffe or Griffiths is arguing that Henry was not an ineffectual adult king, or that his incapacity was not an important factor in the catastrophes of his reign. Their point is that these things were not necessarily obvious in 1437.

 

Professor Watts takes a completely different line.[32] For reasons I have already touched on, he argues that Henry insufficiencies were apparent before 1437. He rejects the notion that between 1435 and 1437 Henry was initiating his personal rule. The impetus for that, he argues, was coming from the council who managed his exercise of favour: “from grants made by the king and council in 1435-36 to grants made by the king alone but only during pleasure in 1436-37 and finally grants made for life from the spring of 1437 onwards.”[33] Watts adds that the council and wider nobility were worried that Henry was both unable and unwilling to rule the kingdom independently. He writes: “…if he had been behind the events of 1436, the whole tiresome process of recognition, definition and tentative restriction could have been avoided. The king would have begun to exercise his free will over the full range of royal responsibility, while counsellors, those of 1422 and others, advised him[34]

 

The emerging problems of 1437 were twofold. First, it was next to impossible to prevent individual petitioners seeking patronage from the young king, whose largess was well known. Second, the effective formulation of state foreign and justicial policy depended on active royal leadership and authority; in the absence of these two prerequisite, the effective management of the realm could only be achieved if the various factional groupings and vested interests reconciled their differences in a common approach. It was for these reasons, Watts suggests, that the council devised the 1437 declaration. “ [Since] the impetus for royal activity came from below…It was for the political community, if they could not bind the king, to define and govern the exercise of royal power.” [35]

 

The Suffolk years

The period between 1437 and 1450 saw the gradual but inexorable erosion of conciliar government and the establishment of an oligarchy based on the royal household and headed by William De La Pole earl (later duke) of Suffolk. As Steward of the King’s Household he had unrestricted access to the king and unrestrained influence over him.[36] As a result of this centralisation of government and the staff changes introduced by the council, state affairs were increasingly determined by only a small number of royal advisors, usually comprising Beaufort, Suffolk and their henchmen. Further administrative ordinances in 1444 aimed at streamlining administrative procedures and tightening the purse strings further reduced the number of royal advisors to, sometimes, not more than one or two. Finally, the deaths of Beaufort and Gloucester in 1447 consolidated Suffolk’s dominating position as the king’s chief advisor — sometimes his only advisor.[37]

 

Regardless of whether their motive was benign or malign, it is questionable whether the shift in power promoted by Suffolk’s and his affiliates was in the national interest. Even if the bulk of the English nobility acquiesced in the establishment of an oligarchy that pretended to be a monarchy, and even if the nature of the Henry’s incapacity was so desperate that ‘something had to be done’, Suffolk’s effort to prop up a non-functioning king by acting as his proxy was as reckless as it was treasonable.[38] It reduced the royal household to the status of a ‘faction’ and was the cause of such angst that it led eventually to civil war. If for whatever reason, the king lacked the will or reason to exercise his authority, then his royal estate was incomplete. In which case, the only proper course open to the lords was to resurrect the protectorship and the conciliar regime ratified by parliament in 1422.[39] Though this solution was not perfect, it had the dual benefits of legitimacy and utility. By thus broadening the government’s base and unblocking the king’s access to advice from the wider nobility there was a better prospect of consensual government during the king’s disability. Suffolk’s perseverance with the pretence that Henry was a functioning king damaged the Crown and fuelled public suspicions that he was acting in bad faith. Even professor Watts concedes that “Towards the end of the decade the court actually began to resemble the small body of household intimates and administrators depicted by its critics.”[40]

 

Of all the problems facing the English at this time, the most pressing were maintenance of the dual monarchy and Crown finances. These two problems were inextricably linked and could not be resolved separately. Moreover, an acceptable solution was more difficult to achieve owing to a conflict between the king’s peaceful ambition for his realms and the aspirations of his English subjects, for whom the conquest of France was a matter of national pride, prestige and power. Nevertheless, the key drivers that convinced Beaufort and the council (except Gloucester) of the need for peace were practical and not moral. The war was going badly for English arms. They were on the defensive everywhere. The conquest of the isle de France was no longer achievable or affordable. The burgeoning cost of defending the dual monarchy was pushing the Crown towards bankruptcy.

 

Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty began under Beaufort in 1437 and dragged on until 1444, when Suffolk agreed a temporary truce, which was only secured at the cost of two major English concessions. Henry was to marry a minor French princess, Margaret daughter of Renee of Anjou, Lorraine and Bar, and titular king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. From the English point of view, it was an inauspicious choice for their queen. Though Margaret was related to Charles VII, she was not an heiress and her family were not important in diplomatic terms. Besides, the attitude towards her in England was likely to be suspicious, it not downright hostile. The second — and secret — English concession was the surrender of Maine, which Suffolk is supposed to have promised to Charles verbally. Henry confirmed the promise secretly in writing in 1445, at the entreaty of his French wife. The English, when they finally heard of this concession were naturally suspicious that Margaret aided by Suffolk had put undue pressure on the king. The English army refused to cooperate and Maine was not actually ceded to the French until 1448.

 

There was a third problem, which though not quite as pressing as the other two was important and getting worse. There is evidence of clashes between local gentry and also between national magnates in the north, in the midlands, in south wales, in the west and in the Home Counties.[41] The use of private armies to resolve local grievances and disputes alienated lords and commoners alike. Their resentment was aggravated by the belief that the king’s ministers and servants condoned this anarchy. These problems were about to come to a head and would change the course of history.

 

Annus horribilis

The year I have called annus horribilis began on the 6 November 1449 with the hasty recall of Parliament. Such was the magnitude of the emergency at home and abroad that only nine weeks after the dissolution of parliament in July, another was summoned in September. The members of parliament who assembled at Westminster on the 6 November 1449 had the crisis in Normandy and misgovernment at home uppermost in their minds, and they were looking for the culprits.[42] As the king’s most influential counsellor, it was Suffolk who bore the brunt of their resentment. His fall from power was triggered by his attempt to block a complaint by Lord Cromwell against William Tailboys from going before the King’s Council.[43] The infuriated Cromwell drew the matter to the attention of the Commons who included it in a list of charges they were compiling against Suffolk. Meanwhile, during the parliamentary recess, English sailors murdered the much-hated Adam Moleyns bishop of Chichester. As he lay dying, Moleyns ‘confessed’ to Suffolk’s many misdeeds. Following this, Suffolk felt it necessary to make a statement answering Moleyns allegations and the many ‘…slanders and misconceptions running throughout the land’.

 

The Lords’ refusal to commit Suffolk for trial on the basis that there were no specific charges provided the Common with the opportunity to present a formal petition (indictment) containing eight specific articles (counts) of high treason against the duke. The most serious charge was that Suffolk conspired with Charles Valois to destroy Henry and put his own son, John De La Pole, on the English throne. The other charges amounted in general terms to examples of his treason by aiding and abetting the king’s enemies. However, after Suffolk was called to answer the charges, the king put the whole matter in abeyance. Whereupon, the Commons presented Henry with a second petition containing eighteen articles setting out the details of Suffolk’s corruption (including Cromwell’s complaint) and financial mismanagement. For which “…offences, misprisions, faithless acts and false deceits specified“ the Commons “accused and impeached” Suffolk.[44] Henry tried to delay the proceedings but was unable to stop Suffolk’s impeachment. In a desperate attempt to save his most important advisor from a traitor’s death, Henry exercised his prerogative to declare the first indictment for high treason ‘neither declared nor charged’. In other words, he was simply not prepared to accept it. On the second indictment of misprision, he exercised his prerogative for clemency by banishing Suffolk for five years. Nevertheless, Henry’s effort to save Suffolk was unavailing. On the 1 May 1450, somewhere in the English Channel off the Kent coast, Suffolk’s ship was intercepted by a small flotilla, which included the Nicholas of the Tower. The Captain and crew of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and ignoring his royal safe-conduct tried, convicted and executed him with a rusty sword. His headless body was dumped on the shore by Dover.[45]

 

Suffolk’s death did not alleviate England’s crisis in 1450 but it did pave the way for the Commons to petition Henry for a resumption of Crown lands alienated since the beginning of his reign, and the termination of all annuities, corrodes and pensions.[46] This Act would enable Henry to resume his economic and hereditary rights to all Crown properties, offices and custom taxes he gave as patronage. It was strongly resisted and there is no record in the Parliamentary Roll that Henry assented to it. However, without Suffolk to stiffen the king’s sinews it was passed into law; albeit, with 186 individual exceptions granted by Henry, which rendered it ineffective.[47] The Commons also made supplication to the king about purveyance abuses. They were concerned that money allocated for the defence of the realm was being used to pay the royal household’s subsistence expenses: this had to stop. It was the price Henry had to pay for the life of Suffolk and for obtaining a tax subsidy from the Commons.[48]

 

Charles VII invaded Normandy in 1449 and drove the English out. The English garrison were deficient in all the basic necessities of fifteenth century siege warfare except fighting spirit.[49] The professional French army was superior in numbers, leadership, tactics, arms, equipment and organisation. This situation is all the more discreditable since the English politicians were warned in good time by the English commander, Edmund Beaufort duke of Somerset, that the French were amassing a large army on the Normandy border and that the Duchy was defenceless without a large reinforcement of men and equipment. Measures were hastily put in hand to recruit and equip a force under the command of Sir Thomas Kyriell for service in France, but it was too little too late. On the 15 April 1450 the small English field army under Kyriell’s command was overwhelmed at Formigny near Bayeux; though outnumbered, they fought hard until virtually the last man.[50] The loss of Normandy was regarded as a national disgrace by most of the king’s subjects. There was also a general feeling that the heart of government was corrupt, and doubts that royal authority was being exercised properly.

 

Anybody looking for a connection between local and national politics need look no further than the rebellion that began in Kent in May 1450, and spread through the Home Counties and beyond during the summer. Jack Cade’s rebellion was short, sharp and brutal. Inevitably, the rebels were crushed and their leader killed. However, while it lasted, the rebellion shook the Lancastrian regime to its very core. The king fled from London, his household panicked and gave-up a few defenceless scapegoats to the rebels, and four hundred royal soldiers were defeated in the Kent Weald. Cade occupied London and in a series of quasi-judicial tribunals meted out rough justice to those whom he regarded as traitors. The rebellion was supported by a broad cross section of English society from powerful landowners to rural peasants. And they had put their grievances in writing. The ‘Complaints of the Poor Commons of Kent’ and “The Articles of a Captain of Kent’ are distinguished by their intelligent articulation of local and national grievances and for their proposals for reform. The rebels’ grievances are neatly summarised: “…the king had false counsel for his laws are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, himself so poor that he may not have [pay for] his meat or drink…[51] It is clear that the rebels did not blame the king for this misgovernment; they, blamed his advisors.

 

Although Cade’s rebellion did not produce instant results, it was the catalyst for Richard duke of York’s intervention in English politics as a champion for reform. York did not hold a formal constitutional position within England. He was not a member of the king’s inner circle, nor did he have a natural line of communication to the king. He was, however, the king’s heir presumptive and the senior royal duke, and as such, neither the king nor his inner circle of advisors could ignore York. He served as the King’s Lieutenant in Normandy (twice) and also in Ireland, where he proved himself to be a brave soldier and an excellent administrator: in fact, the quintessential ‘good lord’. His sudden return from Ireland (where he had been sent by the king for ten years in 1447) in September 1450 still troubles scholars: was it due to private grievance or public right? Interesting though that question is, it is irrelevant for my purpose. My point is simply that York’s intervention, for whatever reason, was bound to change the whole nature of English politics, which it did. His criticisms of the government were essentially the same as those of Cade’s rebels. He did not question the king’s competence and embellished his own comments with the suggestion that Henry was the innocent victim of evil councillors. It was a situation from which York — the king’s true and loyal subject — would recue him; thus, allowing him to rule properly as he always intended. It is difficult to regard this approach as anything other than a tactic intended to prevent the imputation of treason against York. It was also an approach guaranteed to antagonize the duke of Somerset who had succeeded Suffolk as Henry’s chief advisor.

 

The hostility between York and Somerset, which had been an undercurrent in English politics from the late 1440’s, became dominant in 1451. Their mutual dislike matured into personal and intense hatred that expressed itself through the medium of opposing Lancastrian and Yorkist factions. And there was worst to come: soon Gascony would be lost, leaving Calais as the last remnant of the first English overseas empire. At home the violent disturbances and aristocratic lawlessness continued, together with real or imagined conspiracies against the king. There was and is a suspicion that York was behind these plots, for which the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. However, it is unlikely that he condoned efforts by his supporters to remove the king. He wanted to rescue Henry from the clutches of his evil advisors, not replace him. The problem with York’s simplistic approach is that it ignored the much profounder question of the king’s fitness to rule, which nobody — least of all York — was prepared to consider at this stage. More worrying from York’s perspective was the fact that whilst his power and influence waned, Somerset’s waxed. By 1452, York was politically isolated. The bulk of the unaligned lords regarded him as an incorrigible troublemaker with no constitutional legitimacy to challenge the king’s choice of advisors. The pretence that Henry was a fit to rule England persisted until he was deposed in 1461.

 

The king was ill. We know nothing about the illness except that it caused mental collapse and it was kept secret until after the birth of his heir on the 18 October 1453. Just prior to the birth, a Great Council meeting was called, from which York was excluded. Nevertheless, in Somerset’s absence on business, a group of non-aligned lords sent for York. Their decision was made on the grounds of his legitimate right to be involved in the discussion about the governance of the realm. It was their hope was that the dukes of York and Somerset would be able to work together and with the Great Council in the public interest: some hope! The mental collapse of Henry and the appointment of York as Lord protector and Defender of the Realm marks the end of this narrative. It is doubtful whether Henry ever recovered from this collapse and nobody even pretends that he was an independent functioning monarch thereafter. After Somerset’s death at St Albans in 1455, Henry was helpless and in the grip of his wife. After York’s death at Wakefield in 1460, Henry was deposed.

 

‘Chide him for faults, and do it reverently’

Personally, I doubt the historical significance of the various interpretations of Henry’s reign. Whether he was a malicious interventionist (Wolffe), a well-meaning duffer (Griffiths) or an inert simpleton (Watts et al) matters not in reality, since the outcome was the same on each case. Henry was a bad king. In fact, it is hard to imagine a man less suited to rule the kingdoms he inherited by an accident of birth. He did not look or behave like a king. Plainly he was incompetent and often disinterested in the minutiae of government. He failed to exercise royal authority properly and lacked the force of personality to uphold the king’s justice in his English kingdom. His shortcomings created a vacuum at the heart of government, which some of his overly ambitious subjects were quick to occupy and keen to exploit to the detriment of the common interest. It is unsurprising therefore that by the middle decade of his reign many of Henry’s English subjects were offended by the losses in France, oppressed for the want of royal justice at home and impoverished by the burden of taxation. These things are all matters of historical record and a blot on his rule. Nonetheless, despite his faults, Henry’s critics tend to underestimate contemporary evidence of the almost insuperable problems he faced from the moment of his accession, which would have tested even his renowned father. For all his heroic stature, Henry V’s legacy to his baby son was not a happy one.

Any hope the English had of conquering Valois France went to the grave with Henry V in 1422. Any realistic hope they had of preserving Henry VI’s sovereignty over his French possessions disappeared with the death of John duke of Bedford in 1435 and the defection of Burgundy from their English alliance that same year. Militarily and diplomatically, the tide had turned irretrievably against the English while Henry VI was still a minor. Their tactics were outmoded, their army was outmatched and the cost of the war was becoming unsustainable: none of this was Henry’s fault. Nonetheless, the subsequent failure to negotiate a realistic and workable peace treaty with Charles VII did bear his hallmark. Henry’s negotiating position was unrealistic. He thought that Charles would stop fighting and allow him to retain sovereignty of his French inheritance: that was a Lancastrian ‘red line’. It was one thing for Henry to be ejected from his French inheritance by the fortunes of war but he could never concede that he was not the king of France by right. In reality, of course, Henry had no leverage over Charles who was winning the war anyway. Besides, he regarded it as a war of liberation and could not allow Henry to retain his possessions except as a vassal of the French king: that was the Valois ‘red line’.

 

The truce with Charles VII that was agreed in 1444 and then extended, was broken by the Duke of Somerset, who enraged the Duke of Brittany by attacking his territory. It is unclear whether Somerset was ‘encouraged’ by the king to do that, but it seems likely. Even if Henry was dealt a bad hand, he played it badly. His pacifist nature was unsuited to the task of defending his French realm in the face of a warlike and implacable foe, and his lack of judgement showed in the promotion of commanders whose only qualification for the task was that they were his favourites. Henry was also hampered by a lack of money to pay for the war and the normal expenses of government.

 

The Crown’s financial difficulties began soon after the battle of Agincourt. The lay and clerical subsidies granted by parliament for 1415-1416 raised £216,868. However, the overall costs of maintaining Harfleur, negotiating with the Duke of Burgundy, the naval expedition of 1416 and fitting out a flotilla for service in 1417 came to £256,885. The deficit of £40,017 was made-up from loans at commercial rates and the ransom payments of French prisoners. These figures do not include expenses incurred during the Agincourt campaign, but not yet met.[52] By the end of Henry V’s reign, the English exchequer had a deficit of £30,000 and outstanding debts of £25,000 due mainly to war costs.

 

It was Henry V’s policy after 1418 to transfer the burden of the war to Normandy. The Duchy was supposed to pay for itself and also contribute money to the general war effort. However, the first complete financial accounts for the Norman Estates shows that all but 5,000 livre (li)[53] of Norman revenue was spent on the administration and defence of the Duchy; nor did finances improve over time. In fact, they deteriorated even further during Henry VI’s minority. In 1423, for example, the accounts show that of the 90,000(li) granted to Bedford by the Norman Estates, only 29,000(li) was available for defence. Between 1419 and 1435, the Norman estates met twenty four times and made impositions totalling 3,150,000(li). Even so, this revenue fell short of costs. The idea that Normandy could be self-funding was illusory; their treasury could only just about cover its own administrative costs if they did not also have to pay for military operations. Moreover, these financial demands alienated the Normans against their English overlords and demonstrated that without an English subsidy the Duchy was, more or less, defenceless.[54]

 

Whilst there is no doubt that Henry VI’s foolish generosity did not improve Crown finances, there is convincing evidence that even had he been judicious and thrifty with the grant of patronage, his means were barely sufficient for his needs. The inherited costs of defending his French inheritance, the expansion of the royal household, the costs of his marriage and the Queens household expenses were more than the Crown could bear without tax subsidies from parliament and the convocation. Significantly, during Henry’s minority neither parliament not the convocation gave generous subsidies; furthermore, the revenue raised was unpredictable. Exemptions given to poor towns and villages reduced the amount raised, as did fraud and administrative incompetence. The alternative of individual taxation was so unpopular that it was only imposed twice (1428 and 1436). Even then, the revenue raised was erratic due to resistance, fraud and administrative incompetence. It seems that the Crown was expected to manage cash flow and income by borrowing, using the Crown Jewels as security.[55]

 

So appalled was Ralph Lord Cromwell by the state of public finances in 1433 that he presented to parliament a highly detailed and precise analysis delineating to the last farthing the Crown’s insolvency. Having just succeeded Lord Hungerford as Treasurer, Cromwell was keen to highlight the problems he had inherited and to impose some fiscal discipline on the government by, for instance, vetting all requests for expenditure and patronage. The demands placed on the royal purse during the king’s minority were many: the royal household, the Queen’s household, Calais, France, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine, Fronsac, grants of Henry V’s will, and prisoner expenses etc. In summary, ordinary expenditure exceeded income by £47,887. 7s. 4d farthing, to which must be added provision for the repayment of debts totalling £164,814. 11s.1d halfpenny.[56] To control debt, Parliament set an arbitrary annual limit on Crown borrowing, which could now be secured against tax revenue. These measures under Cromwell’s capable stewardship delayed the inevitable but could not prevent it. By 1449, Cromwell had moved on from the Treasury and the Lancastrian regime was bankrupt. When Parliament met again later that year, the main thrust of the Commons’ criticisms was the belief that corruption and fraud were partly responsible for the crown’s bankruptcy. Their priority now was to put Henry’s finances on a sustainable basis.[57]

 

The aristocratic violence and lawlessness, and the corruption in high places that so oppressed Henry VI’s subjects were not unique to his reign. In fact, the preservation of law and order was a recurrent problem for most, if not all, medieval English monarchs. Late medieval England had an unenviable reputation among the rest of Christendom for lawlessness. While studying the legal records for 1348, the historian L O Pike was so shocked by what he found that he described that part of Edward III’s reign as a period of widespread depravity. E G Kimball, studying the Shropshire Peace Rolls for 1400-1414 concluded that ‘serious crime was not being punished in Shropshire or for that matter anywhere in England’. There are many scholarly studies and records of late medieval crime, none of which has identified even a few consecutive years of effective law enforcement between 1290 and 1485.[58] Neither is this simply a question of policing, since such lawlessness touched on the general lack of public confidence in the integrity of royal justice and the corrupt exercise of power that pre-dated Henry VI’s reign.[59]

 

The reasons for such pervasive criminality are many and complex, and are such that I cannot hope to address them all in this essay. However, there is a combination of circumstances that are part systemic and part behavioural, which I should explore in the context of Henry VI’s reign. The failure of successive medieval kings to outlaw ‘livery and maintenance’, coupled with the collapse of royal justice encouraged the lords and gentry to take grievances into their own hands.[60] The result during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the creation of ‘over mighty subjects’ with their affinities, which very often included organised criminal gangs of violent men with a penchant for feuding and ignoring the law of property.[61] This undesirable situation was further aggravated by the king’s reliance on local magnates and gentry to administer, dispense and enforce the king’s justice. Chief among these royal officials were the permanent county Sheriff’s who were each had judicial and administrative responsibilities for overseeing and dispensing justice in their county. They presided in the Shire Courts and also framed and selected indictments for hearing in the king’s courts. Moreover they were also responsible for selecting and empaneling jurors to sit on Grand Juries and Trial Juries in the various courts within their bailiwick. Unfortunately, owing to the system of livery and maintenance, Sheriffs were themselves more often than not in the service of a lord and, therefore, were hardly likely to be impartial judges or administrators in any cases involving their lord or members of his family and affinity.[62]

 

Aristocratic lawlessness was a problem, even for strong monarchs such as Edward I and Edward III. A parliamentary petition of 1331 complained that gangs of men were “kidnapping for ransom and killing the king’s lieges, churchmen and royal judges…” [63] Edward tackled the problem with his customary vigour, which, nevertheless brought only temporary success. By 1443 even Edward had to admit that the law of the land was not well kept; it was a problem that only got worse during the king’s absence at the wars. Although Henry VI inherited a situation that was not of his own making, it is hard to refute professor Bellamy’s assertion that the criminality was worse in the fifteenth century than it had been during the fourteenth. Crime had not actually increased but it was more pernicious during Henry’s reign. I don’t think anybody can seriously dispute that this was due primarily to Henry’s lack of kingly qualities as previously discussed

 

My final point is about Henry’s mental health during his adult years prior to 1453, when we know he had some form of mental breakdown, which lasted until 1455 at least. The precise nature of his mental collapse cannot now be known. There is no evidence that Henry suffered mental ill-health prior to 1453, but the inference that he had inherited his grandfather’s (Charles VI) ‘melancholia’ is almost irresistible. It would explain his detachment from temporal affairs and the comments about him made by some of his subjects. It is not impossible, therefore, that he suffered from a mental illness: I put it no higher[64].

[1] John Harvey – The Plantagenets (T Batsford Ltd 1948): I have quoted from the 1967 Fontana edition (p.169)

[2] M R James [Ed] – Henry the Sixth: a reprint of John Blacman’s memoirs (Cambridge 1919): Blacman was a precentor at Eton College (1445-52) and subsequently of King’s Hall Cambridge. There is no evidence that he is the unnamed author who writes in the first person, since his name does not appear in the list of Henry’s chaplains or clerks. It is possible that the tract was simply found among his papers after death.

[3] Sir Henry Ellis [Ed] – Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (Camden Soc 1844) pp. 70-71

[4] Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition)

[5] Wolffe; pp.12-18 and passim

[6] RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) pp.253-254

[7] Griffiths pp.231

[8] John Watts – Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge 1999)

[9] Griffiths p.2 note 5: Griffiths cites JS Davies [Ed] – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden Soc 1856) p.79

[10] Wolffe pp. xxiv-xxv; introduction by John Watts

[11] Watts chs.5-7; Christine Carpenter – The Wars of the Roses: politics and constitution in England 1437-1509 (Cambridge 1997) passim; Christine Carpenter – Locality and Polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society 1401-1499 (Cambridge 2009; AJ Pollard – North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses: lay society war and politics (Oxford 1990); Helen Castor- The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: public authority and private power (Oxford 2000).

[12] JR Lander – Government and Community 1450-1509 (Edward Arnold 1980) p.3

[13] Lander pp. 33-34; Lander is here quoting the words of Robert Stillington in 1468, when he was Lord Chancellor to Edward IV.

[14] Carpenter (WOTR) p.90

[15] Chris Givern-Wilson [General Ed] The Parliamentary Rolls Of Medieval England (Boydell 2005), Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) PROME ibid; SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp. 35-37; by the fifteenth century the courts had declared that the royal prerogative ‘ must be intact in the king’s person alone’ (p.35, citing VYB. SEIV, Micho.fo 118-23 [App No 48]).

[16] PROME Vol 10 p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong – ‘The Last Will and Codicils of Henry V, (EHR, 96 [1981] 99) et al.

[17] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24; ‘it was not the English custom’, they said

[18] PROME Vol 10, pp. 347-348, items 24-27

[19] PROME ibid; Chrimes p.37

[20] JF Baldwin – The King’s Council in England during the Middle Ages (Oxford 1913) p.169; Henry VI’s first minority council comprised a representative body of twenty-one men, all of whom had served as councillors to his late father. The original list is as follows: the duke of Bedford (protector), the duke of Gloucester (protector in Bedford’s absence), the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Durham (Chancellor), William Kinewelmersh (Treasurer), John Stafford (Keeper of the Privy Seal), the bishops of London, Winchester, Norwich and Worcester, the duke of Exeter, the earls of March, Warwick, Northumberland, Westmorland and the Earl Marshall, Lord Fitzhugh (Chamberlain), Ralph Cromwell, Walter Hungerford, John Tiptoft and Walter Beauchamp, knights. In the absence of any specific instructions from parliament, the council defined its own terms of reference, which were intended to safeguard their superiority under the king by nullifying the autocratic ambitions of Bedford and Gloucester (p.172).

[21] Wolffe pp.87-88; Griffiths pp. 275-278 and Watts pp.127-131: Henry’s first recorded grant of patronage was to his uncle Cardinal Beaufort at Canterbury in July 1436. The king was in Kent to witness the embarkation of English reinforcements for the Calais garrison.

[22] Wolffe p.188: see also Watts p.130, Griffiths p.275 and Baldwin p.184. Baldwin notes: “already in1435-36 the king’s personal intervention in the matter of favours may be observed, as in his own boyish hand the royal signature appears upon various bills ‘R.H. nous avons graunte’.”

[23] Wolffe p.90: in the autumn of 1437, the council was divided on whether the king should pay Orleans’ expenses for his peace mission to France. They were worried that it might be construed as a concession and encourage Charles Valois to make further demands. The matter was put to Henry for a decision. He decided to pay the duke’s expenses from taxation.

[24] Baldwin; ibid

[25] Henry III was eighteen when he assumed his personal rule. Edward III was twenty before he shook off Mortimer’s yoke. The more problematic Richard was twenty-two before he ended his minority.

[26] Baldwin; ibid: the eighteen councillors were as follows: the duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Lincoln and St David’s, the earls of Huntingdon, Stafford, Salisbury, Northumberland, Suffolk and Devon, Lord Hungerford, Lord Tiptoft, the bishop of Bath (Chancellor), Lord Cromwell (Treasurer), William Lindwood (Keeper of the Privy Seal), William Phillip (Chamberlain), John Stourton (knight of the household) and Robert Rolleston (Keeper of the Wardrobe)

[27] PROME Vol 8 pp.321, 323 and 337-67: contains a useful analysis and details of the 1406 ordinances. They appear to have little relevance to the circumstances of 1437, since in 1406 a concerned parliament was seeking to restrain the king’s autocratic tendencies by increasing the council’s powers: arguably, that was not the case in 1437.

[28] Griffiths p.276

[29] Griffiths pp.274-278: see also Wolffe pp.87-92

[30] Griffiths p.277

[31] Wolffe p.92

[32] Watts chps. 4-7; see also Carpenter chps.1- 5, passim, which makes many of the same points

[33] Watts p.30, notes 27-30

[34] Watts p.132: this is a reference to Suffolk’s successful attempt to secure his personal hegemony of the council and of the royal household.

[35] Watts p.133

[36] Baldwin pp.190-191″ Suffolk did not frequently show himself in council but with excessive disregard of his enemies carried his policy with the king independently of colleagues.

[37] Griffiths pp. 284-286; Baldwin ibid; the Council Ordinances of 1444 were only intended to improve the government’s administrative efficiency. However, Henry’s more unscrupulous officials used the ordinances to consolidate the move of government from the council to the household.

[38] Watts chps 5 & 6, pp.181-254; contains detailed and complex arguments in defence of Suffolk’s actions. Put briefly, Watts’ argues that Suffolk’s service to the king forced him to exercise royal authority because the king was incapable of doing so. The real problem he suggests was not venal counselors but a useless king. Such a narrative suggests that England was governed by a group of aristocrats who abandoned the rule of law in favour of the edict ‘might is right’. The image of these royal officials and court favourites disposing of power, wealth and privilege among themselves in order to maintain a privileged status quo and regardless of the rights of others, whether noble or commoners is unedifying to say the least. It brought royal justice into disrepute and was the cause of the social unrest that erupted with catastrophic consequences in the summer of 1450. Watts’ detailed analysis of the working of government and interesting tables and statistics on attendances are meant to support his contention that between 1435 and 1445 Suffolk was acting with the tacit consent of almost all of the English nobility. That may be so, but it doesn’t make Suffolk’s ‘rule’ legitimate nor does it explain why Watts seems to think that such criminal behaviour was in the national interest. By ‘the later 1440’s, even Watt’s acknowledges the lords’ support for Suffolk’s policy was falling away and in any event was ‘insufficiently visible to the rest of political society’.

[39] That is exactly what happened in the 1454 and 1455 when Henry’s metal health collapsed. One wonders whether Henry was of sound mind earlier than this. Did he inherit his maternal grandfather’s ‘melancholia’?

[40] Watts P.240

[41] Griffiths Chapter 20, p.562-609, contains a detailed analysis of the lawlessness and aristocratic violence during Henry’s reign; see also Wolffe pp.106-125; IMW Harvey – Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford 1991) Chp.2; and RL Storey – The end of the House of Lancaster (Sutton 1999 2nd Edition) passim for further extensive details of lawlessness

[42] PROME Vol 12, PP 72,73 & 159

[43] Roger Virgoe – William Tailboys and Lord Cromwell: crime and punishment in Lancastrian England (Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library 55, 1972-71973) pp. 459-482; the first charges brought against Suffolk were that he plotted with William Tailboys to murder Lord Cromwell on the 28 November 1449 at Westminster. Even though the incident might have been exaggerated, the fact that this offence was included in Parliament’s second petition for Suffolk’s impeachment is an indication of its seriousness.

[44] PROME Vol 12, pp. 75,76, 93-105 & 154-156 appendix1, article1; this is easily the most comprehensive account of Suffolk’s impeachment with the detailed petitions and and proof, and Suffolk’s own response. See also EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987) pp. 492-495 for an excellent summary of these events.

[45] James Gairdner (ed) – The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Cambridge Library edition 2010) six volumes, Vol 2 pp.146-147. This letter from William Lomer to John Paston is dated the 5 May; it contains a vivid and detailed account of Suffolk’s death at the hands of the hands of the Captain and crew of HMS Nicholas at Tower. This being a royal ship, it is inconceivable that they acted independently. It is impossible for obvious reasons that they either the king or the queen were behind this murder. However, the Duke of York is a suspect; though there is no evidence.

[46] PROME ibid

[47] PROME ibid; Wolffe p.230; Harvey p.189.

[48] PROME p.78

[49] Alfred H Burne – The Agincourt War (Greenhill Books 1991 edition) chp18 pp. 306-330: contains a useful summary of this campaign with a common sense assessment of numbers and tactics etc. Colonel Burne would, he wrote, gladly have passed over the loss of Normandy in silence since it was such a discreditable period in English history, for which he blamed Suffolk whom he described as ‘shuffling’, even ‘shifty’.

[50] Burne pp. 318-322

[51] Harvey ibid

[52] Jacob pp.202-220, & 255; Jacob provides a useful analysis, with tables, of the monetary grants made to Henry V from 1415 until the end of his reign. This information is extrapolated from the English and Norman exchequer records of the time and includes the detailed costs of in defending and administering Normandy.

[53] Livre: ‘old French currency equivalent to a pound of silver.’ (SOED)

[54] Jacob ibid

[55] Griffiths pp. 376-394 contains a detailed analysis of the crown’s financial problems and the measures taken to overcome them. Griffiths also provides useful tables of taxation trends and prominent Crown creditors.

[56] PROME Vol 11 pp.69, 70 and 102-113; Cromwell’s lengthy schedule is in the form of a petition to the king, which provides a fascinating and detailed description of the Crown’s estate and sources of income in 1433, together with its expenditure and indebtedness. See also Griffiths pp.107-122 for a instructive discussion of these financial problems and some very useful tables of taxation, loans etc. during the minority. It is clear from the evidence and Griffiths’ analysis that parliament underestimated the cost of the war and overestimated the ability of the French territories to pay for it. One consequence of borrowing was that any imbalance between unpaid debts and taxation would inevitably lead to bankruptcy. Significantly, in 1433 the Crown’s indebtedness was two-and-a-half times greater than its annual revenues.

[57] PROME Vol 12, p.77

[58] John Bellamy – Crime and Public Order in England in the Late Middle Ages (Routledge 1973) pp.4-6 citing LO Pike – A History of Crime in England (London 1873-73) i p.297; EG Kimball – The Shropshire Peace Rolls 1400-1414 (Shrewsbury 1959) p.45; RH Hilton – A Medieval Society (London 1966) p.258, who from an analysis of the Assize Rolls for the reign of Edward I formed the opinion that the sanctions of common law were ineffective in curbing violence and corruption; GO Sayles (Ed) – Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench, Edward II (Selden Society,74 1955) p.iii. See also PROME 1275-1504 all volumes, which contain hundreds of petitions attesting to the lawlessness and corruption of the Middle Ages. Finally, there is also a mass of unpublished material in the National Archives as described in Bellamy’s bibliography (pp. 205-206). “Every verdict seems unfavourable” (Bellamy p.4).

[59] Bellamy passim

[60] Livery and maintenance was the practice whereby individual lords recruited large numbers of retainers who were personally loyal to them and wore their livery. These men were expected to respond to calls for military and other services in return for their lord’s protection (‘maintain their part’) in litigation and/or any other disputes they were involved in, and their preferment on matters of patronage Prime examples of these over-mighty subjects during Henry VI’s reign were the dukes of York and Somerset, and the earls of Suffolk and Warwick. Livery and maintenance continued to plague the monarchy until Henry VII outlawed it.

[61] Bellamy pp.1-36 and 69-88

[62] A Harding – The Law Courts of Medieval England (Geo Allen and Unwin 1973) pp.51-53; see also Bellamy passim; from the twelfth century, civil and criminal cases in the country were dealt with under the general eyre. This was an itinerant system of justice introduced by Henry II, whereby professional judges and legal administrator’s from the curia regis (the King’s Court) accompanied the king during his progress around the kingdom and paid prolonged visits to individual counties. Their jurisdiction was wide-ranging and superior to that of the Hundred and Shire courts. The king’s judges were entitled to hear all pleas presented to them and not just those from a special group. Furthermore, their hearings were very thorough by medieval standards. More particularly, these judges were authorised to investigate any and all excesses, misdeeds, taking of bribes and other dishonest practices of sheriff’s and bailiffs, and to review the work of previous eyres. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the demands placed on the general eyre were too great for the limited number of professional judges available and the system fell into abeyance during the thirteenth century. It was a pity as the misconduct of the sheriffs’ was no longer monitored and corrected.

[63] Bellamy p.6; PROME Vol 4, pp. 164 and 166

[64] Wolffe pp.152-153; Griffiths pp. 715-718; Watts pp.301-325 passim and Storey p136 note 13

Ten medieval scandals….!


Pope Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, exhumed and put on trial.
 

“….What are the scandals that made headlines in the Middle Ages? Kings and Popes would be involved in some of the craziest stories of sex and corruption that would make today’s news seem quite tame. From a cross-dressing prostitute to the trial of a dead Pope, here are ten almost-unbelievable medieval scandals….”

Well, you’ll find these “gems” at this site I imagine they’re all true, although some of them beggar belief. Especially the rather gruesome episode illustrated above.

THE PALACE OF COLLYWESTON–NEW EXCAVATIONS

Collyweston is a small village in Northamptonshire, approximately three miles from the town of Stamford. It was not always so unassuming, however. In the 15th century there was a large fortified manor house that dominated Collyweston, of which today no trace remains above ground. The manor, sometimes known as ‘The Palace’ was first purchased by Ralph, Lord Cromwell, who fought with Henry V in France and later became a Yorkist supporter (he was probably at the first Battle of St Alban’s); his will was proved at Collyweston  after his death at South Wingfield, Derbyshire in 1456.

Later, in 1486, the property went to the Crown and was given to Margaret Beaufort for life. She enlarged it further and added to the park and gardens. It was leased off later on, and dismantling of the house began in the 1630’s. She also added to the church in the late 15th century, and ‘My Lady’s Chapel’ might have been named after her. There are also a pair of ‘mutilated beast gargoyles’ from Lady Margaret’s time–I dare say they are NOT meant to be her and Henry, unlike the pair of heads on the church in Langport.

New excavations hope to find the ground plan of the house, and the area it covered is  apparently so large it stretches into the back gardens of various properties throughout the village.

 

COLLYWESTON EXCAVATIONS

Below: Collyweston Church. The Palace gardens were just behind it.

colly

Britain’s Most Historic Towns (2)

This excellent Channel Four programme, presented by Professor Alice Roberts, with Dr. Ben Robinson in the helicopter, has returned for a new series. The early venues were Dover (World War Two, visiting the underground base, concentrating on the retreat from Dunkirk and subsequent Channel defence, meeting some survivors, wearing ATS uniform and riding in a tank), her home city Bristol (Georgian, with slavery, gin, chocolate and great architecture featured) and Cardiff (where coal and the Marquess of Bute brought much prosperity in the Edwardian era, before it could supplant Machyllenth as Wales’ capital).

The series then moved on to Oxford to illustrate the Civil War sieges, where Alice Roberts’ Worsleyesque love of dressing up saw her in New Model Army uniform, playing real tennis and viewing Charles I’s ersatz capital. Episode five illustrated Plantagenet Canterbury, featuring St. Augustine, Becket, Chaucer, the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. We were also shown a copy of the Magna Carta. The last show was about Stewart Stirling, where she visited the Castle and walls, brewed beer, played with a replica antique football and visited a well, illustrating how individual Stewart monarchs were vulnerable, even to internal opposition, but the line was secure.

It is so good to clear this matter up

Here is a piece about a pearl and diamond pendant, formerly owned by Marie Antoinette and was sold recently in Geneva.
Anyone who heard BBC news coverage during the week of this event may well have learned two things:
1) “She ordered it before she was executed.”
Really? How do you order a pendant posthumously and where do you put it without a head?
2) “She was the last Queen of France.” – except for two others, including her own daughter (technically). There were also three Empresses up to 1870.

Why I dislike John of Gaunt….

Wycliffe on Trial, by Ford Madox Brown

As Ricardians, we know very well now, history can be twisted to suit. The matter of those strawberries and what happened next, for instance. I mean, the different versions are legion, even to the point of whether or not Thomas, Lord Stanley was ever present at all, let alone injured in a scrap and obliged to hide under a table. So delightful and worthy an image.

Anyway, while researching an earlier event (1377) I have come upon another did-he?/didn’t-he? scenario, this time involving the Duke of Lancaster/King of Castile, John of Gaunt. He from whom the Beauforts, the House of Lancaster and the Tudors are descended. I have never been very fond of him, not even after reading Anya Seton’s Katherine.

To me, at this 1377 point in history, he was a scheming heap of double standards, arrogance, blatant dishonesty and unworthiness. (Don’t hold back viscountessw, tell it how it is!) He was bungling, a lousy military commander, and quite determined to prevent the bloodline of the sole female offspring of his older brother, Lionel, from getting anywhere near the throne. Oh, no, dear John of Gaunt wasn’t having any of that! A right to the throne through a woman? Heaven forfend. Besides, Johnny-boy wanted the throne for himself and his own descendants, even though he was lower in the pecking order than Lionel had been. What a hypocrite! He himself was claiming the throne of Castile through his second wife! And he was even Duke of Lancaster in right of his first wife. Yet, suddenly, the throne of England had to be different. No female intrusions, pul-eeze!

Edward III was no better, because he claimed the throne of France through his mother, but he developed a very convenient memory when he was persuaded by Gaunt to sign an entail that excluded women from the succession. Mind you, I do wonder if Edward would have signed any such thing if he had not been put under extreme pressure by Gaunt. Edward was elderly at the time, perhaps in his dotage, and very, very tired. He was a mere shadow of the great king he had once been, and still bereft from the loss of his beloved queen, Philippa of Hainault. He was now becoming doddery, and was reliant for comfort on his disliked mistress, Alice Perrers, whom it suited Gaunt to support because she gave him more access to his father. Some might say Edward III was a sitting duck when it came to Gaunt’s overweening ambition.

Edward III, tomb effigy

In early 1377, Gaunt was strongly suspected of wanting the throne for himself, and old rumours were resurrected (presumably by his supporters) that called into question the legitimacy of Joan of Kent’s marriage to the Black Prince. And therefore also questioning the legitimacy of her son by the prince, the future Richard II. The Black Prince was not known by that name then, of course, he was Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (or, as I’ve recently seen him identified, the Prince of England). Joan had a chequered history, it’s true, but she was lawfully married to the Black Prince.

Joan of Kent and her son, Richard II
Tomb of the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral

 

Well, the Pope said Joan was the Black Prince’s wife, so she had to be, right? I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of her story, just that legally, at this point in time, she was the wife/widow of the Black Prince, and her little son by him, Prince Richard, was trueborn. Anyway, two-faced Gaunt was prepared to secretly sponsor attacks her reputation one day…and the next rush off to seek her protection when a mob was (justifiably) out for his blood. If I’d been her, I’d have thrown him to the wolves!

I believe it was with all pips squeaking that Gaunt swore to protect his nephew, the boy who would become Richard II. Protect the child? Hmm. Back in those days the lives of youngsters were notoriously delicate and at risk, and I do not doubt that Gaunt’s fingers were crossed behind his back as he made his vow. With Richard out of the way, or childless—although waiting for such to prove the case was an unknown risk, and could mean a long period of impatient thumb-twiddling and foot-shuffling for Gaunt and his family—and Lionel’s Mortimer descendants forbidden the crown, there would be no argument when a Lancastrian backside was plonked upon the throne. Which, of course, happened in due course when Gaunt’s eldest son stole Richard II’s crown and probably murdered him.

Old St Paul’s Cathedral

Where is all this invective leading? Well, simply to a scene at St Paul’s, at the trial of Gaunt’s friend and protégé. Wycliffe/Wyclif (and other spellings) who was believed by many to be a heretic. Or verging on it. There was a confrontation between Gaunt and the man who had hauled Wycliffe before a Church trial, William Courtenay, Bishop of London, who was also a son of the Earl of Devon.

John of Gaunt and the Bishop of London arguing at St Paul’s.

The Church had been provoked by some of Gaunt’s activities, and did not like the rumours, so another rumour (or an old one resurrected) began to circulate, that Gaunt was a changeling. It was claimed that his mother, Philippa of Hainault, had confessed as much to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, telling him to only let the truth be known if it seemed Gaunt was about to become King of England. Gaunt, needless to say, was livid, and deprived Wykeham of all manner of things. Mind you, in Gaunt’s place, I’d have been livid, too, but handsome is as handsome does, and (to use the language of the school playground) he started it! Courtenay and the bishops were intent upon getting at Gaunt through Wycliffe—punishing the duke himself being out of the question.

Wycliffe was escorted to the trial by Gaunt and the Earl Marshal, Henry Percy, who was a man capable of putting force before common sense. He angered the onlookers outside St Paul’s by clearing the way through them with much more strength than necessary. The trial opened with Courtenay telling Wycliffe to stand throughout the proceedings, and Gaunt declaring Wycliffe should be allowed to sit. Gaunt and Courtenay couldn’t bear the sight of each other, and the disagreement got out of hand. When Gaunt was heard to mutter something about dragging the bishop out by his hair, there was uproar that would to lead to the riots from which Gaunt had the brass neck to expect Joan of Kent to save him.

The above is the gist of the ‘facts’ as I have always understood them, but now, in a book entitled Lady of the Sun (a biography of Alice Perrers, by F George Kay) I find a much more colourful account of the flashpoint in St Paul’s:-

“…Gaunt lost his temper, knocked off the Bishop of London’s cap and started to drag him out of the way by his hair…”

Um, that’s slightly different from a mere heated exchange of words and a sotto voce threat. So, which is the right version? Something muttered? Or a violent laying-on of ducal hands?

F George Kay goes on to say that:-

“…The onlookers surged to the rescue of the Bishop. Gaunt and Percy [Earl Marshal and Gaunt’s sidekick, whose heavy-handedness had started the proceedings on the wrong foot] fled for their lives…and went by boat to Kennington. [Where Joan of Kent was residing with the little prince.]…)

Even with the missing words, this account implies that Gaunt and Percy fled from the scene of the trial, across the Thames and into Joan’s protection in one fell swoop. They knew she was popular with the people, and respected. The presence of the little prince was an added plus. One fell swoop? Not quite true. After the scene involving the Bishop of London’s hair, Gaunt and Percy went on their way in their own time, taking Wycliffe with them. The onlookers in the streets were shocked and angered by the quarrel, but were not, as yet, a rampaging mob.

It was the next day that things escalated and the rioting began, when London was informed that Percy had high-handedly imprisoned a man at the Marshalsea prison in Southwark for (apparently) no good reason. This imprisonment was the touch-paper.

When the mob went into action, Gaunt and Percy were sitting down to dine at the inn of a friend, a rich merchant named Sir John d’Ypres.

Small medieval dinner

The hors d’oevres had just been served (neat touch in the account of the eternally spiteful Walsingham) when a frightened messenger arrived to tell them the Marshalsea had been attacked and prisoners (or the prisoner) freed, Next, Percy’s house in Aldersgate had been ransacked as the mob looked for him (presumably with some dire punishment in mind). From Percy’s abode, the dissatisfied, frustrated, even angrier mob marched upon Gaunt’s fortress-like palace, the Savoy, broke in, and began another ransacking. Had either Gaunt or Percy been found, would they have been killed there and then? I don’t know, but it seems likely. What a difference to English history Gaunt’s early demise would have made!

Marshalsea Prison, Southwark, newly built in 1373
The house of Henry Percy, Earl Marshal, was somewhere near here.
The Savoy, Gaunt’s palace on the Thames

Anyway, on learning the awful news, Gaunt and Percy took to their highborn heels, bolted from d’Ypres’ house for the Thames, and then took a boat across the river to Kennington to throw themselves on her mercy. Joan was clearly nobler than them, because she took them in and defended them! Eventually—and no doubt very smugly—it was William Courtenay, Bishop of London, who calmed the mob and dispersed them. And he still had his hair!

Kennington Palace, but later than 14th century

So, here is another famous occasion for which the accounts are mixed. Maybe February 1377 isn’t of as much interest to Ricardians as anything that went on between 1483 and 1485, but I find it fascinating that such different slants can be extracted from brief accounts. Historians then adopt their preferred version, and claim it as the truth.

Oh, and F George Kay doesn’t say Gaunt allowed the rumours about Joan’s marriage to be spread, he says that Gaunt stood up in Parliament and suggested the succession should be discussed! Parliament was shocked. What was there to discuss? Until then they’d all been satisfied that the succession would go to Prince Richard. Gaunt was clearly reminding them all about the doubts concerning the Black Prince’s marriage. Did Gaunt really make such a suggestion? Would he do it? Would he stand there and publicly dig up doubts and questions about the marriage of the heir to the throne, and the legitimacy of the next king? He was already very unpopular, and widely suspected of having designs on the throne. Well, I am perhaps not the best person to ask. I’m not exactly unbiased! But then, nor was Gaunt. And Parliament’s response was to invite the prince to come before them, so they could acknowledge him and see that all his father’s estates, etc. were bestowed upon him forthwith. This was, perhaps, not what Gaunt had planned. Certainly it was a very public a rejection of any designs and ambitions he nurtured for himself.

It will by now be very clear that I have no time for John of Gaunt. Maybe he became a steadying influence in later years, but at the time of which I now write, he was a dangerously ambitious, scheming magnate who was prepared to do whatever it took to get his own way. He didn’t give a fig who he hurt, or about family loyalty—except when it suited, and especially when it came to sucking up to and manipulating his elderly, worn-out father, Edward III. He ‘persuaded’ Edward to disinherit his son Lionel of Clarence’s daughter, and her son (Roger Mortimer, the future Earl of March) from the succession, in order to insert himself in the nicely cleared slot. And he wasn’t above permitting his supporters to spread whispers about the Black Prince’s marriage and the legitimacy of the future Richard II.

If you wonder what did happen with the succession, read Appendix Two of Ian Mortimer’s The Fears of Henry IV, which explores and explains it all in great detail. Throughout Richard’s reign, Gaunt endeavoured to persuade him to name Gaunt’s son, Henry, as heir presumptive. Richard resisted, and seemed to regard the Earl of March’s son as heir. Richard made an entail of his own, superseding that of his grandfather, Edward III. In the end, of course, the entails were useless, because Gaunt’s son and heir usurped the crown and did away with Richard. Job done. Except that Gaunt never knew how successful his line finally became, because he died before Richard, and thus before Henry’s Lancastrian backside graced the throne.

I don’t just dislike Gaunt, I loathe him! His machinations were the root cause of the bloody Wars of the Roses. But I know that he has many supporters, and they will not agree with anything I’ve said. They will probably regard me as being guilty of the very things I’ve commented on: fake news and twisted facts!

Talbot Country

There is a pub in Bridgnorth, near where I live. Well, let’s be honest, there’s about a hundred. If you have ever been to Bridgnorth, aside from the Severn Valley Railway, the funicular railway from Low Town to High Town and the remains of the slighted castle, which lean at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa, the sheer number of pubs will strike you. The one I was referring to is The Bell and Talbot on Salop Street in High Town. The hanging sign shows a dog lying beneath a bell while the one on the wall looks a bit more like a coat of arms, with two hounds rearing up either side of a bell.

bell-talbot-bridgnorth-600x409

The Bell and Talbot, Bridgnorth

The symbol of the Talbot Hound is easy to miss but is significant in Shropshire. Talbot dogs were small white hunting hounds, extinct now, but understood to be an ancestor of the beagle and the bloodhound. The origin of the breed, its emergence in England and the reason for the name are all lost in the mists of time, but they have an enduring connection to the most prominent Shropshire family of the last five centuries.

Henry VI is believed to have referred to John Talbot in 1449 as ‘Talbott, oure good dogge’: I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t appreciate such a label! Did the name of the hound emerge from this quip? Or was it a reference to the already-established Talbot breed, coincidentally sharing a name with Henry’s premier general in France? John Talbot became Earl of Shrewsbury and his family inextricably linked with the title and surrounding county for generations. The 1445 Shrewsbury Book, commissioned by Talbot, has an image of the earl presenting his book to Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s queen, with a little white Talbot hound standing behind him.

shrewsbury_book_f.2_(talbot-dog)

The Shrewsbury Book, presented by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury

In 1569, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was one of the few English noblemen wealthy and trusted enough to house Mary, Queen of Scots during her period under house arrest at Elizabeth I’s instruction. Shrewsbury was a prominent Protestant and Elizabeth made him a Privy Counsellor as part of the arrangement because of ‘his approved loyalty and faithfulness, and the ancient state of blood from which he is descended’. Mary was initially held at Tutbury Castle and although Elizabeth would not meet the costs of her prisoner’s keeping, Mary’s French incomes covered her hosts expenses for a while. She was moved two months later to Wingfield Manor, a more suitable, well-kept lodging than the dilapidated Tutbury with its inadequate drains. Although he would discharge his duty diligently, Shrewsbury was censured any time he left Mary’s company for his own business and despite his wealth, he and his wife, Bess of Hardwick found themselves financially embarrassed by the cost and Elizabeth’s refusal to help meet them. Mary was eventually removed from Shrewsbury’s care before her eventual entrapment and execution at Fotheringhay Castle.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots

Alton Towers lies just north of Shropshire, across the border into Staffordshire, and even as a theme park, it retains a link to the Talbot family who made it their ancestral home. The buildings that lie ruined today were built by Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury in the early nineteenth century. The ride Hex is contained within the ruins and tells the story of that earl’s battle with the supernatural to lift a curse placed in him and his family.

For anyone interested in the fifteenth century, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, remembered as Old Talbot, is a towering figure sadly eclipsed by later events. He was one of the few Englishmen Joan of Arc is reputed to have known by name. His fearless, often reckless leadership made him the most successful English general in France over many years. He was probably in his mid-sixties when he was eventually killed at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His loss was such a blow that Castillon is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years War and there is a memorial in France to him, set up where he fell in recognition of a foe worthy of respect.

talbotmonumentcastillon

The Talbot Monument at the site of the Battle of Castillon

For those with an interest more precisely focussed on Richard III and the events of 1483, the Talbot family have a vitally important role to play. Unfortunately, there is little solid fact on which to hang any opinion of the controversy of Edward IV’s marital status. Where hard, written evidence is lacking – and we should expect it to be lacking, given the systematic destruction of Titulus Regius after Bosworth – I tend to fall back on the actions of people affected by events. In their reaction, or even inaction, we can often glean an idea of what must have been going on and what people thought of it.

The Talbot family come into sharp focus because the basis of Richard’s charge that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate is a claim that Edward was a bigamist. It was alleged that prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had already contracted a marriage to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. We have no solid evidence that this is the case, but as I said, we probably shouldn’t expect to. Look at what people in London in June 1483 did, though. They accepted the evidence we are told they were shown. We cannot examine it and for the most part, historians dismiss it as fantasy. Yet those who could read it accepted it so completely that they deposed a king and offered the crown to his uncle. Why would they do that? Fear of Richard? Hardly. He had no army in London or anywhere nearby. He was mustering a few hundred men at Pontefract, but they had not left by then and London was well versed in resisting thousands, never mind a few hundred. Fear of a minority? Maybe, but Richard had shown himself willing to act as regent for his nephew, and he was the senior royal male of the House of York, an experienced governor and successful general (within his limited opportunities). Could it be that, just maybe, the allegations looked true?

Edward IV’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, surely made it seem plausible. None would doubt that he was capable of contracting a secret marriage to a relatively unsuitable older lady. That was, after all, how he ended up married to Elizabeth Woodville. By 1483, George Talbot was 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, the first earl’s great-grandson. He was probably too young to fight at Bosworth, but definitely supported Henry VII during the Lambert Simnel Affair. The Talbot family were Lancastrian in their sympathies; after all, their patriarch had built his reputation and title on defending that House. They are often considered hostile to Richard III, probably because of his accusation against one of their number, but I’m not sure that was the case. By the time of the Lambert Simnel Affair, supporting Henry VII was the natural position for the 4th Earl. Besides, if, as I strongly suspect, the Affair was an uprising in favour of Edward V rather than Edward, Earl of Warwick, then the Talbot family perhaps opposed it because they were perfectly well aware of Edward V’s illegitimacy.

Back in 1483, the Talbot family made no move against Richard or his accusation about Eleanor Talbot and Edward IV. When Simon Stallworth wrote his newsletter to Sir William Stonor as late as 21 June 1483, the day before Dr Shaa’s sermon at St Paul’s Cross, he knew nothing of the impending bombshell. He did, however, note that Lord Lisle ‘is come to my Lorde Protectour and awates apone hym’. This is more significant that it is often deemed to be.

Lord Lisle was Edward Grey. He was not only the younger brother of Sir John Grey of Groby, the first husband of Elizabeth Woodville and therefore uncle to her two oldest sons, but he was also married to Elizabeth Talbot, a niece of Eleanor Talbot. If Richard was looking for evidence to substantiate or refute the charge he had been made aware of, Lord Lisle was a sensible person to consult. He might know whether there was any family tradition that Eleanor had married Edward and whether any evidence remained in Talbot hands.

Lord Lisle was from a Lancastrian family and Richard was about to offend the family of his wife, yet Lord Lisle remained with Richard and offered no opposition. Indeed, Lord Lisle attended Richard’s coronation, as did the Duchess of Norfolk, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had married John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and was the mother of Anne Mowbray, the ill-fated bride of Edward IV’s younger son. She had been born Elizabeth Talbot, though, the youngest daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury and a sister of Eleanor Talbot. She was not so outraged by Richard’s accusations that she boycotted his coronation. Was this because Richard was, in actual fact, righting a wrong that the Talbot family perceived had been inflicted on one of their number by a deceitful young king?

There are many other elements to the precontract story. The timing is always cited as too convenient, but I would counter that George, Duke of Clarence seems to have been on the verge of revealing it in 1477 and it cost him his life. Who else would have been brave enough to trumpet the allegation during Edward IV’s lifetime? It would have been tantamount to signing your own death warrant. This piece of the puzzle is interesting though. We cannot be certain of the truth of the allegation of bigamy. We can, however, be entirely certain that the charge was made, that evidence was gathered (or fabricated), that what evidence existed was unanimously accepted by those able to examine it, that this evidence has subsequently been lost or destroyed and that there was no backlash from the Talbot family in 1483 (accepting that in 1485 Sir Gilbert Talbot, younger son of the 2nd Earl, joined Henry Tudor’s army).

It amazes me that such certainty in the fraud of the bigamy allegation is espoused today. There is no hard evidence for it, but there is also none against it. Expanding our consideration to more circumstantial elements, it is probable that the story nearly emerged in 1477, costing George his life, and it is certain that those who were exposed to the evidence in support of it entirely accepted it. It may have been a well-constructed lie, but it is at least as likely, if not more so, that it was true.

Dyer or Dire?

Many of you will remember the episode of “Who do you think you are” in which Danny Dyer was revealed as a descendant of Edward III. In this new two part series, he “meets” a few prominent ancestors, some even more distant.

The first episode began with Rollo, ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy, which saw Dyer visit Sweden, although Danes and Norwegians also claim that Viking dynast, to learn sparring with a sword and shield. Then he went to the Tower to talk about William I and Dover Castle for Henry II, discussing his rebellious sons and his mixed relationship with Becket. At every stage, riding a horse, jousting or dyeing (Dyeing?), he was accompanied by a professional genealogist (Anthony Adolph, in a cafe opposite Buckingham Palace) or a historian, if not one of television’s “usual suspects”. At the end, Dyer visited France to learn of a slightly different ancestor – St. Louis IX, although Margaret of Wessex is another canonised forebear.

The second episode did feature some real historians: Elizabeth Norton, Chris Given-Wilson, Tobias Capwell and Tracy Borman. The opening scene had Isabella on the Leeds Castle drawbridge shouting at Edward II (Dyer): “Git aht ov moi carsel” (you may need Google Translate, but not from French). We were shown an image of Hugh le Despencer’s grisly execution, without pointing out that there were two of that name, followed by Edward’s confinement in Berkeley Castle, forced abdication and the legend of his even grislier end. Henry “Hotspur” Percy, who died in battle at Shrewsbury, followed as Dyer tried on late mediaeval armour. The next scenes concerned Sir John Seymour at Wolf Hall, inveigling his daughter into Henry VIII’s world, as Dyer dressed up and tried “Tudor” dancing. We then moved on to Helmingham Hall as Catherine Cromwell married Lord Tollemache, whose successor met Dyer, his cousin, again. The series concluded with a “sugar banquet” as the star’s family joined in, dressed as Elizabeth I’s contemporaries.

Both programmes were informative about mediaeval life, such as the “silver pennies” bearing Dyer’s image and the West Ham badge, although his stereotypical East London patois grates a little. It brought to mind Ray Winstone as Henry VIII (“I have been betrayed!”) or Nick Knowles‘ egregious Historyonics.

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