Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The fifteenth century

Bastard feudalism

By the fifteenth century the feudalism introduced by the Conqueror was dead.  The idea that all land belonged to the king who then leased parcels to tenants-in-chief in return for military service was over. Instead the former tenants were now in full possession of their land and the Norman practice of primogeniture meant that this land could not be alienated. See here for the legal background. 

The result was the build-up of great estates and castles in the hands of a few magnates. These nobles built up a body of retainers from the country gentry who turned to them for protection and frequently wore their livery badges as signs of their allegiance. This system came to be known as livery and maintenance or 'bastard feudalism'

 Under these circumstances a strong queen could also be a powerful player by virtue of the estates she was granted on her marriage. This helps to explain the vital role played in the politics of the period by Henry VI's French wife, Margaret of Anjou.
 "MargaretAnjou" by Talbot Master (fl. in Rouen, c. 1430–60)
 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
Because Parliament was often packed with the supporters of the great lords, it was less assertive than it had been in the preceding century. If these lords supported whoever happened to be king, then parliament did as well. In 1461 it obediently acceded to Edward IV’s demand to attaint the former queen, Margaret of Anjou, and her son, Edward Prince of Wales. In 1483 it obediently declared Edward IV’s children illegitimate, and then re-legitimised them two years on the command of Henry VII.

The royal minority

The reign of the usurping Henry IV had been beset by insecurity but with his son Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, the dynasty seemed secure.  In 1420 the English and French signed a treaty at Troyes whereby Henry and his heirs would inherit the throne of France after the death of Charles VI. It also arranged for the marriage of Charles’s daughter, Catherine, to Henry, who was made regent of France.

"King Henry VI from NPG (2)" by Unknown -
National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 2457
However in August 1422 Henry died of dysentery in France, leaving his nine-month-old son as king. In 1429 Henry was crowned at Winchester and in 1431 he was crowned in Paris; this was a rushed affair, a response to the splendid coronation of Charles VII in Rheims, orchestrated by Joan of Arc.

The loss of France

The early years of the royal minority were not a disaster and the country was well administered by the young king’s uncles, John Duke of Bedford and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and his great-uncle, Henry Beaufort Bishop of Winchester.  But by the time Henry VI began his personal rule in 1436, England’s grip on France had seriously weakened. In 1428 Joan of Arc raised the siege of Orléans and in the following summer the French drove the English out of the Loire valley. In 1436 Paris was recaptured and by the early 1440s the English hold on Normandy was threatened. In 1444 England and France signed a truce, which was sealed by the marriage of Margaret, the daughter of the duke of Anjou, to Henry VI.

However, this was only temporary. In February 1448 the French took Maine and in the summer of 1449 Rouen fell. By the summer of 1450 England had lost Normandy. 

Even before this disaster Henry VI was showing himself to be an indecisive and ineffectual ruler. Pope Pius II was to describe him as 
‘more timorous than a woman, utterly devoid of wit and spirit’. 
In the absence of royal authority two great nobles jostled for power: Richard Plantagenet, duke of York, who was directly descended from Edward III, and Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset, who was also descended from Edward III, but through the originally illegitimate Beaufort line. 

In July 1453 the English forces in Gascony were overwhelmed by a French army at Castillon near Bordeaux. The duchy which Eleanor of Aquitaine had brought to the crown in 1154 was finally lost, and England was left with Calais as her sole French possession. 

The Wars of the Roses

When Henry VI heard the news of the loss of France, he slipped into a mental breakdown, leaving him unable to walk or talk, that was to last until the end of 1454. Even the birth of his son Edward, on 13 October 1453 failed to rouse him.

With the collapse of the king’s authority, two people fought for control of government: the queen, Margaret of Anjou, and the Duke of York, who in November arrived in London from Ireland and asserted his right to govern on the king’s behalf. 

The resulting conflict between the Duke of York and his allies, and the king’s supporters, headed by the Queen and the Duke of Somerset, came to be known in the early nineteenth century as the Wars of the Roses, after the badges of the two sides: the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York. The Wars were a dynastic struggle fought between two rival groupings of noble families and their retainers. York was greatly strengthened by his substantial holdings in Ireland and by the support of his ally, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, who through marriage and inheritance had become one of the greatest landowners in the country. As Captain of Calais he commanded the only permanent armed force maintained by the English crown.

The first battle was fought at St Albans on 22 May, where the Lancastrian commander the duke of Somerset was killed. 

The victorious duke of York maintained his loyalty to Henry, but Margaret now feared for her son’s inheritance. Henry VI was descended in the male line from John of Gaunt, the third surviving son of Edward III, York in the male line from the fourth. However, through his mother, Anne Mortimer, he was descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel duke of Clarence. Until the birth of the Prince of Wales he had been heir presumptive to the throne.

With the death of Somerset, the queen was now York's most formidable enemy. In the summer of 1456 she extended her political network and reinforced her own territorial power-base in the duchy of Lancaster. But her dilemma was that in the very act of fighting for the rights of her husband and her young son, she was demonstrating Henry VI’s weakness and fatally compromising the power of the crown. The dignity of kingship did not rest solely on hereditary right; kings had to act like kings, and if they failed to do so, their authority was questioned.

On 30 December 1460 York and his supporters were surprised by Margaret’s force at Wakefield, and York was killed in the battle. His body was taken to York, his corpse publicly humiliated, and his head displayed on the city gate.

York’s claim to the throne was taken up by his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March. On 29 March 1461 he defeated the Lancastrians at Towton in Yorkshire, the bloodiest battle fought on English soil.
On 4 March a gathering at St Paul’s proclaimed him Edward IV. Henry VI went into exile in Scotland while Margaret and her son retreated to her family’s lands in France. 

Edward IV

Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
Edward’s coronation was an elaborate affair, reviving rituals and hymns that had fallen out of use, the aim being to present an image of stability, legitimacy and strong kingship.

Edward then threw away his political advantages by his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Lady Grey, in 1464, a widow with two grown-up sons. It brought to economic or diplomatic advantage and caused huge resentment. The Earl of Warwick, who had planned for Edward to marry a French princess, was deeply affronted, and Edward’s courtiers resented the rise of Elizabeth’s relations and their influence at court. But the ten children Edward and Elizabeth produced seemed to secure the Yorkist dynasty and their descendants were to be a major headache for Henry VII and Henry VIII.

But was Edward the rightful king? The court poets claimed that he had the right through his dynastic claim and because he provided good government. His coin of 1465 showed the majestic ship of state, with the cross as its mast. But the Lancastrian case was put by the chief justice, Sir John Fortescue, whose tract, The Governance of England, argued that Edward’s claim was invalid both by law and reason. However, many European observers argued that the Lancastrian claim was illegitimate since it rested on the deposition of Richard II.

In September 1470 Edward was overthrown and forced to flee to the Netherlands. Henry VI was restored through the agency of the Earl of Warwick.  But Henry was now even less capable of governing, and the country was ruled by Warwick and Edward’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence. In March 1471 Edward returned to England with an army.  Warwick was killed at the second Battle of Barnet in April. In May the Lancastrians were defeated at Tewkesbury, where the young Prince Edward was killed. Henry VI died, or was murdered, in the Tower in May 1471. He was one of the most ineffectual kings England has ever had, yet his memory lives on in his foundations of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. After his death an unofficial cult sprung up round his memory and miracles were reported at his tomb at Chertsey Abbey.
The chapel of King's College, Cambridge
The Wars of the Roses were a traumatic period; forty-nine members of the peerage had died, thirty-four falling in battle, fifteen being executed.  However, the period after Edward’s restoration in 1471 was a time of relative stability and growing prosperity. His two sons seemed to secure the continuance of the dynasty. Parliament was compliant because it was packed with Yorkists.  The House of Lancaster seemed to have been destroyed, the only rival being Henry Tudor, who was living in exile, and whose claim to the throne was very questionable. However cracks in the ruling family emerged in 1478 when Edward’s unreliable brother, Clarence, was arrested, and parliament passed a bill of Attainder, after which he was executed in the Tower in 1478.  

Richard III

On 9 April 1483 Edward died peacefully, leaving his twelve-year-old son Edward as king. This was the second royal minority in the century. The obvious choice for protector was Edward IV’s loyal brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The young king and his brother, Richard Duke of York, were brought from Ludlow by their maternal uncle Earl Rivers, but the convoy was intercepted on the way to London by Gloucester and the Duke of Buckingham. The princes were taken to the Tower where they were never seen again.

Within weeks of delivering his nephew to London, Richard asserted that Edward IV’s pre-contract to Lady Eleanor Butler before he married Elizabeth Woodville meant that the princes were illegitimate. Parliament duly declared the marriage invalid and the dowager Queen was demoted to plain Elizabeth Grey. On 24 June the Duke of Buckingham persuaded the mayor and aldermen to lend their support to Richard. On 26 June a gathering of lords and gentry – not a proper parliament – asked Richard to take the crown. It may be that the boys met their deaths at this time; certainly rumours soon started circulating that they were dead. On 6 July Richard was crowned.

Many Yorkists – servants of Edward IV, who had sworn an oath to Edward V -  found it impossible to accept Richard’s rule. His ally Buckingham turned against him and led an unsuccessful conspiracy on behalf of Henry Tudor, who was living in Brittany (on the assumption that the Princes in the Tower were dead). At a ceremony in Rennes cathedral in December 1483 Tudor declared his intention to marry Elizabeth, the sister of the young princes – a move that would only make sense if he believed the princes were dead. Richard’s problems were compounded with the death of his young son and heir Edward in April 1484.

The battle of Bosworth

In August 1485 Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven with an army of up to 1,000 men. Marching through Wales he gathered supporters and the two sides met at Bosworth on 22 August. The defection of Richard’s key ally, Henry Tudor’s stepfather, Lord Stanley, decided the battle. Richard was killed and the new king, Henry VII, was hastily crowned on the battlefield by Stanley with Richard’s crown. 

Henry’s next actions were carefully choreographed. On 30 October he was crowned. Next his Parliament repealed the statute that had
bastardised Edward IV’s children. Then on 18 January 1486, following a papal dispensation, he married Elizabeth of York. The new symbol of the Tudor rose represented a dynasty that combined the rival houses of York and Lancaster.

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