Friday, March 29, 2013

The Making of the Wars of the Roses



When he wrote this essay in 1967, Alan Rogers was a young researcher at Nottingham University and part of the new wave of historians setting out to rescue the 15th century from neglect. Because this period of perceived lawlessness and disorder seemed to interrupt the onward march of the English constitution, it had come to be dismissed as an age unworthy of serious study. The intellectual climate in which Rogers worked is reflected in his focus on ‘maintenance’, the perversion of the course of justice by the mighty in favour of their adherents through means of bribery and intimidation.Rogers extended this concept to encompass the practice of retaining by indenture and the payment of money,which had been named ‘bastard feudalism’ in the 19th century because it was perceived as a debasement of true, legitimate feudal relationships and could result in a breakdown of law and order.
Maintenance was accompanied by ‘good lordship’ as an evil besetting 15th-century society and Rogers thought it ‘the key to the troubles’. The idea that ‘good lordship’ (a contemporary concept) was one of the evils of the day no longer holds.Historians now recognise that it was central to the whole operation of political society from the crown down.A lord was expected to assist those who served him through a form of noblesse oblige which extended beyond securing offices or supporting legal action into a code of behaviour, hospitality and charity. Good lordship was an ideal to which all nobles were expected to aspire and a society founded on its principles would flourish, not falter.
The influence of the historian Lewis Namier (1888-1960) on 15th-century studies lay behind this negative view of good lordship and ‘maintenance’. Namier, a historian of the 18th century, had argued that ideology played no part in the politics of the first decade of the reign of George III (1760-1820) and that politicians sought only place and power. The practice of politics was seen as solely about the operation of patronage (‘good lordship’), faction and the pursuit of office. So too in the 15th century. ‘There was no principle involved,’Rogers concluded,‘save that of the preservation of one’s self and one’s property.’We all concurred. Perhaps the most important change since then has been the rediscovery of the principles and ideals that underlay the conflict for power. These ideals include honour, justice and, above all, government for the common good. It is in those terms that rival lords justified their actions.
Rogers’ article was influenced greatly by a contemporary work,Robin Storey’s The End of the House of Lancaster, published the year before, which presented a comprehensive new account of the drift to civil war. Storey argued that the Wars of the Roses resulted from an escalation of private feuds driven by this unprincipled pursuit of power. This was the 1960s and the notion of escalation was prominent in controversies about the Vietnam War. In a reiteration of Storey’s thesis, Rogers described how the various feuds created by maintenance and the exercise of good lordship coalesced into what he called ‘two great pyramids of power’ under the rival dukes of Somerset and York.A climax came when Henry VI ‘maintained Somerset’s pyramid’and was subsequently brought down by York.
Not all agreed. Others argued that it was just the reverse.Breakdown did not end at the top; it began there. The key factor was not an escalation of feuds, but the failure of the crown to impose order.And historians still discuss whether there were deeper social and political causes. Did ruling England present more challenges in 1450 than in 1350? Did the virtual bankruptcy of the crown as a result of war in France, the unrest flowing from the loss of that war and the impact of recession in the mid- 15th century destabilise the kingdom? Were there matters of principle at stake? Or was it just down to weak monarchy? Would all have been well had the feeble Henry VI demonstrated a capacity to rule? After all, his father proved capable of imposing his authority on the magnates and governed effectively.
Thus Alan Rogers’ article was an early contribution to a still vibrant debate about the Wars of the Roses. Today it is a topic in which most historians balance the motivation of politicians between the play of principle and ideology and the naked pursuit of office and power And it is a subject, like any other, in which the historian weighs up the influence of underlying economic, social and political forces against the impact of personalities and chance.

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