Thursday, 26 July 2018

War, English Delusion, and the effect on the Economy (4)

It was fortunate for Henry V that someone on the Orleanist side of politics decided to murder the Duke of Burgundy. This persuaded the new duke, Philippe the "Good" to take Henry's side, a development which led to the Treaty of Troyes and Henry's marriage to fair Catherine of France. Henry had by this time conquered a fair chunk of Normandy, but this had stretched his resources considerably. Thanks to the new alliance he could paint himself as the legitimate ruler of France, and some Frenchmen, like Burgundy, were willing to come over to his side.

At the same time, although the cause of the Dauphin and the Orleanists looked bleak, the fact remains that they were in possession of the majority of French territory and the resources that went with it. Henry would need to conquer this, castle by castle, town by town, and every new garrison needed more soldiers and the means to supply them with necessaries.

The bright spot was that the conquered territories did provide a source of revenue. The bad news was that the English Parliament was increasingly of the view that the war was "nothing to do with us, guv." In short, they saw the conquest as Henry's conquest rather than England's, and, in their view, it was up to Henry to defeat his "rebels" at the expense of the Kingdom of France.

That a typical Englishman of this time had his chest swelled with pride at the thought of English military glory, but at the same moment did not want to pay towards the costs should not really surprise us. It was a characteristic of the English almost all the way through.

Henry V's early death in 1422, with nothing really resolved, was another good example of the "hospital pass". To Henry V, the glory, to Henry VI the criticism for failing to do the impossible.

It was fortunate for the English that the management of their position in France fell to John, Duke of Bedford, Henry V's next surviving brother, who just happened to be one of the most able men to grace the entire middle ages, let alone the fifteenth century. Bedford won a stunning victory at Verneuil (1424) which was, if anything, more impressive than Agincourt, though rather less famous.

After that, though, the Anglo-Burgundian position slowly but surely began to deteriorate. There were a number of reasons for this, and one was certainly that Philippe of Burgundy was never 100% committed, except to his own interests. Another key factor was that French gradually improved their military establishment, not least by investing heavily in artillery. But above all, the limitations of English resources in terms of both men and cash became increasingly apparent as the years went by.

As I have remarked before, what is astonishing about Lancastrian France was not that it fell when it did, but that it lasted so long. The Treaty of Arras (1435) detached Burgundy from the English side, and that should have been the end. As it was, the English were not finally expelled from Normandy until 1450, while the last English intervention in Gascony failed in 1453. The tactics of Agincourt no longer worked. The French had developed a well-organised, well-equipped, professional army, while England struggled to raise field armies of any size at all.

Much of this prolongation of the war was down to English pluck and determination, to say nothing of good fortification, but it was really a hopeless cause. If Henry VI had been a more talented ruler - which would not have been hard - or if some of his generals (notably the first Duke of Somerset) had been a bit more inspired than they were, then maybe, just maybe, the disaster might have been stretched out a little longer. Alternatively, if certain English statesmen - notably Humphrey of Gloucester - had been more realistic and less deluded, then something might have been saved of the English possessions in France. As it was, a losing fight against overwhelming odds could only have one end.

The effect on England, as a nation, was disastrous. The self-image of a country that was a great military power was shattered. The treasury was not only empty, but massively in debt, despite years of war taxation. The King's government was feeble at best, and disorder was commonplace, even to the extent of outbreaks of fighting between rival families. Of course, it must be admitted that Henry VI was one of our least effective monarchs, and that his tendency to favour the incompetent Beauforts over the (relatively) competent Duke of York did not help. The political crisis began long before the final defeat in France, but that defeat added a whole new level to it.

Since all attempts at political compromise failed, it was all but inevitable that what we now call the Wars of Roses should break out, even though the first "battle" (St. Albans 1455) was little more than an unseemly squabble. But the root of political instability in England was the disastrous policy of war with France.


Wednesday, 25 July 2018

War, English Delusion, and the effect on the Economy (3)

It is important to remember that medieval governments could not issue paper money. Ultimately, everything had to be paid for in hard cash, although it was commonplace for creditors to be made to wait, in some cases for a very long time.

The English royal government was not outstandingly rich. Its sources of income were (1) the royal estates. No king (or queen) ever made a good job of the running the estates. Partly because they were far too busy with other stuff. Moreover, in the middle ages there was no real tradition of "improvement" to estates. The usual assumption was that if a property was worth £5 in 1200 (or whenever) it was (or should be) still worth that now. (2) customs duties, especially tunnage and poundage. These duties were usually granted to the sovereign at the beginning of the reign, and if Parliament felt generous, for the term of the sovereign's life. (3) feudal incidents, for example the money arising from wardship and marriage of heirs, the very occasional feudal aids, money that came from a bishop's temporalities during a vacancy. This flow of income had many random aspects and some of the feudal dues were routinely evaded. (4) income from justice and other traditional payments. These would include forfeitures for treason and other serious crimes.

Taken together, these various cashflows just about covered royal expenditure in a time of peace. It should be borne in mind that they did not just pay for the king's household and court, but for diplomacy, defence, justice and all the assorted departments of medieval government. They were quite inadequate for the prosecution of any but the most brief, small and profitable of wars.

If you wanted more, the options were to borrow - and borrowings had eventually to be paid back from revenue - or to secure a Parliamentary grant of additional taxation. These were normally based on a rather theoretical assessment of the cash value of a person's goods, and usually came in a grant of a tenth (for towns) and a fifteenth (for everyone else.) Kings sometimes asked for two or three subsidies at once, but on the other hand Parliament not infrequently offered a half subsidy. The clergy made a similar payment via grants made by their Convocations. The clergy were just as awkward as Parliament when it suited them. Parliament would often ask for redress of grievances as a quid pro quo for any grant, and the king usually had to at least make a show of making concessions. If he was in a weak position politically, the concessions might be substantial.

War, English Delusion, and the effect on the Economy (2)

Henry IV had the image of a warrior. It was just as well as no sooner was he established on the throne than he was fighting in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France, as well as beating off his internal enemies. So it will not surprise you that the country was soon bankrupt, and that Henry was busy with his Parliaments, inevitably discontented by the necessary taxation to fund all this fun.

Of course, these wars were dull, low-level affairs. There were certainly no repeats of Crecy. The nearest to that was probably the defeat of the Scots at Homildon, 1402, a victory that was largely down to the tactics suggested by the renegade Scottish Earl of March, although naturally the Percy family were prominently involved.

As many of you know, I am not Henry Bolingbroke's greatest fan. In many ways he was a sordid little creep, and the kindest thing I can say about him is that he liked books. However, you have to, however reluctantly, admire the sheer tenacity with which he held on against all the odds. Towards the end of his reign, as Henry himself fell more and more ill with his mysterious disease, the financial pressures eased and so did the military situation. It became possible to intervene in France again.

The King of France, Charles VI, had been more or less insane since Richard's time, and was not improving. Factions within France, on the one hand the Burgundians, and on the other the Orleanists/Armagnacs, were tearing the country apart, indeed fighting a civil war over who should govern. After some consideration (and doubtless bidding) England decided to go in on the side of the Orleans faction.

This was quite a shrewd move, financially. The English effectively took part as mercenaries. They had barely landed before the contending parties decided to make peace. So the English returned home again, somewhat enriched and bearing with them certain hostages who were not to see France again for many a long year.

As soon as Henry V acceded in 1413, he decided to build on this. Some historians think he chose war because he was on shaky ground at home. However, Henry, for some bizarre reason, seems genuinely to have believed he was the rightful King of France in God's eyes. (How he came to believe this when he was not even the rightful King of England is a great mystery, but that's religious bigots for you.)

The French offered quite enormous concessions as an alternative, and a remotely sane King of England would have bitten their hand off. Not Henry. Parliament, temporarily gung-ho, proved willing to finance his expedition, and off Henry went.

This led to another one of the Great Victories - Agincourt. Henry attributed his success to God, and he may have been right to do so. He was extremely lucky, in that the French seemed to have forgot all the wisdom they had learned in the late 14th Century, and charged in as they had done in their earlier losing battles. Had they simply harassed Henry on a daily basis, and not engaged in battle at all, it is extremely likely that his small and sickly army would have been destroyed piecemeal.

Nevertheless, Agincourt massively boosted English morale, and massively dented that of the French. For the English, and certainly for Henry, it looked like God had shown the green light, and that the English claim to France (or at least major chunks of it) could now be realised. This was largely a delusion, because nothing of France had yet been conquered (unless you count Harfleur) and England's resources (and willingness to spend them) were no greater. For France, the main problem, looked at objectively, was that it remained divided in itself. Much depended on whether one faction or the other could be persuaded to throw its lot in with the English. If it could, Henry (and English pretensions) had a real chance of success. Against a united France, there was virtually none, at least in the long term.


Tuesday, 24 July 2018

War, English Delusion, and the effect on the Economy

I have a theory that a lot of what we call "history" arises from the "hospital pass". (For those who don't know, this term comes from Rugby. It's where the ball is passed to you at a moment or in a situation where the opposition is bound (or at least likely) to recover the situation with a violent tackle.)

A good example of this are the events arising from the Hundred Years War. Now yes, there were genuine issues arising between England and France. These mostly arose from the status of Guienne, which the kings of England held as vassals of the kings of France. (Though it is ironic that some of the issues were the very issues that the English imposed on their Welsh and Scottish* vassals.)

*To avoid response from angry Scots, during the time when the Scots accepted vassalage, for example the reign of John Balliol.

The fact remains that France had about five times the population Of England and was (almost) correspondingly more wealthy. For the English to take on France in a major war (as opposed to a small one) was always going to be a stretch.

Ah, but you say, Edward III and the Black Prince succeeded! Did they not have glorious victories at Crecy and Poitiers? Did they not actually capture the French king and impose a humiliating peace on him? (Treaty of Bretigny.)

Yes, they did, with the benefit of novel tactics, excellent leadership and, let's be honest, some help from Lady Luck.

BUT! (And it's a very big but.) The French were not stupid. They soon figured out new tactics to defeat the English, the most important of which was "Don't meet the English in pitched battle." It doesn't sound very impressive, does it, but the effect was remarkable. The English armies that went to France in the later 14th Century did a fair bit of damage (especially to poor people and their property) but they failed utterly to enforce the treaty or cause the French government to collapse. Moreover, these campaigns were costly in cash and lives.

What is too often forgotten by English historians (who are all too apt to pleasure themselves silly over Edward III's "greatness") is that by the end of his reign England was practically bankrupt, in a fair degree of political chaos and under regular attacks from French raids along the south coast.

At which point poor Richard II and his advisers took over this legacy of "glory".

The English (or more particularly their ruling class) were frankly deluded. Yep, they wanted to carry on with the war. Why, they wanted to enforce the Treaty of Bretigny. Did they want to pay for it? Did they heck as like.

So, make peace instead? What, are you a traitor, sir!

There were of course truces. As the century dragged on, these were to become more regular. But the cost of the war led to desperate measures in the treasury. Which led to the introduction of the Poll Tax. Do I need to spell out how that went down?

Richard II actually offered to lead an army to France. Yes, really. Would Parliament pay for it? Would they heck!

So we come to 1386, with the French poised to attack across the Channel. Make no mistake, this was a serious threat. Probably more of a genuine threat than anything prepared by Napoleon or Hitler, hard though that may be to believe. The King goes to Parliament to ask for money to defend the nation. Does Parliament pay up? No, it goes spare, and forces on Richard a commission to run the country for 12 months.

Now this in turn (to cut a long story short) leads on to the Appellant Crisis and the judicial murder - for that was what it was! - of many of the King's friends and advisers and the banishment of others. Do the Appellants do a better job? Do they somehow magically cut taxation and give the French a damn good thrashing? Do they heck as like. They prove just as clueless in government - if not more clueless - than the people they replaced.

Eventually, largely because John of Gaunt comes home and supports King Richard in his policies, and after a whole lot of haggling and abortive proposals, a peace of sorts is achieved. Not until late 1396 though, and it is in fact a 28 year truce, that leaves some of the awkward issues unsolved.

You might thing people would be delighted. But many of them weren't. No, they wanted to carry on the war that they didn't want to pay for. It's one of the issues that makes Richard unpopular and leads to his downfall. Next post will relate the Lancastrian aftermath.





Monday, 26 March 2018

The Despenser Inheritance

This link will take you to an interesting (but complex) article by Professor Hicks about the Despenser inheritance.

You will see from it that Warwick "the Kingmaker" was more than a pretty face. He was a crafty ***** when it came to getting hold of and keeping property.

Friday, 6 January 2017

What is a 'Wapentake'

English counties were divided into smaller administrative units. Normally, these are called 'Hundreds' but in the former Danelaw, they are called 'Wapentakes'.

It is thought the name comes from the ancient practice of brandishing weapons to signal assent.

If a wapentake was in crown hands the sheriff would hold his 'tourn' there at intervals, usually twice a year, to receive indictments against all those who needed to be tried by royal judges and ensure those indicted were in custody.

If the wapentake was in private hands (as many were) the lord (or lady) could either allow the sheriff to hold a tourn, or alternatively organise a similar process under his own authority. Writs from the King would go to the lord of such a wapentake, instead of, as normal, to the sheriff.

In  some cases (not all) the lord could appoint the coroner and even hang felons.

It was a very complex system, and much depended on what rights had been ceded to the lord, often in the distant past.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Richard of Gloucester as Lord of the North

For a long time I have wanted to write a post about Richard of Gloucester and his remarkable career in the North. However, it has been a task I have put off as too daunting. Now I find I am saved the trouble, by this long but rather wonderful post in another place.

Richard was a man who was willing to give verdicts against his own followers when justice demanded it. There may have been another late medieval English noble who was equally enlightened in this respect, but if there was I have not so far come across him. Certainly, such individuals were a rare breed.