Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Pendle Witches

Today I went for a walk in the shadow of Pendle Hill, and found myself, as I often do in that area, dwelling on the sad story of the Pendle Witches.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the House of York by the way. I'm pretty inventive when it comes to making links of that sort, but this is an exception.

For those of you who don't know the story, this was possibly England's most famous witchcraft case, early in the 17th century, before the Civil War. Thirteen people were arrested, mostly women, mostly poor, and ten were hanged at Lancaster. One died in jail. One, Alice Nutter, was a gentlewoman.

I should love to know what really happened. The cynical part of me wonders whether it was nothing more than an imaginative way to cut the Poor Rate. We shall never know. It's interesting that (in England at least) witchcraft (in itself) was not a capital offence until late Tudor times. The few medieval witches that caught it were executed for treason or murder, not witchcraft per se. No, it was the 17th century that was the real heyday for this sort of persecution.

There's a decent but elderly novel by Robert Neill called Mist Over Pendle * that tells the story. However Neill has no sympathy whatever for the 'witches' - he depicts them as an evil crew.

* Published as The Elegant Witch in the US I'm told. Hideous title!

Where do books hide???

I have been looking all over the house for Fears of Henry IV because I wanted to refer to it, and possibly even write a review. Can I find it? No. It has mysteriously vanished into thin air. Now, I must admit, Chrissie and I do have rather a lot of books. Apart from novels, mainly historical, there's tons of stuff on railways, tramways, cricket, greyhounds, gardening, cooking, crafts of one type or another, local history, medieval history, and so on and so forth. But surely, given that the house is of fairly limited size, I should be able to trace a book that is a decent-sized tome, no mere pamphlet?

It's a mystery! Perhaps some spirit or fairy has hidden it away, just to wind me up. On past form I shall find it in about three months, and it will be in a dead obvious place, where I have already looked about twenty times.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Tyranny - what does it mean?

This post is prompted by a remark in another place by someone who thinks Richard III was a tyrant; it fits the chronology of this blog because historians often refer to Richard II's period of reign between 1397 and 1399 as his 'tyranny.'

What does this actually mean? Medieval monarchs were all dictators. In England they were limited only as far as custom and Parliament could bind them. It isn't sensible to expect them to behave with the scrupulous regard for the law exhibited by modern elected officials. (Pause for hollow laughter.)

I would argue that no medieval English monarch had the technology or staff available to be a 'tyrant' in the sense that Hitler or Stalin were tyrants. Medieval government worked largely through the voluntary effort of local gentry, or it didn't work at all. The king could command what he liked, but he didn't have a standing army, a police force or a large supply of bureaucrats to enforce it. (Well, Richard II did have a sort of standing army but it was really more of a body guard. Similar to the Yeoman of the Guard started up by that nice un-tyrannical Henry VII.) So even the worst oppression had moderating influences if the king did not have enough support down the food chain.

The medieval definition of a tyrant was a ruler who reigned for his own benefit rather than for that of the community - the community in this sense being principally the nobles, gentry and other powerful men. If you want a working example, check out the Viscontis of Milan. Now they were tyrants - you could be executed just for walking through their private garden. No Plantagenet comes close, in fact they were pussy cats by comparison. Hell, most of the Tudors were pussy cats by comparison.

'Tyrant' is a word that gets passed around quite a lot - often it means no more than 'authoritative ruler I don't like.' Some people describe President Lincoln as a tyrant - when you consider his extra-judicial imprisonment of sundry Maryland legislaters and various newspaper editors, you can see where they are coming from. The defence for Lincoln is 'necessity'. It's an old tradition that in exceptional times, rulers may use exceptional measures. This was well-established in England - as late as the 17th Century a court of law held that only the Sovereign could judge what was 'necessary' when the realm was under threat. It certainly was OK to temporarily appropriate the property of subjects and impose special taxation. (It took a civil war to take some of these things out of the Prerogative.)

In the case of the third Richard, England was faced with war with France, Brittany or Scotland for all or most of his reign. He also faced internal rebellion. In the circumstances, he was entitled to use what we would now call 'emergency powers'. His reign was far too short for us to know how he would have behaved under normal circumstances, as opposed to clear and present danger. I suspect, at the lowest, no worse than Edward IV or Henry VII.

As for Richard II - well, most of what he did was under the authority of Parliament. If he was a tyrant, so were the Appellants when they used the Parliament for their ends. What was dodgy was the arbitrary life banishment of Bolingbroke and seizure of the Lancastrian inheritance. The threat to property implicit in this decision scared the hell out of the landed classes and this is certainly one of the issues that tipped the scales against the king.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Richard v Henry Fan Clubs

Dr Given-Wilson provides the following interesting details of the dukes, marquises and earls of England in 1399:

Richard II's supporters

Exeter (John Holland, the King's half-brother)
Surrey (Thomas Holland the King's half-nephew.)
Oxford (Aubrey de Vere)
Worcester (Thomas Percy)
Aumale (Edward of York)
Dorset (Henry's half-brother, John Beaufort)
Gloucester (York's son-in-law.)

Neutral or not influential

Norfolk (In exile, later dead.)
March (Minor)
Richmond (Abroad.)
Devon (Ill health)
Stafford (Thomas Woodstock's son-in-law)

Henry's supporters

Westmorland (Ralph Neville, Henry's brother-in-law)
Henry himself.

Not quite the analysis of voting intentions one might have expected! The obvious conclusions are a) That if you are a medieval king of England you should not piss off the Percies and the Nevilles at the same time. b) That Henry himself was enormously powerful, and had an exceptional level of support among the English gentry and the lower levels of the peerage.

Henry had of course inherited the enormous Lancastrian following of retainers and officials. Many of these had originally been recruited to put Gaunt on the throne of Castile, and so the total number was far greater than would normally have been expected. Although many/most of these men had had their pension rights stamped by Richard, they not unnaturally preferred Henry, who was certain to keep them in the fees they had grown to know and love.

Henry was also able to secure the support of a number of barons who were not usually particularly active in politics. The names of Grey de Ruthin, Willoughby, Fitzwalter and Morley spring to mind. The latter two were attached to Thomas of Woodstock, and gave a great deal of stick to Edward of York in Henry's first parliament, blaming him for the duke's murder. After which they sank back into the political obscurity from which they had briefly emerged.

Despite that, when you look at Dr Given-Wilson's analysis, it does beg the question whether Richard had really cheesed off his nobles to the extent that is usually painted. Or whether Henry was simply the most over-mighty of over-mighty subjects.

Greyhounds Again

On the subject of abused racing greyhounds there's a petition to the Prime Minister here.

If you're a UK citizen or resident, you may care to sign up.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Evil King Richard and the Evil Cheshire Archers

One of the most popular themes of the Chroniclers, and the modern historians who have followed them is the 'oppression' caused by King Richard's Cheshire followers. These men were retained by the King as a permanent army, and this was a Bad Thing. (Whereas for the various nobles to retain followers to serve them in peace and war was a Good Thing, as the nobles were all progressive liberals and their retainers never oppressed anyone, being specially chosen for their people-skills.)

I have been re-reading the excellent The Royal Household and the Kings Affinity by Dr Chris Given-Wilson, and find therein that Richard's annuity bill in June 1378 (when he had just taken over and was probably having decisions made for him by his elders) was around £14300. This is quite a lot, and increased in 1397-98 by over £5000, mostly spent on employing the men of Cheshire. Not only archers, but knights and squires as well. Given-Wilson reckons that by 1399 the total budget must have risen to about £25000 a year. This was certainly a fair chunk of royal revenues - I'll throw in my guess at about 25%.

Of course that splendid fellow Henry IV scrapped the policy and the English nation was free once more to dance under May poles, as there was no longer anyone to oppress them.

Except Henry just changed the personnel - not the policy. Get this - within two years of his accession he was spending £24000 on annuities from the royal revenues, and a further £8000 from the Duchy of Lancaster. Given-Wilson estimates an increase to £35000 by 1404-05.

So good King Henry was spending more on oppressing people than evil King Richard, and not just a bit more. An increase of 40% I make it.

Now it may be that Henry's followers were a different breed to Richard's - that they confined themselves solely to rescuing damsels and slaying giants and dragons, and were all saintly sorts like Sir Galahad. But knowing what I do about the medieval English gentry, I somehow doubt it.