Monday, 23 March 2009

Richard, Duke of York - a bit more about the early years.

I spent some time yesterday leafing through Ralph Griffiths' amazing tome The Reign of Henry VI which I think holds the record for the thickest book in my collection. 968 pages in hardback, costing £25 as far back as 1981 - I must have been loaded in those days! (Well, it was before I got married.)

Anyway, it appears that after the death of Ralph Neville, York and Joan Beaufort lived in the King's Household. (The latter is perhaps the more surprising.) Also in the same household was the King's mother, Katherine of Valois. The Council ordered that all royal wards should live with the King, suitably attended at the King's expense. It must have been rather crowded.

After the death of Henry V, the following arrangements evolved, though they were not what had been ordered in Henry V's will. Bedford, Henry VI's elder surviving uncle, spent most of his time in France, and acted as Regent there. However, when he did come home to England he was pre-eminent there as well.

The second uncle, Humphrey of Gloucester, stayed mainly in England at the head of the Council, but his role as Protector was tightly circumscribed, much to his distaste. He spent much of his time falling out with his uncle, Bishop Beaufort - the pair of them seem to have cordially detested one another. This was the political element - Henry VI himself was under the care of the Duke of Exeter. (Thomas Beaufort, the youngest son of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.) Exeter's role seems to have been fairly hands-off and mainly delegated to deputies.

One thing this government failed to do was keep order in England. I was surprised how much violence and feuding there was at this time - everyone seems to have been at it, not least John Talbot (later Earl of Shrewsbury) and Joan, Lady Abergavenny, who as important members of the nobility really ought to have known better.

In the era of Richard II domestic violence is often blamed on the absence of a decent war in France to keep the thugs busy. Obviously this argument (which I've accepted myself at times) is deeply flawed, as in the 1420s there was a fair old war going on in France and it clearly did not keep things quiet at home. Nor can Henry VI be blamed at this stage - he was a little boy, and not involved in government. It seems the English (and Welsh) were just a rowdy lot and enjoyed a bit of casual violence against their neighbours.


Alianore said...

That's very interesting about the high levels of violence and feuding in Henry VI's time. It's become basically an accepted historical fact that the rate of violent crime was higher in Edward II's reign than at almost any other time in the Middle Ages, thanks to Edward's weakness, but in fact it seems to have been even higher in Edward III's reign, when notorious criminal gangs like the Folvilles and Coterels roamed the country. No-one blames Edward III for that, of course.

Brian said...

Hi Alianore,

It would be interesting to do the research, but I suspect there was a continuous level of disorder whoever was king. Certainly Cheshire in the 14th C was pretty much like the Wild West. Occasionally there was a half hearted crack down, but never a cure.

I have read a zillion times that the disorder in Richard II's time and the later part of Henry VI's reign was down to discharged soldiers having nothing better to do. I begin to think that's just an excuse, if not plain hogwash. There was certainly plenty of employment for soldiers in the 1420s, with a garrison of around 5000 in Normandy alone.

Alianore said...

It seems to me, and it's just a feeling rather than based on research, that the violent crime rate began to rise in the late 13th or early 14th century, and kept on rising. And as you say, it didn't seem to make much difference who the king was. What irritates me is that various historians keep saying that 'Edward II favoured violent, lawless people' then cite 2 or 3 men from his household who committed murder or assault. Given that he had a household of about 500 people, almost all of them men, most of them young and armed, it seems in fact astonishing that so few of them committed violent crimes. There were men close to Edward III who were known murderers, but no-one ever accuses Edward III of 'favouring lawless people'. [/rant]

I often feel that medieval England was basically the Wild West, too! And I agree that the 'discharged soldiers' thing sounds like hogwash.

Brian said...

I think we have to bear two things in mind. The average age of the population was about 20ish, and everyone, but everyone went armed. If you get crowds of 20ish armed men wandering about, there has to be a high probability of things kicking off, especially as there was nothing we would recognise as a police force.
But historians do seem to blame Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI for this state of affairs, and forget it was as bad, if not worse, in the other reigns. Which is a bit odd...

Alianore said...

Yeah, I suppose the median age was about 21, and wasn't it stated in the Statute of Winchester in 1285 that all men between certain ages had to be armed? That's just asking for trouble!

Hmph, I think a lot of historians see what they want to see. Violence and disorder in Edward II's reign can all be blamed on the king for being weak and useless and for 'favouring lawless people'. Violence and disorder in Edward III's reign is a long-term trend, based on social problems, etc etc, and not at all the king's own fault.

John Foelster said...

I was largely unaware of the degree of crime endemic in Plantagenet England. My intuition would have been that with the Common Law court system in place there would have been comparatively less lawlessness than would have been present in say... France or Germany or Italy.

I would be tempted to write it off as a result of overpopulation but that can't possibly be right since the trend obviously persisted after the plague...

It's a shame there is nothing even remotely like modern crime statistics for the period so that we could make some actual socioeconomic inferences about the effectiveness of various criminal prosecution regimes, relations of crime to unemployment, if you could call it that in a pre-industrial society, etc.

I suppose if someone had the time and inclination one could total up the cases before the various courts that have actually been preserved for posterity and extrapolate from there by cross referencing the birth records in the various parishes and the extant tax receipts, but it would take 100 graduate student years to accomplish. Probably.

Food for thought.