England in the Fifteenth Century



HENRY IV, having reached the throne, found himself challenged by revolt. In Wales Owain Glyn Dwr overthrew the English domination for a moment (1401–08), but the future Henry V, now Prince of Wales, overcame him with dashing strategy; and Owen Glendower, after leading a hunted life for eight years in Welsh fastnesses and crags, died a few hours after receiving full pardon from his gallant conqueror. Synchronizing his rebellion with Glendower’s, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, led some nobles of the north into an uprising against a king unable to keep all the promises he had made to them for their aid in deposing Richard II. The Earl’s reckless son Harry “Hotspur” (unwarrantably lovable in Shakespeare) led a hesitant and inadequate force against the King at Shrewsbury (1403); there the youth died in foolish heroism, Henry IV fought manfully in the front ranks, and his gay wastrel son, “Prince Hal,” displayed the bravery that would win Agincourt and France. These and other troubles left Henry little time or zest for statesmanship; his revenues limped behind his expenditures; he quarreled tactlessly with Parliament, and ended his reign amid fiscal chaos and the personal tribulations of leprosy, prolapse of the rectum, and venereal disease.1 “He departed to God,” says Holinshed, “in the year of his age forty-six... in great perplexity and little pleasure.”2

In tradition and Shakespeare Henry V had lived a free and frolicsome youth, and had even conspired to seize the throne from a father incapacitated by illness but tenacious of power. Contemporary chroniclers merely hint at his revels, but assure us that after his accession “he was changed into another man, studying to be honest, grave, and modest.”3 He who had romped with topers and tarts now dedicated himself to leading a united Christendom against the advancing Turks—adding, however, that he must first conquer France. He accomplished his proximate aim with astonishing speed, and for a precarious moment an English king sat on the throne of France. German princes sent him homage, and thought of making him emperor.4 He rivaled Caesar briefly in the planning of campaigns, the provisioning of his armies, the affection of his troops, and in exposing himself in all battles and weathers.

Suddenly, still a youth of thirty-five, he died of fever at Bois-de-Vincennes (1422).

His death saved France, and almost ruined England. His popularity might have persuaded the taxpayers to rescue the government from bankruptcy; but his son Henry VI was, at accession, only nine months old, and a disgraceful sequence of corrupt regents and inept generals sank the treasury into irredeemable debt. The new ruler never rose to royal stature; he was a delicate and studious neurasthenic who loved religion and books, and shuddered at the thought of war; the English mourned that they had lost a king and won a saint. In 1452, imitating Charles VI of France, Henry VI went mad. A year later his ministers signed a peace acknowledging England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War.

Richard, Duke of York, governed for two years as Protector; in a cloudylucid interval Henry dismissed him (1454); the angry Duke claimed the throne through descent from Edward III; he branded the Lancastrian kings as usurpers, and joined Salisbury, Warwick, and other barons in those Wars of the Roses—Lancastrian red and Yorkist white—which through thirty-one years (1454–85) pitted noble against noble in the indefatigable suicide of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, and left England impoverished and desolate. Soldiers demobilized by unwonted peace, and loath to resume the chores of peasantry, enlisted on either side, plundered the villages and towns, and murdered without qualm all who stood in their way. The Duke of York was killed in battle at Goldsmith’s Wakefield (1460), but his son Edward, Earl of March, carried on the war remorselessly, slaughtering all captives, with or without pedigree; while Margaret of Anjou, the virile queen of the gentle Henry, led the Lancastrian resistance with unblushing ferocity. March won at Towton (1461), ended the Lancastrian dynasty, and became, as Edward IV, the first Yorkist king.

But the man who really ruled England for the next six years was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Head of a rich and numerous clan, possessed of a dominating and yet engaging personality, as subtle in statesmanship as he was brilliant in war, “Warwick the Kingmaker” had fathered the victory at Towton, and had raised Edward to the throne. The King, resting from strife, dedicated himself to women, while Warwick governed so well that all England south of the Tyne and east of the Severn (for Margaret was still fighting) honored him as in all but name the king. When Edward rebelled against the reality and turned against him, Warwick joined Margaret, drove Edward from England, restored Henry VI to nominal power (1470), and ruled again. But Edward organized an army with Burgundian aid, crossed to Hull, defeated and slew Warwick at Barnet, defeated Margaret at Tewkesbury (1471), had Henry VI murdered in the tower, and lived happily ever afterward.

He was still only thirty-one. Comines describes him as “one of the handsomest men of his age,” who “took no delight in anything but ladies, dancing, entertainment, and the chase.”5 He replenished his treasury by confiscating the estates of the Nevilles, and by accepting from Louis XI, as bribes to peace, 125,000 crowns and a promise of 50,000 more per year.6 So eased, he could ignore a Parliament whose only use to him would have been to vote him funds. Feeling himself secure, he surrendered himself again to luxury and indolence, wore himself out lovingly, grew fat and jolly, and died at forty-one in the amplitude of his person and his power (1483).

He left two sons: the twelve-year-old Edward V, and Richard, Duke of York, aged nine. Their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had for the past six years served the state as chief minister, and with such industry, piety, and skill that when he made himself regent England accepted him without protest, despite his “ill-featured limbs, crooked back, hard-favored visage, and left shoulder much higher than his right.”7 Whether through the intoxication of power, or a just suspicion of conspiracies to unseat him, Richard imprisoned several notables, and executed one. On July 6, 1483, he had himself crowned as Richard III, and on July 15 the two young princes were murdered in the Tower—no one knows by whom. Once again the nobility rose in revolt, this time led by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. When their modest forces met the King’s far larger army on Bosworth Field (1485), most of Richard’s soldiers refused to fight; and—lacking both a kingdom and a horse—he died in a desperate charge. The Yorkist dynasty ended; the Earl of Richmond, as Henry VII, began the Tudor line that would close with Elizabeth.

Under the blows of necessity Henry developed the virtues and vices that seemed to him demanded by his place. Holbein pictured him in a Whitehall fresco: tall, slender, beardless, pensive, humane, hardly revealing the subtle, secret calculation, the cold, stern pride, the flexible but patiently obdurate will that brought England from its destitute disintegration under the sixth Henry to its wealth and concentrated power under the eighth. He loved “the felicity of full coffers,” says Bacon,8 because he knew their persuasiveness in politics. He taxed the nation ingeniously, bled the rich with “benevolences” or forced gifts, made avid use of fines to feed his treasury and discourage crime, and winked as judges fitted the fine not to the offense but to the purse. He was the first English king since 1216 who kept his expenses within his income, and his charities and generosities mitigated his parsimony. He devoted himself conscientiously to administration, and skimped his pleasures to complete his toil. His life was darkened with perennial suspicion, not without cause; he trusted no one, concealed his purposes, and by fair means or dubious he achieved his ends. He established the Court of Star Chamber to try, in secret sessions, obstreperous nobles too powerful to fear local judges or juries; and year by year he brought the ruined aristocracy and the frightened prelacy into subordination to the monarchy. Strong individuals resented the decline of liberty and the desuetude of Parliament; but peasants forgave much in a king who disciplined their lords, and manufacturers and merchants thanked him for his wise promotion of industry and trade. He had found an England in feudal anarchy, a government too poor and disreputable to win obedience or loyalty; he left to Henry VIII a state respected, orderly, solvent, united, and at peace.

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