Robert Bruce (1274-1329) – Lives Our Ancestors Left Behind

Set against existing explanations of the Wars of the Roses, Hicks’s account has some strengths, but also many weaknesses. Like many before him, he offers a mixture of more fundamental and more proximate causes, the latter including matters of mere contingency, but it seems to the present reviewer that he does not reconcile these as skilfully as some earlier historians. For K. B. McFarlane, writing in the 1960s, the Wars broke out because of the inability of Henry VI to manage an essentially stable system of relations between the king and the aristocracy; they persisted because the series of usurpers that followed were initially unable to guarantee landowners the security that they needed; whether York, Warwick and Gloucester were right to rebel against Henry VI, Edward IV and Henry VII, McFarlane regards as moot, given our evidence, but we can readily understand why they did so, and also why some followed them and others did not. This is an explanation that effectively locates the role of individuals in a structural setting; it is accomplished in a masterly thirty pages; and, despite some limitations, it is still the best short explanation of the Wars. For Tony Pollard, whose very deft and even-handed textbook account has been re-issued twice, the Wars stem from underlying weaknesses in the political system: essentially a gap between the expectations and agency of subjects, on the one hand, and the capacity of the government to deliver what they wanted, on the other. While this gap could and did widen for a series of reasons more local to the later 15th century (defeat in France, fiscal and economic problems, a dynastic cleavage, a notably incompetent ruler in the 1450s and notably shrewd ones after 1485), it was the underlying cause of the Wars, as it was also – mutatis mutandis – of the troubles of 1370–1410 and perhaps 1547–53; Henry VI, Warwick, Richard III, Henry VII all have parts to play, but there is a deeper logic to events. In a third major modern explanation of the Wars – one acknowledged as such by Hicks on p. x, though dismissed as just saying what happened on p. 20 – Christine Carpenter has argued that, while there was nothing wrong with the political system, its particular way of enlisting both public and private power, especially that of the aristocracy, explains why the personal inadequacy of Henry VI had such dramatic and lasting consequences. In Carpenter’s account, the king had a fundamental role to play in balancing and merging the different elements in the constitution; if he did not make authoritative decisions and provide the right kind of leadership in the spheres of justice and defence, disorder and division were inevitable; if he was not the sole convincing claimant to royal authority, as Edward IV (until 1471), Edward V and Richard III were not, then he could not easily provide that leadership, though there was no need, in Carpenter’s view, for the unwise actions of Warwick, Gloucester and Henry VII, which played their own parts in prolonging the conflict.

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There are potential gains, it seems to me, in the prominence given to economic conditions, to the role of overseas intervention and to the role of popular politics in interpreting the Wars. Older accounts have often been too exclusively concerned with the dealings of England’s kings, lords and gentry, ignoring the interaction of these key groups with other elements in the polity, such as the commons, or with wider influences, such as continental powers and networks and the movements of the economy. While Pollard acknowledges these influences and Carpenter makes a case for why the politics of landowning should be considered pre-eminent, Hicks brings them forward and that seems absolutely the right thing to do. Like Ralph Griffiths and Richard Britnell before him, Hicks makes a compelling case for the sheer difficulty facing the government of Henry VI, in particular, as both agrarian and commercial incomes were hit hard in the late 1430s and 1440s; he also emphasises the role of economic problems in shaping the popular discontent of 1449–50 and 1469–70, discontent which played a fundamental role in enabling (perhaps even driving) the critical actions of York and Warwick, with their manifold consequences. While Hicks’s treatment of the international context is less developed and closer to the norm, he has some useful things to say about the interaction of English, French and Burgundian interests in the politics of the 1480s and 1490s, and provides a good account of the subsequent turning of Valois and Habsburg energies away from the affairs of England and towards a new front line in Italy. There is no question that the Wars need opening out in this kind of way – and indeed, there are good grounds for wanting to see other groups and contexts brought into consideration: the role of England’s towns, for instance, still woefully under-explored; the politics of Ireland, which were so important in the 1480s and 1490s and arguably at other times as well; the influence of the various cultural changes of the era – printing, neo-classicism, changes in education and literacy.


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