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The Politics of Fifteenth-Century England: John Vale's Book.

Alan Sutton for Richard III & Yorkist History Trust xiv + 289 pp. 40 [pounds sterling]. ISBN: 0-7509-0913-7

A generation ago, when the honorand of Rulers and Ruled in Late Medieval England wrote his doctoral thesis under the supervision of K.B. McFarlane, the remarkable thing about studying the government and politics of fifteenth-century England was not how it was done but that it was done at all. We have come a long way since then, not least through the efforts of Gerald Harriss and of McFarlane's other pupils: the period is now the object of intensive and wide-ranging research. These two books provide a chance to assess some of the directions that research is taking.

Earlier historian's distaste for the era sprang partly from its unedifying moral character. The old image of bad barons squabbling with witless or self-indulgent monarchs is long gone, but some of the contributors to Rulers and Ruled remind us that the Victorians' disapproval was not wholly unearned. Simon Payling shows how an unscrupulous and acquisitive magnate such as Ralph, Lord Cromwell could exploit the harsh law of mortgages to strip lands from his more unfortunate neighbours; Maurice Keen sees in Richard II's Ordinances of War an attempt to balance the need for order and cohesion in the army against the unavoidable fact that every soldier was bent on private profit. Yet, as historians of the period have increasingly been realising, a stress on the will to wealth and power takes us only a certain distance into the motivations of contemporaries. For John Mowbray, Earl Marshal and claimant to the dukedom of Norfolk, as Rowena Archer shows, the quest for dignity was equally consuming, leading him to commission pedigrees and chronicles of his ancestors and to wage a struggle for precedence against the earl of Warwick in the Parliament of 1425.

Indeed, a striking feature of both these books is a revival of interest in political ideas and their relationship to political action. John Vale's Book, a collection of materials compiled in London in the years around 1480, provides an interesting basis for such discussion, since its contents range from works of political theory and politically didactic literature -- Fortescue's Governance of England and Lydgate's Serpent of Division -- to political manifestos and administrative documents. When juxtaposed, the language, assumptions and arguments shared by classes of text often kept separate become more evident, laying the basis for John Watts' argument that the slogans bandied about in the turmoil of the mid-century were more than an irrelevant cover for politics of naked ambition.

In similar vein, Simon Walker's contribution to Rulers and Ruled unpicks various threads in Richard II's conception of his kingly powers. Richard's stress on his duty to defend the church was echoed, as Jeremy Catto demonstrates, by the dominant role taken by Henry VI's council in the prosecution of the unorthodox Bishop Reginald Pecock to maintain the purity of the English church as Henry V had done. Likewise, Richard's elevation of the crown and stress on obedience found a counterpart in the efforts of successive Lancastrian regimes, traced by Edmund Powell, to convict Sir John Mortimer of treason for the not strictly treasonable offences of seditious criticism of Henry V, leading a gaolbreak from the Tower, and claiming alarming affinities with the Mortimer earls of March, potential claimants to the throne.

At times the fifteenth century has been neglected because the surviving sources are comparatively unforthcoming, but several authors here show the insights that careful reconsideration of those sources can bring. Christine Carpenter tries looking at the social world of the Stonor family without the benefit of the Stonor letters; then she turns to the letters, to show that they confirm what the drier sources tell us about them and therefore, we can assume, about the hundreds of gentry families for whom no letters survive. Philippa Maddern questions the way we use will, bequests to judge individuals' priorities and relationships: provisions already made in life and those entrusted to the discretion of executors regularly outweighed those made explicit in wills. Edmund Wright reconstructs the effective financial policies of Henry IV's ministers in 1406-7 from the intractable records of the Exchequer. All the editors of John Vale's Book make contributions to our understanding of its context, above all Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs with their investigation of the compiler's links with the London book-trade and service to the Cook family, leading players in the capital's troubled politics. Yet the book's purpose remains a mystery: was it a formulary of models for imitation, the basis for composing a chronicle, or merely a ragbag of items that caught John Vale's eye?

Fifteenth-century England has often been caricatured as a static if unstable place, dully awaiting the eruptions of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Tudor monarchy. Such generalisations are challenged by the continuities with the world beyond 1500 brought out by a number of the contributors to Rulers and Ruled, notably Rosemary Horrox on courtiers and Anthony Smith on the land market. The wide access to news and broad social range of those engaged in political debate to which John Vale's Book testifies, like the ready access to spices demonstrated by Christopher Woolgar's examination of household accounts from around the Wash, suggests a more open and vigorous society than our stereotypes of the later Middle Ages convey.

Yet significant and disruptive changes did cluster at the end of the century. Dominic Luckett and Richard Hoyle show this in the political sphere, examining Henry VII's use of office-holders on the crown lands to alter the balance of military and political power in local society and the contest for local dominance between Archbishop Savage, president of the King's Council in Yorkshire, and the 5th Earl of Northumberland. Political change and cultural change met in the last official document copied into John Vale's Book, a printed translation of part of the Anglo-French treaty of 1475, recently broken by the French, which Edward IV seems to have circulated to justify his foreign policy in 1482-83. But how new was Henry VII's monarchy; how much did printing really change John Vale's world? These books show there are still plenty of questions to ask about the fifteenth century, and many enterprising scholars to answer them.
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Author:Gunn, Steven
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:1039
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