Hicks, The Wars of the Roses and a whole bunch of questions

Posted: November 29, 2010 in Hicks

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Michael Hicks’s new book The Wars of the Roses. He’s been my go to guy for a while now, though that certainly hasn’t precluded me from reading, enjoying and getting a great deal from the work of others. This new take on this turbulent time is not a disappointment. This, however, isn’t a review of the book. Rather it’s a brief look at some questions that have been thrown up – questions that I need to find a way to answer. It’s important to point out that whatever answers I come up with won’t be the right ones. They can’t be. If that had been a possibility, someone else – more academically qualified, with access to the primary sources and quite possibly with a better brain than mine would have found them.

This book has made me question a lot of the things I thought I knew. Not the facts, the events, but the people. The subtitle of this blog is An Antidote to Literary Cardboard Cutouts – the stereotypes, some of which I’ve battled against and some of which I’ve embraced over more decades of reading about (and attempting to write about) the Wars of the Roses than I care to admit to (in my defence, can I say I started young?).  Hicks has thrown me some loops and I’m trying to sort out the Nevills I know and love from the residue of those other Nevills that writers of historical fiction have used to plague and enrich the lives of their real characters. To my relief, I’m finding that a lot of the things I know I can go on knowing. The rest of it consists of barely formed questions that will lead – inevitably – to other questions.

The more I think about the task I’ve taken on, the more daunting it is. Not just because of the size and scale, but because – if I get it right – these could prove to be quite important books in the universe of historical fiction. Not, I must stress, because of any amazing talent on my part, but because (recent historical romance attempts notwithstanding) it will be the first, real comprehensive attempt to fictionalise the lives of people who, if they appear in historical fiction at all, are almost peripheral characters. The gods in the machinery of other people’s lives. So, I have to get them right, and not just historically right.

Hicks takes the revolutionary approach in his new work of looking at the Wars not as something with a start (say 1455) and an end (maybe 1485, possibly 1487), but as a time and a series of events that were lived through, influenced and caused by the people who lived through them. No-one was muttering “Can’t wait for 1485, then these bloody wars will be over!” Hicks contends that there were several times when people quite legitimately thought they were over. And this is where the questions come in.

1.  Why did the Nevills (Salisbury and Warwick in particular) remain associated with the duke of York between the collapse of the 2nd protectorate (1456) and the flight from Ludlow (1459)? That neither York nor Warwick was prepared to abandon Salisbury and his countess after the battle of Blore Heath – they could have taken advantage of an offer of pardon, the Salisburys weren’t included in it – is understandable. By that time, there must have been a sense that they were all in it together. Salisbury was Warwick’s father, after all. But before then? Leading up to that almost penultimate bout of plotting against the king and his government – why did the Nevills join him? York had tried three times previously, had had shortlived success once, legitimate power once and failed to the point of (at least in his eyes) exile and humiliating back down on at least three occasions.

Easy answers I’ve dismissed (at least as single-causes):

• Family loyalty . Salisbury wasn’t York’s only brother-in-law. He had others who didn’t associate themselves with him quite so closely. Though his sister’s Bourchier in-laws did from time to time, they weren’t consistent.  Other writers have gone with the “the Duchess of York was Salisbury’s favourite sister” line, but for me it’s neither logical nor sufficient reason, even if it could be verified.

• Anticipation of rewards. The Nevills have been described as ‘greedy’ by a number of historians, and this might be a reason why they’d be prepared to hang out with York, especially if they thought (despite their low numbers and despite their lack of sustained success) that he had a chance of winning. But they already a a bunch of stuff, either courtesy of their ability and/or sphere of influence (the wardenships of the Scottish marches, for instance) or their previous association with a York led government (Warwick’s Captaincy of Calais).

• Isolation from court. There is simply no evidence of this.

• The growing enmity of queen Margaret. This doesn’t seem to have been much in evidence until after the Act of Accord.

• The Nevills thought that York was the right person to lead the government. This is conceivable, but if it’s the case it requires a whole new look at the Nevills. From ‘greedy’ and ‘self-serving’ we’d need to make a radical shift, probably not quite to ‘altruistic’ but somewhere closer to it than they’ve traditionally been situated. It may well be that they thought themselves, what with that royal blood they seem to have been so conscious of, as the natural holders of government. Warwick certainly seemed to later on in the Wars. And York might have been their best chance of getting there. This also necessitates a belief that they thought him capable (despite evidence to the contrary) of gaining and holding onto power and authority.

I suspect this is a far more complex issue than any of the possibilities above and may well be a combination of some/all of them and more. But if I want to present an argument more convincing than “Cecily was Salisbury’s favourite sister”, I have to get to grips with this question and try and figure out an answer that not only has a logic within its historical context, but matches the internal logic of the story I’m telling.

None of these reasons on their own will do. While I firmly believe that very little is done for a single reason alone, frequently there’s one that proves to be the tipping point. That’s what I need to put my finger on. I haven’t found it … yet.

2. Why did Warwick’s daughters marry as they did?

I’ve said before that I reject the view of Warwick’s daughters as his ‘pawns’. This seems to me to be a very modern view of what must, for a lot of us, look to be the lives of young women very much in the control of others. It’s hard to know just how much power women had/felt they had within what we view as quite narrow boundaries. There’s strong evidence to suggest that individual women operated quite successfully and autonomously, without overwhelming restraints from their husbands. Others certainly didn’t and not all marriages were either successful or joyously happy, especially for women. The Salisburys, Warwicks and Yorks do seem to fit into the first category rather than the second – as in fact do Warwick’s sisters and, from the scant evidence I’ve found, his two married brothers. The Nevills seemed to have been good at marriage.  At some point in his life, Warwick must have realised that there would be no son. I’m not suggesting that he then turned his attention to his daughters in a ‘make do with what I’ve got’ capacity. But his future, and the future of his line (whether they carried his name or not) depended on them. The matches he made for both Isobel and Anne were contracted in order to achieve one thing – to make one of them queen. A lot of the time, we focus on what this might have meant for Warwick. Inheritance – and its flipside, the future – were hugely important to people at this time. I believe he was thinking at least as much of what these marriages might mean to the Nevill line and the Warwick line as he was for himself. He was treating his daughters’ contributions to the future of the family much as he’d have treated his sons’.

For Isobel, the question was very quickly moot. The Clarence option was fairly hastily abandoned. Clarence’s betrayal before Barnet must have hurt Warwick a great deal, though there was enough residual respect and, dare I say, affection for his father-in-law for the young duke to persuade Edward IV to offer one last pardon. Perhaps this was for the sake of Isobel. It must have been difficult for Warwick to contemplate the loss of his daughter at this point. Despite the awful consequences in the channel, with the loss of her son, he hadn’t left her behind in hostile territory. I think this is another important point that’s often missed – the importance his wife and daughters had in his life. So, there’s a kind of sub-question here:

•  How was the loss of Isobel coped with when Clarence defected to his brother? Especially if, as I believe, she played a substantial role in the reconciliation. What was her thinking? And did her father understand?

While later, after the death of her first husband, queenship must have been far from Anne Nevill’s mind, her marriage to the duke of Gloucester suggests that she shared her father’s way of thinking. Whatever it might have meant personally, dynastically it was the best match she could have made. Which leads me to another question:

3. How much, if any, did Anne Nevill influence her husband’s thinking with regard to his own chances of kingship? I mean, we’re talking here of a young woman who was brought up to believe that she had an important and significant role to play in the family’s future. Her children and her sister’s – even without the Nevill name – were to fulfill all the requirements of grandchildren for both their parents. For a few months, she was the wife of the rival heir to the throne – a throne her father was trying to secure for her. At 15, newly widowed, essentially orphaned by her father’s death and her mother’s retreat to sanctuary, a prisoner of her sister and brother-in-law, she negotiated a marriage between herself and the most powerful available bachelor in England. The best match she could possible make, someone who would look after her, her inheritance, her father’s legacy in the north of England and (she had to presume) the future of both the Nevill and Beauchamp blood, if not the names. I doubt she faced the prospect of being Richard III’s queen with any qualms or fear. Her son was to be king. Finally, she was to achieve for her father the dreams he had and must surely have passed onto her. Did she have any role to play in Gloucester’s decisions?

4. What really made Warwick make that alliance with Margaret of Anjou?

I’ve never been convinced that Edward IV’s marriage alone turned Warwick away from the king, as much as I agree with both Hicks and Warwick that it was disastrous. Foreign policy, a feeling that he was being shunted aside, loss of control of so much of what he’d held in the early years of Edward’s reign – all these (as well as his views of the Wydevilles) would have had some bearing very much on his relationship, and the break, with Edward. But that’s not the question. Why did he make the decision to restore Henry VI? The pathetic picture of the archbishop of York parading Henry through the streets of London in a shabby gown has coloured a lot of the way we think about the readeption. It was only shortlived, but it needn’t have been. Henry’s return was quite popular, both with the nobility and the commons. Had Warwick won at Barnet (and therefore perhaps Tewkesbury wouldn’t have been fought, or at least not a battle in that particular place with those particular outcomes), especially if the York brothers had been killed or captured, Henry would have remained on his throne, Warwick’s son-in-law and daughter, Anne, would have succeeded and Edward IV’s first reign would have been an interesting footnote to history. Of course, we can’t say all would have been peaches and cream – we’re talking about the earl of Warwick and Margaret of Anjou here!

I wonder if Warwick (besides the whole turning daughters into queens thing) might have started questioning – genuinely – the rightness of what he’d helped do in 1460/61. Did he perhaps, as well as everything else, start to think that maybe Edward IV had been a bad choice as king? Not for his dissolute life, or his bad marriage, or his quarrels with Warwick, or his sacking of the archbishop – or at least not solely – but because it hadn’t been the right thing to do and the king, the real king, was in exile and all would be well if he was brought back. Especially if he was brought back under Warwick as chief counsellor. Especially especially if he had a young son married to Warwick’s daughter so that his chief counsellorship could continue well into Warwick’s old age. As I said, I’m not a huge fan of single-cause answers. There’s a commonality runs through the manifestoes written between 1455 and 1470. Bad government, wicked counsel, economic woes, a suffering commons… Warwick authored (or at least co-authored) them all. Maybe he found a formula early in his career and stuck with it, or maybe he believed this stuff to a greater extent than the label Yorkist propaganda has allowed us to believe. That might be something else that balances out the ‘greedy Nevills’ side of the scale. I’m not saying they weren’t, they certainly hoovered up every position, honour and advantage that came their way – especially Warwick, but I don’t think he was an advocate of the something-for-nothing school. The world didn’t so much owe him the rewards as a monopoly on the chance of winning them. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important one.

4. Related to this – was John Wenlock (Warwick’s right hand in Calais) working on him? This is a brand new question. The assumption has always been that Wenlock fought for Henry because Warwick did. But there’s a vast and convoluted conspiracy Hicks mentioned (that I’m going to have to read over again – slowly) that might suggest it was the other way around. I need to know more about what was going on in Calais. What was it like there? How English did it feel? How ‘Warwick’ did it feel? I knew there was Calais research in my future, but I’m thinking now that it needs to be a little deeper than I’d assumed.

5. Just getting off the Warwick train for a moment, I’ve alluded to this next question on facebook. It’s the one about the marriage between Maud Stanhope, Lady Willoughby (widow of Thomas Nevill) and Gervase Clifton, a staunch Lancastrian executed after Tewkesbury. Why did Maud marry him? Was she, in fact, a dyed in the wool Yorkist widow who was encouraged to marry a man she would have known (Clifton lived within a day’s ride of Maud and Thomas in Nottinghamshire) in order to keep or get him on side? Or was Maud a secret Lancastrian? (Her first mother-in-law, the elder Lady Willoughby, had lent her house to the Exeter/Percy plotters in 1453/4.) Or was she totally apolitical and married Clifton solely for personal reasons? I’d rather like to get a handle on that one!

6. Henry Fitzhugh. You knew he was coming up, don’t pretend otherwise! Up till now (and this may well continue) I’ve credited Fitzhugh’s actions during Warwick’s rebellion to a personal sense of loyalty to Warwick himself. Fitzhugh didn’t join his his brother-in-law’s side till after Towton. He didn’t take the field at that battle, or any of the previous ones, for either side, but he does seem to have been with the king’s army from first St Albans to Towton. Did he not fight because he wasn’t allowed to? The commanders feeling that he represented too high a risk of betrayal. Or did he manage to avoid it? How comfortable was he as a supporter of Edward IV? Did he support Warwick’s rebellion because he saw it as his chance to help bring about the return of Henry VI? Or was I right all along – his loyalty was to Warwick, very strongly and very personally? He fled to Scotland while Warwick was fleeing to France. He returned home, pardoned along with almost his entire family, didn’t fight on either side at Barnet and Tewkesbury and died in the middle of 1472. I think he was probably already quite ill by April 1471, though there’s nothing anywhere that tells me the cause of his death. It just makes more sense than him staying home and refusing to fight either on the side of the brother-in-law he’d risked so much for, or the king who’d just pardoned him. There might have been a good deal of pressure from a number of sides, and there may have been letters explaining why he couldn’t fight. Someone needs to find the Fitzhugh Letters, I think they’d prove extraordinarily interesting. I’d really really like it to be me!

7. Moving on to 1483 now. Two questions, one I’ve discussed earlier. What, if any, influence did the duchess of Gloucester have on her husband’s decision to take the crown? Which partly depends on my answer to the second question: When did Gloucester actually make the decision? And what was his tipping point? I’ve long suspected it had a great deal to do with the Wydevilles, rightly or wrongly, and his view of their potential rule through the young king. Again, I’m not sure that that’s enough on its own. And: why Hastings?  I’m going to table these questions, as I haven’t drilled down very deeply into this yet. But I don’t feel I can write the story of Anne Nevill without it.

There are more questions about the Fitzhughs and the Lovells. (Again the Fitzhughs are almost criminally underrepresented in this book, but as I may be one of the few people in the universe who routinely turns to F in the index in order to rate a book’s soundness, this may be a tad unfair.) They were walking a tightrope under Henry Tudor, at least until the (sadly way too early at 30) death of sir Richard Fitzhugh – son of Alice Nevill and Henry Fitzhugh – who fought for Richard III at Bosworth, submitted to Henry Tudor and acted as his lieutenant in the north (or at least parts of it). That he was brother-in-law to the new king’s Most Wanted Man must have made life difficult for him, especially as his mother and sister (Lovell’s wife) didn’t abandon Francis Lovell, or hopes of his pardon and rehabilitation. With stirrings and risings in the north, I’m left with the intriguing question (that matters not, as Richard was dead) of whether he might have finally joined some group of rebels or another – Perkin Warbeck’s lot, for instance, had he lived a little longer.

So, that’s it, at least for the moment. I’m fairly sure I’ll be reading this book again when I get to a) 1468/9 b) 1483-5 and c) beyond. It’s so very very nice to feel like I’m looking at some of this with fresh eyes. I really do want to do the best job I can with these books, I think Hicks’s new work will help me with that enormously!

I’m glad I read it and I’m glad that the months I waited since I pre-ordered it in May and received it finally in October, months of metaphorically jumping up and down with impatience, weren’t wasted. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the Wars and, I think, will be for some time.

  1. Interesting to see how you answer all of those questions!

  2. Anerje says:

    I need to print this post off to digest it. I don’t have the book yet – am expecting it from Santa;)

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