Archive for May 7, 2011

I like John Nevill. He was a complex and interesting man, but a man of his times. The 15th century was a very different place to the 21st. A man could love his wife and children, be well read and cultured on the one hand and utterly ruthless when it came to matters of war and politics on the other. John Nevill was no different. We’re very fond these days of categorising people and putting them in boxes. Radio stations play one kind of music; demographics tell advertisers what gender and age group to pitch ads to on tv; books are written in an attempt to entrench a view of biologically based gender differences. Teenagers are goths or emos or straight edge or tagged with any one of a dozen other labels. We do the same with historical ‘characters’ as well. And that’s how we treat them – as characters. We use them to prove a point, and fiction about the Wars of the Roses abounds with them.

Here’s a little exercise. See how many people you can identify according to their archetype.

the Romantic Hero

the Greedy Queen

the Innocent

the Pawn

the Alcoholic Wifebeater

the Wicked Uncle

the Doomed Princess

the One With Torn Loyalties

the Good Who Die Young

the Foul Traitor

the Tragic Jolly Uncle

the Misunderstood Saint

the Overreacher Who Gets His Comeuppance

See how easy it is?

John Nevill is portrayed almost universally as the Tragic Hero whose Loyalties Are Torn and who dies by his brother’s side when he should – as everyone knows – have been fighting alongside his king. This is, I think, based on one line from Warkworth’s Chronicle, which I’ve discussed previously. Everything about his life, from childhood to his death at the age of 39, is explained and justified through this single line. I’m not going to revisit it except to say that John Nevill wasn’t secretly wearing the livery of Edward IV at the battle of Barnet. These chronicles, and other primary sources, are hugely important, but (as today) not everything that was written at the time can or should be taken as gospel. But what to me is worse than relying on a single sentence in a single source is that the view of John that emanates from it is contradicted by other sources, and even within Warkworth itself. This (mythical) moment in John’s life pushes back in time and gives him a saintly glow. It also serves to differentiate him from his older and, in the popular mind, much less noble brother, Warwick.

There’s a number of myths about John that seem directly connected to the Warkworth myth. I’d like to try and make sense of some of them.

1. John had no intention of suriving the battle of Barnet.

In his Warwick the Kingmaker, Kendall says this: “… his brother John, obeying the call of kinship, would fight at his side, but John’s heart was in the other camp and he had the look of a man who has lost the will to live.”

This is a twist on the torn loyalties paradigm. If it brought about his brother’s defeat and Edward’s triumph, John would give his life. Rather than see his king defeated and his brother’s Lancastrian allies triumphant, John would give his life. As romantic hero gestures go, you can’t get much more romantic – or heroic – than this.

In many respects, Kendall reads like fiction. I’ve found nothing in any of the primary sources that claims to describe the look on John’s face or what was in his heart before the battle. Kendall can’t possibly know. This is pure unfounded speculation based on the author’s personal view of John Nevill. While this might be acceptable in fiction, in non-fiction it isn’t, at least not without the author intervening and stating openly that they are speculating, and giving reasons for that.

John was not yet 40 (I haven’t found a birthdate for him, but he was probably born in 1432). He had a wife who he seems to have been at least fond of and seven living children. Had he and Warwick prevailed at Barnet, he may have had hopes of once again holding the Percy Northumberland title and lands. His capture, along with his brother Thomas, after the battle of Blore Heath, and his capture after the loss at second St Albans were the closest things to defeat John had ever faced. The major factor in the outcome of Barnet (or at least a major factor) was the confused and confusing return to the field of the earl of Oxford’s men. It was this that directly led to the breaking of John’s line and his death. For him to have anticipated, or engineered this, is a preposterous notion. John probably went into this battle as he had every battle of his life – knowing that there were no guarantees that he’d survive. Had he survived, given the description of his actions in the parliamentary roll of 1472 as “grete and horible treasons”, Edward IV wouldn’t have spared him. John had a lot to fight for and a lot to live for.

2. Edward IV shortchanged John in the earl-for-marquess deal.

This is predicated largely on the passage quoted below in myth #3. John’s earldom was taken from him and he was given a ‘pie’s nest’ to maintain his new title of marquis. John, in fact, got a reasonable deal: a new and higher title; the proceeds of two royal mines; various Courtenay estates in the west of England; a dukedom for his son, George and, also for George, a connection to the royal family by way of betrothal to Edward’s oldest daughter (and heir presumptive) Elizabeth. John was hardly reduced to poverty.

3. His decision to join his brothers, Warwick and the Archbishop of York, in rebellion was spur of the moment and resulted from the loss of his earldom.

Here’s the relevant part from Warkworth:

The Lorde Markes Montagu hade gaderyd vi M{1} men, by Kynge Edwardes commysyone and commaundment, to the entente to have recistede the seid Duke of Clarence and the Erle of Warwyke. Never the latter, the seide Markes Montagu hatyd the Kynge, and purposede to have taken hym; and whenne he was withein a myle of Kynge Edwarde, he declarede to the peple that was there gaderede with hym, how Kyng Edwarde hade fyrst yevyne to hym the erledome of Northumberlonde, and how he toke it from hym and gaff it to Herry Percy, whos fadere was slayne at Yorke felde [first battle of St Albans]; and how of late tyme hade made hym Markes of Montagu, and yaff hym a pyes neste to mayntene his astate withe; where for he yaff knoleage to his peple that he wulde holde withe the Erle of Warwyke, his brothere, and take Kynge Edwarde if he myght, and alle tho that would holde with hym.

I think the loss of the earldom hurt him a great deal. It was absolute proof of his triumph over those who had been his enemies since young adulthood, his Percy cousins. He had their title and their lands. Losing it must have been a bitter blow, but it was something that, for some months, he seemed to accept. Warwick was no doubt working on him from the moment John dispersed the rebels led by ‘Robin of Redesdale’ (possibly William Conyers). This reported speech smells of pretext, and it’s timing is perfect. Apart from ‘one of the oste’ (see myth #4), John’s men made the switch with him en masse, and Edward was forced to flee.

John had probably made the decision well before this time and, when summoned by his king to join him, he took his chance and made the switch.

What I find interesting here is that people who accept the later statement in Warkworth, that John was wearing the livery of Edward IV under his own at Barnet, don’t seem to stop and question the contradiction. Here, it is stated that John hated the king. That’s quite a strong word to use. Unless we want to accept the idea that John was wishy-washy – one day hating the king and swearing himself and his men to his brother, the next secretly pledging himself to the king and possibly planning to betray Warwick – we have to choose one of these statements over the other. As I suggested in an earlier post, not only do other primary sources not support the latter, the mention of John in the 1472 parliamentary rolls decidedly contradicts it.

4. John secretly sent word to Edward telling him of his defection and giving him time to escape.

Immediately following the passage above:

But anone one of the oste went oute from the fellawschippe and tolde Kynge Edwarde alle manere of thyng, and bade hym avoyde, for he was nogt stronge enoghe to gyffe batayle to Markes Montagu…

Someone slipped away and warned the king. There’s no suggestion that this was done with John’s knowledge or connivance. If John was playing a deep double game, he kept his face very straight indeed and was given poor reward in death. The propaganda value to Edward of John’s potential defection, at Barnet or elsewhere, would have made it too valuable to ignore. The Arrival would have made much of it, and the king himself would have surely exonerated and praised such a loyal supporter in parliament. John gave men of Warwick’s affinity no such warning before he made his switch and it seems out of character that he would have done so after. Edward’s flight is strong evidence that he had no inkling that John might still be on his side. “My lord Montagu wants you to know that he’s not joining you, and wants to give you time to escape” might have led Edward to seek safe haven within England. There’s no doubt in my mind that, had the two sides met in battle, John would have given no quarter, and Edward was aware of that. With two Nevill armies after him, he had no option but to get as far away as he could. If John had warned Edward, the king might have taken the chance that John would find some way of not engaging or, at the very least, holding his men back. The idea that the warning came from John makes no sense.

5. John deliberately made no move to intercept Edward IV when he landed at Ravenspur in 1471.

Edward IV has been described at times as having fortune on his side. His return to England was certainly one of these times. His restoration of Henry Percy to his earldom paid off. While Northumberland was in no position to rally his men to Edward’s side – they weren’t about to fight for the man at whose hands they and their families had suffered great loss – his very presence made it impossible for John to move against Edward. Here John was reaping the results of the feud he’d so enthusiastically fuelled for years. While Northumberland’s men weren’t going to fight for the king, neither were they going to aid a Nevill in opposing him. As Pollard says: “It is hardly surprising that the leaders of local society bore [John Nevill] no love. They had not done so since 1453.” (North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses, p313) Edward was free to move about the north of England at will.

6. John married Isobel Ingoldisthorpe for love.

This is pure romantic nonsense, already dealt with in some depth here.

6. The conflict between John and Henry duke of Somerset was love rivalry.

Someone in John’s family, or at the very least on the side of John’s family, killed this duke of Somerset’s father at the first battle of St Albans. Attempts were made to bring peace between the two sides at the Love Day of 1458. Clearly, at least with the junior members of various families, this failed. John has already been shown to be capable of bearing a grudge. Or maybe he just liked the excitement of feuding. The young Somerset had every right to be angry at his father’s death, and John does seem to have been the most hotheaded member of his family. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this conflict manifested itself in occasional violence.

As I said at the very start of this post, I like John Nevill. But I like this John Nevill, not the unrealistic, un-fifteenth century quasi-saint that (sadly) inhabits a lot of historical fiction. There are too many contradictions in that one; too many sleight of hand tricks are needed to keep the fantasy alive. For a while after his brother Warwick began to rebel in company with the Duke of Clarence, John stayed loyal to his king. Once he made the switch, however, he stuck with it. Instead of agonising over his torn loyalties leading up to and during the battle of Barnet, I think it’s more likely that the pain was felt (and resolved) earlier than this – during the time he was standing against his brothers. I sometimes feel there’s a bit more to it than this, though. It’s all tied up with Warwick and people’s perceptions of him and what he deserved. Warwick, they seem to be saying, deserved to die. Alone. Deserted even by his brother. John’s incipient sainthood is championed in order to throw Warwick further into the shadow as the major villain of the piece and the Overreacher Who Gets His Comeuppance.

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