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In August of 1453, King Henry VI ceased even to appear to be a competent monarch. He fell into a mysterious catatonia that lasted about eighteen months, and emerged with an irremediably tarnished reputation. In May of 1455, at St Albans, forces led by the Duke of York defeated the royal army, and the Wars of the Roses began. When, thirty years later, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, English government was on a new footing. The transition from Henry VI to Henry VII is arguably the most interesting in English history. In 1453, England was unmistakably medieval. It was something else in 1485.

For what it's worth, the cause of Henry VI's illness was genetic. His grandfather, Charles VI of France, spent most of his long life running in and out of madness. Royal unsteadiness, in both cases, created a power vacuum. In France, the king's powerful brothers fought to control access to royal power. In England, where Henry VI came to the throne as a child without siblings, the factions that would eventually launch a string of short-lived civil wars gathered around the king's cousins, descendants of the prolific Edward III and his equally philoprogenitive son, John of Gaunt.

"Lancastrian" and "Yorkist" are anachronistic terms that nobody used in the fifteenth century. "Lancastrian," in fact, meant little more than "anti-Yorkist." The Yorkist party gathered round Richard, Duke of York, descended from Edward III via two different ancestors. York would die at the threshold of victory, in 1460, fallen in the battle of Wakefield. In the following year, his eldest son would climb the throne as Edward IV. Edward turned out to be a good king in that he used his strength to introduce many streamlining innovations to the function of government, most notably in the field of fiscal management.

The Lancastrian party was gathered around Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's queen. Margaret was vilified from the start as a transgressive woman who rejected her rightful role (submissive spouse) to interfere with Yorkist control of government. For even when her husband regained his health, he failed to demonstrate any monarchical backbone whatsoever. Margaret rallied the Lancastrian cause largely to protect the interests and claims of her son, Prince Edward. As a woman, however, she could claim no authority of her own. An interesting recent book by Helen E Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England (Boydell, 2003) strips away the myths about Margaret and replaces them with a carefully reconstructed context, in which Margaret's position is shown to have been untenable.

I have never read a history book quite like this. Professor Maurer scrupulously presents her evidence as it would have been seen by its actors - without foreknowledge. This is not to say that she tries to hold the outcome of Margaret's ill-fated career in suspense. It is in fact very unlikely that anybody unfamiliar with the period might read Margaret of Anjou without discomfort; the author quite rightly assumes familiarity with the material. The reader's familiarity with "what happened" allows Prof Maurer to explore the alternatives that might have been foreseen at any given moment. When did Margaret decide to "take action," and how in fact did she do so? The answers to these questions unfold carefully. There is a subconscious theme or motif here, whispering until the last, "not yet."

Prof Maurer notes at the outset that while the character and objectives of the other players in this grim family saga - all of them male - have been subjected to reconsideration by the latest historical methods, Margaret's have been allowed to stand, lumpwise, more or less as Shakespeare presented them. One of the most exciting moments in all of Shakesepare's tripartite coverage of Henry VI's reign is 3 Henry VI, I, iv. Richard, Duke of York, has been captured by Margaret. She taunts him and then she stabs him, but not before he insults her:

She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,

Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth -

How ill-becoming is it in thy sex

To triumph like an Amazonian trull

Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!

Margaret is traditionally castigated for interfering in a man's world and for doing so incompetently, causing a lot of unnecessary bloodshed. Prof Maurer demonstrates that Margaret's interference was cloaked in carefully-considered expressions, suited to a woman's tongue. That she refused to surrender the government to Yorkist control, and eventually to a Yorkist usurper, hardly seems unnatural now, but it was thought to be unnatural at the time. Margaret may have seen herself as the driving force of the Lancastrian cause, but she took pains to avoid presenting herself as such. When her husband was held in captivity by her enemies, she put herself forward as his representative, or as the representative of her son. The very success of her campaign, in 1471, to regain the throne for Henry was in fact a disaster for her enterprise, because the king on his throne must act for himself, and this was something that Henry simply couldn't do. Margaret was married, in effect, to a sash-weight.

Inevitably, I pulled down S B Chrimes's Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Henry VII (Macmillan, 1964), a book that I have read several times and that I heartily recommend to anyone who's both curious about the period and also in search of a good, quick read. At under two hundred small pages, Professor Chrimes's exposition of the Wars of the Roses (which he doesn't write of as such) covers the ground with alluring speed and cogency. A random paragraph (about Henry VI's father):

An unpleasant episode this must have been to Henry V, but not unduly disturbing. It was at best a far-fetched and feckless plot, a last flicker of the Mortimer spectre than the first presage of the Yorkist nightmare. There was indeed no genuine Yorkist colour to it. Richard of Cambridge's and Anne Mortimer's boy (the duke of York of the future) was as yet only two or three years of age, much too young to meditate upon his descent from two of the sons of Edward III.

They don't write like that anymore, sadly. In Prof Chrimes's hands, what I've called a grim family drama is just that. The crown belongs to the head of a family. The relationships and characters of a vast family's members drive the motor of events. There is almost no other consideration. Political programs? Government initiatives? Popular input? These have no part to play in the story. I say "almost" because Edward IV was a constructive monarch who took his royal responsibilities more seriously than most of his predecessors. Otherwise, however, it's a family fight fought on the stage of a budding nation. Real power is the objective, and whoever has it can tell all the other players what to do. Failure to wield power is catastrophic, because competitive junior members of the family advance their claims in ways that always involve serious civic disturbance. It's your basic mob problem.

Professor Chrimes makes some judgments that might surprise gentle readers. He admires the firmness of Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII, and has little sympathy for the "saintly" Henry VI or for the princes in the Tower. The elimination of Edward's youthful sons by their uncle was probably a good thing for England. So was Henry Tudor's intervention two years later, after the death of Richard's only son. It wasn't enough to be strong yourself; your sons had to be strong, too. And you certainly had to have them. Both Richards in this story may be said to have lost their crowns for failure of issue.

In just a few more than two hundred years after the Battle of Bosworth Field, a very modern-seeming England stopped depending upon strong monarchs, and began to vest real power in a characteristically mystical entity, "the crown in Parliament." The occupants of the British throne would concede what Margaret of Anjou wouldn't: power. The path to this state of affairs was smoothed by the elimination of "over-mighty subjects" - grandees with royal blood in their veins. Those who didn't perish in the pitched battles of 1455-1461, 1470-1, and 1485 managed in after-years to find their ways to the scaffold with lemming-like assiduity. The last of the lot, George of Clarence's daughter, Margaret, lost her head, even though she was a retiring old lady, in 1541. Thereafter, the aristocrats of England were a class apart from royalty. (The late "Queen Mum" was an outstanding exception to this rule.) No longer dating from the Conquest, most great families rose during or after the Tudor dynasty. They eventually found peaceful pursuits to occupy them, coming to a rough understanding that, while a title didn't bar its possessor from taking a strong part in the governing of the realm, it didn't guarantee anything, either. As a result, England never faced the tensions that overwhelmed France in 1789. Its revolution began in 1455. (October 2005)

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