Thursday, July 11, 2024

Relationships and Affinity During the Wars of the Roses

by C.F. Dunn 

What do recent politics, a cost of living crisis, and a pandemic have in common with a mid-fifteenth century civil war? 

A failed war in Europe, economic hardship, and a dynastic conflict threw England into political instability contributing to the outbreak of what we now refer to as the Wars of the Roses. Dominating the political landscape of the latter half of the fifteenth century, the struggle for control between the royal houses of York and Lancaster might seem irrelevant to the ordinary man and woman of the period, but there was much more at stake than who wore the crown. In an era of interdependency, no one was immune from the effects of war. 

I have long held an interest in the nature of relationships in medieval society, so much so that my university dissertation had the snazzy title typical of a nascent historian: The Power of Patronage in the 1483 Rebellion. That was a long time ago, but my interest persists and is a major theme in my current historical novels. Understanding the complex connections that bind one person to another - and the forces that can drive seemingly iron-clad relationships apart - are at the heart of what makes society tick. 

Much has been made of the development of feudalism to maintain a semblance of order in the upper echelons of society, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that feudalism was less the cause and more the result of something that was already recognised. The duty of a man to his overlord, or a lord to his king, was a formalised relationship - a contract - that reflected bonds that had long existed throughout society. Whether these were written or merely an understanding, they affected all people in all communities in the form of social and religious ties. This understanding was based upon a common language, faith, and cultural norms that bound communities from birth to death. Changes to those bonds in the shape of aliens (people from other regions, towns or countries) or challenges to the religious conventions from alternative heresies, such as that posed by the Lollards, might rock the accepted foundations, but rarely destabilised them enough to change them.

While feudalism in its original form evolved over the centuries to reflect a changing society, the fundamental aspect of relationships altered little.

It has long been recognised that relationships are tested when put under pressure. Increase that stress and what might have been cracks become fissures out of which monsters - long dormant - emerge. We need look no further than the recent COVID pandemic to witness its lasting effects in the current Ukrainian conflict, economic distress, and political instability. These echo the crises of a previous era: the twentieth century Spanish ’flu outbreak, economic crashes, rise of extremism in Europe and, of course, wars. Turn the clock back 600 years and similar trends become clear: global pandemics (murrain and plague) leading to social and economic turmoil, armed conflicts and political uncertainty. No part of any society exists alone or without feeling the fall-out from natural and man-made disasters.

Relationships based on mutual benefit are at the heart of society and never more so than during the Wars of the Roses when the contract between king and noble broke down. It was already on shaky ground. Henry of Derby (as he was referred to by later ‘chroniclers’) usurped the throne of his cousin - Richard II - becoming Henry IV, the first of what we refer to as the Lancastrian line of Plantagenets. Breaking the bond between king and lord, it sowed the seeds for future discord. Like any family quarrel, grievances festered until Henry IV’s grandson - Henry VI - no longer ruled with authority and rival claims made by his cousins Richard, Duke of York - head of the House of York - and Edmund, Duke of Somerset - representing the ruling House of Lancaster - manifested themselves in open conflict. 

How would this affect the wider community? In some ways it didn’t, the Church continued to prevail over matters of faith, merchants to trade, yeomen to husband the land. From the most elevated in society to the lowliest, marriages continued to be made to the benefit of the families, and contracts agreed for apprenticeships. It helps, however, to take a step back to look at the wider picture. While daily life was much as it had always been, the balance of power shifted, and he who held the reins controlled the granting of offices and positions of authority. The beneficiaries in turn selected men who would offer their service in return for patronage. To a greater or lesser degree, this trickle-down effect affected all regions of the country and all areas of society from church benefices to peat diggers, noblemen to merchants. 

A relationship had to offer mutual benefit to be valid and maintainable. This is the basis of contractual law even today. A contract lays down clear boundaries and affords stability and security. If a contract is broken the relationship fails - whether between two people, a community, a business, or a country - leading to uncertainty, mistrust, and a jostling for position and control.

A lord might have the service of a man, but it was a two-way benefit. The man gained not only the protection of his good lord, but also the reflected honour of association. In a period when status and precedence were keenly observed, the ties that bind were not necessarily those of servitude, but of mutuality.

Not surprisingly, there was a degree of overlap. A contract between one person and another might very well be the formalisation of a pre-existing friendship or acquaintance. The importance of seeing eye-to-eye, of liking someone, was no less valid, and is what drove some to stick with their choice of master no matter the personal consequences. However, self-interest and the desire to protect and promote the interests of the family were powerful drivers in seeking patronage, especially when the stakes were high and backing the wrong political horse might mean the difference between life and death. People were acutely aware of the vicissitudes of life, reflected in the common medieval reference to the Wheel of Fortune - the seemingly random outcome of fate as Fortuna turns her wheel, raising the lowly while casting the greatest down, only for it to turn again and fortunes be reversed. Self-interest, as a result, might lead to serving more than one master, an acceptable practice as long as there was no conflict of interest, although this was a line that could all too easily be crossed.

Relationships formed the web that held society together, but they were ever-changing, relying upon patronage, goodwill, and bonds of kinship and marriage to afford some stability in a fluid situation.

To view the Wars of the Roses as a few self-interested members of the aristocracy jostling for power is to over simplify the importance of personal relationships in maintaining a grounded society. Stability meant a greater degree of certainty in an uncertain world where there was no guarantee of employment, shelter, or food. Individuals were seen in terms of their connections and their actions were often the result of these relationships and the determining factor for decisions they made. Common to humanity, people had desires, fears, and ambition that drove their decisions, but their decisions were as much shaped by their relationships as shaping them.







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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Canterbury Tales Intervention

by Jack Heerema 

I suffer from a heroic mindset, aggravated by the romance of historical fiction.

There is no twelve-step program. There is no cure. My thought processes have become irrelevant. Is the miller telling his tale in Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale the same miller who is telling his tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? How can this be! I have clung to the desperate hope that the person who borrowed the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will return it. I have never admitted to anyone ever that I have a hard bound copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and only I know where to locate Einhard’s Life of Carolus Magnus. I went into complete denial.

I had an extreme violent reaction to this denial by writing a historical fiction novel.

The primary pitfall we heroic sufferers face is superimposing our cultural values, beliefs and sensibilities onto the time frame used as the backdrop for our narratives. Author’s such as Patrick O’Brien have avoided this trap. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a welcoming beacon for navigating the culture, sensibilities, beliefs and values of 14th century England. Those writing about the period are offered a Canterbury Tales Intervention by Geoffrey Chaucer.

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 Jack Heerema is the author of Marigold, Our Lady of Thieves’.It follows the life and fortunes of a foundling named Marion, who is rescued from a skip by Sir Kai ap Gruffydd who becomes her guardian and mentor. This story reveals how the sword Excalibur was found and how it came into her possession. On the way she is introduced to Robin Hood and the Valkyrie who would become her closest friends. The synopsis and reviews for the novel can be found at www.jackheerema.ca 


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Boxley Abbey and its "animated" rood screen...

by Toni Mount

The fully restored Boxley Abbey Barn is clearly visible as you drive by on the M20 and, originally, this wasn’t a barn but the hospitium, not a hospital but the building in which visitors were given hospitality, so more like a hotel.

A photo of Boxley Abbey by Toni Mount
Photo Credit: Toni Mount

The abbey was founded in the mid-twelfth century but a few decades on, after Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170, Boxley became a popular stopping point for pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury to visit the saint’s shrine. The Abbot of Boxley had played a part in organising Becket’s funeral. In 1480, the time of Seb’s visit, the abbot was John Wormsell.

The abbot and his monks knew there was money to be made from the pilgrims and Boxley exploited the possibilities to the full. Pilgrims could stay overnight and receive food and drink and, in theory, this was free because giving hospitality to those making a journey in the name of God was a Christian virtue. However, donations were strenuously encouraged and for those without money, a day’s manual labour at the abbey would do instead. But Boxley’s monks were ingenious at inventing ways of generating extra income. They sold lead pilgrim badges as souvenirs of Boxley, depicting what long been known as the Rood of Grace.

Every medieval church had a Rood. This was a carved figure of Christ on the cross with the Virgin Mary and St John on either side of the dying Saviour. The Rood was placed high up on the Rood Screen which divided the nave of a church – where the ordinary congregation would be – from the chancel – where the priests conducted the service. The Rood was there to visibly remind everyone why they attended church. But Boxley’s Rood of Grace was no ordinary carving: it was miraculous.

The twelfth-century figure of Christ could turn and nod its head, move its eyes, shed tears, move its lips and speak which, of course, encouraged pilgrims to be even more generous with their donations. Legend said that the wondrous figure had been carved by a poor English carpenter taken prisoner by the French in order to pay his ransom. And how did it get to Boxley? Apparently, a stray horse brought it to the abbey though how the horse crossed the Channel nobody said – it was just an extra piece of the miracle.

And that wasn’t all. The pilgrims were also given the opportunity to demonstrate their personal piety by lifting the little swaddled figure of the infant St Rumbold from his plinth – only the truly pious would succeed.

Later, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants denounced the Rood as fraudulent Roman Catholic superstitious nonsense. And it was a fraud as Geoffrey Chamber, Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner, who oversaw the dissolution of Boxley Abbey in 1538, discovered. When the Rood was taken down, its mechanism of levers, rods and wires was revealed: a marvel cleverly constructed by man but not a miracle of God. But when Geoffrey asked the abbot, John Dobbes, and the monks about it, they claimed ignorance, saying they knew nothing of these workings.

Photo Credit: Toni Mount

Ruins of Boxley Abbey’s gateway The Rood was exhibited in Maidstone’s market place the same day, so everyone could know it was a fake, before being taken to London. There, outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bishop of Rochester – in whose diocese Boxley Abbey stood – publicly denounced the Rood as a piece of Roman Catholic fakery, designed to deceive the people and persuade them to give money to the monastery and, by extension, to the pope. The Rood was then chopped to pieces before being thrown on a bonfire along with other saintly and so-called ‘miraculous’ relics.

As for little St Rumbold, that was also a scam. Before attempting to lift the statue, a pilgrim had to make a donation. Only if the pilgrim was deemed to have been as generous as his purse allowed did the supervising monk release the bolt holding the statue in place. So the lifting of the saint wasn’t proof of righteousness, only of the monk’s decision that you’d given as much money as you could afford and no less.


The Colour of Sin by Toni Mount

In today's article, Toni Mount continues her online book tour with an article about Boxley Abbey in Kent

In Toni Mount's latest Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Sin, her hero goes on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrim band spend a night at the Cistercian monastery at Boxley, just north of Maidstone in Kent, where a few ruins can still be seen today. 

Toni Mount is the author of the award winning "Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery Series". You can find out more about Toni on her website http://tonimount.co.uk