Maintenance and the War of the Roses

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By Alan Rogers | Published in Volume: 17 Issue: 3 1967

The Wars of the Roses were no clear-cut dynastic conflict, but rather a series of struggles between the magnates of the age and the retinues they maintained by Alan Rogers. Anthony Pollard offered his own separate historio-graphical analysis in 2010.

In recent years, there has been a considerable revival of interest in the history of fifteenth-century England. It is no longer be the neglected chapter that it used to be; a good deal of work is being done to elucidate the problems of this troubled period, and among them is the nature of the struggles of the middle of the century that have usually been called the Wars of the Roses.

Although it is now generally agreed that the term Wars of the Roses is misleading, that there was no clear-cut struggle between two coherent and consistent parties, there is no agreement yet as to what should replace the traditional version by the Tudor chroniclers of a bitter feud over the crown of England between legitimists and usurpers. Some historians, it is true, assert that there was little widespread disturbance within the realm; but most writers are agreed that there was a period of extensive civil war and disorder over much of the kingdom, certainly from 1450 to 1485 and, on a lesser scale, for many years on either side of these dates. It is clear that there was a bitter struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York, and that from late in 1460 at least it was aimed at the succession to the throne. But the dynastic issue was not the most important aspect of the struggle; by 1460 much of the fighting already lay in the past; and after 1461, although a small legitimist party was created, most of the disturbances had the nature of victors falling out over the spoils. The Yorkist Warwick quarrelled with the Greys and the Woodvilles, not because they were former Lancastrians, but precisely because they were from 1464 such prominent Yorkists. There was nothing in the quarrels after 1461 similar to the problem of the Jacobite movement.

Nevertheless, we need not abandon the term Wars of the Roses entirely, as has been done by some recent historians. The title is no more misleading than the phrase Hundred Years’ War to describe the Anglo-French struggle of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; this neither lasted a hundred years, nor was it an unbroken period of warfare. And, at least, the term Wars of the Roses has some merit in that it implies not a single struggle, but many different conflicts with some unifying theme. It is still a useful term for the historian.

But exactly what was this unifying theme? What were the struggles all about? What was it that united the local conflicts between Lord Bonvile and the Earl of Devon in the south-west, between the Percies (especially Lord Egremont) and the Nevilles in Yorkshire, and the struggles between the Duke of York and the Duke of Somerset on a national level? It was not just that the former reflected on a smaller scale the wider conflicts. There was a closer connexion than this, and that was the link of maintenance.

Livery and maintenance are terms that still need much explaining. The magnate’s retinue in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was composed of three main groups of persons. First, there were his household and estate servants, officers, clerks and councillors, personal attendants with prescribed duties and rewards paid through their lord’s household. Secondly, and to some extent overlapping with this class, there were those retained by indenture or other formal agreement, a fixed and in general exclusive relationship of a very close nature. But beyond these there was a third group, those who took the lord’s livery—a wide group of tenants, neighbours and dependants who accepted the lord’s fee or badge, looked to him for ‘good lordship’ and supported him in his quarrels. A good deal of attention has been given to the first two groups, rather less to the third group, although it is here that the crux of the Wars of the Roses lay.

The key to the troubles of the middle years of the fifteenth century lay in good lordship. Men sought the patronage of those stronger than themselves. Such patronage, which was declared by the livery, had two results. It enabled the retainer to do what otherwise he was unable to do alone, often to assert his claims with violence against others; and it enabled him to resist similar action of the others by calling upon his good lord for maintenance. When this occurred, the lord’s lawyers helped the retainers with his law suits (maintenance), the lord’s other ‘fee’d men’ provided the soldiery to intimidate the jury and court officials (embraceries), and if necessary an armed force was sent to occupy the disputed property on behalf of the retainer.

Some examples of this may be given. In 1450, Sir William Tailboys of South Kyme, a landowner in central Lincolnshire, was involved in a running dispute with Sir Hugh Wytham of Boston. One of Tailboys’ servants was alleged to have been beaten up by Wytham, who as a Justice of the Peace sent the unfortunate man to Boston prison. Tailboys, who was also a J.P., promptly appealed to his patron, Viscount Beaumont of Folkingham castle, asking for authorization to call out all Beaumont’s men in south Lincolnshire. Wytham in his turn appealed to his good lord, Lord Welles, who was also supported—at least temporarily—by Lord Willoughby and Lord Cromwell of Tattershall castle, near Kyme; Welles committed Tailboys’ servant to Tatter- shall castle and threatened to hang him. The incident promised to grow to even larger dimensions, for behind Beaumont was the Duke of Suffolk, whose influence was felt largely in the north of the county, and behind Cromwell and the others was the Duke of York, whose interests lay mainly in the south—Grantham, Stamford and Fotheringhay nearby in Northamptonshire. What began as a street brawl at Boston could have ended in a national conflict.

This is no isolated example. Exactly similar struggles can be seen in Devon. The burning of the house of Radford, a servant of Lord Bonville, and the killing of its owner by a gang headed by the Earl of Devon’s son, meant that those who had committed the deed looked to the Earl for maintenance, while Bonville, whose good lordship had proved inadequate to prevent the incident, looked for some greater magnate to maintain him and his own retainers and to punish the offenders. The Paston Letters reveal the same struggles, the same search for protection, the same maintenance. Thus, for example, John Heydon, suing John Paston for Gresham, looked to Lord Molyns, while Paston looked to William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester; and in the later suit brought by Paston against Molyns, the latter was supported by the Duke of Norfolk. Nor is East Anglia unusual in this. The Kent of Lord Saye and Sele, and later of Sir John Fogge, was clearly the scene of struggles for influence and of maintenance similar to those engaged in by Lord Scales, supported by the Duke of Norfolk. In Yorkshire, it was especially hazardous to be without patronage. Westmorland and the west midland shires were similarly affected, and throughout the whole country, disorder resulted from the protection of the weaker by the great.

This is, of course, rather to over-simplify the actual process of maintenance. The career of the Paston family is evidence that the search for good lordship was not always easy nor fruitful; but it also plainly demonstrates that it was necessary. And, in this way, there grew up throughout the country pyramids of power. Lesser men sought the support of the gentry, J.P.’s and well-connected county families. These, in their turn, relied upon the lesser nobility, and they looked for protection to those who wielded political power. How far the incentive for this process came from above or below is not clear. Probably the local magnate, anxious to enlarge his sphere of interest generally within the shire and to control the machinery of local government, cultivated the class which provided the county sheriffs and J.P.s. At the same time, it is evident in the increasing disorder of the period that the members of this very class, each indeed with his own small pyramid, looked for support and maintenance to those above them.

The cause of this process was obviously the break-down of law during the middle years of the century. Disorder was always recurrent throughout the middle ages, and there was a continual struggle of the forces of law and order against violence and self-assertion. The people of medieval England were very litigious; but during the minority and early years of the reign of Henry VI, there seems to have been a collapse of the processes of law on a scale rarely precedented. The unprotected landholder went at his peril; he was open to any trumped-up claim by any gangster who was supported in court or out of court by some ‘good’ lord. He had to find his own protector, his own maintainer.

Nor were such alliances and relationships necessarily permanent and stable. So long as one’s patron gave adequate protection, then it was easy to remain in his retinue, to help maintain him in his struggles. But if it seemed that some other magnate would have more influence, would give greater support, then a change was easily effected. This, of course, had wider repercussions, for one’s opponents would promptly also make a change to secure for themselves better protection and influence. This is what happened when Devon and Bonvile changed their patrons on occasion. In 1461 many ‘Lancastrians’, including the son of the Duke of Somerset, found it politic to get the good lordship of the new Yorkist King. And this was particularly true of the lower ranks of the pyramids. Thus, the groupings throughout the country were in a constant state of change; and those who built up the greatest following of livened (i.a. fee’d) men were those who wielded— either directly or through their own good lords—the greatest political influence.

The middle years of the fifteenth century saw the gradual centralization of these pyramids into two great pyramids only, under the Duke of York and the Duke of Somerset, Gradually, one by one, those not involved were forced to take sides, simply because one or more of their opponents took sides and wielded greater influence against them. And each side was bitterly opposed to the other. It was not just that the pyramids grew up, dedicated to the support of every member within it; such support implied the exercise of influence against someone in the opposing pyramid. For each member of the pyramid brought with him his own personal or family vendettas. The causes of these disputes are complex—personal or family feuds, disputes over offices, land or property, especially inheritance, and the like. Few were entirely free from them. Thus, one man’s profit meant another man’s loss. This was true at all levels of the pyramids. And at the top the Duke of Somerset was bent upon the complete exclusion of the Duke of York from political power; his aim was that the full prerogative of government should be used for himself and his party. York likewise was intent on the destruction of Somerset. To maintain one’s affinity implied the destruction of the other person’s party.

Hence the struggle from 1460 for the crown. For the King did not remain idle in all this. Instead, he threw his weight actively behind the Lancastrians; he maintained Somerset’s pyramid. The balance was upset, and it was probably only the unpopular and politically disastrous actions of the Queen in 1460-1—the open threats of revenge, the sale of Berwick, the use of Scottish troops and the sack of the English towns in continental style—that gave the Yorkists the victory. For men seeking protection from such arbitrary actions, from an attitude that regarded all neutrals as opponents to be punished, rallied to the Yorkist pyramid and left Queen Margaret too weak to take advantage of her strategic victory at Wakefield in December 1460. At Towton, March 1461, the one pyramid smashed the other beyond recovery.

Until late in 1460, there was a neutral party left among the magnates. Such men had moderated Richard of York’s claim to the throne in Parliament in October 1460. But it was clear from the reactions of the Lancastrian group that such a decision was to be regarded as a partisan one. Many of those who joined York in 1461 did so not out of love to York, nor for constitutional principles, but simply to secure protection, maintenance, from a vindictive Queen and her affinity. They fought because they had to; not to have fought would have been more dangerous.

The Yorkist victory in 1461 ended nothing save the Lancastrian pyramid. New groupings arose among the victorious Yorkists, maintenance continued to be necessary. The composition of the Yorkist party in 1461 was in the very nature of things a temporary alliance rather than a permanent grouping of united interests. Rewards from Lancastrian estates given to prominent Yorkists upset once more the balances within the shires, and new feuds arose; new wielders of influence attracted their own pyramids. Until the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 ended the Lancastrian re-adeption, there was always the complication of a very small legitimist party, mostly in exile with the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Sir John Fortescue; those who had no hope of good lordship from the Yorkists were forced to rely upon a future, rather remote, hope for a Lancastrian restoration. But they were very few. Most men found within the Yorkists new centres of political power—Warwick, the Greys, the Woodvilles, Richard of Gloucester, Lord Hastings, a few even Clarence. So long as good lordship and maintenance were effective, men were reasonably content to support their lord; but when good lordship was partisan or ineffective, then they sought a new lord. It was this tendency that brought Richard of Gloucester to the throne in 1483, for there was no effective good lordship to be had from the young sons of Edward IV; and there was greater fear of the Grey-Woodvile pyramid than unified support for Richard III. And it was a similar tendency that brought Henry Tudor to Bosworth, for his supporters were those who found Richard of Gloucester’s patronage less valuable than the prospects of Tudor success. And it was this problem of maintenance which Henry VII faced and overcame. A measure of his greatness is that he kept himself independent from such groupings, even destroying those of his own supporters like Sir William Stanley, whose influence seemed to be too great to be safe.

This outline is clearly an oversimplification of what was a very complex matter of both national and local history, but it does make some sense out of a confused situation. The Wars of the Roses were no clear-cut dynastic, constitutional or economic conflict, but a series of struggles between affinities, between parties. They affected all levels of society, for all needed protection. Those who supported both sides, like a number of the towns, were following self-interest as much as those who fought clearly on one side or the other. There was no principle involved save that of the preservation of one’s self and one’s property. The disturbances of the fifteenth century as a whole are the Wars of the Roses, and it is maintenance which gives them coherence.

Anthony Pollard visits the History Today archive to examine Alan Rogers’ claim that a lack of principle among rival lords resulted in the great conflagration of 15th-century England.

Maintenance and the War of the Roses | History Today

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