In a revolting state

An Illustrated History of Late Medieval England - Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship - The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr

July 18, 1997

The distance between the computer screen and the printed page has never been shorter: publishers insistently demand new work. No historian need now echo Marlowe's Tamburlaine: "And shall I die and this unpublished?". The downside of this growth of production is that readers find it difficult to keep up and quality control slackens. These three books are a good cross-section of what presently jostles for attention in the bookshops. There is an authoritative work by an established author, a first book which tries too hard to be adventurous, and an attempt at synthesis and overview which fails because it is the product of too many pens.

Rees Davies has a rare knack of producing books with the stamp of lifetime achievement and of doing so every few years. His study of the Owain Glyn Dwr revolt is bound to reach a wide audience, attracted by the charisma of the protagonist with his Shakespearean overlay and reputation as a magician. Set alongside Owain's enduring reputation, information about the man himself is pitifully thin but Davies is too wise to give what little there is away easily. Instead, he guides his readers to an understanding of the revolt and its leader through a series of lateral approaches. Whether he is describing the efforts of English immigrants to create a little England in south-east Wales or the qualities essential to leadership in a medieval society, lineage, honour and justice, he has a mastery of his material which gives his writing exceptional clarity and purpose. He is at his very best discussing how social memory entrenched Owain as a national hero, a status he shares with Henry V, his youthful English adversary. Henry's exploits were much more written record than local tradition and comparative study of the two men's developing reputations in the context of their national historiographies would be worthwhile. The only regrettable aspect of this well-crafted book is that the attention to detail in the fine original hardback is not reflected in the new paperback version. Too many corners have been cut in presenting charts and illustrations.

Part of Davies's skill is that he sticks closely to his carefully defined theme. At the end of his book readers will find their understanding of the middle ages enhanced and possibly altered but not as a result of sweeping conclusion or speculation appended to the main body of the work.

John Watts comes from a more expansive tradition. The core of his research is the dominance of the Duke of Suffolk at the court of Henry VI, a period lasting 14 years. From this he sets out both to reinterpret the entire 39-year reign, and even more ambitiously, to establish a model of the 15th-century constitution. Not surprisingly, the result is a book which is top heavy with commentary and speculation.

Watts starts from the assumption that Henry was completely incapable of exercising his royal will as king, not just during his minority and his madness of 1453 to 1454 but throughout his reign. Even the educational foundations, Eton and King's, usually considered Henry's principal positive achievements, are taken away from him by Watts. Instead, he argues that government was exercised in Henry's name either by councils or by noblemen like Suffolk who were dominant at court. The result was to crystallise concepts of public authority and national unity which were separable both from the person of the king and from monarchy itself. The old argument about the origin of the state thus arises here in a new shape. Watts is suggesting that concepts that are not usually thought to have been articulated until the time of Jean Bodin or Thomas Hobbes had begun to take shape in England about a century and a half earlier.

As so often with grand theory, an imposing superstructure is undermined by weaknesses in the evidence. For example, no attempt is made to address the question of why, if government had always been conducted only in Henry's name rather than by him, his insanity in 1453 so raised the political temperature. In 1458, Watts claims, government was exercised by a council which established a committee "to improve the king's finances". What he omits to say is that this commission was designated to investigate alchemy as a means of settling royal debts, part of a series of such commissions which had begun well before the council in question had convened. Knowing that, readers might conclude that this was not the work of a council acting independently for the public good but rather what Watts calls the "whimsy" of the king or queen.

Watts also argues that the contemporary polemicist Sir John Fortescue wanted the king's personal will to be so trammelled in the public interest that "he was not really writing about a monarchy at all". Fortescue's own categorical statement that the king remained free to do exactly as he liked is dismissed as a concession made in a dedication to Henry VI's assertive successor Edward IV. In fact, this passage in the work, known for centuries as "On Monarchy" before the Victorians christened it "The Governance of England", is in a completely different chapter from the dedication. These are matters of detail, but they go to the heart of what is a deliberately contentious book. The way the evidence is presented makes it difficult for a reader unfamiliar with the sources to distinguish between what Watts proves and what he merely asserts.

The appearance of a controversial work such as this emphasises the need for reliable works of synthesis for students and general readers. The complexities and contradictions of new research, and the need to take account of regional studies as well as cultural and intellectual history, means that an individual setting out to produce an overarching critical analysis faces a Herculean task. It is therefore understandable that many general surveys are, like An Illustrated History of Late Medieval England, collaborations with individual scholars contributing essays on their specialist fields. The problem with this approach is that it is difficult to achieve an even standard and a coherent overview. There are some fine contributions here. Ralph Griffiths, Simon Walker and Michael Hicks are skilled at binding detail into argument and have closely aligned views which lend coherence to the political sections, though many readers will by now be familiar with the wisdom. Elsewhere there are defects in the book's structure. If medieval medicine appeared in the chapter "Forms of expression" rather then under "The land and its people", Simone McDougall might have considered the influence and meaning of medical ideas rather than give a simple descriptive account. At the same time, her recommendation of the controversial works of Robert Gottfried is inappropriate in a work aimed at general readers. Greater care should have been taken to eliminate sloppy thinking. It is not, as the editor Chris Given-Wilson says, "one of history's neater ironies" that Henry VI, the only English king crowned in France, was the ruler to lose almost all English possessions there. It was cause and effect. Historically, overstretched ambition often precipitates destruction.

This is not an unattractive or uninteresting book. Despite the over-used Wilton Diptych on the cover, there are some well thought-out illustrations. There is also interesting anecdotal material but it is disappointing that so little of it is cited in the footnotes. Hopefully, publishers will soon return to commissioning works of this type from individual scholars; and will then allow them long enough to do a decent job.

Anthony Gross is an honorary research associate, RoyalHolloway, University of London.

An Illustrated History of Late Medieval England

Author - Chris Given Wilson
ISBN - 0 7190 4152 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 292

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