Signs of progress despite the strife

Late Medieval England, 1399-1509. First edition
March 1, 2002

Because the 15th century opens with the demise of one famous royal dynasty and closes with the secure establishment of another, it has traditionally been perceived as an interlude of dynastic and political instability between Plantagenet development and Tudor restoration. A book covering precisely this period, and devoting two-thirds of its text to a detailed political narrative, naturally derives coherence by reflecting this construction. Topped and tailed by a historiographical introduction and an epilogue, a central section also offers a portrait of English ( sic ) society, religion and government.

The story is well told, in elegant prose, divided into clear sections, and Pollard deftly incorporates a wide range of colourful material. With the aid of clear guidance in footnotes and bibliography, he succeeds in offering a full summary of recent research. Students and sixth-formers will find the book a useful foundation to the study of the 15th century.

Comprehensive coverage, not surprisingly, reveals unresolved tensions in the current state of knowledge, evident above all in the contrast between the chronological and analytical sections of the book. While the ebb and flow of politics through six depositions and sporadic civil war seems rather dismal, social development is appraised more positively: the higher per capita standard of living enabled the smaller population to diversify economically and culturally, and to bequeath a more pluralistic society to the modern era. Non-political historians seem to have thrown off the Whig view of catastrophe more successfully than their political colleagues.

This may be because the dominant account of the springs of political action, characterised here as "the pursuit of self-interest and advancement", is too one-dimensional. Pollard acknowledges this, but asserts that the alternative (unconvincing) motivation is "altruism", which no historian is in fact arguing. It is evident that landowners strove competitively for wealth, power and honour. But self-interest takes different forms - protective as well as ambitious, collective and consensual as well as disruptively individualistic. Moreover, the nobility and gentry were bound by obligations, to kin, ancestors, heirs, allies, clients and servants. Their interests operated within a context of shared attitudes and assumptions that formed the aristocratic mentalit é. Self-interest and ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Essential to this culture was the recognition that endemic competition had to be contained by royal rule. The king's function was to preserve stability by resolving conflicts of interest, as well as by defending his lands from external threats. The mid-15th-century problem was that, while Henry VI was not up to these tasks, the system did not enable anyone else to take ultimate responsibility for governance. Political breakdown thus flowed from a structural predicament, and in turn shaped structural changes in the "new monarchy" of the usurpers.

For all its inclusiveness, this volume has bypassed an alternative political history that would have enabled the 15th century to seem less like the chaotic dynastic struggle of Tudor myth.

Benjamin Thompson is a fellow and tutor in history, Somerville College, Oxford.

Late Medieval England, 1399-1509. First edition

Author - A. J. Pollard
ISBN - 0 582 03135 4
Publisher - Longman
Price - £16.99
Pages - 454

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