Ideas, Principles and Politics

  • John L. Watts
Part of the Problems in Focus book series (PFS)


On 1 May 1450, the little fleet carrying the duke of Suffolk to the continent was waylaid by a ship called the Nicholas of the Tower, whose men came and took the duke prisoner. When Suffolk showed them the letters of protection which Henry VI had given him, the men rejected them, allegedly declaring that ‘they did not know the said king, but they well knew the crown of England’ and adding that ‘the aforesaid crown was the community of the said realm and that the community of the realm was the crown of that realm’. Emboldened by this declaration, they went on to raise a banner of St George and to proclaim that all those who wished to stand with them and the said community should follow it, and join with them in taking and beheading all the traitors then in England.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    R. Virgoe, ‘The Death of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk’, BJRL, XLVII (1964–5), 499, 501.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Quotations from J. R. Green, A Short History of the English People, 4 vols (1892–3), II, p. 561,Google Scholar
  3. and A.J. Pollard, The Wars of the Roses (1988), p. 40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    See e.g. J. R. Lander, Crown and Nobility, 1450–1509 (1976), pp. 16–28;Google Scholar
  5. C. D. Ross, The Wars of the Roses (1976), pp. 37–42, 164–6;Google Scholar
  6. A. Goodman, The Wars of the Roses (1981), pp. 1–3.Google Scholar
  7. B. Wilkinson, Constitutional History of England in the Fifteenth Century (1964), chs i and ii, has been almost alone in arguing for a real conflict of principle between Yorkists and Lancastrians, at least up to 1469.Google Scholar
  8. 4.
    M. K. Jones, ‘Somerset, York and the Wars of the Roses’, EHR, CIV (1989), 285–307;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. R. E. Horrox, Richard III: A Study of Service (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 324–8 and generally.Google Scholar
  10. 5.
    C. Carpenter, Locality and Polity: a Study of Warwickshire Landed Society, 1401–99 (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 6–9 and generally.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 6.
    For an account which does seek to relate the idea of the ‘common weal’ to the politics of the period, see D. Starkey, ‘Which Age of Reform?’, in D. Starkey and C. Coleman (eds), Revolution Reassessed (Oxford, 1986), pp. 13–27.Google Scholar
  12. In addition, G. L. Harriss shows how the ideals of ‘bone governance’ (good government) may have influenced the policies of Henry V and their success, in Henry V: The Practice of Kingship (Oxford, 1985), chs 1 and 7. Finally, Horrox, Richard III, is rather more than a ‘study of service’: the themes of ‘continuity’ and stability — the latter a key element in the ‘common weal’ — are also accorded an important role in determining Richard’s political fortunes.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    Polydore Vergil, 84–95; D. Hay, The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil (Camden, 3rd ser., LXXIV, 1950), p. 13.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    C. Plummer (ed.), The Governance of England … by Sir John Fortes cue, knight (Oxford, 1885), pp. 128–9.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    See especially A. B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Durham, North Carolina, 1965), pp. 29–30, 39–40;Google Scholar
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  17. Quotation from N. Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. and tr. G. Bull, 3rd edn (Harmondsworth, 1981), p. 90.Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    J. R. Lander, Conflict and Stability in Fifteenth-Century England (1969), p. 189.Google Scholar
  19. 11.
    BL, Add MS 48031A, fo. 126r; B. Tierney, ‘Bracton on Government’, Speculum, XXXVIII (1963), 299–305.Google Scholar
  20. 12.
    W. Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England, 3 vols (Oxford, 1875–8), II, pp. 623–4, III, pp. 233–7.Google Scholar
  21. 13.
    The importance of loyalty and piety (as well as chivalry and ideas of good government) in motivating the acts of individuals is discussed in M. Hicks, ‘Idealism in Late Medieval English Politics’, in M. Hicks, Richard III and His Rivals (1991), pp. 41–59.Google Scholar
  22. 14.
    This comment appears in Q. R. D. Skinner, ‘The Principles and Practice of Opposition: the Case of Bolingbroke vs. Walpole’, in N. McKendrick (ed.), Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society in Honour of J. H Plumb (1974), pp. 93–128, p. 128.Google Scholar
  23. 15.
    This interpretation will be developed further in ‘Polemic and Politics in the 1450s’, in M. Kekewich (ed.), John Vale’s Book, to be published by the Richard III and Yorkist History Trust.Google Scholar
  24. 16.
    Horrox, Richard III, esp. chs 2, 5, 6 and the ‘Conclusion’.Google Scholar
  25. 17.
    J. P. Genet (ed.), Four English Political Tracts of the Later Middle Ages (Camden, 4th ser., XVIII, 1977), p. 189;Google Scholar
  26. F.J. Furnivall (ed.), Hoccleve’s Works, iii. The Regement of Princes (EETS, extra ser., LXXII, 1897), 1. 2885.Google Scholar
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    Plummer, Governance, 127.Google Scholar
  28. 19.
    Rot Parl, v, 35.Google Scholar
  29. 20.
    For a classic statement, see A. P. D’Entreves (ed), Aquinas: Selected Political Writings (Oxford, 1959), pp. 2–7.Google Scholar
  30. 21.
    Plummer, Governance, p. 127. (The phrase was normally applied to the pope in respect of the Church, of course).Google Scholar
  31. 22.
    This issue of how royal power should be characterised is explored more fully in my forthcoming book, The Rule of England in the Time of Henry VI. For a good short introduction to the conventional view, see A. L. Brown, The Governance of Late Medieval England, 1272–1461 (1989), ch. 1, esp. pp. 12–17.Google Scholar
  32. 23.
  33. 24.
    Note that, as David Starkey has pointed out, the term ‘common weal’ was not widely used until the later 1450s, although the concept it embodied was much older (‘Which Age of Reform?’ 19–21).Google Scholar
  34. 25.
    This version of the manifesto, taken from BL Add.MS 48031(A), fo. 139, is slightly different from the printed edition in I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford, 1991), p. 189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 26.
    S. B. Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge, 1936), p. 173.Google Scholar
  36. 27.
    J. Gairdner (ed.), The Paston Letter, 6 vols (1906), I, p. 97.Google Scholar
  37. 28.
    The last charge was made by the Yorkists against Buckingham, Shrewsbury, Beaumont and co. in 1460: see English Chronicle, 88. Similar accusations were made against the Yorkists when they were in possession of Henry VI between Northampton and St Albans II.Google Scholar
  38. 29.
    These occasions were the confrontations at Dartford (1452) and Ludford Bridge (1459), when no battles took place, at St Albans (1455 and 1461) and at Northampton (1460). Since the battles of 1460–1 form part of a civil war in which central authority had effectively collapsed and dynastic claims had begun to play a part in politics, they do not quite fit the model. It is worth noting that all five occasions fell in the reign of the ‘inane’ Henry VI, when the idea of confronting the acknowledged king may have seemed less outrageous.Google Scholar
  39. 30.
    Gairdner, Paston Letters, III, 44.Google Scholar
  40. 31.
    K. B. McFarlane, ‘The Wars of the Roses’, in his England in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1981), Ch. xii, pp. 255–6. See Carpenter, Locality and Polity, Ch. 15, for the view that Henry VII was less effective at restoring order than has usually been thought.Google Scholar
  41. 32.
    J. P. Gilson, ‘A Defence of the Proscription of the Yorkists in 1459’, EHR, XXVI (1911), 512–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 33.
    This is a central theme of my forthcoming book: see n. 22, above.Google Scholar
  43. 34.
    Even Fortescue, who set out to justify the Lancastrian claim to the throne, conceded the principle of hereditary right as the basis for royal power. To defeat the Yorkist claim, he added two riders. The first was that owing to the nature of the royal inheritance, which involved the exercise of authority over men, it could never be held by a woman. The second was that because it could never be held by a woman, it could not be transmitted by a woman either, so that Edward of York, whose claim ran through Philippa, daughter of Lionel of Clarence, could not be king. There is no reason to assume that others necessarily thought as Fortescue did and there was no clear law on the subject. See Chrimes, Constitutional Ideas, 10–13.Google Scholar
  44. 35.
    Although Fortescue had taken an active part in the succession debate, the Governance is plainly unconcerned about the dynastic title of the king. Its advice — in some texts offered to Henry VI, in some to Edward IV — is intended to aid the de facto king in assuring his throne and fulfilling his obligations to the community.Google Scholar
  45. 36.
    Fortescue’s work raises many more issues than can be considered here. A fuller version of my views appears in my article, ‘“A Newe Ffundacion of is Crowne”: Monarchy in the Age of Henry VII’, in the forthcoming proceedings of the July 1993 Harlaxton colloquium on Henry VII. C. A. J. Skeel, ‘The Influence of the Writings of Sir John Fortescue’, TRHS, 3rd ser., X (1916), 83–91, shows some of the ways in which Fortescue’s ideas may have influenced Yorkist and Tudor policy. Other useful material on Fortescue appears in the Bibliography.Google Scholar

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© John L. Watts 1995

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