Lancastrian Spin

Simon Walker

  • England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422 by Paul Strohm
    Yale, 274 pp, £25.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 300 07544 8

Six hundred years ago this summer, Richard II lost his throne. Preoccupied by the attempt to shore up his failing Irish peace settlement, Richard unwisely delayed his return to the mainland in order to confront a rumoured uprising, and landed to find his kingdom already slipping from his grasp. In the hectic skirmishes that followed, the inventor of the pocket handkerchief predictably proved no match for his battle-hardened cousin, Henry of Lancaster. Tricked into surrender at Conway Castle, Richard was brought south under heavy guard. Although he was still accorded all the honour due his kingly status, his subjects could not fail to observe that, throughout the ceremonies of royalty, the Duke of Lancaster stood one pace behind him, an ominous presence in full armour. Once in London, Richard was paraded through the streets before a derisive crowd, browbeaten into agreeing to abdicate, and declared, for good measure, to be neither worthy nor capable of royal government. It only remained for Henry to advance towards the empty throne in Westminster Hall and claim it as his own.

Richard’s empty throne stands at the heart of Paul Strohm’s fine study of the textual consequences of the Lancastrian usurpation. It is both a material presence, a space to be occupied and defended by the victorious Henry, and a permanent void, a metonym for the legitimacy that the early Lancastrian kings constantly craved but could never fully attain. It represented the empty sacral centre of their rule, the constant absence that evoked from the new dynasty and its publicists the ingenious range of legitimising strategies and ceremonies that form the subject of Strohm’s acute and frequently entertaining analysis.

From the outset of his reign, Henry IV entertained few illusions about the strength of his mandate to rule, even asking the lords who acclaimed him king whether they did so truly, from their hearts, or only from their mouths. An unstable mixture of plots, rumours and prophecies soon proved his fears to be justified. Rebels disguised as New Year revellers attempted to surprise him with his family in January 1400; the following Christmas, unknown hands tried to poison his food. There were plans to smear the King’s saddle with a poisonous ointment, so that he would swell up and die, and there was consternation when an ingenious iron man-trap was discovered in the royal bed. Such domestic betrayals were only the most pernicious demonstrations of the widespread disaffection that afflicted the early Lancastrian regime. The ‘Epiphany rising’ by a group of unreconciled Ricardian courtiers was followed in 1403 by the Earl of Northumberland’s attempt to stage his own usurpation, while a series of reformist insurrections broke out in the North two years later, led by the Archbishop of York.

Although each of these rebellions was efficiently snuffed out, the conviction that animated them all, that King Henry was not entitled to the throne he occupied, continued to be widely held. In Oxford, certain clerks were reported to have wished him a short life and a bad end, because he ruled unjustly. In the Abbot of Bury St Edmund’s jail, one prisoner confided to another that the King only ruled by the advice of a devil and that his reign would bring destruction to every man’s door. More alarming still, because it was so generally believed, was the rumour that the deposed Richard had escaped from his captivity and was still alive, waiting off the coast of Scotland, ‘in an island called Albion’, until the day appointed for his return in glory.

Not the least of Henry IV’s achievements was to survive these risings and alarms, despite the serious illness that debilitated his last years, and to die safe in his bed and secure on his throne. Yet challenges to the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty continued to disturb his son’s reign. Henry V had to face a rising of religious dissidents in 1414 and was confronted, as he made the final preparations for his first campaign in France, with startling evidence of the persistence of treason among his closest companions, some of whom were proposing to advance the dynastic claims of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, against ‘Harry of Lancaster, usurper of England’. Nor had the ghost of Richard II finally been laid to rest. As late as 1419 the King was ordering precautions against ‘that fool in Scotland’, who, the Lancastrians claimed, was still implausibly impersonating the former king.

It was in answer to such threats that the Lancastrian kings and their advisers elaborated the powerful set of representational devices identified by Strohm. What was innovative about their kingship, he argues, was that Henry IV and his son did not simply react to the various challenges to their authority but sought, through the medium of their own proclamations and in the writings of sympathetic chroniclers, to shape the dangers that confronted them. Some of these pre-emptive interpretations were positive ones: the gnomic corpus of popular political prophecy was deftly reworked in order to invest the questionable events of 1399 with an aura of retrospective inevitability. A more characteristic manoeuvre was, however, the stigmatisation and caricature of any opposition or dissent in a form vivid enough to sanction the Lancastrian monarchy’s own claim to be the indispensable guarantor of both civil order and ecclesiastical orthodoxy.

By sponsoring the introduction of the death penalty for heresy in 1401, Henry IV shrewdly availed himself of a full range of ecclesiastical institutions and procedures in order to construct a theatre of orthodoxy, designed to display his fledgling dynasty’s virtues as a defender of the Catholic faith. It was a theatre in which the Lancastrian monarchs were careful to write themselves a starring role. Prince Henry won great praise in 1410 when he halted the execution of a convicted heretic in mid-bonfire in order to give the guilty man a chance to recant, and further admiration when he thrust the obdurate and ungrateful prisoner back into the flames. The many ‘traitorous plots’ that threatened the dynasty were also turned to advantage, their failure used to reveal God’s providential care for his faithful servants. Henry V’s success against the insubstantial Lollard rising that occurred in January 1414 was held to confirm his status as ‘the true elect of God’. At times of stress, a nascent nationalism was mobilised against a series of rather random targets, whether Henry IV’s foreign-born councillors, suspected of selling his secrets to the French, or Henry V’s stepmother, Joan of Navarre, who was placed under house arrest on charges of witchcraft and conspiracy.

By these means, the keynotes of Lancastrian rule were established as legitimacy, orthodoxy and national solidarity, and palpable threats to the dynasty converted into valuable resources for its vindication. The tribulations of the new regime were acknowledged, even exaggerated, but welcomed as a cleansing fire in which the faithful would be tested and the false consumed. Once in place, this proved a powerful rhetorical formula, capable of adaptation to a variety of issues. An unlikely but revealing target were the groups of false moneyers who flourished in early Lancastrian England, encouraged by the profits to be made from counterfeiting the currency at a time of chronic bullion shortage throughout Europe. False coining was already accounted a form of treason, by reason of the abuse of the king’s image and the fabrication of his legitimating authority that it inevitably involved. Yet the particular vehemence with which Henry V pursued the counterfeiters, sending the court of King’s Bench on circuit in 1421 in order to root out the practice, allowed him to mobilise and confirm a familiar series of Lancastrian claims. By defending his ‘loyal money’ against the threat of adulteration, Henry was also fulfilling his role as the arbiter of the legitimate and the orthodox against the false, the treasonable, even the heretical – false moneyers could be described by the poet Thomas Hoccleve, in language clearly reminiscent of contemporary attacks on Lollardy, as a ‘false sect’ whose actions would, if unchecked, infect the whole land with error.

Hoccleve and his contemporary, John Lydgate, occupy a pivotal position in Strohm’s account. His careful contextualisation of their writing shows how concerned poems like Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes, finished in 1411, and Lydgate’s Troy Book, composed during Henry V’s reign, were to advance the programme of Lancastrian self-representation set out by chroniclers such as Thomas Walsingham and the clerical author of the Deeds of Henry V, insistently reiterating the favoured themes of legitimacy, nationalism and orthodoxy. Yet for all their anxious loyalty, and the considerable talent for evasion and bland generalisation that both poets displayed, neither could wholly suppress the unacknowledged issue around which this vigorous textual campaign revolved: the flawed nature of the Lancastrian title to the throne. Hoccleve’s own failure of self-control, the amnesiac ‘wild infirmity’ of his middle years, becomes, in this respect, emblematic of a broader Lancastrian failure to prevent the continued articulation of alternatives to their rule – whether by those legitimists who saw in the youthful Earl of March the ‘loyal king’ that Henry of Lancaster could never claim to be, or by the Lollards, whose anti-sacramental convictions called into question the efficacy of the rites of coronation and unction on which the new dynasty so largely based its claim to rule. Hoccleve’s lament for his own adversities – ‘Upon a look is hard, men to grounde/What a man is’ – encapsulates, on Strohm’s reading, the ever-present anxiety over the disjunction between outward show and inner belief that consumed the early Lancastrian regime.

By framing his argument in these terms, Strohm has situated himself at a site of intellectual controversy, the perilous frontier where the rival concerns of historians and textual critics meet and clash. One of the strongest features of his book is the assurance with which he moves between the characteristic sources and idioms of each discipline. Lacan and Bourdieu rub shoulders, in the footnotes, with contributors to the Transactions of the Monumental Brass Society. The Third Way he pursues has, in consequence, some broader methodological interest. Although he takes historians to task, occasionally with good reason, for their ‘complacency and passivity’ in the face of documents which are obviously invested in the project of authenticating the narratives they unfold, the hors-texte remains a central part of his enquiry. Erasures and omissions in the textual record can only be identified and evaluated effectively against a full consideration of all the available material evidence. What is distinctive is that he does not seek to recover, as historians are trained to do, the kernel of neutral information obscured by the process of fabrication, but, instead, to lay bare the truth within the lie, using the assumption that all texts are selective and amnesia-prone as an ‘enabling paradox’ that works to reveal the circumstances and purpose of their construction.

Such an approach raises several issues. For readers coming at this book from the historical side of the border, declaring the diversionary nature of all Lancastrian texts to be axiomatic may seem as much a disabling manoeuvre as an enabling one, since it substantially forecloses on the possibility that a document really can mean what it says. The more carefully wrought a text is, the more fruitful Strohm’s assumption generally proves to be, but his commendable commitment to inter-disciplinarity sometimes leaves him analysing judicial and administrative memoranda with an ingenuity that it is hard not to see as misplaced. A careful palaeographical examination of the original indictment brought against the ringleaders of the Lollard rebellion admirably succeeds in demonstrating its status as a ‘working text’, revised and reshaped over a period of years, but it cannot fully establish the point that Strohm wants to make, that these revisions were deliberate duplicities, intended to create Sir John Oldcastle as the sole leader of the revolt, rather than simply the residue of a necessarily imperfect administrative process.

More broadly, it could be argued that Strohm’s inclination to privilege the textual above the material witness creates a corresponding tendency to over-emphasise the creative power of textual invention. He establishes clearly enough that, on several occasions, the Lancastrian kings sought to anticipate and control the twin threats posed to their authority by heresy and sedition. In the case of the Lollard rising, Henry V’s impressively swift counter-measures, a key element in the construction of his reputation as ‘God’s athlete’, plainly owed something to his possession of advance intelligence of the rebels’ plans. Equally, the baroque wealth of detail supplied by the suspects in the Southampton plot, which helpfully inculpated all Henry’s declared opponents in a single implausible conspiracy, probably reflects a strong sense of what their interrogators wanted to hear. To conclude from this that both incidents were ‘either invented or, if not invented, at least so extensively managed as to constitute a virtual invention’ is to overbid a strong hand. A more plausible argument would accept the independent and unfabricated reality of the threat these conspiracies posed and limit the extent of subsequent Lancastrian intervention to a degree of rhetorical manipulation designed to cast their interpretation in the form most profitable to the dynasty.

It also seems questionable, in this context, whether the linguistic collocations that Strohm skilfully exposes as characteristically ‘Lancastrian’ really were as novel, or as anchored in the anxieties of a usurping dynasty, as he suggests. The contrast between appearance and reality which preoccupies Lydgate and Hoccleve was widely anticipated in admonitions to resist the false allure of heretics that had been current for the previous twenty years. And Lollards, as well as Lancastrians, instinctively resorted to the image of counterfeiting in order to express their fears about legitimacy and contamination, employing it in a complicated pun on the topic of episcopal ordinations: ‘they make crowns in characters instead of white harts.’ Such usages suggest that, instead of inventing a new idiom of stigmatisation, the Lancastrian publicists were effectively developing and systematising an already available discourse.

If the Lancastrian manipulation of the textual record was, indeed, both less malign and less radical than Strohm argues, this may be because support for the claims of Henry IV and his son was more broadly based than he is prepared to allow. Threats to the persons of both kings, and to the security of their regime, undoubtedly existed, but they were contained and largely neutralised by the degree of popular support that the new dynasty enjoyed. There were three compelling reasons for this: the circumstances of their accession; the dearth of legitimate rivals; and the broad appeal of their actions and policies.

Richard II’s distant and unpredictable authoritarianism was a style of rule that most of his more influential subjects were happy to do without. They had attempted to rid themselves of Richard once already, when a group of leading magnates deposed him in December 1387, only to restore him hastily when they could not agree on a successor. Among the general population, Henry of Lancaster’s usurpation was greeted, not with the ‘stunned acquiescence’ diagnosed by Strohm, but with considerable enthusiasm. A Ricardian eye-witness describes how the crowds that gathered in London to greet Henry reminded each other that he had conquered the kingdom in less than a month, ‘and that he well deserved to be king who knew how to conquer’ – some even compared him to Alexander the Great. The point they were making was a substantial one. Legitimacy was, as Henry did not scruple to make plain, determined by conquest as well as by blood, and the mandate of heaven had clearly been withdrawn from the hapless Richard. The deposition of 1399 was, in consequence, hardly an ‘impossible history’ that the Lancastrians could never afford to acknowledge, and were forced to expend virtually unlimited ingenuity in concealing. Nor was it a set of circumstances ‘beyond the capacity of existing explanatory frameworks’. Contemporaries recognised it for what it was: a regrettable necessity that could be justified on the grounds of Richard’s insufficiency and criminality – both commonly accepted reasons for the deposition of a reigning monarch. There soon proved to be, in any case, no plausible alternative to Lancastrian rule. The Percies were transparent opportunists, their force spent by 1405; Edmund Mortimer was ‘but a hogge’, widely derided for his passivity; the Ricardian loyalists were a dwindling band of misfits, who barely stirred beyond the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

Most influential in securing the new dynasty, however, were the qualities that Henry of Lancaster and his family brought to the task of ruling. Henry IV’s style of kingship was deliberately unemphatic, avoiding formal statements of his royal sovereignty to such a degree that he was sometimes criticised for keeping too modest an estate. His talent lay in establishing good working relationships with trusted individuals, which allowed him to extend the social basis of royal authority by cultivating a broad range of support among the political nation. The strongest feature of Strohm’s book is its identification of a crucial element in Henry’s success: the skill with which the image of his kingship was presented and public opinion managed. What is more debatable is his assumption that this self-presentation was largely sleight-of-hand. In fact, the ideological consensus created by the Lancastrian kings succeeded because it articulated widely shared anxieties and hostilities with a new precision. Far from creating an artificial agenda on these issues, the Henrician regime had to work hard to rein in some of the more vigorous expressions of popular outrage. Thus, the growing sense of national solidarity evident in Lancastrian England created an insistent demand for an ever sharper definition of the difference between aliens and loyal subjects that sometimes proved problematic. Henry IV had to intervene in order to moderate some of the more extreme acts of discrimination demanded by the Parliamentary Commons against the rebellious Welsh, while the cosmopolitan elements within his own household, such as the Navarrese adventurer, Janico Dartasso, sometimes attracted suspicion and recrimination. Equally, the alarming experiences of Margery Kempe, a devotional enthusiast who could hardly enter a market town without being threatened with a heretic’s death, suggest that the Lancastrian enforcement of orthodoxy was driven forward by a burning popular fervour which the secular and ecclesiastical authorities could barely control. Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, the masterful architect of a counter-reformation in the Lancastrian Church, was markedly more indulgent in his attitude towards her than many of his subjects. It was for such reasons that the hesitations and contradictions Strohm detects in Lancastrian kingship passed largely unnoticed by contemporaries, who proved happy to join in the celebration of its triumphs both at home and abroad. The aura of apocalyptic expectation that had briefly gathered around the ghost of Richard II was soon appropriated by Henry V, ‘God’s celestial knight’, whose fate it would be to recapture Jerusalem for the Christian faith.