Unction and Slaughter

Simon Walker

  • Arthurian Myths and Alchemy: The Kingship of Edward IV by Jonathan Hughes
    Sutton, 354 pp, £30.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7509 1994 9

When Richard, Duke of York, laid claim to the English throne in 1460, he presented himself as a physician, sent to heal the ills of the kingdom. In partnership with his apothecaries, the faithful Commons, he would probe ‘the root and bottom of this long-festered canker’ and separate ‘the clean and pure stuff from the old, corrupt and putrefied dregs’. Such medical imagery came easily to a political class confounded by two decades of dissension at home and defeat abroad. In seeking an explanation for the ills that afflicted the body politic, contemporaries looked naturally to the health of its head, the King. At the time York spoke, Henry VI’s physical and mental state had already been causing concern for many years: always abstracted and silent, Henry had lapsed into a deeper state of withdrawal in 1453 that rendered the long-maintained pretence of personal rule impossible to sustain. Doctors were summoned to the King’s bedside and diagnosed an excess of phlegm, prescribing a rigorous regime of laxatives to rebalance the humours of the royal body.

Among Henry’s subjects, however, a darker suspicion was forming: that his sickness, like the leprosy said to have afflicted his grandfather, was a punishment for the primal crime of the Lancastrian dynasty, the setting aside of the rightful King, Richard II, in 1399. In order to forestall the drastic cure advocated by York and his supporters, Henry’s advisers put forward their own solution: a search for the philosopher’s stone, the quintessence of physical and material perfection that would both cure the King’s sickness and reaffirm, by the creation of wholeness from disharmony, his right to rule.

Instead of dismissing these claims and beliefs about the nature of monarchy as rhetoric designed to justify courses of action already decided on, historians of later medieval England have, perhaps belatedly, begun to weigh their significance more attentively, seeking in them some sense of the accepted principles that constrained, if they did not determine, the pursuit of political life. It is within this context of political mentalities that Jonathan Hughes situates his study of the Duke of York’s charismatic eldest son, Edward IV. Edward has always received a mixed historiographical press. Contemporaries recognised and celebrated his energy, intelligence and good fortune, but gave due weight as well to his periodic indolence and mounting avarice. Tudor historians tended to represent him as a model ruler, sane and compassionate, in order to point up the contrast with his younger brother, Richard of Gloucester, but Edward’s reputation darkened during the Enlightenment, and the great Victorian historian William Stubbs condemned him as unsurpassed in vice and cruelty. More recent writing has brought Edward a partial rehabilitation, noting the administrative innovation and shrewd political management that characterised the later years of his reign. For Hughes, however, none of these judgments captures the essence of Edward’s rule, for each ignores or underestimates the extent to which his actions, and even his sense of identity, were defined by the expectations that gathered around him.

In demonstrating this point, Hughes elucidates a significant dimension of the political culture of 15th-century England. He shows how, in the early years of Lancastrian rule, the French campaigns of Henry V endowed his subjects with a powerful sense of historical destiny. John Lydgate’s Troy Book provided the defining self-image for Henry’s regime: the British, like the Romans, were refugees from the ruins of Troy and now, like the Romans, they would conquer an empire. This confident sense of imperial mission faded as victory turned to stalemate, but the classical idiom that Henry had favoured was still thought to be powerfully persuasive. William of Worcester’s Boke of Noblesse used Roman precedents to argue for a reconquest of the lost French provinces, while the Duke of York, newly returned from his lieutenancy in France, was compared to the Roman consul Stilicho, called by a trusting senate to defend a crumbling empire.

As the crisis of confidence in the Lancastrian monarchy deepened during the 1450s, however, new readings of the past came to the fore. Defeat abroad engendered introspection, a search for the historical origins of the nation’s present plight. The verse chronicler John Hardyng revived the ‘matter of Britain’, pointedly recounting the betrayal of Arthur by his peers and bemoaning the failures of order and justice that marked the reign of Cadwallader. Elaborate genealogical rolls were produced in commercial quantities, tracing the threatened dynasty’s legitimate descent back through Brutus to Japhet, son of Noah, and thence to Adam. Recounting British history in parallel with biblical events, they suggested an identity of experience between Britons and Jews, two chosen peoples assured of God’s grace even in the midst of tribulation. The abundant prophetic literature of later medieval England was scrutinised afresh in the search for a heroic deliverer.

Hughes shows how the youthful Edward, Earl of March, seized on the anxieties and expectations of the time in order to advertise and legitimate his own right to rule. The Yorkist livery badge of the sun in splendour, breaking through the clouds of civil strife, recalled a moment of epiphany at Mortimer’s Cross, one of the battles Edward fought on his way to the throne. A trick of the early morning light had created the illusion of three suns rising simultaneously in the sky. Edward proved equal to the moment, glossing this disturbing portent to his troops as a symbol of the Trinity, presaging divine approval of his imminent victory. In subsequent years, his advisers and supporters repeatedly parsed this vision as a sign of God’s favour. For a public educated in scriptural typology, Edward’s chosen status could be prefigured by depictions of Moses and the burning bush or of Saul on the road to Damascus – as they are in a striking piece of surviving Yorkist poster art, now in the British Library. In historical terms, Edward was the new Constantine, the British-born Emperor whose victories were preceded by a vision of the undefeated Sun. In the world of prophecy, Edward’s signifier became Sol, habitually pitted against the waning moon of Lancastrian fortunes.

Amid this barrage of claims on the loyalty of his new subjects, there were two that attained special significance in the process of Yorkist self-definition. One was an emphasis on Edward’s British ancestry. Through his grandmother he could claim descent from the princes of Gwynedd and, ultimately, from Cadwallader, thought to be the last king of an undivided Britain before the coming of the Saxons. In this guise, Edward’s rule could be represented as a fulfilment of prophecies predicting the re-establishment of a British monarchy and the end of alien (Lancastrian) domination. Such a revival inevitably invited comparisons between Edward and Arthur, the greatest of British kings, and Edward sought deliberately to develop an aura of Arthurian glamour around himself. A Bohemian visitor who witnessed the chivalric ceremonial of his Court in 1466 thought it the most splendid in Christendom. Edward revitalised the Order of the Garter as a Yorkist Round Table, filling it with his jousting companions, and constructed a new home for the Order in the elaborate chapel of St George at Windsor. Sir Thomas Malory, who enjoyed the patronage of several Yorkist notables, reflected the temper of the times in his Morte d’Arthur, recounting the conquests and adventures of a youthful Arthur and his knightly followers. Yet Malory’s celebration of this world becomes a commentary on its failure, a tale of mistrust and betrayal in a ruined Camelot, completed as the King was forced to flee into exile in 1470. Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s ambitious wife, had, it seemed, been his Guinevere: ‘Her beauty and falsehood caused such discord that caused all Arthur’s Court and his princes to be slain.’

Edward’s exile proved brief but, following his decisive return to power in 1471, the intellectual tone of his regime changed once more. Under the influence of cultivated amateurs such as John Tiptoft, the Earl of Worcester, and Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, the Yorkist Court underwent another Romanisation. Edward himself displayed a particular interest in the conquests of Caesar, and encouraged, in the later years of his reign, the representation of his rule as a new Augustan age of peace and tranquillity. Works such as Tiptoft’s Declamacion of Noblesse, printed by Caxton in 1481 alongside selected translations from Cicero, sought, by advocating a restoration of military discipline and a privileging of civil obedience above family honour, to inculcate an ethic of service to the commonweal which was thought to have characterised the Roman senatorial class. Tiptoft’s hopes look hollow in the light of the manoeuvrings that followed Edward’s unexpected death in 1483, but his insular version of Machiavellian virtù was to have a long and influential future.

In setting out the cultural background to the tumultuous events of the mid-15th century – Geoffrey Hill’s ‘thirty feasts of unction and slaughter’ – Hughes performs a valuable service. His most distinctive contribution to the analysis of Yorkist political culture lies, however, in his attempt to trace the influence of alchemy on Edward’s ideas and actions. Analysis of contemporary manuscripts allows him to evoke the alchemical world of 15th-century England in some detail. He gives due weight to the alchemists’ role as physicians, providing advice on diet and lifestyle in order to balance the humours of their patients, but emphasises the political programme that can be seen in their writings, which sought a revival of the fortunes of the kingdom and saw in the young Edward the true gold they were seeking. Particular attention is paid to alchemists with Court connections, such as Thomas Norton, Robert Barker and George Ripley, whom Hughes represents as exercising a shaman-like influence over the King, inducing their royal patient to meditate on the physical processes of transmutation as a path to self-knowledge. Ripley, in particular, emerges as a figure of considerable influence, whose dream-like visions of death and rebirth disturbed and energised his patrons as much as they were later to fascinate both John Dee and Carl Jung. In their dense symbolism Hughes finds a neglected key to the workings of the later medieval body politic, capable of explaining both the youthful vigour with which Edward seized power and, as indolence and avarice got the better of his commitment to the alchemical project, the apparent lassitude of his later years.

Such claims are bound to be controversial and, in seeking to substantiate them, Hughes is not helped by his sometimes cavalier treatment of the relevant sources (at its most striking in the bibliography, where a substantial number of British Library manuscripts are relocated to the Bodleian). The wholesale reattributions of origin and authorship that underpin parts of Hughes’s argument require a more extended discussion than he provides. As it is, there are many incautious statements. To take just one example, Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, who had been tried and executed for treason by Henry IV, was regarded by the Yorkists as a martyr to Lancastrian tyranny. An account of his death duly appears in a collection of prophetic and historical material favourable to Edward IV, labelled by Hughes The Prophetic History of Britain. This was not, though, as he implies, an original work by the author of the manuscript, but a copy of an existing tract by a Bridgettine monk, Clement Maidstone, compiled about twenty years earlier. The whole book is marred by a steady trickle of errors that undermines confidence in the reliability of the general argument. Malory, for example, is said to have finished his Morte d’Arthur in the 19th year of Edward’s reign (1480), when it is a central point of Hughes’s own reading of the text that the ninth year (1470) should be, as it is, the correct date. These may seem minor matters, but if we are to be persuaded that Henry VI was regarded as a Fisher King, presiding over a late medieval Waste Land (though it was Edward, as it happens, who died after catching cold on a fishing trip), then we need to be confident of the accuracy of the supporting detail.

Setting such worries aside, it is still difficult to accept that alchemy played as central a role in the culture of Yorkist England as Hughes suggests. Clearly, as at other periods of great political fluidity, alchemy exercised an intellectual attraction as a language of authenticity, a means to search out the gold of truth in things or men. As in all the occult sciences, however, there was always a tension between the idealised conception of the art promulgated in theoretical writings, such as Ripley’s Compound of Alchemy, and the more mundane demands of a practitioner’s clients. Edward IV possessed a copy of the Secreta Secretorum, a common piece of advice literature for princes, with some additional alchemical glosses, but it is hard to stretch the evidence of his interest in the subject much beyond the search for a means of transforming base metal into gold, the purpose of Edward’s commissions to alchemists in 1468 and 1474. Hughes’s attempts to do so require frequent resort to speculative constructions of the kind beloved of historians on shaky ground. (My favourite: ‘Edward may have come to believe . . . that his marriage on the morning after Walpurgisnacht had aroused in him a self-destructive and demonic sensuality.’)

This raises questions about the broader assessment of Edward’s rule that Hughes provides. He sees the King’s principal problems – the crisis years from 1468 to 1471 and the diplomatic defeat he later suffered at the hands of Louis XI – as best explained in terms of the defects of his character, the well-documented vices of avarice, lust and vanity. His interpretation is, in this respect, a highly traditional one, concentrating on the person of the King to the virtual exclusion of all other political actors. Yet the secret of Edward’s success has long been thought to be his ability to manage men. Contemporaries noted his faults but acknowledged, too, his shrewdness and attention to detail. On the rare occasions that we can hear the King in action, the tone is masterful and confident: ‘Brandon,’ he warned one recalcitrant local troublemaker, ‘though thou can beguile the Duke of Norfolk, and bring him about the thumb as thou list, I let thee witt thou shalt not do me so; for I understand thy false dealing well enough.’ It is in the careful examination of such day to day dealings between the King and his subjects that our best chance of capturing the elusive personality of Edward IV lies. Establishing the ideas and assumptions that contemporaries brought to bear is clearly an important part of this task and, read with a degree of caution, this book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Yorkist political life. But to concentrate so exclusively on the psychological fluctuations of a single personality is likely, in the end, to lead to as partial an interpretation of the period as the refusal to recognise any effective principles of political conduct beyond a semi-enlightened self-interest.