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.

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