Posts tagged ‘history’

Monday Masterclass: The Wars of the Roses, Part One

As George R R Martin’s fortunes continue to wax due to the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series based on it, Game of Thrones, I thought I’d take a look this week at one of the main inspirations behind the epic fantasy story: the Wars of the Roses.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of conflicts in the late 15th century over the succession to the throne of England. They were fought between the houses of Lancaster and York, the eventual winner being the House of Tudor, a branch of the Lancaster family.

Houses and Roses

Plantagenet
The  House of Plantagenet was the ruling dynasty of England from the 12th century to the 15th century. It was a French family, originating in Gâtinais and Anjou. Its empire, the Angevin Empire (‘Angevin’ is a Victorian coinage), comprised, at one point, western France, the whole of England and eastern Ireland. There were fifteen Plantagenet monarchs of England, including John (who signed the Magna Carta), Henry V and Richard the Lionheart.

Lancaster
The House of Lancaster was a branch of the Plantagenet family. After the death of the first Duke of Lancaster, Edward III (Plantagenet) made his third surviving son, John of Gaunt – a man whose marriage to Blanche of Lancaster had made him a wealthy landowner – the next Duke of Lancaster. The house provided three kings of England: Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. Although Lancaster is a city in north-west England, Lancastrian land was held in Gloucestershire, North Wales and Cheshire.

York
The House of York was another branch of the House of Plantagenet and also gave England three kings: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III. The first Duke of York was another son of Edward III, the fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley. Later Yorks were able to claim a line of descent from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second surviving son, thus giving the house a legitimate claim to the throne of England. York itself is a city in Yorkshire, but York lands were spread throughout England and the Welsh Marches.

Tudor
The House of Tudor was descended from the House of Lancaster by the maternal line and illegitimate offspring. Henry Tudor became Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York, uniting the two families of York and Lancaster. His second son succeeded him to the throne, becoming Henry VIII, whose daughter, Elizabeth I was the last Tudor. The house originated from Anglesey in Wales, but also owned Richmondshire located between Lancaster and York in the north of England.

The Roses
The name ‘the Wars of the Roses’ appears to have been coined by Sir Walter Scott, 19th century novelist. The roses – the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York – are the badges we associate with each family, but they may not have been used often at the time. Livery badges of each soldier’s respective lord would have been used – Richard III’s, for instance was a white boar.

When Henry Tudor ascended to the throne at end of the civil war he adopted the combined red and white of the Tudor Rose to symbolise the union of the two families, which has been used by English monarchs ever since.

Background to the Wars

Edward III, ancestor of all the claimants to the throne of England in the Wars of the Roses, ruled England from 1327 to 1377, making him one of England’s longest-serving monarchs. He was a successful king, overseeing the development of government and initiating the Hundred Years War against France, gaining much French territory in the process. He lived so long that he was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II.

Richard II’s father was Edmund, the Black Prince, who died when Richard was nine. The following year, Edward III also died. Councils of nobles ruled for Richard II in his early years, and his later reliance on certain noblemen caused unhappiness amongst others, who then took control of the government. Later still, Richard, having taken back control, exiled or executed these men.

When his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster died, Richard disinherited John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Henry invaded England from exile in 1399 and was able quite easily, with growing support amongst the nobles, to seize and depose Richard II, making himself Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king. Henry’s claim to the throne was not cast-iron, as he was descended only from Edward III’s third surviving son. He quickly faced rebellions and died in 1413.

Henry IV was succeeded by his son Henry V, who successfully continued the Hundred Years War (immortalised in Shakespeare’s play bearing his name). Henry faced the Southampton Plot during his reign, aimed at putting Edmund Mortimer, another descendant of Edward III, on the throne; this plot failed when Edmund told Henry about it.

Henry V died suddenly in 1422 and was succeeded by his baby son, Henry VI. Henry’s regents were unpopular, losing a lot of land back to France. Henry also suffered from mental illness that incapacitated him for periods and allowed the nobles to vie against each other to take over the running of the country. These noblemen included the Duke of Gloucester, popular with commoners and who was arrested for treason and died in captivity; also, the Duke of Somerset wanted to sue for peace with France; the Duke of York, lieutenant of the English forces in France, wanted a stronger war effort.

Henry was weak and granted much power and lands to the Lancastrians. After another bout of mental illness, Richard, Duke of York became regent and imprisoned Somerset and other Lancastrians. When the king recovered, his queen, Margaret of Anjou, headed the Lancastrian fight back, forcing York out of the court.

Richard of York, in fearing that he would be arrested for treason, made the suspicion a reality by marching on London with an army in 1455. This resulted in the First Battle of St Albans, the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses.

Next Time, On Elements of Fantasy

Next week I’ll give a summary of the Wars of the Roses themselves and their outcome.

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Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its Land

Last week, I talked a bit about the relationship between a medieval village and its lord. This week, I’m going to look at the land of the village, how it was organised and used. As with last week’s post, the information is taken from Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village, which looks particularly at the village during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.

Use

The whole raison d’etre of the medieval village was to produce food – for the villagers themselves to live on, for their lord to live on and accommodate his staff and guests, and for trade. The system of fields around the village was a complex patchwork of plots owned by different people.

As a basic rule, land was divided between the lord and the villagers. Unfree villagers, or villeins, had to work the fields constituting their lord’s demesne – maybe two days a week, or longer during harvest time – as well as their own land. Free peasants didn’t have this responsibility and could farm their own land.

Villagers could be rich or poor, and the primary aspect of their wealth was how much land they owned. Some owned enough that they couldn’t farm it themselves and would either hire labour or make deals with other peasants – in effect, become lords in miniature within their village.

The village buildings were clustered together in the centre of the manor in the vicinity of important locations such as the manor house, church, green or well. Homes had land attached to them – a fenced toft at the front for livestock, and a croft at the back for limited crop production (although cottages, whose occupants were cotters, had very little land attached to them).

Beyond the buildings were the fields, pastures, meadows (for hay production), marshes and forests.

Farming the Fields

A village had a small number of fields – two or three seems typical. One field would be left fallow to recover nutrients for a year; the other one or two would then be divided between spring crops and winter crops. The follow year would see the plantings rotated.

Fields were divided first into furlongs, rectangular plots ‘a furrow long’; this was the sowing unit, each furlong being sown with the same crop. Furlongs were subdivided into strips or selions, long, narrow groups of furrows. The longer the strip, the better, as it meant fewer turns of the plough for a given amount of land. Strips inside a furlong were quite uniform, but furlongs followed the lay of the land and often had unploughed patches between them that may have been cultivated by hand.

Crops planted included barley, wheat, oats, peas, beans, rye and vetch. At Elton, the village looked at in Life in a Medieval Village, barley was the largest crop – the 1286 harvest included two thousand bushels of barley, a thousand of wheat and lesser amounts of other crops (a medieval bushel was about 56 pounds).

Fields were ploughed several times a year depending on whether spring or winter crops were to be planted. Spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans, vetch) were sown about four bushels to the acre; winter wheat about two bushels to an acre.

During the harvest, wheat was cut with a sickle, oats and barley were mown with scythes. Following the mowing, the weaker and poorer members of the village would follow on, gleaning – collecting individual stalks etc by hand. The harvest was a hugely important part of the village year. Work done by villeins on the lord’s demesne was called boon-work. The lord had a duty to feed the villagers and supply them with ale at this time.

More Measurements

Besides the furlong mentioned above, various units were used to measure land; however, there was apparently no uniformity regarding the size of these units from place to place. A village would have consisted of something on the order of ten hides – a hide usually being 120 acres (an acre was defined as the amount of land able to be ploughed by an ox in one day – and therefore varied according various factors).

Land was also measured by the virgate. A virgate was theoretically the amount of land needed to support a peasant family and varied in size from 18 to 32 acres. According to one study, a fifth of villagers were virgaters (owners of a virgate), a third had between a half and a full virgate; the bulk of the remainder had even less, and a fraction had extensive holdings.

Next week, I’ll look at the people themselves and their professions.