Gwilym Dodd

title.none: Walker, Political Culture (Gwilym Dodd)

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.007 07.05.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gwilym Dodd, University of Nottingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Walker, Simon. Political Culture in Later Medieval England, ed. Michael J. Braddick. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 276. $105.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0719068266. ISBN-13: 9780719068263 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.07

Walker, Simon. Political Culture in Later Medieval England, ed. Michael J. Braddick. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 276. $105.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0719068266. ISBN-13: 9780719068263 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Gwilym Dodd
University of Nottingham

It is a sad reminder of the circumstances surrounding the publication of this collection of essays by Simon Walker that the Introduction has been written not by Walker himself but by G. L. Harriss, his mentor and former supervisor of his PhD doctorate on the Lancastrian Affinity. Walker's death in 2004 was a truly tragic loss for the academic profession, for his research into the government of late medieval England was of the highest order, for its originality and historical vision. The essays brought together in this volume, which Walker himself had been preparing for publication shortly before his death, are a selection of the finest and most important of his articles/chapters formerly published in journals or essay collections between 1989 and 2003. The editor has quite rightly also incorporated a previously unpublished conference paper on "Communities of the County" which offers a number of important and challenging conclusions on a highly controversial area of modern historiographical debate. As a whole, the essays address a wide variety of different topics, but each has been shaped by Walker's concern to understand the dynamics of government and political society in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is a particular emphasis on the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV, a period which served Walker's interests well for the prevalence of political turmoil and the dynastic upheaval of 1399. The volume holds together very effectively: Walker's overriding concern to explore the projection and reception of power and authority in late medieval society means that there is a common thread which runs throughout the pages of the book and which consequently provides a real sense of familiarity to the sorts of questions to which the sources are subjected. On the other hand, it was characteristic of Walker's intellectual integrity and of his extraordinary abilities and thoroughness that there is virtually no overlap in the content of the essays: each offers a detailed analysis of a specific theme or topic which stands in its own right as a key contribution to some of the central pillars of late medieval political history: lordship, kingship, law-keeping, rebellion and patronage (to specify but a few).

The volume is divided into two parts, the first designated "lordship and service," the second "political culture." Although there is (and should be) scope for overlap between the two themes, the division is a logical one. Whereas the essays in part one are concerned primarily with the "mechanics" of medieval government and political organisation, those in the second part lean more heavily towards uncovering the political mentalities of the age--the attitudes, mindsets and motivations of the rulers and ruled in the period. The different emphasis reflects the development and progression of Walker's own research. The early chapters can be seen to develop ideas or themes which Walker's research on the Lancastrian affinity had opened up, but which he did not have space to expand on in his monograph. They are examples of empirical research at its very best. Chapter 4, on the work and membership of the commissions of the peace in Yorkshire, can usefully be singled out in this regard, for it presents a masterly exposition of the changing shape of the peace commissions in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and explains in fascinating detail why the crown should have taken a keen interest in its work. This discussion, and the other chapters in the first half of the collection, adopt a close, precise and (in many instances) a resolutely quantitative reading of the sources. The quality of Walker's work is shown by the fastidiousness with which he constructs his arguments through extensive use of unpublished archive material, drawing mainly (but not exclusively) on the records of medieval central government kept in The National Archives. The later contributions are the products of Walker's growing intellectual confidence as well as his widening historical interests. There is, moreover, a noticeable change in his treatment of the evidence, which he now approaches as "texts," to be broken down, dissected and (re-)interpreted, rather than as "sources," to be discovered and their contents merely elucidated. The papers in the second half of the volume, based as they are on a more nuanced reading of the evidence, are arguably the more challenging and engaging of the collection, but their conclusions are no less well founded on solid historical analysis. Indeed, it is a measure of the skill with which Walker constructs his arguments that he manages to present his ideas on a series of highly complex and esoteric questions in such a convincing and credible manner.

Chapter 1, on "Lordship and Lawlessness in the palatinate of Lancaster," displays many of the fine qualities to be found in Walker's other papers. At its heart lies a fundamental questioning of two of the most important facets of late medieval political life: on the one hand, the role of lordship and on the other, the nature of lawlessness. In common with other chapters, Walker seeks to address these inter-related aspects by offering a detailed and in-depth consideration of a single case-study: namely, the extent and nature of the lordship exercised by John of Gaunt in the late fourteenth century. Walker's conclusion, that violence was an important and necessary part of the organisational dynamic of local society ("an essential ingredient of late medieval lordship," 19), is perhaps of less importance than his conclusion that the most powerful nobleman in the realm was able to exercise only a relatively loose grip on the actions of the gentry within a territory where he enjoyed virtually supreme--almost semi-regal-- authority and jurisdiction. Arguing against received wisdom Walker suggests that it was Gaunt's monopoly of lordship which was the cause of tension and instability within the palatinate, as a group of lordless Lancashire gentry sought in vain for a share in the limited supply of spoils. The dilemma Gaunt himself had to grapple with, in having to reconcile his "public" office, as lord of the whole palatinate, with the "private" exercise of lordship over his affinity, has interesting resonances with more recent work undertaken on the problems encountered by the Lancastrian crown in retaining, as a separate private jurisdiction, the duchy of Lancaster. Walker's conclusion that the peace of the region was threatened more by structural than personal failings is convincing enough, though a consideration of the extent to which Gaunt was physically present within the palatinate to exercise his lordship personally would perhaps have provided a useful additional dimension to his arguments.

The importance placed in this chapter on the role of lordship in organising and regulating local society ("more lordship, rather than less, was the only answer to the palatinate's problems," 32) offers an interesting counterbalance to the discussion on the communities of the county in chapter 3, if only to reinforce one of Walker's key points that lordship and a sense of identity with the county community need not be conceived as mutually exclusive concepts. It is a great pity that Walker did not have the opportunity to develop more fully his arguments, for he presents a strong case for reviving the notion of county solidarity in the analysis of local society. The force of his discussion undoubtedly lies in his development of the idea that the county possessed "a certain moral authority," which might variously be deployed as means of maintaining law and order and articulating common grievances, or as a way of conveying status and prestige on those who could claim to be acting on behalf of the county's inhabitants. Walker thus advances the argument beyond the rather fruitless debate about the physical manifestation of a county community to a question about the importance of "the county" as an abstract concept, a rhetorical device which served the interests of different segments of county society. At the very least, he effectively demonstrates that the county was much more than simply an administrative unit providing structure to royal government imposed locally from Westminster.

Walker's concern to identify the political mentalities of "provincial" England shines through more clearly in the latter parts of the collection. Chapter 7 ("Rumour, Sedition and Popular Protest"), chapter 9 ("Political Saints"), and chapter 10 ("Yorkshire Risings") each have, as their central strand of enquiry, the aim of showing how events at the centre impacted on the lives and attitudes of local people. In chapter 7 he demonstrates not only how the dynastic instability of Henry IV's reign was the source of popular political debate, but also how some individuals felt so strongly about the change of regime that they actively promoted the idea that Richard was waiting to return from exile to rescue the kingdom from the yoke of Lancastrian oppression. The real lynchpin of the discussion is Walker's contention that the rumours of Richard II's survival did not indicate an innate gullibility on the part of the people who peddled them, but rather an impressive understanding of the possibilities (and limitations) of political rhetoric, and of the importance of framing criticism of Henry IV's rule in a way which allowed his dissenters to retain a legitimate claim to be acting as the loyal and obedient subjects of the crown. Much the same strand of argument underpins Walker's discussion of Richard Scrope in chapter 10. Here, he scotches the traditional interpretation of the Yorkshire Risings of 1405, which sees the archbishop as the clerical lieutenant of Northumberland, and the citizens of York as a group of misguided advocates of a hopeless dynastic cause, and instead presents a compelling argument to suggest that the men gathered on Shipton Moor were more reform-minded than revolutionary, and that Scrope's overriding motivation was determined as much by a "pastoral" as by a "political" agenda. Scrope's wish was, in essence, to mediate between the king and his critics to restore peace and harmony in the kingdom. This is a bold re-reading of the Yorkshire disturbances, and suggests--though Walker does not pursue the point--that Henry IV's subsequent execution of the archbishop was an even greater miscalculation and overreaction than previously thought.

His chapter on sainthood similarly explores political mentalities from a populist standpoint, though the emphasis is rather different. Walker suggests that although the power of the sainthood associated with individuals such as Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II and Henry VI initially lay in the impetus they gave to political opposition, it was their fostering of harmony and reconciliation within the kingdom which ultimately explains why such cults endured. Walker makes his case with characteristic ingenuity, though he does rather sidestep the point that Richard II's motives for promoting the memory of his great grandfather almost certainly fell well short of a desire to reconcile the divergent interests represented within his own political community. In overall terms, the chapter makes an important contribution to one of the central strands of Walker's scholarship; namely, a concern not only to show how politics engaged broad sections of late medieval English society, but also how this popular participation in, and engagement with, the political life of the kingdom could impact on the policies and decisions taken by the king and his advisors.

In chapters 6 and 8 Walker adopts a more direct approach to central government with two outstanding studies of Richard II, one on the king himself and the other on the changing reputation of Richard in the seventy years or so following his death. Chapter 6 is especially notable for its skill in avoiding the many and varied pitfalls of psychoanalysing Richard's personality, whilst still presenting a vivid and entirely plausible picture of what motivated the king's actions--what lay behind his "thinking on the subject of kingship." It is the connections that Walker makes between the contents of Sir William Bagot's account of his conversation with Richard, on the one hand, and the king's own record of government on the other hand, which provides the strength to this discussion; but it is its conclusion which really stands out, for Walker makes a vital distinction between the ideology of Richard's kingship, which was entirely conventional and in keeping with the traditional formulation of the boundaries of royal authority, and Richard's implementation or interpretation of these principles, which was unnecessarily excessive and displayed an unusual "intensity of belief." The discussion does not resolve the question of how sympathetically Richard's downfall should be regarded, but it does provide a much more balanced and credible assessment of the flawed nature of the king's character.

The essays in this collection will be valued not only for the fine quality of their scholarship, but also for the incredible lucidity with which Walker conveys his thoughts and ideas. Put simply, the essays are extremely readable. Walker makes his subjects interesting. His account of the life of Sir Richard Abberbury is a case in point (chapter 2): on the surface it is a biography, but the discussion ranges much more widely than a simple breakdown of Abberbury's career. The sense of mystery surrounding Abberbury's loss of fortune and position, which Walker manages to sustain until the very end of the discussion, shows how accomplished a wordsmith he was. It makes this chapter and the other not only informative, but also very enjoyable to read. On many different levels, then, Walker's scholarship stands as an exemplar for the writing of medieval political history. The essays which form this collection will undoubtedly provide a solid bedrock for our understanding of the governance and political life of late medieval England for many years to come.