09.07.11, Dodd and Biggs, eds., Reign of Henry IV

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Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.011


Dodd, Gwilym and Douglas Biggs, eds.. The Reign of Henry IV: Rebellion and Survival 1403-13.. York: York Medieval Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 243. ISBN: 978-1-90315-323-9.

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
State University of New York, Stony Brook (emeritus)

This collection of ten essays is very much Henry IV, part 2. It follows a 2003 volume, Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406, edited by the same team of Dodd and Biggs. In this volume we have the papers of a Nottingham conference of 2006, as the earlier volume (Henry IV, part 1) came out of a conference at York in 2001.

These are engaging papers, sufficiently unified around their stated theme; their appearance in print is very welcome. Though we no longer take Geoffrey Elton's dictum about Edward III ("he lived too long and had too many sons") at face value, it remains a pithy assessment of and a launching point for an examination of late 14th and early 15th century royal politics and their effect on the realm and regions beyond. How to unravel the complications of Edward III's lineage and the consequences of a level of intra-family rivalry, ambition, and privilege and affluence that eventually led to the deposition of Richard II? Much of the scholarly answer, for some years, has been to focus on Richard II--a deposition waiting to happen, if ever there was one--and our profession has taken full advantage of the wider interest sparked by the 600th anniversary of Richard's downfall as a take-off for conferences, biographies, collective volumes, and editions or re-editions of the narrative sources for the reign. And while paying full tribute to the immense amount of first-rate scholarship that the focus on Richard II has provided us in recent decades, one can say that it is perhaps time to move on, which in effect is to look at Richard's cousin and successor on the throne. We note that the most recent scholarly biography of Henry was that of J. L. Kirby, published in 1970, though this rather glaring historiographical black hole will soon be remedied by Chris Given-Wilson. Such neglect is surprising; perhaps coming between the excitement of Richard's fall and Henry V's rather specious glories just down the road, just to seize the crown and labor to establish a new (albeit illegitimate?) dynasty seem tame, though Henry IV would hardly have agreed with this assessment.

In terms of helping set the new agenda, Dodd and Biggs are among those who have taken a lead in redirecting scholarly focus beyond the deposition of 1399; they have led a team--many of them already well published and authoritative ricardian scholars (and some even edwardian experts, reaching back before 1377)--into those dimly lit halls of the early Lancastrian monarchy. In their Henry IV of 2003 the contributors looked at "the early crisis-ridden days of the reign," as Tony Pollard says in his Introduction here. In the volume under review now the focus mostly picks up around 1406, the year of parliamentary crisis and the year in which Henry was first struck down by his mysterious illness (and a stroke seems the party line here). Some of the papers focus on events around this critical year, while others run through the king's later days with their tale of growing tension between enfeebled ruler, his open preference for his second son (Thomas, Duke of Clarence), and the growing impatience of the heir to the crown.

Whatever editorial touch dictated the papers' order of appearance in the volume I will deal with them in thematic groups. Accordingly, I distinguish between those concerned with Henry's efforts to run "central government" and those looking at the Lancastrianization of the realm. This gives us one set of (four) papers with a Westminster-orientation; those of Michael Bennett ("Henry IV, the Royal Succession and the Crisis of 1406"), Gwilym Dodd ("Patronage, Petitions, and Grave: the 'Chamberlain's Bills' of Henry IV's Reign"), A. K. McHardy ("Henry IV: The Clergy in Parliament"), and Douglas Biggs ("An Ill and Infirm King: Henry IV, Health, and the Gloucester Parliament of 1407"). Two others look at the way the "Lancastrian Revolution" was implemented farther from headquarters: Mark Arvanigian, looking at the North ("Managing the North in the Reign of Henry IV, 1402-1408") and Kate Parker, in an urban setting ("Politic and Patronage in Lynn, 1399-1416).

That nothing was as certain as death and taxes seems to have been as true then as now, and Helen Watt ("'On account of the frequent attacks and invasions of the Welsh': The Effect of the Glyn Dwr Rebellion on Tax Collection in England") and W. Mark Ormrod ("The Rebellion of Archbishop Scrope and the Tradition of Opposition to Royal Taxation") take us into this cloudy but critical aspect of public life. And perhaps with an eye on what would follow when Henry of Monmouth succeeded Henry Bolingbroke, two papers pick up on small topics in Anglo-French or Anglo-Burgundian relations and show how large oaks can be traced back to tiny acorns: Chris Given-Wilson ("'The Quarrels of Old Women': Henry IV, Louis of Orléans, and Anglo-French Chivalric Challenges in the Early Fifteenth Century") and Anthony Tuck ("The Earl of Arundel's Expedition to France, 1411").

If a king's first task was to plant himself firmly on his throne, we might say that his final one was to ensure his people of a smooth transmission of his crown when it was time to bid the world goodnight. If this was a general problem for a king or a dynasty, it was exacerbated by the circumstances of Lancastrian accession, and Michael Bennett points out that Henry IV's eldest son and heir was the only king of adult age to come to the throne between the death of Henry III in 1272 and that of James I in 1625. In June 1406 Parliamentary legislation defined the order of succession as resting in the male line of Henry IV and his sons; in December of that year a new statute rescinded the earlier one and restored the line of succession of the Prince of Wales and his heirs, whomever they might be. As well as illuminating the tension within the royal family, this "going public" about the future of the crown brought about a "more corporate version of Lancastrian kingship" (24). The act of June, 1406, had "reflected a family compact in the interests of dynastic solidarity" (19), while the subsequent settlement reflected the role of Archbishop Arundel (a king-preserver here, if not quite a king-maker) and a vote of confidence, in a sense, for the future Henry V. As Bennett says, the years between 1406 and 1413 "can be seen as a protracted succession crisis" (26-27). Seven years was a long time for a dying king to drop his other shoe.

Dodd begins his analysis of politics by way of administrative history--a rather old fashioned and immensely insightful approach to "why" as well as to "how" things worked. By tracing the route of petitions to the king--some by way of privy seal, some by way of the signet, some directly to chancery, and many through the king's chamberlains, the "gate keepers" of the bureaucracy--we are led into an analysis of how favors were granted, patronage distributed, loyalty bought and/or reinforced. Dodd follows the suggestion of A. L. Brown that government was less likely to be pro-active or pre-emptive than it was to be "consumer led," that is attuned to hearing what its (loyal and trustworthy) subject were asking of it, and then acting accordingly. And if we accept that patronage, without which "government could not function" (127), is always and everywhere the two-way lifeline of government, especially of personal monarchy, we can add an extra star for its importance in the first decade of the 15th century, with a new dynasty sitting atop a shaky throne.

When the king did summon a parliament the ecclesiastical ranks were apt to be heavily represented, not by the princes of the church who had received individual writs of summons, but rather by their proxies. Such men, attending sessions in lieu of those summoned or those chosen by the clergy as their representatives, could run to as many as 30 appointments for a given parliament (and one man could hold more than one proxy). As far as the extant sources permit, McHardy runs these men down: monks coming with a lay clerk on behalf of the abbot, ecclesiastical administrators standing in for a bishop and his cathedral, very often a royal clerk who was already or also a chapter member from a secular cathedral--such clerks, frequently working in the royal chancery, being "the glue which held the political community of the realm together" (147). But while even MPs and lay lawyers could accept such a role (and McHardy gives us what prosopography can be determined), she acknowledges that proxies per se made but little impact on or in parliament. Convocations of the clergy were the more important channel for ecclesiastical input, though the need by high churchmen to be represented in parliament--in part to avoid the penalties that could be levied for non-attendance--was taken seriously. If the role of clerical proxies is but a "small window" in Lancastrian government, the continuing concern to have such men present offers a valuable and off-beat insight into "the nervousness" of a king who was probably never at ease regarding his status or popularity among his subjects.

In a lucid bit of revisionism Biggs re-evaluates the relatively minor and oft-neglected parliament of 1407. He begins by showing that the king was a virtual non-player in the sessions; Henry IV's itinerary for that year (202-03) is a tale largely told in terms of slow moving water-borne voyages, often to pilgrim sites, and of a smaller royal household, few signet letters, and a number of planned military ventures that all had to be aborted. Turning to the parliament itself, we have an interesting juxtapositioning of a group of very loyal Lancastrians (and an unprecedented re-election rate after 1406) but ones who gave voice to a strong distrust of conciliar government and particularly to Archbishop Arundel as its de facto chairman and spokesman. The protests were so strong (and led by Thomas Chaucer, their speaker but one whom we would usually think of as being one of the in-house boys!) that the Commons had to be granted the unusual concessions of being able to withhold their assent to a tax approved by the Lords until they had been able to discuss it, and to be able to talk about "the condition of the realm and the measures need to remedy it" (198). Since this was all carried out in the virtual absence of the monarch it is hard to be certain as to the value of the precedents; we do note that when parliament met in 1410 affairs were managed by the Prince of Wales, not by the archbishop of Canterbury.

If these four papers are ones in the volume most focused on the workings of Henry's government, the two dealing with taxation and the political and economic consequences of this eternal and ubiquitous aspect of organized society are obviously not far off the center. Looking at petitions for exemption from taxation is a very sagacious way of tracking the geographical extent and the severity of the war along the Welsh border and in the West Country in Henry IV's first decade. This is especially the case as Henry's government was always hard up and exemptions to tax assessments, because of resources lost in the chevauche style warfare of the "rebellion," were hardly going to be granted just for the asking. Watt's text and some tables (78-81), plus a map of a whole host of communities in Shropshire, Cheshire, and Hereford that sought an exemption from (or reduction) of lay taxation, indicate the severity of the problem, as do her statistics on clerical exemptions granted for the same regions. Though some requests were rejected--the damage had occurred before the tax of 1404 was levied, or because the claims of devastation were not verifiable, or because there had been some recovery--many had to be accepted. If Shrewsbury made a bit much of its many woes, that it was pardoned to the tune of 47 by a government in need of every shilling and pence indicates that the blows suffered by the regional economic and its personnel must have been serious. Whether the losses really amounted to the "sixty thousand pounds of revenue" that Adam of Usk said had been lost, this assessment of the extra-military consequences of warfare and organized or semi-organized violence gives us a ground-level view of problems that we often look at from the central collecting point rather than at their point of origin.

As a professor at York it behooves Mark Ormrod to come to the defense of Archbishop Scrope. He does this, in a convincing fashion, presenting Scrope as a leader of a justifiable tax protest or tax rebellion. Henry's early promises about no new taxes except when faced with "urgent necessity," along with the accepted practice of not levying a new tax until an old one had been collected and laid to rest, had gone out the window, and by 1405 the convocations of Canterbury and York were moving apart both in their actual tax assessments and in their sympathy towards the request or demand for a tax. Thus, when the Northern clergy and laity looked to their spiritual leader, he assumed a role we can set into the context of a "continuing discourse of complaint and resistance concerning royal taxation" (175), a role we can trace back into the 14th century and that was easily fanned into flames by the needs of the new dynasty. Scrope's manifesto (The "York articles" given in Walsingham's Annales) reflect a "rhetoric of justification" (163) that had a long and honored history and that embraced both elite and popular ideas about the legitimate demands of the lord king upon his subjects.

A new dynasty had to sell itself through the realm, as well as to impose itself by force, if need be. But it would not last if it only dealt with the great men who came before the king at Westminster. Arvanigian offers a clear case study of how the king moved--step by step but quite relentlessly--to replace Percy with Neville in the North. While this may seem an obvious move, given the early estrangement between Lancaster and Percy, to turn this pressing need into a reality meant that some sort of surrogate or full-fledged substitute, and one with his own loyal and powerful affinity and network, was needed; merely to take offices and perquisites away from the Percys and redistribute them in a random or casual fashion would not have been enough given the depth of Percy roots in the Yorkshire power structure. Why the Percys failed to see the direction in which their dissatisfaction was likely to lead is an historical "fact," and why they failed to see how the Lancastrian affinity and its friends and supporters could be put on alert to take their place seems a kind of willful blindness. After all, Ralph Neville was married to a Beaufort. Arvanigian's exposition unfolds quite logically; he might well have offered this paper as a consultant's study to an aristocratic family that was about to take a great fall, though after 1403 the Percys were losing the resources with which to pay his fee.

If the Lancastrianization of the counties, especially those strategic counties of the northern borders, was a sine qua non of dynastic success, we see a more nuanced or malleable situation when we turn to Parker's examination of Lynn. The town, in which the wealthy and important burgesses had little official say under the thumb of an oppressive bishop like Henry Despenser, had declared early for Henry, and it did so despite the ricardian stance of its lord-bishop and the Duke of York. But then, when the townsmen of the Trinity Gild sought to revise ("reform"?) the town government, class divisions and hostilities resulted in a riot and the news of such disorder turned the king against his one-time supporters and in favor of a more conservative status quo. Henry IV had looked to Thomas Arundel for a lead on the problems of a major trading port, and as Henry became more remote the Prince emerged, in alliance with Cardinal Beaufort, to forge royal policy. It is easy to say one should not put one's faith in princes, but in 1412 when an arbitration panel was chosen to represent the different factions of townsmen to work (with limited success) to resolve the conflict, it was hard to offer anything by way of an alternative.

Two papers look at what seem to be small aspects of foreign relations and yet each shows how some preliminary shadow boxing in Henry IV's reign may have helped pave the way for the resumption of all-out war under his son. Chris Given-Wilson examines the various chivalric challenges, coming mainly from France, that were thrown down before the English king and his nobles and champions. After the deposition of 1399 Louis D'Orlans, brother of the now ex-queen, had a lot of hostility to vent towards Henry IV, and Louis and various of his friends and followers, restricted from more elaborate hostility by the truce in effect, took to issuing challenges to the king and to various English knights and champions who could be thought of as his substitute. The hostile (or childish) tone of the challenges went against the conventions of chivalric discourse; some of them were rejected outright, Henry himself saying the allegations against him were false and that a king did not fight lesser men. But some challenges were taken up, with a few actual jousts or tournaments of mixed results, and more posturing went on as civility declined before the "relentless escalation of Anglo-French hostilities" (42). Like Tuck's paper on the Earl of Arundel's mercenary expedition of 1411, one undertaken with the Prince of Wales' (tacit) support and on behalf of the Burgundians in their quarrel with the Armagnacs, Given-Wilson shows how the stage was being set for the full-scale war that was soon to come. Tuck points out that while Henry IV was not quick to rise to calls for support from either side as France drifted toward civil war, the Prince was both an open partisan of the Burgundians and eager, within the confines of the truce, to become involved in matters of France. That Arundel was well treated and paid in full, and on time, only served to stoke the coals of martial impatience.

There does not seem much need for a conclusion to these essays in this review. Tony Pollard sums them up in his Introduction. He talks of the possibility of a third conference--one that presumably would deal with Henry IV's very last days and the transition of 1413. If such a project can give us another volume of the quality of this one, with an eye on both the individual papers and the breadth of their reach into the many corners of the realm, it is certainly a prospect to welcome. In summary, these papers offer a picture of a monarch that is a pretty sad one. As we know, Henry grasped the nettle in 1399 and perhaps did not think circumstances permitted the time or liberty to worry as to whether it was all worthwhile. Richard II had become intolerable. Henry IV may not have turned out to be much better. Kings are unlikely to be likeable, though we can sympathize with some more than with others. Though there are no references in these papers to Shakespeare's history plays, the idea of the uneasy head and the hollow crown are with our authors, as they probably are with their readers.

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Author Biography

Joel Rosenthal

State University of New York, Stony Brook (emeritus)