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21.08.30 Brondarbit, Power-Brokers and the Yorkist State 1461-85

21.08.30 Brondarbit, Power-Brokers and the Yorkist State 1461-85

Alexander Brondarbit has taken up the detailed study of Yorkist politics from that other great American historian of almost a century ago, Cora L. Scofield. Brondarbit explores who really orchestrated royal power in later fifteenth-century England. Of course there were power brokers in past generations, when royal letters patent often stated at whose instance the king’s grants were made, and from the sixteenth century, when state papers became more explicit about intercession, but for the Yorkists and Henry VII such data is generally lacking. Brondarbit has filled this gap by trawling assiduously, like Scofield herself, through the unpublished files of chancery and the reports of foreign ambassadors, and by maximising the casual references in scarce surviving letters. He has assembled many of the best examples and he has contextualised them well.

Whilst it was ultimately the monarch who retained the power of decision, each king depended on the knights, esquires and yeomen of his chamber to convey information, to make introductions, to locate opportunities for patronage, to make appointments, and--when it was expedient--to interrupt the course of justice. On occasion it appears that the greatest intermediaries, Warwick the Kingmaker and Richard Duke of Gloucester, sought even to shape his foreign policy. An indolent king, Edward IV at times was managed like his grandson Henry VIII, but he was always capable of asserting his primacy. Brondarbit focuses on the roles of such men as the Nevilles, Lords Hastings and Howard, Richard Duke of Gloucester, the queen’s family (the Wydevilles), and Sir Thomas Montgomery. They were not alone: surely there were many counterparts to a mere knight like Montgomery whose influence cannot now be reconstructed. Richard Lord Dacre of the South, once dubbed the greatest around the king’s person, served as a chief officer in turn of the household of the king, of the queen, and of prince of Wales. Both the king’s brothers, Clarence and Gloucester, feature at times as effective brokers. Lord Hastings, chamberlain of Edward IV throughout his reign, was his most intimate courtier: he controlled access to the king himself. In this era, however, no broker achieved a monopoly of influence.

It is difficult to chart the impact of these brokers. An exciting source from 1465 are the endorsements to the parliamentary provisos signed by the king that were delivered by intermediaries to the clerk of parliament. Although access to the royal apartments was restricted, dozens of chamber staff had daily access to the king, yet many of them chose nevertheless to funnel their requests via the most influential brokers. Other indicators of influence are the plethoras of annuities granted to Lords Hastings and Herbert under Edward IV and to William Catesby under Richard III. Leading towns sought intercession at court from local magnates on whom they bestowed annuities and gifts of wine and fish. Brondarbit’s study of the scattered urban accounts is quite novel. In such contexts, it was not the brokers who were the retainers and therefore subservient to those who pensioned them. They were the masters: even their most high-ranking patrons were mere clients. Brokers were selective about which suits they promoted and were sparing in the use they made of their influence. They were careful not to overstrain their power by seeking the unattainable, potentially to the annoyance of the king, and they drew back from outright conflict with other lords. Several times the Plumptons and Pastons found their brokers unwilling to proceed. Did Hastings place his brothers and brother-in-law in the king’s chamber and did his supporters chorus a single tune? If there were already multiple factions like those identified later by E. W. Ives, the evidence for their operations is less revealing than in Tudor England. Some royal officers were delegated authority to exploit the king’s patronage themselves. Appointments to benefices by the lord chancellor, of customers by treasurers of England, of deputy butlers in every port by the chief butlers, and under-stewards by the stewards of the duchy of Lancaster, are recorded if as yet undissected, yet the more much important opportunities within the royal households cannot be documented. What form did the good lordship take that Hastings offered in indentured retainers? It was the introductions, grants, and appointments that are most easily substantiated today; the impact of brokers on policy, least. Virtually nothing is known when rival suitors were vanquished, as so often was apparent in Elizabethan and Jacobean contests. Examining how attainders and restorations were manipulated, the intentions and results in resumptions, and trafficking of marriages of minors could be made to reveal more.

If Brondarbit’s opening chapters on clientalism and household are substantial contributions to the essence of Yorkist politics, he ranges further in the three subsequent chapters that explore the most modern concerns of 21st-century historians. Perceptions mattered as much as reality. His third chapter explores the perceptions of chroniclers, propagandists, and poets, both English and foreign. Sometimes he shows Charles the Bold and Louis XI acting on these perceptions, fêting and feeing both Warwick and Hastings, and hoping thereby to shape Edward IV’s foreign policy. The ruler granted annuities and plate to those thought able to sway the king, even to Gloucester, whom Louis hoped to deter from a contrary stance. Louis, however, famously misled the Milanese ambassadors, and both Warwick and Richard III shaped their own legends and were masters of disinformation. Maybe Dominic Mancini was indeed the prisoner of anglophone partisans, but his informants were high-ranking churchmen in government whom he could interrogate in Latin and who faithfully transmitted Richard’s own propaganda to him. If military force was deployed by the high nobility in war and in the provinces and if it was the peers who counted most in parliament, it was the brokers who framed in the politics of court. The sumptuary laws elevated the chief officers of the king’s household above the nobility at no cost to the king. They exerted their authority every day, saw the king daily and filtered out those with access, and presided at thousands of mealtimes, religious services and audiences, and other ceremonies. Brondarbit makes good use of rare formal heraldic narratives, of coronation, marriages, funerals and tournaments, but there are other texts still in manuscript that also foregrounded influential brokers. Royal and aristocratic women attended on such occasions and some even shared the king’s bed.

Brondarbit’s fourth chapter considers the vestigial evidence of female powerbrokers such as queens, the king’s mother, and the king’s sisters. Margaret of Anjou was a much better endowed queen than Elizabeth Wydeville, Anne Neville, and Elizabeth of York. It was Edward’s ladies who ganged up on Clarence during the Readeption and induced him to resume his Yorkist allegiance. Even allowing for exaggeration by Tudor propaganda, Margaret Beaufort advanced the claims on her son Henry Tudor in powerful circles. Although ladies conspired and were frequently confined to monasteries, only two females were attainted and none were executed. Female landowners, especially dowagers, had their own patronage and to their own interests in pursue. Elizabeth Wydeville, Margaret Lucy, Margaret Hungerford, and Anne Beauchamp all promoted their suits to the king in person, not always successfully. Dowagers were committed to their traitorous husbands and to their heirs and thus had more lasting perspectives than queens who normally held only lifetime estates. Queens Margaret and Anne had to solicit their husbands for approval of their religious foundations. Whilst certainly they were never ciphers, one wonders how much influence was exercised over queens by their officers and ladies, who were seldom of their own choice. Strangely Brondarbit ignores the childbirths that sidelined Elizabeth Wydeville through ten full-term pregnancies, and the scope for her officers and her supplicants to mould their mistress’s influence. It was her father Earl Rivers who brokered the marriage contract of Mary Wydeville with Lord Herbert and guaranteed the king’s concessions that were the price. Rivers also prompted his daughter the queen to seek 10% queen’s gold on top of Sir Thomas Cook’s £8000 fine. Elizabeth deployed her landed resources to the benefit of her brothers and son. In 1478 and 1483 she strove to protect the succession of her son Edward V.

Finally Brondarbit focuses on the prelates, from whom were selected the Lords Chancellors (ex officio chairmen of the royal council), keepers of the privy seal, secretaries, and the chancellors of the queen and prince of Wales. However it is merely the bishops that Brondarbit assessed, not, for example, doctors Richard Langport, clerk of the council; Edmund Chaderton, treasurer of the chamber to Richard III; Thomas Barrow, chancellor of Richard III as duke and twice keeper of the great seal in him as king; and Ralph Mackerel, chancellor in exile of Margaret of Anjou. The king’s confessors, deans of the king’s chapel, the prelates of the order of the Garter, and even the preachers of sermons potentially influenced the king. This chapter leaves most to be said and offers particular opportunities for further study.

There was certainly scope for a considerably larger and more comprehensive book in this theme, but Brondarbit deserves great credit for the range of his discussion and of his references. Inevitably there is additional information to be imparted, not least about Howard who was also a provincial magnate of high birth and maritime significance. A smattering of errors in such extensive coverage was also inevitable: the date of 1st St Albans is wrong, William Earl of Kent (d. 1463) did nothing in 1464, and the notorious William Catesby was never a knight. Brondarbit appears not to realize that Knaresborough was an honour of the duchy of Lancaster and that there was no Percy earl of Northumberland in 1461-70. Sir Richard Ratcliffe was a younger son and was married to an Arundell of Lanherne. Several quotations cited in full without translation are almost incomprehensible. Such minor carping matters little in the context of a formidable, illuminating and readable book.