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22.03.22 Dodd/Taylor (eds.), Monarchy, State and Political Culture in Late Medieval England

22.03.22 Dodd/Taylor (eds.), Monarchy, State and Political Culture in Late Medieval England

As Sarah Rees Jones points out in the opening section of this volume, its honorand, W. Mark Ormrod, was a prolific scholar of wide interests across late medieval political culture, ranging from royal biography, taxation and petitions, to immigration, women’s history and contemporary social critique. If a unifying theme to his distinguished career can be identified, it is a commitment to reading the records of English government with attention to their human and social significance, and to making those records more widely accessible. The breadth of Ormrod’s curiosity and contribution to the study of late medieval Britain is represented by the miscellany of contributions offered by former students, colleagues, and collaborators here. Editors Gwilym Dodd and Craig Taylor have assembled nine stimulating studies, each grounded in its own way in the close and careful reading of sources that Ormrod exemplified, while illustrating in their diversity the lively range of questions to which this approach is presently being directed. This volume, which was published shortly before Ormrod’s untimely death in 2020, deserves to be read as a companion to another collection of essays published in his memory in 2021, People, Power and Identity in the Late Middle Ages, also edited by Dodd in collaboration with Helen Lacey and Anthony Musson. Together, they illustrate the powerful impact of Ormrod’s example on a generation of specialists on late medieval Britain.

Many of the large, collaborative projects of Ormrod’s later career, such as Medieval Petitions, England’s Immigrants, and the Records of the Archbishopric of York, revolved around building and sharing a deep knowledge of how records worked, the better to inform their modern use. The chapters by Elizabeth Biggs and Helen Watt respond directly to this impulse. Briggs mounts a complex and nuanced answer to the deceptively simple question “what were medieval statutes?” (22). Her chapter is destined to become a reference point for any research student beginning work on the colleges of late medieval England, providing a clear discussion on matters such as how colleges can be defined; the range of documents by which they could choose to regulate their existence and way of life; the purposes to which they were put; and the constituencies that are represented and whose interests can therefore be accessed through them. She shows how these documents do more than express rules for collegiate living; they sketch the shape of the community within which the college situated itself, in time and space. Watt’s chapter, meanwhile, serves as a sampler of the riches that are beginning to flow from making the Archbishops’ Registers of York available and searchable. After an introduction to the project’s aims and methods, Watt uses three short examples to illustrate how the records made available by this project might prove interesting well beyond the natural audience of ecclesiastical historians. The clerical wills in the collection evidently have much to offer the historian of material culture, as well as of social status and of clerics’ “fitness for the job” (197). Simon Thirkleby, for example, bequeathed more livestock than liturgical books, and appears from a visitation record to have been only semi-literate in both Latin and English. Examples of records relating to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Lollard heresy offer equally attractive reasons for scholars to read more deeply into the records being edited as part of the Registers project.

Records are also at the heart of Jonathan Mackman’s chapter. He examines a substantial program of fraud committed during the lay subsidy of 1332 with a canny eye to the contemporary political implications of alleging and investigating fraud, its impact on the record, and its analytical implications for historians. By sifting through individual villages’ acquittances in comparison to the collectors’ roll, he shows how the fraud was accomplished by concealing small amounts from many, but not all, of the taxed locations, and amending the records of assessment accordingly. As Mackman points out, Thomas Boulton, the fraudster, was “unfortunate” in that a change of process brought his crimes to light (20). New officials sent into the region again in 1334 quickly noticed the discrepancy in what they had been told to expect and the amounts that locals claimed to have paid in the previous collection. But we might also call this a “fortunate” chance, in that it brought the records of local assessments and acquittances into the exchequer for investigation whence they can now be scrutinised in The National Archives, rather than remaining (and likely decaying) in local hands. Mackman observes how this case reveals not only the corrupt practice of one person, but also casts light on the production of taxation records more generally. Importantly, it raises questions about the reliability of taxation records overall.

Another chapter which displays an acute sensitivity to what archives can and cannot show, and the possible disconnection between what they claim to show and what they actually do, is Joanna Laynesmith’s chapter on the household ordinances of Cecily, duchess of York. This chapter includes an edition of the Ordinances of Cecily’s household and will be of particular use for instructors seeking accessible editions of sources relevant to the history of medieval noblewomen and the late medieval household more generally. It neatly complements other recent publications such as Louise Wilkinson’s edition of the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort, countess of Leicester, from the mid thirteenth century. The ordinances published here differ from those accounts, however, as Laynesmith’s useful commentary makes clear; they were rules concerned with ideals of behaviour more than records of daily practice. Laynesmith makes the astute observation that such ideals had real significance for “vulnerable quasi-queens” (181) in building and sustaining a reputation that might protect them from political scandal.

Scandalous allegations and disloyal speech are at the heart of Helen Lacey’s chapter, in which she probes the implications both of what was allegedly said, and of the fact that it was reported to authorities. Her contribution thus teases out a web of related questions around the question of how much late medieval people in the king of England’s domains considered themselves subjects with the right to voice criticism of royal government, and how the crown responded. She links this to the wider concept of the “growth of government” (72) and the regularity with which people experienced contact with it, as outlined in Ormrod’s work. Lacey’s analysis excels in her attention to the psychological and social realities that drove people to speak ill of the king, and to report such speech to authorities. She shows how both acts constituted performances of political participation through postures of loyalty and disloyalty, and observes how sharing rumours could be motivated by a variety of factors including, for example, to show off “insider knowledge” (80). On the part of authorities, she suggests plausibly that they were forced to balance the risks posed to their image by drawing attention to defamation, with the need to police the boundaries of licit speech and prevent disloyal speech from escalating into unrest, whether at a local, regional, or royal level. Her analysis shows persuasively that such concerns were already in circulation well before the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Musson’s chapter on the Court of Chivalry brings his customary careful attention to the question of the jurisdiction of and political controversy surrounding this unusual court. Like Biggs’s chapter on collegiate statutes, Musson’s discussion of the Court of Chivalry provides a useful introduction to his subject. He explains the origins and ambiguities of its unique jurisdiction (which extended beyond the king’s realms), the degree to which its procedures were distinct, and the growth of political concerns about its operation. Musson’s concern, however, goes beyond providing a clear overview. He successfully deconstructs the Court’s reputation as an organ of arbitrary prerogative justice wielded inappropriately by the monarch in favour of a few friends. Instead, he shows how the Court of Chivalry was just one among many courts that operated outside of common law process, including for example the Court of Chancery and the king’s council, both of which could issue decisions according to equity precisely in order to provide remedy where common law could not. Within this group of courts, however, its jurisdiction over matters such as prisoners of war gave it an unusual international dimension. Musson then proceeds to tease out the reasons behind the complaints and challenges that generated the Court’s reputation for corrupt practice in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Although there was a move among the parliamentary Commons to seek to restrain legal avenues over which they had no control, Musson shows that most of the challenges brought against Court jurisdiction were no more than strategic manoeuvres to gain advantage within a specific case, rather than statements of principle. He concludes that the existence of widespread concern for the Court’s operation is, rather, “illusory” (115).

Like Musson’s work on law, Dodd’s piece draws upon his deep familiarity with parliamentary processes, not least his work with Ormrod on the Medieval Petitions project. In this chapter, Dodd turns his attention to drafting legislation, and more especially, the challenge apparently mounted by the Commons in 1414 to the king’s right to alter the terms of any legislation that parliament had suggested and approved, and perhaps even his right to make legislation on his own initiative. As in several examples discussed in this book, however, what appears at first to be a forthright statement of principle is revealed on closer inspection to be a much murkier consequence of circumstance and political strategy. By treating the petition of 1414 in a wider context of petitioning and legislation, Dodd is able to identify the Statute of Truces (1413), which responded to the problem of piracy by punishing only the king’s own lieges, as the primary cause of complaint. He shows how this legislation likely arose through the crown’s canny use of general complaints put to it “concerning the safeguard of the sea” (135-6) as a pretext for developing laws that promoted its own diplomatic interests, but which were “hugely unpopular” in the king’s own polity (137). The petition of 1414 becomes, therefore, not a general statement of principle, but a specific complaint concerning the crown’s deliberate and strategic manipulation of the requests of the Commons in a given instance. Dodd’s astute analysis of parliamentary process also enables him to suggest, persuasively, that the petition’s well-known inclusion in the English language in the records of parliament arose not from a selective process of code-switching as much as from the fact that it was tabled during the flow of parliamentary work, rather than submitted for official translation and inclusion as part of a pre-agreed schedule at the opening of the session. As in many other chapters of this collection, therefore, Dodd’s work serves as a warning against reaching too-swift conclusions without first appreciating the complexities of production that generated the records before us.

James Bothwell’s chapter on Edward III’s reaction to the deaths of the many family members and peers whom he outlived picks up on one of Ormrod’s most famous interests: that of royal biography. Bothwell’s interpretation is notable for blending an “emotions history” approach with what might be seen as a more traditional sensitivity to political pragmatics in royal behaviour. His analysis of the material and visual evidence of funerary monuments, together with documentary records, demonstrates how the king balanced his personal feelings with the need to craft a narrative of dynastic unity and solidity after the turmoil of his father’s last years. What is perhaps remarkable is the extent to which Edward III seems to have used the deaths of loved ones as opportunities to rehabilitate the memories of both his mother and his father. Less unexpected, but no less sensitively handled, is Bothwell’s discussion of how death demanded the reiteration of relationships of diplomatic and political kinds, and how much apparently genuine feeling Edward expressed in such moments. His awareness of the complex humanity of his subject is worthy of Ormrod’s magisterial biography of the same king.

Helen Killick’s chapter on the administrative career of Thomas Hoccleve bridges Ormrod’s first and last research interests. Having begun his career working closely with the records of government, Ormrod ended it with a turn to the literary, famously submitting his edition of the fourteenth-century poem Wynnere and Wastoure to the publisher just ten days before his death. Killick’s study examines Hoccleve’s work in the Office of the Privy Seal partly to explore the question of how his administrative career fit with his poetic output. Having newly identified a large number of chancery warrants (writs of the privy seal directing the work of chancery) in Hoccleve’s hand, Killick has substantially expanded the number of holograph documents that can be attributed to him. This enables her to test existing hypotheses as to the rhythms of his administrative life, the seniority that he achieved in it and its relationship to his literary production, with much greater certainty than past scholars. Her findings suggest that during most of his career, Hoccleve performed an unexpectedly low proportion of the actual work of documentary production in the office. Killick suggests that Hoccleve may have risen in seniority to a mainly supervisory role, in which he was able to choose his work, writing mainly documents for influential patrons that generated supplementary fees. It also seems that, late in his career, he was able to put privy seal work aside to pursue his own literary endeavours, and to produce copies of others’ works on commission. It seems that the life of a senior clerk was considerably more flexible and amenable to personal priorities than may have been assumed. These conclusions will interest not only Hoccleve scholars, but also those concerned more generally with the activities of royal clerks in the later medieval period.

While the various chapters of this volume address a wide variety of topics and examples, its cumulative impact on our understanding of late medieval political culture in all its parts is substantial. Readers may begin from an interest in a specific contribution; but the whole will certainly repay attention.