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22.11.01 McKelvie, Bastard Feudalism, English Society and the Law

22.11.01 McKelvie, Bastard Feudalism, English Society and the Law

What are we to make of the many late medieval popular complaints against the practice of distributing badges to followers--“the signs/ that swarmed so thikke”--found in the alliterative poem Richard the Redeless? The proliferation of such “signs” or livery badges became a hot-button issue during the reign of Richard II, and in the wake of the widespread recruiting of followers to armed retinues during Richard’s conflict with the lords Appellant in 1388, the parliamentary Commons introduced a petition to abolish entirely the distribution of badges. The Commons had come to regard these signs or livery badges as both a symptom and cause of the widespread disorder, if not outright lawlessness, felt to be overtaking the realm in this period. Richard himself was a duplicitous player, offering to give up his own badge in a grand gesture to appease the Commons in 1388, and steadily building up his retinue of the white hart in 1389 when he came into his majority rule. The complaints kept coming throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but are these accurate measures of the scope of the problem?

Gordon McKelvie’s recent and careful study of the legislation and enforcement in the law courts regarding the distribution of livery badges seeks to turn down the volume on the panic over law and order voiced by the late medieval Commons, and instead redirects our attention to the records of the King’s Bench to determine just how serious a concern was the practice of distributing livery to followers. McKelvie situates his discussion of the distribution of livery and the practice of retaining followers in the later Middle Ages within the long historiographical debate on what Charles Plummer, writing in the late nineteenth century, first described pejoratively as bastard feudalism, or the practice by nobles of putting liveried retainers on the payroll. McKelvie suggests the new constitutional historians following in the footsteps of Christine Carpenter have gone too far in shifting the focus away from parliament to nobility as the primary link between the center and those governed in the localities, and I, for one, am inclined to agree. As McKelvie asserts in his introduction, if we are to seriously consider late medieval reformist culture, we must examine parliament and the expression of political ideas which influenced laws and enforcement.

McKelvie divides his examination of bastard feudalism over the course of the fifteenth century into two sections. The first four chapters detail legislative attempts in this period to restrict the distribution of liveries and the limitations of enforcement, with careful attention paid to the Commons petitions introduced with naïve enthusiasm during the last decades of the fourteenth and the early decades of the fifteenth century. McKelvie is careful to note that legislation does not translate into an uptick in prosecutions, at least not until the reign of Henry V, when, in keeping with his reputation as an active and personal ruler, we witness a significant increase in indictments for illegal livery. This was part of Henry V’s campaign to face down rebellion and disorder at home before dedicating himself to war in France. Henry V is a prelude to the period when the impetus for tackling the problem of retainers begins to shift away from the Commons to the crown. McKelvie further documents this shift during the reign of Edward IV, when the Yorkist king attempted to restrict the distribution of badges by those of “lower estate or degree,” and at the same moment promoted the 1468 act to restrict retaining by less visible means other than the distribution of livery, such as retaining by indenture. As McKelvie suggests, this was an attempt to put new teeth into enforcement broadly inspired by concerns about Warwick’s use of retaining, who without a doubt “daily offenden” against the existing statutes, as Warwick’s badge of the ragged staff was reportedly spotted everywhere in the capital (66). (We need to look no further than the Paston letters to find regular reports of Warwick turning up to parliament or in London with a couple of hundred men in tow.) Henry VII’s reign produced legislation in 1504 which succeeded in increasing the fiscal penalties for illegal retaining to the benefit of the crown’s purse, and witnesses “the most sustained and rigorous enforcement of the statutes of livery” (71). Thus we might conclude that aspects of Tudor innovation were built upon the foundation of the late medieval Commons’ reformist impulses.

The remining five chapters of McKelvie’s study begin with a consideration of the identity of those persons indicted for illegally distributing or receiving livery. Among the 3,733 occasions, we find that twenty-two members of the peerage were indicted for distributing illegal livery; unsurprisingly most of these occurred during the disruptive years of Henry VI and Edward IV. However, we learn that the great majority of indictments for distributing illegal livery involve members of the gentry, and so McKelvie paints a detailed picture of how commonplace such arrangements for obtaining service were in late medieval society, and furthermore which types of arrangements were considered unacceptable. For example, though the 1390 act specified that badges had to be worn only in the presence of the lord and could only be distributed to permanent members of the household, clearly this was widely disregarded and rarely enforced. Similarly, the majority of those indicted for illegally receiving livery were members of the peasantry, some 2,064 occasions, though many of these were peasants of the middling sort and so had means. As in Hampshire in 1503, those indicted for receiving illegal livery might offer the defense that they had been retained to “do the king’s work,” thereby reinforcing the notion that this was nothing more than the customary way of obtaining service to get the job done (115). Accordingly, some of those indicted would go on to be appointed to the local commission of the peace, revealing that categories of service and the work of medieval governance relied on the practice of retaining, even if sometimes outside the law. McKelvie builds a larger goal in this section of his study, and that is to rescue the utility of bastard feudalism by liberating it from a limited application to the magnate-gentry model in the counties. In sum, he would have us understand that the need for service was felt throughout late medieval society, by the gentry themselves, by women, by townsmen, by clergy, and so what was once disparagingly described as bastard feudalism becomes an increasingly broad and accurate description of the state of late medieval social relations.

McKelvie’s careful and illuminating study raises a final question that returns us to Richard the Redeless and the signs swarming thick throughout the length and breadth of the land. If the indictments under consideration reveal very limited occasions for enforcement of the statutes, suggesting that retaining was only a problem in certain circumstances (and otherwise widely acknowledged as necessary for late medieval English society to function), why then did popular concerns persist? For example, a 1459 petition in parliament complained of robberies and other violent crimes committed by men in livery. McKelvie’s answer lies in the very outsized role retainers played in local feuds and property disputes during the mid-fifteenth century, such as the infamous dispute over Sir John Fastolf’s Caister Castle involving the Pastons and the duke of Norfolk. Such local disputes inevitably became caught up in the larger political conflict at the center during the Wars of the Roses, and so reflect the temporary incapacity of the government to enforce the law. McKelvie sees local feuds as directly benefiting from the illegal retention of men, particularly during the Wars of the Roses when there existed a vacuum of authority at the center. Yet ongoing complaints might reflect a persistent and broader discomfort regarding the legitimacy of the practice of retaining which had become endemic in late medieval society. Reformist complaints, be they in petitions or poems, are mirrors not for princes, but mirrors for late medieval society broadly. In these mirrors some saw reflected the menacing potential for relationships of service to proliferate with the simple distribution of badges, and saw too a threat of violence or a thumb on the scales of justice which contributed to a feeling of insecurity. In other words, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that bastard feudalism was easily weaponized. McKelvie’s work has made it clear that bastard feudalism was integral to late medieval society, and that the gentry too took full advantage.