Military history


David Starkey

This is a book about a battle. But it is also a book about kingship – or rather, as the King in question was Henry VI, its very present absence.

To be short the prince is the life, the head and the authority of all things that be done in the realm of England. And to no prince is done more honour and reverence than to the King and Queen of England;no man speaketh to the prince nor serveth at table but in adoration and kneeling; all persons of the realm be bareheaded before him; insomuch as in the chamber of presence where the cloth of estate is set, no man dare walk, yea though the prince be not there, no man dare tarry there but bareheaded.1

Sir Thomas Smith wrote these words of his own sovereign, that most kingly of queens, Elizabeth I. But they apply equally to all her predecessors, including that least kingly of kings, Henry VI. His court, contrary to what most historians have supposed, was magnificent. The rituals of his chapel royal were held up for emulation in Portugal. His badge was worn with pride in Italy. And at home, for almost forty years, he was treated with all the solemn, quasi-religious respect and ceremony that Smith describes.2 Thus it is kneeling and bareheaded that the Lords and Commons appear before their young master in the illuminated foundation charter of King’s College, Cambridge, the second of Henry VI’s two great works of piety – just as they did in real life.3

Now contemporaries were not fools and most of them were as well able to gauge Henry VI’s inadequacies as we are. But they were able to discount them because of a difference between their thought patterns and ours. Nowadays we distinguish between the office (abstract) and the incumbent (person). They thought instead of two different royal persons or kings: there was the actual King (the rex nunc or ‘King for the time being’, as the records of the Exchequer, the principal department of finance, put it with wonderful coolness) and there was the permanent King. The latter never died, as the herald’s cry at a royal death made clear: ‘the King is dead;long live the King!’ And he embodied the essence of kingship. But he was absorbed in whoever was rex nunc.

Moreover, this other King was not only eternal, he was also ubiquitous. The actual King, like other human beings, could only be in one place at a time. He was at Westminster. Or Woodstock. Or Windsor. Or even – God forbid – in prison. But his alter ego had no such limitations. He could, at one and the same time, be in every law court and every county. His person travelled with his seal and his most potent symbol – as Smith makes clear – was an empty throne.

In short, this King was a royal god. And, like God himself, he was self-created. For these emanations of royal power were the creation of a long line of earlier kings. They went back to the Conquest and beyond. And the best of what they built survived. The French have a word for it: acquis. That is, a power which is accumulated and added to and hardly ever diminished. Such was the nature of English government.4

Oldest, most important and the foundation of everything else was the unity of England. This was the achievement of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex: Aethelstan, the great Alfred’s grandson, who was the first king to rule over all England, and Edgar, whose ‘imperial’ consecration at Bath some fifty years later in 973 set a precedent of magnificence and liturgical coherence whose effects were still felt six centuries later in the two coronations of Henry VI.

This hard-won unity was built on natural advantages. England was comparatively small;as the larger part of an island it had clear natural frontiers and its stock was relatively homogenous. But royal initiative was more important still. The key was the characteristic unit of local government: the shire (in Anglo-Saxon) or county (in French). These were established first in Wessex and then spread, with the power of Wessex, over the whole country. The shire had a double face: it was both an area of royal administration, headed by a powerful royal official, the ealdorman, and a unit of local self-government. But what it was not was just as important. The ealdorman, who became known as the earl under the Danish occupation of Canute, might be the predominant landowner in the shire. But he did not own it outright. This meant that the shires did not become semi-independent territorial principalities, as in France or, still more, in Germany.

There were still important regional differences of course: between North and South and the Celtic west and the rest. These differences emerge very clearly in the composition of the rival armies at Towton: the Lancastrian troops came largely from the North; the Yorkist, from the South and Wales. Moreover, Yorkist propaganda went out of its way to play on the fear of the Northern men as ‘the other’. It painted them as violent predators, intent on destroying the peace and prosperity of the South. And it worked. It led, it is argued, to the extraordinary savagery of the battle, in which the defeated and defenceless Northerners were treated as an alien horde and slaughtered in droves. And it left a legacy, in ‘the problem of the North’, which is still with us today.

But, for all the differences and demonization, North and South did not go their own ways. Instead, Towton, too, was a back-handed compliment to the unity of England, in which the parts struggled, not for separation, but for control of the whole kingdom.

The unity, as well as the wealth, of Anglo-Saxon England had made it very appealing to would-be conquerors; it also made it vulnerable to conquest. This is shown most strikingly in the aftermath of William, Duke of Normandy’s victory at Hastings. At that point, England was not conquered. But the death of King Harold II in the battle had decapitated royal government. Thereafter, without royal leadership, Anglo-Saxon resistance collapsed and delivered England to William with scarcely a fight.

Thanks to the brevity of the struggle, England was also delivered as a going concern. William was determined to keep it that way – and to keep it different from Normandy. His Norman followers were, of course, rewarded with vast estates confiscated from the dispossessed Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. But he made sure that the estates were widely scattered to avoid the sort of regional satrapies which bedevilled French – and Norman – politics.

His sons and successors went much further and in the course of the twelfth century built a royal administration of unusual reach and ambition. It had two main departments. The Exchequer was the ministry of finance. Twice a year, the sheriffs, the new royal administrators of each county, were summoned to Westminster to have their accounts audited at the Exchequer board or table. The table was covered with the chequered cloth that gave it its name and turned it into a giant calculating machine. The machine – and hence the Exchequer itself – was accurate to the last penny and fractions of a penny, and it was inescapable.

The other principal department was the Chancery or secretariat. This issued royal instructions known as writs. They were written on slips of parchment and authenticated by a wax impression of the King’s massive, double-sided seal. One side showed him mounted and armed as warrior-defender of his people; the other crowned and enthroned as their judge. And it was royal justice which was the particular concern of the Conqueror’s great-grandson, Henry II. He created both a machinery of royal justice and a system of law, known as Common Law, which brought the King’s justice to all his subjects, whoever and wherever they were. It was a two-way traffic. Judges on tour took the King’s law to the localities; writs, bearing the King’s image, summoned his subjects to his law courts in Westminster.

Anglo-Saxon England was an usually unified state;the bureaucratic and legal reforms of the Anglo-Norman kings also turned it into one of the most densely and effectively administered as well. But kings did not have it all their own way. Starting with the Conqueror himself at his fateful coronation on Christmas Day 1066, each king was first acclaimed by the people in token of their consent to his rule. Next he swore to respect the laws of Edward the Confessor, the last king of Anglo-Saxon England. Then, and only then, was he anointed, crowned and invested with the rest of the regalia.

As this sequence of rituals makes clear, even at the height of Norman autocracy the kingdom was envisaged as having an existence apart from the King. For otherwise, who or what was giving consent and to whom were the royal oaths sworn? Moreover, and paradoxically, the unifying drive of the Conqueror and his heirs only intensified this feeling of collective identity. The result was that the growth and consolidation of royal power in the twelfth century was followed by its limitation and control in the thirteenth and fourteenth.

Unsurprisingly, the process began under incompetent and unsuccessful kings, like John and Henry III. But, strikingly, it also continued under some of the greatest rulers of the Middle Ages, like Edward I and Edward III. John contrived to have the worst of both worlds. He was oppressive at home and a failure abroad, losing all the vast Continental lands of his ancestors. By 1215, disenchantment was universal and he was faced with an ultimatum: concede a general charter of liberties, or face deposition. With bad grace and in worse faith he agreed. But he immediately obtained absolution from the Pope on the grounds that the charter had been extorted by force.

Exasperated, the English now invited the French Prince Louis to be their king. Fortunately at this point John died. The guardians of his nine-year-old son, Henry, reissued the charter, though shorn of its most offensive clause which authorized the use of force to compel the King to adhere to its terms. With the charter conceded, support for Louis collapsed and Henry III was acknowledged as King.

There followed decades of political strife as the implications of Magna Carta, as it became known, were worked out. One side was led by Henry’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester; the other by his eldest son, Edward. De Montfort wanted to reduce the King to a cipher, with executive power transferred to a noble council. Edward, on the other hand, was determined to preserve the reality of royal power which by rights would one day be his. Eventually Edward won and de Montfort was defeated, killed and posthumously dismembered as a traitor.

But Edward’s victory came at the price of conceding de Montfort’s most daring innovation. Once again, it went back to Magna Carta. The charter’s guarantees of the inviolability of property, the impartiality and availability of justice and the rule of law were not only ringing declarations of right; they also transformed the practice of politics. They did so above all by establishing that taxation required consent. But by whom? At first, enlarged sessions of the King’s Council were used. The bishops, the greater nobles, who were now dignified by the hereditary title of earl, and some other leading landowners were summoned, in addition to the King’s regular advisers. The meetings were known by a variety of names, like ‘great council’. But the term ‘parliament’ came into increasingly general use.

De Montfort spotted his opportunity. Hitherto membership of parliament had been individual. He broadened it dramatically by summoning representatives of two important groups: the wealthy citizens of the greater towns and the middling landowners of the shires. Individually, such men could not compare with the bishops and earls. But collectively they at least matched them in wealth.

De Montfort’s actions were self-interested and opportunistic. He aimed to score a propaganda coup and broaden the base of his political support. But a precedent had been set. And it was followed by de Montfort’s great opponent when he succeeded as Edward I. Almost all of Edward’s parliaments included burgesses and knights of the shires, as the representatives of the towns and counties became known. And their writs of summons defined the nature of representation itself. ‘What touches all’, the King declared, ‘should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.’ The result was that by the middle of the fourteenth century a recognizably ‘modern’, bicameral parliament had emerged, with two ‘Houses’, the Lords (the bishops and the landed nobility) and the Commons (the burgesses and knights of the shire), which were summoned together but met and deliberated separately.

Edward I and his successors were no more altruistic than de Montfort. They accepted parliament, increased and broadened its personnel and developed its powers, not out of principle, but because it was useful.

And it was useful, above all, for the warfare that became the principal ‘common danger’ or business of king and kingdom. Parliament gave its consent to war, voted the taxes to pay for it and agreed the terms of truces and treaties that suspended or ended it. Except that the war never really seemed to end.

First, Edward I fought the Welsh, won and occupied Wales. Then he fought the Scots and seemed to win there too. But, by the end of his reign, the Scottish campaign had turned to stalemate and, under his son, Edward II, to catastrophic defeat. Edward III, however, redeemed the reputation of English arms with conquests in France that seemed destined to recreate the Continental empire, lost under John, of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. But these conquests too were eroded in the great warrior’s dotage and lost entirely in the reign of Richard II, who preferred to do his fighting against his own subjects at home rather than enemies abroad.

The greatest warrior king of all was Henry VI’s father, Henry V. By a combination of diplomacy, dazzling generalship and driving single-mindedness he brought France to her knees and, at the Treaty of Troyes, was acknowledged as heir and regent of France. Two years later he was dead, leaving the nine-month-old Henry VI as heir of his vast conquests and still greater reputation.

The road to Towton field had begun.

There is, in short, a pattern. Militarily successful kings die, full of honours if not years, in their beds; military failures do not. Instead, they die very unpleasantly. Edward II was dethroned by his wife and her lover and murdered, the story goes, by having a red-hot poker rammed up his fundament; Richard II was dethroned by his cousin and starved to death at Pontefract Castle; Henry VI was dethroned – twice for good measure – and finally finished off by a heavy blow to the back of the head.

But these are more than ‘sad stories of the death of kings’. They also point to a fundamental truth about the nature of later medieval English kingship. England was a war state and could only be ruled successfully by a warrior monarch.

Which brings us to the title of this book. The phrase ‘Fatal Colours’ is taken from Shakespeare’s Henry VI: Part 3, act II scene v. The scene deals with the battle of Towton, and it does so in a fashion which shows that Shakespeare fully understood both the scale of the battle and its peculiar, intestine savagery. At the climax of the action, a man drags in a body, and, as he begins to pillage the corpse, he discovers that he has killed his own father; another, also intent on spoiling a body, finds out that he has slaughtered his only son. Henry VI, observing the pair, takes up the father’s lament for his slain child:

O! pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity.

The red rose and the white are on his face;

The fatal colours of our striving houses

The one his purple blood right well resembles;

The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth:

Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!

If you contend, a thousand lives must wither

(Henry VI: Part 3, II.v.96–102)

The actual name, ‘Wars of the Roses’, goes back only to the early nineteenth century, when it seems to have been coined by the Romantic novelist, Sir Walter Scott, in Anne of Geierstein (1829). But the idea is much older. The principal root is of course Shakespeare himself. But Shakespeare in turn got it from Edward Hall, whose chronicle history of England from the death of Richard II to his own time has for its full title:

The union of the two noble and illustr[ious] houses of Lancaster and York, being long in continual dissension for the crown of this noble realm, with all the acts done in both the times of the princes, both of the one lineage and of the other, beginning at the time of King Henry IV, the first author of this division, and so successively proceeding to the reign of the high and prudent prince, King Henry VIII, the undoubted flower and very heir of both the said lineages.

Moreover, as presented in Hall, the idea is as much visual as verbal. The title page of the second edition shows two family trees in the form of climbing roses. One springs from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster;the other from Edmund, Duke of York. And they unitein the marriage of Henry VII of Lancaster with Elizabeth of York and its issue in Henry VIII. Henry appears at the top of the page, crowned and in majesty, with a rose of Lancaster on his right hand and one of York on his left.5

Hall’s Chronicle was first published in 1548. But we can go back further still, to the fifteenth century itself. Or rather, we can half go back. The white rose of York was a frequently used emblem, both in peace and war. Under Edward IV of York, who defeated Henry VI at Towton, the white rose appears on banners, coats-of-arms, jewellery, stained glass, coins, seals and paintings. On the other hand, the red rose of Lancaster is conspicuous by its absence. The most thorough search has been made. But, for the sixty-odd-year rule of the house of Lancaster, from 1399 to 1461, not a single convincing contemporary use of the red rose as a royal dynastic emblem has been found.

Instead it appears, out of the blue, at the battle of Bosworth. ‘In the year 1485 on the 22nd day of August’, the Crowland Chronicler quotes from a contemporary poem, ‘the tusks of the boar were blunted and the red rose, the avenger of the white, shines upon us’. The chronicler then explains the verses, ‘taking into account the banners and badges of today’s victor and vanquished’. The boar was Richard III, Edward IV’s younger brother, who was defeated and killed in the battle. The red rose was the victorious Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who claimed the throne as the descendant, through his mother, of the house of Lancaster. While the white rose, avenged by the red, stood for Edward IV’s sons, Edward and Richard, who had been usurped and probably murdered by their uncle Richard III.

After his victory, Richmond, who reigned as Henry VII, made the red rose one of his principal badges. But he also, following his marriage with Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, combined it with the white rose of York into the Tudor rose, red without and white within, as a powerful symbol of dynastic union.6

We are now, I think, in a position to understand not only when but why the badge of the red rose was invented. For there could be no dynastic union unless there were two royal houses. But by 1485 there was virtually no Lancastrian house or Lancastrian party left. Towton, followed by the even greater dynastic blood-letting of Tewkesbury, had killed off all Lancastrian claimants – apart from Henry Tudor. And twenty-five years of increasingly successful Yorkist rule had reduced the Lancastrian following to the merest handful.

So the invention of the badge of the red rose was a prelude to the larger invention of a continuous Lancastrian party. Such a double invention gave Henry equal dynastic weight with his wife-to-be, Elizabeth of York. It also provided a dignified and satisfying narrative for the previous century of English history. Its usurpations, occasional turmoil and moments of bloody savagery could be acknowledged or even exaggerated since they were about to be resolved by the marriage of Elizabeth of York and Henry of Lancaster.

Indeed, and strikingly, this historical narrative is first sketched in the papal bull confirming Henry VII’s marriage and title to the throne. The bull, which is dated 27 March, declares that it was issued spontaneously and without any prompting by the King. Nevertheless its substance must have been drafted in England. Subsequently, because of its propaganda value, the text was also translated (pretty freely) into English and printed and published as a proclamation.

The Pope, it declared, was aware ‘of the long and grievous variance, dissensions and debates that hath been in this realm of England between the house of the duchy of Lancaster on the one part and the house of the duchy of York on the other part’. It was the Holy Father’s earnest desire and duty, as the promoter of universal peace, to knit up such quarrels. To this end, ‘and willing all such divisions therefrom following to be put apart’, he ‘approveth, confirmeth and establisheth’ the marriage between ‘King Henry VII of the house of Lancaster of that one party and the noble Princess Elizabeth of the house of York of that other party’.7

The translator was John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln. Sir Thomas More thought him ‘one of the best learned men undoubtedly that England had in his time’;he was also regarded as one of its best wordsmiths. And, as his very choice of words shows – ‘dissensions’, ‘house[s]’, ‘divisions’, his translation is a sort of first draft of Hall. Hall develops, of course, and Shakespeare perfects. But Russell is the beginning of it all.8


Despite Shakespeare, therefore, and despite our title, there were no red roses at Towton. And only Edward IV’s immediate following would have worn the white rose. But you only invent things because they are important. And badges were important;indeed they were the central emblem of the age and take us – as Shakespeare instinctively understood – to the heart of its life and politics.9

They do so because they symbolized a relationship: between superior and inferior, master and men. Fifteenth-century society consisted of a multitude of such interlocking hierarchies. Each centred on a landowner – either a nobleman, if he had broad acres, or a gentleman, if his estates were smaller – and his household. The household was made up of the lord’s family, together with his servants, who could number scores or even hundreds. The servants were sworn to obey their lord in peace and war and, in token, wore his badge pinned or embroidered onto their clothing and ‘livery’ (or uniform) in his ‘colours’. If the lord were rich and powerful, others, including neighbouring gentlemen and even noblemen together with their own household servants, would also be attracted into his orbit. These satellite lords likewise swore obedience but, in deference to their higher status, they wore their lord’s badge on a gold chain round their necks. Finally, the ambitious could extend their reach still further by ‘retaining’ others with a money ‘fee’. At its most developed, the transaction took the form of an indenture or contract. This specified in minute detail for how long, at what price, with how many men and against whom the retainer would serve. Normally, allegiance to the King was specifically ‘saved’ or excepted. But not always.

Historians call this structure ‘bastard feudalism’. As the name alone indicates, it has enjoyed a bad press. In part this is deserved. Like any military machine, bastard feudalism existed to fight. It was developed to supply the troops for Edward III’s wars and it was most effectively deployed by Henry V in his victorious campaigns in France. But, under his feeble son, it was another story. In the absence of war abroad, it turned inwards and made its own domestic conflicts. Retainer quarrelled with retainer; their lords were drawn in and small squabbles grew bigger, becoming – without effective royal intervention – first local, then regional and finally national disputes. The nadir was reached in 1461 when the nobility, the royal house, and England herself split into two more or less evenly matched parties. They came together at Towton, in the great and terrible battle which forms the subject of this book.

But Towton was more than a nadir; it was also a turning point. For bastard feudalism was not only about war, whether at home or abroad. It was also a force in peacetime, even, improbable though it may seem, a force for peace. It provided both the connective tissue that bound the centre to the localities and the muscle which enabled local gentlemen to fulfil their role as royal commissioners in the shires: raising taxes, administering justice and keeping order. It enabled a regional magnate to impose order on his sphere of influence; it might even enable a king to bring peace to the kingdom.

In short, bastard feudalism formed a parallel structure of power. It had the potential to remedy the defects of the English constitution and make England – which it had scarcely ever been before – governable in peace.

As usual, everything turned upon the King and how he chose to manage bastard feudalism. The great warrior kings, Edward III and Henry V, had done so presidentially, by uniting the lords and their followings in the common enterprise of war against France. But it was also possible for the King to deploy bastard feudalism competitively, by building up a royal ‘affinity’ or following of his own and making himself the biggest bastard feudal lord of all. This had already been tried by Richard II in the late fourteenth century. His band of Cheshire archers, all sporting his badge of the White Hart, had been the largest and most feared in the country. It had even been used to intimidate a meeting of parliament itself. But it could not protect him in the crisis of 1399 when the political elite deserted him en masse in favour of his more popular, shrewder rival, Henry IV.

Contemporaries considered the problem too, most notably Sir John Fortescue, the Lord Chief Justice and Lancastrian loyalist. Present at Towton, Fortescue fled the field;became a leading member of the Lancastrian government in exile and only surrendered to Edward IV after the final, irretrievable defeat of the Lancastrian cause at Tewkesbury. Fortescue, in short, had lived the failure of English government in his own career and in his last work, The Governance of England, he proposed the remedy. The existing parliamentary constitution, which, as a common lawyer, he valued profoundly, should remain. But it should be supplemented by the parallel structures of bastard feudalism. The crown lands should be increased and the revenues used to build up the King’s affinity. The result would be a restoration of political stability and a ‘refoundation of the crown’.

Circumstances did not allow Edward IV sufficient time to follow Fortescue’s advice in full. But Henry VII was luckier. His leading councillor, John Morton, came from the same stable as Fortescue. He too had been present at Towton and was Fortescue’s colleague in the Lancastrian government in exile, as Lord Privy Seal to Fortescue’s Lord Chancellor. The result was the remarkable strategic thrust of Henry VII’s government: the new royal badge of the red rose was invented;the royal affinity nurtured and developed and the crown lands extended beyond the dreams of avarice. The measures succeeded almost too well and, by the end of Henry VII’s reign, the new structures were on the point of taking over from the old and making even parliament itself redundant.10

And it all began at Towton and its aftermath.

Fatal Colours is, therefore, more than a book about one battle, vivid, humane and superbly researched though it is. It is an account of a moment of profound crisis in English politics and a dreadful warning that the political process can fail – and of what happens when it does.

David Starkey

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