By Steven Muhlberger
The medieval aristocracy was devoted to war. Lords and knights believed that they had the exclusive right to wage war and to profit from it too. But that does not mean that they were enthusiastic about fighting each and every war.
The reign of England’s Richard II (1376-1399) is very interesting for giving us moderns a feel for what political debates were like at the end of the 14th century. There was room for debate — especially among nobles and high-ranking clergy: Was it now time to make peace with the traditional enemy? Especially since a joint Anglo-French expedition against the Ottomans had ended in disaster at the Battle of Nicopolis. Some wanted to launch a new crusade. Then there were people who thought that no war would be best. Taxes were so high already.
Our best accounts of the politics of England, including especially Froissart’s long chronicle, focus on the personal interests and actions of King Richard and the leading dukes. There was tension between those dukes – the sons of Edward III, who had died in 1376—and the young Richard, grandson of Edward who succeeded him at the age of 10. For a long time the uncles took care of royal business, but as Richard matured he began to have opinions of his own.
Richard came to admire the style of the French court and was inclined to make peace with the traditional enemy. Some (though not all) were opposed, for both practical and emotional reasons. Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward III and Richard’s uncle was well-known for his hardline position on France, and Froissart used the duke as an illustration of the dangers of the belligerent English royal family, as well as portraying Gloucester as a chronically dissatisfied great lord.
I must now say something of the Duke of Gloucester, whose heart was by no means inclined to the French, and who was more pleased than hurt at the melancholy loss which they had sustained in Turkey. The duke’s most confidential adviser was a knight, by name of Sir John Lackingay, with whom he held such conversations as the following:
“These rare boasting Frenchmen have been nearly annihilated in Turkey. Such knights and squires as join company with them are very ill-advised, they are too vain and presumptuous ever to bring anything they undertake to a successful issue. This has often been apparent during the wars of my lord and father, and our brother the Prince of Wales, for they never could obtain a victory over our men. I know not why we have truces with them.
If the King of England had a good head, and were as desirous as I am of war, and would take some pains to recover the inheritance the French have so shamefully stolen from him, he would find 100,000 archers and 6,000 men-at-arms ready to cross the sea and serve him with their lives and fortunes. There never was so favourable an opportunity to carry the war into France as the present, for the flower of the French chivalry is slain or in captivity [a reference to Nicopolis].
If peace continues, we shall languish and become more enervated than ever since my nephew came to the throne. Things cannot long remain in this state; the people will perceive and redress them. The king raises heavy taxes on the merchants, who are greatly discontented; he squanders the money no one knows how, and thus is the kingdom impoverished. True it is he gives largely to those about him, and in whom he confides; but the people pay for this, and it will shortly cause a rebellion.
As soon as the truces between France and England are signed, he gives out that he will make a voyage to Ireland; he has been there already and gained but little, for Ireland is not worth conquering. The Irish are a poor and wicked people, with an impoverished country he who should conquer it one year, would lose it the next. Lackingay, Lackingay ! all you have just heard me say, consider as truth.”
Froissart elsewhere sums up the hostility between Duke Thomas and King Richard thus:
[The duke] had conceived a great hatred to his nephew the King of England, and could no way speak well of him… from his rough manner, [Gloucester] was more dreaded by the king than any other of his uncles.
Lively as the speech is, it should not be mistaken for a transcript of an actual conversation between Lackingay and his master (or was it a drinking session?). It was written years after Richard’s reign came to its catastrophic conclusion. Froissart wrote this passage to give his readers a believable depiction of the kind of issues that motivated the hardcore war party in England.
The historian’s account shows his readers another important dynamic in English politics – the rivalry between the older sons of Edward III and Gloucester. The older dukes could present themselves as part of the glorious generation when Edward and his oldest son, Edward Prince of Wales, won so many victories over the French. Gloucester (also known as the earl of Buckingham) could not credibly make that claim. His first campaign was a failure, despite his pretensions of being a tough, practical soldier worthy to lead England to further victories.
If the king disagreed then Gloucester had no doubt that he was far more suitable than that kid who by accident of birth wore the crown.
So the politics of England were dominated by dangerous dukes: Gloucester was only one. At a later time, the unsuitability of King Charles VI of France (whose mental health was fragile at best) unleashed a rivalry between his uncles, also royal dukes, that led to civil war. It is worth remembering that material factors were important in politics – certainly complaints about taxes were sincere, but family conflicts at the highest level sometimes trumped the practical issues.
Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.
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Top Image: Portrait of Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, from The Benefactors’ Book of St Albans Abbey (London, British Library Cotton MS Nero D VII f. 110 r)
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