Wednesday 22 May 2019

The Beginning of the Wars of the Roses? By Catherine Hokin

Anyone who cares about history is obsessed with dates. We locate rulers with them. We decide what's historical and what's too close to our own lifetime to dare creep into that camp with them. As historical fiction writers we frequently weep over them and wish we could smudge a birth date here or a battle there to make our plot lines work. But how many, to borrow a phrase from 1066 and All That, can we trust are genuine - is it, as Misters Sellars and Yeatman would have it, really only two, reduced from four as two weren't memorable?

 Warren Field Lunar Calendar: University of Birmingham
Trying to keep track of the time goes back almost to the dawn of it. The first formulized calendars date from the Bronze Age, but the title of 'world's oldest calendar', awarded in 2013 (more than three sources quote this date so I'm going to accept it) goes to an arrangement of twelve pits and an arc in Warren Field, Scotland which is approximately 10,000 years old. The oldest-still-in-use award is claimed by the Jewish calendar which was introduced in the ninth century BC. 

 The Lost 11 Days: Today in History
Baked into the development of all our measuring systems is the differing lunar year (354 days) and solar year (365 days). The Roman Calendar, 45 BC, introduced the concept of leap years to try and solve this mismatch. By the time the Gregorian Calendar was floated in 1582, the Roman's miscalculation of the solar year had thrown the seasons, and therefore Easter, out of sync. Pope Gregory's attempts to solve this involved changing the leap year system to a new calculation based on years divisible by four rather than an extra day every four years. Or something on those lines that defies my understanding. Anyway it obviously worked because, as we all know, Easter is now an immovable feast. Not everyone liked the changes: Germany resisted the swap until 1700 and England, as warm then to the idea of European regulations as it ever was, stuck it out on the old system until 1752. By this point the seasons were so messed up, Parliament took the rather fabulous decision to advance the year overnight from September 2nd to September 14th, thus removing 11 days at a stroke. Take all this into account and is it any wonder that the dates we choose as significant can sometimes feel more like a collective act of will than a fixed and certain point?

 Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Which brings me back, finally, to where you might have thought this article was going: the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Dating the start of conflicts is always a troublesome thing. I remember my confusion at school after being initially taught that dates were absolute and then being introduced to the Hundred Years War. Rounding down its extra 16 years seemed to offend both the laws of History and Maths. That the conflict was a series of wars and didn't even attract that name until the nineteenth century was a revelation left for university, by which time I was, luckily, a more cynical creature. If the Thirty Years war lasted longer than the 1618-1648 timeline given to it, I don't want to know.

Perhaps the problem goes back to our need to define the reasons for a key event in a way that can be regurgitated in an exam format. Four causes good, one cause even better. The start date for WWI is recorded across all common sources as 28 July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. If asked, I would guess most people would state the main cause as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand - or, as Baldrick so beautifully puts it in Blackadder Goes Forth, when 'Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry'. That act has become our shorthand for all the colonial and dynastic disputes that went before. Similarly we start WWII on 1 September 1939 with its blitzkrieg images rather than the 1938 Anschluss, or the 1933 Nazi rise to power, or the end of WWI...  Obviously only the world's biggest bore would refuse to accept the commonly-agreed answer and we'd soon lose the pub quiz and all our mates if we disputed every date. The narrative of remembering is however, as always, in the victors' hands.

 Henry VI Part One
Today, May 22nd, is the anniversary of the First Battle of St Albans, fought between the rival houses of York and Lancaster in 1455 and commonly given as the starting point for the Wars of the Roses. The battle itself was a short-lived thing, lasting less than an hour and without major casualties (in context of the engagements that would follow), apart from Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset who was killed. Its consequences, however, were widespread. The alignment of Somerset with the House of Lancaster led not only to his but to the death of all his male heirs, ending the House of Beaufort. The bravery displayed by the Earl of Warwick began the myth-building around him which led to his 'kingmaker' title and his later over-reaching. King Henry VI's capture paved the way for the Duke of York to reclaim his position as Protector of England and take again the controlling hand over the kingdom the Lancastrians had only just seized back following the King's prolonged period of physical and mental incapacitation. And the Yorkists won, so they liked to remember it.

The battle started the openly bloody phase but it did not start the civil war. The origins of that go back to the eleventh century and the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, and his battling brood. No one sat comfortable on the throne for two hundred years and then, in 1399, the key split came: the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. That particular tussle split an already hostile family into two competing branches (the Lancastrians following Henry's line and the Yorkists from Richard) and the original Game of Thrones began. What finally tipped the dynastic feuding into full-blown conflict? A weak king. The saintly Henry VI with his catatonic illness was, by any measure, unfit to rule. Pair that with a strong man in opposition (Richard, Duke of York), a Queen with a long-awaited heir and no intention of relinquishing power (Margaret of Anjou) and all the fortunes tied up in aristocratic privilege and it's little surprise that a war erupted. And our shorthand for all that is the First Battle of St Albans. (And yes, I appreciate that's a whirlwind tour but there's a lot more detail in my novel, just saying). Perhaps the next question should be when did the civil war end? Easy: 1485 and the Battle of Bosworth. Except, of course, it didn't - the ramifications were still shaking the throne when the Tudors climbed on it. 

Mary Beard's Twitter Challenge
Causes and dates. We need them to make sense of where we are in the world and what brought us here but they aren't always reliable. A few months ago, Mary Beard asked her followers on Twitter to set future exam questions on what got us to Brexit. The answers were depressingly entertaining. A Level, 2069: Summarise the latest plan for Britain to exit the EU. Discuss the shifting relationship between Britain and Europe, using examples from 6200 BCE, 55 BCE, 43 CE, 410 CE, 865, 1066, 1534 and 2016-2019. To what extent did Brexit mean Brexit? My particular favourite was the short and to the point: When did Brexit End? Hopefully we can all agree on a date to that soon.

1 comment:

Susan Price said...

"When did Brexit End? Hopefully we can all agree on a date to that soon."

Yeah -- unfortunately, I don't see it ending that easily. Suppose, somehow, we stop Brexit... Are the people who buy into the narrative of 'given away sovereignty' and 'betrayal' going to disappear? If I were writing a novel about this and trying to imagine the future, I'd guess at a bomb campaign and more attempts at murdering MPs 'to win freedom.'

Maybe dedicated Remainers will respond in the same way if we're dragged out of Europe, but as they don't have the same 'betrayal' folklore, I think it's less likely.

Discuss, on one side of the paper only.