The decline of chivalry in the fifteenth century

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How simple it is to say that Chivalry declined in the Fifteenth Century ,and how easy to argue, but what exactly is being debated. The proposition emanates from a view of a golden age of chivalry ,reaching its apogee in the glorious reign of Edward III when the virtues of the early medieval knight ( a feudal chivalry emphasizing honour, trust and similar virtues) were enhanced by the elaboration of courtly manners deriving from Romantic literature, principally Arthurian, coloured by concepts such as courtly love on the one hand and a spiritual element aspiring to achievements such as the search for the Sangraal – a complex model which some would say was always an impossibility and which would be challenged by a series of dramatic events in the C15th’

Cataloguing apparent lapses of the proper behaviour that could have been anticipated establishes a distressing sequence, but the C15th was one of turmoil and change everywhere. Looking across the Channel, there was a land over which the English and French fought for a celebrated Hundred Years, during which there had been internal upheaval in both those states, first in terms of usurpations, and then of a nobility unconstrained by the iron will of a monarch – weak kings made for civil conflict. Elsewhere we should remember that international revolutions were taking place – in 1452 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and Central Europe was forced to “crusade”, while Western powers could meditate upon that possibility, at a time when East was still east and West still west. The Spanish “crusades”, the Reconquista, was completed in 1492 with the fall of Granada, and there emerged the combined Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, forming a new political entity in Spain. Further, in 1492,the West began to look further west, following the expedition of Columbus.

Within this kaleidoscopic panorama, the problems of England and France were about to formulate their respective independent states, languishing in opposition to each other until decisive French victory restored some balance of power, apart from a colourful Burgundy, alliance with whom had been a necessary condition for survival. Both states suffered from internal strife.In France, an Armagnac party was confronted by a Burgundian party. Louis of Orleans, the brother of Charles VI and leader of the Armagnac party was assassinated on 23 rd November 1407 in Paris, reputedly following a command from the Duke of Burgundy, Jean Sans Peur, who would himself be assassinated on the Bridge of Montereau on 10th September 1419.Both events were seen as outrages against the chivalric hopes of the time, yet they were essentially political confrontations, party assassinations, virtually royal assassinations, for which there were several precedents.


Pedro the Cruel of Spain had met a similar end in 1369,Two English monarchs had famously been eliminated in the not distant past. James II of Scotland had, early in his reign, invited two young members of the Douglas family, one the Sixth Earl, to his court, where his advisors brought about their slaughter on 24th November 1440,and on the 22nd February 1452,James himself disposed of William, the Eighth Earl of Douglas with twenty six stab wounds, following which that Douglas was defenestrated. These royal assassinations did not affect the concept of chivalry – James, the 9th Earl of Douglas earned considerable renown for his subsequently gallantry, in Galloway, at least.

Easy to say the age of chivalry was dead, and that suggestion was multiplied by other events of the period, the most significant being in England in the Cousins’ War, the Wars of the Roses. What went wrong ?

In one sense the War of the Roses may be seen to have commenced when Henry of Lancaster dethroned the legitimate ruling monarch, Richard II, who subsequently met an unfortunate death at Pontefract. There were nobles in England with a more substantial claim to the throne, as the genealogy of Edward III revealed, and Henry IV was not always at ease in his acquired post. His son, Henry V took the significant political step, soothing domestic unrest with adventures in foreign policy and winning fame by renewing the war with France, ultimately achieving a settlement that gave much of that land over to English rule and indeed inheritance to the French throne. His son, Henry VI was to be declared King of France ,and the English continued to extend their territory, until the French found a new confidence and, piece by piece, won back their lands.

Henry VI, a boy king , was initially supported by his uncles, John of Bedford and Humphrey of Gloucester ,but the latter’s authority was increasingly challenged by the Beaufort family ,an illegitimate branch of Edward III’s line, which ultimately overthrew Gloucester and became the chief advisors to the young king, forming a party that made peace, and found a French princess, Margaret of Anjou, for their lord. The Beaufort faction came to be led by Edmund,2nd duke of Somerset, who established a feud with Richard, duke of York, one which was heightened by the charge of mismanagement in the French wars, and the ever growing influence of Somerset upon the young weak monarch. Thus emerged the rival parties of Lancaster and York. The quarrel ultimately led to a clash of arms that was to reverberate through the second half of C15th,and may be seen to further challenge the concept of chivalric behaviour ,on and off the field. An examination of the battles and events of the period might be seen to confirm the absolute decline of chivalry, but, in such a model, there may well be intervening variables.

The wars in fact fluctuated over several phases, examination of which leads to a better understanding of events :
William of Worcester proclaimed armed conflict between the Northern families of Neville and Percy as ”initium maximorum dolorum in anglia”, that is,the true beginnings of the civil war. The “battle” of Stamford Bridge (or Hepworth Moor) 24th August 1453,reputedly a Percy attack upon a Neville wedding party may have been the occasion. The bridegroom seems to have been Thomas Neville and the attackers were led by Lord Egremont, brother of the Percy earl of Northumberland.vIt has been claimed that the incident drew thevNevilles (Salisbury,vWarwick,vJohn future Lord Montagu) to join the Yorkist party.

The first national confrontation was on the 22nd May 1455 at St.Albans (known as 1st St Albans) where skilful Yorkist tactics created a murderous ambush in which Edmund,2nd earl of Somerset, Henry 3rd earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford ,who were the main leaders of the Lancastrians, were slaughtered. This could be seen, even on the battlefield, as a party assassination, and it was to instigate vendetta, particularly for the son of Clifford.

Plots thickened and alliances were forged ,often delineated by local emnities (Herbert v Tudor in Wales ; Courtney earls of Devon v Lord Bonville in the South West);King Henry’s health varied as much as the influence of the rival parties, and confict resumed. On he 23rd September, the Nevilles marching south were opposed at Blore Heath by James Tuchet, Lord Audley, who was defeated and afterwards put to death in what might be seen as a party assassination, after battle. Salisbury now found himself facing Lancastrian forces led by Queen Margaret, a confrontation that was determined by the defection of Sir Andrew Trollope from the Yorkist forces at Ludford on 12th October1459,a change of allegiance in the face of the enemy, one which gave “victory” to Margaret, who proceeded to draw up a Bill of Attainder against her rivals, rebels in her eyes.

Those rebels retired to Calais, but the Nevilles were to return in force to win on 10th July 1460 a battle at Northampton where the death rollcall included John 1st Lord Beaument ,John Talbot 2nd earl of Shrewsbury,Thomas Percy 1st Baron Egremont and Humphrey Stafford 1st duke of Buckingham, all deaths that could be seen as party assassinations ,during or after the battle. The battle had been partly determined by the defection of Edmund Grey,1st earl of Kent. Henry VI had been captured and York may be seen as exercising a kind of King’s mercy. York, at this juncture claimed the throne, his better title was acknowledged and he was appointed heir to Henry, but Margaret and her party were dissatisfied.

Margaret’s army overwhelmed that of the Duke of York on 30th December 1460 at Wakefield, following which Salisbury was murdered, and York, with his son ,Edmund of Rutland slaughtered by the young Clifford, their heads being displayed before the gates of the City of York. Perspectives differ – this could be seen as party assassination, virtually royal assassination ,but also as rebel execution, and, indeed, vendetta.
York may not have needed to fight at Wakefield – he was safe in Sandal Castle. Reasons why he did engage proliferate, but all imply some Lancastrian method of deception, among which was the breaking of a Christmas truce, certainly an infringement of feudal chivalry.

The first phase of the war was eclipsed by the second. Edward,earl of March, son of York, encouraged by a sighting of three suns of York and himself the Sun in Splendour defeated forces commanded by Jasper Tudor earl of Pembroke, and the earl of Wiltshire, at Mortimer’s Cross on 2nd February 1461.Owen Tudor, the father of Pembroke was executed, a deed that might be described as a party assassination, or a rebel execution, after battle. Shortly after this on the 7th February 1461,Margaret won a victory over the Earl of Warwick,2nd St Albans, after which she had her son, the young Prince Edward, condemn to death Sir William Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriel, knights who had been specifically enjoined to protect the captive King Henry, who had promised them safety. Several other Yorkists were murdered, so that again there was party assassination (or rebel execution) after battle ,and betrayal of trust. A lesser betrayal was that of Sir Henry Lovelace who moved his support from York to Lancaster in th course of the engagement.

However Edward and Warwick had marched to London where the Rose of Rouen ,Edward, was elected king, and as such marched north to win the decisive battle of Towton, on Palm Sunday,29th March 1461.The power of the North was shattered and among the dead on the field were Henry 3rd earl of Northumberland, a Dacre, a Scrope, Sir Richard Percy ,Lionel Baron Welles and Sir Andrew Trollope. James Butler,5th earl of Ormond and 1st earl of Wiltshire was executed after the battle. .Edward forgave Ralph Percy and Rivers, displaying King’s Mercy. John Neville was rewarded with the Marquisate of Montagu. Margaret and Henry moved into Scotland, creating minor disturbances and “giving” Berwick to the Scots, questionably a regal betrayal .About this time was executed Thomas Courtney,6th earl of Devon, on suspicion of plotting to assist the Lancastrian queen.

Edward could now develop his authority, establishing a splendid court, modelled on that of Philip of Burgundy, encouraging a revival of the Romantic chivalry of Edward III. He sought to balance the overweening power of Warwick by appointing to high office men like John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, a learned scholar who administered Draconian justice. Tiptoft was criticised for his execution of the Earl of Desmond and, something unrelated to opposition by Lancaster – technically a rebel execution ,but vendetta possibly Woodvillean has been suggested- unlikely, Among the trials used to consolidate the regime’s power was that of John de Vere12th earl of Oxford, accused of plotting against Edward and executed under the instruction of Tiptoft,26th February 1462 - another rebel execution, possibly seen as a deterrent. His son Aubrey had met the same fate just six days earlier, events that would be remembered.

In 1462 Margaret of Anjou had returned to France, sheltered by Louis XI, but was soon back in England fomenting discontent.Henry,3rd earl of Somerset, who had been pardoned by Edward, now changed allegiance – one of many recidivists in our history. Another was Sir Ralph Percy, who was slain in the battle of Hedgeley Moor (25th April 1464)a victory achieved by Montagu, who gained even more renown at Hexham (15th May 1464) where the Lancastrians were annihilated. Henry of Somerset was executed as were Thomas 10th Baron of Rous and Robert 3rd Baron Hungerford, and a great many others ,Montagu topping the league in such matters – party assassinations or rebel executions? Henry VI was captured about this time and incarcerated in the Tower ,Edward showing King’s Mercy.

Edward’s future seemed secure, but the third stage of the wars was enfolding - that we might call

Both Yorkists and Lancastrians sought foreign aid at a time when Louis of France was at odds with the Duke of Burgundy : Lancastrians sought French assistance ;Warwick sought accord with France ; Edward favoured Charles the Bold of Burgundy, who had in 1465 married his sister Margaret and was supported by his growing court party, particularly Rivers and Hastings. Warwick was seeking for Edward the hand of Bona of Savoy (the French connection) when Edward announced his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a lady with many relatives, all previous Lancastrian supporters to whom Edward gave high posts, thereby incurring the wrath of older nobles, leading to rebellion, in which many old Lancastrians, like John de Vere,13th earl of Oxford would join. Warwick had won over the king’s brother, George duke of Clarence and together they would spread rumours of Edward’s bastardy. Warwick remained the chief conspirator, stirring up rebellion.

The first engagement was at Edgecote (26th July 1469) where Edward’s supporters were defeated and William Herbert earl of Pembroke, Humphrey Stafford earl of Devon and Sir Richard Herbert were executed – party assassinations after battle. Warwick and Clarence confined Edward in Warwick and later in Middleham; they proceeded to execute Lord Rivers and Sir John Woodville, father and brother to the Queen. These could hardly be described as rebel executions, but rather party assassinations by rebels. Warwick lost popularity and had soon to release Edward. A reconciliation followed, but Warwick and Clarence were again drawn to Intrigue. Edward met a fresh insurrection at Empingham or Losecote Field (12th March 1470),afterwards executing the rebel leaders – Richard Baron Welles and Dymock – true rebel executions, as things stood at that time. Edward made new appointments, restoring Northumberland to the Percies, and honouring Montagu, but he was ultimately to support his brother Warwick and Clarence, who had fled to France, being denied entrance into Calais by Lord Wenlock and being defeated at sea by Rivers and Howard. Sadly their captured crews were executed (impaled) by order of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester – rebel executions and a powerful deterrent.

The tables were soon to be turned – Edward was enticed to the north, Warwick and Clarence invaded the south, Edward and brother Richard fled to sister Margaret in Burgundy, Warwick then took upon himself King maker powers, restoring Henry Vi to the throne. A short period followed, known as the Readeption of Henry VI (6/10/1470 – 11/4/1471),during which time Tiptoft was executed – in the circumstances a rebel execution carried out by order of the new earl of Oxford, so there may have been some element of vendetta, certainly of pleasure. Warwick was merciful (King’s Mercy) and only Edward and Richard were attainted. Warwick’s success had been assisted by Louis XI, who had reconciled Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, who was to follow to England with an army, and her son Prince Edward.

But King Edward, assisted by Burgundy, returned and found Warwick unsupported by Lancastrians :Clarence deserted Warwick to rejoin his brothers, who were all welcomed in London, where Henry VI was deposed. Edward turned to defeat Warwick at Barnet (14th April 1471).In the battle there was some confusion as contingents of Oxford (Lancastrian) and Montagu (rebel Yorkist) clashed, and some element of betrayal in the field was mooted. Montagu was killed in the field and Warwick in flight – rebel executions in battle.

While these events passed, Margaret of Anjou had landed with an army of old Lancastrians and French troops. Edward met this new threat at Tewkesbury (4th May 1471) and won the day.Devon, Wenlock and other prominent Lancastrians fell in battle, as did Prince Edward, son of Margaret, although some reports suggested that he was slain after the battle, so that his demise might be seen as a royal assassination, after battle. Lord Wenlock had been accused of holding back his wing of the Lancastrian army and was reputedly killed in the field by a fellow commander, Edward 4th duke of Somerset. Richard of Gloucester had been appointed Constable (the post previously held by Tiptoft) and ordered, after the battle, the execution of Somerset and twelve others ( A rebel execution, to which detractors of Richard have made no objection – he had a reputation for the proper administration of justice, probably reflected in his motto.)The action was essentially also a deterrent. Another Neville, Fauconberg, had raised Kent, marched on London, but surrended ,and received the King’s Mercy from Edward. Henry VI was to die in the Tower – whether or not his demise was assisted is debatable, some feeling that a royal assassination had taken place. Overall Edward gained a reputation for clemency.

Edward may be said to have ruled in peace until his death in 1483,although he could be seen to “sit back in the breach”, enjoying a dissolute, extravagant life, ruling a court full of intrigue, a model of the roi fainéant. The enmity between “older” Yorkists and the Woodville faction grew. Brother Clarence again raised the question of Edward’s legitimacy ,and fomented upheaval, so that on 18th February 1478) he was executed for treason –a rebel execution that perhaps had elements of a “royal” assassination.


Edward died on 9th April1483,possibly in suspicious circumstances – perhaps ,the jury is still out. He left two sons, his heir, Edward, a minor and an even younger Richard, duke of York, living in Ludlow. The Queen, Elizabeth Woodville and her family seem to have descended like vultures upon the effects of the king, and seem to have plotted to exclude Richard of Gloucester, thought to have been appointed Protector by Edward ,from any power. Apparently Richard was fore-warned of the situation, where ,indeed ,plots against his life may well have been made, A coup de main allowed the arrest, imprisonment and subsequent execution of Rivers ,Grey and Vaughan probably seen by Richard as acts of self defence in the murky atmosphere of the time.

Forestalling further intrigue may also have been the case in the sudden elimination of Hastings, possibly a trimmer. These were dark days when danger seemed to lurk in every shadow. Above all was the threat of continual disputes arising during the protectorship of a young monarch. A light came at the end of the tunnel with the discovery of an earlier marriage ,again clandestine, of Edward, which bastardized the children of Elizabeth Woodville, a disclosure which allowed for the assumption by Richard of the throne, and the publication of Titulus Regius in June 1483.

The picture thereafter is uncertain, Buckingham, a principal ,and greatly ambitious ,ally of Richard raised the standard of rebellion in October 1483,possibly encouraged by the Queen’s party ,a group always at emnity with Richard. Buckingham was taken and executed as a rebel. Richard’s problems were by no means resolved ,as his opponents (and possible some members of his council) supported the tenuous claim of Henry ,duke of Richmond ,to the crown.

Reflection at this stage might indicate a continuous Beaufort input to the problems of the period, from the old Cardinal’s dispute with Duke Humphrey ,to the influence of the Somersets through, indeed ,to Tewkesbury ,and the subsequent background figure of Margaret Beaufort, Richmond’s mother and possibly intriguer extraordinaire. Henry Tudor (Richmond) had sought to capitalise on Buckingham’s rebellion, but was unable to do so, but, with the help of the French king, joined by Lancastrians like the earl of Oxford landed at Milford Haven, where many Welshmen flocked to his standard. He was to meet Richard at Bosworth on 23rd August 1485,a decisive battle as the Stanley brothers apparently withheld heir troops until they could join the party most likely to win, and another contingent, under Northumberland, seems to have stood by, or be disadvantaged by the lie of the land. Richard made a chivalric last charge to his death, which permitted Henry to accept the crown in the field .Beside Richard were slain his principal advisers, Norfolk Radcliffe and Brackenbury, and after the battle, Catesby was executed So Bosworth witnessed party or royal assassination in battle and treacherous betrayal in the field.

Richard’s administration died with him and Tudor consolidation of power followed, apart from the affair of Stoke Field (16th June 1487) where the remaining Yorkists, including Richard’s heir the earl of Lincoln,fell in battle – rebet executions in battle .Long gone were the concepts of capture and ransom. Any possible Yorkists who might have some claim to the throne were to be eliminated by a Tudor autocracy.

These wars have been summarised to indicate the extinction of 7 noble families ,the death of 38 peers and the end of the age of chivalry. Towns and villages were hardly affected, battles being fought in the countryside. The bloodiest battle of Towton had really decided the day. The deposition of kings was not unusual – Edward II by Isabella and Mortimer, Richard II by the future Henry IV, Henry VI by Edward IV ,the young princes by Richard III. All involved were men of their time. Where there was internicene strife, changes of allegiance and charges of treason became common place, and loyalty to one’s liege lord might change with the direction the wind blew. Also, there were long standing family feuds – Percies against Nevilles in the north, Pembroke (Tudor) against Herbert in Wales, Courtenays and others in the south. A pillar of the ancient chivalry had been downcast.

The analysis of the events of the Wars of the Roses yields a catalogue of poor behaviour, a breaking of old codes of honour, but in tune with the times, guided by the vendetta, execution for rebellion or treason (varying with the party in power when the question arose),political assassination (and royal assassination involving a monarch in some capacity),deterrent, and perhaps betrayal of trust. Recidivists like Somerset ,Oxford, Welles and others might be excused ,but desertion or other betrayal in the field had more serious consequences.

These evils bear witness to the demise of those elements of feudal chivalry that had been, more or less, retained from the inception of the code, yet, away from the field, many of the participants were highly literate, versed in courteous display, wearing extravagant costume. playing the part of the very perfect knight. Arthurian ideals remained – the influence of the French books pervaded conceptions of the proper behaviour for the nobility ,now summarised in the native tongue by Sir Thomas Malory and eventually circulated by the advent of the printing press. The early Tudors also reinforced the popularity of Arthuriana to indulge their Welsh supporters.

But the Arthurian corpus was waning in its effects. About this time, it was to be supplanted by much more exciting material, the Iberian romances – the most popular book in the reign of Elizabeth was the Amadis of Gaul and his ever lasting family, followed closely by Palmerin of England. After all, it was only a few years into Henry VII’s reign that Columbus sailed the ocean blue ,to be followed by waves of conquistadores who endowed newly discovered territories with names borrowed from these new romances.

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