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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: December 2009

1 - Fortescue's world

Summary

Any account of late medieval England must take some note of a surprising contrast. The kingdom's rulers were unfortunate (five out of Henry VIII's ten predecessors died violent deaths at the hands of their own subjects), but the society they tried to govern appears to have been increasingly well ordered. Its relative stability could even survive a uniquely unsuitable monarch. The regime of Henry VI suffered every disaster that could happen to a personal monarchy – foreign defeat, court faction, royal minority and lunacy, kidnapping, civil war, and usurpation – but the result was nothing like the Anarchy of Stephen. The Wars of the Roses were brief campaigns concluding in formal engagements; the houses that magnates erected were only minimally fortified; and few of them spent more than a tenth of their income on wages for retainers. There is not in fact much evidence that violence was endemic, or murder other than exceptional. What really needs to be explained is not dynastic chaos, but the resilience of social order.

One cause of this resilience was surely the role of the gentry in county government. Before 1294, the senior central court, King's Bench, aspired to visit the counties on regular ‘general eyres’, thus bringing the whole panoply of royal law to the localities. After this mechanism was abandoned, the crown began to make more use of local notables.

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