CHAPTER 3

The social and political situation in the fifteenth century

The events of the years 1450 to 1485 and beyond were certainly dramatic. At no other period since the Norman Conquest had turmoil been so prolonged or drastic; it is tempting therefore to look for causes peculiar to the age. Was there something that made the mid-fifteenth century especially liable to political upheavals? As we have seen already, to Tudor writers the causes were simple. The Wars of the Roses were a consequence of the usurpation of 1399, and were brought to an end when the first Tudor, Henry VII, joined together the two rival houses and so removed the essential cause of strife. It is hard now to accept so straightforward an explanation. Henry IV's usurpation may have depended on a flawed title, but he was accepted at the time. Like the later usurpers, Edward IV and Richard III, he had to destroy opposition by force; but he did so, and he died secure on the throne. It was not till his son and grandson had reigned for almost 40 years that any challenge emerged to the Lancastrian title. The Yorkists had indeed a better claim than the Lancastrians, because they were descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the second surviving son of Edward III, while the Lancastrians were descended from John of Gaunt, the third son (see Genealogical Table, pp. x-xi); but that had no practical effect till after 1450.

Other general explanations for the political upheavals of the period have often been suggested: first, the consequences of the collapse of the English conquests in the 1440s and 50s at the end of the Hundred Years' War; secondly, the upheavals in medi-eval society which originated in the famines and plagues of the

-39-

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The Wars of the Roses
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Chapter 1 - The Problem 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Events: What Actually Happened? 16
  • Chapter 3 - The Social and Political Situation in the Fifteenth Century 39
  • Chapter 4 - The Problem of Authority in the Middle Ages 51
  • Chapter 5 - Failings of Government 58
  • Epilogue: the Tudor Solution 72
  • References 77
  • Further Reading 80
  • Index 83
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