Propaganda in the Wars of the Roses
Colin Richmond analyses the part played by the written (and spoken) word in shoring up popular allegiances to the rival dynasties
In June 1864 Lewis Carroll was in London seeing to the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. On June 22nd he visited Lambeth Palace and while there (he notes in his diary) 'the librarian, Mr Stubbs, showed me some interesting old MSS and relics'. I wonder whether one of those old manuscripts was not Lambeth MS 448: even the most casual reader cannot ignore the great number of decapitations recorded there. Alas, Alice was already with the publishers, so that manuscript cannot be the source for the Queen of Hearts.
Lambeth MS 448 comprises brief notices of contemporary history composed at Ely abbey shortly after 1462. What makes this manuscript particularly interesting is the suggestion that the author's sources were news-bills. News-bills have been defined as official or officially sanctioned reports; news-bills are not, in other words, newsletters, which passed between private persons, nor are they those hand-bills which were posted in public places, as well as circulated either by individuals or by groups, and which outlined grievance private or public. Many newsletters survive, especially in the Paston collection, and there are innumerable references to the posting and circulation of hand-bills from the fourteenth century onwards. News-bills, on the other hand, are elusive; Lambeth MS 448 seems to he the sole instance of their being recorded. If news-bills are hard to find, so is propaganda generally. It is essential (at this point) to make a distinction between propaganda and what I would term 'publicity', as there is undoubtedly a difference between the natural, almost reflex promotion of the iconography of kingship by all governments that is publicity, and the deliberate manipulation of information for a limited purpose by the government of the day that is propaganda. An observer of late medieval English governments has to be struck by how little propaganda those governments deployed; no propaganda whatsoever might be a better description until the Wars of the Roses.
By the fifteenth century governments had long been used to proclaiming all kinds of information to their subjects. Such proclamations were cried in market places and at county courts as well as from pulpits; governments were not backward in using the clergy to urge folk to support their policies as well as to announce their achievements. The metropolitan pulpit par excellence was at St Paul's Cross; there, to give the most notorious example, compliant academic theologians proclaimed Richard III's spurious title to the throne: Dr Edmund Shaa in June 1483, Dr Thomas Penketh at Easter 1484. This, however, was propaganda of the Goebbels variety, no more typical of fifteenth-century propaganda than was Richard III of fifteenth-century kingship. Richard (as we shall see) was a modern propagandist because he had to be: when versions of the truth could not be depended on in the endeavour to win support, lies were the only resort. Richard's proclamations also take on a modern, strident note. That of June 23rd, 1485, against Henry Tudor, for instance, speaks of Henry and his followers as 'open murderers, adulterers, and extortioners, [who] contrary to the pleasure of God, and against all truth, honour, and nature, have forsaken their natural country'. This was veritably the pot libelling the kettle. It is true that Henry VI's proclamation of July 1450, against Jack Cade talks about him calling up the devil in the form of a black dog at Dartford, killing a pregnant woman in Sussex, and becoming a sworn man of the French, but the government of Henry VI only exceptionally manufactured lies of such spectacular dimensions as these.
Propaganda, surely, has to be truth-bending of that degree; if the truth is not twisted out of shape a proclamation remains just that: the announcement of policy and its justification by way of information, which is not inaccurate although it may not be the whole story. The question of who is being informed becomes critical at this juncture in our enquiry. It is in regard to such a question that the change from Latin to English as the language of proclamations is relevant. Edward IV's government did not initiate this change; the government of Henry VI did in 1450. Government, nonetheless, was over seventy years behind the opposition.
Possibly as early as 1327 a derisive poem in English was set upon church doors by Scotsmen. Fifty years later English lampoons on John of Gaunt were being posted in London and thereafter English, hitherto a submerged and subversive language, came out into the open as the language of politic dissent. The manifesto of Archbishop Richard Scrope and his fellow-rebels of 1405, for example, was certainly in English: the monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham informs his readers that he has translated it word for word into Latin.
It is surprising, therefore, that one of the most blatant pieces of government propaganda of the fifteenth century was in Latin not in English; all the more surprising in that the Gesta Henrici Quinti celebrates Agincourt as God's endorsement of England and Englishness. Moreover, that fateful victory was achieved by a king who officially promoted English as the language of government. The explanation for what superficially appears an oddity is that the Gesta was written in 1416-17 by a royal chaplain for a clerical audience, namely that at the Council of Constance; its purpose was to convince the leaders of the Roman church of the validity of Henry's aggressive policy towards France in general, and to justify his full-scale invasion of 1417 in particular.
In that respect – of being for a well-defined and select readership – the single piece of official (or quasi-official) propaganda of the reign of Henry VI, the tract written in defence of the attainder of the Yorkists in the Parliament of autumn 1459 is similar to the Gesta. It is unlike it because the 'Defence' is written in English. The English is not good; it is the English of a man who uses other languages, certainly Latin and probably the French of the Law Courts. It reads as if it was written by a lawyer to convince other lawyers; nor does it give the impression of being a commissioned work. While its author is anonymous he was probably someone like Dr John Allen, a Doctor of Laws, who was one of the prime movers of the parliamentary bill attainting the Yorkists. It is significant that the 'Defence' is not only for a limited audience but is also explicitly anti-populist: 'as for the favour of the people', it says, 'there is no ground of sure argument, because it is so variable and for the most part growth of opinionable conceits and not of truth'.
The Yorkist opposition was also active, but far more widely. 'Their campaign of 1460-61', wrote the late Charles Ross, 'included all the then known propaganda devices'. Who were the Yorkists endeavouring to reach with their propaganda? Take the long poem (of ten eight-line verses) which was set up on the gates of the city of Canterbury in June 1460 and addressed 'To the ryghte Worshypfulle Cyte of Caunterbury'. Not only is the poem lengthy, there is a good deal of Latin in it, not all of the catch-phrase sort, while the tone of the poem is religious. Who was this production intended to captivate: the ruling oligarchs, the commercial elite, the large number of clergy of this cathedral city who might preach pro-Yorkist sermons, the honest artisans and shopkeepers, the apprentices, household servants, and unemployed cloth-workers who were potential soldiers, or to all and any of them? It is not easy to know.
It is easier to grasp that the Yorkist genealogical chronicles composed after Edward of York became king in 1461, 'could only have reached', as Alison Allan concludes, 'a restricted audience... These Yorkist documents would have appealed to those whose support was of greatest practical importance to Edward IV, the nobility and the gentry, and the increasingly educated commercial classes'. The footslogging infantry of the Wars of the Roses did not, after all, need to be propagandised. They fought for wages, or because their masters and landlords demanded it of them. The Wars of the Roses were not their wars, even if by 1471 at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, Edward IV no longer showed the common soldiers the mercy he had displayed towards them in the battles of ten years previously. Such schrecklichkeit was a consequence of the hectic years 1469-71, when kings came and went with a rapidity which might have intrigued the creator of the Cheshire Cat.
Another consequence of frayed political nerve and a fragile polity were the three pieces of propaganda from the years 1470-'7l which are both a departure from previous practice and wholly propagandistic. The novelty of these shows just how insecure Lancastrians and Yorkists had become; 1459-61 saw them trawling for elite support; 1469-71 witnesses them innovating in order to find a wider audience.
One of the three pieces is a production of those in opposition to Yorkist government. Nevertheless, 'The Manner and Guiding of the Earl of Warwick at Angers in July and August 1470' is similar to the other two pieces, which were issued by Edward IV's government, in that it presents (as they do) a version of contemporary history favourable to its compilers with the intention that its readers will accept both version and compilers. It is also the second document in the chronological sequence and seems to be a calculated response to the first. 'The Manner and Guiding' is a short description of the reconciliation in the presence of Louis XI of those old adversaries, Margaret of Anjou, who had been a penurious exile in France since 1463, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who had arrived there in May 1470 after an unsuccessful attempt to impose his authority on Edward IV. It glosses over the acrimonious discussions which can only have preceded this alliance of two powerful personalities, who had nothing in common save political necessity, but it does not conceal them. Indeed, the emphasis on the reluctance with which Margaret consented to be reconciled, and the recital of some of the reasons why she should not be, look very like special pleading to disguise from Lancastrians in England her willingness to come to almost any terms in order to get her son, Prince Edward, on the throne.
The document's principal purpose was to announce that so unlikely an alliance – akin to the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 – had happened and to expound its terms, so that Lancastrians and the of the Earl of Warwick alike could observe that (for the moment at least) their interests had been combined into a single enterprise: the overthrow of Edward IV. By this document – posted on London bridge and in Cheapside but speedily taken down by the Yorkist mayor – or for other reasons, Lancastrians and Warwick's adherents, along with sufficient of the 'discreet and true commons of England' to whom 'The Manner and Guiding' was addressed, were convinced: Edward in turn was forced to flee to the continent when Warwick landed in England in September 1470.
The first of the two Yorkist items predates (and may have prompted) 'The Manner and Guiding'. It is the Chronicle of the Rebellion in Lincolnshire. The rebellion (or rather demonstration) against the mis-government of Edward IV, occurred in March 1470. Because it is history commissioned by the government, the Chronicle breaks new ground in fifteenth-century English propaganda. It was written, according to Antonia Gransden, 'by someone closely connected with the royal administration, because the author had access to documents preserved there, both official and otherwise, to which he refers. Its purpose', she continues, 'was to implicate the Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick in the revolt'.
The author of the Chronicle was a skilful tamperer with the facts; a propagandist of the highest calibre, he doctored times and places only marginally, doing just enough to make his version a compelling one. He had been helped by the king's speedy execution of the main protagonists: those who might have had other versions to tell were no longer around to do the telling. The confession of one of these, Sir Robert Welles, must be reckoned as government propaganda too, although nothing is known of how the confession was distributed – if it was. Our ignorance notwithstanding, 'The Confession of Sir Robert Welles' has to be among the earliest of forced confessions for public mystification, one of those aspects of modernity which enable us to identify that phenomenon. The 'Confession' deals with nothing other than the means by which Warwick and Clarence instigated the rebellion:
Also I say that nere had been the said Duke and Earl's provoking we at this time would nere durst have made any commotion or stirring; but upon their comfort we did that we did.
Unless this circumstantial piece is true, an eventuality which at this distance cannot be wholly discounted, it illustrates the lengths to which Edward's hard-pressed and probably paranoic government was ready to go to ensure its survival.
The final piece is the most important. The aim of The History of the Arrival in England of Edward IV is to tell the exciting story of Edward's recovery of the throne in Spring 1471. It thoroughly achieves that aim. It was official history of the same sort as the Chronicle of the Rebellion in Lincolnshire, yet, as it does not have the Chronicle's central theme of destroying a rival politician's credibility, it does not have to pervert many central facts – save one at the very end. The murder of Henry VI in the Tower of London during the night of May 21st-22nd, 1471, on Edward's orders is passed over in this manner: on learning of the complete defeat of the Lancastrians at the battle of Tewkesbury, Henry 'took it to so great despite, ire, and indignation that, of pure displeasure, and melancholy, he died the twenty-third day of the month of May'. Perhaps the writer thought he could be so cavalier on this matter because he believed the Lancastrians had been irrecoverably defeated. He was wrong. A cult of Henry VI immediately developed to the embarrassment of the government, while Richard III's ambition drove him to murder Yorkism and to his own political suicide at Boswotth – Tancastrianism triumphed after all and while Yorkism did not disappear without trace, it did disappear. The writer of the Arrival cannot have foreseen that. When he wrote he was as jubilant as his master, for, like the author of the Chronicle of the Lincolnshire Rebellion, he was 'a servant of the king's', as he himself informs us, 'that presently saw in effect a great part of his [Edward IV's] exploits, and the residue knew by true relation of them that were present at every time'. The same man may have written both pieces, as Antonia Gransden suggests.
The Arrival flatters Edward IV. He is depicted as the epitome of chivalry; still, as he came close to being that in spring 1471, the flattery was warranted. What is played down is the lack of support for Edward in the north after his landing on Holderness; the most favourable interpretation is put upon the reluctance of northerners to rise on Edward's behalf:
For his [the Earl of Northumberland's] sitting still caused the city of York to do as they did, and no worse, and every man in all those north parts to sit still also, and suffer the king to pass as he did. Wherefore the king may say as Julius Caesar said, he that is not against me is with me.
This is one of those half-truths of which good propaganda is made; it also puts a brave face on a harsh reality: Edward was lucky to get his throne back. The Arrival does not, of course, say that; it says that it was with the help of God, the Virgin Mary, St George, and all the saints in heaven, that Edward was victorious. Who was this triumphalist piece of prose intended for? The Arrival exists in long and short versions; the long version is lengthy: it occupies forty pages in the nineteenth-century printed edition. The short version is in French; two of the surviving four copies are de luxe illustrated editions. Evidently, one of the purposes of the Arrival was to inform those who had sustained Edward while he was in exile and assisted his return of his success. They were informed in style. Edward had every right to crow to foreigners in May 1471: they were unlikely to have given him more than an even chance when he had said farewell to them in March 1471.
What do these three remarkable pieces of propaganda from 1470-71 tell us? They are evidence that the Wars of the Roses had had a demoralising impact on English society, at any rate on English political society. We have seen that propaganda in its manifestation as written English polemic was solely the creation of those opposed to government before 1459. Even after that date there is little government promoted propaganda of that nature until the Chronicle of the Rebellion in Lincolnshire and the Arrival. There are extended proclamations in English after 1450, there are the Yorkist genealogical histories of the 1460s; these, however, are developments and adaptations, they are not novelties. The Chronicle and the Arrival are. As Antonia Gransden has said: 'the kings of England did not commission historical works as vehicles of propaganda'. This contrasts dramatically with the practice of most other European kings, especially the kings of France. Why was this? I am sure the answer is straightforward: that the English monarchy had no desire to have history written on its behalf, and that it had no desire because it had no need. There is, for example and unusually, no official cult of a saintly English king, if we discount – as we ought – Edward the Confessor. And if we ask why the English monarchy had no need, the answer is equally simple, if more open to dispute, namely that it was strong enough to do without. Such an answer may appear contentious when the fates of Edward II and Richard II, let alone of Henry VI, are recalled. Yet, it is precisely, as well as paradoxically, the failures of those kings to he kings which highlights the strength of medieval English kingship. English government after 1297 (at the latest) was an elite co-operative – combining king, nobility, gentry, and merchants: the kings of England were powerful because they could and did rely on the co-operation of their elite partners in government. Kings who were uncooperative were murdered by those partners. It bas been suggested that the co-operative was expanding in the fifteenth century. I think not: Tudor monarchs were able to be more absolutist than their medieval predecessors. Nevertheless, the Wars of the Roses, because they divided the political class over such a long period, gave the commoners of England, that is the non-parliamentary class, a political prominence they had not had previously. Their support or opposition might be, or could be thought to be, critical. Hence, the development of' propaganda; hence, in 1470-71 when the medieval English polity became so brittle it looked close to breaking, the unique Chronicle of the Rebellion in Lincolnshire and Arrival.
In other words, English kings became propagandisers (and not simply publicists) only when they were driven to it. We have noticed the most driven of all those kings, Richard III, smearing his opponents in a language all his own. Here (in Parliament) he is outlining a few of the consequences of Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville:
the ordre of all poletique Rule was perverted, the Lawes of God, and also the Mwes of Nature, and of England, wherein every Englishman is inheritor broken. Murdres, Extorsions and Oppressions, namely of poore and impotent people, so that no Man was sure of his Lif, ne of his Wif, Doughter ne Servaunt, every good Maiden and Woman standing in drede to be ravished and defouled.
There is no difficulty in recognising here the hysterical language of modern times. No doubt, if Richard had won Bosworth he would have commissioned a pamphlet something like the Arrival in format but utterly unlike it in tone and temper, for it was bound to have shown how he had saved England from political chaos, social collapse and moral debasement. Fortunately it was a battle he unexpectedly lost. Just as every schoolchild knows Richard lost it and his kingdom for lack of a horse, so does he know the most famous piece of propaganda not only of the Wars of the Roses but possibly of all English time. Richard knew it too and exacted the full rigour of the law on its author. For pinning to the doors of St Paul's the rhyme 'The Cat, the Rat and Lovell our Dog rule all England under the Hog' William Collingbourne esquire of Wiltshire was castrated and disembowelled as well as hanged.
With Ricardian propaganda and Ricardian punishments English government entered into modernity – as Thomas More realised, and stopped writing his History of the Reign of Richard III when the realisation dawned on him. Some corner seems to have been turned between 1459 and 1485, not in the way England was governed, but in the way in which England's governors related to the governed. We would say (in today's jargon) governments saw they had to sell themselves better. The watershed was 1469-71. Fear and loathing of those who were. less than enthusiastic for either Lancaster or York drove both sides to new departures: is it not mounting contempt for the consumer which leads to innovation in advertising? English royal Propaganda was the product of such contempt. Bosworth was the premature death of a salesman.
- Alison Allan, 'Yorkist Propaganda: Pedigree, Prophecy and the "British History" in the Reign of Edward IV', in Patronage Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England, edited by Charles Ross (Alan Sutton, 1979), and 'Royal Propaganda and the Proclamations of Edward IV' in the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, vol. lix (1986)
- Charles Ross, 'Rumour, Propaganda and Popular Opinion during the Wars of the Roses, in Patronage The Crown and The Provinces, edited by Ralph Griffiths (Alan Sutton, 1981)
- Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England c.1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century, vol. ii (Routledge, 1982).
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