The Lancastrian Affinity 1361-1399
Nigel Saul reviews four new books on Lancashire and the north of England
The Lancastrian Affinity 1361-1399
By Simon Walker - Clarendon Press, 1990 - 350 pp. - £40
North-Eastern England During the Wars of the Roses. Lay Society, War and Politics 1450-1500
By A.J. Pollard - Clarendon Press, 1990 - 445 pp. - £45
The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century. The First Phase
By Colin Richmond - Cambridge University Press - 269 pp. - £35
Political Society in Lancastrian England. The Greater Gentry of Nottinghamshire
By Simon Payling - Clarendon Press, 1991 - 276 pp. - £30
The past ten-fifteen years have seen the publication of a number of studies of English local society in the late Middle Ages. The inspiration for this work was provided by the seminal researches of K.B. McFarlane in the 1950s and early-1960s. McFarlane rejected the preoccupation of Stubbs and his successors at Oxford with the great milestones of constitutional history, and stressed instead the importance of the informal structures of power – the networks that tied together the king and the nobility and the nobility and the gentry. If the inwardness of these could be penetrated, he believed, so too could much else that lay unexplained about the singular (not to say, unique) development of English society.
McFarlane did not live to complete the full-length study that he planned but through the many theses that he supervised he exerted a powerful influence over those who followed. The publication of the books currently under review shows that his influence is felt even into the second generation.
Simon Walker's study of the retinue of John of Gaunt is the one that follows most closely the techniques and interests of the master. It is a detailed examination of the affinity that formed the subject of one of McFarlane's seminal articles – that on 'bastard feudalism' published in 1945. Through deft handling of the sources the author builds up a convincing picture of the formation and structure of the affinity and of the uses to which it was put by the duke. He shows that the main factor making for its expansion was the duke's military needs and not, as has sometimes been supposed, his search for service in peacetime. Those in the duke's employ were expected to fight; and very often they did so. Their rewards measured in terms of pay were not great; but those who distinguished themselves could expect to benefit handsomely from his patronage on their return. The offices, wardships, leases and other plums in his gift generally went to those who were his most frequent companions on active service.
The sheer wealth and influence of John of Gaunt meant that he was a lord with a great deal to offer his men. There was fierce competition between aspirants to gain admission to his retinue, and the fees that he paid were high. On the other hand – and this is perhaps a surprising conclusion – his ability to influence the course of events at a local level was remarkably slight.
The reason for this was partly that, rich as he was, he could never afford to retain more than a fraction of the politically significant in any shire, and partly that the knights and esquires who were the mainstay of his retinue had their own ties and loyalties in local society: their allegiance to the duke, their lord, was never an exclusive one. For all the influence that he exerted on affairs at a national level, Gaunt was severely limited in the exercise of his lordship locally.
To what extent did other magnates of the time find themselves in a similar position? Pollard in his study of the North-East in the Wars of the Roses takes a more optimistic view of possibilities. His world is one in which the magnates and gentry formed a single community; differences of rank or degree between them counted for little. They were all – or at least the great majority of them – held together by a vast network of informal ties, favours and reciprocal obligations. The horizontal ties that Walker stresses – those within county communities, for example – mattered here relatively little. It was lordship that was the most dynamic force in society – lordship as represented by such giants as Warwick the Kingmaker and, for all his faults, Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III.
Pollard's findings are so sharply at variance with Walker's as to merit a word or two of explanation. To an extent the difference between them is one of approach. Walker is writing about a magnate affinity, and Pollard about a region: the standpoints of the two authors, then, are different. But there is more to it than this. What is at issue here is the way in which magnate influence is defined. Walker goes for a narrow approach, identifying Gaunt's men as only those who were retained for life by indenture. Pollard's approach is much broader – taking in all of a lord's dependants, well-wishers and hangers-on, whether retained by indenture or not. There is something to be said for both of these views; but for analytical purposes the former is to be preferred on the grounds that it avoids the danger of dilution of meaning inherent in the alternative.
Definitional problems of a different sort arise in connection with Payling's book, which is a study of a county elite of the kind that has become fashion- able of late. Because the county chosen – Nottinghamshire – is one that lacks a clear identity of its own, it is by no means easy to say just who the Nottinghamshire gentry were. At the beginning of the fifteenth century some twenty-thirty families were listed in the county as having incomes of k40 per annum or above; but not all of them readily identified with it as their county of residence.
What evidence there is for the existence of a 'county community' is to be found chiefly in the field of office-holding. Regularly appointed to the main offices in the shire were the heads of roughly a dozen-or-so families, all of them with incomes of £100 per annum or more. These were the men who ruled the roost in Nottinghamshire for generation after generation. They did not identify with shire as easily or instinctively as did (say) the men of Norfolk, but in the course of their work they developed an esprit de corps that gave them a clear corporate personality. They were able, experienced men, and many of them knew something of the world beyond their shire. But in their suspicion of outsiders and sensitivity to local privilege they remind us of none so much as the knights of Lancashire and Sussex, discussed by Walker, who had challenged John of Gaunt and forced him to compromise in his dealings with them in the 1370s and 1380s.
Colin Richmond's book, though still of course concerned with the gentry, is a very different sort of study from the others. It focuses not on a group or an area but on a family the Pastons, whose correspondence affords us insights into the everyday preoccupations of the gentry that we are denied for other families. The themes are the quest of Judge William Paston for social position in his native Norfolk, his last-minute alterations to his will, and the struggle between his sons for their father's lands. The story is not a happy one. The judge is portrayed as arrogant, overbearing and in the end indecisive, and John, his eldest son, as selfish and greedy.
Dr Richmond, for all the loving detail with which he chronicles their affairs, does little to conceal his dislike of the Pas- tons, John Paston especially. He remarks on the absurdity of John Paston being regarded as 'the typical English gentleman' – unless, he adds, 'one faces the paradox of the English gentleman being no gentleman at all'.
This rich and penetrating book, although avowedly 'an inside job' by one whose ability to read character is second to none, is quite clearly no whitewash job. Dr Richmond thinks that the people whom he and his fellow historians spend their time writing about were a selfish, distasteful lot and does not hesitate to say so.
What, then, in the light of these books are we to make of the gentry and their role in society? Are they to be seen (as Richmond sees the Pastons) as an inward-looking clique engaged in a deadly struggle for local position? Or as a vigorous and assertive class, conscious of their public responsibilities and coming into their own in nation- al affairs? The answer is that they are to be seen in both roles simultaneously. Of the competitive nature of their lives there need be no doubt; the often slender resources on which they lived necessarily drove them into a measure of competition with one another. But of their interest in the wider world there need equally be little doubt. Among their number were men who as counsellors and retainers, stewards and lawyers, JPs and MPs, had wide experience of government, both public and private, and were instrumental in mediating the exercise of royal authority locally.
It is the ambivalent, almost Janus-like quality of their lives which makes the gentry so fascinating and so intriguing a group to study. They give the impression of belonging to two worlds at once – on the one hand, the highly localised world into which they were born, and on the other the wider world into which they were carried by careerism. The books by Walker and Pollard capture well the tensions that existed between these two worlds, and discuss intelligently the difficulties that the gentry often encountered in resolving them.
Richmond's appears at first sight somewhat less rewarding because it addresses only one of those worlds, the intensely local one of the Pastons' corner of north-eastern Norfolk. The focus is undeniably very narrow, and little attempt is made to set the family's problems in a national context. As in his earlier John Hopton (1981) the author is happy merely to capture 'the particularity of one man at one place at one time'. But just as in the end Hopton was a successful book, so too is this one, and for the same reason: it brings these figures to life as people and shows us the things that really mattered to them – marriage, jointures, inheritance of manors and so on. In the early 1450s, when the conquests in France were slipping away, the realm was convulsed by rebellion and the king was losing his sanity, the issue that bothered people most in this district of Norfolk was not the ructions at court but Agnes Paston's construction of a wall across a road at Paston. Gentry worlds, for Richmond, are small worlds; and this book shows just how small they could be. It is as well, then, that the other volumes, particularly those by Walker and Pollard, show how they fitted into the larger one beyond.
NIGEL SAUL is the author of Batsford Companion to Medieval England (Batsford, 1983).
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