Populism and the Lancastrian Kings

Changes to the Lancastrian approach to kingship

As the Lancastrian kings took and cemented their grip on the crown of England, they utilised populism as a tool to garner support and enhance their grip on the throne. Henry IV could point to the perceived injustices of the rule of Richard II. Henry V used war as a mechanism for popular approval. Clearly neither king was above criticism, nor able to evade rebellion or plot, but in simplistic terms they both sought to gain the support not only of the nobility but also of the commons.

An end to Lancastrian Populism?

The adult rule of Henry VI saw a dramatic shift in this approach. 1450 saw revolt in Kent, on more than one occasion. The complaints, raised most famously by Jack Cade, were of governance being of the people rather than for the people; of cronyism; of corruption; or wasteful neglect and or economic maladministration. In many ways these complaints mirror those of the 1381 great revolt. In short, they are suggestive of populist policy having been set aside either through choice, or manipulation by a handful of crooked corrupt magnates.

1450 and the suppression of the Commons

The response to the revolts of 1450 is quite telling. Little if any appeasement of the commons; limited attempts to truly change the mode of governance and a suppression of the uprising through judicial and non-judicial means that led to the term ‘A Harvest of Heads’ being used to describe the imposition of tough justice. A hard line, indicting many men of Kent and exacting the highest of penalties, coupled with ‘roughing up’ of parts of the south east (largely by Lord Stanley’s men), was the approach.

The change in approach was noted in verse in 1450:

ffor feer or for fauour of any fals man
Loose not the loue of alle [th]e commynalte!
[R.H. Robbins, Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, p. 203.]

Hardly the same as the first two Lancastrian kings seeking the adoration of the people.

Legal and Court Party assaults on Yorkist Populism

The Yorkist approach of populist (or efficient, depending on your viewpoint) was castigated. Populism was singled out as being wrong at the Coventry Parliament and in literature such as Somnium Vigilantis and George Ashby’s Active Policy of a Prince. From a position at the start of the infant kings reign of seeking popular support to one of bemoaning senior magnates seeking to implement things that had popular appeal.

It’s a dramatic shift. Perhaps understandable in the context of the revolts and early clashes of the Wars of the Roses but nonetheless a marked change from the approach of Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI’s own minority council.

Is a shift of this type a betrayal of the responsibilities that a medieval monarch had for the effective and fair governance of the land?

Recommended Reading on Lancastrian Populism

Andrew Broertjes. The Lancastrian Retreat from Populist Discourse? Propaganda Conflicts in the Wars of the Roses. University of Western Australia. 21 page article in Limina, A journal of historical and cultural studies. PDF File.

James Munro. To be a King: changing concepts of kingship during the reign of Henry VI, 1422-1461. 32 page long dissertation. University of Bristol. PDF File

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