Power-Brokers and the Yorkist State, 1461-1485
Alexander R. Brondarbit
Dr Brondarbit, thank you so much for joining us. May we ask when you first decided to focus on medieval history and why, in particular, the period of the Wars of the Roses?
Thank you for having me. I’ve had an interest in history since I was quite young. My mother was a librarian and she would often bring books home related to whatever period happened to be capturing my imagination at the time. The medieval period was definitely one of my favourites growing up. It wasn’t until I was pursuing my BA in English Literature at Cal-Poly Pomona that I first encountered the Wars of the Roses and that had a strong impact on my academic career. I was taking a course on Shakespeare and the professor provided the historical context around Richard III. It drew me in immediately. The political complexities of the Wars, particularly the balance of power between the Crown and its greatest subjects connected with me and I knew then that I wanted to specialise in the period. It’s been twelve years since that Shakespeare course and I am still hooked.
Your book looks at the most influential men and women in the courts of Edward IV and Richard III. What made you choose Yorkist courts?
The Yorkist period offers a rather great case study into how the greatest subjects played a role in the creation, maintenance, and downfall of a dynasty across a rather compact timeframe of twenty-four years. There is also such an interesting degree of transformation across the period. The Wars of the Roses was a catalyst for change in the political landscape and as a result the ranks of power-brokers was rarely static for very long. In addition to frequent evolution, I was drawn to the fact that there was no real dominant figure in the Yorkist period akin to say William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk. I found this more complex network of influential figures to be worth discussing as their collaborations and rivalries had serious ramifications for the Yorkist state and one another.
Can you tell us something about how courts took shape around monarchs? Did they ‘inherit’ these powerful figures or did each bring his own with him?
It was a mixture of both. After Edward IV secures his throne, he promotes several servants of his late father into the peerage, giving them positions in his household, on the royal council, and consolidated positions in the localities. He wanted men he could trust with an established history of service to his family. Yet it was not all new men of his creation. There were also pre-existing figures that he could not afford to alienate. Thomas, Lord Stanley is a prime example of an inherited figure who makes his way into the royal affinity as Edward sought to bind powerful pre-existing magnates closer to him. The same holds true with Richard III. Once he became king he advanced his own ducal servants such as Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir Robert Brackenbury. Richard now had to win over established brokers like John, Lord Howard and Sir Thomas Montgomery. It is a testament to the gains the Edwardian brokers had made that they could not be ignored safely.
What forms did their power take? I assume it was based on more than proximity to the king?
That is correct. I often stress throughout the book that proximity gives a false impression of influence. We see this repeatedly in court ceremony where figures advertised their high station within the regime, but it becomes clear from the records that they were not in position of trust and exercised no real influence within the government. Power-brokers were near the king, but being near the king did not make a power-broker. It was merely one of many characteristics. Their influence manifested in a number of ways. Power-brokers mediated royal authority, shaping decisions over policy and patronage. This influence was a commodity that others were willing to purchase, extending the broker’s reach still further.
While it doubtless came with many benefits, the position of power-broker looks a precarious one. Was this often the case?
Power-brokers enjoyed enviable positions of access and influence, but we see time and again that they were far from unassailable. Their downfall might come from a loss of royal favour, a political rival, or the common people. My discussion of the satirical poetry touches on the importance of the power-broker’s public image. Popularity and reputation were carefully cultivated. Lord Hastings demonstrates this when he refuses to provide a receipt for his French pension. He was anxious about how it might affect his standing. It speaks to the vulnerability of even the most favoured. This is not unique to the Yorkist period by any means. Under Henry VI, the unpopular duke of Suffolk and his allies are killed by mob violence in 1450. Five years later, Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset is murdered by his Yorkist rivals on the streets. Move on to the Tudor period and little has changed as Henry VIII sacrifices Richard Empson and Robert Dudley at the onset of his reign as a way of distancing himself from his father’s policies. Power came with risks.
How did you go about researching influence? Was it clear from surviving records or did you have to dig deeper to identify when it was being implied?
Patronage was a natural starting point in gauging influence, but it only tells part of the story and there was only so much of the royal bounty to go around. I wanted to capture their influence radiating outward, shaping the fortunes of others. With this aim in mind, I relied a great deal on the provisos to acts of resumption and the financial records of the provincial towns. The provisos provide a snapshot of the brokers using their access to the king to lobby him on behalf of a third-party. We have no record of what they received for this service, but there is no doubt there was a quid pro quo. Similarly, the urban elite would lobby the brokers to act on their behalf with the king. The town accounts record payments in cash or goods to the brokers, noting in some cases the motivation behind the payment. These records speak to the perception that certain individuals at court possessed the ability to shape the king’s decision-making. The petitioners would not have wasted their resources on anyone who could aid them.
Can you put a name to some of the major figures you have researched and their main roles?
You can’t write a book on the Yorkists and not discuss Richard Neville, earl of Warwick. The ‘Kingmaker’ looms large as every benchmark I discuss for a power-broker has ample evidence related to the earl. It is difficult to define a main role. He is certainly kept busy pacifying the north in the early years and conducting diplomacy in Scotland, France, and Burgundy. It is this multitude of roles that is common amongst the power-brokers. They had purview over several levers of state power in the form of multiple central and local offices. William, Lord Hastings was a royal councillor, chamberlain of North Wales, lieutenant of Calais, chamberlain of the exchequer, master of the Mint, and receiver-general of Cornwall. He could dole out many of these roles to his deputies as he stayed close to the king as chamberlain.
One of the great strengths of your book is that you also discuss some lesser-known figures: who were they and how far might their influence have extended?
They were a combination of nobles, gentry, and prelates whose careers are not as well documented as their more famous peers. Sir Thomas Montgomery is probably the most prominent lesser-known figure I examine in this study. His fortunes are radically transformed by the Yorkist revolution and he evolves from a poor young son to a knight of the body and close confidant of the king. We see his influence stretch well beyond the court as he is given local offices across multiple counties. One of my favourite examples of his influence being brought to bear involves him saving the Cely family from an indictment for poaching in exchange for gifts of cash and wine.
What of women as power-brokers? Were there many who wielded serious power?
There do not appear to be many although I must temper that response with the fact that the records are a major obstacle when it comes to identifying women wielding power. Those I do discuss are almost entirely connected to the royal family, which hardly comes as a surprise as they are more prevalent in the surviving materials. The matriarch of the dynasty, Cecily Neville, dowager duchess of York and Edward IV’s queen-consort, Elizabeth Wydeville, feature heavily. Obviously, both have already engendered a great deal of scholarship, but I have attempted to bring together all the methods in which their influence was exercised in order to demonstrate that they were power-brokers.
Amongst the many different nobles of these courts, do you have a particular favourite?
I do! It would have to be William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. It was not an accident that he is on the cover of the book. He is discussed quite a bit as he is a rather strong model of a power-broker. We see his affinity operating within the royal household, his own activity as an intermediary, and the perception of his influence preserved largely in Welsh poetry extolling his achievements. He was a competent lieutenant and Edward’s trust in him led to his promotion as a regional figurehead in his native Wales. He exemplifies the precariousness of medieval politics at this time and the instability of the power-broker’s position. After enjoying a rapid rise in Edward’s first reign he suffered a swift downfall in 1469. It’s an intriguing story. His death was a real loss for Edward during the crisis years.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
Keeping up with new books hasn’t been too difficult. I follow the main publishers in my discipline on social media and that has helped me stay informed about the latest works. The book stalls at conferences are also a great way to take in the latest scholarship. The biggest struggle for me has been keeping up with the journal articles. They are not marketed as well in my opinion and access to the journals can be difficult.
ALEXANDER R. BRONDARBIT is an Academic Planning Analyst at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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