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The Lancastrian Retreat from Populist Discourse? Propaganda Conflicts in the Wars of the Roses
By Andrew Broertjes
Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies, Vol.20:3 (2015)
Abstract: This article explores an aspect of the propaganda wars that were conducted between the Lancastrian and Yorkist sides during the series of conflicts historians refer to as the Wars of the Roses. I argue that by the end of the 1450s, the Lancastrians had abandoned the pursuit of the popular voice (“the commons”, “the people”), instead treating this group with suspicion and disdain, expressed primarily through documents such as the Somnium Vigilantis and George Ashby’s Active Policy of a Prince. This article examines how the Lancastrians may have had populist leanings at the start of their rule, the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V, but moved away from such an approach, starting with the Jack Cade rebellion, and the various Yorkist uprisings of the 1450s. The composition of this group, “the people”, will also be examined, with the question being raised as to who they might have been, and why their support became a necessary part of the Wars of the Roses.
Introduction: In November 1459 what historians would later refer to as “the Parliament of Devils” met in Coventry. Convening after the confrontation between Yorkists and Lancastrians at Ludford Bridge, this parliament, consisting mainly of partisan Lancastrians, passed acts of attainder against the leading figures of the Yorkist faction. The Yorkists had already fled the country, retreating to Calais and Ireland, preparing for an extraordinary political comeback that would culminate in the coronation of Edward IV in March 1461. Such an event must have seemed distant at the end of 1459, in a parliamentary session that outlined in detail the treasonous behaviour of the Yorkist leaders. The significance of this particular session was the nature of the accusations levelled against the Yorkists, including the charge that they had deliberately sought out “the favoure of the peple”, a charge included in the document Somnium Vigilantis (“A Dream of Vigilance”). This charge has a greater significance than just the denigration of a group of failed rebels. I will argue that it reflected a broader retreat, a conscious decision on the part of the Lancastrians not to engage with the wider public, instead treating “the people” with suspicion and disdain. Moving away from such populist discourses formed part of a larger “propaganda war” between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions that was occurring in the 1450s and early 1460s. This retreat stood in contrast to the efforts of the Lancastrian writers of previous generations, such as Thomas Hoccleve, and Lancastrian kings such as Henry V; efforts of a usurping dynasty to gain support for their claim to the throne, and then for a costly war against France. I will trace this progression through the Somnium and other texts in this period, including George Ashby’s Active Policy of a Prince and the final sections of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, finding a dynasty that arguably ended its life holding a hostile regard for public opinion and populist politics.