“A Kinges Ransoume” for a “Croune of Paper”: Charisma in Pre-Modern Europe, Part IIIKathryn S.
Part 3 of 3 (Part 1 here, Part 2 here)
A “Cony Struggling in the Net”: The Plantagenets vs. the Plantagenets
Legendary for its blizzards and blood, the fifteenth-century English conflict known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) was poetic in name and savage in fighting. Medieval warfare was the most physically brutal form of battle Westerners in their long history have ever fought: huge, murderous fistfights of chaos and close combat in which few were afforded a “clean” death. By December 30, 1460, Richard of York had for months led a rebellion against the reigning monarch to whom he’d sworn many solemn oaths of fealty. But it was clear that Henry VI was inept and woefully without charisma save that of the barest lineal variety. His French wife, Queen Marguerite of Anjou, seemed to have a preternatural talent for causing offense wherever she went.
In a single generation and under Henry’s watch, the English had forfeited all of their French territory except the port of Calais; so much gore and treasure (largely bled from the noblemen sent on campaigns to fight for these duchies), and for nothing in the end. After enduring these losses and other humiliations at court, York and the allies he’d drawn into his circle revolted. Fiery desire combined with duty to make him a charismatic center for the storm that had raged at the heart of the English monarchy for over sixty years. He had a responsibility to restore right governance to his countrymen, so he said; he had a better claim to the throne on which his weak cousin sat, so he argued.
The Queen saw things differently. Furious at York’s faithlessness, she called upon her own noblemen to help her claim the wages of “he that took King Henry’s chair,” for his sins. How had York dared “[break] his solemn oath” in hopes of “paling his head in Henry’s glory, and rob[ing] his king’s temples of the diadem . . . ?” Her forces chased York’s to an estate whose acreage kissed the border between Scotland and the north country called Sandal Castle. And now, ensconced within a fortress on England’s edge, York watched as Marguerite’s Lancastrian army closed around his position like a tightening noose.
Led by the Queen herself (Henry VI couldn’t be bothered to travel with his troops; unlike his wife, he had no appetite for war), the “Dukes of Exeter and Somerset, the Earl of Devonshire, the Lorde Clifford . . . and in effecte all the Lordes of the Northe parte,” a host of “eightene thousande men, or as some write, twentie and twoo thousande” surrounded York’s stronghold. Everyone resigned himself to settling in for a protracted siege.
But York refused to be a “cony [that] struggl[ed] in the net.” Against the advice of “his old servaunt and chief counsailer,” he determined “incontinent to issue out” from the castle walls with an army no more than a quarter of the strength of his enemies. Hide behind the barricades? Not a chance! York shot back in a great fury. “Davy, Davy [his “counsailer”],” he raged, a dangerous flash in his eyes, “hast thou loved me so long, and now wouldest have me dishonored?” You “never sawest me kepe fortres when I was Regent in Normandy . . . but like a man, and not like a birde included in a cage, I issued and fought with mine enemies, to their losse ever . . . and to my honor.” Why now, when before “I have not kepte my self within walles, for feare of a great and strong prince, nor hid my face from any man livyng, wouldest thou that I for dread of a scolding woman, whose weapon is onely her toungue . . . should incarcerate my self? (N.B.: Does anyone doubt that if we still talked this way, half our problems would be solved?)” York’s pure charisma was in evidence here. He had faith that his personal grace would carry him through the day.
Thus leaving the safety of the castle, he and his outnumbered force charged down Sandal hill toward Wakefield Green, where the Lancastrians awaited them. It was a brave effort. So sharp was York’s sword, many remembered, that it sang through the air like a hundred lovely voices. The blued armor as it caught sparks from the dawn was the last pretty sight of the day. Within half an hour, Richard of York lay slain in the mud, his sightless eyes staring up at the wisps clouding the wintry sky. His supporters were scattered and leaderless. The “cruell bloudsupper,” Lord Clifford, then hunted down and murdered York’s twelve-year-old son, whom the Lancastrians had taken prisoner. And not yet “content with this homicyde, or chyldkillyng, [Clifford] came to the place where the dead corps of the duke of Yorke lay, and caused his head to be stryken off and set on it a croune of paper, & so fixed it on a pole.”
Clifford wasted no time in presenting his grisly trophy to “the Quene . . . saiyng: ‘Ma-dame, your warre is done, here is your kinges raunsome . . .’” The head and its ornament hung for weeks rotting on London’s Micklegate Bar. Though his honor may have satisfied the gods of war, Richard’s stunt had cost him, his son, and his followers their heads — and in the long run, the entire Plantagenet family its dynasty. How had a bloodline with such vigorous lineal charisma come to this impasse?
The troubles began a century before during the reign of Richard II (1367-1399). Richard was the son of Edward, the Black Prince, who had died while on campaign in southern France; furthermore, he was the grandson of one of England’s greatest kings, Edward III. Unfortunately he had not inherited the pure charisma of his sires, only their blood. But as the Bishop of Carlisle assured his apprehensive monarch, “That power that made you king / Hath power to keep you king in spite of all.” His birthright made him “God’s substitute, / His deputy anointed in His sight.”
Had Richard merely been weak, perhaps the Bishop would have been correct, and the lineal charisma would have proved enough to sustain his crown. Instead, it was Richard himself who first weakened the lineal ties of inheritance when he “stole” his uncle John of Gaunt’s estate from Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke. This was a crime that would have far-reaching repercussions, ones immediately understood by Richard’s nobles. If Richard should “Take [Bolingbroke’s] rights away,” he would not be himself. For how was one “a king / But by fair sequence and succession?” After this injustice, the banished Henry Bolingbroke determined to raise an army, invade England, and challenge his royal cousin for the throne.
Bolingbroke enjoyed the advantages of pure charisma. Richard recalled having watched the duke prepare to leave for foreign shores years earlier. Our Royal Self, he announced, “Observ’d his courtship to the common people:
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy;
What reverence he did throw away on slaves.
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles . . .
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid
God speed him well.
Bitterly, the King remembered how Bolingbroke paid them tribute with “supple knee.” and a hearty “‘Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends’ — / As were our England in reversion his. / And he our subjects’ next degree in hope.” Nevertheless, Bolingbroke’s supporters were an aristocratic group, not ones of peasantry. “I come for Lancaster [the name of his Plantagenet line]!” the Duke reminded them as he cast his treason in terms of “shared privilege” and family rights. “Wherefore was I born?” he asked his assembled peers, one of whom had accused him of “gross rebellion.”
Henry paired personal charisma with the invoked rights and privileges of the lineal charismatic group, arguing that an inconstant king like Richard might have deprived any one of them their inheritance: “You have a son, [Duke] Aumerle, my noble cousin. / Had you first died and he been thus trod down, / He should have found his uncle Gaunt a father.” Ironically, this legal reasoning became a justification for challenging the law and Richard II’s blood authority: “And therefore personally I lay claim / To my inheritance of free descent.” He had come not merely to declare for his father’s estate, but to depose a king. Richard II found himself friendless, and like a beaten Gaulish chieftain, forced to give himself up to the mercies of his conqueror.
The King who had proudly ranted once that “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / [Could] wash the balm off from an anointed king; / The breath of worldly men [could not] depose / Deputy elected by the Lord” abdicated in favor of his cousin. Cæsar was a mortal, Cassius said; Cæsar had nearly drowned in the river and succumbed to a chilling sweat in Spain. Imprisoned, Richard confessed that he, too, “need[ed] friends,” “liv[ed] with bread . . . [felt] want. Tast[ed] grief.” How could anyone say that “[he was] a king?” But Richard, bad king or not, was the head of a lineal charismatic group, and his violent deposition constituted its “dismemberment”; even its decapitation. How could an aristocracy, based on this blood myth, continue to exist without its hereditary leader? Could this coup be executed without “permanent damage” done to the glory of the king’s office and the aristocracy’s rights? The nobility had forced concessions from their kings before, and at one point, they had even forced one to step aside. But the crown had always passed to the next direct descendant, the King’s sons or grandsons.
Now, Henry Bolingbroke — a cousin from the Lancastrian branch of the dynasty — had crowned himself with Parliament’s blessing. As Henry IV, he addressed that illustrious body of barons and claimed “the realme of England and the crowne . . . as [he was] descended by right line of the blood comming from that good lord king Henrie the third, and through the right that God of his grace hath sent [him], to recover good governance and due justice.” Yes, as Alcibiades and Cæsar had, Bolingbroke paid lip service to ancient custom, but he inadvertently broke the charismatic spell that grace and lineal tradition had served in binding the body of the mortal King to the body politic and to the immortal-sacred body of kingship itself. After close to 250 years and eight generations, “the unbroken succession of the Plantagenets had ended.” The great magnates might now war for the crown amongst themselves. Sixty years later and on a winter’s day in London, Richard of York’s half-lidded eyes bore witness to this fact from his perch above Micklegate Bar.
Who was tyrant, traitor, or hero in these tales of victory and death? Is there a special “formula” from the past that we can embrace as “the answer?” Even the best systems inevitably decay. Even the world the gods built from their own limbs will “sink into the sea” and the “bright stars [must one day] fall out of the sky. Flames [will] scorch the leaves of Yggdrasil.” A bonfire will reach toward the roof. Neither democracies, nor republics, nor dictatorships, nor divinely-sanctioned monarchies have endured, and even the most fiercely individualistic city-states have become tyrannical empires. Personal loyalties break down, and factions whose primary motives are not ideologically substantive, but wrathfully emotive, emerge. For such opposed parties, the pursuit of power becomes just another means of expressing rage, i.e. “I want to have the power to crush you.” The conflicts between the charismatic forms of pure and lineal were at the heart of the political tragedies of Western leadership — not only in our medieval monarchies, but in ancient Athens and Rome.
As for America, well. It has savaged populist leaders possessed of any charisma and exalts a wizened bureaucracy. We had lineal charisma to hold together our people once — but our disposessors have sought to cut those mystic chords that bound us to our founding patriarchs and southern heroes. Now, without any charismatic form left to which we can cling, America is dead. A remnant of the native American people — of whom many reading this are a part — will persist, but we must say goodbye to our hopes of restoring the original. “Have [we] learned enough yet, All-father?”
In the end, in order to be meaningful, pure charisma must have worthy successors able to carry on the mission of leadership. It requires secure foundations and an ordained aristocracy connected to the people over whom it is their duty to watch. For its part, in order to last — in order to be effective — lineal charisma must infuse its institutions with vigor. Else, the greatest wealth on Earth, the largest economies and its most sprawling empires — a “kinges ransoume” in any age — it buys only a paper crown. Nothing more.
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 William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3 (Folger Shakespeare Library), I.iv., 62.
 Ibid., I.iv., 99-106.
 Hall’s Chronicle Containing the History of England & the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies Lancastre and Yorke (London: J. Johnson, 1809), 345. First published in the reign of Henry VIII.
 Ibid., 346.
 Ibid., 347.
 William Shakespeare, Richard II (Folger Shakespeare Library), III.ii., 27-28.
 Ibid., II.i., 207-208.
 Ibid., I.iv., 25-36.
 Ibid., II.iii., 119-150.
 Ibid., I.ii., 40-41.
 Ibid., III.ii., 175-180.
 See Falcone, 456.
 Ibid., 470.
 See Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (New York: Penguin, 2012), 496.
 The Poetic Edda, 14.
 Ibid., 15.
 Shakespeare, Richard II, III.ii., 160-165.
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“…an ordained aristocracy connected to the people over whom it is their duty to watch”
Yes, sometimes aristocracies understood this, and their countries thrived. At times they had to be wrenched back into place, as Henry VII understood.
Richard II seems to me to be an especially tragic figure, for all his serious faults. He showed a lot of promise and skill at times. Maybe I’m swayed by Shakespeare’s version, which is one of my favorites of his plays.
Your cautionary points regarding Bolingbroke’s actions are important. As I recall Bolingbroke/Henry IV was haunted by what he did. How bad should things get before an usurpation or coup or revolt is necessary? Richard II was not trying to “fundamentally transform” England, at least not nearly to the degree of an Obama. But I’d say we’re living under a terribly illegitimate system now in the West, to put it mildly.
Thank you for a fascinating and pertinent series.
One minor correction: Micklegate Bar is in York.
Thank you, Traddles — I always enjoy the depth of thought you bring to the comments section (and thank you for the correction as well). When the aristocratic/ hierarchical system is healthy — when it’s grounded in affection, social obligation, and reciprocity — there is no better form of governance. It becomes an extension of the family, but does not seek to replace the family. I agree — Richard II is a wonderful play. The opening insults between Bolingbroke and Mowbray are epic.
There is a tragedy to Richard II; people cite his quelling of the Peasant’s Revolt at twelve (?) as a charismatic moment — a flash of potential that never was. Kings need harsh sometimes, but Richard II always seemed cruel, rather than kingly, for his pettiness. And yes, for his part Henry IV had a rough go of it after his coup. Everyone knew he wasn’t a rightful king and acted accordingly.
Had York not charged out, he wouldn’t have been York, i. e., he wouldn’t have had the personal charisma to lead a rebellion.
“Wouldest thou have me shut my gates then all men might of me woundre and all crea-
tures male of me report dishonor, that a woman hath made me a dastard, who no man
ever to this daie could yet prove a coward: And surely my mind is, rather to die with ho-
nor, then to live with shame for of honor commeth fame, and of dishonor riscth infamy.”
England’s 2021 National Team for the Euro Cup consisted of some non-English players. The mayor of London is not English. August 2021 the English people chose Miss England & she is not English. England is a joke.
We feel your pain (assuming you’re English).
September 2021 the Irish people chose Miss Ireland & she is not Irish. Additionally, Miss England is not English. The British people are committing suicide, Britain is gone, Britain is finished.
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