Monday, May 13, 2019

Game of Thrones?

The Battle of Towton, with 28,000 reported deaths, was the bloodiest battle ever on British soil. Yet I'd wager that only a tiny minority of Britons have heard of it or could place it in context. 

It took place on Palm Sunday 1461, in a shallow Yorkshire valley during a fierce blizzard and it lasted ten hours. The local rivers and marshlands were said to have run red with blood for days afterwards. 

The end result was a new government. 

It was perhaps the most pivotal as well as the most brutal moment of the conflict that has come to be known as the Wars of the Roses. In recent years this lenghthy squabble between rival family factions for the English throne has been repeatedly cited as an inspiration for Game of Thrones, yet (dragons aside) there's a whole book to be written on the subtle yet significant differences between them.

I remember when I first tried to explain the Wars of the Roses to V and her take-out was that it was seemed a bit like a family Christmas row turned epic...and so essentially rather silly. Another valid comparison might be with a fight to the last man between rival drug cartels, somewhere between turf war and nihilistic death-match. 

Yet neither of these analogies quite captures the circumstances behind this particular encounter where two vast hosts - two complete, alternative versions of the English state and its power-structures - met with the intention of utterly annihilating the other. 

Before Towton, the conflict had involved a series of skirmishes, ambushes and a couple of urban rampages around St Albans. The stakes had been gradually mounting. This was like a chess match where the board itself is the most prominent maker of moves and taker of pieces. 

How had the country reached this point of mutual extermination? In Game of Thrones the whole shit show kicks off when the Hand of Robert Baratheon dies. An assassination, but one that is mis-attributed by the powerful figures around the Iron Throne. 

In 1422, the most illustrious English monarch Henry V passed away from dysentery. The initial problem posed by this unscheduled exit appeared to be that his son Henry VI was an infant. It soon became clear however that Henry was not actually capable of carrying out the functions of head of state. 

Being the King of England in the later middle ages was a very hands-on role grounded in a complex and varied skill-set. Most sitting monarchs had been trained into the job from a young age. For just occupying the throne with an evil smirk like Cersei (or the Oval Office like Donald, for that matter) was not going to cut it. The king had to be knowledgeable, competent and involved at all levels or things could start to unravel very quickly. 

So, the Wars of the Roses didn't originate essentially as a dynastic spat. They developed more slowly out of the realisation that the king was a void at the centre of the nation. Not so much a dead king as a dead man walking. In fact, during a crucial phase of his reign Henry was utterly prostate. 

The powerful figures around this vacuum tried a lot of different systems for overcoming the problem. When Henry was still a minor, they ruled through a council in his name. Unexpected, non-violent deaths in the family reduced the effectiveness of this approach over time. Then one powerful individual - Suffolk - tried to rule alone through Henry, but despite the domestic policies of this government, the backdrop to which was a catastrophic series of defeats in France leading to unprecedented disorder mid-century back home. Royal finances were also tipping into a disastrous state. 

Unlike the conflict portrayed in GOT, the role of urban society - London in particular - combined with popular revolts out in the provinces, proved crucial to the escalation of aristocratic strife. Suffolk was offed at sea by a group of civvies and the country lapsed into deeper chaos.  

Parliament would be a key player in all this. The Earl of Warwick is often referred to as the Kingmaker, but it was these fellows in Westminster that perhaps made a greater difference, a bottom-up impetus to regime change that contrasts sharply with the top-down feud driven largely by unfettered elite ambition which we habitually see on the HBO series. The plebs were a bit more than dragon fodder. 

Thus, when the Duke of York, Henry's Plantagenet cousin, returned from a foreign posting, he came with a plan to re-establish the established order as a sort of Protector of the Realm with civic society behind him, but his motives raised suspicions in the King's close circle, and he soon made an enemy in Henry's somewhat troublesome French wife Margaret. 

The breakdown in order had seen leading families like the Nevilles and the Percys slugging it out in the North. York was more closely allied with the Nevilles, but did genuinely try to restore a semblance of peace up there. (Though for some reason the best mate of the first Edmund Blackadder is called Percy!) 

In the end the hostility of Queen Margaret resulted in open, armed confrontation and a ‘nationalisation’ of these more localised family conflicts. The Nevilles were a key part of the Yorkist faction, the Percys were aligned behind the Lancastrians. 

At some point York decided that the best thing to do would be for him to stake his own claim to the throne. Henry and Margaret had produced an heir, but this was yet another untutored, un-trusted child, and at that moment the country needed nothing else than a strong and capable grown-up on the throne.  

York saw himself as the only available candidate, but critically, this view was not universal and he lacked the comprehensive support that would have made his golpe viable. (Venezuelans please note.) 

Then at Wakefield he was caught unawares by a sneaky Lancastrian expeditionary force and ended up with his severed head on display above Mickelgate Bar in the city of York. 

Towton presented a clear opportunity for revenge to his second son Edward, the Earl of March, and his victory in this version of 'Medieval Total War' would signal the end for hapless Henry, famed now only for establishing Eton College and its 'finishing school' King's in Cambridge. (Margaret herself did Queen's.) 

It would have marked the end of the fundamental conflict and preserved the Plantagenet dynasty as well, had Edward not been such a cojelón and debauched himself to any early death - a state of affairs which would allow his brother to usurp the throne and murder his kids in the Tower. 

Henry being Henry, he was not present at Towton. Edward was, and made a decisive intervention when one of his army's flanks was being harried by Lancastrian cavalry. 

At the outset the incumbent's generals appeared to have chosen the ground well, but the weather was beyond their control. And so, when the snow started to fall at dawn the Yorkist longbowmen discovered that the wind was behind them, gifting them an advantage of range and the white blanket of the ensuing blizzard permitted them to advance undetected and to launch salvo after salvo of arrows, which decimated the Lancastrian lines, leaving them no choice but to pile forward into a general melée. 

No genteel chivalric joust this. No prisoners was the order on both sides. As the two armies hacked into each other, they slowly swivelled 90 degrees and eventually the Lancastrians found themselves less favourably situated, their retreat blocked by wetlands on one side, a steep muddy hill on the other, plus a bridge they themselves had demolished prior to the battle. 

The rout, once it commenced, became both a natural disaster and a massacre, with those that weren't cut to pieces, drowning in the marshes. This documentary details some fascinating findings from a mass grave that was detected a mile or so from the battlefield in the 1990s. 

One of the reasons we tend to see the Wars of the Roses in terms of fateful aristocratic intrigue is that is how the Tudors, Welsh upstarts who were their eventual beneficiaries, wanted us to see them. 

The roses themselves were largely a Tudor concoction, for although the House of York did use a white rose amongst its emblems, the red rose was not especially important to the House of Lancaster. The 'Tudor Rose', a fusion of the red and the white, nevertheless became an important visual communication device for the new dynasty whose legitimacy was squishy. 

Today it sits prominently on the badge of the England football team, alongside the three lions of the displaced Plantagenets. Meanwhile our rugby team sports a red rose, ironically then, something of a Welsh contrivance. 

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