Thursday, March 30, 2006

World: History: the leaders don’t come off too well, but the rest are invisible

History looks so neat on paper, but we should know from our own tumultuous world that it’s a constant series of battles between disparate forces, with the outcome often rewritten.

History is the story of the leaders, with the masses only written in aggregate. If one of my ancestors* led a group of people to their doom, you wouldn’t hear about any of the rest of them. Over 99% of my ancestors and yours are unseen.

And when a brutal force crushes a city like a child treading on an ant colony, the dead leave no remainder; their line is snuffed out and even their DNA is invisible.

On paper, the succession of kings sounds so clearcut: oldest son, next in line, etc. But in the middle ages, this wasn’t the case, and it could be fifty years at a time between peaceful successions.

The wars between the houses of York and Lancaster (the War of the Roses, as Walter Scott called them) was certainly murky. Although it is portrayed as lasting from 1450 to 1485, England was already in turmoil from the Hundred Years war with France. Internal ructions lasted from 1399 (Richard II) up to Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Many named people were beheaded, and countless other killed.

Causes include:
1) Rule inherited by people too young to govern or to govern well (Richard II, Henry VI)
2) Richard II’s seizure of Lancastrian property because their wealth rivalled the king, who was relatively penurous;
3) Death of a king without a heir (Richard II)
4) Subsequent usurpation by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV)
5) Death of Henry V when Henry VI was a baby and
6) Temporary madness of a king, Henry VI (common theme, isn’t it?)
7) Several deaths by dysentry of kings and heirs.

In the end, the only one left was Henry VII. A tenuous claim, several steps removed, through his mother. His grandfather was a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, who came to the attention of Henry V’s French widow (and Owen’s future wife) by “collapsing on her lap when drunk”**. Owen was, in the fashion of the day, beheaded after a battle in 1461.

So, that’s why we get the Tudors and subsequent: last man standing. Funny old world, innit?

What do we learn from this?
Lack of good governance leads to chaos. We knew that. However, this refers to the quality of the leaders, of the laws, and of adherence to the laws.
Collapsing when drunk is not necessarily a bad thing? Well, I suggest that apart from a few exceptions, history wasn’t written by or about drunks.
Most people died relentlessly nameless, for other people’s causes (the men), or because they were ignored anyway (women).

Even the king needed to be subject to a legal framework, otherwise he’d divide the people from whom he relied for support. That’s a lesson for today.

*Hugh Courtenay of Boconnoc was not killed at the battle of Tewkesbury, 1471 (as it says on my family tree), but beheaded immediately afterwards, being on the losing Lancastrian side. I’d add another lesson. Beware of the glossing over of histories, including family histories.

**Neillands, Robin, The Wars of the Roses, Cassell, UK, 1992.

Also referenced:Haigh, Christopher (ed.), The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland, C.U.P, UK, 1985.

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