Stansfield on the South West in the Wars of the Roses

Regional studies of the Wars of the Roses are widespread. Like any civil war, the conflict had ramifications around the country. Studies of the way in which the conflict impacted upon regional governance, landownership and society in general result from this. They are intended to provide further depth of understanding. They can provide the missing links between the upper echelons of the nobility and the people living their everyday lives. Done well, they illustrate all manner of things, from the way in which armies were raised and maintained, to the consequences of the wars on the local economy etc. Here, we see a study of the political elite of the south west of England being reviewed. 

Arms of Thomas Courtenay, 5th Earl of Devon
The Coat of Arms of Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon. NOT included in this study of the south west

The main body of the book is divided into five chronological chapters which in turn examine the final decade of Henry VI’s reign, Edward IV’s first reign and the Lancastrian Readeption, the second reign of Edward IV, the reign of Richard III, and the first 15 years of Henry VII.

Setting a study out in chronological or thematic chapters is the norm. The structure suggests that the author will address the political elites as a consequence of major turning points.

This could have been an important study, but unfortunately the wheels come off at an early stage. Stansfield’s regional approach is interesting and valid, but he is forced to conclude even in his opening chapter that the wider southwest including Somerset and Dorset, as well as Devon and Cornwall, did not constitute a region under any of the possible criteria that he examines.

Clarity is key. Some regions were well formed in terms of governance. It was possible to show the role of regional centres in rule over them. Applying modern regional terminology to the later middle ages, as done here, can present a rather disjointed history. The areas are important, studying them is valid and important, they are not however the same political regions as they are today. It is further complicated by the practise of granting lands around the country, rather than in one concentrated area.

This might not necessary be fatal, were each county competently studied. Regrettably, however, the author displays a distinct aversion to archival research which undermines his conclusions, such as they are. The reader is told that this book is to be considered ‘a work of synthesis’, but it is hard not to feel that this is code for the author’s reluctance to set foot in a record repository. As a result, Stansfield has barely, if at all, scratched the surface of the archival material available for each of his four counties. Just five family collections have been consulted, chosen – as is painfully obvious – not for the particular importance of the families concerned, or with a view to even geographical coverage, but for the simple rationale that a calendared form of the records could be accessed online.

There is a wealth of information available about regions and centrally. Archives held in London cover government and some regional aspects. Family archives are often available. Chronicles exist in some regions. There are letters and diaries pertinent to some parts of the country and aspects of the wars. Economic figures are available, in part at least, for some places. Some has been digitised and is available online to academic historians via subscription sites. Other elements are catalogued online.

The author’s lack of industry where archival work is concerned has also determined his choice of methodology. His opening chapters set out the problems and pitfalls inherent in the study of late medieval political structures and networks in some detail, but the solution he offers is far from satisfactory. Seeking ways of addressing questions of retaining, affinity and connexion while avoiding extensive archival researches, he arrives at a quantitative method of analysis pioneered by Scottish historians.

Book being reviewed:

Political Elites in South-West England, 1450-1500: Politics, Governance, and the Wars of the Roses
Robert Stansfield Lampeter, Edwin Mellen Press, 2009, ISBN: 9780773447141; 550pp.; Price: £84.95

Review Details

Dr Hannes Kleineke, review of Political Elites in South-West England, 1450-1500: Politics, Governance, and the Wars of the Roses, (review no. 885)
Date accessed: 29 August, 2018

Questions to consider:

  • The review criticises the author for relying solely on online sources. In what way does this limit the usefulness of the book?
  • Does a historian have to make use of physical archives to write a reliable, useful, study of this period?
  • If you were to present a study of the South West of England which families and / or cities would it be centred around? Why would you choose these?

Misconceptions about the Wars of the Roses and Battle of Bosworth

To what extent did Richard III’s reputation differ in the North from that elsewhere?

Causes of the Wars of the Roses – Course of the War of the Roses – Events of the War of the Roses

Battles in the Wars of the Roses

First Battle of St. Albans  – Battle of Blore Heath – Battle of Ludford Bridge – Battle of Northampton – Battle of Wakefield – Battle of Mortimer’s Cross – Second Battle of St. Albans Battle of Ferrybridge – Battle of Towton – Battle of Hedgeley Moor – Battle of Hexham – Battle of Edgecote Moor – Battle of Losecote Field – Battle of Barnet – Battle of Tewkesbury – Battle of Bosworth – Battle of Stoke Field

Documents, Maps and Evidence

The Rous Rolls – Paston Letters – Edward IV Roll

People and periods

British History – The Wars of the Roses – The Plantagenets – The Tudors – King Henry IV – King Henry V – King Henry VI – King Edward IV – King Edward V – King Richard III – King Henry VII – Margaret of Anjou

Schoolshistory – teaching resources for Key Stage 3, GCSE and A Level history

The Wars of the Roses

Causes of the Wars of the Roses – Battles of the Wars of the Roses – Personalities of the Wars of the Roses – Women in the Wars of the Roses – Timeline of the Wars of the Roses – Infographic: Key Facts on the Wars of the Roses – Primary and Secondary Sources on the Wars of the Roses – Nathen Amin – the Rise of the Beaufort’s and Tudor England

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