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Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship by…

Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship

by John Watts

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I've read around 30 books on medieval Europe, looking especially for good general accounts of medieval political systems and government. This book, especially its first 100 pages, is the best account I have found. It presents kingship, a political system reliant on a clear social hierarchy with a single person at the apex, in a logical framework which clearly explains why this form of government could at times command general approval and enthusiasm. The author emphasizes that the responsibility of political representation and reconciliation rested in the person of the king. His task was to hear the counsel of lesser lords and to take this counsel into account in policy-making for the common good of the realm. The lesser lords, in turn, were to get counsel from their subjects on local matters and relay the most important grievances to the king. In order to function and to be rudimentarily equitable, this form of government obviously required persons of high integrity and industriousness in the upper hierarchy, especially at its top.

This book is an account of the reign of the inept Henry VI, king of England from 1422 to 1461, and the political troubles that ensued when no viable alternative to his personal rule could be established. The book is for the most part a detailed account of how various groups in the nobility competed for political authority and power in the vacuum left by an uninterested and disengaged king, but it also recounts how one faction after another deliberate channeled their political aims through the person of the king instead of aiming to overthrow his government entirely. The author stresses on many occasions that this adherence to existing political legitimacy was the only way to maintain political unity when no other form of political legitimacy could be conceived. Civil war could be avoided only if at least some of the disputing parties strove to maintain the ideology of royal rule, as fictional as that rule may have been in practice. On several occasions during the long rule of Henry VI, failure to uphold that fiction led to war.

This book may be of most interest to readers who are so familiar with this period in English history that they already know the various nobles by name and the general course of events by heart. In the latter half of the book the author clearly assumes a great level of familiarity with the subject, and basically just writes a commentary on previous accounts of this period. Readers interested only in the politics of kingship can read the first three chapters and leave it at that, because there are actually not many general lessons to be learned from the latter half of the book. But the first 100 pages of this book provide a great account of how good and wise kings could rule their realms with a satisfactory degree of political representation and justice for all. The latter part illustrates nicely how impossible it could be to balance this precarious political system under a weak king.
  thcson | Jun 26, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521653932, Paperback)

Henry VI (1422-61) was one of the most spectacularly inadequate kings of England, and his reign dissolved into the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. Yet he held on to his throne for thirty-nine years and, for almost thirty of them, without much difficulty. What was the nature of Henry's inadequacy, and why did it have such ambivalent and complicated results? This book looks intensively at the political system itself, rather than at individuals, their personalities and patronage networks, and thus offers the first truly structured narrative of the reign.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:22 -0400)

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