In the church just a few fields from where I live stands the handsome, painted alabaster tomb to Sir Richard Knightley and his wife Jane. Round the sides of the tomb are reliefs of their 12 children — four girls and eight boys — variously the ancestors of George Washington, the Queen and David Cameron.
But at least as impressive as Sir Richard’s dynastic achievements, in my book, are his dates — 1455 to 1534. Every time I go to see him, lying there with his SS collar (symbol of the victorious Lancastrians) round his neck and the dog (or is it a lion?) at his feet, I think, ‘You jammy bastard!’ and I fervently pray that some of that luck will rub off on me. To have lived to nearly 80 is remarkable enough in almost any distant age. To have done so as a knight during the Wars of the Roses is little short of miraculous.
Consider, for example, Towton — the bloodiest battle on English soil, in which most of our nobility and their retainers took part and in which 28,000 people are said to have died. Since the population of the time was not much more than three million, that’s the equivalent of a battle today costing the lives of half a million.
If you were on the wrong side, that was it: curtains. Even if you survived the fighting you faced the greater horror of being ‘attainted’. This meant being hanged, drawn and quartered, while your goods were confiscated and your heirs disinherited in perpetuity. Such was the fate of 60 Lancastrian knights and gentlemen (including 25 MPs — so it wasn’t all bad…) after Towton.
As with the Norman Conquest and the first world war, the war’s victims numbered disproportionately among the English upper classes. ‘Out of 70 adult peers during this period, over 50 are known to have fought in battles they had to win if they wanted to stay alive,’ notes Desmond Seward, in his superb The Wars Of The Roses. Entire noble families were exterminated. In one campaign alone — 1460 to 1461 — 12 noblemen were killed and six beheaded, over a third of the English peerage.
And there was no way of opting out. If you were one of the 50 or 60 great families, you were too prominent politically and socially, and your private army was too valuable, to permit your remaining neutral. This, in turn, meant that your myriad kinsmen, retainers, and hangers-on had to follow you into battle, whether they liked it or not. As a government spokesman told the House of Commons in 1475, ‘None [of us] hath escaped.’
This relentless horror is for me what makes this period so attractive. Of course there are worse times and places to have lived in history — Nanking in 1937, say — but this is home territory and these are ancestors. Or not, in the case of the many who were cut down before they had a chance to have children.
Consider, for example, the fate of the poor 16-year-old Earl of Rutland after the Battle of Wakefield, begging for mercy from Lord Clifford who, as he stabbed him with a dagger, shouted: ‘By God, thy father slew mine, and so will I do thee and all thy kin.’
Stories like this strip away that cosy illusion many of us have about the distant past that people were so different then, with expectations so much lower, that they didn’t feel things in the way we would have done. To an extent, this is true: in an era characterised not just by war but by lawlessness, rampant brigandage and serious outbreaks of bubonic plague, few imagined they’d live to a ripe age. But I doubt many of them would have been any more up for being hanged, drawn and quartered than we would be today.
War, complained the Duke of Buckingham in 1483, was never ‘in none other earthly nation so deadly and so pestilent as when it happeneth among us… nor so cruel and so deadly foughten’. (He was executed in the same year.) They were living through a peculiarly ugly period of history and they all knew it.
Not just peculiarly ugly but peculiarly pointless too. None of it would likely have happened if Henry VI — implausible son of the hero of Agincourt — hadn’t been so utterly weak and feeble. But in those days, the entire nation’s fate depended to a far greater degree on the competence or otherwise of its political leaders than it does now. Something useful to remind oneself whenever one is tempted to get too cross about David Cameron: however useless he may be on Europe, on the environment, on everything, at least you know he’s not going to drag you up to Yorkshire to get bludgeoned to death in the mud.
Incidentally, talking of toffs, I understand I have caused much hurt at Radley by suggesting in a recent column that it was a poor man’s Eton. This was unintended for two reasons. First, as is widely known, Radley is way, way socially smarter than Eton these days. Second, I have nothing but admiration for the school. Not only are all the Radleians and Old Radleians I have encountered (e.g. Owen Paterson) splendid chaps, but there’s a brilliant English teacher there who actually uses my articles in his classes as an illustration of how to write. How inspirational is that?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013