The Earls of Suffolk and Fourteenth-Century England: Four Questions

The only way one makes progress with the shape and argument of a book is to actually write the book. And I’m very happy to report that that is happening, day by day. East Anglia at War is shaping up to be, I think a useful contribution to discussions on the English “way of war” and the origins of Ricardian politics. This was an early ambition of the dissertation project, which over time contracted to an investigation of the Crecy campaign and the military revolution thesis. It is refreshing, for the monograph, to expand once again to the larger idea that lay behind much of my earlier research.

I focus in particular on four questions that, when considered together,  should impact the way we assess the acceptance and utility of force in late medieval society: how did military service impact English society and economy; how did military service shape communal identity; why were English politics torn by factional violence in the 1380s but not the 1330s; and why was there a peasant revolt in England in 1381, but not 1341?

The first two questions connect to the work of Andrew Ayton, David Simpkin, Craig Lambert, Sarah Douglas, Molly Madden, Adrian Bell, and Andrew Spencer. The last two connect to the constitutional work of Richard Kaeuper, Mark Ormrod, Nigel Saul, Gerald Harriss, and especially Douglas Biggs and Mark Arvanigian, who spoke on Ricardian and early Lancastrian politics last year at Kalamazoo.

I have long felt that questions of warfare and constitutionality intersected with economics and social structure, but in previous years have been hard pressed to give a succinct explanation of why when asked to explain that position, especially by constitutional scholars. Warfare and economics–yes; warfare and social structure–yes; economics and social structure–yes; social structure and constitutionality–yes; culture and constitutionality–yes. But what connection is there between the changing social structure of a retinue, the impact of purveyance, parliamentary politics, and the consumption of chivalric literature? Few people would probably deny a connection, but if you study the extant literature, the number of monographs that attempt to construct this kind of comprehensive, yet flexible, structure are few-to-none. Add a rich and evolving expression of English culture to the mix, and the picture at the end of the kaleidoscope becomes very complex indeed.

Reduced to a Venn diagram, it might look like this:

Medieval England Venn Diagram

So, to my  mind it is necessary to reduce the number and kinds of questions to manageable proportions. “Military service” impacted far more than just the men serving in retinues or levies: while “military-industrial complex” would be an anachronistic concept, the scale of organized war production and services is quite surprising to those who aren’t familiar with the subject. This is essentially a “who” question–who served, in what capacity, and at what cost?

“Communal identity” is a nice way of avoiding answering, for now, the false affinity-county dichotomy, by asking instead, as Andrew Ayton and others have asked, how military service built on, forged, or otherwise altered social relationships. In other words, social network analysis, which is a core aspect of my project. Data entry…

“Factional violence” attacks the issue of militarized social politics under Richard II  (and late Edward III) and its absence (or near absence) under young Edward III. As those who study Lancaster or Arundel would say (Simon Walker, Mark Arvanigian, and Chris Given-Wilson among them), the gradual accumulation of wealth and property in the hands of peers of the realm allowed an independence from the crown, ultimately at great cost to the realm (the character of the  monarch is important here as well). This state of affairs originated in Edward III’s reign, but is difficult to track.

Finally, the “peasant revolt” gets at the larger impact of warfare on English society and economy that to date only Scott Waugh has really delved into. The costs of war had to settle somewhere, and ultimately they settled on those least able to afford them: the peasantry and tenant farmers. As agricultural historians have shown, a family of four needed about twelve acres to get through the year and put away a bit of seed and produce to build up their stocks and avoid starvation. By the mid-fourteenth century, in many places they would be lucky to have half that amount of land. Yet serfdom also “withered away” after 1350, so that of an estimated 2 million villeins in 1300, scarcely 1 million were left by 1400 (Mark Bailey’s The Decline of Serfdom is a great read on this). The war and the plague impacted this story, to be sure, but it is a story that hasn’t really been directly integrated into the larger narrative of the war, partly because of debates over how to assess the economic impact of conflict. A revolt did not materialize in 1341, but there was a real and widespread fear that it would erupt. Why it didn’t is a fascinating question, and why it did in 1381, while more studied, remains fascinating as well. East Anglia was centrally important on both occasions, and William Ufford, earl of Suffolk, was a central figure in putting down the 1381 revolt.

If the final manuscript does half of what I’ve outlined here, I’ll be happy. The Ufford family’s unique situation, as a minor baronial family that was raised to the peerage and had to create an identity of military and social leadership in East Anglia, is actually a fascinating story when told against this backdrop. While, as is common with other families at this time, the information on the family stops just short of what would allow a true biography, enough survives to use their experiences as a way to link the two halves of the fourteenth century in a way that hasn’t really been done since May McKisack’s The Fourteenth Century. Ambitious, sure, but that’s the way I like it.

Leave a Reply