99.05.08, Hicks, Warwick the Kingmaker | The Medieval Review (2022)

  • Reviewed by:
  • Chris Given-Wilson
  • cjg2@st-andrews.ac.uk
  • University of St. Andrews

It is hard to believe that Warwick the Kingmaker was only forty-two when he was slain by Edward IV's troops in the aftermath of the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471. He had been, for the previous decade, the most powerful man in England apart from (or, as some said, including) the king, and, for a further decade or so before that, one of the half a dozen or so most powerful. Yet he was not a member of the royal family, and had only been an earl in his own right (as opposed to his wife's) since 1461.

Achievements of this order bespeak abundant talent, which there is no doubt that he possessed. In addition to Warwick's long-recognised military capabilities, Hicks also emphasises his remarkable energy and his ability to manipulate public opinion. Right up until the moment of his death, maintains Hicks, Warwick remained popular; Edward's victory at Barnet, like his coup d'etat ten years earlier, was secured "in defiance of public opinion" (p. 311) -- and public opinion was something which the Kingmaker worked hard at, as Hicks demonstrates in one of the most interesting sections of this book, when he discusses the earl's skill as a pamphleteer (pp. 193-210).

So central was Warwick's role to English politics in the 1450s and 1460s that it would be virtually impossible to write a biography of him which did not at times read more like a "History of Lancaster and York." Yet, although there are substantial sections of this biography which do indeed read more like a general political history of the times, Hicks succeeds admirably in keeping Warwick's personal and familial concerns close to centre stage for the most part. Especially instructive are the passages dealing with the preservation and enlargement of his inheritance, and the lesson is a clear one: however great a medieval magnate was, he could never for a moment afford to relax his guard. The complexities of English land law and the vicissitudes of political fortune meant that rival claimants were ever-present, lurking in the wings for the next turn of Fortune's wheel. Perseverance and forcefulness were required to see them off, as was a measure of luck: thus, for example, the fact that several potential rivals were abroad, and others distracted by weightier matters, during the crisis of 1449-50, was probably instrumental in helping Warwick to secure the major portions of his Beauchamp, Despenser and Montagu inheritances following the death of his wife's niece in January 1449. One of the useful features of this book, incidentally, is the profusion of genealogical tables provided, greatly facilitating understanding of a number of inheritance disputes.

This book contains a great deal of information, and is undoubtedly the product of much archival research. As a result, Hicks has been able to provide important revisions not only to our understanding of Warwick's career, but also to the political history of the time. Warwick's breach with Edward IV, for example, is ascribed not so much to his anger over the king's marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville as to fundamental disagreements over foreign policy (although the two issues were certainly connected, at least initially). Warwick favoured rapprochement with France, Edward with Burgundy. Warwick's tenure of Calais, and his consequent ability to use naval power, is another powerful theme running through the book.

The stages by which Warwick moved from criticism of Henry VI's government to opposition are carefully described. The eruption of the Percy-Nevill feud in 1453 was what first made him a Yorkist; the revival of faction in 1456 -- seen here essentially as the fault of Margaret of Anjou -- marked the beginning of more serious disaffection; not until 1459, however, did he (together with his father, the earl of Salisbury, and Richard duke of York) move into a position of outright opposition, not to say treason. Once Yorkist rule had been secured in the spring of 1461 -- a process in which Hicks argues that Warwick played a crucial part, perhaps even suggesting to the eighteen-year old Edward that he seize the throne -- the Kingmaker (for such he had now become) acted for the next six years or so virtually as Edward's alter ego. In 1467, however, came the breach. The bewildering series of rebellions, new and unlikely alliances, and changes of allegiance and government which crowded the years 1469-71 are dealt with relatively briefly here, understandably perhaps, because they are so well known. More disappointing, however, is Hicks' failure to write a substantial conclusion. Instead, the book ends with a final chapter of just two pages entitled 'Terminus', with no attempt to provide an over-all assessment of Warwick's historical significance or character. Character is, of course, elusive at five centuries' remove, but even so one rather gets the impression that Hicks is not very interested in trying to understand his subject's inner mainsprings: what he is interested in is the politician -- who acts, it seems to be assumed, as politicians always have and always will. This is a pity, for there are occasional glimpses of the way in which more might have been done. Why, for example, did Warwick feel the need so publicly to humiliate Henry VI in 1465, by tying his feet under his horse as he was being paraded through London following his capture in the north? "There could be no better demonstration," says Hicks, "of the completeness of the Yorkist victory and the shame attached to Lancastrianism" (p. 253) -- a rather unambitious comment, for surely what the incident really tells us something about is Warwick the man? Nor is there any sustained attempt to investigate Warwick's religious patronage, which is rather surprising, for such attempts have become an accepted part of medieval biography in recent years. All in all, this is an almost austerely political biography, which is not very fashionable these days. It is, however, what Michael Hicks has always done best, and he knows the period very well.

This is a book which historians of fifteenth-century English politics will need to read. Unfortunately, the jarring, staccato, self-consciously colloquial nature of Hicks' prose does not make it an easy read. Chapter 5, for example, begins with the following three sentences: "The climax that Stodeley foresaw did not happen. Or did not happen yet. For several reasons." (p. 94). He also uses far too many exclamation marks, his expressions are rarely crafted (for example: "shed an ocean of blood" [p. 210]; "Warwick had blown it" [p. 311]), and he has an unfortunate habit of beginning sentences by exhorting the reader to "Remember . . .". There are in addition several grammatical errors and infelicities, suggesting hurried and careless writing. For example: "and the somewhat older Nicholas Rody died in 1458, who bequeathed his property in Warwick to the earl" (p. 50). How did that get past both author and copy-editor? All this is a pity, for there is a great deal to admire in this book. It is shrewd and knowledgeable in its judgments, based on a tremendous amount of research, and has a lot of new and interesting things to say about the politics of mid-fifteenth century England. I doubt, for all that, whether it is the last word on the Kingmaker. There is still, surely -- despite the undoubted difficulties involved -- another kind of biography to be written about him, asking different questions from those posed by Hicks. As a study of Warwick the politician, though, it will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

Hicks, Michael. Warwick the Kingmaker. London: Blackwell, 1998. Pp. xvi, 346. $62.95. ISBN: 0-631-16259-3.

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