At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait sings the praises of “an infirm hand on the tiller” during the War of the Roses:
For my point is that this royal “hand on the tiller” that Wilson says the country so much needed can sometimes be rather too firm.
Wilson is right that medieval civil war, or medieval war of any kind, could be a disaster to the wider society in which it happened. A routine military method in those days was for a retreating army to wreck the countryside, burning crops and killing livestock, in order to deny these resources to an advancing enemy. That this was a death sentence to whoever lived in this devastated area may have troubled the people who inflicted such horrors, but not enough to stop them doing it whenever they were told to. Elsewhere in the book, Wilson mentions an episode of just this sort, in which the King of Scotland inflicted just this horrible fate upon great swathes of Scotland, when he was faced with an invading English army. Those medieval wars between England and Scotland were not quite the nationalist confrontations that Anglo-Scottish wars later became. They were battles between aristocratic dynasties, between “families”, in the Godfather movies sense. Civilian populations were more prizes to be contested, to be owned or failing that denied to an enemy, than the ideologically enthused participants in the contest, as they became later, for instance in the seventeenth century.
But, on the whole, England’s Wars of the Rose, as they later came to be called, were not like this. These “wars” tended to consist of relatively small armies having sometimes very bloody battles with one another, but not, on the whole, creating all that much havoc for nearby civilians, apart from the unlucky civilians whose crops or animals had been on the actual battlefield.
So, what of that mercantile class which, in Wilson’s word, “emerged” at the same time as all of this rather low level fighting? He makes it sound like an unrelated coincidence. But might there not be an element of cause and effect in operation here? Was not the very fact that all this commerce, all this development of the wool trade, was “beyond politics” perhaps one of the key things that enabled it to “emerge”?
For many people, the mere possibility that the dynastic fights of the fifteenth century might degenerate, even if only in their immediate vicinity, into something more like the English — or worse, the German — civil wars of later times, was probably enough to make them believe, as Wilson believes, that a firm hand on the tiller would be preferable to rival hands flailing at each other. But in the meantime, it surely must have helped farmers — often farmers way off the beaten tracks of the contending English armies in places like East Anglia, and merchants, and speculators, and seafarers, that the aristocrats who might have taken command of their “emerging” arrangements, who, had they been all on the same side, might have brought them into politics, and if not ruined them then at least slowed them down quite severely, instead had other things on their minds. Basically, each other. What I am suggesting is that, from the commercial point of view, the Wars of the Roses might have been quite good wars, complicated enough to divert the attentions of aristocrats away from their usual anti-commercial meddlings, yet not too widespread in their destructive effect. That the Wars of the Rose were, for some, very bad wars, I do not contest.