After the Rivalry

Yesterday Gordon Brown became the first PhD-qualified historian to become Prime Minister of the UK. Thus he can hardly be ignorant of the maxim that 'those who ignore the lessons of the past are bound to repeat them'. It is certainly worth him reflecting on the events of 1399. The reason is to do with rivalry - or, rather, the danger to the seemingly all-powerful victor after the rivalry is over.

The year 1399 saw the culmination of a bitter rivalry between two political heavyweights. In one corner was the legitimate king, Richard II. In the other was his ‘clunking fist’ of a cousin – a serious man, a crusader and an intellectual – Henry of Lancaster. In April, Richard, having already exiled Henry, confiscated his lands and titles and declared him a traitor. Henry returned to England with an agenda of reform, and swept all before him, including Richard, claiming the throne in an uncontested election and becoming Henry IV.

The interest in the comparison between the events of 1399 and 2007 has nothing to do with the rivalry itself but what happens next. In any case we cannot sensibly compare Blair and Brown with Richard II and Henry IV for the simple fact that Blair was both popular and hugely successful whereas Richard was neither. But Henry, having made himself king, found himself in a predicament.

His first problem was that his appeal had largely been defined by that rivalry with Richard. The massive popular support he had received in 1399 was a result of distrust of the old king, not his own inherent popularity. True, some lords saw in him a man who would govern in their interests. But take Richard out of the equation and the majority of people suspected they now had a king who governed in his own interests or the interests of those few.

Henry’s second problem was that people expected him to be a conciliatory king, to work with parliament and to reverse the autocratic style of his predecessor (much as Brown is promising). People looked to him to rule with the advice of ‘the great men’ of the realm even though it was more in his nature to trust his own judgements (like Brown). He was a conscientious, very hard-working man (again, similar). He was a strong leader, could turn on the charm when forced to do so, and was instinctively and fervently loyal to those whom he trusted. But all these qualities were not enough. The simple fact was that, having ousted his rival, the man with the mandate, he was vulnerable.

It was not that Henry had no mandate, rather that his mandate was fragile. If he did anything wrong – anything at all – his political opponents could start to pick at it, they could question his legitimacy. When the money dried up, Henry got the blame. When the war with Scotland went badly wrong, again, it was Henry who got the blame. When the French attacked the south coast, and when Wales broke out in revolt under Owen Glendower – using destructive methods which, as far as the English were concerned, were nothing short of terrorism – it was again Henry who got the blame. Shouldering so many responsibilities without an unquestionable right to rule meant he had no political capital to fall back on when things went wrong. That fragile mandate blighted his reign.

When it became clear that political successes were not naturally going to follow from the new leader, large swathes of the country turned against him. They had chosen him, they could get rid of him. Henry faced several rebellions, a civil war, several death threats, and rather too many actual attempts on his life. To add to his problems, he did not have the charisma of a great leader, and so found it hard to galvanise his lords into a unity of purpose. There were calls for his predecessor to come back (even though Richard was by this stage dead). He became the less desirable of the two rivals, the sins of his predecessor being quickly forgotten. Compare all that to the current political situation, and you have to admit that Gordon Brown should look at 27 June as being the start of his testing, not the end of it.

But Brown should take heart. Henry IV survived. Moreover, he survived magnificently. He saw off every rebellion, every assassination attempt and ultimately every questioning of his authority. Along the way he learned to work with parliament and the great men of the realm. He changed the country by changing himself. It was not the most glorious reign ever, but it was one of the most effective stabilisations and rift-healing reigns of them all. And successes did eventually come. When Henry died in 1413, the king of Scotland was his prisoner, he had neutralised the rebellion of Owen Glendower, a royal army was rampaging through France, the national finances were back on track, and parliament had come to acknowledge his personal leadership without demur.

What was the key to that political success? Complete and utter dedication to the tasks in hand, a conscientiousness that was clear to all, a spiritual strength and conviction that allowed him to take the greatest risks – including leading the charge at the battle of Shrewsbury – and a determination to deal personally with all those who questioned his authority. Two factors were particularly important: his adaptability and his ability to inspire the support of the most politically astute men of the realm. He did not take the easy way out; he did not abandon Wales or Ireland to the local insurgencies but defeated them despite the crippling costs. Faced with a political crisis he did not throw in the towel or resort to tyrannical methods (as Richard had done) but worked his way around them. In the end there was very little he could possibly have achieved which he did not achieve.

It is a long time ago, but resolution, commitment, adaptability and the ability to inspire others still count.

Ian Mortimer
28 June 2007



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