‘O ye soverens that sytt and ye brothern that stonde ryght uppe’ and ‘ffrom ye highest vnto ye lowest degree’: Performative Peacemaking in Cambridgeshire during the Wars of the Roses

In 1479 John Morton (c1410–1500), the Oxford-educated doctor of civil law, was installed as bishop of Ely. The 1470s marked a period of relative and long-absent peace in the realm, following twenty-four years of the civil war now known as the Wars of the Roses. The brief readeption of Henry VI in 1470–1 ended with the death of the Lancastrian king, and Edward IV returned to the throne for twelve years of unchallenged rule.

Included as an appendix to Cambridgeshire is a copy of the menu for Morton’s installation feast, found in an untitled incunabulum (STC: 782) published in Antwerp in 1503. Here, along with the dishes served, are other often-overlooked and obscure elements of medieval feasts: the menu includes descriptions of so-called ‘subtleties,’ models of animals, buildings, or other things, which are presented to the guests with an accompanying verse. The last stanza, introducing the sixth and final subtlety (the Cathedral Church of Ely, in brass), which welcomes the guests, refers to those ‘ffrom ye highest vnto ye lowest degree,’ and is especially interesting to me.

Service at the Installation of John Morton, Bishop of Ely (STC: 782; EEBO).

After the upheaval earlier in the decade it is perhaps surprising that Edward would support Morton as bishop. Morton had old ties to Lancastrian factions,and had acted as keeper of the privy seal under Henry VI. He was excluded from the general pardon of Lancastrians in 1461 and pardoned only in 1471, after a period of exile on the Continent. Soon after the pardon, nonetheless, Edward named Morton master of the rolls (1472–9), ambassador to France (1477) and, finally, bishop of Ely (1479). Royal support for Morton extended into the Tudor reign, with Henry VII seeing Morton’s elevation to archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and naming him lord chancellor in 1487.

Anne Brannen, who first presented a transcription and analysis of the menu, notes that the guest list ‘shows the same careful planning exhibited by other aspects of the feast,’ bringing together former adversaries.[1] The guests included both churchmen and nobles, as well as Yorkists such as Sir Thomas Howard (a member of the king’s household), Sir John Donne, and Sir Robert Chamberlain, but also Sir William Brandon, banner bearer to Henry VI, and John Fortescu, a Lancastrian pardoned with Morton. Further, the food choices provide three courses of both meat and fish dishes to respect the lay and ecclesiastical guests, but transition slowly from almost wholly meat (secular) to fish (spiritual). Similarly, six subtleties are presented, two for each course, reflecting a parallel transition. Brannen has already discussed this aspect of the feast, so I will note only the endpoints here: the first subtlety is a white lion, an emblem from Edward IV’s coat of arms, and the accompanying poem references ‘the habundant grace/ Of king Edward in al his actes wise.’ The sixth subtlety is the church itself, in brass, accompanied by a poem to welcome all of high and low degree therein, and enjuring them to yield to God. As Brannen notes, the feast — food, subtleties, poems, and even the guests — work together to produce a symbolic performance and enactment of ‘a well-knit society, well-governed and impervious to, though aware of the possibilities of, rebellion.’[2] The message enacted is this: turn away from the corrupting influence of the world, reject sin, seek reward through both secular and spiritual loyalty and steadfastness.

This was not the first time that public performance was used in East Anglia during the civil wars to present such a message. The Macro Manuscript (Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.354) contains two earlier examples of the same: Wisdom and Mankind. Both poems were copied by a monk — likely Thomas Hyngham of Bury St Edmunds, East Anglia’s other preeminent abbey and shrine — within a decade of each other: Wisdom in the early 1460s and Mankind in the early 1470s. Mankind’s transcription took place at a date close to its first performance, during Shrovetide in 1471 at either Bishop’s Lynn or Cambridge. Wisdom’s performance date and location have yet to be discovered, but the play was at least copied during the first decade of Edward IV’s rule. Gail McMurray Gibson has argued that ‘[t]here is little wonder that fifteenth-century texts seem obsessed with the wheel of fortune and the mutability of man—or that a play such as Wisdom would contrast the chaos and turbulence of worldly kingdoms with the serenity of the enthroned, contemplative Wisdom who is Christ.’[3]

Internal evidence suggests an audience that is likely wealthy, educated, and theologically-minded, for whom this play likely serves two functions. The first is to advise any Christian to turn away from the corrupting influence of the world, to reject new or presently ubiquitous forms of sin such as maintenance, and perennial sins such as lechery. The second, as John Marshall notes most explicitly, is to present to an East Anglian audience a series of symbols, carefully described in the stage and costume directions, that would bear special and particular reference to William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk.[4] William, acting in a number of administrative roles, supported Henry VI’s kingship while allowing a number of lawless retainers to trouble Suffolk. Finally, despite Henry’s efforts to protect him through banishment, he was executed in 1450. William’s son John, eight at the time of his father’s death, realigned his house with York in 1458 by marrying Edward IV’s sister Elizabeth. Although many of the heraldic images in Wisdom could be seen to apply to John as easily as his father, both John’s youth and some of the more specific critiques of maintenance and perjury apply more directly to William and his wife Alice, who retained a large degree of influence over John into the early 1460s. As such, Wisdom can be read as a play that is highly critical of maintenance and abuses of local authority under William, operating under the weak rule of Henry VI.

Wisdom, Washington DC, Folger MS V.a.354, f. 99r. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection 31516. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Mankind, Washington DC, Folger MS V.a.354, f. 122r. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection 31540. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The copying of Mankind in the same hand adds strength to this argument. Mankind was, as I have argued elsewhere in agreement with Marshall, very likely performed or composed in 1470–1, during the time of the Lancastrian readeption, which saw the dismissal of Yorkist sympathizers in East Anglia from positions of local authority.[5] Mankind lacks stage directions; lines 500–15, however, present the worldly vices (or worldlings) of New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought sent out either to trouble or avoid a number of real East Anglian individuals. The three individuals to be avoided are, notably, the only ones on the list that appear in records of appointments to local commissions during the first decade of Edward IV’s reign.

Likely performance spaces for these plays are difficult to determine. Since both seem to support Yorkist rule, the abbey at Bury St Edmunds might seem at first an unlikely option. During the administration of Abbot Curteys (1429–46), William de la Pole and his wife were admitted to the chapter fraternity of the abbey, alongside Henry VI. Curteys referred to Suffolk as his ‘grete lord.’ The abbey also enjoyed considerable royal favour under the early reign of Henry VI. As a boy of twelve, Henry spent a number of months in residence at the abbey, from Christmas to Easter 1433/4, and visited again in 1436, 1446, and 1448. John Lydgate, famous Bury resident, composed the Life of St Edmund specifically to honour Henry for his first visit.

The abbey’s Lancastrian sympathies may not, however, have lasted long after Edward’s rise to power. The years 1460 to 1462 were marked by the firm if not brutal elimination of Lancastrian supporters. both in court and in the provinces: 1462 alone saw the arrest of six and the execution of five Lancastrian leaders and long-time patrons of Bury. The abbot and the convent as a whole were charged with suspected treason. The one Lancastrian leader not executed, John Clopton, also a lay brother of the abbey, returned home and financed ‘the rebuilding of the spectacular parish church at Long Melford in which his stained glass portrait still survives — conspicuously decorated with Edward IV’s Yorkist white roses.’[6] Similarly, in a later manuscript of Lydgate’s Life of St Edmund the references to Henry’s 1433/4 visit are removed. It is not then unreasonable to assume that a public performance critical of a weak king with lawless favourites might suit a new Yorkist leaning within the abbey. It is in this context that Gibson suggests Edward IV’s 1469 visitation to the abbey as a potential performance date.

Wisdom and Mankind might seem two very different sorts of plays, performed by different casts, and presumably presented to very different audiences. While the arguments for Mankind’s creation as a travelling play are feasible in consideration of its small cast size and apparent (but likely tongue-in-cheek) request for payment, the Latinate humour and Latin quotations may also gesture to an educated audience such as Bury might have. This position, however, is highly conjectural; equally strong arguments support a Cambridgeshire performance, for which there are no records.

The two plays are nonetheless still linked together in their shared political themes. That both plays are at the least closely affiliated with Bury St Edmunds presents us with a number of intriguing hypotheses. The Abbey at Bury St Edmunds was, despite its long institutional memory, nonetheless sensitive to contemporary political demands. Shown a large degree of royal favour under Henry VI and closely allied with William de la Pole through the 1430s and 1440s, it underwent hasty but profound political realignment in the first decade of Yorkist rule, and seemed most importantly to maintain that loyalty during the readeption. The reasons for this realignment can of course be attributed to Edward’s rigorous rooting out of Lancastrian sympathizers in East Anglia, but may also have been an effect of Edward’s favour shown to those who accepted the new way of things.

It is then all the more interesting and perhaps compelling to look at Morton’s installation feast in a larger East Anglian context. A region marked by a wealthy and well-educated gentry and long-standing powerful institutions such as Bury St Edmunds, the bishopric of Ely, and the university, offers a population ready to engage with and critique such political issues and their theological implications. We see in all three performance documents a manifest resistance to instability of the Wars of the Roses, a direct, active, political, and spiritual response to the precarity and vexations of the time, perhaps motivated by a lingering fear that such upheavals might come again.

Header: Wisdom, Washington DC, Folger MS V.a.354, f. 99r. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection 31516. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

[1] Anne Brannen, ‘Intricate Subtleties: Entertainment at Bishop Morton’s Installation Feast,’ REED Newsletter 22.2 (1997), 5. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/reed/article/view/10000.

[2] Brannen, ‘Intricate Subtleties,’ p 3.

[3] Gail McMurray Gibson, ‘The Play of “Wisdom” and the Abbey of St. Edmund,’ Comparative Drama 19.2 (Summer 1985), 131.

[4] John Marshall, ‘”Fortune in the Worldys Worschyppe”: The Satirising of the Suffolks in Wisdom,’ Medieval English Theatre 14 (1992), 37–66.

[5] John A. Geck, ‘”On Yestern Day, in Feverere, the Yere Passeth Fully”: On the Dating and Prosopography of Mankind,’ Early Theatre 12.2 (2009), 33–56, https://earlytheatre.org/earlytheatre/article/view/816/879; John Marshall, ‘”O ye Souerens that Sytt and ye Brothern that stonde ryght wppe”: Addressing the Audience of Mankind,’ European Medieval Drama 1 (1997), 105–119.

[6] Gibson, ‘Play of “Wisdom”,’ p 129.