Peerage

   The peerage or titled nobility of England was more heavily involved in the WARS OF THE ROSES than any other contemporary social group.
   The lay peers of England and WALES were landholders characterized by their hereditary titles of nobility and their hereditary right to be summoned personally to PARLIAMENT by the monarch.With the bishops and the abbots of important monastic houses, the peers comprised the House of Lords. In descending order of rank, the five titles of nobility were duke, marquis, earl, viscount, and baron. At the start of the civil war in 1459, England had about sixty-eight titled nobles; by 1500, that number declined to about fifty, but only partially as a result of wartime CASUALTIES. Before the Battle of ST. ALBANS in 1455, the higher peerage consisted of six dukes and twelve earls. Although most of these peers were loyal to HENRY VI before 1461, many submitted afterward to EDWARD IV, who, unlike his Tudor successor HENRY VII, created a large number of new peers. After the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD in 1485, the higher peerage, thanks to the Yorkist creations, comprised three dukes, one marquis, and sixteen earls, although only two families—the Fitzalan earls of Arundel and the Neville earls of Westmorland—had taken little part in the conflict and had consequently suffered no deaths or loss of property because of the Wars of the Roses.
   Because of their political leadership and social dominance, the peerage could not remain neutral in any struggle for control of the government or the Crown. Because the noble families of England controlled the military resources of the realm (see Bastard Feudalism), almost every magnate family was compelled to commit itself to one side or the other at some time during the conflict. The rewards of being on the winning side could be substantial—lands, offices, and local and national influence; however, the penalties for losing could be equally harsh—execution for the head of the family and disinheritance through ATTAINDER for heirs. Some families suffered severely. No less than three Courtenay earls of Devon, three Beaufort dukes of Somerset, and two Percy earls of Northumberland were executed or slain in battle during the Wars of the Roses. The war also extinguished the male lines of the houses of LANCASTER and YORK, the male line of the BEAUFORT FAMILY, and most of the male descendants of the NEVILLE FAMILY, thereby transmitting the wealth and influence of all four to Henry VII, an inheritance that greatly strengthened the position of the house of TUDOR. Nonetheless, as modern research has shown, the rate of extinction of noble families during the civil war generations was no higher than it had been through the natural failure of heirs in previous generations. This outcome was in part because many nobles submitted to Edward IV after the Battle of TOWTON in 1461 and especially after the Battles of BARNET and TEWKESBURY in 1471; the wastage of war was relatively brief and contained. Edward often extended favor to even his most ardent opponents, and many Lancastrians of the 1460s became loyal Yorkists in the 1470s. Almost two-thirds of the 397 acts of attainder passed in the last half of the fifteenth century were eventually reversed. Also, some peers, such as Thomas STANLEY, Lord Stanley, exercised a vital regional influence that allowed them to never become more than marginally committed to either side.
   During the war, peers participated in the fighting for various reasons. Bitter local feuds, such as the NEVILLE-PERCY FEUD in the north, drove rival families to join opposite sides in the civil war. For instance, the Percy family’s association with the court of Henry VI disposed the Nevilles to align with Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York. Once the fighting began, vengeance also became a strong motivator; all the sons of the noblemen killed by the Yorkists at the Battle of St. Albans in 1455, such as John CLIFFORD, Lord Clifford, became unshakable Lancastrians. Many families were drawn into war by ties of kinship and marriage, joining the Yorkists, for example, because they were relatives or longtime allies of the Nevilles, or the Lancastrians because they were closely tied to the Beauforts. In the early stages of the war, many peers participated out of personal loyalty to Henry VI or to York; almost 80 percent of the peerage participated in the Towton campaign in 1461. No later battle was as large or as bloody. By 1485, peerage participation dropped sharply. Thirty years of intermittent strife, during which almost every family had suffered some loss, encouraged most peers to adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward RICHARD III and Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond.
   See also Commons and the Wars of the Roses; Gentry; entries under Beaufort, Courtenay, and Percy
   Further Reading: McFarlane, K. B., The Nobility of Later Medieval England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973); Pugh,T. B.,“The Magnates, Knights and Gentry,” in S. B. Chrimes,C.D. Ross, and Ralph A. Griffiths, eds., Fifteenth-Century England 1399-1509, 2d ed. (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton, 1995), pp. 86–128; Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987);Woolgar,C. M., The Great Household in Late Medieval England (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1999).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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