Bothwell, James. Falling from Grace: Reversal of Fortune and the English Nobility, 1075-1455.

Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Here I go again, reading and reviewing a relatively obscure work of serious history by an author most of you have never heard of. But I can’t help it – it’s fascinating stuff! (Really.)

The notion of the “wheel of fortune” as a mediating force in the affairs of men dates to the Roman Republic or earlier, but it was especially popular in Europe in the 12th to 14th centuries. Individuals farther down the ladder could prosper and rise in society, but those closer to the top might also stumble and slide down through the ranks. In other words, medieval society wasn’t fossilized, as if often assumed, though all men were subject to the whims of fortune.Cheering on celebrity-toppling scandals is still a popular pastime — the farther the fall, the more entertaining it is. Schadenfreude comes naturally.

The bestowal of “nobility” itself was often seen as a gift of fortune, which meant that no one was safe. In England, beginning with the Conquest, royal favor was essential to acquiring real prosperity, and that’s always a chancy thing. Royal disfavor could destroy the most highly-placed aristocrat. This system of chance-based rise and fall of individuals and families reached its peak under the Tudors, who at least were generally competent at governing. After the failure of the Stewarts, and then the Commonwealth and the Glorious Revolution, the process became much more subtle, with success or failure of the nobility being spread over a much wider base of political decision-making.

Bothwell is concerned with that earlier period, from William I through the Plantagenets, and with how those who fell from favor dealt with their changed circumstances, especially since giving sufficient annoyance to the king inevitably meant losing popularity with the rest of the upper class, and with the general populace. If you were out of favor, you were really out.

What did being out of favor entail? One certainly would be banished from the court, perhaps allowed to retreat to a far estate and keep one’s head down pending future developments (assuming those estates weren’t forfeit to the Crown), or one could be exiled from the entire country. But changes in circumstances, or in policy, or the death of the monarch, or of one’s more powerful aristocratic enemies, could bring redemption and restoration to grace.

The author examines a variety of cases during the nearly four centuries of his focus, from Simon de Montfort, Piers Gaveston, and several dukes of Norfolk, to Earl Waltheof, Robert de Vere, and Lady Oxford. Some kings, like the inadequate John and the weak Henry III, were constantly shuffling through their high-ranking retainers, advancing one while arresting and possibly executing another. (And if you had been really thoughtless in your dealings with the king, your body would be mutilated as well.)

Each account is packed with detail, all of it with citations to both primary and secondary sources, and an extensive bibliography will lead the reader to further research. An excellent piece of political and social history and interpretation.

Published in: on 16 November 2015 at 4:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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