Propaganda in the Edward IV Roll: If the kings of the fifteenth century could be said to have one thing in common, it might be the questionable right each had to hold the throne, and a more or less regular series of challenges to the legitimacy of their reigns. England's common people were increasingly interested in political events, keenly aware of their grievances, volatile and responsive to calls to action from the gentry and nobility they served, and credulous to the point of gullibility where rumors were concerned. As a result, insurrections rode on a current of seditious, exaggerated, or frankly fabricated reports, and the royal establishment worked to cut off those rumors at their source by the use of propaganda.
Edward IV's campaign for the throne was accompanied by a concerted propaganda effort that included political songs and poems, newsletters, "bills" or broadsheets hung up in public places pleading the Yorkist cause, the blessing of a Papal legate, sermons in public places, and a wide range of symbolic gestures to demonstrate the legitimacy of Edward's kingship.
Edward himself was
quick to seize on symbols to demonstrate divine approval of his cause:
a vision of three suns in the sky before the battle of Mortimer's Cross,
for example, quickly became, first, the blessing of the Holy Trinity
and, later, divine confirmation that Edward should claim the three
crowns of England, France and Spain. A vision and a victory so close
to Edward's seat of Wigmore, ancestral home of the Mortimers, from
whom Edward derived not only the claim to the throne of England but
also the rich heritage of Brutus, Arthur and Cadwallader, would have
had an almost miraculous symbolism to a fifteenth-century audience,
and the Yorkists were happy to capitalize on this fortunate conjunction
of tradition and contemporary events.
propaganda technique used by the Yorkist was the genealogy
demonstrating Edward's descent from the ancient lines of England,
France and Wales, and the superiority of his claims to those
of Henry VI. Many of these genealogical rolls still survive
and show some evidence of an early form of assembly-line production,
demonstrating how broadly they were distributed among the nobility
and the gentry. Their purpose is to reinforce the legitimacy
of Edward IV's kingship through his ancestry, through his prowess
as a warrior, and through divine approbation, and their audience
appears to have been the nobility and gentry whose opinions
could influence and shape "public opinion."
of the pedigree to further these aims is not original with
the Yorkists. During the 1440s, when it was obvious that the
Lancastrian dynasty was faltering, a number of genealogies
were created to demonstrate the superiority of the Lancastrian
claim to the throne. One surviving example goes so far as to
omit Edward III's second son Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence,
entirely in an apparent attempt to forestall any claims to
inheritance of the throne by descent from an older son of Edward
III -- since the Lancastrians claimed descent from third son
John of Gaunt.
unique to the Yorkists, however, is the degree to which they
made effective use of imagery to reinforce their claims. In
this manuscript, its creators have combined heroic portraiture,
quotations from the Vulgate that stress divinely-assisted triumph
over enemies and genealogical diagramming that highlights the
Yorkist line's ties to a rich legacy of British legend that
far surpasses the Lancastrian -- as well as genealogical superiority
from the more recent past.
reading on propaganda and genealogies in the fifteenth century,
Allan, "Yorkist Propaganda: Pedigree, prophecy and the
'British History' in the Reign of Edward IV," in Charles
Ross (ed.), Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval
England (Alan Sutton/Rowman & Littlefield, 1979).
Ross, "Rumour, Propaganda, and Popular Opinion," in
Ralph A. Griffiths (ed.), Patronage, the Crown, and the
Provinces in Later Medieval England (Alan Sutton, 1981).
- V. J.
Scattergood, Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century. (Barnes & Noble,