Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

I learnt this nursery rhyme as a child. Maybe you did too? I had no idea what it meant, just as I had no idea of who the heck Mother Hubbard was. The funny thing is that nobody else knows either. If the rhyme has any basis in reality it’s probably connected with the Duke of York, Prince Frederick, and his defeat by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in Flanders in 1794. Certainly it’s got nothing to do with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who contested King Henry VI’s right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, although this has at times been claimed.

Actually it doesn’t much matter which of the many Dukes of York, if any of them, provided the historical seeds of the rhyme. If we want to be more realistic we could write:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And they never came down again.

This is what nobles do. The Duke of This or the Baron of That, the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor, they called themselves warriors but actually they were just armed and heavily armoured thugs. If they weren’t leading their men up the hill to their death, they were leading them in the slaughter of the enemy. Sometimes in these battles the nobles died too. But in the middle-ages, in the so-called Age of Chivalry, while they expected the common soldiers, their ‘men’, to be slaughtered without mercy, they expected that if they themselves were facing defeat they would be able to ‘yield’, to be taken prisoner, to be treated honourably while awaiting the collection of a huge ransom paid for their release. The ransom money of course had to be ground out of their ever-suffering tenants and serfs back at home. That is what the common people were for. They only entered the nobles’ consciousness for two reasons: As a resource to be exploited and taxed to maintain their extravagant life-styles and to supply the soldiers to help them fight their never ending squabbles and wars.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

Since the development and agriculture and the rise of Civilization this has been so. In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine, strangely still so loved by the Americans (who without a moment’s thought would call him a ‘Commie’ if he were around today), and less strangely by the French, aptly called the Norman conquerors of England ‘armed banditti’. The ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’.

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights, on their huge war-horses, loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”, where it would remain for centuries.

In the fifteenth century there was a lord in Cumberland called Lancelot Threlkeld who was pretty honest about what the common English people were for.

The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

This Lancelot Threlkeld, who ‘stocked’ tenants ‘to go with him to the wars’, was the son of another Lancelot who had married Margaret Clifford, the widow of Sir John Clifford, known variously as ‘the Butcher’, ‘Bloody Clifford’ and ‘Black-faced Clifford’. In  Henry VI, Shakespeare has him killing Richard, the third Duke of York, and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses.  John Clifford was soon killed by the Yorkists on 28 March 1461 at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, on the eve of the Battle of Towton, a brutal affair which brought Edward IV (Richard of York’s son) to the throne. He left a son called Henry who went into hiding and lived as a ‘shepherd’ for 28 years. I wrote about Henry ‘the Shepherd lord’ recently.

It is some of these fifteenth-century goings-on that will be the subject of my next article. For now I’d like to end on a lighter note. Did you ever learn the mnemonic ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow? I was also once taught a rhyme to help remember this: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. The Richard here being the one Shakespeare has killed by John Clifford ‘the Butcher’ at Wakefield.

Rainbow- - ROYGBIV

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