Book review. Political Elites in South-West England, 1450-1500

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Author(s): Jackson. Andrew J. H.; Year published: 2010; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 421–422
Topic(s): history; Location(s): 

R. E. Stansfield, Political Elites in South-West England, 1450-1500: Politics, Governance, and the Wars of the Roses (Edwin Mellen Press Ltd., Lampeter, 2009), 550 pages. Clothback. ISBN 9780773447141. £84. 95.

The county of Devon has a long history. As a political entity its power and authority have not been constants however. Devon’s administrative boundaries have altered as certain parishes have passed into the hands of neighbouring counties, or as particular urban areas have secured unitary status. Also national directives have periodically altered the relative levels of power and authority invested in the county, in its parishes, in a wider south-western region, and at the centre. In episodes in history circumstances have given rise to the emergence of a sphere of dominion greater than that of the county, the intention being the drawing together of south-westerly counties into a single political arena of significance. This scholarly account by Robert E. Stansfield [now Stansfield-Cudworth] explores one such episode, in the late-medieval period.

Stansfield traces the origins of the domestic security associated with the Tudor dynasty back to the middling to later fifteenth century. Political instability, with the War of the Roses featuring large, brought attempts by some monarchs to strengthen the crown by forming a tier of governance between the monarch and the regional peerage. The new layer would comprise a small number of extensive regions, one being of the four counties of the south-west: Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Stansfield is of the view that the political history of the late medieval south-west has not enjoyed the depth and breadth of analysis enjoyed by other parts of Britain. He goes on to consider the degree to which the south-western counties were integrated in the 1400s, politically, economically, socially and culturally. The study then explores the various mechanisms through which cross-county government, administration and influence would develop, for example: landholding, royal household membership, tenure of public office, and marriage.

The fortunes of the new greater regions depended to a large extent on how well they aligned with existing political geographies. Stansfield identifies the strength of established meso-level, socio-political pairings in the south-west: of Cornwall with Devon, and Somerset with Dorset. The development of the south-western arena of power and authority in some ways appropriated and in others ways was undermined by this existing configuration. In certain respects Devon would conform the least to regional government building because of the limited extent of crown land in the county. This book is about national and wider regional political life, but there is a great deal for historians interested in the social structure and government of the county of Devon in the period. Stansfield considers how Devon’s political identity was defined by its relationships with neighbouring counties and the crown. Activities of monarchs and regional governors are studied, as are those of the county peerage and the greater and lesser gentry. The significance of the Courtenays and Bonvilles, for example, receives detailed treatment, as does that of the Edgcumbes on the Cornwall-Devon border.

Stansfield is open about the difficulties of researching county political identity in this period, not least because of the nature and quality of the primary source material. However, the study is a rewarding one, offering a fascinating and very readable account of a very complex phase in the development of Devon and south-western politics. The book demonstrates the worth and necessity of conducting local and regional historical analysis, and it is to be commended for this.

Andrew J. H. Jackson
(First published in Transactions 2010)