Alexander R. Brondarbit, Soldier, Rebel, Traitor (Pen & Sword, 2022)
Soldier, Rebel, Traitor is the biography of John, Lord Wenlock, a somewhat peripheral, yet still controversial, member of the lesser baronage during the Wars of the Roses. What role Wenlock played in the twists and turns in that war and why, requires a nuanced approach rather than mere labelling as soldier, rebel, or traitor, according to medieval scholar Alexander Brondarbit, and he sets out to do just that, bringing together disparate sources to illuminate the life of this shadowy character.
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In keeping with traditional biographies, Brondarbit furnishes us with Wenlock’s background and upbringing before the young noble emerges into the light, beginning his military career from 1421. Wenlock served in the expedition to France that year and stayed until 1432 with only one break. In 1429, he inherited land, and on his return, sat for Parliament. That did not stop him from being involved in some internecine fighting, but Brondarbit notes that Wenlock’s star was certainly ascending in both wealth and influence. That led to his becoming a Royal courtier in Henry VI’s court. As England’s war effort faltered in France, Wenlock was appointed as one of the ambassadorial team sent to treat with France in the 1440s. He then became an usher in the chamber of the new queen, Margaret of Anjou. Brondarbit discerns a man of ability and political acumen as he follows Wenlock’s career in the 1440s; a man still on the rise, but his world was about to erupt.
At the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, a trusted courtier would surely back the House of Lancaster? Not so, Brondarbit records. Wenlock was with the king at St. Albans in 1455, but he was soon in the Yorkist camp and attainted for Treason in November 1459. Wenlock was an active participant in the Yorkist cause, conducting raids, expeditions, and other missions, and fighting in two major battles. He was a prominent member of the court of Edward IV after Towton and became a significant landowner. Though he was not in the top tier of Edward’s lieutenants, he wielded considerable influence. In return, Brondarbit argues, Wenlock was a tireless workhorse for Edward not least in the field of diplomacy. But Wenlock as a soldier also took part in the attempted reduction of the main Northumbrian castles in 1462. Nevertheless, when Warwick broke with Edward, Wenlock followed in 1470. He was thus on the wrong side because Warwick died at the Battle of Barnet. Wenlock was killed at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471; by his own ally, according to some, when he allegedly refused to attack – Brondarbit doubts this. Wenlock was undoubtedly a soldier and a rebel, but was he a turncoat? Brondarbit concludes by arguing that the evidence does not sustain that view in any meaningful way, particularly in light of his contemporaries and their actions.
This well-written biography provides a window into the complex world of the Wars of the Roses. Alexander Brondarbit clearly has a grasp of the period, and he fits Wenlock into it despite a lack of straightforward sources; that is quite an achievement. This is also a relatively slim volume, yet Brondarbit packs it with context and detail without losing sight of his subject. Even if you are not a student of the Wars of the Roses, you should still enjoy this biography; Wenlock was a complicated man living in turbulent times. For Wars of the Roses students, the bibliography alone is worth your investment, and the book is well worth reading for its insight into the politics of 15th Century England.