Looking back at the startling events in Australian politics over the past week, Dr Hannes Kleineke compares the divisions in the ruling Labor party with those currently dramatised by the BBC in ‘The White Queen’ during the Wars of the Roses…
Anyone watching last week’s high drama in the Australian Parliament, which saw Prime Minister Julia Gillard ousted in a palace coup by Kevin Rudd, the man whom she had herself removed from power by similar means in 2010, might be forgiven for wondering whether one Australian law-maker or another had not taken rather too much inspiration from watching the BBC’s The White Queen.
Certainly, some of the scenes witnessed at Parliament House in Canberra over recent months and years vividly evoke what happened at Westminster some 550 years ago, in the 1460s.
Following the failure of a last-ditch attempt at reconciling rival political factions in the spring of 1458, over the following two years England descended into an open civil war which culminated in the battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460. Here, the victorious supporters of the principal opponent of the court party, Richard, duke of York, were able to seize King Henry VI. They took the monarch back to Westminster, and summoned a parliament, which assembled on 7 October. A few days later, the duke of York himself deigned to arrive, and in a dramatic scene played out before the shocked House of Lords laid claim to the throne.
Before long, he discovered that there was as yet no appetite for a change of leader. After several weeks of deliberations, Parliament concocted a compromise, under which Henry VI would remain King for term of his natural life, and be succeeded by York and his heirs. It took just weeks for this settlement to break down, as Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, had no intention of seeing her son disinherited in this fashion. After a fresh series of battles which claimed the life, among others, of York himself, on 4 March 1461 the duke’s eldest son, Edward, earl of March, was proclaimed King Edward IV. In November Parliament formally recognised his title, and set its seal on Henry VI’s deposition. By 1465, the deposed King himself had for a second time fallen into Edward IV’s hands, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
If Edward IV was now ostensibly secure on his throne, he had reckoned without some of his own closest allies. In particular, his cousin, Richard Neville, the ‘Kingmaker’ earl of Warwick, who from the start of the reign had been allowed a dominant role in government, looked aghast at the increasing signs that the King was developing a mind of his own. In the summer of 1469, he decided to put a stop to this. Popular protests staged in various parts of the country with Warwick’s tacit collusion allowed the earl to arrest and summarily execute a number of Edward’s friends and confidants, and at the end of July he took the monarch himself into custody. Warwick’s ultimate plans remain unclear. In the first place, he proceeded to rule in the captive King’s name, but he also summoned Parliament to meet at York in the early autumn, just possibly with a view to replacing Edward as King with his younger brother George, duke of Clarence.
In the event, this Parliament never met, as King Edward used a hunting trip to slip from Warwick’s grasp and return to London a free agent once more. Now, however, he became guilty of a time-honoured political mistake, a failure to deal decisively with his opponents, now out in the open. This allowed Warwick and his allies to regroup, and just a year later Edward IV found himself forced to flee England for the Netherlands with just a small group of companions, while Warwick triumphantly placed Henry VI on the throne once more. In November, Parliament met at Westminster and proceeded to repeal the constitutional settlement reached less than ten years earlier.
The country, however, remained deeply divided, and it was this that allowed Edward IV to seize his moment in the spring of 1471, invade England, and recover his throne. This time, there were to be no mistakes. Warwick met his end in battle at Barnet on 14 April, and many of his and Henry VI’s supporters were either killed there or at the subsequent engagement at Tewkesbury on 4 May. Others were subsequently executed. Henry VI himself died in obscure circumstances in the Tower of London on the day of Edward’s return to his capital. So complete was the King’s victory that there was not even any need to have his rule sanctioned again by Parliament: the proceedings of the Lords and Commons who had left Westminster in some disarray in mid February were summarily declared void, and their records were ordered to be destroyed. Having defeated his internal enemies, Edward IV went on to rule for a further 12 years.
While to paint Bill Shorten as a latter-day ‘Kingmaker’ would take the historical parallels too far, it may be at least instructive to recall that after a further bout of internecine bloodletting Edward IV’s dynasty was permanently removed from power by its old political opponents on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485.