War and State Formation in England and the Netherlands, 1477–1559

One of the most significant developments in the work of the Faculty and its members in recent years has been the establishment of major research projects that have earned significant external funding. One such project nearing completion is that run by Steven Gunn.

Historians have long been interested in the role of war in the development of modern states. Is it true that, as Charles Tilly crisply put it, ‘war made the state, and the state made war’? Or were other forces – the demand for justice, the representation of class interests, the development of ideologies – more important in shaping states of the dominant twentieth-century western form? Historical sociologists and macro-historians have devised models to answer these questions, but the models contradict one another or fail to satisfy those who study particular polities at particular periods in detail through archival research. They in turn have produced distinguished studies of the effects of war in building up or breaking down political and administrative systems, but these works are often hard to compare with one another to elucidate general themes. When it comes to the period from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, widely seen as one of crucial changes in the ambitions and powers of European states, the model-builders have spent much effort debating why the pressures of war led to different constitutional outcomes in different societies. The archival historians have meanwhile directed their energy into the ‘military revolution debate’, investigating the relationship between changes in military technology and tactics and the balance of power within and between states in Europe and the wider world.

Neither group has investigated in a wholly satisfactory way the processes by which war shaped the state. Graphs can be drawn of rising tax revenues and expanding armies and navies, but these are the evidence that states have grown more powerful rather than an explanation of how they did so. An exploration of the effects of war and preparation for war on state development is therefore the object of the research project I have been directing for the past three years, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board to pay the salaries of two post-doctoral researchers, one based in Oxford and the other in Leiden. One three-year research project involving three scholars is hardly likely to solve all the problems outlined above. Scores of historians have spent a decade or more investigating ‘The origins of the modern state in Europe, 13th–18th centuries’ under the aegis of the European Science Foundation, and the historical community is only just starting to digest their rather variegated conclusions. What our project does offer is the prospect of testing some of the models against two closely aligned case studies based in detailed archival research.

The period chosen – over eighty years, from the death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in 1477 to the general peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 – is sizeable enough to detect long-term processes, but short enough to command a fair understanding of detailed events. The polities we are studying were similar in scale and closely inter-linked – in 1554–8 they even shared the same monarchs, Philip and Mary – yet were very different in structure. England was amongst the oldest and most centralised states in Europe, yet groping uncertainly for military and political control of Ireland. As late as the 1540s, the Netherlands was still adding provinces to the core constructed by the Valois dukes of Burgundy, strong in traditions of provincial and urban autonomy while adjusting to its role in a multi-national Habsburg monarchy. Both fought frequent wars against France, wars of ever greater scale and cost. Each also was regularly drawn into war against Scotland, the Gaelic Irish or the duchy of Guelders. Yet the historiography of both polities during this period has been dominated by issues of religion, politics and administration. The time therefore seemed ripe to study how the rulers of each polity tackled their comparable but different problems in mobilising society for war and what effects their efforts had.

To make effective comparison, we have given our investigations a tight structure, refined in quarterly meetings in a flat in Holywell Street kindly made available by Merton College. We have concentrated on three main themes, breaking each down into twenty or more sub-themes, so that when we write about any development in England – say, the opportunities provided to seaports and nobles by privateering – we can know there will be something in the Netherlands with which we can directly compare it.

Our first theme is the relationship between towns and the state. In our first year of archival research, we examined eighteen towns spread through England and the Netherlands: large towns and small towns, royal towns and seigneurial towns, North and South, inland and on the borders. We sought to investigate the processes of communication and negotiation between central government and urban authorities; the practical demands of war and how they were met; and the effects of engagement in war on the powers and political structure of civic government. In the second year of the project, we examined the effects of war on the social and political position of the nobility. We concentrated on two families in each polity, one from the North, one from the South: the Percy earls of Northumberland and Howard dukes of Norfolk in England, the Egmont counts of Buren and Croy counts of Roeulx in the Netherlands. These were men active in central and regional politics and also prominent in raising and commanding troops over several generations. We are comparing the role of military activity in these nobles’ status, in the construction and maintenance of their clientage systems, in their wealth and their influence in royal counsels and provincial affairs.

Our third theme is the role of war in shaping relationships between subjects and rulers more generally. Did the pressures of war alienate subjects from their rulers, or did war draw people together in loyalty to their heroic prince? Did war foster national sentiment or more regional loyalties, and did the use of foreign troops in the Netherlands make Netherlanders feel they lived in a well-defended part of a multi-national monarchy or a country under occupation by Germans and Spaniards? What was the relationship between the Reformation – imposed in England, repressed in the Netherlands – and the burdens of war? These are hard questions to answer, but by deploying a wide range of evidence, from news pamphlets, plays and government tracts through town chronicles and private letters to sedition trials and the inscriptions on fortifications, we hope that we have made some headway.

What have we found? We are still writing up our findings for publication as a book, so it would be premature to be too firm in conclusions at this stage. One thing that has struck us is the wide variation not only between England and the Netherlands but also within each. Thus English towns were all expected to send companies of their inhabitants to fight for the king, whereas military obligations in the Netherlands were less standardised, though – contrary to what we expected to find – towns there did quite often raise similar companies. On detailed investigation, it appears that York regularly sent a much higher proportion of its menfolk than did Norwich or Exeter, while ’s-Hertogenbosch sent proportionally far more than Antwerp, and Leiden apparently sent none at all.

Similarly, Netherlands noblemen were more integrated into a standing military establishment funded by taxation – a ‘modern’ institution – than were English noblemen. Yet the private clientage networks of the Netherlands aristocrats penetrated that establishment more comprehensively than, at the end of the period, the local ‘bastard feudal’ influence of English noblemen weighed in English armies. Again, there is variation within this general contrast. The role of the landed estates and personal following of the Percies in the king’s wars lasted longer than that of the Howards. Victories and peace treaties were widely celebrated on both sides of the North Sea, but the English tended to celebrate victories with greater enthusiasm, while Netherlanders partied for peace. Even here, though, there was variety. Trade-loving Bristol spent more celebrating peace than war. Plays from Bruges, even when written for victory celebrations, spend much of their time lamenting the ill effects of war, but poems from Mons revel in hammering the French. 

We can certainly demonstrate that the processes by which war shaped these states were neither simple nor uniform. Yet some strands of the models do seem to be confirmed by our findings. To take one example: geopolitical arguments suggest that war’s effects are dependent on where it takes place and whether it can be avoided, given the attitudes and capabilities of neighbouring powers. They fit sea-girt England’s apparent ability to limit its wartime commitments better than the Netherlands. But they also fit well the contrast in the 1540s and 1550s between the southern Netherlands, ravaged both by the French and by uncontrolled Spanish and German soldiers, and the northern provinces, where the burghers of Holland were profiting from lending money to an impoverished government and the nobles of Groningen, Drenthe and Overijssel were benefiting from raising and leading troops. We shall not end by proving any particular model right or wrong, or formulating any grand new general theory. But we hope that we shall have given historians of England and the Low Countries a new way to look at their development in this important period, and historians of war and the state new evidence, new arguments, and a new breadth of vision with which to continue their debates.

Steven Gunn


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