The Last of the Barons

by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1683

First published: 1843

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1467-1471

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Earl of Warwick, the kingmaker

Isabella, his older daughter

Anne, his younger daughter

Katherine de Bonville, his sister

Edward IV, King of England

William de Hastings, a royal chamberlain

Adam Warner, an alchemist

Sibyll, his daughter

Nicholas Alwyn, a goldsmith

Marmaduke Nevile, a kinsman of the Earl of Warwick

The Story:

Just outside London, a crowd had gathered to watch an archery contest. Several shot at the white cloth on the butt, but no one hit the mark squarely. Then in a haughty and preoccupied way a commoner stepped up, fitted his arrow, and pierced the center of the white field. While his fellow tradesmen applauded, he dropped back into the crowd.

A young noble, who was not entered in the contest, borrowed a bow. With sure aim, he hit fairly the little peg that secured the cloth to the butt. He gallantly returned the bow and strode away. As he was leaving, the commoner who had hit the cloth stopped him. Their instant recognition was mutual, and they began to talk delightedly of past times.

The commoner was Nicholas Alwyn, a goldsmith who had been the younger son of a good family. He had rejected the monk’s habit, the usual lot of younger sons, and had chosen to go into trade. He was shrewd enough to see that the future greatness of England lay in the prosperous middle class and that the day of feudal nobility was nearly over. He had taken part in the tournament simply to advertise his profession, not through love of decadent sport. The young noble, who was his foster brother, was Marmaduke Nevile. He had come from his northern estate to seek service with his kinsman, the powerful Earl of Warwick, who was known as the kingmaker.

On Alwyn’s advice, Marmaduke approached Lord Montagu, the Earl of Warwick’s brother, and made known his errand. The nobleman repulsed Marmaduke in full view of his retinue, for Marmaduke’s father had fought on the side of Lancaster in the recent wars, and the Warwicks had successfully supported the Yorkists.

Feeling abashed, Marmaduke accompanied Alwyn into the city. Alwyn advised him to go to see the Earl in person, and Marmaduke resolved to do so the next day.

On the road to his inn, he met a gentle girl surrounded by a screaming mob of women who earned their living by dancing and playing timbrels for fair crowds. Accusing the girl of trying to earn money by playing her gittern at the tournament, they would have harmed her if Marmaduke had not come to her rescue. He escorted the frightened girl away, but through faintheartedness he did not take her all the way home. As soon as he left her, the women set upon her again. She was rescued by an older man, a true knight who escorted her to her ruined dwelling.

It was dusk when Marmaduke left the city. Shortly afterward, he was attacked by a band of robbers who slashed him severely and left him to die. He managed to make his way to a nearby house, and there he was cared for by the girl whom he had deserted a short time before. She was Sibyll Warner, daughter of Adam Warner, a philosopher and alchemist who spent all of his time in his laboratory. After years of labor, he had nearly completed a crude model of a small steam engine. In those superstitious days, Adam was accounted a sorcerer and his daughter was suspected of witchcraft.

During his convalescence, Marmaduke was greatly attracted to Sibyll, but her superior learning was a barrier between them. Alwyn, who came to the house many times, also fell in love with the girl; but Sibyll always thought of the great knight who had brought her to her door.

When Marmaduke was well and able to leave the house, he at once sought an audience with the mighty Earl of Warwick. Warwick welcomed him and made him a courtier. There he met Isabelle, Warwick’s haughty older daughter, and Anne, her gentle young sister.

Warwick was preparing to go to France on a mission to the court of Louis XI. On Warwick’s advice, King Edward IV had agreed to marry his sister Margaret to one of the French princes. During Warwick’s absence, Marmaduke served in the king’s household.

As soon as Warwick had left the country, Edward’s wife and all her kinsmen of the Woodville family began to work on the king’s pride. The Woodvilles were intensely jealous of Warwick and encouraged the king to defy the kingmaker’s power. They proposed that Edward hastily affiance his sister to the Duke of Burgundy. Persuaded by his wife, Edward at once invited the illegitimate brother of the Burgundian ruler to England and concluded the alliance.

Hurrying back when he heard the news, Warwick felt keenly the slight to his honor. When he found Edward at a hunting party, he immediately demanded Edward’s reasons for his step. Edward was frightened, but he assumed an air of confidence and declared that he had followed what seemed the best policy of diplomacy. Although he was mortified, Warwick magnanimously forgave the king and withdrew. His many followers sought him out and offered to rebel, but Warwick withdrew entirely from the court and went into seclusion on his own estate.

Meanwhile, Adam Warner had been brought to the court as alchemist to the Duchess of Bedford. Sibyll fitted in well with court life, and Lord Hastings became attached to her. In time, they became engaged, and Lord Hastings awaited only the king’s permission to marry her. Katherine de Bonville, Warwick’s sister, had been his first love, but Warwick had refused his consent to a marriage because Lord Hastings then was not powerful enough to aspire to a connection with the Warwicks. Although Katherine had later married another, Lord Hastings still loved her; his attachment to Sibyll was only temporarily the stronger.

As Warwick had foreseen, the Duke of Burgundy proved an unworthy ally of England, and the incensed French king never ceased to make trouble for the English. At last, Edward had to confess that he could not rule the kingdom without Warwick to advise him. The king swallowed his pride and invited Warwick back to London with more honors and power than he had held before. The gallant earl, as a gesture of friendship, brought his daughter Anne to live in the queen’s retinue.

Anne chose Sibyll as her companion, and the two girls became close friends. One night, the lecherous Edward accosted Anne in her bedroom. The girl screamed with fright and ran to Adam Warner for help. There the king found her and abjectly begged her pardon, but Anne was still hysterical. Marmaduke smuggled Anne out of the castle and told her father what had happened.

Warwick at once put Marmaduke at the head of a hundred men who tried to capture the king, but Edward stayed secure in his tower. Warwick then withdrew his followers from the court and embarked for France.

In London, Lord Hastings and Sibyll continued to meet. Then Katherine de Bonville’s husband died, and she was free once more. Lord Hastings’ old love revived, and he married her secretly in France.

Margaret of Anjou, the Lancastrian queen in exile, joined forces with Warwick in France. When the mighty earl returned to England, the people welcomed him and joined his cause. Edward fled without fighting a battle. Warwick restored Henry VI to the throne.

The success of his kingmaking made Warwick careless. Edward’s power lay not with the nobles but with the merchants, and a coalition of the rich merchants and the adherents of the House of York soon put Edward back into power. On the battlefield of Barnet, Warwick was killed and his chiefs were either executed or exiled. Somehow Adam Warner and Sibyll died together in the same fight. Alwyn, an adherent of Edward, took Marmaduke prisoner but later tried to secure his freedom. History does not tell whether he succeeded.

Critical Evaluation:

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s astounding success was due in part to an accurate understanding of the tastes of the middle-class reading public, which had been created by Sir Walter Scott’s vast historical panoramas. More than his ability to cater to an already formed taste for historical romance was involved in his immense popularity. Bulwer-Lytton was a member of the House of Commons which brought political reform to England that in its eventual success spelled the end of aristocratic rule and shifted the governing power to that same middle class.

In THE LAST OF THE BARONS, the author tells the story of the downfall of the Earl of Warwick, a powerful baron of the House of Lancaster, who had managed to secure the throne for Edward IV at the expense of the rightful monarch, Henry VI, the saintly if unworldly head of the House of York. More important, Henry was also backed by the London middle class, the tradesmen and mercantilists who were themselves about to assume a measure of political power in the fifteenth century.

By relating with his evident approval the eventual restoration of Henry, Bulwer-Lytton was advocating the rights of the commons to determine its own political destiny. In Bulwer-Lytton’s version of Warwick’s failure and Henry’s success, readers witness an express denial of the concept of the divine right and a delineation of the idea of representative government, a political philosophy which, if it was not accepted until the seventeenth century, in England found its initial impetus during the time of his novel.

Finally, in the wisdom, brave deeds, and demand for equality on the part of the London goldsmith, Nicholas Alwyn, whose heroics are accomplished at the expense of the power-hungry aristocrats, readers see the author’s democratic values celebrated, all designed to appeal to the political prejudices of the growing middle class of Victorian England.

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