Medieval Book Review: The Wars of the Roses

Dan Jones covers a superlatively violent period of British history: 1420 – 1525.  This period sees the death of King Henry V, the loss of English land in France under Henry VI, a period of Civil War which only ended for good with the ascension of Henry VII, and the reign of Henry VIII before his troubles with the papacy.  Most writers describe the Wars of the Roses as a conflict between two rival houses (York and Lancaster), which only ended when Henry VII married Elizabeth of York in 1486–thus combining them.  Even so, many of the events following 1486 have to do with Henry VII and Henry VIII either dealing with attempts of pretenders to the throne to invade England or killing off everyone with Plantagenet blood in his veins.  And so, it is fair to say that 1525 marks the end of English internecine conflict and the threat posed by people who might claim succession to the throne.

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This history is every bit as violent as the preceding paragraph makes it sound.  Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII all won their crowns on the battlefield.  Henry V bequeathed his subjects a stable and prosperous kingdom, but died while his son and heir was a mere infant.  The clashes between aristocratic families over who held the reigns of power during Henry VI’s infancy led to England becoming every bit as turbulent as France during the Hundred Years’ War.  (Maybe more violent.  I don’t think that France can point to a Battle of Towton, which left 28,000 casualties…all killed.)  The usual story of two rival houses needing to unite in order to end this strife, popularized by authors like Shakespeare (Henry VIRichard III, with Romeo and Juliet offering a tragic version of the same), found acceptance among earlier English historians.    Dan Jones challenges this notion by pointing out all the political problems caused by Henry V’s death.  His history shows that England’s civil strife was hardly that simple.

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Battle of Towton, March 29, 1461

Shortly after Henry V’s death, St. Joan of Arc came with a divine mission of revitalizing the demoralized French army.  She succeed admirably between her victory at Orleans in 1429 and her demise on May 30, 1431.  This left the French King Charles VII with a command brimming with esprit de corps.  At the same time, rival aristocrats in England began to sow discord in the Kingdom by attacking the Duke of Gloucester, who held the most influence over the kingdom.  This strife would lead to a century of civil war and the French king’s reconquest of France by 1453.

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Statue of Joan of Arc located in Paris

I hope to soon turn my attention to the plays of Shakespeare set during this time, and this book has provided excellent context.  Yet, in and of itself, the Wars of the Roses are an interesting period to read about.  They are every bit as exciting as George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) series, which were inspired by these medieval conflicts.  Jones writes in a highly readable style, and this book’s pages turn quickly.

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2 comments on “Medieval Book Review: The Wars of the Roses

  1. Gaheret says:

    Well chosen! When I came across the plays (Richard II, Henry IV and V, Richard III and Henry VIII) I found them amazing, though not historically accurated: the characters are deep and very human and their lights and shadows are masterfully drawn and change from one to the next with the years. I specially liked the ambition of Hal and the clever critique of Henry VIII in a play from the Elizabethian time, subtle but clear. Instead, I didn´t appreciate as much the three parts of Henry VI: I have heard that their authory is dubious, or at least they may be immature works. Apart from the rebellion of Jack Cade and some dialogues here and there, they were a mess. Moreover, their portrait of Joan D´Arc was incoherent and shameful. Drifters´s material.

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    • When I read Henry VI, I was shocked that Shakespeare gave such a shameful characterization of St. Joan. Sure, English troops who actually fought against the French army circa 1430 thought that way about St. Joan, because they could not imagine God sending a champion to drive them from France. But, for an Englishman to think thus in 1592 and portray it as the truth, especially after Joan of Arc had been exonerated, cannot be anything other than calumny. (I would not be surprised if Henry VI was used as a source for Drifters.)

      The curious thing about that is many scholars believe Shakespeare was Catholic. If that is true, it would be grounds to believe Henry VI is spurious.

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