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.
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 VI – Richard 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.
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.
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.