“The family spawned by the unlikely secret coupling of a widowed French princess and her Welsh servant during the late 1420s ought never to have found themselves anywhere near a crown.”
The English civil conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses are commonly dated from 1455 to 1487, beginning from the first battle of St. Albans and concluding with the Battle of Stoke Field. But historian Dan Jones takes a broader perspective on this period of unrest. In the introduction, he begins at the very bitter end, with the execution of Margaret Pole, formerly the Countess of Salisbury, which was conducted on May 27, 1451 by the order of King Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch. With her death, “there remained barely a single drop of Plantagenet royal blood in England other than the little that flowed in the veins of Henry VIII and his three children.” Though Pole was not an explicit casualty of the long civil war, her heritage did make her seem like a larger threat when she opposed Henry VIII’s religious reforms. From there, Jones takes us all the way back to the golden reign of Henry V, when England held unprecedented amounts of territory in France thanks to the king’s martial prowess. The true seeds of the conflict were planted when Henry V died of dysentery in France, leaving his nine month old son Henry as England’s youngest ever monarch.
What Jones is driving at with this broad perspective and long timeline is a history that goes beyond the traditional narrative of two divided houses at war over the English crown, eventually to be brought together by the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Henry Tudor, last scion, however loosely construed, of the House of Lancaster. This well-known story is a piece of carefully crafted Tudor propaganda that was designed to prop up the legitimacy of the dynasty, whose “claim to the throne by right of blood was somewhere between highly tenuous and nonexistent.” Henry VII’s father was half-brother to Henry VI, but on his mother’s side, so there was no blood connection there to the royal line. But his mother was Margaret Beaufort, and that family did have some royal blood, descended as they were from John of Gaunt, third son of the great Plantagenet king, Edward III. Yet the story of warring families reunited by a marriage alliance is an innately appealing one, well-suited to novels and historical dramas, ensuring that it persists in popularity to this day. Jones aims to paint a more nuanced picture by helping to expose the roots of the conflict.
What emerges from this history is trend of powerful and well-connected men who felt a sense of entitlement, if not to the crown itself, then to influence the person wearing the crown. If they were unable to wield sufficient influence, they had a tendency—sooner or later—to decide to seize power for themselves. Much of this desire stemmed from a sort of necessity. England had somehow held together through the long minority of Henry VI, but the boy king failed to grow up into an authoritative man capable of wielding that power effectively. Tensions inevitably arose and power struggles ensued, as ministers fought to govern in the name of their inept and occasionally insane monarch. This began the “collapse of royal authority” that led a succession of men to try to step into the void.
The first of these men was Richard, duke of York, one of Henry VI’s uncles. For many years, William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk had held the reins, but when the English lost most of their territory in France on his watch, he was unseated. York left his post in Ireland without summons, expecting to take up a significant post in the government. However, he was rebuffed, and would not succeed in taking power until Henry VI dropped into a catatonic state for fifteen months between 1453 and 1454. York was able to position himself as Chief Councillor while the king was incapacitated, but when he regained his senses, all of York’s work was undone. York began to raise an army, ostensibly to unseat the traitors surrounding the king, but by 1460, he was clearly making a play for the crown in his own right. Parliament slapped down his claim, but did place him and his sons ahead of the Prince of Wales in the line of succession, leading Margaret of Anjou to take her son into exile. Richard, duke of York would never wear the crown, but two of his sons would; unable to control the king, he instead seized control of the succession.
In 1461, Richard of York’s son, Edward, earl of March, staked his claim to the English crown, though Henry VI still lived. He ascended as an unmarried man, with his brother George, duke of Clarence as his heir. He was aided by an ally so formidable he would eventually become known as the Kingmaker. Richard Neville, earl of Warwick was the scion of a great northern house, and his sister was married to the duke of York. Having been instrumental in setting Edward IV on the throne, Warwick expected to have the king’s ear, but as Edward IV put down his enemies and became a more confident king, he was less and less inclined to bow to Warwick’s wishes. Unable to get the king’s permission to marry his eldest daughter Isabel to the king’s malcontent brother and heir, in 1469 Warwick covertly stirred a rebellion in the north, and while the king was putting it down, took his daughter to Calais to marry the duke of Clarence. When all of his intriguing came to nothing, Warwick would turn his back on the king he had helped raise, and make common cause with his onetime enemy, Margaret of Anjou, who was still abroad trying to raise support to put her son on the throne. Warwick threw himself in with his old enemies whole-heartedly, marrying his younger daughter Anne to Margaret’s son, Edward. Richard, earl of Warwick would die fighting on the opposite side of the civil war from where he had spent most of his life. But his daughter, Anne Neville, widowed at the battle of Tewkesbury, would go on to remarry, forming an alliance with the next man to make a bid for power.
Whereas for many years George, duke of Clarence had plotted against his brother Edward IV, Edward’s youngest brother Richard, duke of Gloucester was one of the king’s staunchest allies. When Edward IV died after a brief illness in 1483, Gloucester expected a central role in government, as his brother’s sons and heirs were only ten and twelve. Gloucester seems to have had his eye on being Protector, but the council, dominated by the Queen’s faction, elected to crown twelve year old Prince Edward immediately. Here one of Edward IV’s early acts of rebellion would come back to haunt his legacy after his death. Refusing a foreign alliance arranged by Warwick and his council, Edward IV had instead married the widow Elizabeth Woodville, whose father was the very minor noble Lord Rivers. The Woodvilles were a large family, and during Edward IV’s reign they had married broadly into the higher nobility, earning a distasteful reputation as grasping social climbers of the worst sort. Unwilling to accept that the Woodvilles would have control of the young king, Gloucester met up with their party enroute to London, imprisoned Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and took custody of his nephew. For many months he would maintain the pretence that he intended to have the boy crowned, but on July 6, 1483, Gloucester was crowned Richard III alongside his wife, Anne Neville. His young nephews would disappear from the Tower of London sometime within the next few months, and his legacy would be forever marred by the suspicion of their murder.
From Richard, duke of York to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, to Richard, duke of Gloucester, one man after another tried to usurp royal authority when he could not gain it by proxy, only to discover it was easier to seize power than to wield it. Each successive conflict further destabilized royal authority, until “it was a sure sign of the woe that had befallen the English crown” that it was possible for Henry Tudor, with only the loosest ties to the House of Lancaster, to be offered up as a viable alternative to Richard III. This was made possible by Henry’s canny mother, Margaret Beaufort. While her son was in exile, Margaret had remained in England, and remarried twice, the second time to Lord Stanley, who was in the good graces of the Yorkist royal family. From her hiding place in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, the deposed queen, Elizabeth Woodville, was in communication with Margaret. The two women agreed that Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, would marry Henry if he could mount a successful invasion. When the invasion came, the battle would be decided by the decision of the Stanleys to throw in with Henry Tudor, and it would be Lord Stanley who picked up Richard III’s fallen crown from the mud of Bosworth Field, and crowned his step-son then and there. There would be more battles for Henry VII to fight; there would be rebellions to quell, and imposters to put down. But the Tudor dynasty had begun.
The Daily Express blurb on the back of the paperback edition suggests this book for fans of The Tudors and Game of Thrones, but I would add the caveat of recommending it for those who are into those shows primarily for the political intriguing, since they both have other significant appeal factors—dragons for one—that are not present here. There are indeed notable parallels between Game of Thrones and The Wars of the Roses, but not everyone will be interested in both. And For those who dislike Game of Thrones for its vast cast of shifting characters, The Wars of the Roses does have a similar pitfall as it moves over the course of more than a century. Jones does a good job of reminding you who everyone is, but it is still devilishly tricky to keep all the Edwards, Henrys, and Richards straight, not to mention their ever-shifting titles. But from it all, a picture does emerge of a civil conflict that goes well beyond the usual story of warring houses reunited by marriage.
You might also like How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman