WARS OF THE ROSES (REDUX)
Summarising some thoughts on the complicated fifteenth century
As promised yesterday, here are a few thoughts that came out of a conversation I had with Dr Rory Cox at Chalke Valley History Festival on the weekend. The topic was the Wars of the Roses, which was something I hadn’t worked on in detail since writing my book The Hollow Crown in 2013/14. But time is often a good percolator of ideas. And the discussion was fun. What follows is a list of top-line thoughts - a springboard for discussion rather than a finished statement of a position. (By and large I’d still call The Hollow Crown that.) I’d welcome your thoughts/further questions in the comments (NB - you’ll need to be a paid subscriber to do that.) Let me know what you think!
It’s impossible to escape Shakespeare. Or at least, very hard. The dramatic shape Shakespeare gave the WOTR collectively in his history plays was simple and powerful. The deposition and murder of Richard II in 1399 was a form of original sin. And the wages of sin are death. Only once all the evil of the age was concentrated in the person of Richard III could they be expunged. That was what happened at Bosworth, and after that, everything got back to normal.
I am by no means saying I agree with this as history - but what I do notice is that it is a tremendously effective story that is much easier to swallow than the reality. That, along with Shakespeare’s foundational genius as an English dramatist has made his overarching version of events 1399-1485 hard to dislodge from our imaginations.
It’s as much Henry V’s fault as Richard II’s. Strange, when we consider that Henry was perhaps the ablest of all medieval English kings and Richard was among the most deluded and hapless. Henry V optimised almost freakishly well for the perceived ideals of late medieval kingship. He provided justice at home, and strong military leadership abroad. The problem was, in doing so, he set too high a bar for his successors. The treaty of Troyes of 1420, by which Henry V became heir to the French crown as well as wearer of the English one, actually achieved the highest goal of the Hundred Years War as it had been conceived in c1337 by his great grandfather Edward III. But had Henry lived to the same grand old age as Edward, he would have probably found the reality of dual monarchy as tough to sustain as his brothers and son did after 1422. The long infant/infantile monarchy of Henry VI would have been enough of a challenge on its own without the unprecedented task of ruling/preserving English France. The extra pressure laid on the polity by the legacy of Henry V eventually proved fatal.
That plural - wars - matters. The conflict that started in the 1450s was a fairly conventional struggle for control of a nonfunctioning king not totally dissimilar from factional strife in the age of (especially) Henry III, Edward II and Richard II. But all bets were off once Richard duke of York claimed that he was not only the person best suited to advise the king, but that he ought in fact to be the king. This fundamentally changed the nature of the conflict, creating a dynastic war which by its nature tended towards annihilation of one side by the other - stamping out rival bloodlines became a feature of Plantagenet royal politics for the first time since 1203, when John brained Arthur of Brittany and threw him into the Seine.
The ‘bloodright’ war was momentarily settled in 1461 with Edward IV’s accession. The phase of the wars that came next was really just a problem of political balancing within the Yorkist core, with Edward IV struggling to reconcile his need to reward his key lieutenants - notably Warwick - with his desire to return to some form of normality in government. He effectively achieved this in 1471 after Barnet, Tewkesbury etc. Had he lived, say, three years more, to hand power to a more mature Edward V, that would have been that. As it was, the final phase of the wars was the playing out of the consequences of Richard III’s usurpation - a rash political act which combined elements of all the previous phases of the wars.
What I mean by all this is that we can never conceive of the WOTR as a single conflict between two rival royal houses, settled in the end by their union in the form of the Tudors. That is exactly what Henry Tudor and his successors wanted people to think, because it made more sense than the reality and offered a narrative with closure. But reality and story are not the same thing.
There were a ton of battles. And that’s weird. Most late medieval wars consisted of a combination of chevauchée (horseback terrorism) and sieges of cites/castles. Fighting battles was inherently risky and wasteful, not least because to lose a battle was a sign that God disapproved of your cause. Yet the WOTR saw battles all over the place - some of them skirmishes but others absolutely monstrous. More people were killed at Towton in 1461 than had travelled to France for Edward III’s Crecy campaign in 1346. Why? Well, probably because the WOTR were fought on ‘home turf’. Proceeding by chevauchée would have meant destroying vast swathes of the English countryside - not something that would have endeared the combatants to the people they were trying to win over to their cause. Ditto blasting/starving cities into submission. As the old saying goes, you don’t shit where you eat. So: battles it was.
Henry VI was hopeless. I should have said this earlier. I owe Rory Cox the insight that Henry VI would have been a fine second or third son, a bishop of Winchester or Salisbury. A king? No. Character played a huge part in kingship - and it took a particular set of personal characteristics to make kingship work. This is one reason why strict primogeniture in hereditary monarchy is a crapshoot. A slightly more optimal way to organise things (although more corruptible, see: Germany) was to add an elective component. But that went out after the Anarchy.
Women’s stories in the WOTR are hard to categorise. For historians, anyway. For novelists it’s easy: the leading women in this age are either she-wolves guarding the rights of their cubs, or else inveterate schemers playing a dangerous game. But for historians it’s as daft to talk about a common experience for women in the WOTR as it is for men. On the one hand we have Margaret of Anjou, a highly engaged political player in her own right. On the other, Elizabeth of York - a dynastic vessel, first and foremost. The typical problems of writing about women in the Middle Ages (relative paucity of evidence, rampant misogyny even worse than it is now) apply as usual.
Game of Thrones is a great tribute to the WOTR. Not for any true attempt to mirror/mimic actual events so much as for the sophistication of its historical understanding about the compromised nature of all people and the relative rarity of truly heroic or purely evil individuals. I’m referring here to the books/the earlier seasons of the show, before the dragons and demons took over.
I’m sure there were plenty more points that we came up with… but that’s what I’m going to hang out there for you to consider for now. Thoughts below the line! And I may update this post if anything comes back to mind, or if anyone has any particularly interesting observations or questions… And at some point I believe the audio file of the discussion may be published by our friends at History Hit and/or Chalke Valley History Festival. I’ll let you know if and when that happens.