The Wars of the Roses

1 May 2015
The Wars of the Roses - Featured image

A metallic, five-pointed Tudor rose glints menacingly from the dust cover of Dan Jones’ The Hollow Crown, looking suspiciously like the emblem for a new instalment of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This book isn’t fiction, however. It details an important episode in British history: the Wars of the Roses. Traditionally dated 1455- 1487, these were a set of civil wars and dynastic conflicts in the later fifteenth century which resulted in the near extinction of the Plantagenet line of kings and the rise of the new Tudor dynasty.

The Wars of the Roses were part of the sequence of events that brought medieval England into the modern age. Even in Australia, the significance of this era of history should not be discounted. Besides inspiring writers over the ages (think Shakespeare’s Richard III), the Wars of the Roses helped shape the course of British history, which is an integral part of our heritage.

UK-based historian Dan Jones is emerging as a popular writer of medieval English history. His previous book—The Plantagenets: the Kings Who Made England (2012)— became a bestseller in the United States upon its launch in 2013.

An accomplished journalist as well as an astute historian, Jones uses his experience in journalism to understand what gets people hooked on reading about other people’s lives.

The Hollow Crown is a sweeping account of overleaping ambition, rivalry, battles, spectacle, and courtly intrigue. Told as a narrative, the history runs from the heyday of Henry V’s French conquest, to the blood-strewn battlefields of Towton and Bosworth, to the tense ascension of the Tudors.

Over the centuries, writers from Shakespeare to Walter Scott have popularised the convenient summary promoted by historians of the Tudor era onwards: that these ‘Wars of the Roses’ were fought between two rival dynasties—the house of York, represented by a white rose, and the house of Lancaster, represented by a red rose.

Both the Yorkists and the Lancastrians claimed superior descent from the Plantagenet kings, but when Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian, took the throne and married Elizabeth of York, the rival houses were finally united and reconciled and peace was restored to the realm. Red and white rose were combined together to form the Tudor rose, the new symbol of the Tudor dynasty.

That is the version most people are familiar with—romantic, elegant, so neatly summarised in the image of the red-and-white Tudor rose—but it isn’t the story historian Dan Jones has to tell.

The Hollow Crown uncovers the longer history of the Wars of the Roses. It begins with the unexpected death of King Henry V in 1422—a strong king with a magnetic personality who had achieved outstanding victories in France. Upon his death, he left the crown to his nine-month-old son, Henry VI.

Although it was obvious that the infant child was much too young to give orders or take counsel, the English nobles, bound by custom to honour their rightful born king, carefully set up a temporary protectorate.

This system had to maintain order and run the machinery of government for the decade and a half it would take for young Henry VI to grow up.

It was a tense wait, but Henry’s caretakers held the kingdom together. What no one was prepared for, however, was Henry VI’s personality when he came of age—pious and scholarly, but weak, vacant, always easily swayed by whoever spoke to him last.

Unlike his father, he never matured into a spirited, wilful personality who could lead troops in battle or intervene in disputes between nobles. For the better part of his reign, Henry VI continued to rule as if he were still ten years old and the grown-ups could make all the decisions for him.

Henry VI’s noble subjects lost confidence in their king. Feuds between great families and personal rivals boiled unchecked. A popular revolt was violently put down with a battle on London Bridge. The lands in France were successively reconquered by the French, sending thousands of English soldiers and their destitute families back to England as refugees. As public order began to collapse, brigands and lawbreakers took to looting the countryside.

The stage was set for local magnates to raise armies of their own and back rival claimants to the throne.

Yet in the violence of the next few decades, it is not so much the bloodlines of York and Lancaster that stand out in this retelling, but the personalities of headstrong individuals. For instance, after just six years in power, the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, had to confront his own brother and his former kingmaker in pitched battle over control of the throne—a Yorkist against Yorkists.

In the age of civil turmoil and royal usurpation, personal grievances often appear more pertinent to the course of events than dynastic loyalty.

While retelling the lives of the greats, the author refrains from injudicious favouritism. The character of Richard III—whom Shakespeare thoroughly demonised as a hunchbacked usurper in the play of the same name— tends to divide people. But Jones treats Richard III carefully, neither covering up his ruthlessness nor ignoring his successes.

Importantly, when the historical record is silent or conflicted on an issue, Jones notes what we cannot know and leaves the reader to make up his or her mind. ‘You’ve got to admit what you don’t know and what the limits of the knowledge are’, Jones said in an interview with Diane Rehm, ‘because otherwise, you’ve strayed out of history and you’re into fiction.’

Dan Jones’ magnificent treatment of the Wars of the Roses in The Hollow Crown proves to the reader that the history of this era is a tale well worth the telling. It will interest anyone who wishes to know more about the rise of the Tudor monarchs, or those who would like to read British history in an engaging, popular format.

Support the IPA

If you liked what you read, consider supporting the IPA. We are entirely funded by individual supporters like you. You can become an IPA member and/or make a tax-deductible donation.