Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir: A review

The Wars of the RosesThe Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


"This story begins in 1400 with the murder of one king, and ends in 1471 with the murder of another. One murder could be said to have been a direct result of the other. The story of what happened between 1400 and 1471, which is the story told in this book, answers the question: how?"   - from the introduction to The Wars of the Roses
What happened between the killing of the Plantagenet king Richard II and that of the Lancastrian Henry VI was the constant grappling between two families - the Lancasters and the Yorks - for possession of the throne of England. There was continual plotting, scheming to overthrow one king or another or at least to overthrow those who controlled him. Betrayal, treason, brother against brother, son against father, switching of sides in mid-battle, and the most cruel torture and death to the losers were all standard practices of the day.

And yet, during the thirty-two years covered by the two Wars of the Roses, there were at most thirteen weeks of actual fighting and the total time spent campaigning amounted to approximately a year. Many of the battles themselves were very short and none lasted longer than a day. Still the death and destruction visited upon the land in those thirteen weeks were horrendous.

Alison Weir writes:
The Wars of the Roses were primarily wars between the great magnates. The magnate class consisted of a small number of dukes - usually related to the royal house - marquesses and earls, and a great number of barons, knights and gentry. These were the men who owned most of the landed wealth of the kingdom and who exercised the greatest influence in their own territories, where they were respected and often feared.
The two primary houses among these rich and powerful were the Lancasters and the Yorks, and for much of the fifteenth century, they fought either on the battlefield or through their various plans and schemes to control the English throne.

The period of conflict started with Henry IV of the House of Lancaster who took over from the deposed (and then murdered) Richard II and it ended with Edward IV of the House of York who took over from the deposed (and then murdered) Henry VI. It would lead ultimately to Henry Tudor, Henry VII, but that is a story for another book.

This is one of Weir's early books, published twenty years ago. Her writing style has changed a bit in the intervening years, I think. Her later books seem to have more humor injected and are generally written with a somewhat lighter touch. The writing here is a bit dry and I found it heavy going at first, but once I really got into the tale, the stories themselves are so mesmerizing that they really don't require any embellishment. Weir states the facts in a very straightforward, linear fashion that makes it fairly easy to follow a complicated, convoluted storyline.

One of the main challenges to keeping the facts and the timeline straight is simply that all the men in the story are named Henry or Richard or Edward, with an occasional John thrown in to spice things up. And all the women seem to be Elizabeth or Margaret or Anne. After a bit, one's eyes begin to cross and it becomes harder and harder to remember who is who.  

One of the more fascinating aspects of this story is the role played by strong women. Women such as Margaret of Anjou, wife and queen of Henry VI. Henry was a bit of a weakling and he suffered from a mental illness which debilitated him from time to time, but Margaret had enough strength for them both. It was through her efforts, her scheming and making alliances that Henry was able to hang onto the throne as long as he did.

Then there was Elizabeth Wydville, wife and queen of Edward IV. She was another schemer and a ruthless promoter of her own multitudinous and far-flung family. She was a commoner whom Edward married for love, not the best political decision in the times in which he lived, and yet their marriage was apparently happy and successful.

The Wars of the Roses comprise a fascinating chapter in the history of England, and Alison Weir is able to bring it all to life and to show us the real faces and personalities of the human beings behind those stodgy portraits hanging on museum walls.

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2 comments:

  1. Dorothy, you are on a roll with English history books! This one sounds good too. :-)

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    1. The twelfth through sixteenth centuries of English history are particular interests of mine so this one was right up my street. I now have Dan Jones' book also titled The Wars of the Roses which I plan to read soon. Then I may give it a rest for a while!

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