Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones: A review

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the TudorsThe Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had read Dan Jones' book The Plantagenets last year and enjoyed it tremendously. In fact, I thought it was one of the best books that I read all year. So I was anxious to read his latest, which was a follow-up to that and continued the story of the Plantagenets through The Wars of the Roses when the two branches of the family tore themselves apart in the struggle to be the family in power.

They were, of course, the Yorks and the Lancasters, and this book recounts how their long reign in England came to an end and they gave way to an upstart family that combined the blood of the two Plantagenet branches, the Tudors.

It turns out the Tudors are the ones who gave that century-long struggle for the crown of England its popular name by which we know it today. The Tudors were masters of PR, and they fully recognized the advantage of claiming the blended blood of both of the warring families. The symbol of the Yorks was the white rose. The symbol of the Lancasters, at least in Tudor revisionist telling, was the red rose. And so the symbol of the Tudors became a bicolor rose that combined white and red petals. In a society where literacy was still somewhat limited, that visual symbol was a brilliant stroke.

The reading of this book proved to be a bit of heavy going at first. In January, I had read Alison Weir's history of the period that bears the same name (The Wars of the Roses) and so the material was still pretty fresh in my mind. I admit I might have skimmed lightly over certain passages describing battles or the bestowing of lands on certain favored families when the family that owned the land fell out of royal favor. I seriously wonder how anyone ever managed to remember who owned what. Actually, I guess, in their way of thinking, the king ultimately owned everything and had the right to give it to whomever he wished. With the capriciousness of kings, some desirable holdings frequently changed hands. My eyes began to glaze over.

The low point of this period was the reign of Henry VI, last of the Lancaster kings. He was weak and ineffectual, having come to the throne as a baby. He also suffered from a mental illness and although he was served by competent men who ruled in his name for many years, once he came into his majority and began to rule on his own, he proved to be pretty much of a disaster for England. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Henry is that he was married to the redoubtable Margaret of Anjou, who had enough strength for both of them.

The action picked up considerably when Edward of York seized the throne and imprisoned Henry in the Tower of London. He became Edward IV and he was the opposite in just about every way to Henry. Where Henry had been an ascetic, Edward was licentious in the extreme, notoriously promiscuous in his relationships with women. But he was as vigorous on the battlefield and in wielding the power of the throne as he was in the bedroom or the hayloft, and this proved to be what England needed just at this time.

Edward's marriage was something of a scandal. King's marriages are an affair of state, fraught with political implications, but Edward chose to follow his heart - or perhaps a bit a anatomy located somewhat lower on the body - and married Elizabeth Woodville, (The White Queen as Philippa Gregory styled her) a widow with two sons, whose family was Lancastrian. He married her in secret and later announced the marriage to his council as a fait accompli.

The marriage proved to be extremely fruitful, producing another child almost every year for several years. Most of the children were girls including the first, Elizabeth, The White Princess again per Philippa Gregory, who would later marry the first Tudor king. Eventually, two sons were born, Edward and Richard, who would become the ill-fated "Princes in the Tower."

Edward's reign was eventful and contentious, but successful for the country. And then he died, quite unexpectedly and relatively young, probably a victim of his own high living.

The succession should have been secure, with two young sons and competent and loyal retainers who had served Edward well and were available to help young Edward take the reins of power. But there proved to be a fly in the ointment.

That fly is, for me, and perhaps for Shakespeare, one of the most, if not the most, intriguing figures of this period - Edward's youngest brother, Richard of York.

Richard had been his brother's staunchest, most faithful ally while he was alive. He was there at all the major battles, playing his part in defending the crown. He was not physically impressive as Edward was. In fact, he was a slight man, with the dark good looks of his father, and he suffered from scoliosis which became more pronounced with the years and undoubtedly caused him pain. He was also intelligent, charismatic, politically astute, physically courageous, and utterly loyal to his brother, the king.

What caused such a man to change after the death of Edward? It is a conundrum that has been speculated upon by historians and fiction writers for all the centuries since.

The fact is Richard of York decided to take the throne for his own. He met the army of his nephew Edward in battle, captured him on the battlefield, then imprisoned him in the Tower, where he was later joined by his younger brother, Richard. Richard of York then took the throne and declared himself King Richard III. The fate of his two nephews was sealed.

The head that wears the crown can never rest easy as Richard III soon found out. He was, for the most part, a liberal and compassionate and popular ruler, but there remained another claimant for his crown.

Henry Tudor, now in his twenties, had spent most of his life on the Continent, but soon he would return to England with an army at his back. He would meet Richard and his army at Bosworth and the history of England would change once again.

Ah, it is a great story and very well-told here. But unfinished. The next chapter in this history awaits Jones and his word processor. It is the story of the Tudors and it is a doozy. I'll certainly read it!  



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4 comments:

  1. Excellent review, Dorothy. Yet another book on British monarchs to add to my ever growing TBR pile.

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    1. If this period of history is of interest to you as it is to me, then I can definitely recommend the book.

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  2. I don't usually read books on history, though I do love historical fiction. But I am fascinated by English history, and this is one of my favorite eras. This might go on my want-to-read list after all! Excellent review.

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    1. The thirteenth through sixteenth centuries of English history are particular interests of mine also and Dan Jones writes very entertainingly about those centuries. Every book of his that I have read has been a great read.

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